Conning ordinary religious people

Every Friday, many Muslims around the world will attend their mosques. The next day, Jews will follow suit into synagogues, and on Sunday many Christians will attend church. We know that some of the people in these houses of worship will be those trying to hold on to their belief in a god despite their increasing doubts. Some of them will be people who are fighting to prevent the voices of doubt entering their minds while for others that battle has already been lost and now the only thing that keeps them returning is because they do not know how to make a clean break without alienating their family and friends and perhaps the only real sense of community that they have known. But even they may not suspect that leader of the congregation is also one of them, a doubter or even an outright nonbeliever.

In an earlier post, I described former clergyman Eric MacDonald’s experience on what is was like to be in that position. In his show Up With Chris Hayes, the host spoke to a Lutheran pastor Mike Aus who ‘came out’ as a non-believer at last weekend’s Reason Rally. There are currently about 185 clergy who have joined the Clergy Project that allows them to secretly share their unbelief with each other and find ways to wean themselves out of a job that they no longer want to hold. Aus decided to publicly admit it. The stories of such people are always fascinating. His journey to atheism is similar to mine, a gradual dawning that what we had long believed did not make any sense. It is not clear what will happen to Aus when he returns to his congregation.

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In an even earlier post in 2006 titled Is the Pope an Atheist? I explained why I suspected that sophisticated religious leaders were even more likely to be secret atheists than the rank and file clergy and ordinary believers. But the pope or the Archbishop of Canterbury or prominent Jewish rabbis or Muslim imams or any of the big mucky-mucks of any religion are unlikely to come out of the closet, although I am willing to bet that they too do not believe a fraction of the things that they tell their followers to believe. The Dalai Lama is my bet for the one who is most likely to be an atheist because he seems like the most thoughtful of the major religious leaders. But he won’t come out of the closet either.

Why would they? It would be a bad business decision. They have quite a nice setup. We have to remember that religions are a big business, just like GE or GM, and the heads are like CEOs. People give their organizations vast sums of money that enable them to live well. People defer to them as somehow elevated beings, pay attention to what they say, even bow down to them. All that is expected of them is that they offer pious banalities from time to time. Religion is of great benefit to the interests of the people whose livelihood depends upon it.

Many years ago in Sri Lanka I remember attending a conference in which a professor of Buddhist philosophy railed at the monks for perverting Buddhism by layering on all manner of theistic superstitions onto its basic nontheistic philosophy, despite the fact that Sri Lanka prides itself on being the home of the most pristine form of that religion. Buddhist monks are supposed to give up all material possessions as part of the process of ridding themselves of attachments to worldly things and exist purely on the charity of others. They are called to live an ascetic life. But in Sri Lanka, the head monks in Buddhist organizations tend to live in luxury and get chauffeured around in expensive cars, and have politicians pandering to their whims. Their level of luxury may not reach the absolute levels of the Catholic Church and the Vatican but relative to the standard of living in Sri Lanka, they live a highly pampered life. They have the smug, indolent, and complacent look of people who think they are on to a good thing.

I have a lot of sympathy for ordinary religious people. I know many of them and they are often good people trying to live good lives. I think they would still be good people even without the crutch of their faith. But I have no sympathy for the leaders of religious institutions who I think are corrupt and parasitic, preying on these well-meaning but gullible people to support them in grand style. In that, they are not unlike the heads of the major banks and other financial institutions that have been the recent targets of vilification. Such people are unlikely to undercut their own livelihood.

The undermining of religion has to come from outside, from nonbelievers and even from believers on whom the truth dawns that they are being taken for suckers into supporting people who very likely do not believe the things they tell others to believe.


  1. unbound says

    I agree. It is no different than trying to get any other large corporation to stop their work. The large oil corporations happily spread all kinds of lies and deceit to ensure their profit stream continues on as long as possible. I have little doubt that the executives at the top are fully aware that their product has a limited life span and creates all kinds of problems for the masses, but they don’t care as long as the money and power keep rolling in.

    The fact that religion is no different than an irreligious corporation should give believers real pause. Even more so, the fact that this immoral and unethical behavior is being performed by organizations that claim to represent the polar opposite should really give every religious believer a sufficient kick in the pants to leave.

    Unfortunately, fear and uncertainty work for any of these corporations. Whether it is the fear and uncertainty of the oil companies if they don’t produce what we are addicted to, or the fear and uncertainty of the religious groups stance that you will burn in hell (or whatever equivalent) if you don’t stick with them. In the end, it does take a brave soul to walk away…

  2. Jeroen Metselaar says

    “I suspected that sophisticated religious leaders were even more likely to be secret atheists than the rank and file clergy and ordinary believers”

    The very same principle can be found at work in political organisations, charities and even some companies(*).

    Morals, ethics and other rules are for those at the bottom. Those that rise to the top do so because scum floats.

  3. jamessweet says

    Every Friday, many Muslims around the world will attend their mosques. The next day, Jews will follow suit into synagogues, and on Sunday many Christians will attend church.

    Heh, shows my ignorance, I didn’t know Muslims went to mosque on Fridays.

    Was this like, semi-consciously planned by the early churches? It just bares such an uncanny resemblance to American football: High school games on Fridays, college games on Saturdays, pro games on Sundays. So people who are total fanatics don’t have to choose.

    You can go to mosque, temple, and church, all in the same weekend! Oh joy…

  4. Scott says

    I liken them more to the CEO of McDonald’s. They sell products they know are unhealthy, and are only selling healthier products because market forces are gradually demanding it.

  5. nm says

    It’s fairly easy to be an observant Jew and an atheist. Judaism in general places much more emphasis on participation in the community and personal behavior than on professions of faith. Some streams of Judaism, such as Reconstructionist Judaism, seem to be completely compatible with atheism, and all streams have a history of accepting what I guess they would conceive of as “wrestling with doubt.” Of course, outside of Hasidism no rabbi is the leader of more than a single congregation, either.

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