Doubting clergy


This quite poignant article looks at the anguish of clergy who realize that they either no longer believe in a god or have serious doubts. The problems seem to start during the seminary years and appears to be quite widespread which makes one wonder how many clergy are actually closeted non-believers.

In interviews with 32 men and women from Pentecostal, evangelical, mainline Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and Mormon backgrounds, they discovered that many, like Dunphy, started wrestling with doubt in seminary.

Most said they kept quiet out of fear of disappointing others or because they didn’t have anyone to talk things through with.

“I wanted to believe in God; all those years, I wanted to,” one former Presbyterian clergywoman says in the book of her time in seminary. “I wasn’t really sure if I did or not, but I wanted to.”

And once the seminarians were leading congregations, they reported even more isolation and frustration.

“You do a lot of crying,” a Mormon bishop says in the book. “You try to talk to your wife about it, but she’s still pretty orthodox, so it’s hard on her. You’re alone. You’ve got no one to talk to because you’re a bishop … So it tears you apart.”

If there is one job where you need to be totally in sync with your institution’s mission, it has be to that of religious clergy. Having to tell people all the time to believe in something that you yourself think is false could well lead to at least misery, if not depression and eventual breakdown.

Comments

  1. jrfdeux, mode d'emploi says

    A heck of a point Dr. Singham. I do believe that there are some truly good people amongst the clergy, and having to lie about something that is so central to who they are must be crushing. I wouldn’t be surprised if some clergy who, torn between the duty to their congregation and being truthful, eventually commit suicide. I wonder if there are any numbers on that? It would be a difficult study to conduct I would think.

  2. JonP says

    I’m surprised there are any non-doubting clergy. I think for the rank-and-file True Believer(tm) it’s easier to just accept and go along with the socially reinforced “correct” beliefs. But for the clergy up on stage performing dramatic readings from the bible, it must be difficult to learn the actual beliefs with perfect credulity. To believe in the bible stories as anything other than fantasy fiction seems to be highly absurd. It is obviously not historically accurate evidence of the benevolence of a supreme loving deity. If the clergy were True Believers, then they would more likely be in the audience as paying customers. I would also hypothesize that the True Believer clergy are less successful than the money-minded ones.

    But to truly honest (to themselves) clergy, they must realize that their job is not to educate the masses about the Good News of Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior. There job is to say whatever it takes for people to put more money in the collection plate. It doesn’t matter what they actually believe. They just need to say the things they are supposed to say. People go there to hear about the Jesus, and they really like the stories of Jesus being the Greatest Human/God thing EVER. But the actual truth is irrelevant. The True Believers don’t need to learn, they already know. They are there for reinforcement. They evaluate the “truthiness” by how well what the clergy says matches with what they already believe. The goal for the clergy is to get the heads nodding and shouts of AMEN.

    Therefore, I am not surprised by reports of doubting clergy. I’m also not surprised that the doubting clergy we hear about are those for whom the realization of the bullshit is an emotional struggle. The True Believers are there as a “calling.” The non-believing clergy are there for the money. Nonbelievers don’t want everyone to know of their doubts, because that threatens the con.

  3. says

    @1 JonP

    It is obviously not historically accurate evidence of the benevolence of a supreme loving deity.

    The thing with that, though, is I think a number of believers have gotten a sick sense of what benevolence means into their heads. Take William Lane Craig’s idea that having Canaanite children killed was an act of love because that means they got to go off to heaven…instead of being judged as adults and being sent off to hell? Or something crazy. It goes, though, off the idea that humans are wicked and deserve to be slaughtered off and sent to hell. I’ve personally known people (I no longer associate myself with them) who truly believe this. Some people have observed that this seems a lot like battered wife syndrome. I can’t help but suspect that some of those that are clergy belief in this idea — that they are really horrible and their god is awesome for allowing them to live. It’s sick and twisted, but I think this makes what is “obvious” to you and me not so much to them.

  4. A Masked Avenger says

    I wouldn’t be surprised to find that the majority of clergy are closeted non-believers.

    On the other hand, I disagree with JonP that they’re in it for the money. For one thing, very little of the money goes to them. I’d think it would be hard to knowingly perpetrate a scam for the purpose of collecting loot for someone else that you don’t actually believe in. For oneself, sure.

    I’d expect there to be a lot of variation. Some stick with it trying their darndest to believe. Some stick with it because it’s the only job they know. Some because it’s the path of least resistance; quitting would be as difficult as a divorce, since it means losing one’s social circle, friends, possibly family, etc., and trying to start a new life from scratch.

    For many of them, I expect they stick with it hoping to do some good–comfort the grieving, that sort of thing. Having lost their belief, they’re likely to conclude that the “pastoral” aspect of their duties is somewhat orthogonal to one’s belief or lack of it. Rather in the way that therapists counsel theists without disputing their beliefs, and without revealing their own views.

    Not suggesting that’s appropriate, since it clearly involves passing oneself off as a believer, and it prompts the question whether their “pastoral” training is actually helpful to anyone. But I suspect that many go that route.

  5. JonP says

    I’d expect there to be a lot of variation. Some stick with it trying their darndest to believe. Some stick with it because it’s the only job they know. Some because it’s the path of least resistance; quitting would be as difficult as a divorce, since it means losing one’s social circle, friends, possibly family, etc., and trying to start a new life from scratch.

    This is actually what I meant when I said they are “there for the money.” I didn’t necessarily mean that they were there to get wealthy. Being the clergy, pastor, priest, bishop, or whatever is a job. It’s a survival strategy. Retail workers are there for the money too. Without getting paid, no one would be a fast-food worker, and no one would be a pastor.

  6. moarscienceplz says

    Richard Carrier spoke at our atheist group in San Jose about his view of the Jesus story, but also about Biblical scholarship in general. He said it is not disputed “by anybody” that certain of Paul’s Epistles and the book of 2nd Peter are forgeries. (Obviously he was being slightly hyperbolic, but I asked him to clarify and he said virtually any bible scholar not on the fringe would agree.) I asked him if this gets mentioned in seminaries, and he said it does. So if the Holy Word of your god contains at least some forgeries, that’s some pretty serious chipping away at the foundations of your faith, even before you finish your studies. It’s just too bad the priests and ministers don’t have the guts to convey this information to their flocks.

  7. says

    It’s got to suck choosing a career that involves lying to people, then discovering that you want to make a career change. I know an acupuncturist who figured out it was bullshit but was economically trapped for years until she could find an honest job. A lot of people in con artist jobs aren’t con artists; they figure it out too late. Poor clergy – its not like there wasn’t ample evidence that their field was a con staring them in the face all along. The changing careers in midstream thing is not a problem exclusive to the clergy, and they’re not the only ones that weep bitter tears when they discover they’ve changed their minds. Poor conmen! Instead of crying for their flocks and apologizing, they weep for themselves.

  8. says

    He said it is not disputed “by anybody” that certain of Paul’s Epistles and the book of 2nd Peter are forgeries.

    Yes, that’s correct. You might enjoy reading Bart Ehrman’s “misquoting jesus” or check out some of his lectures on youtube. Carrier and Ehrman don’t agree about some things, but it reinforces Carrier’s point that the problems with the bible are well-known. Indeed, some parts of the bible that have become quite important are forgeries – the story of the woman taken in adultery (PS – where was the guy she was adulterating?) does not appear in any version of the bible prior to 900AD. The bit that inspired the snake-handlers, likewise. People who study textual criticism in divinity school are often shocked to be confronted by this sort of material.

  9. jonP says

    So if the Holy Word of your god contains at least some forgeries, that’s some pretty serious chipping away at the foundations of your faith, even before you finish your studies. It’s just too bad the priests and ministers don’t have the guts to convey this information to their flocks.

    The purpose of seminary may be to point out to the new recruits how ridiculous the stories are, and where the stories really came from. I imagine the secret oath as: Never mention to anyone that you know these stories are bullshit; you must always swear, on threat of death by the most torturous means, that all the stories in the bible are the literally true communications from a super omni-everything creator god.

  10. hyphenman says

    Mano,

    I came to the conclusion years ago that many clergy openly disbelieve–I’ve had more than one rabbi tell me that they don’t believe in god–but that they do what they do because it affords them the opportunity to be well paid for social work. Clergy act as counselors, social advocates, psychologists, educators and political activists all within a structure that pays them far more in both cash and social standing than what they might earn in the secular equivalent of their calling.

    Jeff

  11. Lofty says

    In the end, a church is just another racket and you say whatever protects your position. No different to an advertising hack, an insurance salesman etc.. You may end up in a rut but at least its a familiar rut.

  12. Thud says

    The Clergy Project is available for disbelieving clergy who need some support. Daniel Dennet was instrumental is setting it up.

  13. A Masked Avenger says

    moarscienceplz, #6:

    So if the Holy Word of your god contains at least some forgeries, that’s some pretty serious chipping away at the foundations of your faith, even before you finish your studies.

    Possibly but not necessarily. That would be devastating to fundamentalist belief, which is why fundies don’t go to real seminaries–they go to fundie pretend seminaries that teach only in conformity with their dogma. The rest, who are taught this stuff, may find that it “chips away at the foundation of their faith,” but some of them at least adapt and change their faith to encompass this. Basically, they don’t believe in a “Holy Word of our God” in the sense that fundies (and most skeptics) understand the term–which is why skeptics’ comments tend to be aimed at fundies, and miss the majority of theists. They don’t believe the Bible is divine dictation anyway.

    At the fringe, this type of theist treats God and Santa about the same, and is basically a humanist with the trappings of religion. You’ll find quite a few like that at Patheos, and you’ll find that their posts often track closely FTB, except for the trappings of religion. See for example a recent Slacktivist post about Cliven Bundy.

  14. hyphenman says

    Mano,

    Openly disbelieve is a relative term, but within the Reform Jewish Movement, doctrinaire belief in a god who delivered the Torah on Mount Sinai, &c. is less evident than in more conservative/reactionary congregations.

    In private and small group discussions, belief in a literal god was not something that was really much discussed. The people I knew, including clergy, were much more interested in the social justice aspects of Judaism.

    Jeff

  15. Jockaira says

    “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it.”–Upton Sinclair (said apparently about Priests, etc.)

    Most people want to do the “right” thing. It is easy to rationalize hypocrisy when the outcome of your actions would seem to be good. Most of these non-believing clergy are not absolute frauds, but people honestly in a quandary of doubt about the morality of continuing their career based on various fictions, the necessity of maintaining their simple economic survival, and the probability of their doing real good by continuing their pretense.

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