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Daniel C. Dennett and Linda LaScola researched five pastors — all Protestants — who no longer believe in God, but who are still in the pulpit. In interviewing these closeted non-believing pastors, Dennett and LaScola recognized that there’s a problem of definition among these folks. Even though they’re all pretty clearly atheists, in the commonsense use of the term, not all are willing to say flat-out that they’re non-believers. Dennett and LaScola:
The fact that they see it in such morally laden terms shows how powerfully the phenomenon of belief in belief figures in our lives. Most people believe in belief in God; they believe that it is a state one should aspire to, work strenuously to maintain, and foster in others–and feel guilty or dismayed if one fails to achieve it. Whether or not our pastors share that belief in belief–some still do and others no longer do–they recognize only too well that revealing their growing disbelief would have dire consequences for their lives. So they keep it to themselves.
Here’s a statement they attribute to “Wes,” the pastor of a Methodist congregation:
“I will be the first to admit that I see Christianity as a means to an end, not as an end unto itself. And the end is very basically, a kind of liberal, democratic values. So I will use Christianity sometimes against itself to try to lead people to that point. But there’s so much within the Christian tradition that itself influenced the development of those liberal values, you know. They didn’t arise through secular means. They came out of some religious stuff. …I could couch all that in very secular language. If we were in a college setting, I would. But we’re in a religious setting, so I use the religious language.”
So he’s using faith to surreptitiously lead people to embrace a set of political and cultural beliefs. As bad as that is, it’s not uncommon among pastors. But here’s the deeply unconscionable thing about Wes, in the report’s words: “Although he thinks that religion will be around a long time, he sees that part of his role is to help make his job obsolete.”
Got that? He’s a pastor who is living a lie in a secret attempt to destroy religious faith in the lives of his congregation, who trust him to be their shepherd. I cannot tell you how despicable I find that — though perhaps it says something about the quality of faith among his flock that their pastor doesn’t believe in God, and they can’t tell.
“Darryl,” a liberal Presbyterian pastor outside of Baltimore, likes the spiritual trappings of church, but is an atheist. Of the heretical Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong, Darryl says:
“Well that guy has a glow to him; he’s just fantastic. But he can say whatever he wants because he’s got his nest egg. He’s not concerned about his retirement or anything like that. Liberating!”
Ah, so Darryl keeps his treachery to himself because if he were honest with his congregation, he’d have to go find another job. A real profile in courage, our Darryl.
One thing you see in these guys reading their interviews is that they went into the ministry to fulfill their own personal longings. Here’s “Adam,” a UCC pastor:
“I wanted my life to matter. To connect. For something bigger and better, beyond what I was doing.”
They all talk like this, explaining that they stick it out in ministry in part because it is personally fulfilling to work with people, and to do so in a churchy environment. Notice, though, that it never was about God. It was always about Me. Corruption at its root.
I have more respect for “Jack,” a 50-year-old Southern Baptist pastor who lost his faith in God through reading theology. Jack says he’s made up his mind to get out of the ministry as soon as he can find another line of work to help him pay off his debts. Though I still think it’s fraudulent to represent yourself to your congregation as a minister of God when you don’t believe in him, and I wish Jack would do the gutsy thing and resign at once, at least Jack, unlike these others, is not trying to rationalize his fear of leaving the security of the pastorate.
Nevertheless, when I step back from the emotion of my response to men who no longer believe in God but who have the spiritual leadership of their congregations in their hands, I must admit that it must be a terrible existential place to be in. I have an older pastor friend who is an Episcopalian, and who has lost faith in the Episcopal Church. He wants to be a Roman Catholic or an Orthodox Christian, but he would lose his pension if he left TEC, and would lose the money he needs to care for needy dependents who have come to him late in his life. So he remains an Episcopalian. That is not the same thing as being an closeted atheist pastor. This priest is a strong believer in traditional Christian doctrines and morals; he has simply lost faith in Anglican ecclesiology. He can be a strong leader of his congregation, shepherding them through the Christian journey, even though in his heart, he is no longer an Episcopalian. On the other hand, I have Orthodox friends who left the pastorate or good jobs in religious schools, putting their families at risk, because they felt they had to do so to answer the call to Orthodoxy. In none of these cases, though, did my friends misrepresent themselves as Christians, or, as in Wes’s case, use their position of authority as an Episcopalian (or Catholic, or Lutheran) to lead people away from the churches they were serving. That’s a big difference.
Still, on a human level, it must be so painful to have dedicated your life to something you no longer believe in. Why do these closeted unbelievers feel that many more of the clergy agree with them? It could be part of their rationalization. Or it could be what Dennett and LaScola note something interesting (below the jump):
What gives them this impression that they are far from alone, and how did this strange and sorrowful state of affairs arise? The answer seems to lie in the seminary experience shared by all our pastors, liberals and literals alike. Even some conservative seminaries staff their courses on the Bible with professors who are trained in textual criticism, the historical methods of biblical scholarship, and what is taught in those courses is not what the young seminarians learned in Sunday school, even in the more liberal churches. In seminary they were introduced to many of the details that have been gleaned by centuries of painstaking research about how various ancient texts came to be written, copied, translated, and, after considerable jockeying and logrolling, eventually assembled into the Bible we read today. It is hard if not impossible to square these new facts with the idea that the Bible is in all its particulars a true account of actual events, let alone the inerrant word of God. It is interesting that all our pastors report the same pattern of response among their fellow students: some were fascinated, but others angrily rejected what their professors tried to teach them. Whatever their initial response to these unsettling revelations, the cat was out of the bag and both liberals and literals discerned the need to conceal their knowledge about the history of Christianity from their congregations.
How does this “don’t ask, don’t tell” culture develop among the clergy? Read on:
Nobody in any church wants to learn that a person of God has lost their belief in God. Even parishioners who harbor suspicions about their pastor’s doctrinal commitments may well decide to leave well enough alone, especially if he or she is doing a fine job holding the congregation together. This incuriosity begins at ordination, when the candidate for a pulpit is examined. Nobody in our small sample was asked by their inquisitors if they actually believed in God. That would be rude, of course, and officially unnecessary. Indeed, it’s likely that none of our pastors has ever been asked point-blank, by anyone–parishioner, fellow minister, or superior–if they believed in God. “The ‘borderline fundamentalists’ ask you about your beliefs, but never about whether you believe in God.”(Wes)
This is a relief to them, since an honest answer would set off an avalanche of problems. There is variation in the severity of the ordination questioning, with more conservative churches asking more pointed questions about doctrine, but even here there are circumlocutions that pass muster. Candidates are typically well aware of what will be expected from them at the hearing, and Rick, the UCC minister, having recounted a successful dodge that slid him into a college chaplaincy remarked: “Now I might not have been able to get away with that in, say, Kansas.” As Wes puts it, “There are poisonous questions that have no business being asked. And one of those questions might be, ‘Do you believe in the virgin birth?'”
“Poisonous questions that have no business being asked”?!
I’ll tell you something. In the past few days, I have been in the presence of two Orthodox priests. Both have overwhelming duties, not only as fathers, but as pastors of their flock. Both are young men, but one told me he was so exhausted after Pascha that he had to go to the hospital for observation on his heart. Good men, men who work hard, men who believe. One of these men has an advanced degree in the hard sciences, but he went to seminary after he sensed God’s call on his life. I was thinking earlier this week that to choose to be a priest, and no doubt a pastor in many Protestant churches, is to choose to be poor — and, if you are in a church that allows you to marry, to choose for your family to live in relative poverty. In ages past, joining the clergy was a way toward social advancement. Not anymore. There is not much prestige in it these days, and most things you can do would make you more money, and give you far better hours. I cannot imagine choosing to be a pastor unless I believed wholeheartedly in the reality of God — however much I might at times, like Mother Teresa, feel the lack of His presence — and feel His calling on my life. A priest friend of mine told me that his bishop once said to him that he had to take his calling with utmost seriousness, “Because one day, you will have to answer to God for the souls of your flock.”
Think about that.
Of course, if you are like the pastors in the Dennett/LaScola study (do read the whole thing), there is no God for you to be accountable to anyway, so why not just keep living a lie, and leading your spiritual children on? Cowards. Anaxios!