Search This Blog

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Atheists in the Pulpit (Repeat)

This is the first time I have ever repeated a post; but since I have had a flood of traffic today due to P.Z. Meyer's reference to the Evangelical Pastors are Discouraged and Depressed post from yesterday, I decided to repeat an earlier post about Atheists in the Pulpit.

Here it is:

I came across a fascinating article in the Washington Post by Daniel Dennett entitled, Skeptical Clergy a Silent Majority. The article deals with a study that was done by Dennett and Linda LaScola of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University. He begins the article by saying:
Here are some questions that have haunted me for years. How many preachers actually believe what they say from the pulpit? We know that every year some clergy abandon their calling, no longer able to execute their duties with conviction. This can never be a decision taken lightly, and many of them labored on for years before taking the leap. Are they the tip of an iceberg? Is there a problem of deep hypocrisy separating many pastors from their flocks? What is it like to be a non-believing preacher? How do they reconcile their private skepticism with the obligations of their position? And how did they get into their predicament?

Dennett and LaScola interviewed five Protestant pastors who are all still currently serving their churches, yet have given up belief in God (you can read full interviews here). Three of these men are in liberal churches and two are in conservative churches. Some people, I think, would initially react by saying, how hypocritical of these men to continue preaching when they no longer believe what they preach. I can sympathize with that sentiment but I can also sympathize with the preachers because I used to be in their same shoes.

I started having serious doubts about my faith sometime in the year 1994. I can remember being in El Paso, Texas preaching in a Baptist church and during the middle of my sermon, the thought hit me, you don't really believe what you are saying. It was a frightening thought and almost disrupted my sermon. I was taught to attribute such thoughts to the devil. So I went back to my room and prayed for the Lord to defeat the devil in my life and to increase my faith. I decided to investigate as thoroughly as I could all of the issues that were causing me to doubt my evangelical theology. I was in my 8th year of teaching in a Bible college. I never shared with anyone the nature of my doubts because frankly that is not allowed in strict evangelical circles. It was okay for students or new Christians to have doubts but not for a leader and especially not for someone with a Ph.D. in Theology who was entrusted to teach young people studying for the ministry.

At the end of the 1995 school year, I decided that maybe what I needed was a less academic role and a more pastoral role. Thus, I accepted a position as a Pastor at a local Baptist church in Arizona. I spent two years there and my doubts became worse. The last 6 months of my stay, I was convinced that the Bible was not the Word of God and that evangelical Christianity was like every other religion that exists, man-made. Those 6 months were difficult because I felt like a complete hypocrite. I had to get up and teach something that I personally could no longer believe.

The honorable thing, some would say, would have been to resign immediately. I agree but its difficult when you are married, your wife doesn't work, you have two small children, a mortgage and no marketable skills. What could I do? Resign and go to work at Walmart? It was a very difficult situation. Fortunately, in my case, someone approached me who was starting a new business, a recruiting business, and asked me if I would like to run the administrative part of it. I was delighted. I resigned the church and began my new career. It has worked out very well for me and I have been in the executive recruiting business now for 13 years.

So, I do sympathize with these men, but I also think that they need to find a way to get out of the ministry for the sake of their own sanity and self-esteem. In addition, they need to get out for the sake of their parishoners. I believe its wrong to intentionally mislead them. One of the pastors had this to say about his role:
Here’s how I’m handling my job on Sunday mornings: I see it as play acting. I kind of see myself as taking on a role of a believer in a worship service, and performing. Because I know what to say. I know how to pray publicly. I can lead singing. I love singing. I don’t believe what I’m saying anymore in some of these songs. But I see it as taking on the role and performing. Maybe that’s what it takes for me to get myself through this, but that’s what I’m doing.

I think that is sad and its unhealthy for the church and for the preacher. I wonder how many preachers are doing the same thing as this man every Sunday?

Here is the story of Scott Campbell , an evangelical Baptist pastor who found himself in the pulpit although he no longer believed.

I must also ask why do Christians have so many doubts if the Christian religion is true? Someone in the comment section on the article by Dennett and LaScola said this: Even the most devout and confident among us will have days when we step into the pulpit praying, "Lord, I believe; help my unbelief." To which another person replied:
I have often heard religious people say this, and frankly, it boggles my mind. This kind of crisis of confidence seldom, if ever, happen to people in other lines of work. A programmer does not wake up thinking that computers don't really work after all. Biologists don't worry that natural selection doesn't exist. Farmers do not question the wisdom or benefit of growing carrots. With all due respect, it seems to me that if you have difficulty believing something, or you keep coming up with reasons to doubt, you should immediately stop trying to believe it. Put aside religion and if compelling evidence emerges later on, you can always go back to believing. (I'll grant it would hard to do that if religion is your livelihood.) When a programmer develops grave doubts about a design, it is time to abandon that approach and try something new. A Democrat who decides Republican ideology makes more sense should change parties (and vice versa!). What possible benefit can there be to holding back and trying to persuade yourself to ignore a logical conclusion that fits the facts? It is an abuse of your own intellect. You can't do it anyway; your mind rebels. You just give yourself a headache -- or neurosis. It is like trying to eat food that tastes rotten.

He is correct. We don't doubt most things that we believe. Why do so many doubt Christianity? Could it be because its really not true?


  1. As you post to sadly points up, the upshot of a person deconstructing the cultish interpretation pushed by fundamentalism is that so very many lose all faith. Those of us on the progressive side of things never have understood this, but I guess when you worship a book and find that it is not what you thought, it means there is no God either. So very sad. We try so very hard to help the fundie but alas the blinders are securely attached and this is why. It's a matter of faith or none at all.

  2. Sherry, I tried to function as a progressive Christian for several years, but the cognitive dissonance became too great. I could never figure out just how to approach the Bible. It seemed clear to me that my fellow lib Christians accepted whatever parts accorded with secular liberalism (love, acceptance, peace, nonjudgmentalism, helping the oppressed) and ignored what didn't (divine judgment, sexual sin, most of the OT). Jesus became a kind of huggable, hippie Peace Corps volunteer -- not the often-stern eschatological prophet of the gospels. Something about that seemed intellectually dishonest.

    It also seemed strange to me that, despite their belief in the communion of saints, lib Christians had a much cozier relationship with non-christian liberals (religious or irreligious) than they did with conservative Christians. And while being nonjudgmental was a major tenet of theirs, all bets were off when they spoke about their conservative brethren in Christ (for whom no invective was too harsh).

    Also, there was an unspoken expectation that one adopt the values of the big-government, welfare-state left ... almost as if this was part of the gospel. As free-market, libertarian type, I couldn't stomach that.

    Finally, one other thing helped drive me out: The church services. In my experience at least, they were the most boring on the entire planet, bordering on cruel and unusual punishment.

  3. I can relate to both posts above. I came from fundamentalism, so it's quite a shock to learn that the Bible is not the Word of God and without error. There's quite a feeling of betrayal when coming from that background-like "Damn it! I actually believed them and took it all seriously!!"

    I also tried a very liberal church, but it was so obviously politically liberal, I thought-These people won't like me if I'm totally honest. I must hide my more conservative side!

    So that didn't work either! Us agnostics need a group!

  4. Well, there is certainly a middle ground. I'm classically evangelical, and orthodox in the faith, but not a fundamentalist.

    As far as I'm concerned the Nicene Creed of the church is a sufficient statement of Christian faith. We don't all have to agree about every doctrinal issue, or Biblical interpretation that comes down the pike.

    My political views also lean toward the moderate libertarian camp, SteveJ. Definitely believe in the value of free markets to generate wealth, and opportunity.

    But, here's the truth. It doesn't really matter to me if a person is a socialist, or a more conservative Republican in terms of Christian fellowship.

    I think as a Christian my unity with other believers is around the gospel, not centered in a specific political view.

    For one thing, the more I study some of these various political, and social issues, the easier it is for me to understand why sincere, well-meaning people might disagree. I mean it can take "the wisdom of Solomon," to sort some of this stuff out.

    I also think we should be taking the Scripture very seriously that talks about how we can't be about loving God, and hating our brother, or sister at the same time. Talk about cognitive dissonance, here, SteveJ, and Lynn.

  5. Grace, you and Sherry are probably kind, liberal-minded souls whom most people here wouldn't object to in the least.

    I agree with the Scripture when it enjoins love toward our neighbor. There's just so much other material there that I simply can't belief, even through a concentrated force of the will.

  6. I understand, SteveJ, but, is the center of Christian faith focused in whether folks believe every word of the Bible, or in the reality of the incarnation, and what this means in our lives?

  7. Grace, I understand what you're saying here and I did function as a non-inerrantist quasi-evangelical for many years. But the problem is that we're dependent on the Bible and its general reliability (whether inerrant or not) to inform us about Jesus -- there's really no other good source of information about him. When that same book contains so much that is problematic, it becomes difficult to fully trust even its most central themes.

  8. Lynnn,

    You said: it's quite a shock to learn that the Bible is not the Word of God and without error.

    If you don't mind me asking, how did you come to this conclusion? You seem so sure about it.

    SteveJ, you can pitch in too if you like, per your comment 'When that same book contains so much that is problematic'. Thanks

  9. Steve, I find, as I travel around in many circles of the internet that Evangelicals (fundies) are first of all highly conservative in their political views--and thus when they find out that the bible is not the "word" of God as traditionally assumed, they lose all faith.

    Perhaps you are correct that liberals tend to find progressive churches (I'm Episcopalian, formerly R Catholic who couldnt stomach the dogma against women, gays and contraception). But frankly, I've studied the bible rather extensively, and still do in formal and informal classes and I don't think that I pick and choose. I do have a great background in biblical exegesis. You can't pick and choose, that's the point, you have to learn what the purpose and meaning was to the person(s) who wrote, edited, redacted, etc. In the end, the bible reflects the ideas and beliefs and theological insights of ancient peoples. As such, they do speak metaphorically, certain truths that are still true today. They point us in a direction, and they tell us what ground we need not replow.

    Contrary to your experience in progressive churches in terms of boredom, my church is lively and exciting in liturgy. BUt then we are Episcopalians and follow a liturgy similar to the Roman Catholic. Ritual is for me a connection.

    Nice having the conversation. There are few atheists blogs around that I have found where believers and non can have pleasant conversations without being called names.

  10. Hey, Sherry,

    I'm a Piskie, too. :)

    I love the liturgy, and prayers of the church, and find that this is enriching to my faith in Jesus Christ, as well.

    SteveJ, it was the church that came to realize the canon of Scripture. What we know of Jesus is based in the apostolic witness which of course is reflected in Scripture. We also have the overall witness of the church expressed by the writings of the early church fathers, as well.

    I have to agree more with what Sherry is stating. I personally take Scripture very seriously, and feel that it reflects God's word to us. It is an authority for the faith, and practice of the church.

    But, I think it's important to realize that Scripture is also expressed in the words of men, and sometimes does reflect the culture of the time.

    It also seems to me that not all of Scripture is even given to be interpreted in a literal way. We need to use our minds, as well as the witness of Christian tradition to sort this all out. To me, this is not the same as arbitrarily picking or choosing what I would like to hear..

    I have a step-son who is extremely fundamentalist. He actually has the view that if He is able to find even one apparent error, or discrepancy in the Scripture, this proves God a liar, and Christianity a hoax.

    I love him dearly, and we can have good fellowship in the Lord. I appreciate his Christian witness, but I confess that I have real difficulty with this "black or white," kind of thinking.

    It seems to me like a spiritual train wreck waiting to happen, and really does sound like idolotry of a book.

    I suppose we will have to agree to disagree about this. Agree with Sherry about being able to have a positive conversation. Appreciate it very much!!


  11. Grace and Sherry,

    I am glad to have you here reading and commenting on my blog. I like to get a number of different perspectives. I do want this to be a place for cordial and intelligent discussion not the vitriol that is seen on other blogs. At the end of the day, we are all human beings seeking truth.

    I can understand your connection with the ritual of the Episcopalian Church. I attended my first service recently in one. Actually its an Anglican Church and a very conservative one at that. I went strictly out of curiosity. It was a lot different than my Baptist heritage.

    To me, though, the rituals are meaningless unless there is truth behind them. I just don't think there is. I believe as one of you said that the Bible contains the reflections of ancient men about God. It reflects their culture and their times. I can get some insights from reading it but so can I from reading the thoughts of men from other religions as well as ancient philosophy. To me they are all on the same level. Fallible men seeking to understand truth. So I find nothing unique about Christianity in any of its forms.

    Anyway glad to have you here and hope you comment regularly.

  12. Ken, I admire your courage in leaving your career as well as your religion. You are obviously a man of integrity and honesty.
    I have seen a number of priests and preachers in my office who admitted to me that they no longer believed in God. All except two kept on preaching in the pulpit. They were not just fundamentalists, Sherry. In fact, only one of them could be classified this way. One Catholic priest, several Anglicans and Lutherans.

  13. Greetings all!

    I came over on the Pharyngula boat just yesterday and I've really enjoyed what I've been reading here; both the posts and the comments.

    I feel for these pastors as well, as I was a praise and worship leader for most of my high school and college years, yet towards the end of that time, I found myself unable to continue as I felt hypocritical about the fact that I didn't mean anything I was singing and leading others to sing. It became more about the music and helping people expand their horizons beyond the Chris Tomlin, generic P&W that was just so....boring.

    Still, that wasn't enough to cover my cognitive dissonance. Over the last two years I've become more and more open about my non-belief and have gotten out of the church circles and never felt freer to be myself. One of the comments from my Southern Baptist father from last year still sticks with me. He told me that I should simply put myself back into a church setting, so that I can deal with these issues in the midst of the church. I told him that it would be an empty gesture on my part, as the words and songs have no meaning to me and have proven insufficient to answer my questions in the past.

    I also told him that participating in a service with which I no longer connected would just make me feel hypocritical and even more cynical/detached.

    All this to say, I can really understand what these pastors are feeling and struggling with. I was just fortunate enough not to be trapped within the church as a means of income and with a family to support. I really feel for them.

  14. Clare,

    Thanks. Yes I think there are many, many ministers out there who no longer believe but don't know what to do. I have corresponded with a couple. Its tough. Its hard to leave your faith just from emotional, psychological, and sociological (family and friends) concerns but when you add financial concerns to it, it makes it extremely difficult to leave.

  15. Ryan,

    Glad to have you aboard and look forward to your comments.

  16. Thank you, Ken.

    Glad that you had a chance to visit in an Anglican church.

    Couldn't agree with you more about truth, and the meaning behind the words. If I felt wholly convinced that Jesus were a mere man, or the empty tomb a hoax, I wouldn't spend two minutes of my time in church either. There would be no point in it for me.

    As a young person, I was part of the institutional church, and not a Christian believer, more agnostic, at that time in my life.

    I remember after coming to faith, how the liturgy came alive for me, rich with meaning. Before then, I would recite by rote. It was just words on a page. I did attend as much for social reasons.

    On the other hand, I want everyone to know that as a whole, the Episcopal church is very open, and welcoming to free-thinkers, and those that are spiritually seeking. It's defintely not a church that expects people to "check their minds at the door."

    Ryan, I would say that it might depend on the church, whether people are open, and willing, and able to engage with you, and your concerns.