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When a preacher no longer believes: case studies in soul-searching

What is it like to be a pastor who doesn't believe in God?

We at the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University set out to find some closeted nonbelievers who would agree to be intensively — and, of course, confidentially — interviewed. For a pilot study we managed to identify five brave pastors, all still actively engaged with parishes, who were prepared to trust us with their stories.

We have just published our results. The very variety of their stories, as well as the patterns discernible in them, suggest fascinating avenues for further research on this all-but-invisible phenomenon. There is no agreement at all, for example, about where to draw a line across a spectrum, with belief in God on one side and nonbelief on the other.

The ambiguity about who is a believer and who is a nonbeliever follows inexorably from the pluralism that has been assiduously fostered by many religious leaders for a century and more: God is many different things to different people, and since we can't know if one of these conceptions is the right one, we should honor them all. This counsel of tolerance creates a gentle fog that shrouds the question of belief in God in so much indeterminacy that if asked whether they believed in God, many people could sincerely say that they don't know what they are being asked.

This is not just agnosticism, the belief that one does not (or cannot) know whether God exists, but something prior: the belief that one cannot even know which question — if any — is being asked. Many people are utterly comfortable with this curious ignorance; it just doesn't matter to them what the formulas mean that their churches encourage them to recite. Some churches are equally tolerant of the indeterminacy: as long as you "have faith" or are "one with Jesus" (whatever you think that means) your metaphysical convictions are your own business. But pastors can't afford that luxury. Their role in life often requires them to articulate, from the pulpit and elsewhere, assertions about these very issues.

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 they fail to achieve it. Whether 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.

Darryl, the Presbyterian

Darryl is a 36-year-old Presbyterian minister with a church outside Baltimore. He is married and has three young children. After an initial phone conversation about the study, he sent an e-mail further explaining his desire to participate. In it, he wrote:

"I am interested in this study because I have regular contact in my circle of colleagues — both ecumenical and Presbyterian — who are also more progressive-minded than the 'party line' of the denomination."

"We are not 'un-believers' in our own minds — but would not withstand a strict 'litmus test' should we be subjected to one. I want to see this new movement within the church given validity in some way."

"I reject the virgin b irth. I reject substitutionary atonement. I reject the divinity of Jesus. I reject heaven and hell in the traditional sense, and I am not alone."

"I am a 'Jesus Follower' for sure. It is arguable whether I am also a 'Christian.' I can't imagine continuing in this work if I did not have a strong personal faith of some kind. My cognitive dissonance revolves around the urge to rescue others who find themselves in the same boat — and who still strongly believe in God in some sense, and find Jesus a compelling religious figure."

He described himself as a believer in God, but not in the traditional Christian God.

"… it's not that I'm not a believer. I do believe in God. But I find that the character of my belief is much closer to that pantheist view than the typical theist."

Darryl was raised in the Presbyterian Church and was drawn to the ministry as a youth after a playmate was killed in a terrorist attack while abroad on a family vacation. After experiencing frightening thoughts of suicide, he decided that:

"Whether there was a God or not, I would choose to live as if there was a God. Because I didn't like the alternative. I didn't want to kill myself. The alternative was despair."

He felt that "there was always this sense of call in my life. The process of becoming a pastor was exploring this sense of calling from God."

He enjoyed his seminary experience, saying that it "blew open" Christian doctrine, allowing him to realize that Christianity wasn't "black and white, it was plaid, polka dot — there was just such a variety of thought that went in every different kind of direction."

At some point in his studies, he gave up the idea of an afterlife that was an extension of our current consciousness. He started thinking in terms of "a transcendency of the human spirit" that he has difficulty describing, saying, "I know that it's not going to be something that I can comprehend with my mortal brain."

Still, believing in something is important to him. He thinks clergy would be "really sad individuals if they just didn't believe in anything and that they're just sadly going through the motions of the job."

He likes his work and the flexibility his job offers. He'd like an opportunity to openly minister to people like himself.

"I do feel called to work with people who have the same doubts and questions. … I think there's room in Christianity for this. Is the Presbyterian Church willing to make that room within its own? I don't know."

He also thinks about the freedom he'd have if he left or retired from the church, specifically mentioning Jack (John Shelby) Spong, the retired Episcopal bishop who writes and speaks openly about how Christianity needs to modernize in order to survive.

"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!"

He expressed concern about the possibility of moving to a more conservative presbytery where he might not be able to honestly respond to the doctrinal questions he could be asked.

"If I had to jump through too many hoops. … I just have to look and see how genuine I would be, and how comfortable I would feel."

And despite his many stated concerns, he also had good things to say about the role of the church in his life.

"The church has been a positive thing in my life overall. It's been a place of affirmation, it's been a place of comfort, it's been a place of ritual and wonderful mystery."

During the interviews, he often discussed his feelings toward the ministry and how his changing beliefs could affect his family. For instance, he said:

"This is not only the course of my live I've chosen to pursue, but I provide for my family this way. So if I'm having this cognitive dissonance, then sure, I've got to come to terms with how I do this in a genuine way. And at what point do I not do it any longer."

"So maybe there'll be a divorce between myself and the Presbyterian Church. I need to feel fulfilled, and I need to provide for myself and my family. I can go back and get new education and training, but I've got to do something. And so do I completely pitch this? Well, I don't think it's completely without value."

"I realize that if I come out a little more, I may be burning bridges in terms of my ability to earn a living this way. At some point, that may be less important. But it still would be something I would grieve, because this has been a meaningful experience in my life even though there are parts of the hierarchy of the church that I have become dissatisfied with."

He also raised the possibility of being defrocked at different points in the interviews:

"To a certain extent, I don't care if I get defrocked. I really don't. If people don't want me in this, I'll do something else. I might try and do hospital chaplaincy."

"I'm really not afraid of anything coming as a result (of these interviews). I'm not afraid of being defrocked just because I'm not interested in being afraid."

Adam, Church of Christ

Adam is a 43-year-old worship minister and church administrator currently working in a large Church of Christ congregation in South Carolina. He was raised Presbyterian and became involved with conservative Christianity while dating his future wife. He decided to enter the ministry not because he felt a "calling" or had a "mystical experience" but because he wanted "a purpose that was beyond just existing."

"I wanted my life to matter. To connect. For something bigger and better, beyond what I was doing."

Even in seminary, when confronted with questions and contradictions in the study of academic Christianity, he stayed focused on his desire to help people live a Christian life that would ultimately lead them to eternal life.

"Okay, here's what biblical scholars are saying, and there's some questions over here, but I just trust God, and know he's guiding me, and I'm learning this so I can be a minister and help people. When I was working with people, it was a lot more practically focused on, 'Okay, here's what the Bible says, how do we live it out? How do we encourage other people? What's the whole evangelistic side of Christianity? How can we win more people into Christ.' I mean you're sincere; that's what your goal is. You don't want anybody to miss out and to go to hell."

"I don't remember stressing a lot over doubts that were raised by the study, undergraduate or graduate. At the graduate level, I was challenged a little bit more by the theology and the philosophy — like suffering in the world. Which in the last year was probably one of my major wake-up calls. Like, how can there be a living God with the world in the shape that it's in? But looking back at it, I learned what I learned to get through so I could focus on things. My intentions were the greatest and the purest."

"During the time when I was introduced — even in undergraduate to textual criticism — looking at how we got the Scriptures that we have, and the textual variances. I just kind of learned what I needed to learn to pass the test, and didn't really — I mean, I thought, 'Well, how do we know what was the right variant that was chosen that we now have as the Scripture?' But I really didn't — I had way too much going: I was too busy working full time and going to school, and a family, and small children."

Not long ago he read David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons' unChristian: What a New Generation Thinks About Christianity — and Why It Matters, a book that rebuts common criticisms people have about Christianity. His intention was to become more skilled at defending his faith, but as he tried to "step back" to look at Christianity from a nonbeliever's perspective, he found that he became more swayed to that point of view.

Now, when Adam thinks about leaving the ministry, one of the hardest things to contemplate giving up is the rich community life that his religion has provided.

"I will say one strong aspect of any religion, I'd guess, that I've been in is the community life. You have great friends who are close; you can depend on them.

"When there's hard times, financially, emotionally, whatever, you've got a support group."

He also fears for the effect leaving could have on his family, because his wife and teenage children are very religious. While he has conducted his current religious study surreptitiously, he has expressed some of his changing views to his wife. At her urging, he has been talking about it with an old seminary professor. However, their meetings have not affected Adam's changing ideas.

"He's done everything he knows to do. He's prayed for me; he's shared with me. And I said, 'One of the fears is that I'm going to sway you, and you're going to lose your faith. If I see that happening, I'll back off.' "

Adam does not want to make trouble in his friend's life or to let down the people in his church.

"And if they knew what I believe right now … some would (be against me) and some would try to keep working with me, and minister to me, and help me."

At the same time, he thinks there could be a benefit to his church family in knowing about how he has changed.

"And the other part of me thinks: 'You know what? It'd be good for people to grow up and to think things through at least. If they decide to keep their faith, that's fine. But if they don't, let's be real about it.' "

But he also wonders whether he should leave well enough alone.

"Even if Christianity isn't true, is it best to leave the people alone in their ignorance? And I struggle with that feeling of superiority intellectually, which I've read all kinds of faith literature, and they say that's just a struggle you've got to deal with. But is it better to leave them — ? And they're happy, and they have hope in a life to come, and so it helps them through their suffering, which is a strong selling point of Christianity. You know what I'm saying? I look at things a lot more in kind of a marketing form now."

Meanwhile, he struggles through his job, hiding his beliefs.

"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."

He'd like to get out of this situation, but hasn't yet figured out how to do it.

"I'm where I am because I need the job still. If I had an alternative, a comfortable paying job, something I was interested in doing, and a move that wouldn't destroy my family, that's where I'd go. Because I do feel kind of hypocritical. It used to be the word 'hypocritical' was like a sin. I don't hold that view anymore: There is goodness, and there is sinfulness; it's one or the other. It's black or white. That there's ultimate absolute truths that are mandated in Scripture or given by a supernatural being. I don't see those anymore, so I use the word 'hypocritical' differently, as in, I'm just not being forthright. But, at the same time, I'm in the situation I'm in, and rationally thinking about it is what I've got to do right now."

He considers himself an "atheistic agnostic" and wonders how nonbelievers fill the void left by loss of faith, or even if they feel a loss. For his part, he says:

"I've got to the point where I can't find meaning in something that I don't think is real anymore. I guess mostly inside I do toy with the fact that, 'Okay, what's driving me to get up every morning?' I used to be very devotional-minded. Get up, and maybe read a passage of Scripture; say a prayer; ask God to guide me through the day, totally believing that he would."

"Now it's like, 'You don't have that.' So there's a lack of guidance. But at the same time I find it more free, where I create my own day."

He thinks of himself as being through with religion. He's not interested in a more liberal form of Christianity or in a nonsupernatural concept of God.

"I've thought I could stay in church work, and I could become more liberal. But it's like, what have you become at that point? It's really like any other organization. … I mean, if you take God out of it, I don't understand why you would go to the trouble of being religious. … If it's only your natural abilities, why mask it as something religious? Other than the fact you don't want to make waves; you want to fit in with society without causing problems for yourself."

"I don't see nature as a God; I just see nature as nature. I can admire the beauty and the horror in it at the same time and don't have to cast a religious tone on it."

Right now, he is still studying and wondering where it all will lead.

"Honestly, there's been times when I thought, 'You're going to drive yourself crazy dealing with all this.' It's like, I just — I get through it, kind of keep plugging along even though I don't know what is ultimately going to happen. So it's just kind of like — take a day at a time; a week at a time. Kind of look at certain things. Keep studying; keep my options open."

A follow-up study

Daniel C. Dennett and Linda LaScola of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University are planning a follow-up study. Clergy who are interested can learn more at Dennett's home page At that same Web site is a link to the full original study of the five ministers, including the answer to the curious question: So just how did Dennett and LaScola find ministers willing to talk about their loss of faith?

When a preacher no longer believes: case studies in soul-searching 03/29/10 [Last modified: Monday, March 29, 2010 6:22pm]
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