Walk into a church on a Sunday and you might find that a few of the people in the pews are atheists — there because they like the old hymns or the comforting murmur of the liturgy or because their spouses insist. Or because, at some level, they’re still pretending they believe. They are spectators, in other words, not participants.
But what about the person leading the service? How likely is it that a member of the clergy might be an atheist as well — delivering the sermon and choosing the Bible passages, and afterward paying house calls to offer spiritual counsel to those in trouble and doubt, all without believing in God?
Daniel Dennett decided to find out. A leading philosopher of consciousness, a Tufts University professor, and a famously outspoken atheist, Dennett has for years been curious about the phenomenon of nonbelieving clergy. And now, working with a researcher and clinical social worker named Linda LaScola, he has embarked on a project to find and publicize their stories.
He doesn’t yet have data on how common the phenomenon is, but last month Dennett and LaScola published their first anecdotal results, a paper that appeared both in a scholarly journal, Evolutionary Psychology, and on The Washington Post’s website. The paper is an annotated set of excerpts from interviews with five ministers whom Dennett and LaScola found through personal contacts in the clergy, seminaries, and progressive Christian and atheist organizations. Unlike most of the clergy members the researchers contacted, these five agreed to tell their stories publicly, albeit under pseudonyms and with personal details changed.
What emerges is a portrait of men (the one woman interviewed backed out at the last minute) grappling earnestly and incisively with the sort of theological quandaries familiar to anyone who has studied and doubted Christian doctrine. Just as strong, though, is the sense of secrecy and evasion that pervades their lives: having to hide their lack of belief from parishioners, friends, even family members. Some spoke of feeling trapped: questioning their fitness for the pulpit but unable to leave because of a mix of personal, cultural, and even financial reasons.
“She doesn’t need to hear this right now,” one says of his wife. “It’s not going to serve any of us. I feel like when the time’s right, I can talk to her about it. She won’t like it, but I will share it with her. And after I share it with her, I will start sharing it with other people.”
Dennett says his ultimate goal is a far larger study to give a true sense of how prevalent nonbelief is among the clergy. In the meanwhile, Dennett and LaScola are collecting stories one by one.
Ideas reached Dennett by phone at the Santa Fe Institute, where he is currently a fellow this semester.
IDEAS: How did this project come about?
DENNETT: When I was working on [my book] “Breaking the Spell,” I went out of my way to interview deeply religious people, including ministers, so I could learn more about how they think and how they talk. What stunned me was how many told me, in deep confidence, that they really didn’t believe any of the creed.
IDEAS: What was the point of doing the study?
DENNETT: The point is that this is a dirty little secret that many people in the church know but the general public doesn’t, and we think it’s important and we think it’s interesting.
IDEAS: What sort of response have you gotten?
DENNETT: Some of the response that we’re getting is that this can be the spearhead of a new movement to open up the churches to more liberal thinking so that really good people who don’t happen to share the creed can participate and lead the churches. We’re also getting feedback that is incredibly hostile to the clergy — not to us but to the clergy. I think that’s not surprising, but I think it shows an incredible anxiety.
IDEAS: Anxiety about what?
DENNETT: About the fact that our preachers are right, that they are the tip of the iceberg and we’re letting the cat out of the bag. The argument is that these pastors should have buttoned their lips...like [Mother] Teresa.
IDEAS: Mother Teresa didn’t believe in God?
DENNETT: When her letters were published three years ago, it revealed that for 50 years she had no sense of faith in God at all. She was in private agony, meeting with spiritual advisers, and it was “the dark night of the soul” for her for all those years.
IDEAS: How did you actually carry out the interviews?
DENNETT: Linda did them. She traveled and met with them discreetly and quietly wherever they thought it would be safe to meet.
IDEAS: In the conclusion to the study, you compare the dilemma of the nonbelieving clergy member to that of a closeted gay person.
DENNETT: It’s striking, though they don’t have any “gaydar.” They suspect that lots of their friends and fellow clergy have exactly the same beliefs they have, but they don’t know how to test that. It’s dangerous, and the ploys that they fall back on are just exactly the same stuff: “I have an uncle who...,” “One of my parishioners says....” They need to maintain credible deniability and so they’re very careful about that.
IDEAS: One theme that emerges in the interviews is that it’s a seminary education itself that seemed to start these ministers on the road to nonbelief, because what they learned there about how the Bible was actually put together makes it harder to see it as a holy book.
DENNETT: It’s true, here are these young people in seminary, they have come with the purest of hearts and the noblest of intentions and they’re going to devote their lives to God. And one of the first things they learn is textual criticism. They’re looking at all the existing papyruses and scrolls and so forth and learning about the recension of the texts — the tortuous and often controversial historical path from Hebrew, Greek, and Latin versions of the books of the Bible — and all the Apocryphal books that got rejected — to the King James Version and all the later English translations. And that’s not what they taught you in Sunday school.
That’s the joke that we often provoke from people when we talk about this: Anybody who goes through seminary and comes out believing in God hasn’t been paying attention.
IDEAS: Did you yourself have a moment when you lost your faith?
DENNETT: Nothing dramatic, no...it just sort of dawned on me gradually I didn’t believe any of it. I loved the services in many regards. I sang in a lot of choirs, I memorized some psalms. I read not all of the Bible, but a lot of it.
IDEAS: You’re a high-profile critic of religion. Do you think that’s going to make this study seem like a tactic to try to weaken people’s religious belief?
DENNETT: In a way it’s better that I have that reputation, because if I didn’t, people would be suspicious that I was secretly pushing some atheist agenda. I’m quite outspoken about my atheism, but I’m also outspoken about my belief that we don’t want to encourage the extinction of religion. We want to encourage its evolution into more benign forms.
IDEAS: And what would those more benign forms look like?
DENNETT: Simply an opportunity to join with people in a morally meaningful activity. I think that we can take a lot of lessons from religions, which are brilliantly designed to bring people together in just that way, with art and music and ritual, a beautiful building, induction ceremonies.
We should do with secular organizations what Bach did, he took these great old chorale melodies, that were deeply ingrained into bones of audiences, then he built on them.
IDEAS: Though Bach was a church organist composing for actual church services.
DENNETT: Right, this is a sort of meta-Bach move here. I know and love the Unitarians, but I don’t like the words to their hymns. The words are so insipid I can’t stand them. I’d rather sing the good old ripsnortin’ words and then put a little flashing light over the pulpit that says “metaphor.”
Drake Bennett is the staff writer for Ideas. Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola are continuing their interview project and can be reached at email@example.com.