by Greta Christina
June 10, 2012
A burst of media attention
has been focused on atheists of an unexpected stripe -
clergy members. Could non-believing clergy change
how we see religion?
What happens when a clergy
person - a minister, a priest, a rabbi, an imam - realizes
he doesn't believe in God?
And what happens when he says it
What happens when they find each other; when they
support each other in coping with their crises, when they
help each other with resources and job counseling and other
What happens when they encourage
each other to come out?
Could this affect more than just
these clergy people and their followers?
Could it change how society as a
whole thinks and feels about religion?
the Clergy Project is
In recent months and years, atheists
have been all over the news. But over the last few weeks, a burst of
media attention has been focused on atheists of an unexpected
stripe: clergy members. And in particular, attention is going to the
Clergy Project, an online meeting place and support group that
exists specifically for these unexpected additions to the ranks of
The project was inspired by the 2010 pilot study by Daniel C.
Dennett and Linda LaScola, "Preachers
Who Are Not Believers", which exposed and explored the
surprisingly common phenomenon of non-believing clergy.
The need to give these people support -
and if possible, an exit strategy - was immediately recognized in
the atheist community, and starter funding for the Clergy Project
was quickly provided by
The Richard Dawkins Foundation for
Reason and Science.
Founded in March of 2011 with 52
members, the Clergy Project currently has over 270 members - and
since recent news stories about it began appearing, in outlets from
MSNBC (below video) to
NPR to the
Religious News Service to
CNN, applications to
join have been going up at an even more dramatic rate.
The cascade of news stories began when Methodist minister Teresa MacBain came to the
American Atheists convention following last
Reason Rally - and made a dramatic unscheduled appearance at
the podium, to announce that she was an atheist.
"Being in a group of people with
whom I could share openly without fear of persecution gave me
the courage to come out," she told me.
"The opportunity to stand before the
crowd, come out as an atheist and share about the Clergy Project
was too good to pass up. I was at the end of my rope and I knew
it. It was now or never for me. As I walked up on that stage, I
felt fear like no other."
MacBain had been questioning her faith
since her early teens, when she came across contradictions in the
"I went to my dad for answers," she
"He simply shared that God's ways
are so much higher than our ways that we can not understand
everything in the Bible. Our response should be faith, not
doubting. He then told me that doubting was a sin. I left that
day and suppressed those questions. This practice followed me
But eventually, the questions became too
She let go of her Biblical literalism,
which at first helped resolve her doubts about Biblical
contradictions - but this soon made room for other questions to
press on her.
"Things such as theodicy [the
problem of suffering and evil], the question of hell, God's
omnipotence yet lack of intervention in heinous events, the
historicity of Jesus... all these bubbled to the surface and
demanded to be answered," she said.
"My work to answer these questions
began with the thought that as I discovered the truth, it would
create a stronger faith and give me comforting answers to those
in my church who were dealing with the same issues. Instead, the
truth I found led me away from faith."
This experience is common among members
of the Clergy Project.
Clergy people, almost by definition, are
people who take their faith seriously. They tend to think about religion
carefully. They often (although not always) study their religion
Unlike many believers, they actually
read the Bible, or
Torah, or Koran, or whatever the sacred text
of their religion is.
They think hard about questions that more casual believers are
willing to let slide. After all - that's their job.
But as many atheists will tell you, thinking carefully about
religion is exactly what led them to abandon it.
"What made you become an atheist?",
reading the Bible is one of the highest items on the list.
And when I asked Jerry DeWitt -
Recovering From Religion executive director, Clergy Project graduate
and new-member screener for CP - what kinds of ideas and experiences
most commonly lead clergy members to question and eventually leave
their faith, he answered simply,
"Religion's inability to answer for
or relieve human suffering."
Lawrence Hunter shares this experience.
A former associate minister in the Black
Pentecostal denomination Church of God in Christ, he says that a bad
"allowed me to see how life really
was instead of the fairy tale versions that are espoused every
Sunday... questions about good and evil, the Bible, marriage,
suffering, tithes, church corruption and hell filled my mind. I
realized that I needed to expand my understanding."
He adds that the failures of religion to
meet basic human needs - and the failures of church leaders to live
up to the moral standards they demanded of their flock - contributed
to his questioning.
"As a preacher," he says, "I could
see that prayers weren't healing people, despite preaching on
wealth the only people getting rich were the pastor. I could see
that many, many people were mentally disturbed and a host of
problems. Not to mention the scandals and adultery. This caused
me to look deeper and really find out the true essence of my
faith and why the holy spirit wasn't active like it supposedly
was back in the Bible days. The rest is history."
And Catherine Dunphy, one of the
original 52 members of the Clergy Project, agrees.
"I was always curious about the
Bible," she told me, "and read it, despite the fact that the
church and its priests say, 'Don't bother.' In it I found
ridiculous stories that only furthered my confusion."
Dunphy, a former Catholic, also had her
faith shaken by the widespread
child rape scandals in the Catholic
Church - and by the Church's inexplicable response to them.
"The bishop of my diocese, an
asshole named Colin Campbell, issued a statement saying that the
victims were responsible since they kept going back to the
But for Dunphy, the final nail in the
coffin of her faith was realizing that highly trained religious
authorities didn't have any better reasons for their beliefs than
"I remember how frustrated I would
become in class," she said, "given that it didn't appear to me
that my profs had any more authority than I did!... I came to
realize that we were all complicit in making this stuff up as we
For many people, questioning and
eventually abandoning religion can involve deep emotional and
Atheists commonly say that they do feel
relief, even liberation, when they finally relinquish the cognitive
dissonance that religion requires, but the process is often
difficult. This is often even more pronounced in clergy people...
who, again, tend to take religion more seriously than the average
But for clergy people, this internal struggle is only the beginning.
For clergy people, losing religion doesn't just mean asking
"How do I accept the permanence of
death?" and "What is my place in the universe?"
It means asking the question,
"How am I going to pay the rent?"
For most clergy members, coming out as
atheist means the automatic loss of their livelihood. But staying
closeted about their atheism means living a lie.
As MacBain said,
"Once I realized my faith was gone,
I began looking for a way out. My conscience nagged at me
continually but I felt that the needs of my family required that
I work my way out slowly. I took a temporary job (causing me to
work 80 hour weeks) in order to pay some bills off which would
make the transition easier. As the weeks passed, the turmoil
And clergy members who leave their faith
aren't just faced with losing their livelihoods.
They're likely to lose the stature and
respect that religious leaders are so commonly given. And while
anyone coming out as atheist can be targeted with hostility and
bigotry, the venom can get dialed up to eleven when it's a member of
When Teresa MacBain came home from the
American Atheists convention,
"The church leadership changed the
locks of the church and it took me almost two months to collect
my belongings. My email server, mail box and voicemails were
filled daily with veiled threats, hateful pronouncements of my
impending doom and downright nasty messages.
stated that he couldn't wait till he stood in heaven and looked
down at me in hell while the flesh burned off my body!"
This is exactly why the Clergy Project
was founded. In this confidential online community, members can
freely discuss the challenges they face in leaving ministry and
establishing a new life.
This involves emotional and
psychological support, of course - help wrestling with ethical and
philosophical issues that often come with becoming atheist, advice
on coming out as atheist to family and friends, and so on. But it
can also involve practical advice and support: members can share
ideas on finding a way out of the ministry and looking for new
careers, and can share resources that newcomers to atheism may not
be aware of.
Right now, the Clergy Project is primarily a peer support group. But
the organization is working to expand its scope, to provide more
tangible assistance that atheist clergy people so desperately need.
They're preparing now to launch a group
of resources that includes re-employment preparation - resume prep,
interviewing techniques, recruiting firms that will work with
members to provide leads - as well as secular counseling, working
the Therapist Project to offer services of secular counselors
who are donating their time to Clergy Project members.
And they're planning - soon, they hope -
to provide job training, short-term loans, and temporary housing for
atheist clergy members who want to leave.
But they may have their work cut out for them. Nobody knows for sure
how many clergy members are secretly atheists (or are secretly on
the fence, with serious doubts about their religion).
But almost everyone I've spoken with in
Clergy Project strongly suspects that the numbers are high - higher
than anyone would expect.
"It is definitely more common than
"My experience says it's very
common. Over 25 years of ministry I witnessed very few examples
of anything other than ministers living 'normal' lives
regardless of their supernatural claims. They have to see the
And Dunphy concurs:
"Before I discovered the
Study I thought I was some sort of oddity. I mean, who goes into
theology and comes out an atheist? It looks like a lot of
The surge of interest in the Clergy
Project would seem to bear this out.
Since Teresa MacBain outed herself at
the American Atheists convention in March, 77 new members have
joined the project - and as of this writing, there are 86 more
applicants awaiting interviews.
As MacBain says,
"This seems to indicate that there
are hundreds, if not thousands, who are trapped in the pulpit."
So what does this all mean? Why does
this matter, not just to the atheist clergy themselves, but to
anyone who cares about religion?
It matters because, if clergy members start publicly abandoning
religion, the whole house of cards could collapse.
For most believers, religion isn't something they think about very
carefully. Most believers stay with whatever religion they were
brought up with as children.
Most believers are just trying to get
on with their day-to-day lives, and if difficult or complicated
questions about their faith occur to them, they often assume that
their religious leaders know the answers... the way we assume that
pilots know how to keep airplanes in the sky.
As Lawrence Hunter said, many believers,
"are simply unable or unwilling to
do the work to read and research their beliefs and other aspects
of their lives. It's easier to be told who to believe, vote for
and buy from, etc. Religion is the balm that soothes difficult
If religious authorities start
acknowledging that they don't know, either?
If religious authorities start
acknowledging that they have the exact same questions, and
haven't found any good answers?
If religious authorities start
acknowledging that they've just been making it up as they go
If religious authorities begin
to abandon the
tacit agreement among themselves that these
questions and doubts should be kept among themselves, and
should not be shared with their followers?
If religious authorities start
saying, out loud, that the best answer they've found to
these questions is, "God doesn't exist"?
If religious authorities start
publicly abandoning their religion?
And if they start doing this in
It's going to be much, much harder for
ordinary believers to hang on to their beliefs.
I was in the audience at the American Atheists convention when
Teresa MacBain came out. It was one of the most dramatic, most
powerful moments I've experienced. There aren't that many people in
the world who have that much courage, that much integrity, that much
fierce passion for the truth.
There aren't that many people in the
world who are willing to risk losing their families, their
communities, their stature, the emotional and philosophical
foundation of their lives, even their very livelihood... because
they prioritize the truth over their personal well-being.
These people are an inspiration. Regardless of what you think of
religion or atheism, they are an inspiration. And there is clearly a
place in our society for them.
Listen to Lawrence Hunter:
"If I were a pastor, who had
complete control over my church, I would take the title of
'church' [and change it] to 'community center.' I wouldn't
preach from the bible, I would quote from numerous sources of
literature and wisdom.
As an African American I would focus
on neighborhood issues, such as poverty, lack of education and a
host of other ills.
Gone would be silly rituals of baptism and
communion. There's so much that churches can and should do to
help their communities, but choose to ignore them."
There is clearly a place in our society
for these people.
Clergy Project is trying to