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The Pastor’s Secret

What happens when preachers don’t believe?

At the start of John Updike’s novel in the Beauty of the Lilies, we meet the Reverend Clarence Wilmot, a Lutheran minister who has been struggling with religious doubt. In an instant, Wilmot “felt the last particles of his faith leave him,” Updike writes. “The sensation was distinct—a visceral surrender, a set of dark sparkling bubbles escaping upward.” Wilmot soon renounces the pulpit and becomes an encyclopedia salesman, his life shattered.

In the real world, one also hears reports of preachers losing faith. Some of these clergy claim to conquer their doubts, and carry on their ministries with renewed fervor. Others make the same life-shattering choice as Clarence Wilmot to abandon their calling. But one has to wonder if the passage from loss of belief to action is always as swift as it was for Wilmot. How long do such pastors wrestle with that dark night of the soul before either recovering their belief or leaving the ministry? How many of them labor on for weeks, years, even decades before resolving their crisis of faith? Nobody knows.

Nor can anybody say how many preachers belong to a third, seemingly improbable class: those who have lost their faith and never recovered it, yet never quit their posts. But we do know that such preachers exist. My research collaborator and I have met them—pastors who no longer believe in God but quietly stay on, performing the duties they were trained to do, ministering to their flock, officiating at weddings and funerals, communion services and baptisms, as if there were no problem. We have also encountered preachers who have a different, nontraditional definition of God and faith that they do not share with their congregations.

I first came across secret nonbelievers within the church when I was working on my book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Viking, 2006). In off-the-record conversations, outwardly religious people—lay church leaders or regular churchgoers—routinely confided that they didn’t believe the creed of their own church. The creed didn’t matter, they told me. What mattered was the community, and the good it could do. Learning of my experiences, Linda LaScola, a Washington, D.C., qualitative researcher, or specialist in in-depth interviews, proposed a more systematic and ambitious exploration: to find not just church leaders and supporters but pastors of congregations to engage in similarly probing confidential interviews.

Linda and I secured a research grant and sought out nonbelieving preachers. We wanted to learn what their lives were like, how they got into their predicaments, and what they hoped to achieve. By discreetly spreading the word about our project, we managed to recruit six brave volunteers (one changed her mind about participating before we published, so we ended up reporting on only five). Our pilot project was published online in February 2010, on the Washington Post/Newsweek website On Faith and subsequently in the electronic journal Evolutionary Psychology (a PDF of the article is available at bit.ly/preachers_tufts). All of our pastors appreciated the chance to talk candidly. This was, in most cases, the first time they had spoken of these matters to a living soul.

Without exception, the preachers in our study had entered the ministry in sincere good faith. They hoped to use their talents to lead a virtuous life, helping others and spreading the Gospel. “Wes” (not his real name) told us that given his Baptist upbringing in the South, it was a natural thing to do, with few other choices to consider. Another, “Rick” (who has divulged his identity publicly since our article appeared: he is Mark Rutledge, a United Church of Christ chaplain at Duke University), acknowledged that his natural curiosity about religion was enhanced by the prospect of escaping the draft during the Korean War.

All had found, by quite similar paths, that their childhood education in the creeds they were supposed to preach was seriously incomplete. In seminary, they were introduced to the scholarship that investigates the sources of the books of the Bible, the winners and losers of the political contests over which texts to admit, the compromises, the errors, the distortions. They don’t teach you that in Sunday school. For some seminarians, particularly those in more liberal denominations, these studies are fascinating and only mildly upsetting; for those raised in literalist traditions, which teach that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, such revelations can be deeply disturbing. “Wes” put it vividly:

I went to college thinking Adam and Eve were real people. And I can remember really wrestling with that when my Old Testament professor was pointing out the obvious myths and how they came to be. And I kind of joked at the time that I prayed my way all the way to atheism. Because in the early days, it was wrestling with God, praying to God.

When seminarians become disillusioned, some simply depart and find other vocations. Others compartmentalize or dismiss what they learn, focusing instead on their future roles as spiritual advisers and community leaders. Those who stay must accommodate to the gulf that can exist between what they must say from the pulpit and what they find in their heart. “Rick”/Mark said he never really had a loss of faith, since he didn’t have traditional religious beliefs at the outset. But for “Jack,” rereading the Bible as a pastor was a life-changing experience. And “Adam,” a forty-three-year-old pastor in the conservative Church of Christ in the South, told us that reading and responding to recent books by atheists played a pivotal role for him (“The book that just grabbed my mind and just twisted it around was Christopher Hitchens’God Is Not Great,” he said). Some of our pastors were suffering, some were not. Those in more liberal denominations developed work-arounds they were comfortable with, and justified their reliance on ambiguity and metaphor as part of their diplomatic effort to reeducate their flocks to a more sophisticated form of religion. “Rick”/Mark handles the delicate matter of leading the congregation in reciting the creed with this deft evasion: “When I say the creed, what I say is ‘Let us remember our forefathers and mothers in the faith who said, dot, dot, dot, dot.”

“Adam” accommodates his disbelief by treating the church service as a form of theater.

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.

With all the mental gymnastics they perform to carry out their duties, it may seem puzzling that these preachers don’t just leave. But they all have their reasons for staying, and for most it is a combination of perceived duties to their families and financial necessity. “Darryl,” a Presbyterian, said, “I provide for my family this way.” “Jack” has his wife’s feelings to consider:

She doesn’t need to hear this right now. 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. But she’s going to be first. Because I know it’s going to turn her life upside down. . . . She’s a very dedicated Christian. Very devout.

But others have found more positive grounds for staying on. “Wes,” for instance, sees himself as preserving a community where those who are on the outs with Christianity can find support:

I’m interested in community, relationships. And I believe the argument could be made that that’s what Jesus was interested in anyway. So I can do that at the local church level. And I’m also there for people who are recovering Christians. There are a lot of people out there who have been damaged by Christianity. And they feel guilty that they’re not a Christian—or that they’re not practicing. I’m their ideal pastor, because they can come to me and be told that they don’t need to feel guilty.

Even though none of the pastors has resigned from the ministry, they’ve all considered doing so. “Adam” frets about what others would think.

There have been times when I’d say, ‘You know what? I’m just going to tell everybody, and whatever happens, happens.’ And then I think, ‘Gosh, I can’t do that. I think I could handle it, but it’s other people that I’m worried about. And I think, by gosh, do I still care too much about what other people think of me or something?

“Jack,” the Southern Baptist, foresees only a bleak future if he quits.

I’m thinking if I leave the church—first of all, what’s that going to do to my family? And I don’t know. Secondly is, I have zero friends outside the church. I’m kind of a loner.

So for now, “Jack” and all the other nonbelieving pastors in our study stay on.

Illuminating as it has been, a study involving a mere handful of self-selected informants tells us nothing about how rare or common this systemic affliction is. Do 10 percent of preachers harbor secret disbelief or differing belief? Or is the figure more like 80 percent? Linda LaScola and I aim to find out.

We are gearing up for phase two—confidential interviews with a wider range of subjects (many of whom have already volunteered, thanks to the attention our pilot study has received). This time we will interview Muslims and Catholics and Mormons, among others, and will include seminary professors, as well as former seminarians and former clergy—people who have already come out of the closet. Having thereby gained a better understanding of the phenomenon, we will launch phase three, a confidential mail-back survey sent to large numbers of clergy nationwide. Only in this way can we get even a rough estimate of how widespread the phenomenon of nonbelief is among pastors.

Why is it important to discover these uncomfortable facts? First, there is the issue of honesty. Congregations have a right to know their pastors’ actual beliefs, especially if parishioners are delegating moral authority to them, as spiritual advisers. And pastors should not be put in the painful position of having to lie about their beliefs to keep their role in the community. If the problem proves to be a minor, fringe phenomenon, then perhaps it will not provoke any radical adjustments to any institutions. But if, as we suspect, it is widespread, then drawing attention to this fact could, and should, have some dramatic effects: knowing they were in good company, more preachers could be more candid. Almost all our interviewees believe that they are the tip of a large iceberg, but not having any way to check that hunch, they are left isolated and unsupported.

Another benefit of knowing the scope of the problem concerns norms of behavior: if the phenomenon is pervasive, then religious institutions can begin to discuss how nonbelieving clergy ought to act. Of the many religious leaders who have expressed their views on our first study, not one has challenged the veracity of our study or claimed that this is a negligible population of statistical outliers. They know it’s a big problem in their own churches. But in the absence of quantitative findings or rational discussion, these leaders give off-the-cuff advice that is confused and contradictory.

Most of them exhort pastors having problems of faith not to give up, to keep saying the liturgy, keep performing their duties, until faith returns. And if it never does? Well, then, you’re a “bad-faith cleric” and should be ashamed of your impostures. What a cruel trap! If you’re not sure you have lost your faith for good, you should hang in there without saying a word. If you are sure—as if that were truly possible—then you have, as one eminent adviser put it, “a simple obligation to explain that to the congregation.” Simple indeed, but just when does the obligation arise, and how does it balance with your obligations to your spouse and children? Clear answers await candid discussion.

But there is a bigger reason to care about the degree to which religious leaders believe the teachings of their religion. Over the past century or more, many churches have followed a trend away from rigid belief in the literal truth of the Bible to a more sophisticated understanding of religious principles. I’m reminded of a holiday ritual that many households have experienced: setting out the cookies and milk for Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. The older kids surely know the truth by now, but they delight in joining the grownups in the harmless conspiracy for the benefit of their younger siblings. And so, year after year, the snacks are left for Santa—and eyebrows are raised, but nobody ever says a word about the happy charade. Something similar is happening in many churches, as a literal understanding of Scripture gives way to more layered, metaphorical interpretations. The lives of the pastors who are the masters of ceremonies are now fraught with dilemmas. When is it acceptable to tamper with a congregation’s beliefs and when should one button one’s lip? When does one cross the line separating diplomacy from soul-crushing hypocrisy? Different denominations deal with this issue differently. Some have made a quite graceful transition to a frankly expressed acknowledgment that literal truth is not the heart—or the point—of religious observance. For instance, liberal Episcopalians have a creed, but there is no strict requirement to believe it literally. Other denominations have not yet started down that path, and are actively resisting it.

Once we know more about the lives of the pastors who must negotiate this slippery slope, it might be easier to guide the inevitable evolution of religion in the twenty-first century. I often note that religion worldwide has changed more in the last hundred years than in the last thousand, and perhaps it will change more in the next decade or two than in the last century. Such rapid changes are likely to bring confusion and suffering. But a better understanding of the hidden costs and pitfalls of these transformations could ease the pain.

Learn more about Dennett’s and LaScola’s research at bit.ly/dennett_homepage.

DANIEL DENNETT, the author of Breaking the Spell (Viking, 2006), Freedom Evolves (Viking Penguin, 2003), and Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (Simon & Schuster, 1995), is a University Professor, the Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy, and codirector of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University.

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