Atheists in the pulpit—the sad charade of the Clergy Project
Published: 5 September 2012 (GMT+10)
“It is hard to think of any other profession which it is so near to impossible to leave.” That is the judgment of Richard Dawkins, perhaps the world’s most famous living atheist, as he welcomes unbelieving pastors to join the Clergy Project, a group designed to help unbelieving pastors make their way out of the ministry. Apparently, some are not moving out very fast.
Dawkins explains that the Clergy Project “exists to provide a safe haven, a forum where clergy who have lost their faith can meet each other, exchange views, swap problems, counsel each other—for, whatever they may have lost, clergy know how to counsel and comfort.” Dawkins, who once held one of the world’s most coveted academic posts, has now reduced himself to addressing small gatherings of atheists and celebrating a motley crew of pastors who have abandoned the faith—even if some have not abandoned their pulpits.
The Clergy Project’s own statement is even more blunt, describing itself as “a confidential online community for active and former clergy who do not hold supernatural beliefs.” Most people, believers and unbelievers alike, are no doubt in the habit of thinking that the Christian ministry requires supernatural beliefs. That assumption is what Richard Dawkins and the Clergy Project want to subvert. More precisely, they want to use the existence of unbelieving pastors to embarrass the church and weaken theism.
This past Sunday, The New York Times Magazine told the story of Jerry DeWitt, once a pastor in DeRidder, Louisiana and later the first ‘graduate’ of the Clergy Project. He is now the executive director of a group known as Recovering from Religion, based in Kansas. DeWitt told the magazine of his struggle as an unbelieving pastor. “I remember thinking,” he said, “Who on this planet has any idea what I am going through?”
As the story unfolds, DeWitt tells of being the pastor of a Pentecostal church. What readers will also discover, however, is that even by the time he assumed the pastorate, DeWitt “espoused a more liberal Christianity.” Though he never earned a college degree, he educated himself by reading authors such as Carl Sagan, an atheist astronomer, and Joseph Campbell, a proponent of the mythological. Later, he read Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, key figures in the New Atheism. By the time he had read Dawkins and Hitchens, “even weak-tea Christianity was becoming hard to follow.”
When he found that he could no longer pray for his own parishioners or preach a coherent message, DeWitt resigned, preaching his last sermon in Cut and Shoot, Texas in April 2011. Now he travels the country organizing Recovering from Religion local chapters and working with the Clergy Project.
The magazine also told of Teresa MacBain, once a Methodist preacher in Tallahassee, Florida and now another trophy of the Clergy Project. The magazine simply states that MacBain “resigned from her pastor’s position in Tallahassee and went public as an atheist.” That is a very strategic example of under-reporting the story. As National Public Radio reported, MacBain first told just about everyone but her church of her atheism.
“I am currently an active pastor and I’m also an atheist,” she said. “I live a double life. I feel pretty good on Monday, but by Thursday—when Sunday’s right around the corner—I start having stomachaches, headaches, just knowing that I got to stand up and say things that I no longer believe in and portray myself in a way that’s totally false.”
Of course, she didn’t have to say such things at all. She could have resigned and spared herself and her church the hypocrisy. MacBain told NPR of her experience with mounting doubts, and then of her ‘eureka moment’ when she realized, ‘I’m an atheist. … I don’t believe.’
On March 26, 2012, she stood before the American Atheists convention in Bethesda, Maryland and told the 1,500 attendees, “My name is Teresa. I’m a pastor currently serving a Methodist church—at least up to this point—and I am an atheist.” As NPR reported, the crowd hooted and clapped for more than a minute.
NPR and The New York Times Magazine attempt to portray MacBain and DeWitt as victims. MacBain presents herself as unnerved by the fact that her church fired her and did not appreciate her declaration of atheism behind their backs at a convention hundreds of miles away.
The Clergy Project and similar efforts are rooted in a 2010 study undertaken by Daniel C. Dennett and Linda LaScola of Tufts University. Dennett is one of the major figures in the New Atheism. He argues that belief in God once served an important evolutionary purpose, but does so no longer. Religious belief, he argues, is a vestigial remnant of our evolutionary past that modern humanity must overcome. He is hardly a neutral and dispassionate observer.
Nevertheless, Dennett and LaScola conducted and published a study known as “Preachers Who Are Unbelievers.” In that study, a small sampling of atheist or unbelieving pastors was considered, along with five representative profiles. These pastors clearly are not believers, at least in any orthodox or recognizably Christian sense. They spoke openly and in considerable detail about their unbelief, with the ministers explaining how they had abandoned any confidence in biblical Christianity.
Why didn’t they just resign? Most shockingly, some openly spoke of losing their salaries as the main concern. So much for intellectual honesty.
Dennett and LaScola made a very interesting and important observation in their research report. They acknowledged that defining an unbelieving pastor is actually quite difficult. Given the fact that so many liberal churches and denominations already believe so little, how is atheism really different? In the name of tolerance, the liberal denominations have embraced so much unbelief that atheism is a practical challenge.
In the words of Dennett and LaScola: “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 believe in God, many people could sincerely say that they don’t know what they are being asked.”
The Clergy Project gets to the point more concisely, defining its membership as ‘active and former clergy who do not hold supernatural beliefs.’ Nevertheless, this definition suffers from the same problem. Many liberal ministers hold to no supernatural beliefs, but they also tenaciously hold to their pulpits without admitting atheism.
The Clergy Project is a parable of our times, but it is also a pathetic portrait of the desperation of many atheist and secularist groups. They are thrilled to parade a few trophies of unbelief, but do they really believe that these examples are serving their cause? They celebrate a former Pentecostal preacher with no education, who was already a theological liberal when called to his church, and who then educated himself by reading Sagan, Dawkins, and Hitchens. Seriously?
The Clergy Project is a magnet for charlatans and cowards who, by their own admission, openly lie to their congregations, hide behind beliefs they do not hold, make common cause with atheists, and still retain their positions and salaries. Is this how atheist and secularist groups intend to further their cause? They are getting publicity from the media to be sure, but do they think it will win them friends?
Ministers struggling honestly with doubts and struggles are in a different category altogether. Doubt will lead to one of two inevitable consequences. Faithful doubt leads to a deeper embrace of the truth, with doubt serving to point us into a deeper knowledge, trust, and understanding of the truth. Pernicious doubt leads to unfaithfulness, unbelief, skepticism, cynicism, and despair. Christians—ministers or otherwise—who are struggling with doubt need to seek help from the faithful, not the faithless.
Christianity has little to fear from the Clergy Project. Its website reveals it to be a toothless tiger that will attract media attention, and that is about all. The greater danger to the church is a reduction in doctrine that leaves atheism hard to distinguish from belief. And the real forces to fear are those who would counsel such a reduction.
- http://www.albertmohler.com/2012/08/29/atheists-in-the-pulpit-the-sad-charade-of-the-clergy-project/, 29 August 2012. Return to text.
They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us. NIV
BUT! Our GOD is gracious and full of compassion, even towards them if they repent.
This shows what a business some churches have become, with events and salaried staff who may fear redundancy like any other worker, and actors for pastors. I have known ministers who have quit and lived by faith because they had a problem with some matter in their particular church. Although Seventh Day Baptist ministers are unsalaried for other reasons I think that keeps them honest in the pulpit, not subject to the will of a paymaster (elders or congregation) and unless they had time to waste they would not keep on doing something they no longer believed in.
I am concerned for these ‘pastors’ that have turned from their faith. I pray that God has mercy on them. If they are actually saved and have just “forgotten that they were purged from their old sins”, then God will deal with them. We must pray for them.
This really has to be the lowest that atheism has gone. Attacking unbelieving pastors in order to behead the church is pretty base. I really don’t understand why these Christians find it so hard to believe what the Bible says. I am 21 years old and a senior science education major. I have kept up with creation literature for almost 10 years now. It’s not hard to believe! It is very reasonable and logical. Also, how can reading Sagan and others tear you from your faith? I purposefully read astronomy and physics books that discuss the Big Bang, and I don’t waver. I guess it’s a matter of “want to”. They don’t want to believe and fight for what’s right. They just want to give in. They really need our prayers.
An interesting and sad commentary on those who have deliberately abandoned their faith (if indeed they made a genuine profession for Christ in the first place). I myself suffered a crisis of faith not so long ago. I spoke with other Christians, read Scripture, and came to the realization (again) that God has never promised that we won’t face difficulties; He told us that we would face suffering and hardship—all the more because of our faith. Over the years I have spoken to many ‘one time’ Christians. They will say “I used to be a Christian, but …” What crosses my mind is that they never truly were in a relationship with God through Christ. The Holy Spirit was never in them. There will come a time when they stand before their Creator and He will tell them, “I never knew you.” That, I think, is perhaps one of the greatest tragedies of all—to be so close to salvation, but to miss it altogether.
I have trouble feeling sorry for people who hire ministers with no education in theology. Anyone who is charismatic enough to convince people God called them to be a minister is qualified in many churches. … When I question this practice they tell me the seminaries are too liberal, they have a point but not a reason. Since many seminaries are corrupt you must educate yourself on the ones who are not.
The qualifications to be a cult leader and a preacher of the Gospel should not be identical IMHO.
Graham D: What a common remark from someone who has no idea of what Christianity is. Sure I'm the first to admit the failings of Christians, myself included. Thank God I’m not the example, nor any other Christian.
The lord Jesus Christ is the example.
Could you tell me Graham D just what he taught was so wrong. When he said we should love our enemies,treat others as we would like to be treated,and to forgive one another, do you find that a problem?
Could the problem your having with Jesus is that he taught we should take care of children, for such is the kingdom of God he stated. Maybe it’s his teaching on looking after the poor in our midst. You do have something in common with Jesus though Graham D, and that’s the dislike of religious hypocrites.
Note also, Jesus’ dislike of religious hypocrites was failure to live up to good standards, not a criticism of the standards. If hypocrisy is less common among atheists, it’s only because they have no objective standards to live up to! (See Evolutionist: it’s OK to deceive students to believe evolution.) But by the same token, they also lack an objective reason to believe that hypocrisy is wrong. See also ‘Christianity must be wrong because of all the hypocrites in the church!’
An article that highlights the unhelpful and evasive comments from fellow Christians; such as “Creation vs Evolution” is non-essential, non-relevant, and a non-issue for a Christian. Jonathan Sarfati’s comment regarding “doubt” (James 1:6) is helpful and also (Hebrews 11:6) shows why—CMI’s ministry is very relevant against a non-biblical worldview that is now in the Church.
I am having a hard time relating to this ‘doubting’ issue. I am 61 and was saved at 23. I have never doubted my salvation or the Word of God. I have been active in my local church serving and volunteering in many capacities over the years. God has blessed me. Despite a tough life and issues with a bi-polar non-believing son today, I love God and pray for his grace for my son. I will not give up. To me these ‘pastors’ were never saved and filled with the Holy Spirit to begin with or they would not reach the point those mentioned in the article have reached. The Church is full of actors at many levels for various reasons. It is just a travesty when it is happening at the top.
So these cheats were stealing hard-earned dollars from Christians in their church while lying to them about what they really did believe. Isn’t that, fraud, embezzlement?
Since they’re not Christian, and putting aside forgiveness and “Is it worth the trouble?”, the churches involved would be entirely justified to pursue these wolves in court for recovery of the stipends paid. It may set a precedence and deter future thieves from entering or make apostates admit their loss of faith earlier rather than in front of an audience of unbelievers.
Does Mr. Dawkins also reach out to Muslim, and if so does he do it publicly ? Thanks Tom.
Interesting question, which I think is answered in this quote by Dawkins in Christianity: “a bulwark against something worse”.
To Graham D., Australia: You said, “… a detriment to education and a force for evil” regarding the church. This makes no sense. How can something be evil without God?
Well, I’m certainly not surprised by this. When ‘Christians’ and ‘Christian denominations’ begin to accept the things of the world and claim the Bible is out-dated, then it seems like it is only a matter of time before atheism sets in.
This is very similar to a theistic evolutionist, whose beliefs are virtually indistinguishable from an atheistic evolutionist.
I hope this serves as a reminder to Christians to why we need to be consistent in our beliefs. We can’t say one part of the Bible can be trusted, but the parts that deal with origins, or sexuality, etc can’t be trusted anymore. Because once we go down that path, it is only a matter of time before we question the validity of the Bible itself and even the very existence of God Himself.
And, the actions of these atheistic ministers is revealing in another way: if atheism is true, then why do they feel any guilt at all when they live their double lives? Why do they feel what they do is ‘wrong’ when in an atheistic world view, there is no such thing as ‘wrong’? They may suppress the truth with their words, but their actions show that they do believe God exists.
It’s a shame that Dawkins stoops so low as to try to make media gain from something that happens all time and has for the last 2000 years. Jesus told us that there would be those where the seed fell in shallow ground or amongst the thorns. These people like to see each person leaving the Church as a personal victory however it would be interesting to see how many atheists turn to God compared to how many lose their faith. It is getting more and more fasionable for celebreties, pop stars, Scientists and the media to mock God and the followers of Jesus and the Lord did warn us the world would hate us because of him. I recently became aware that the British comdedian, actor and writer Ricky Gervais has declared war on Religion (he really means Christians) and is supporting the myths of evolution and saying creation should not taught in schools.
I’m not sure why this is surprising given the fact that Scripture is being fulfilled right before our very eyes. It is sad to see those whom once had faith come to a realization they never truly believed in the first place. But these things have been foretold and I am persuaded will get even more rampant as the last days come to a close. We who profess the faith need now more than ever to be real with one another and mutually encourage eachother just as Paul spoke of. These are dark times but the Truth will still be shining forth. Do not be disheartened. Our Master and Creator promised that the gates of Hell will not prevail against us. Keep the Faith. Love God, Love those who are perishing and continue to speak the Truth.
There is a very simple principle: “So faith comes from hearing” (Romans 10:17). This is true for the truth itself (the word of God) but it is also true for lies. People who open their ears and their hearts to lies start believing those lies.
My heart bleeds after reading this article. This generation desperately need some Elijah.
I think you may be a little too harsh on Christian preachers who become atheists. Don’t get me wrong, I agree that their actions are hypocritical and cowardly. But, I think that losing your faith while you are preaching the faith is a difficult position to be in. You are aware that a lot of people have placed their trust in you, including your congregation and, possibly, even your friends and family, so you know that the announcement, itself, will disappoint a lot of people. You may be accused of being a hypocrite and a liar. The thing is that the changing of one’s beliefs is a process that takes time. It may difficult to know when you have crossed the point where you need to talk to someone else in the church. It may that you don’t feel comfortable talking to anyone in the church. it may be that people you feel you can talk to are other atheists.
But, these reasons for not being forthcoming ARE NOT excuses, but reasons for us to be sympathetic to their plight. After all, struggling with doubt is difficult enough. Haven’t we all struggled with it? If we are to see these preachers brought back into the fold, we must treat them with love and sympathy, as well as treating their actions with judgment.
The real hypocrisy and lies are from those who attack doctrines they have sworn to defend, especially while drawing stipends from those who want those doctrines defended. A problem is that these types don’t want to come back to the fold.
About doubt, to support what Dr Mohler said in his second-last paragraph, we have said elsewhere (in response to a critic):
But what is the function of doubt? I doubt some things, but I don’t shrug my shoulders and remain content with the doubt. Questions are meant to have answers. To remain doubtful indefinitely is like refusing to eat because one thinks hunger is a virtue. Martin Luther once told a doubter, ‘Don’t worry, your doubts are the best sign of your faith because if you didn’t really deep down believe, you wouldn’t bother to doubt and worry about it.’ Indeed, doubt may lead to resolution, e.g. the firm confession of Jesus as Lord and God by ‘doubting Thomas’ (John 20:24-29; note that neither this passage nor any other identifies biblical faith with credulity, or disparages logic). However, this is different from doubt of Christianity for its own sake (James 1:6). And you evidently have no doubt that evolution is true!
These apostate pastors don’t seem to want the answers, which are really very easy (just invite a CMI speaker to the church!). They remind me of an article, “With a Little Help from Your Friends’”, by Dr J. Budziszewski, professor of Government and Philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin and author of How to Stay Christian in College, where he relates the following:
I will never forget a young woman who told me during office hours that she felt she was losing her faith. Her radical feminist teachers could see nothing in Christianity but “patriarchy”, and she couldn’t find Christian replies. It didn’t take long to discover why she couldn’t find them. She wasn’t looking. And it seemed to me that she wasn’t so terribly attracted to radical feminism either. She pictured herself as struggling to hold on to her faith despite superior arguments against it. The truth was that she was looking for an excuse to lose her faith, exposing herself exclusively to the most anti-Christian influences she could find.
It reminded me of how I had used various ideologies to rationalize my own flight from faith at her age. I was so sure that I was intellectually convinced by the case against Christ, but the reasons that convinced me had little to do with the intellect.
The reasons students find it difficult to keep faith in college are much the same as the reasons other Christians have found it difficult to keep faith in other times and places. These temptations are endemic to a fallen world, and the university is no exception.
Any belief weak enough to be challenged by the likes of Hitchens and Dawkins couldn’t have been very strong to begin with. The person possessing it would have had to be willingly seeking excuses to discard it.
Besides, atheism is not a lack of belief as its followers claim it to be. It is merely the belief in whatever can be put in the place of the Creator.
This is no supprise to any real Christian, because we understand Christianity is the one faith you cannot inherit. Unless you have made a personal decision to follow God, but simply acting out your parents, or your surrounding society faith, your ‘faith’ has no foundation, and will be washed away soon after it meets any trouble. These ‘clergy’ turned to man for advice rather than the word of God, I think that says it all. It makes me laugh when people say you’re only a Christian because of your parents, wrong. If I was looking at my parents, or fellow Christians around me to be or stay a Christian, then I would have lost my faith years ago, it is by keeping my eyes on Christ that keeps me a Christian, despite the many worldly disadvantages of being a christian, like all the laws that are being passed against my faith.
Whatever do you mean “they want to use the existence of unbelieving pastors to embarrass the church and weaken theism.”?
The church is already an embarrassment to humanity, a detriment to education and a force for evil. To sum it up, it is a dead-weight to the progress of society.