How evolution is driving the clergy to atheism

Abandoning the Bible for ‘science’



Atheists have fired another salvo in their ongoing assault on the Bible and, in particular, the truth of Genesis and its importance in the creation-evolution debate.

This time it involves the recent publication of Caught In The Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind1 by Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola.

And it should dispel any doubts in the minds of Christians about how focused atheists are on highlighting how accepting the evolutionary view of the world is a major factor in people abandoning their faith in the God of the Bible.

The book is an extension of Richard Dawkins’ ‘The Clergy Project’, which has been described as “a confidential online community for active and former professional clergy/religious leaders who do not hold supernatural beliefs”.2

It chronicles the struggles of several mostly Christian church leaders who have become unbelievers, and is another sobering reminder of this not-so-surprising reality.

The authors seem to think they have exposed something that believers are unaware of and that it will bring down Christianity. What they see as a growing church exodus gives them that expectation.

The reality is that there always have been—and always will be—people who ‘lose their faith’, whether they occupy the pulpit or not. Consider, for example, Canadian (and Billy Graham colleague) Charles Templeton, whose spectacular fall from mass evangelist to unbeliever was in no small part linked to his doubts over Genesis.3

What the authors discovered from participants interviewed are several things Creation Ministries International and many thinking Christians have long pointed out. Sadly, many in the church:

  • have rejected the historicity of the Genesis account including that Adam and Eve were real people;
  • have accepted long ages and evolution as fact;
  • now deny Christ’s Deity.
And many seminaries now teach along all of those lines.

Atheist philosopher Dennett4 from Tufts University in Massachusetts, USA, is the author of several books including Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995).

His co-researcher on The Clergy Project and this book is Linda LaScola, a clinical social worker and qualitative researcher.

The foreword to the book—which is available in paperback as well as an e-publication through amazon.com—was written by antitheist Richard Dawkins.

Of the research participants, Dawkins observes:

“You are allowed opinions about football or chimney pots, but when it comes to the deep questions of existence, origins, much of science, everything about ethics, you are told what to think; or you have to parrot your thoughts from a book, written by unknown authors in ancient deserts. If your reading, your thinking, your conversations, lead you to change your opinions you can never divulge your secret. If you breathe a hint of your doubts you will lose your job, your livelihood, the respect of your community, your friends, perhaps even your family. At the same time, the job demands the highest standards of moral rectitude, so the double life you are leading torments you with a wasting sense of shameful hypocrisy. Such is the predicament of those priests, rabbis and pastors who have lost their faith but remain in post.”5
Richard Dawkins
Richard Dawkins sees clergy leaving the pulpit as a sign the church is dying.

Dawkins makes another telling comment:

“If the evidence before your eyes doesn’t support a belief, you cannot will yourself to believe it anyway.”6

But Dawkins knows that dissent within the church does not bring the same sort of backlash which even the slightest hint of questioning evolution does, as has been well documented by Dr Jerry Bergman7 and others.

“It is hard not to feel sympathy for those men and women caught in the pulpit”, Dawkins writes8 as he continues to lay out the framework of his concern for such individuals while also referring to his part in setting up The Clergy Project.

But does Dawkins feel the same sympathy for those who have lost their jobs and been ostracized by evolutionists?

Dawkins makes much of the lengths to which the project and the authors have gone to protect the doubting clergy from being exposed, and is encouraged by the growing numbers (more than 500) who are abandoning Christianity. He sees them as “the thin end of a very large wedge, tip of a reassuringly large iceberg, harbingers of a coming and very welcome tipping point, this book will be seen as—to mix metaphors yet again with pardonable glee—the miner’s canary”.9

Of course, he would hardly see more and more evolutionists abandoning materialism and turning to Christ and the Creation/Gospel message in the same light.

Of the publication, Dennett writes:

“This book is about men and women who entered the clergy with the best of motives and intentions and have come to recognize that they no longer hold the beliefs their parishioners think they do. Half of the people interviewed still have a congregation awaiting them each Sabbath, trusting them to speak the truth from the pulpit. They come from various backgrounds and have made different decisions about how to deal with their lack of belief in what they think somebody in their position ought to believe.”10

Dennett says the project’s participants believe themselves to be the tip of the iceberg:

“But they have no way of testing that conviction. In all the commentary we have provoked from experts on religion or spokespeople for religion, nobody—as far as I know—has accused us of making things up or turning a molehill into a mountain. We can say that there are at least a hundred instances, since among the more than five hundred current members of The Clergy Project there are over a hundred who still have a pulpit, still have a congregation. (The rest are all former clergy.) Since that private, confidential Web-based organization for nonbelieving clergy has grown to those numbers in two and a half years, without advertising or canvassing, we can safely surmise that there are many more clergy out there who are in the same boat but haven’t heard about The Clergy Project, or for various reasons would not want to join. Perhaps a nationwide confidential survey of clergy could give us a ballpark number, but the logistics of doing such a survey in a way that maximizes security and anonymity while screening out spurious responses is daunting indeed.”11

Along with the clergy interviewed, three seminary professors also took part. The professors pointed to the ‘scholarly’ way in which they taught students that the Bible was not inspired, Adam and Eve weren’t real people and Christ was not divine.

According to one professor:

“For some it’s unpleasant—like [the fact that] Adam and Eve did not really live. I did not think anybody could think that they really lived and ran around in Paradise—I just couldn’t have imagined that. So by now I’ve learned to be a bit more careful, just enough not to hurt people’s feelings and take them a bit more slowly into this new way of looking at the Bible.”12

Interestingly, the book includes a swipe at Dawkins by one of the clergy:

“I picked up The God Delusion [by Richard Dawkins] at the used-book store the other day, and it was the most insufferable reading I’ve ever had to endure. It’s incredibly disingenuous, if not equally as bigoted as the right-wingers. The arguments are laughable to me, and yet he’s earnest and sincere and he really believes he’s pursuing this ethical agenda. But I think he’s willfully obtuse, and it bothers me, because both sides in this debate are yelling past each other. Meanwhile, a way of life that is life-giving to me and to millions of others is completely misunderstood, mischaracterized, and ignored.”13

That same clergyman, though, embraces evolution (bold emphasis added):

“The people in my church are very intelligent. They believe in evolution. They also understand that what happens to us as we engage in prayer and worship and mythological imagination is fundamental to what it means to be human, and speaks deeply to the soul, and carries us into becoming better human beings.”14

Dennett also makes an observation that highlights the untenable position many liberal theologians put themselves in:

“Many commentators have noted a telling symmetry. Fundamentalists and other defenders of the literal truth of the Bible agree with the New Atheists on one thing: Truth claims need to be taken seriously—which means they must be evaluated as true or false, not merely interpreted as metaphors and symbols. Liberal clergy, as noted, are squeezed between these two opposing adherents of the “put up or shut up” school of interpretation. The liberals think both extremes are simplistic; it’s complicated, they say. The New Atheists have shrugged off this charge, accusing the liberal apologists of creating a pseudointellectual smokescreen to cover their retreat, and here the symmetry is extended, since that is also the opinion of many fundamentalists and other conservatives.”15

Dennett also comes to this insightful conclusion:

“Unlike their conservative counterparts, liberal denominations have made huge, socially conscious changes—performing same-sex marriages, accepting gay and women clergy, and (quietly) accepting the Bible as mythical, not factual truth. And what is their reward? They are losing membership, while the numbers of atheists and people with no religious affiliation are growing.”16

It is hard to fathom how compromising clergy process that reality and fail to make the connection to abandoning biblical truth.

One of the participants who is still involved in ministry as an Episcopal priest, but who describes himself as an atheist, has a curious way of describing believers in his congregation:

“For many, many people, belief and faith and conviction and a personal relationship with God can be apparently very helpful. I personally feel that perhaps one is not completely and fully human as long as one embraces fantasies and myths about a theistic God who’s personally involved in every aspect of one’s life. But sometimes I’ve found myself perhaps a little bit envious of those who have that certainty and unmistakable peace and joy about death and life and just manage to get through it.”17

But another of the participants clearly understands the problems with the theologically liberal position:

“My colleagues and clergy friends would ridicule fundamentalists, but at some point I came to realize they are preaching and teaching what they believe. If you read the Bible, they are actually being consistent in what they’re teaching or they’re believing. We’re the ones who are sugarcoating it and trying to contextualize it and put it in other language, and we don’t really mean what we say. And at some point, that just felt kind of mentally weak.”18

Evolution—the elephant in the room

One of the participants admitted to a compromise regarding Genesis and evolution which was similar to what others said as well:

“It seems like the obvious question: ‘Well, did evolution happen, and if it did, how does it square with the account in Genesis?’ It seems to me that that’s the elephant in the room. And what Orthodox intellectuals would do would be to consider the question so abstractly that the question was left unanswered. When I was teaching Genesis myself in seminary, I was able to perform the same kind of magic trick—a sort of distraction: ‘Well, I’m going to talk over here, and it’s all going to sound very smart, but it’s not actually addressing the question.’ In fact, the only students I ever had that did insist [on the question of evolution being addressed] was in a Sunday school class, because the kids would want an answer, and they would not allow me to get all abstract.”19

It would be easy for Christians to dismiss both the project and this book as merely a sad repository for depressing accounts about people who are no longer part of the body of faith—but that would be a mistake.

This book highlights an even sadder reality—that some of those interviewed remain in pastoral roles, professing outwardly to be Christian while inwardly disavowing that and embracing atheism.

It should spur believers to hold strong to the foundational truths of Genesis that point the world to its need of a Saviour, and to continue to support the efforts of ministries such as CMI. It should also spur believers to prayerfully endeavour to point doubters back to robust faith in Christ with a thoroughly biblical worldview.

Caught In The Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind will most likely satisfy those openly hostile to the God of the Bible, and maybe some compromising Christians, but those with a truly inquiring mind will see it for what it is, another attempt to discredit God and His Word, and to convince the world that the church is in disarray and headed for extinction.

Reading it made me want to say that if you’re fortunate enough to have a solid, Bible-believing pastor, you should seek him out and thank him for his faithfulness as a teacher of God’s Word.

Published: 24 April 2014

References and notes

  1. Dennett, Daniel C., LaScola, Linda, Caught in The Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind, Congruity, Kindle Edition, 2013. Return to text.
  2. www.clergyproject.org. Return to text.
  3. Wieland, C., Death of an apostate, Creation 25(1):6, 2002, creation.com/death-of-an-apostate Return to text.
  4. ase.tufts.edu/cogstud/dennett/ Return to text.
  5. Ref.1. (Kindle Locations 38–43). Return to text.
  6. Ref.1. (Kindle Locations 46–47) Return to text.
  7. Bergman, J., Slaughter of the Dissidents, Leafcutter Press, USA, 2008. Return to text.
  8. Ref.1. (Kindle Locations 49–50). Return to text.
  9. Ref.1. (Kindle Locations 64–65). Return to text.
  10. Ref.1. (Kindle Locations 70–73). Return to text.
  11. Ref.1. (Kindle Locations 318–330). Return to text.
  12. Ref.1. (Kindle Locations 1030–1033). Return to text.
  13. Ref.1. (Kindle Locations 1864–1870). Return to text.
  14. Ref.1. (Kindle Locations 1860–1864). Return to text.
  15. Ref.1. (Kindle Locations 1974–1979). Return to text.
  16. Ref.1. (Kindle Locations 1886–1889). Return to text.
  17. Ref.1. (Kindle Locations 1930–1935). Return to text.
  18. Ref.1. (Kindle Locations 2033–2036). Return to text.
  19. Ref.1. (Kindle Locations 2048–2054). Return to text.

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