Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Is Your Pastor an Atheist?

As a former Christian of a fairly moderate/liberal denomination that didn't actively preach against homosexuality, women's rights, or the evils of science, my memory of what was actually taught was along the lines being thankful for what you have, helping others, and other such ideals that, quite frankly require no supernatural parental figure.


And while I went to Sunday school for the first 16 years of my life, I couldn't say that I was ever really made aware in a meaningful way of what the Bible actually had to say about morality.  The most greusome and what I now consider disgusting parts of the Bible were either not presented or were couched in apologetics.


But one of the things that began my liberating journey to godlessness was a re-reading of the Bible without any assumption of divine infallibility.  I wish I could say I've read the whole thing, but with the internet, it is quite easy to find extensive critiques of it.


I think, as others have also observed, that the more one reads the Bible, the more likely they are to lose their faith.  Consider these particularly despicable passages:
1 Samuel 15:3 - This is what the Lord Almighty says... ‘Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey. 
Psalm 137:9 - Happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us – he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.
1 Peter 2:18 - Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the cruel.
Ephesians 5:22 - Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.
Genesis 22:2 - Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt-offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.
The more you read, the more you realize that whoever wrote these words was a complete asshole by today's standards.  Clearly the standards of two thousand years ago were much lower.  If anything positive can be concluded from this fact, its that humanity seems to have come, however slowly, to value equality and peace more as civilization has advanced  (which I would contend is a result of a greater understanding of the natural world to develop modern medicine and economic stability - but that is another posting).


Certainly for an average churchgoing Christain who had only read small portions of the Bible uncritically, one can easily see how the hateful, mysoginistic, vengeful teachings of the Bible could escape scrutiny.  I imagine that for many casually religious people the continued identity as a Christian is merely a function of habit rather than any deep conviction.


But what about those that have professed such a deep conviction to their faith that they have dedicated their life and career to it?  Imagine all the study of the Bible and the philosophies that have sprung out of it and the history of the influence it has had on civilization; imagine what a seminary student goes through.


The reason I bring this up is because Tufts Philosopher and New Atheist, Dan Dennett and Linda LaScola published an essay of Preachers Who are Not Believers [pdf].  The essay seeks to answer the question of if there are clergy who don't believe in god.  And not just if there are former clergy - but currently practicing clergy. 


The essay presents five anonymous (for obvious reasons) currently practicing pastors who identify as 'non-believers'.  Based on the interviews presented in this essay, these non-believing pastors seem to believe that they are just the tip of the iceberg.  Of course, with only five data points it is impossible to draw any conclusions about the prevalence of non-believers in the pastoral ranks.  But  the Clergy Project, which launched in March 2011, has as of October 2011, nearly 100 members (after screening to ensure authenticity and by invitation only) of active and former clergy.  You can read interviews with the members here, which are quite fascinating.


One can only imaging the internal turmoil of having given your life to your faith only to find that you don't have faith.  And not only do you not have faith, but outside of profession your false faith, you have no marketable skills in the workforce.  Yet you have a wife and two kids to care for.  How can you possibly reconcile your profession of faith where perhaps hundreds of people look to you as a person of faith with your personal lack of faith?


From the essay:
Wes, age 42, has been the pastor of a liberal Methodist church in the Northwest for 10 years. He has a 10 year old son and is married to a schoolteacher who shares his views about religion. Wes and his wife are raising their son to recognize that Bible stories are not factual:
And so when we talk to him about Bible stories, we remind him constantly that these are just stories. These are stories; think about them in no different way than you would any other stories.
 Here's another interesting excerpt:
Darryl is a 36 year old Presbyterian minister with a church outside of Baltimore. He is married and has three young children. After an initial phone conversation about the study, he sent an email further explaining his desire to participate. In it, he wrote: 
We are not “un-believers” in our own minds – but would not withstand a strict “litmus test” should we be subjected to one. I want to see this new movement within the church given validity in some way. 
I reject the virgin birth. I reject substitutionary atonement. I reject the divinity of Jesus. I reject heaven and hell in the traditional sense, and I am not alone. 
"Jack" the Baptist minister is very straightforward in his assessment of Christianity -"...Christianity, for me, is just a bunch of bunk."
About 10 years ago, he decided to read through the Bible very carefully. He did this completely on his own, as a way to get closer to his faith. However, his study has had the opposite effect:
The pursuit of Christianity brought me to the point of not believing in God. Not that somebody did something mean to me. Let me tell you; ain’t nothing anybody did in a church can compare to what my parents did to me, OK?

I didn’t plan to become an atheist. I didn’t even want to become an atheist. It’s just that I had no choice. If I’m being honest with myself. 
I’ve just this autumn, started saying to myself, out loud, “I don’t believe in God anymore.” It’s not like, I don’t want to believe in God. I don’t believe in God. And it’s because of all my pursuits of Christianity. I want to understand Christianity, and that’s what I’ve tried to do. And I’ve wanted to be a Christian. I’ve tried to be a Christian, and all the ways they say to do it. It just didn’t add up.
The love stuff is good. And you can still believe in that, and live a life like that. But the whole grand scheme of Christianity, for me, is just a bunch of bunk. 
This part is classic - Jack again:
Well, I think most Christians have to be in a state of denial to read the Bible and believe it. Because there are so many contradicting stories. You’re encouraged to be violent on one page, and you’re encouraged to give sacrificial love on another page. You’re encouraged to bash a baby’s head on one page, and there’s other pages that say, you know, give your brother your fair share of everything you have if they ask for it.
But if God was going to reveal himself to us, don’t you think it would be in a way that we wouldn’t question?... I mean, if I was wanting to have ... people teach about the Bible ... I would probably make sure they knew I existed.... I mean, I wouldn’t send them mysterious notes, encrypted in a way that it took a linguist to figure out. 
Earlier I mentioned the difficulties of going through seminary and learning the historical implications of Christianity and how the Bible was actually assembled and who wrote the various disparate chapters.  The essay explains [emphasis added]
A gulf opened up between what one says from the pulpit and what one has been taught in seminary.  
Every Christian minister, not just those in our little study, has to confront this awkwardness, and no doubt there are many more ways of responding to it than our small sample illustrates. How widespread is this phenomenon? When we asked one of the other pastors we talked with initially if he thought clergy with his views were rare in the church, he responded, “Oh, you can’t go through seminary and come out believing in God!” Surely an overstatement, but a telling one. As Wes put it:
...there are a lot of clergy out there who --- if you were to ask them --- if you were to list the five things that you think may be the most central beliefs of Christianity, they would reject every one of them.   
What a tragic state of affairs that one, with all the best intentions, could commit themselves to years of scholarship only to learn that the underlying assumption of the divinity of the Bible - indeed of god's very existence - is shown to be completely false.  And that others had come to this same conclusion but could not, out of concern for their own livelihood, give young aspiring pastors a warning that they are on a dead-end road.


When a belief system is dependent on unquestioning belief and lack of critical thought, there is no correcting mechanism.   In contrast the central and perhaps most important aspect of science, a process which has been unparalleled in its success in bringing new insights civilization, is that it thrives on critical examination by peers to dispose of failed ideas and to explore promising ones - as determined by evidence and replication.  This is the tragic lesson of religion and faith - without critical examination of its claims it cannot progress on its own.  I would argue that the progress that has been brought about in religion has been the result of non-religious forces.  But by lacking any room for questions, religion creates a trap for those who want to leave but are financially dependent on perpetuating its myths.

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