Losing their religion

AtheismImagineThe January/February issue of Psychology Today features a 5,000 word story, ostensibly on clergymen who lose their faith. While you have to get a copy of the dead tree version to read the whole thing, you can read the first few hundred words here. Having just finished writing a history of atheism for another magazine, I was excited to read the piece. The story alleges that there is a growing spiritual struggle for ministers, priests and rabbis. And this spiritual struggle -- toward atheism -- is despite "encroaching fundamentalism." The use of such an imprecise phrase probably tells you what you need to know about how well reporter Bruce Grierson handles this weighty topic.

One of Grierson's examples is a woman who is not a pastor and never went to seminary. Her husband is a pastor. She told some story about wishing people would have considered her a pastor when her husband became a missionary in Africa. Another is a Lutheran chaplain who was raised Roman Catholic and was an atheist for 25 years before a midlife change of heart that apparently didn't stick. Another is a bona fide atheist in the pulpit -- but it's a Unitarian pulpit that has no problem with her beliefs. And despite the promise, no rabbis are mentioned in the article.

In other words, the examples from the story do a horrible job of making Grierson's case that there's an epidemic of clergy struggling with atheism. Here's a bit about the Lutheran who is pseudonymously identifed as the Rev. James McAllister:

A second-career minister-for most of his life he was a graphic designer and a fine artist--McAllister approaches the Big Questions more in the manner of a scholar than of a monk. (Even as a Catholic grade-school kid, he recalls, he hungered for real evidence. "Why," he would ask the nuns, "did this stuff all happen so long ago before there were cameras and TVs? Why aren't there prophets and holy people and miracles now?") A year ago, frustrated with his denomination but by no means ready to bail out, he picked up Sam Harris's book The End of Faith. He found he "agreed with about 98 percent of it."

He picked up other books in the neo-atheist canon. He read Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion, and then the one-two punch of Christopher Hitchens's mega-bestselling God Is Not Great and his earlier Letter to a Christian Nation. He closed the latter book and found himself saying, aloud, "Amen."

Didn't this chaplain's questions get any more substantive since he was in grade school? I'm a pretty serious doubter -- that is my spiritual struggle -- and this article was deeply disappointing. It doesn't seem to scratch the surface of doubt and its psychological ramifications. I mean, Dawkins is an entertaining writer but I tend to agree with the reviewer who said The God Delusion read like an undergraduate diatribe. Hitchens is an even more entertaining writer but God Is Not Great was riddled with errors and wasn't serious.

I can't help but think struggles with doubt are widespread among the clergy. It's a great idea for a story. Why must this story have been so weak?

Part of it, I think is that it doesn't really engage doubt apart from full on atheism. I think many interesting stories about doubt come from folks who have experienced it but not necessarily succumbed to it. Grierson doesn't mention a single person who would fit in that category. Part of it might just be that many of the people quoted seem not to be very thoughtful atheists.

The Lutheran, by the way, is sticking around in part because he owes his church $18,000 for his schooling. That led to the most interesting piece of news in the article:

Richard Dawkins is convinced that McAllister's situation is common; in fact, he hopes one day to address it through "clergyman-retraining scholarships," set up through his charitable foundation, to "bridge the gap between living a lie and getting a new life," as he puts it.

I wonder whether there are any funds within the religious community for pastors who are experiencing doubt. Far more common than leaving religious belief for unbelief is leaving one confession of faith for another. Do any denominations or religious bodies make provisions for people who are struggling with leaving a church body for any reason? That would have been an interesting angle to explore.

Instead we get condescension. Grierson interviews Dan Barker, a former charismatic Pentecostal who said he received the call to preach at the age of 15. Later:

He began reading widely outside the Christian canon: science magazines, psychology, philosophy. It was the liberal-arts education he never had, and what followed was "a slow but steady migration across the theological spectrum" that took about five years. (Among the deeply faithful, doubt is often first stoked with exposure to the "outside world.")

What a joke. As if Christians only have faith because they don't read anything but the Bible. This is just not a serious exploration of doubt. It seems like what religious doubt might look like to an atheist. Having said that, Barker's story is one of the more interesting in the article. He actually has a full-fledged deconversion experience out in nature. And now he heads the Freedom from Religion Foundation in Madison, Wisconsin.

Here was an intriguing, if overwritten, part of the article -- one that I wish was more representative: AtheistBooks

The sense of cold finality, the impression that one's prayers are just so many tennis balls served into the ocean: Such existential issues are a big part of anybody's crisis of faith. But for religious leaders, the stakes are raised even further, for faith is no longer a private matter.

"As a clergyman your livelihood is not just a job--it's a whole theological system that you'd better be on board with," says Dick Hewetson, a 77-year-old former Episcopal minister from Minnesota who left the church to do secular work and soon called himself an atheist.

"It hit me during those last couple of years in the pulpit that everything coming out of my mouth was being taken as gospel" he says. "I began to think, This is crazy. If I tell these people something, they believe me. Remember Jonestown? People asked, How could that happen? Well, I know how. I wasn't the Jim Jones type, and my people weren't the Jonestown type. But I was the shepherd and they were the sheep, for sure."

Some pastors would probably pray for a congregation that would be so receptive. A brief mention of Carl Jung only highlights another feature that is lacking from the article -- historical perspective. One of the things I found so interesting about the history of atheism is how frequently it was advanced -- intentionally or unintentionally -- by theologians and clergy. James Thrower, among others, has written extensively about this. I suppose the mention of the Unitarian openness to atheism shows some of how this works but I suspect that there is more institutional support of unbelief, much less doubt, than the article indicates.

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