It comes as no surprise that with greater secularisation in the West, even those who are supposed to oppose and combat unbelief have themselves fallen victim to doubt. What is unusual, though, is the number of clergy who have lost their faith and are prepared to say so openly. They are actively encouraged and assisted to leave the ministry and seek secular employment for if they remain in their posts, religion will remain strong and the problem of unbelieving clergy will persist

That clergy of the Christian and Jewish religions lose their faith is not an unusual phenomenon. Some broke completely with the religious institutions to which they belonged and accepted secular positions. Not a few of them became highly regarded freethinkers who actively promoted atheism by publishing books and giving lectures. The best known of these are the former Roman Catholic priest Joseph McCabe and the Protestant preachers Dan Barker and John W. Loftus.

What is more rare, though, is the reverse, namely highly regarded atheistic philosophers who become believers. This ostensibly happened in the case of the now deceased philosopher Antony Flew, author of the book God and Philosophy (1966). Although fundamentalists sought to portray his so-called conversion at the time as the triumph of religion over unbelief, it turned out on inspection to be much less than that. All that had happened was that Flew had traded his atheism for deism, not full-blown theism. Where believers can claim success, is in the case of physicist John Polkinghorne. He resigned his position as professor of Mathematical Physics at the University of Cambridge in 1982 to study theology at the age of 52. Today he is a priest in the Anglican Church and apparently very happy in his new position. According to him he has always felt himself called to the priesthood.

The problematic cases are those where theologians have lost their faith but remain in the ministry or teaching positions. For academics the problem is not as acute as for their counterparts who preach. They often argue, correctly I think, that they do not need to believe what they teach their students. Even so, a large number of them choose to camouflage their views and find it easier to do so than it would be for practicing clergy. Some unbelieving academics openly state why they have abandoned their faith. Bart D. Ehrman, for instance, did so as a result of the so-called Problem of Evil. See his book God’s Problem (2009) in this regard. The question of belief versus unbelief was debated by two academic theologians before a live audience and subsequently published in the book Why Believe in God (1983). Michael Goulder explains in the book that he lost his faith for the simple reason that he never experienced God’s presence. He also questions his opponent, John Hick’s, allegation that he did have such experiences. (It is interesting to note that this claim, which is often advanced as proof for the existence of God, is uniquely Protestant). A last example is the American theologian Hector Avalos. He states in the introduction to his 2012 book The End of Biblical Studies that archaeological discoveries, as well as the modern techniques of scriptural analysis such as historical, textual, form and literary criticism have all contributed to undermine his belief in the reliability of the Bible and the existence of God. He describes himself today as a secular humanist.

The largest group among the clergy who have apostatised (and probably experience their loss of faith more negatively than anyone else) are priests, ministers and rabbis who must lead their congregations in places of prayer. They find themselves in much the same position as Hasidic Jews who have lost their faith but are forced to disguise it. (See https://aeon.co/essays/secretly-seduced-by-science-hasidic-atheists-lead-a-double-life). Although clerical unbelief is not a recent phenomenon, what is unusual is a greater willingness on the part of apostates to disclose it and discuss it openly. They may have followed the lead of gays who decided to come “out of the closet”. To many people these disclosures are more shocking than those of gays. They also attract the attention of the press. A number of years ago an article appeared in a newspaper under the attention-grabbing headline: “Minister is Atheist but may Still Preach.” It told of a clergyman in the Netherlands who had been sacked by the synod after he had confessed his unbelief. Unwilling to abide by the decision, he approached the court for relief. The judge found in his favour and ordered the synod to reinstate him in his post. Although we were not informed what the reasons were for the decision of the court, one can safely assume that the applicant’s loss of income was a major consideration. Even so, one cannot help wondering whether the worshippers who had chosen to remain behind in his church after the judgement still found his sermons edifying and inspiring.

It is these kind of anomalies that led Daniel C Dennett, professor in Philosophy at Tufts University in the USA (and the author of Breaking the Spell) and Linda LaScola, a qualitative researcher, to investigate the matter. They initially reported their findings in the on-line journal Evolutionary Psychology in 2010 under the title Preachers Who are Not Believers. See http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/147470491000800113. As might be expected, the article generated a large number of comments in the press at the time. These have been collected under the title Essays: On Faith. See http://ase.tufts.edu/cogstud/dennett/papers/On_Faith_essays.pdf. I shall later return to these responses.

Dennett and LaScola have also published a book on the subject in 2015 called Caught in the Pulpit with the subtitle Leaving Faith Behind. The cover of the book shows a photograph of a clergyman in a gown from behind who is blessing his congregation with his right hand while he keeps the fingers of his left hand crossed behind his back. The portrayal in not wholly imaginary. A Lutheran cleric interviewed by Dennett and LaScola in the book admitted that he often crossed his fingers behind his back when he said something in church which he himself did not believe. In the book the authors do not only look at what subsequently happened to those that they had previously interviewed for the article, they also introduce a number of new persons to the study. They include Roman Catholic priests, Jewish rabbis and professors of theology as well as those who have already resigned or never practiced after completion of their studies.

For conservative believers these unbelieving clergy are a bunch of hypocritical heretics who are heading straight for hell, but it is on the other hand difficult for any reasonable person not to feel sorry for them. Most, if not the overwhelming majority, of them arrived at theological seminaries with stars in their eyes and a sincere desire to know more about religion so that they can administer to the needs of the faithful and convert the unbelievers. Unfortunately, however, most of the theology students know almost nothing of the Bible and get unpleasant surprises when they commence their studies. Hector Avalos for instance, mentions in his book that only 27% of those who applied to study theology in 1990 at the University of Exeter (UK) and King’s College London were able to place the following incidents in the Bible in the correct order. They are, chronologically, the deluge, exodus, king David, king Solomon and the exile. During their subsequent courses at the university they hear for the first time about the discoveries of Biblical archaeology and the modern techniques of scriptural analysis referred to above which rule out a literal exegesis and undermine the credibility of the Bible. At almost all theological seminaries students are instructed in this manner. It is only at extremely conservative institutions where attempts are made to do away with these scriptural tools.

Students counter this assault on their beliefs by “compartmentalising” the knowledge that they are taught and so try and keep it separate from their faith. In many instances their hope that it will leave then unaffected is a forlorn one. One of the former students at a Catholic seminary told Dennett and LaScola how a professor of hers had spent a whole year tearing apart the traditional proofs for the existence of God. Her attempts to compartmentalise the information was fruitless and after she she had completed her studies, she found herself a secular job.

Strange as it may sound, ministers never tell their congregation what they have been taught at university regarding the Bible. According to Dennett this is because certain rules of practice have developed over time which are scrupulously followed by clergymen. The first is that they must not act contrary to what is expected of them but must try to get along with everyone. “Don’t rock the boat”, as Dennett puts it. It is furthermore impressed upon them not to harm the belief of worshippers. In fact, one of the professors made it abundantly clear during his interview with the authors that he cautions his students against using the pulpit for teaching. “Preaching is much more about ethos and pathos arguments than it is about logos…” he explained. Apparently this is also the view of the members of the congregation because many participants in the study told Dennett and LaScola that those who attend their services have no interest in the advanced knowledge of their preacher and prefer the naive aspects of faith instead – that which makes them feel good.

There are a large number of reasons why clerics stop believing. They turn out to be diverse but also extremely commonplace. For instance, “Jack” the Baptist reported in the initial study of 2010 that he had lost his faith by simply reading through the whole Bible. That explains why the Roman Catholic Church placed Bibles which had been published in the vernacular for so many years on their index of banned books. Other reasons that were furnished were equally prosaic. A bishop in the Mormon Church accidentally came across articles on the Internet that refuted the version of the Church regarding its origin and subsequent history. That shook him and damaged his faith irreparably. An orthodox rabbi told the researchers that he started doubting after a seemingly innocent conversation with one of his congregants while a Lutheran pastor informed them that his unbelief set in when he looked for interesting information on the Internet which he could incorporate into his sermons. His discovery of Evolutionary Psychology led to other reading matter which undermined his faith severely.

Some of the theologians who participated in the study were not very religious when they enrolled in the seminary which made it easier for them to break with the church. Two Roman Catholics joined the priesthood because they were homosexual and hoped that they would not be caught out if they hide among those who condemn them. To their surprise, they discovered that a large number of priests are gay, according to their estimate more than 50%. During the time that they were in the Church, it was far too busy covering up the crimes of those prelates who had molested young children sexually, than to worry about homosexuality among its priests. (Nothing is of course said in the Bible to condemn sexual relations between an adult and a child. Homosexuality is a horse of a different colour. See for example Lev. 20:13 and 1 Cor. 6:10).

Certain themes relating to unbelief as it is experienced by liberal and conservative theologians and the way that they adapt thereto were identified by the researchers. Liberal theologians have long accepted that the Bible is largely mythical while their conceptions of God made it easier to leave the fold. But it also enabled some of them to stay in the church and to define “God” in such a way that they can claim that atheism is a myth. The former nun Karen Armstrong, for instance, once declared that “God is not a being at all” but insisted that she still believed in “God”. (Dennett and LaScola P 224). It is interesting to compare her view with that of the influential theologian Paul Tillich who claimed that “God is being-itself, not a being.” and that “God is the name for the infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of all being…” Anglican bishop John A T Robinson, for his part, defined God as “ultimate reality” and went on to say that “…one cannot argue whether ultimate reality exists. One can only ask what ultimate reality is like…” (quoted by George H. Smith in his book Atheism The Case Against God P 33 and 35). The same thing has been happening in Judaism. Since Polydox Jews no longer believe in the traditional deity, their liturgies have created new definitions for God such as ‘the power of creation’ or ‘the flow and force of life’. (Jews with Nobody to Worship, Time 20 March 1978, P 60). One clergyman interviewed by Dennett and LaScola was even more confused than that. While he denied that God is a supernatural being, he went on to say (apparently in all seriousness ) “…I am more of an atheist than you are, and yet I adore God!”

One would think that with these (outlandish) conceptions of God, liberals who apostatise would be happier than their conservative counterparts and would experience their break with religion far less traumatic. Instead Dennett and LaScola found generally the same level of unhappiness in both camps. Contrary to expectation, it is the liberal denominations who loose far more members than the conservative ones. Although they hold the liberals in low regard, the literalists are far more easily disillusioned. And while attacks from outside is not likely to change their minds, they more willing to accept well-meaning reform within their churches.

Participants were also asked by the researchers what they have gained and lost as a result of their new perspective. Most replied that they benefited from being intellectually more honest, a relief that they no longer flee from reality and are no longer constrained by absurd restrictions. Those who had preached experienced the loss of their friends and members of the congregation who had given them a sense of belonging as traumatic while their loss of status and income also affected them adversely. They were, however, encouraged by what was happening in the world. “Sherm”, an orthodox rabbi, predicted for instance the speedy disappearance of religion in the light of the availability of information and criticism of religion on the Internet. Whether that will happen is doubtful, but it is nevertheless instructive to note that according to the latest research reported in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science (January 2018) around 26% of Americans reject religion. The figures from Europe are even more startling. Surveys in Europe have shown that few young people are religious and even fewer attend religious services on a regular basis. See https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/mar/21/christianity-non-christian-europe-young-people-survey-religion

Richard Dawkins (author of The God Delusion) writes in the foreword to the book that after the initial study of 2010 he founded The Project Clergy with the aim of retraining those clerics who have lost their faith. The idea was also to help them so that they can find alternative employment. It proved, however, to be prohibitively expensive and he was forced to change tactics. What he did instead was to create a website where the unbelieving clergy can communicate in secrecy with each other. They are furthermore given moral support when they decide to leave the church or synagogue and assisted when they look for secular jobs. The number of clergy who joined the project grew in three years from 52 to 600. It is amazing how much value the apostates attach to the website. They are now, for the first time in years, able to say without fear of repercussion what they think and feel to others who find themselves in the same boat. One person told Dennett and LaScola that he visits the site three times a day. A large number of unbelieving clergy have managed to find work elsewhere but the majority, it seems, still remain in the ministry.

It comes as no surprise that both researchers and participants to the study have been criticised. (See the reaction to the initial article above.) The allegation of Willis E. Elliot that Dennett acted scandalously by launching at attack on the pastoral profession is of course nonsense. But it is probably the sentiment of many fundamentalists who are quite wrongly persuaded that research of this nature is a mischievous attempt to make religion look ridiculous. It is a pity that few of those who commented have any empathy with the clergy who were forced by circumstances to feign belief. The theologians who train students at seminaries are after all not completely innocent in the matter. They sowed the seeds of disbelief by the knowledge that they conveyed to the students.

As might be expected, many believers complain that that the unbelieving clergy are insincere and “hypocritical”. But they do not have much to complain about. Those theologians who remain in their posts still carry out their duties. They may not believe in their own sermons, but if the members of their parish are not aware of it there can be no complaints – from neither the religious organisations who employ them nor the congregation who attend their sermons. Although the situation may sound strange, it is in fact something that often happens in the the legal profession. Lawyers frequently advance arguments in court on the instructions of their clients in which they themselves do not believe and personally think are erroneous. What they believe or feel is, however, irrelevant in determining how well they have performed. Similarly, the only relevant question in the case of clergy is whether their congregation and employers are satisfied with their work. If they are, it is difficult to see how disciplinary steps can be taken against them.

Things look, however, completely different from an atheistic perspective. After all, unbelieving clergy who continue to preach for financial or personal reasons still spread pernicious rubbish and indoctrinate children, often scarring them for life. They could previously defend themselves against such accusations by claiming that their religion is true or that they sincerely believe in the truth of what they preach. But now that we know what they think, there is no excuse – they are fully aware of the harm that they do. Moreover, by remaining in the ministry, these unbelievers perpetuate the dilemma in which they find themselves. For those members of their congregation who follow their example and decide to study theology may find themselves one day in the same boat. And that, is the real tragedy of the matter.