Atheists in the Pulpit: The Sad Charade of the Clergy Project
- Thursday, August 30, 2012
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 were 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 example 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 atheists and secularists 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.
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