A feature ran by The Washington Post yesterday has generated a bit of discussion around a study called Preachers Who Are Not Believers by prominent atheist Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola from the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University (those familiar with “The Four Horsemen” of the new atheism will know Dennett well). The study outlines interviews with six “courageous” clergy who maintain their jobs in the pulpit while privately nursing unbelief. It is a classic modern tale of the triumph of reason and the inconsistencies and dissonances that come with the slow, inevitable drift away from faith in the modern world.
On one level, the study was fairly predictable in my opinion. I was surprised by the authors’ apparent surprise, to be honest. It doesn’t seem like much of a revelation to discover that there are clergy out there who keep their unbelief under wraps to avoid losing a comfortable job. They are human beings, after all, and human beings change their minds and do all kinds of unethical and apparently contradictory things. Setting out six pastors who happen to have responded to a request to be interviewed for a study about unbelieving clergy as either unusual or representative of a broad and inexorable trend seems a bit odd to me.
So on the one hand, I wasn’t surprised. But I was annoyed, at times, to read about how clergy who of course “knew better” than their ignorant parishioners that Jesus didn’t really rise from the dead, that science has proved that miracles are impossible, that the whole thing was just an elaborate package that had to be maintained to promote what was essentially a liberal, democratic social ethic, approached those they once promised to serve. One pastor, when asked how he deals with people who insist on talking with him about their “experiences” of God (imagine that!), had this to say: “I let them talk about it. I let it be meaningful. I don’t try to dissuade them from their opinion, or evangelize my better, broader understanding of the Lord to them.” Wow. How generous of you to “let it be meaningful” for them. What fantastic arrogance!
Having said all that, I would hasten to add that clergy are obviously not immune from doubt. And I think the study does somewhat accurately convey the isolation and loneliness that can creep in when clergy do not feel that they can talk about what they really think about this or that question of faith. It can certainly be challenging to talk about some issues with pastoral sensitivity and intellectual integrity. But the fact that it is challenging does not mean that it is not possible or that the project ought to be abandoned.
For me, doubt is a constant companion to faith, but not because I think that no reasonable person downstream of the Enlightenment could possibly believe in ridiculous stories like Moses parting the Red Sea or Jonah and the whale or a dead guy rising from the dead, or because of the “discoveries” of the quest for the Historical Jesus, or any of the myriad religious fantasies that the modern enlightened liberal claims to have moved beyond. I am prepared to accept that there are many strange and wonderful possibilities in the cosmos that I cannot begin to imagine.
My doubts often arise from much humbler origins. Like when my daughter is sniffling beside me in bed at 3 am wondering why she had another bad dream when she prayed for God to take them away. All the modern “discoveries” of the silliness and superstition of religious beliefs are no match for the silence of heaven.