Maintaining Perspective As A Vocal Atheist


I ran across what I felt was a really interesting article about something I have never really thought about - clergy who don't believe.

The article referenced a report written by Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola of Tufts University, and thankfully provided a link. I thought this study was really interesting and I encourage every atheist out there who has little personal experience with religion to read it, to get a better idea of the reality of religiosity for a lot of people.

Here's an excerpt:

How on earth did we recruit them? By spreading the word discreetly. Eighteen people were contacted to participate between September 2008 and April 2009. Initial recruiting attempts were made via personal contacts (e.g., clergy and seminary acquaintances, non-believing clergy who had retired or left the profession). When approached, potential respondents were told that the intent was to “learn more about the issues that clergy face when their beliefs are not in synch with church teachings.” Dennett mentioned the study at conferences he attended. Ultimately, the five participants came from two sources: two from a list of clergy who had originally contacted the Center for Progressive Christianity (TCPC) for general information, and three from people who had personally contacted Dan Barker, co-director of the Freedom from Religion Foundation. Barker is a former minister and author of two books about losing his religious beliefs. Jim Adams, a retired Episcopal priest, author and the founder of TCPC, provided a list of 28 names. Of those, nine were contacted and two of the nine participated in the study. Four people contacted Dan Barker directly. Of those, two agreed to participate. One contact who was a former clergyman, and therefore not eligible to participate, referred a colleague who then agreed to participate. Three women who expressed interest were not asked to participate: one because she was no longer in a pastoral role and two because their denominations were already represented in the study. Four men declined to participate: two did not follow up after showing initial interest; two others cited concerns about the term “non-believing.” Though neither of them believed in a supernatural god, both strongly self-identified as believers.

But what do they mean by this? Are they perhaps deceiving themselves? There is no way of answering, and this is no accident. The ambiguity about who is a believer and who a nonbeliever follows inexorably from the pluralism that has been assiduously fostered by many religious leaders for a century and more: God is many different things to different people, and since we can’t know if one of these conceptions is the right one, we should honor them all. 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 believed in God, many people could sincerely say that they don’t know what they are being asked.

This is not just agnosticism, the belief that one does not (or cannot) know whether God exists, but something prior: the belief that one cannot even know which question—if any--is being asked. Many people are utterly comfortable with this curious ignorance; it just doesn’t matter to them what the formulas mean that their churches encourage them to recite. Some churches are equally tolerant of the indeterminacy: as long as you “have faith” or are “one with Jesus” (whatever you think that means) your metaphysical convictions are your own business. But pastors can’t afford that luxury. Their role in life often requires them to articulate, from the pulpit and elsewhere, assertions about these very issues.

I find all five of the stories presented fascinating, and their responses to candid questions about hypocrisy and how they feel amongst their congregations knowing that they don't actually believe in the god they're speaking on behalf of seem honest and understandable, at least to me.

I think it's easy to take a hard nosed approach to theism in all forms when you're an atheist, and I don't think that's necessarily bad, I just feel like I personally at least need to take a step back once in a while and remember that these people I sometimes feel are my opposite, theists, are the same as me except we disagree on an idea. That's all. The degree to which we disagree and the areas that disagreement bleeds into are complicated and are not something that should be regarded as necessarily petty or unimportant by any means, but I think a regular adjustment of perspective is healthy for anyone who feels compelled to take a definite position in such a polarized and often emotional topic of debate.