Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Preachers Who Are Not Believers

Some church ministers have a secret. A big one: they no longer believe what they preach. They no longer accept the tenets of the faith that their congregations are committed to.

1. Here's the article that Daniel C. Dennett and Linda LaScola published in the journal Evolutionary Psychology, "Preachers Who Are Not Believers."

2. Dennett also published a shorter, popular-level article in Tufts University Magazine, "The Pastor's Secret."

3. Here's the page at ABC that highlights a recent segment they did, apparently as a spin-off from these articles. Only there's a problem here: the text on the page is a match, but the videos that accompany the story are not a match. Not sure why. "Atheist Ministers Struggle With Leading the Faithful."

Anyway, although I haven't read it all just yet, I think this story is fascinating. All of my adult life, I've worked as a preacher and now as the director of a Christian Student Center. By experience I've always known that ministers have doubts and unanswered questions about the faith they teach and practice. In fact, I don't really trust the ministers who claim they don't have those questions. I suspect they're either lying or that they don't do much thinking, a major problem either way.

On the other hand, it's an entirely different thing for a minister to secretly reject the basics of his or her faith and stay in a ministry position, preaching week after week.

Somewhere in the middle, I'd say, is the minister who hasn't rejected basic Christian beliefs, but who doesn't share the congregation's commitment to group identity markers: like a Reformed pastor who doubts Calvinism, or a Pentecostal preacher who thinks tongue-speaking might be mumbo jumbo, or a preacher in the Churches of Christ who doesn't think instrumental music in Christian worship really matters to God. (Not that there are any preachers in that last category. It's just an example, okay?).

All of this raises a number of questions for me. Questions like:

1. What is the legitimacy and role of doubt in Christian life?

2. What sorts of unorthodox possibilities may a Christian leader seriously consider? What unorthodox convictions might be permissible for a Christian leader to develop? My question is, Where's the line that divides acceptable unorthodoxy from the unacceptable?

3. If a minister were to confess, or a church were to discover, that the minister harbors deep-seated doubt or an agnosticism about the Christian faith, what would be the right way for the church to handle that? (According to one story, a preacher publically confessed atheism and was asked by the congregation to stay on until his successor was named).

4. What is the minister's responsibility to the church with regard to these questions? That is, when is a minister who harbors doubt justified in maintaining his church-staff position? At what point does the unorthodox minister become a sort of religious prostitute?

5. Are churches places where people are afraid to ask their questions or express their doubts for fear of rejection? I know, to ask is to answer. But what's the right way for church leaders to handle what have to be many, many wide-ranging questions in the congregation?

6. Is the biggest problem here dependency on money? It has to be the case that the main reason why disbelieving ministers refuse to be honest is because, if they were, they'd lose their income. Is a Christianity that is strongly tied to institutional forms at the root of this question?

What do you think?


Wade Tannehill said...

I was going to leave a comment all week and your comment on my blog was the reminder I needed. I read some of the stuff you linked to and learned a lot about Daniel Dennett who happens to be one of the most renowned secularists among us, winner of the Betrand Russell Award and (I think) Humanist of the Year. He wrote an article about "Thanking Goodness" on Thanksgiving since he doesn't believe there is a God to thank. When people prayed for his heart surgery he was tempted to ask them if they also sacrificed a goat.

All that being said, I do have to wonder what he is trying to prove since he is obviously an enemy of religion. But on the other hand, his writing "seems" objective and it is kind-spirited as far as I've read. But like Dr. Spong, from whom I have read, I know there is a movement afoot to prove how outdated and superstitious the faith supposedly is and I cannot help but wonder if Dennett's objective is to earn points for the secular viewpoint by saying, "See, even the preachers don't believe this stuff anymore. Our society has outgrown it."

Regardless of Demmett's motive, whatever it may be, I know that what he says is true and the gospel has been boiled down to social renewal or just being nice people.

Many liberal preachers justify their positions by proclaiming a more "metaphorical faith" that is somehow supposed to be more "sophisticated." But if Christ has been raised, I don't think we can have it both ways. Hope that makes sense.

Frank Bellizzi said...


Thanks much for your comments and observations. I hear your suspicions about Dennett's motivations. I don't think that all doubt is the same thing as unbelief. With Dennett it seems to be an either/or, as in "You either believe, all the time, everything you supposedly stand for, or else you're an unbeliever, no better than every other skeptic." I don't think for a second that the life of faith ever really works that way.

Stoned-Campbell Disciple said...

Frank my professor for Jews in the Renaissance and Baroque Period (at Tulane) was a Jewish rabbi ... a full atheist. I recall some interesting discussions. He hated Martin Luther btw.