Day 065 - The invisible non-believers

Submitted by Sam on 25 July, 2011 - 00:33

Former clergy may spend time as silent non-believers before renouncing their faith and their whole way of life. A recent survey has drawn attention to preachers in this silent phase, revealing some who have lost their faith and yet still intend to preach for the rest of their lives. In a pilot study, non-believing clergy from five Protestant denominations were confidentially interviewed about their lives, religious education, aspirations and ways of coping, and an analysis of the results was published in the Evolutionary Psychology journal last year. Those interviewed, these closeted non-believing clergy, continued to carry out what they were trained to do, presiding over weddings and funerals, sermonizing to their congregation and baptising new members of the faith as if there were no problem.

The prospect of leaving a church you have devoted your life to, abandoning a religion that has shaped your every thought, action, hope and belief, and admitting to the world that you have devoted your time to a cause you no longer support is truly vertiginous. Beyond these moral binds, there are also practical, financial considerations that can lock-in disbelieving clergy, not least because they may have no other experience or qualifications beyond their religious duties, and may have lost opportunities for training. On top of these obstacles to 'outing' oneself as a non-believer, there are also interpersonal roadblocks; friends and families (who may themselves be deeply religious) will need to be told, and then of course there are the effects that such a reversal would have on the congregation. It's an excruciatingly tight trap, and it is no wonder that some choose to compromise their personal integrity and honesty and live a lie rather than allow the consequences of a retraction of faith to unfurl. The following are quotes taken from the survey to illustrate the terrible position such non-believers find themselves in:

There have been times when I’d say, ‘You know what? I’m just going to tell everybody, and whatever happens, happens.’ And then I think, ‘Gosh, I can’t do that. I think I could handle it, but it’s other people that I’m worried about. And I think, by gosh, do I still care too much about what other people think of me or something?

I’m thinking if I leave the church—first of all, what’s that going to do to my family? And I don’t know. Secondly is, I have zero friends outside the church. I’m kind of a loner.

Here’s how I’m handling my job on Sunday mornings: I see it as play acting. I kind of see myself as taking on a role of a believer in a worship service, and performing.

Those interviewed believe that they are the tip of the iceberg, and that there are many others like them. Like the plight of homosexuals in the 1950's though, they are terribly afraid of coming out to the wrong person, and so it is extremely difficult to accurately estimate how pathological the incidence of non-believing clergy is. If the problem is widespread, as the study suspects, then radical changes to any affected institutions will be needed, perhaps not least to put in measures to advise disaffected clergy on how to act and help keep them from living a lie.

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