Do Our Pastors Say What They Really Believe?

Richard Beck over at Experimental Theology is linking to this paper, written by Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola from the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University. In the paper, they describe LaScola's interviews of five pastors/preachers who are secretly atheists. These five – all self selected for the study, of course – not only detail their journey from belief to unbelief, but also talk about why they are quite sure that they are only the tip of an iceberg. It really is a riveting read.

Their stories are all remarkably similar. In each case, they enter seminary with a very traditional view of the Christian faith, which sees the Bible as an inerrant document, inspired by God, which depicts "real" stories. Adam and Eve actually existed as the first two humans. Jonah really did spend three days in a whale. Jesus really did say the things attributed to him in exactly the way it is depicted in the Bible. People really do end up in a literal, burning hell.

In seminary, however, the pastors were exposed to textual and historical-critical perspectives of the Bible. These perspectives tend to show how the original texts of the Bible were adapted and altered over time, how they were often cut-and-paste patchworks of stories and ideas from various sources, and how cultural and personal bias often found their way into the manner in which the Biblical authors presented their stories and arguments. The effect of all of this is a view of scripture that is "demythologized," a phrase that is used in the academic world to describe a story may convey a certain truth, but which didn't really happen. When they were exposed to these ideas in seminary, they either (a) underwent a crisis of faith or (b) learned, ironically, to compartmentalize their seminary education from their true faith.

The five pastors all emphasize that they were not alone. This crisis was common among their classmates, many of whom openly resisted a lot of what they were taught. Presumably, it continues to happen today.

How does "seminary shock" translate into what we hear from the pulpit? Simple. They don't tell us what they really think. It is, Dennett and LaScola observe, almost like a conspiracy:

One can be initiated into a conspiracy without a single word exchanged or secret handshake; all it takes is the dawning realization, beginning in seminary, that you and the others are privy to a secret, and that they know that you know, and you know that they know that you know. This is what is known to philosophers and linguists as mutual knowledge, and it plays a potent role in many social circumstances. Without any explicit agreement, mutual knowledge seals the deal: you then have no right to betray this bond by unilaterally divulging it, or even discussing it.

This don't-ask-don't-tell approach to ministry is, I suspect, the dirty little secret of the pastoring business. They simply don't believe much of what they seem to be asking the laity to believe. And there are plenty of ways to equivocate, wiggling around the tough issues. Theology is such a metaphor-intensive endeavor that it is very easy for a pastor to have a conversation with you about God's influence on history, for example, without ever poking around at his/her belief about the nature of God. In the Pastor's thoughts and careful phraseology, the conversation is about the concept of God influencing history, even though you have something much more literal in mind.

I don't think, by the way, that the vast majority of pastors – even a significant number of them – are atheists per se. These five pastors may be the tip of the iceberg, but I imagine that what is really floating under the surface are a lot of dedicated ministers of genuine faith, who love Christianity and their own traditions, but who can't connect what they learned in seminary with the issues they have to address in the pulpit. And I think they are very anxious about how to do ministry when their education is so disconnected from their work.

Why do they hide what they think? The cynic would say that it is merely to avoid offending you, so they can keep their jobs, keep you in the pew, and to keep your checks flowing into the Church coffers. And there may be some truth to that. However, I think it is more likely that they are trying to do three things:

  • "Protect" their congregation from ideas that might also harm their faith;
  • Preserve the Christian tradition, because – after all – they might be wrong about how it is all wrong, and they want to give it a fighting chance to survive; and
  • They see that, even "demythologized," Christianity benefits society, and they remain committed to it for that reason.

The problem is that this disconnect is making a lot of pastors feel like frauds, giving answers that they are either questioning themselves or that they simply don't believe. That sense of anxiety is doubtless having ripple effects on their marriages, their families, and their churches. 

Is it really for the best if pastors "protect" us from what they learned in seminar? My conviction is that it is not. When seminary training and ministry are overly compartmentalized, the results are shallow sermons, lifeless theologies, and stagnant traditions. Tell us what we want to hear, and only what we want to hear, and we will never grow.

Furthermore, the same questions that the clergy began to encounter in seminary 20 years ago are now making their way onto the street. Why does God allow suffering? Can someone really survive in a whale for three days? Were Adam and Eve real people? Every one of those questions is floating around in the worlds where paritioners now live. Ignore them, and attention and attendance will continue to shrink.

What is needed is open discussion where people – clergy and laity – can be safe to ask questions and test ideas without fear of retribution or scorn. My guess – my experience – is that, once the conversation begins to flow, we will discover that God hasn't vanished, and that – in fact – he is bigger, more real, and much more wonderful than anything we would ever have found under the old, rigid view of the Bible that is regularly shattered in seminary.

  • Trey Gillette

    Very interesting.  You know I have been thinking about this one for a long time. 
    I will add one more reason to why many pastors would continue in a role that they don't necessarily believe in the underpinnings, because faith has done good things.  I had a great conversation with a Physics professor who was an atheist at Christian college.  He was a closet atheist for a couple of reasons that mimic what you outlined above.  However, the last reason for his secret identity was that he didn't think that humanity would survive without it. 
    What he proposed is that there was a real beauty to atheism.  If you truly believe that the only thing you have while you are here on earth is the time and accomplishments that you leave for future generations that altruistically, you would leave an ideal life.  You'd have to be an environmentalist because of the need to leave this place better than when you found it.  You also had a sense of urgency to living because there were no excuses that all would be better in the after-life.  Live life to the fullest and mark your time here by unselfish living to benefit all those who would follow. 
    However, he believed that without some sort of higher power that directed our morality, that our selfish and greedy nature would win out.  Therefore, he saw faith as merely a tool to help direct the masses.
    I think that is likely similar to some pastors, but I think it really highlights the real faith saga.  Lack of faith in God and lack of faith in congregations to deal with the intricacies of faith.   To me this is a self-perpetuating cycle.  All biblical teachings must be black and white leads to actions based upon legalism and not faith.  These behaviors then increase skepticism in pastors that congregants can deal with gray.  The cycle continues on and on.
    I also think this is the main reason that we lose college kids from regular church attendance and only gain them back when they have a crisis of faith or children that need some sort of moral structure, even though they may doubt the underlying principles of faith. 
    We lose them because we are especially afraid talk about the gray areas when youth are at an impressionable age.  Fear of losing them supersedes any value in digging for truth among the rubble.  When these black and white kids goto the very gray area of academia, they are disillusioned by the simple thinking of their church and insulted by the lack of faith churches have in tackling tough issues.  "If they lied to me about Adam and Eve, I wonder what else they lied to me about just to keep me from having sex or doing drugs?"
    I have found that in reality, just the opposite is true.  Of all of the different groups to choose from, teenagers are the ones who are MOST able to deal with the harsh realities of finding truth in God through the history, writings and a church controlled by humanity in a broken world.  They hurt because it is near impossible to live a Sunday life in a Monday world.  Young people are quite adept and eager to struggle with reconciling their own faith journey with scores of imperfect examples of real people from the Bible.  In my experience, after some initial shock, the youth are actually relieved to see that things aren't neat and tidy. 
    I have seen this work.  Those who struggle with these issues as teens are much more competent to face "the real world."  We need to trust that people can really handle the truth. 
    The only other problem is that the church in its current structure is wholly ill-equipped to deal with questions like these.  This requires leaders to walk beside parishioners and not just feed them simple truths on Sunday.  Again the problem is that the whole process of discipleship must be more intentional and deliberate.  In our capitalistic world, this is an inefficient system and not soon to be embraced. 
    I'm glad that you raised this issue and I sure hope that we are all willing to struggle with it because only through struggle can we find truth and resolution.