Dennett and LaScola study of nonbelieving clergy

March 18, 2010 • 7:14 am

Imagine being forced to go to work every day and, as part of the job, profess something that you absolutely don’t believe.  More than that: at least once a week you have to publicly profess it, and also counsel other people on the explicit premise that you share the beliefs you reject.  In other words, you’re forced to live a lie.

Such is the position of clergy who don’t believe in God.  Yes, there are some of them, and they’re the subject of a new study by Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola from Tufts University, “Preachers who are not believers.” You can find that 28-page study at the Washingon Post‘s “On Faith” section (click the link on that page to download the pdf).  I recommend reading it if you have time.

Dennett and LaScola managed to find and interview five Protestant “nonbelievers.” Given the liberality of today’s clergy, and the resistance of many nonbelieving preachers to participate in the study, this may be only the tip of the iceberg.  Although some interviewees accept a numinous notion that might be termed “God,” none of them believe in the theistic God limned by the faith they profess.  Here’s the testimony of “Jack,” a Southern Baptist preacher:

“OK, this God created me. It’s a perfect God that knows everything; can do anything. And somehow it got messed up, and it’s my fault. So he had to send his son to die for me to fix it. And he does. And now I’m supposed to beat myself to death the rest of my life over it. It makes no sense to me. Don’t you think a God could come up with a better plan than that?”

“What kind of personality; what kind of being is this that had to create these other beings to worship and tell him how wonderful he is? That makes no sense, if this God is all-knowing and all-wise and all-wonderful. I can’t comprehend that that’s what kind of person God is.”

“Every church I’ve been in preached that the Jonah in the Whale story is literally true. And I’ve never believed that. You mean to tell me a human was in the belly of that whale? For three days? And then the whale spit him out on the shoreline? And, of course, their convenient logic is, ‘Well, God can do anything.’”

“Well, I think most Christians have to be in a state of denial to read the Bible and believe it. Because there are so many contradicting stories. You’re encouraged to be violent on one page, and you’re encouraged to give sacrificial love on another page. You’re encouraged to bash a baby’s head on one page, and there’s other pages that say, you know, give your brother your fair share of everything you have if they ask for it.”

“But if God was going to reveal himself to us, don’t you think it would be in a way that we wouldn’t question? …I mean, if I was wanting to have…people teach about the Bible…I would probably make sure they knew I existed. …I mean, I wouldn’t send them mysterious notes, encrypted in a way that it took a linguist to figure out.”

I can’t help but note that “Jack” was influenced by an classic argument for atheism:  if God wants us to know his presence, why is He always hidden?  Isn’t it more parsimonious to posit the absence of God rather than a God who, for reasons that elude us, is always just around the corner? Theologians, of course, have lots of arguments why the absence of God is precisely the evidence that God exists.

Surprisingly, two of the clergy lost their faith, in part, by reading new atheist books by Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens.  Even Bill Maher’s movie, Religulous, influenced one of them. So much for the notion that new atheism makes no converts.  “Adam” speaks:

“I tell you, the book that just grabbed my mind and just twisted it around, was Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great. It was shocking, some of that stuff – the throws and jabs against faith and stuff. I would think, ‘He’s crazy.’ But then I’d say, ‘No. Step back and read it for what it is.’

The preachers’ testimony makes a sad but enlightening read.  The road to eroded faith is tortuous, but often involved exposure to Biblical scholarship at the seminary or graduate school.  Faced with the notion that the Bible is a human construct, and not the inerrant word of God, several of these preachers began to question everything.

Why do these preachers stay in the faith and on the job? Three reasons, mostly.  One is financial: what else could they do with their training if they left the ministry? Often they have neither equity (living in church-owned houses) nor pensions.  Another, and perhaps more important, reason is that an admission of unbelief  would shock and disappoint their friends and family.  This is a very powerful motive, for facing the truth would rip asunder your network of social and family support.  We’ve encountered this before in the admission of Karl Giberson,  still a professed believer, head of BioLogos, and someone who may be teetering on the edge of apostasy:

As a purely practical matter, I have compelling reasons to believe in God. My parents are deeply committed Christians and would be devastated, were I to reject my faith. My wife and children believe in God, and we attend church together regularly. Most of my friends are believers. I have a job I love at a Christian college that would be forced to dismiss me if I were to reject the faith that underpins the mission of the college. Abandoning belief in God would be disruptive, sending my life completely off the rails.

Finally, many of these preachers like their work, especially the part of the job that involves helping troubled people. Jack again:

“And that’s what people told me my best skills were – dealing with people. …I can be with somebody and genuinely have empathy with them, and concern and love and help them get through a difficult situation. And every time that I did it, those people thought that I was wonderful. And they would just bend over backwards to tell me ‘Thank you.’ That was one of my strengths. …Being with somebody when their husband died. And just holding their hand, or putting my arm around them. But I never said ‘Now, he’s in heaven. Aren’t you glad for him?’”

There’s absolutely no doubt that faith, and religious institutions, have provided important help for those in need or in trouble.  Some religions do this more than others.  Sikhs, for example, seem to have a well-developed system of intra-faith welfare.  Such help doesn’t, of course, prove the existence of God or support any of the fact claims of faith, nor does it offset all the harms that faith has wrought on humanity.  But isn’t it a shame that there aren’t secular communities where those with altruistic instincts can “minister” without hypocrisy or fear?


The On Faith page features commentary on the Dennett and LaScola article by seventeen other people, including ex-Bishop John Shelby Spong, writer Rebecca Goldstein, theologian Martin Marty, and—God help us—Deepak Chopra. I haven’t yet read these.  There are also (surprisingly few) comments by readers.

78 thoughts on “Dennett and LaScola study of nonbelieving clergy

  1. If a person has the ability to listen and be empathetic while not wanting to be an psychologist, than one of the few places where that kind of person can find a job at present is in an religious institution.

    This kind of service was once given by the old time general medical practitioner and by the parish priest (if you got lucky).

    If you are friendless or without family or unable to get along with your family but yet have no psychological problems, where do you go to feel like you belong and are not alone? A bar, a sex worker? (the bar is legal, not the sex worker in most places).

    We frown on placing a price on empathy. And yet there are many in the religious field who do that kind of response, just listen, hold the other’s hand, and just be there. But they are not getting paid for that, they are getting paid because they are blathering about the supernatural. The supernatural is totally unimportant and irrelevant, but not empathy. As religious followers decline, will we have the focus to set up finally a vocation whose selling point is the giving out of empathy?

    In Europe, this role is often fulfilled by social workers.

      1. Miko, I was going to say the same thing. Universalist Unitarian churches could provide these preachers with the “congregation” environment while encouraging complete honesty. Granted, there would still be huge disruptions to their current life, but it might make the transition a lot less painful.

        1. There are some Unitarian congregations that would accept an atheist minister, however I think atheist are too “close-minded” to lead most Unitarian congregations, which include stray Christians, pagans, and god-botherers of nontraditional stripes. And ministers might have been more into Jesus Christ than religion in general.

    1. Yes, I can’t even begin to tell you how valuable it is to have social emergency response teams that sit in on families that have experienced death the very same day, and dispense empathy (mostly) and info (on what comes next; burial, more contacts, et cetera).

      The associated morbidity rate of kin and other relations goes way down. (Btw, it is a good investment for the society, too; we pay less taxes that way.)

  2. Giberson: As a purely practical matter, I have compelling reasons to believe in God.

    Did he really say that? I mean how is that supposed to work anyway? The list in that paragraph is at most a reason to pretend to believe in God but not for a genuine belief in the existence of this deity.

    1. That is one of the most disturbing things about religion. It encourages dishonesty.
      And he doesn’t seem to have a clue about this disconnect.

      1. It not only encourages dishonesty, religion absolutely relies on massive outright fraud for it’s continued survival.

  3. Hilarious….and preposterous. Isnt clergy that doesnt believe, non-clergy? Southern baptist; dont they appoint themselves? This is both a new nadir and climax in the same way you “study” a cleric that is a not cleric: amazing.

    1. Yes, that is the very problem. The religious have such clergy. Why doesn’t religion work as advertised?

      Meanwhile, the rest of us adds another data point to the “religion makes no sense on its own terms” hypothesis.

  4. “But isn’t it a shame that there aren’t secular communities where those with altruistic instincts can “minister” without hypocrisy or fear?”

    Well, one can make a very compelling argument that a huge part of the reason why there are people in need of help to begin with is the close link between the social structure we have and religion in its various forms.

    I can easily envision a society where there is no need for altruistic acts and where there is no religious influence, and there is a casual link between the latter and the former

      1. That’s too long to describe here, I will just point out that the way to getting here passes through reality-based understanding of human nature and our place in the world. Which means facing some hard truths about the evolutionary roots of certain aspects of our behavior, discarding a huge portion of the dominant ideologies regarding what it means to be a human, and constructing a society where mechanisms for keeping those primal behavioral drives in check are built in the system.

        Basically, there are two reasons why there are people in need of help – one is disease and the other poverty.

        Poverty is a direct results of two things: first, our innate urge to hoard as much resources as possible, even when we don’t need them, which means that resources are never equally distributed, and second, our other strong evolutionary drive, to reproduce as much as possible, which means that there will never be enough resources for everyone, even if we distributed them fairly. We can argue that most religions actually preach against the first problem, but in the same time they all preach the sanctity of human life, which makes any effort of solving poverty futile due to the inevitable Malthusian crash if you don’t keep population in check. And in the US, there is a good deal of marriage of Christian ideology with market capitalism so it’s not like the “Let’s be good to each other for a change” part of Christianity’s message is getting much publicity.

        Disease can be separated in two – there are diseases that are curable by modern medicine, and it is a matter of access to it, and there are diseases that aren’t. A lot of the latter are cases where there shouldn’t have been any birth to begin with, if a little bit of rational thought was applied on time, but it is usually deep religious influence that prevented it from being used.

        1. Any philosophy that ignores the facts that humans are intrinsically lazy and greedy is doomed to failure.

        2. That doesn’t seem to make sense. First, no other species sees equally distributed resources, they are all patchy. So we have evolved to take care of that, it can’t be a fundamental problem for any species.

          Second, while I’m not an expert, it is my understanding that free markets have had the most impact on global poverty since its introduction after the depression. It has decreased dramatically, and most in the nations that have adopted democracy and free markets. (I believe you can extract those data from the Gapminder database.)

          Where there earlier was an bimodal distribution of national resources there is now a more natural unimodal one, with poor nations catching up and with less and less percentage people in poverty.

          So, observably, patchiness over individuals works to ensure that individuals have enough resources, how unintuitive that seems. But intuition isn’t a good guide to reality.

          On the matter of not enough resources: I read last year an article of an internationally working agricultural specialist that claimed that now that EU has adopted the misnamed ‘gene manipulated’ products (no more gene manipulation than earlier artificial selection, of course) there is enough food for everyone. Obviously we have no lack of energy either.

          The problem is fresh water, but again that is a rapidly shrinking gap, AFAIU. Any population crash risk is thus removed further and further to the horizon.

          I’m not saying that the increasing population is not a problem. For example, this year finally more people live in cities than without, making future efficiency less of a problem but overpowering current activities instituted to remove slum housing. And the chinese removal of the “one child” policy made the ensured population peak date ~ 2030 a foregone prediction.

          But it isn’t choking us. For every year we are doing better. And in the end, who can ask for more?

          1. “there is enough food for everyone”.

            More specifically, I believe he claimed that while there have been enough food for everyone since the ~ 1960 date or so, the net was now increasing so it would take care of population increase for the next 10 years. At which point new breeds and other new techniques would be needed. [But this was before the chinese action.]

        3. Well, to my mind you’ve made a good case for the often-mocked notion that atheism undermines morality. At least it does in your case. If we give up the notion that human life is sacred, then we’ve given up something that has up to now been quite basic to our humanity. You may think this is fine. There is no argument that either of us can use to convince the other.

    1. Jerry’s closing lines are immensely stirring and disturbing.
      I owe my survival to people of all sorts of creeds, and a great many of no creed at all, so I can testify to the continued importance of all sorts of altruistic acts, minute or huge. Therefore I cannot imagine any society where altruism would not be needed, for this would mean a society able to take care of all contingencies: impossible.
      This however does not justify a society such as ours, which abjectly and cowardly relies on charity and charities for what should be the elementary tasks of communal organisation.
      The deleterious ideologies now prevalent in the West, preaching public squalor and private riches, public thrift and private ‘Madoff-ness’, egotism and irresponsibility, are a reminder of our moral immaturity. As long as we need a Guy In The Sky With A Beard in order to do good unto others (however relative that good may be), we prove our refusal to grow up, as well as our supreme lack of intelligence.

      1. Point well taken: charities are a release gauge to our own inability to manifest personally the compassion and reasoning needed to mitigate the evil and the ugly. Charities have become self perpetuating machines on their own.

  5. This would probably be me had I decided to go to seminary, as I planned for a while.

    And I think it applies pretty well to some of my minister friends. Just what else are they supposed to do with their otherwise-worthless degrees, training, and experience? Work in retail sales? Bagging groceries? Walmart greeter?

    Some lucky or forward-thinking few do have degrees in counselling or higher degrees in some other discipline, in case they need to start another career.

    I think I’d go crazy leading a religious service while not believing in its underlying doctrines. I couldn’t even stand reciting the creeds or doctrines as a layperson, once I stopped believing they were true.

    1. I knew a highly successful rabbi who was well liked and did his job extremely well, took courses and became a high school councilor. This was late 1960s. When I got married in 1972, he officiated.

    2. It has been said to the point of proto-aphorism that if one graduates from seminary still believing in a God, then you haven’t been paying attention for all those years.

    3. Isn’t staying within the confines of the degree something of a non-argument?

      My daughter has a degree in psychology but works for a bank, and a friend of mine qualified as a surveyor but is now a manager for a major retail chain.

      Believing that you have no option but to stay within that discipline just means that you are wearing blinkers (blinders) and don’t know know to take them off.

    4. Where did these people train? Does nobody teach theology any more? (Even the pastor on The Goodwife can quote St Augustine. In passing. As a throw-away line.)

      These “trials of faith” have been around for millennia. The new “atheism” books attack a simplistic child’s view of God, not an adult’s. It is hard to believe that anyone who has sensibly thought about God (i.e., been to a seminary) could take them seriously. Religion is an argument with God, not a blind acceptance. Quite literally, Jesus weeps.

      1. ok, Alan, before this goes any further, since you seem to know what the correct view of God is versus the simplistic views that aren’t right, please tell us what you see as the correct view of God, and please add what your evidence is that that IS the correct view of God as opposed to the straw-God that you think is criticized by new atheists.

        1. Oh come now; is this a troll? In my Father’s house there are many mansions. Let it merely be said that if someone’s faith is destroyed by a realization that Jonah was not swallowed by a whale (actually a great fish, there being no word for “whale” in Biblical Hebrew), there is something wrong with his education. When I was a boy you had to know Hebrew and Greek to get a degree in theology.

          I don’t argue for any particular point of view. There are, after all, “nine and sixty was of constructing tribal lays, and every single one of them is right”
          [ ]. I only suggest that in the two millenia since the birth of the Christ these rather obvious problems have been argued ad nauseum. And we’re not even starting with the Jews, who have a longer argument with God.

          I just want people to be saved or damned, freed or prisoned, for sensible reasons.

      2. Quite literally? Yes, people like Augustine and Aquinas have written defences of religious belief; the problem is that those defences do not actually *work*. They are philosophically unsound, but they’re pretty much all the theists have, having lost the historical and archaeological purchases they once pretended they had. Hence the latest generation of apologists desperately trying to shore up these bogus arguments, Plantinga, Swinburne and Craig among the more prominent.

        These ministers have looked at these arguments, and come to the conclusion (as have so many of us) that they do not WORK. Yeah, theists *claim* they work, but they don’t.

        Atheism is not backsliding – it is completing the level.

        1. I’d just like you to flesh out two things if that’s ok.

          1) Why don’t Augustine’s and Aquinas’ defenses work? and were they really addressed for debunking atheism (I don’t think so personally)?

          2) What are the historical and archaeological purchases (I’m an American, so not familiar with the word ‘purchases’) Christianity has lost? From what I understand, both atheists and Christians have a lot of ammunition in that respect.


    1. If you fully understood the trauma of coming out to friends and family after a lifetime of complete immersion and wholehearted, dedicated service to the ministry and evangelism…you’d get why people in that situation often do indeed feel forced to continue living the lie for quite some time. I was lucky…I was only heavily involved in ministry as a new non-believer for a few months (including leading a foreign mission trip).

        1. Hard to define, but I can describe instead: In addition to attending Sunday morning church, I led Mexico mission trips, ran the sound system for the Monday night college/young adult ministry, went to small home-group Bible studies, attended spiritual leadership training and membership classes at church, participated in local community outreach/”crusade” events, taught VBS, led worship and taught kids’ Sunday school at the local Hispanic church, and went on leadership and spiritual growth retreats. I continued to do all of that (except retreats, as there weren’t any during that time) as a closet agnostic for several months. Not easy times, to say the least 🙂

          There certainly is an aspect of will involved in deciding whether or not to come out of the closet, so to speak. But at the same time, I can absolutely understand how the severity of the consequences of coming clean could in many cases outweigh all the benefits–especially for those who are in full-time career positions in ministry and those for whom such a confession could potentially ruin a marriage. I was lucky (I keep saying that, but I really do feel very fortunate) that I was still in college and already had interests in careers other than ministry.

        2. (I hate when my nice keyboard smileys mysteriously turn into real yellow smileys. Makes me look like one of those creationists. They love to overuse them…)

  6. My working hypothesis-testable- regarding the low number of comments of this “study” is that most readers of said periodical were shocked by the premise of cleric/noncleric that flooded their RAM capacity and paralyzed their thought process. And who wants to comment Deepak? You can die asfixiated by blubberin’ blabber or sleep eternally in boredom.

    1. Bart: Ice cream at church? I’m intrigued, yet suspicious!
      Lisa: Wow. Look at all these flavours. Blessed Virgin Berry, Commandment, Bible Gum…
      Rev. Lovejoy: Or, if you’d prefer, we also have Unitarian icecream.
      Lisa: There’s nothing here!
      Rev. Lovejoy: Exactly.

      Only good joke Lovejoy’s every gotten.

      1. I liked it when Ned called him with a religious crisis, I think when he found that the Simpson’s kids had never been baptised.

        Rev Lovejoy: “Ned, have you considered one of the other major religions? It’s all pretty much the same.”

  7. Fascinating report—thanks for the link. Haven’t read it all yet, but they do touch on many relevant subjects:

    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.

    Barker and the FFRF are national treasures.

    Karen Armstrong, for instance, in her most recent book, The Case for God, dismisses both the anthropomorphic visions (“idolatry”) and the various brands of atheism, while claiming, as she recently put it while speaking with Terri Gross on Fresh Air, that “God is not a being at all.” Assuming that she meant what she said, she claims, by simple logical transposition, that no being at all is God. That would seem to be about as clear a statement of atheism as one could ask for, but not in her eyes.

    If you can avoid throwing your iPod against the cement, listen to Armstrong’s puke inducing interview on Fresh Air. I’m surprised, but not disappointed, that Armstrong wasn’t invited to comment at the WaPo on this study.

  8. “There’s absolutely no doubt that faith, and religious institutions, have provided important help for those in need or in trouble.”

    They occasionally do this. But they don’t do it more effectively than secular organizations. And then there’s all the evil they do.

    “Isn’t it a shame that there aren’t secular communities where those with altruistic instincts can “minister” without hypocrisy or fear?”

    There are. They are called families; circles of friends; therapy; social work; etc.

    These are oddly self-deprecating comments from a strong, capable humanist.

    1. I don’t understand why it would seem odd. If there were secular communities where those with altruistic instincts could minister without hypocrisy or fear, then surely we would have them by now.

      Surely we would find such a society if only some group of people would simply eliminate all religious superstition and institute a secular system of communal sharing in service to the common worker. Maybe in someplace like Russia.

      Unless, of course, there is some kind of contradiction between a “secular community” and “altruistic instincts,” making it simply an unsustainable proposition.

    2. Here’s one:

      Health Care For The Homeless of Baltimore.

      “In Baltimore, HCH delivers pediatric, adult, and geriatric medical care, mental health services, social work and case management, addiction treatment, dental care, HIV services, outreach, prison re-entry services, supportive housing, and access to education and employment for thousands of City residents. “

      1. Yes, I see in their mission statement where they explicitly reject the stifling, dehumanizing effects of religious ignorance in ministering to the poor.

  9. Uh … did you guys think that this is something new? Did you think that everyone who believes believes forever? (Or that everyone who doubts doubts forever?) People change. Atheists become Christians. Christians become Buddhists. It happens.

    And people have been losing their faith, changing faiths, hiding faiths, pretending to have faith, etc., for a very long time. This is a very old story.

    There is certainly a human interest angle on how people cope with things on a practical level, but … gosh. It’s nothing new.

  10. “Imagine being forced to go to work every day and, as part of the job, profess something that you absolutely don’t believe. ”

    Imagine starting a post with a lie; no one is forced to a) join the clergy or b) remain it it. These guys made their decisions and continue to. If they choose to live a lie that’s their problem, not some institution who didn’t force them to join or believe or stay.

    1. The post does not state that someone else forced them to do it. It does not say it is the problem of an institution.

      Your calling it a lie is a straw man argument.

      The post is written in plain English, but when you read it with your “hatred of analysis” glasses, you see what is not there.

      1. I cited the very first sentence of the post. Read it again. “forced” wasn’t my choice of words.

        And if it isn’t the church they work for who is “forcing” them, who is it?

        As difficult as it may be for faithful atheists to believe, you guys are not infallible. In this case Dr. Coyne got it wrong.

        1. Anyone reading the article can see that it is self induced force. The forcing is due to the pain these now enlightened individuals do not want to subject themselves to.

  11. Mark, in fairness, that is the whole point of the post and the study. As soemone who came from an evangelical Christian background to atheism, I can relate to what a lot of these folks are going through. For many people it is a process; whether all complete that process or not is open to question. What is definitely true is that there are a lot more atheists in churches than most people realise; many of those people think that they are the only one (even the pastors) and “coming out” is often not even seen as an option.

    I would like to see Dan & Linda beef this up and make it a bit more quantitative (if possible – I appreciate the logistical difficulties!) – we “proper scientists” have a problem with qualitative research. After all, the plural of “anecdote” is not “data” 😉

    1. Shane, I can understand that this would be a difficult process, what I don’t have compassion for is blaming it on someone else. Just acknowledge that there has been a change of mind and unwinding the personal circumstances will be difficult.

  12. Man, I have such good answers for all of those objections. I wish I could just sit down and talk with those guys…

    The first one is a crass summary of redemption history, but the point is that you DON’T beat yourself up…

    No he can’t comprehend God’s thoughts, but it’s a mutual, not just a one-sided giving of glory, it’s shared.

    Why even question God’s power to have Jonah survive in a fish when you have an entire city of Israel’s enemies and its king believe, the incarnation, resurrection, creation? It is convenient logic…

    I’d look at those encouragement passages and check out the context and see if he’s talking about God using Israel to carry out punishment against certain peoples or if he’s talking about Israel’s Civil Law or Moral Law, etc.

    Is he really saying you need a linguist to encrypt the Bible? Is he faulting God for not having the original languages be modern American English? This is why God’s Spirit works in people and God uses created natural means to have people translate and study it…

    1. David, god using Israel to carry out punishment on people at the “peoples” level is just genocide – the episode of the Amalekites in 1Sam15 should be familiar to you. To tar a particular group of people with one brush is racist. Many of your pastors (perhaps indeed your actual pastor) regard passages like these as proof positive that the bible is nothing to do with any god, but the product of an evolving culture that transitioned from Canaanite to Israelite to Jewish (yes, the Exodus is mainly myth) and to Christian, Muslim, etc. Sure you have “answers” to those problems, but the answers do not work on any level – philosophical, historical or scientific. I advise people to read the resurrection yarns side-by-side to get an idea of precisely what it is they expect their god to explain. It’s surprising how many people have only one bible, and can’t open 4 up at parallel passages. Do it for all the gospels – worth a shot, don’t you think?

      1. @shane: I don’t understand what this means:

        “I advise people to read the resurrection yarns side-by-side to get an idea of precisely what it is they expect their god to explain.”

        Do you mean the differing accounts of the Gospels? And how does this give someone the precise idea of what they expect their God to explain?

        “It’s surprising how many people have only one bible, and can’t open 4 up at parallel passages. Do it for all the gospels – worth a shot, don’t you think?”

        Most of the theists I know have more than one bible, usually different versions they have come to own over the years. I’m still missing what opening those up to the same passages would purportedly demonstrate.

        1. Mark, the various and varied books of the bible are hypothesised by many theistic Christians (OK, not all) to be part of the god’s revelation to humanity. The problem is that the tales of the resurrection add up in precisely the way you would expect an embellished story to add up, and not in the way you would expect a real resurrection to add up. For many people who move beyond theism (say, to Atheistic Christianity, like the pastors, or just plain atheism), it is putting these passages side-by-side that convinces them of this.

          Of course there are many other pieces of evidence in the bible that many of the stories are fictional or folklore or even fraudulent. It does not take a great deal of scholarship to recognise that the excuses of the apologists are pathetic attempts to paper over the major cracks that make the bible the fascinating – and purely human, with no trace of the divine – documentary miscellany that it is.

          These pastors know this. And many many more also do. As do at least 10% of the people who go to your church (assuming you go to church).

          The bible is a dangerous thing; Christians don’t really read it, which is why there are still so many Christians.

          1. The parallel resurrection accounts look to me very much like slightly varying versions of one event–the discrepancies seem to me very much the kind of discrepancies you’d expect when human beings report on something that actually happened and these reports are written down a few decades later. But your mileage clearly differs. I do not suggest (as you do) that you come to a different conclusion because you have failed actually to read the stories.

            And I’m not sure what your criteria are for detecting “traces of the divine.” Again, I don’t see that there are clear, objective criteria of this kind. I have only my own intuitions to go on–and they see traces of the divine all over Scripture.

          2. Edwin, thank you – you totally make my point. The stories are written by humans, humans who embellish, fabricate, distort, etc. There is no “event” to explain – just stories. And stories are easy to explain. Wee buns. As for traces of the divine – you’re the one making the positive claim. Please provide evidence. As you say, it was written by humans; humans make errors. The bible is *full* of errors – the resurrection discrepancies being just a few.

          3. “The bible is a dangerous thing; Christians don’t really read it, which is why there are still so many Christians.”

            That is an interesting statement. I have two comments to it.

            1) If this is true, then there should be a direct observation connection between Bible ownership and low levels of Christians. Good luck finding this!

            2) This is probably true for the Roman church (debatable how much of Christianity is under the anti-Christ [the Papacy]. So actually, I bet there is a direct connection in that Roman Catholics who actually read their Bibles will recognize how corrupt and evil the Papacy is (go Protestantism! I’m a Lutheran, obviously).

          4. 1. Ownership of the Bible does not mean that people actually read it

            2. Reading the Bible does not mean that the person reading it is going to be critically thinking about it (which is what the above post must have meant when saying that “reading it” causes people to turn away from faith). In fact there is a direct correlation between reading the Bible and the complete inability to perform that action (critical thinking)

      2. You didn’t address my other statements and are obviously throwing large claims, and this forum isn’t the forum (haha) to do so adequately.

        So, in reference to genocide, you seem to be implying (which I don’t believe is true) that Yahweh did not give any of the individuals of those nations a chance to repent or turn from their evil (which included child sacrifice from recent archaeology…sick stuff), and, YOU should be familiar with Rahab who was spared and Jonah, who KNOWS Yahweh is more than just an Israelite God and for that reasons tries to flee preaching to the Assyrians! There are many such examples.

        And you have to admit that in the least it is PECULIAR that Yahweh genocides (using YOUR term, not mine) an entire generation of Israelites in the wilderness if he’s supposed to some tribal god (and this is obviously ignoring the promises made early [which shoots down the evolution of religion idea] to Noah, Abram, etc to bless ALL PEOPLES [goyim in Hebrew!!]).

        Also, I have studied the parallel passages of the Gospels and see no necessary contradiction. I read it in Greek, so I’m not sure if you’re translated misinterprets something, I dunno. The NIV should be fine from what others have informed me. Obviously, there’s not space to time to go over that, but if you email me personally we can talk about it!

        Also remember, an apparent incongruity doesn’t necessary imply an inherent contradiction. It’d be sheer ignorance to think Christians since the early church didn’t wrestle and come to reasonable ideas to explain them.

        1. Also remember, an apparent incongruity doesn’t necessary imply an inherent contradiction. It’d be sheer ignorance to think Christians since the early church didn’t wrestle and come to reasonable ideas to explain them.

          But thousands of incongruities certainly do. Many biblical scholars rip the NT to shreds. See “Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why”
          By Bart D. Ehrman and other books by him and other biblical scholars.

          As far as Christians wresting and coming to ideas, these are called apologetics and they are nearly all a pile of ill formed logic and nonsense and delusion.

          1. Well yes, that’s called apologetics.

            Have you read John McDowell’s “Evidence for Christianity”? He has a similar to story to Ehrman, except he stayed a Christian. Now, if someone reads at least parts of this well written book (it used to be a series of lectures) and say it’s logic is faulty or he’s deluded, that person is ignorant.

            As a Lutheran I don’t read a whole lot of apologetics, I’m sure there’s a lot of rubbish, as you said. But also! I’ve read a lot of works by critical scholars like Ehrman, and LOTS of what they said is faulty, deluded, illogical rubbush as well and is based on theories that further evidence has debunked (Wellhausen’s JDEP theory, the NT Quelle source hypothesis. The Dead Sea Scrolls and Egyptian Papyri have shred those into pieces so that only a postmodern “reader response” theory survives.)

            I’ve read most of Ehrman’s books, and he’s logical as well as Mcdowell, for example, but not airtight. Nobody is. I believe Ehrman’s apologetic is amateur at best. But, just like your comment, that’s my opinion.

  13. You should all read Miguel de Unamuno’s classic San Manual Bueno, Martir about the priest who lost his faith. He continued to serve – a martyr – to protect the faith of his congregation because he thought life was easier with faith and wanted to protect them.

    1. I’m glad someone has noted this great short story. I read it in college–the only Unamumo I’ve ever read–and it’s stayed with me.

  14. I can tell you from personal experience that this is common. I was in ministry, and I left because I no longer believed. I stayed almost a year later though because the ministry had paid for me. I realized I could not lie though. Two weeks after I told the Bishop, everyone knew (not by my doing). I lost most friends, and my family was angry, but my family came back to me after time. The church treated my family as if I was a leper–it was their fault.

    I have known lots of ministry who do not believe in God or the church–more than those who do. They know that if they say the truth about scripture, the members would leave. I left 20 years ago and have never been happier.

  15. I appreciate Newman’s perspective. Although I’ve never been a believer, I worshipped as a Christian for a number of years. (While I once offered some wild rationale for this, it’s probably just that I wanted to fit into a particular part of the culture.) When I was finally forced to acknowledge that I was sleeping with the enemy (and thanks to Jerry and the whole gang for that), I did not find it easy to extricate myself. I explained myself to the pastor (who remains a friend), but not to fellow members of the congregation.

    I can’t imagine what it would be like to be the pastor.

  16. As someone who’s a pastor’s son, and has also been in a different church where the pastor has taken time off because of his own doubts, I found this article very interesting.

    In every career, people have doubts about the worth of what they’re doing. Whether that be finance, teaching, humanitarian work or politics.

    The problem is that to utter such doubts in a community which is relying on you to encourage them carries a huge stigma. Perhaps this points as much to poor church infrastructure as it does the realities or otherwise of God. For example, note how in the quotes given, none of the pastors said they outright didn’t believe in God, rather they stated doubts about the God the bible portrayed.

    Finally, the role of pastors in death, and hard times can be extremely powerful. In any community it is always of benefit to have someone who can get alongside people in a time of crisis and listen and be there, especially if it’s someone not experiencing the same level of grief. Perhaps hospitals should start hiring secular chaplains/therapists/whatever you want to call them, to help people get through what’s often the most difficult time of their life.

  17. There is also the example of mother teresa who from her own writings seamed to have lost faith. This did not prevent her from using the framework of her faith and church. Some time you fall out of love with your own church. You may come back to it but you should feel free to leave.

  18. “no need for altruistic acts”

    Did somebody really say that?

    The thing is, some of us like doing altruistic acts, due no doubt to an unusual combination of alleles at various of our genes. We understand that this is likely to result at some future time in the elimination of our particular genotype from the gene pool, and our particular phenotype will be no more. Sad, but that’s just a risk we have to run, being who we are.

  19. Many people attend church or join the ministry thinking it’s the right thing to do but without having an encounter with the living christ, just as there were many in the cities where he proclaimed his message that had heard of him, or even seen Him and joined the throngs without any relationship with Him. To those of us in whom His Spirit resides and communicate with Him daily in spiritual concourse these type of happenings are understandable because we balance the natural against the spiritual in our judgements. Without the Spirit there is no apparatus for true judgement, only the “face” of things is seen, and judgements are often false due to a lack of complete information.

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