Daniel Dennett on Secretly-Atheist Religious Leaders September 3, 2007

Daniel Dennett on Secretly-Atheist Religious Leaders

In a piece for the Washington Post‘s On Faith site, Daniel Dennett wrote about religious leaders who had a secret (emphases mine):

I get mail all the time from religious leaders who admit to me in private that they do not believe in God but think that the best way to continue their lives is to swallow hard and get on with their ministries, concentrating on bringing more good than evil into the lives of their parishioners and those for whom their churches provide care. I would never divulge their names without their consent, but I do wonder: How many millions of priests, pastors, rabbis, imams, nuns and monks around the world are living lives of similar duplicity? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the outing of Mother Teresa inspired a few thousand of them to come out of the closet and acknowledge their atheism! Then it might start being obvious not only that faith in God is not a requirement for morality, but that the loss of faith in God often goads people into living more strenuously helpful lives, as seems to be the case with Mother Teresa.

He also mentioned that Mother Teresa may have been motivated by her own inabilities:

Perhaps it was her guilt at being unable to convert herself that drove her to work so hard to convert others to take her place among the believers.

Former pastor Dan Barker also mentions in his book that there was a time when he was giving sermons and conducting his pastor duties even when, deep down, he knew he didn’t buy into it. It wasn’t too long before he publicly came out with his atheism.

It seems that a number of pastors will talk about the importance of being honest without following their own rules.

(via Reddit)

[tags]atheist, atheism[/tags]

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  • “A hypocrite always practices what he preaches—against.”

  • BryanJ

    Didn’t Dan Barker say that he was working a book with a compilation of stories from former preachers, missionaries and the like a while ago on Freethought Radio? I think a book with these “closeted clergy” would be a fascinating read.

  • I think he might be making more of Mother Teresa’s struggles than are warranted. To not “feel” the presence of God in your life, or to have questions, struggles and doubts is not the same thing as being a closet atheist. Almost all Christians have doubts, almost all go through dry periods when God feels far away. Faith isn’t about having perfect certainty or a constant sense of God’s presence. It’s about living a certain way of life even when you don’t have those things all the time. Choosing to live a way of love and self-sacrifice even in the face of one’s doubts and emotional dryness is just part of what faith is.

  • Mriana

    There are several self-proclaimed non-theists and Religious Humanists who are priests and bishops in the Anglican Church. I don’t think they are closet atheists with that admission nor do I think it is a case of what Mike is describing either for a lot of them do follow Religious Humanism. Sea of Faith (the U.K. site) tells about this. They not only say they are Religious Humanists, but call their definition of God (which is love) a non-supernatural belief or rather natural. It is not the traditional view at all. So, yes, some ministers do have a form of atheism, but they openly call themselves non-theists or even Religious Humanists instead.

  • I’m in the process of doing what most of those commenting on the Mother Teresa letters haven’t done, reading the letters. I don’t think anyone who hasn’t read a lot of the published old line biographies and writings of Catholic saints would have a clue as to what she was talking about, it wasn’t what Dennett hopes is there. Never having been much of a fan of MT, I’ve got to say that the letters make her a much more interesting figure than all of the PR during her lifetime did, again not for reasons that fundamentalist atheists would hope for. I’ll be writing a review sometime.

    The Anglican clergy who are non-theists, Spong most prominent among them, were drawing a salary under false pretenses. I’m not exactly sure but their keeping the position would have drawn them into daily lies and duplicity. Since when was that a recommendation of character?

  • Mriana


    Olvlzl, please check out that website.

    The Anglican clergy who are non-theists, Spong most prominent among them, were drawing a salary under false pretenses.

    I think you are missing Don Cupitt, Anthony Freeman (who I think was re-instated) and a few others. It’s not a lie when they admit to being a non-theist or even a Religious Humanist. Religious Humanists are just that- Humanists and they happen to be involved with religion. Doesn’t mean they have a God concept. There are Humanists ministers too who are considered Religious Humanists. Paul Kurtz, in an essay, called Epstien a Religious Humanist. There are Christian Humanists, Jewish Humanist, and lately there is some talk of Islamic Humanists and none of them have a god concept. It’s not a lie when they admit to this and it doesn’t mean they should be fired either because there are Humanists who attend the Episcopal Church- Robert Price is one. So, what does it matter if a priest or bishop is a non-theist?

  • Mriana, there are prayers that I know Anglican priests used to be obligated to say daily that would be a lie if they didn’t believe in a theistic God. If that changed perhaps they weren’t technically lying, though I don’t see how anyone can get by the fact that many of those are professions of belief in the tenets of Western Christianity. They couldn’t say the Our Father without lying if they didn’t believe it, and I don’t think a non-theist could honestly say it. You might not think that matters but it pretty much negates considering them as honest people. They would have to resign and renounce their profession to do that, something honest people have done before. I don’t think it’s possible for someone to honesty maintain a position in the clergy of any of the Catholic churches without believing in a theistic God and, indeed, in at least the election of Jesus to a special status by that God.

    Do you really think I’d take Paul Kurtz’ word on any of this? The guy who is the Rupert Murdoch of atheist fundamentalism?

  • Mriana

    I don’t suppose you have read any of Spong’s books, essays, and alike have you? In them he admits that he “prays” differently. I don’t call it praying myself though. How he gets around the “Our Fathers” I don’t know and those things are one of many reasons why I quit going. Price however goes and I don’t know how he gets around it either.

    As for Kurtz, I don’t care if you take his word or not, but you can check out the website I posted, which explains Religious Humanism too and they explain it much like the AHA does, adding the Humanist need to reclaim spirituality and not allow the religious to continue to claim it for themselves.

    I don’t think you have to ascribe to any religion or even be religious to study religion. I study Christianity, Gnosticism, Hinduism, Buddhism, even Pagan beliefs, but that doesn’t mean I have to believe in their gods or any god(s) to study them. The study of them is not exclusive to the religious.

  • Jen

    I remember there was a Postsecret about this, a picture of Jesus with a minister writing something to the effect of, “Sometimes I want to wink at other pastors because I want them to know I know its all a lie too.” I would love to know more about how these “men of the cloth” go on and preach without really believing what they say, and to know what kind of process they have coming out or not. I am adding Dan Barker’s book to my list of books to hunt down and read.

  • Mriana, I’ve read some of Spong’s essays though not a whole book. I have to admit, he kind of bores me. I’ve seen nothing that is as interesting as Polkinghorne and I’m actually probably closer to Spong’s beliefs than I am his.

    None of that would negate what I said about the hypocrisy of holding a seat as an Episcopal Bishop while not believing in the most basic tenets of the religion. Mother Teresa wasn’t an ordained clergy member who was obliged to conduct liturgies and preach sermons and look at the field day people are having over her. I think a lot of people are going to be kind of disappointed that the book, while it might scandalize people without much background, actually makes her life a lot more compelling. But, you can judge for yourself after tomorrow.

  • Mriana

    Each his own. Sorry he bores you, but I must admit there were a couple of his books that I was bored with too and didn’t finish, one being “A New Christianity for a New World”. Now that was boring and I just could not finish it. It also got me to ask him a couple questions, which he never answered me. He would answer my previous questions, but I received no reply from him about the one or two. Guess he took insult to those questions. Oh well. I thought they were legitiment questions and almost similar to what you said, but I didn’t accuse him of hypocrisy and by that time I had long since quit attending.

    However, I’m not one for judging others, so you probably won’t even get a judgement out of me concerning Mother Teresa either. If she believed she believed. If she didn’t, she didn’t. Does it really matter?

  • Elizabeth

    My husband doesn’t like to call himself an atheist, but he and I share all of the same views regarding God: that the idea of a personal God as constructed by Christianity/Islam/Some Hindus/Some Jews/etc is logically flawed and therefore not possible. He choses to define God in a different way and will be an ordained minister within the next year. He doesn’t share his views regarding his interpretation of God, mostly because he feels it’s a personal decision that everyone has to make on their own. He will challenge fundamental beliefs that are inconsistent, but never push someone to share his views precisely. And having watched him go through seminary over the past four years, I can say that many of his fellow students and professors view things in the same way.

  • Elizabeth

    I should have said “Some Christians/Muslims/Hindus/Jews/etc.” My bad! 🙂

  • Keith

    I read the article on Mother Theresa in TIME for the first time last night. Hitchens was quoted in it, and basically identified MT as a closet atheist as Dennett has here. I agree with Mike C. that this extrapolation goes too far … one can have times of doubt without being an atheist. However, I wonder if there is another side to ministry, difficult for non-Nuns, etc. to understand.

    Mother Theresa gave herself throughout her life to the poor and to Jesus. When you serve the poor in as self-sacrificing a way as she did, you burn out. Her life of self-sacrifice suggests that she regularly chose to follow Jesus and give herself for others even when she did not feel like it. That she did not feel like it that often is precisely why she is saintly. She served others even when things were tough. For guys like Hitchens, or Dennett, or myself to use her heartfelt letters to promote our own agenda while we sit in palaces is a joke. We are not in position to accurately judge her, because we have not walked anywhere near her shoes.

    Perhaps I’m too easily bothered, but I find it grossly offensive to hear her struggles used as evidence that she was some winking hypocrite. She conitnued to follow her deepest convictions even when her feelings said otherwise. That is the behavior of an honest & respectable human being, and the precise opposite of hypocrisy.

  • severalspeciesof

    Been away for awhile on vacation, so this MT news is news to me (I won’t listen to or watch newscasts while on vacation), but from what I’ve garnered from other sites that I’ve come across today, it looks as though MT’s doubts weren’t just sporadic, but terminal, lasting all the way till her death. They were also deeply felt, enough apparently for the church to perform an exorcism. That makes her pretty close to being a closet atheist in my book. Yet I agree with Keith, in saying this does not make her a hypocrite.

  • She continued to follow her deepest convictions even when her feelings said otherwise. That is the behavior of an honest & respectable human being, and the precise opposite of hypocrisy.

    Well said Keith.

  • That makes her pretty close to being a closet atheist in my book.

    I haven’t read the letters and I can’t find any good details online. Can anyone confirm whether the core of MT’s doubts were actually about God’s existence – or even that her struggles were primarily about intellectual “doubts”? There are many ways to struggle with one’s faith, and intellectual questions about God’s existence are rarely the #1 issue for most believers in my experience. The little snippets that I’ve read about MT’s struggles seem more about her questioning God’s calling or spiritual/emotional presence in her life, not specifically about whether or not he exists. But I could be wrong as I haven’t read the whole book.

    olvlzl, you’re reading it, what are you finding?

  • Mriana

    Keith, the way I see it, she was only human. What difference does it make if she believed or not or had doubts about God even? Personally, I’m not bothered by Dennett’s statement concerning her. It’s all water off a ducks back IMHO and really doesn’t matter.

    Mother Teresa had a full life and I think it was reasonably happy. MLK Jr did great things too, but he also studied Gandhi. What of it? So, they sometimes had doubts and questioned their beliefs. Gene Roddenberry, a Humanist, had a good heart too. Margaret Sanger, an atheist who fought for women’s reproductive health and was a humanitarian. Who really cares about their labels- whether given or self-described?

    IMHO, it is not what is in the head, it is what is in one’s heart that really matters and quite honestly, Mother Teresa had a big and caring heart. Beyond that, it doesn’t matter to me if she was a believer or not. Let whoever wants to label her label her what they want. It’s how she lived her life that really matters to me.

  • I was skimming over Peter Rollin’s book “How (Not) to Speak of God” and came across this quote that I thought was particularly relevant to this discussion and to Mother Teresa’s experience of God’s absence in particular. He writes:

    “Holy Saturday is the name that is given to that 24-hour period nestled between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, between crucifixion and resurrection.

    It is a day that speaks of the absence of God and is as much a part of the Christian experience as the day before and the day after. It is the moment when we experience the depth of Christ’s cry on the cross [“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”], the moment when we feel abandoned by God and utterly alone in the world. This day is never as far from us as we would wish, for there are times when we all are unsettled by the feeling that we have been abandoned and that everything we believe may be nothing more than empty words and hopeless dreams. This is the horror of the cross, not the blood and suffering of an innocent, but the removal of God.

    Holy Saturday ridicules the idea that the feeling of God’s absence is reserved for those who are irreligious, for in reality it is only the religious individual who can really know this absence. This is analogous to the experience of waiting for one whom we love in a cafe. The later they are, the more we experience their absence. Our beloved is absent to everyone in the room but we are the only one who feels it.

    Who among us does not find ourselves dwelling from time to time, or perhaps at all times, in the space of Holy Saturday? Yet this day is rarely spoken of and the experience is often seen as one to be avoided or merely tolerated rather than embraced.”

  • Keith

    Thank you for that quote, Mike C. It says a lot.

  • Gazza

    Whether MT was an atheist is secondary to the disgraceful behaivour Hitchens acuses her of. If his accusations are true she deserves to be remebered for what she really was… a heartless politician.

    The God question as we all know is irelevent to morality


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