The Atheist Ministers Still Working in a Church November 10, 2010

The Atheist Ministers Still Working in a Church

Earlier this year, Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola put out a report about pastors who were still in the pulpit but who no longer believed in a god.

Last night, ABC News did a report on a couple of their subjects. The video’s not up on their site as I write this, but it should be available when you’re reading this.

“The more I read the Bible, the more questions I had,” Jack said. “The more things didn’t make sense to me — what it said — and the more things didn’t add up.”

Jack said that 10 years ago, he started to feel his faith slipping away. He grew bothered by inconsistencies regarding the last days of Jesus’ life, what he described as the improbability of stories like “Noah’s Ark” and by attitudes expressed in the Bible regarding women and their place in the world.

“Reading the Bible is what led me not to believe in God,” he said.

He said it was difficult to continue to work in ministry. “I just look at it as a job and do what I’m supposed to do,” he said. “I’ve done it for years.”

Since only a handful of pastors were included in the report, there must be many, many more who feel the same way but dare not talk to anyone about it.

I hope they see this report and find some solace in it; they’re not alone. And hopefully, they can find another line of work that doesn’t involve spreading more false hope and superstition.

(Thanks to everyone for the link)

"That's the thing about those so-called "pro-lifers". They actually believe that they have the right ..."

UK Court Rejects Paralyzed Man’s Lawsuit ..."
"Or the rotten ideas inside it. More's the pity."

Idaho Lt. Gov. Wants to Spend ..."
"I'd have been tempted to grab a heavy bottle and hit him hard upside the ..."

Supreme Court: NY Can’t Enforce Strict ..."
"Ebola tends to terminate itself. The problem with Covid 19 is the secret spreading."

Supreme Court: NY Can’t Enforce Strict ..."

Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Maybe some atheist organization should set up a foundation, providing career counseling and financial support for atheist ministers and other religious leaders who want to change careers.

  • Doug

    I second that Greta.

  • Heidi

    I hope the pastors know that they can come on here and other atheist blogs and talk about it anonymously.

  • nix

    That is an awesome idea Christina. I third that.

  • ACN

    Obligatory Link to Dennett’s talk at the AAIC about this topic:

  • I hope the pastors know that they can come on here and other atheist blogs and talk about it anonymously.

    Yes, you can simply post comments here without any electronic trace to yourself (except perhaps your computer’s IP address). You can even start your own blog anonymously as well and never share your real name. All you need is to register an email address that can’t be easily traced back to you. There are a number of ways to do this. One way is to buy a domain name and set up domain name privacy. You can then use the associated email address anonymously as well as use the domain name as you like.

    I’m sure others here can comment on other ways to protect your identify from those who would come down on you if they knew what you really believed.
    Big brother religion is watching.

  • Perhaps it’s time to learn a useful, marketable skill.

  • Couldn’t agree more that the more you study the Bible, the less sense it makes.

    It is horrible that they are so terrified of the social consequences of their beliefs that they cannot share what they belive with their ‘friends.’ The fact that these people would abandon them not because of anything they do or the way they treat people, but because of what they don’t believe is appalling.

    I’m glad their invisible sky fairy is so understanding and loving and forgiving.

  • BTW, I’m entertained that the GoogleAd I see with this post says, “Ministry classes online. Become a Master of Divinity from an Accredited College. Learn more!”

    The irony of the GoogleAds on this blog is often entertaining… but this one sets the bar to a new high.

  • don’t knock the M.Div degree, Greta! as far as easy, lazy careers go, it’s the bomb!

    i have one, and more, from a famous divinity school even. i’ve met a lot of “famous” pastors and preachers and rabbis and imams and “theologians” (the most useless profession of all, these days) and i’ll tell you right now: it’s a scam. that’s why these people go into the industry. you get bling, attention, media access, the freedom to write nonsense for paying publications, women/men/helpless little girls & boys, drugs, the adulation of people poor and rich and stupid… it’s a great fucking gig, if you can stomach the hypocrisy. but if you wonder why an atheist would stick with it, having personally realized they don’t believe? the posh, baby. the posh. most rubes actually have to work for a living. who the hell wants to do that, when you can “work” as a religious huckster instead?

  • Ian

    This is an issue close to my heart. I have friends in this position.

    The vast majority of churches and ministries are not rich. Large numbers of ministers are very low paid, congregations often squeeze ministers salaries AND expect them to tithe, and often churches provide housing and other benefits in lieu that the individuals simply can’t muster. Add to this the natural conservatism in congregations about the wife’s role, and a considerable burden does lie on their shoulders. I know ministers in this position who would be simply making their whole family destitute. Unlike your medical school story, Hermant, they don’t have families to go live with. They would lose their income, home, and benefits such as medical insurance. Living in areas where they couldn’t afford to buy a home, their children would have to move schools and lose friends. One particular friend has spent literally YEARS trying to find alternative work, without his church finding out. Applying for jobs all over, and hoping that word doesn’t get back, and hoping that he won’t have to provide a reference. It can be a serious trap.

    And in several cases I know the constant hypocracy isn’t lost on them, and manifests in mental illness, which is also largely taboo among christian ministers.

    Greta said: “Maybe some atheist organization should set up a foundation, providing career counseling and financial support for atheist ministers and other religious leaders who want to change careers.”

    I really wish that would happen. I’d definitely contribute to it. It is easy to think of ministers as being the perps of the fraud we all know religion is. But I have to say in many cases they are as much the victims: victims of the inertia and demands of the congregations, at who’s whim they serve.

  • Hamilton Jacobi

    What I hope would happen as people read this ABC News report: “Gee, if those pastors discovered that their upbringing was more sheltered than they realized, maybe mine was too. I should look into this more carefully.”

    What probably will happen: “I knew it! Pastor Bob is an atheist! It’s been so obvious ever since that sermon when he said that stomping on queers was not what Jesus would do. Let’s tar and feather him, and if he grovels enough, maybe we won’t set him on fire afterwards.”

  • Dmitri

    An atheist in charge of a church sounds like a terrible conflict of interest. I bet it could lead to some really interesting sermons though!

  • Fundie Troll

    @ Ian

    The vast majority of churches and ministries are not rich. Large numbers of ministers are very low paid,

    Huh, that’s interesting, according to chicago dyke it’s the other way around:

    you get bling, attention, media access, the freedom to write nonsense for paying publications, women/men/helpless little girls & boys, drugs, the adulation of people poor and rich and stupid… it’s a great fucking gig, if you can stomach the hypocrisy.

    So what gives?

  • @Fundie Troll,
    Ian is indeed correct. The majority of individual congregations are indeed not rich and most ministers are not well paid.
    Mega-churches and the behemoth that is the Roman Catholic Church are not representative of ALL denominations and ALL congregations.

  • Anonymous
  • Non-Litigious Atheist

    Maybe some atheist organization should set up a foundation, providing career counseling and financial support for atheist ministers and other religious leaders who want to change careers.

    @Greta: Yeah, that’s going to happen – right after someone decides to subsidize atheist day care centers for every zip code and build stadiums made of solid gold.

    The fact that these people would abandon them not because of anything they do or the way they treat people, but because of what they don’t believe is appalling.

    @Jeffrey A. Myers: Welcome to the human experience. Humanist dogma might say that people are better than this, but experience (in churches, high schools, shopping malls, business offices, and everywhere else) says otherwise.

    One would have to be pretty sheltered or naive to think so highly of other human beings as to believe that this sort of behavior is atypical of them. Giacomo Leopardi was speaking from simple observation when he said ‘Real misanthropes are not found in solitude, but in the world; since it is the experience of life, and not philosophy, which produces real hatred of mankind.’

  • Ministers yes, but they ought to do a report about the average church-going Christian faking it to just get along.

    I believe that at least a few people in my family are doing that still. I KNOW my mother is a closeted Atheist going to Methodist church regularly. I outed her too! But Christians didn’t seem to notice or care. They’re very content with the body being there, if not even the spirit. I’d say they’re worried about their numbers shrinking.

  • The Tufts study that these two were a part of was the proverbial straw on the proverbial camel’s back that caused me to admit to myself (and then later a few select friends and, anonymously, the internet) that I no longer believe in God.

    I’m a music director in a Southern Baptist Church and until I saw a story about the study done on the Baptist Press I really felt like I was the only one going through this. I knew that it wasn’t likely that I was the only one but it felt like I was.

    After seeing the story about the study (of course, Baptist Press viewed it as a terrible sin that these ministers continue to serve when they don’t believe any more) I realized that there were others, probably many others out there going through the same thing (I had not yet discovered Dan Brown) as I.

    Now I’ve let a few very trustworthy friends know of my situation, started a blog sharing my story, and am getting involved (anonymously) in the online atheist community and it has been a very freeing experience! I still struggle with the conflict between my unbelief and the fact that my paycheck comes from the church, but at least I can vent to people who share my views now.

  • Tom

    This remind me of an episode of Yes, Prime Minister (classic British comedy) that makes exactly the same observation

    Link to the full episode here

  • Robert W.

    These men and women should have some integrity and leave the ministry. It is that simple. Nobody is saying it would be easy on them, but doing the right thing is sometimes harder then doing the easy thing.

  • Non-Litigious Atheist

    @Robert W.: I was wondering when someone was going to say that.

    I understand the principle you’re advocating–better to cut off your own legs than tell a lie, right?

    Because in the end, you’ll be much better off living under a bridge next to burning garbage to keep warm than living a lie at least until you can find better employment, right? Pfff…

    Screw ‘doing the right thing’. Since no one in this life is going to look out for you but you in any case, keep your priorities straight – look out for number one. Because if you end up living under that bridge, or in a van down by the river, not a soul will do a damn thing to make things better for you.

    Why look out for others if others aren’t going to look out for you? Does not compute.

  • I’ve become a little more — but just a little — more sympathetic to them since reading so much of their plight here and those who have posted.

    I still think it behooves them to get the hell out even if it means a lowering from middle class to poverty. Justifying making a living at this is rather akin to justifying dope dealing or burglary because, hey, I’d be destitute if I didn’t.

    I don’t think I would give to something to help them switch careers. I started out with nothing at 18, except my sister taking me in briefly and I would up in a cheap motel room (fortunately not for long, only about a month) before getting my first job. Why the hell should someone with the advantage of college and some experience in teaching and counseling (therefore already having some advantage I didn’t when I graduated high school) need any more help than I did? At least, I didn’t first scam people and neglect to put anything in the bank while doing it.

    Stop scamming and go flip burgers if you have to. Work your way up just like everyone else in the history of the world.

  • Non-Litigious Atheist

    @TheSecretAtheist: Seether has some advice for you:

    Fake it – If you’re out of direction
    Fake it – If you don’t belong
    Fake it – If you feel like infection
    You’re such a fu(king hypocrite
    @muggle: If destitution is the only alternative drug dealing ain’t such a bad idea. It sure beats prostitution or becoming a murder victim after being complacent with your shitty surroundings.

    Before you reclaim your moral high ground, don’t pretend that each and every one of us is not living off of the back-breaking, soul-crushing, unceasing labor of the third world. Not sure how drug dealing is any worse than that.

    A shout out to the children of the orphanage, kicked to the curb after being thrown into this world 18 years ago.

  • Ian

    @muggle – Yeah, I’ve been there too, with no money to buy food. And I would do it again. But I absolutely would not put my 3 year old son through going hungry. Full-stop. If I had to steal, so be it, let alone take a completely legal job serving the needs of people around me, and having to lie about what I believe to do it.

    “These men and women should have some integrity and leave the ministry. It is that simple. Nobody is saying it would be easy on them, but doing the right thing is sometimes harder then doing the easy thing.”

    Yes, and sometimes doing the right thing is also the stupid thing. Or causes more evil, or worse outcomes. You speak like someone who’s never had to chose between not having a place to live or telling a lie.

  • Robert W.

    Non-Litigious Atheist,

    I understand the principle you’re advocating–better to cut off your own legs than tell a lie, right?

    Because in the end, you’ll be much better off living under a bridge next to burning garbage to keep warm than living a lie at least until you can find better employment, right? Pfff…

    So you are advocating that it is okay to lie to your employer if it serves your purpose? I hope your boss knows the limit of your moral foundation.

    I’m advocating that these folks be honest with their employers. That seems to be a very basic concept. It not like these guys can’t replace their income. They just shouldn’t steal from their church which is exactly what they are doing.

    A shout out to the children of the orphanage, kicked to the curb after being thrown into this world 18 years ago.

    Are you referring to the orphanage that my family supports in Uganda or is this simply a disjointed comment?

  • Robert W.

    Ian,

    Yes, and sometimes doing the right thing is also the stupid thing. Or causes more evil, or worse outcomes. You speak like someone who’s never had to chose between not having a place to live or telling a lie.

    I have been in that very position and I did the right thing and told the truth. I was better off for it.

    When you decide to sell your integrity for money its like the old joke about a man asking if a women would sleep with him for a million dollars and she says maybe. He then asks her if she would do that for $50 dollars and she proclaims she is not a whore. He says we have already established what you are, we are just arguing about the price.

  • Ian

    Robert, Well maybe we can’t discuss this more. Because I simply don’t believe you. I simply don’t believe that you haven’t lied *this week* when you had nothing more at stake than what someone thought of you. If you are telling me that you never lie for your own benefit, and would value that integrity over anything else that life could throw at you. Then I’m sorry, but I find you as unbelievable as any Christian saint.

    *I’m* certainly not like that. Nor are anyone else I know. But if you are genuinely that saintly, it explains the lack of compassion I sensed from your initial response.

  • Non-Litigious Atheist

    They just shouldn’t steal from their church which is exactly what they are doing.

    @Robert W.: Bullshit. They are going through the motions that they were paid to go through. How is that stealing? Stealing would be taking the money and not going through the motions.

    They just don’t believe it any longer. Under those conditions I think it would be uncomfortable to be that minister. But that uncomfortableness hurts the minister, not anyone else, who are oblivious to the minister’s private opinions.

    What’s the difference between the minister retiring because he no longer believes but does not tell anyone, and the minister who retires because he’s done with ministering?

    If there’s any immorality here it is that the minister has to say things that he doesn’t believe in order to survive. We all have to do that. Most commonly, we have to kiss people’s asses who we hate just because they are our bosses.

    But a minister “lies” to people who already believe the lie, and who would not hear the truth were he to speak it. So he’s not really doing anything harmful to them. The only real harm would be to himself.

  • Random Joke

    I think there are two questions here:

    What are the roles and responsibilities for a minister? Is believing in god one of the job requirements? I doubt it. In that case he is not defrauding his employer.

    The other question is of morality. Should he come clean and risk losing his job. My personal belief is that he should not. Because morality is often ambiguous and sometimes pragmatism wins.

  • Robert W.

    Ian,

    Believe what you want. I am no saint. I was just responding to your comment that I spoke like someone who never had to make a hard decision between integrity and the truth and hardship that would follow from telling the truth. I have been put in that position and chose the truth. So I do know how hard that can be.

    Non-Litigious Atheist,

    @Robert W.: Bullshit. They are going through the motions that they were paid to go through. How is that stealing? Stealing would be taking the money and not going through the motions.

    When those pastors were called to the churches they work at they had to affirm that they agreed with the tenets of the church. The purpose of course is so that the congregation will know that their pastor is true to the teachings of the church or denomination. Once they determined that they no longer believed in those tenets and they continued to preach like they did, they were lying and taking money under false pretenses.

  • I didn’t enter my employment under false claims. If I were to take another church job and they asked if I believed in God or the Christian religion then I would either have to lie or pass up the job. But when I took the job I am in I thought I still believed in God.

    Now, I’m not a minister, I’m just a music director. They hired me because of my music education and ability, not (primarily) because I’m a devout man of God.

    And the decision isn’t between middle class or poverty. I’m already living just below the poverty line, the decision is between poverty and destitution. In our current economy you can’t just go find another job, there aren’t other jobs out there to be found. The area I’m living in has an unemployment rate over 11%.

    I am trying to leave the church work, but it’s taking time. Until then, I continue to do my job to the best of my ability. I’m not stealing anyone’s money.

  • I’m with Robert down the line on this one. Is this the same crowd that’s always condemning people who don’t come out as Atheists? Why do people who work for a church get a free pass on that?

    And, yep, I’d rather be poor than push either drugs or god because I have a slight problem with hurting other people. If they would hurt themselves anyway, well, it’s just not going to be with my help.

    And, Ian, you are some kind of hypocrite. Frankly, yes, I can honestly say I’ve lied to no one this week — or last. I rarely lie because I value the truth too much. This is why I’m Atheist. If someone asks if I like their new dress and I hate it, I just shrug and say, eh, it’s not my cup of tea but it’s right for you. Which is the goddamned truth because they just want their crappy choice parroted back at them as wonderful.

    Most of my work has been in civil service in positions helping other people and gimme a break with crying about exploiting 3rd world countries. I do not have control over that at all. Sorry. I just don’t. If I did, it wouldn’t be happening. Don’t get me started on outsourcing to bypass minimum standards that have to be given to workers in the US.

    SecretAtheist, are you seriously in someplace that doesn’t have any restaurants? Where no one hires housekeepers? Or just where it’s so small you can’t get hired if they know you’re Atheist. You might want to consider relocating. I got the hell out of a small town too when I graduated high school.

    For precisely that reason. No work. Found, to my surprise, that I liked the city much better. Lots to do and no freaking small town everyone has to march to the same beat attitude.

  • Robert W.

    Secret Atheist,

    I didn’t enter my employment under false claims. If I were to take another church job and they asked if I believed in God or the Christian religion then I would either have to lie or pass up the job. But when I took the job I am in I thought I still believed in God.

    I understand that this change in your belief happened after you began your employment but that doesn’t change the ethical problem from continuing your employment. Everytime you direct the music and sing about praising and worshiping God you are sending the impression that you believe what you are directing others to sing.

    If you don’t think that it would make a difference to your employer that you are an atheist now that you have been hired then tell them. The fact that you are keeping it secret shows you know that they would not approve and would probably let you go despite your musical talents.

    A church is a community of believers that come together under common beliefs to worship together. They expect no less from their leaders.

    I am not without compassion for your dilemma, but the right thing to do would be to tell them and find another job. If this job pays so little I am sure it would not be too difficult to replace that income.

  • Non-Litigious Atheist

    Now I’ve let a few very trustworthy friends know of my situation, started a blog sharing my story, and am getting involved (anonymously) in the online atheist community and it has been a very freeing experience!

    @TheSecretAtheist: Sounds like, as a non-minister, any potential ethical conflict for you has totally evaporated. A musician in a church need not be a believer any more than the church’s plumber.

    And good for you for not falling for the hype that you should out yourself at the expense of everything you own, or worse, at the expense of your reputation, which might prevent you from ever bettering your situation.

    The same shitheads sitting on their high horse insisting that you must out yourself have their own agenda, and that agenda does not include catching you when you fall. Which of these pretentious assholes will help find you a job when the tangible negative consequences of outing yourself hit you like a ton of bricks? Not a single one of them. That’s why you have to look out for yourself – because nobody else is going to do it for you.

    Coming out to friends and relatives and co-workers has no freeing positive benefits that you can’t get by ‘coming out’ online anonymously. And coming out online anonymously has none of the tangible negative consequences. The best of both worlds! Good for you for seeing past the hype and having the sense to realize that.

  • Ian

    “And, Ian, you are some kind of hypocrite.”

    WT? How do you get that?

    Its obvious we disagree, and frankly I find statements like “I still think it behooves them to get the hell out even if it means a lowering from middle class to poverty” (i.e. telling people to put their kids into poverty so they live up to the moral standard you want to impose on the world) to be as patronizing as anything that comes out of a church pulpit. But I don’t get how disagreeing with you makes me a hypocrite.

    “I have been put in that position and chose the truth. So I do know how hard that can be.”

    I was claiming that you had been not put in a difficult position many times and had still not told the truth. (I confess I don’t have any reason to doubt your assertion, but I was trying a different tack). i genuinely don’t know anybody who hasn’t compromised their integrity on many occasions for things much smaller than their family’s health and welfare. But fair enough. We disagree, it happens.

    My bottom line is that I don’t even want to be the kind of person that is so self-obsessed with stroking my moral superiority that I’m willing to sell my family down the river for it. Like Christian sainthood, I know people tell me I should want it, but I really don’t.

    Truth is important to me. But seeing my son have a roof over his head, food in his stomach, and access to good medical care is more important. And I’m glad it is so.

  • There are restaurants where I live, but there are no jobs at the moment. When positions open, generally companies are not rehiring the positions right now. Unemployment in my state is over 10% and in my city is closer 11-12%. Two or three years ago I could have just quit my job and found another one right away. That has changed, in case you hadn’t noticed.

  • Ian, I feel sorry as all fucking hell for your kid. Sure, you’re giving him material things but you are saying those are worth more than he is. Bottom line.

    Fact is, even in these bad times, there’s work out there for someone with your education or if willing to relocate and sweat for a living. Why don’t you just be honest and admit you’re not?

    You’re no different than those women who look the other way why hubby diddles the kid so they don’t have to give up their house on Wisteria Lane because, horrors, it would be even worse to live a small apartment on a bus line. In your case, you’d rather also brainwash your kid into a life of servitude to this nonexistent god.

    Or do you claim to tell this 3yo who is likely to let something slip to someone and out you that it’s all a lie and thereby set an honorable example of crookedness for him to follow because, man, you might not really worship gawd but sure as fucking hell obviously do worship the golden calf.

    Me, I have a daughter who thanks me for not being one of those women. Hope you’re able to look your son in the eye when he starts asking you the tough questions about why you’re scamming people, Dad.

    And, no, I don’t tell you how what morals to have. But I also don’t respect anyone who has none.

  • Ian

    Hahaha, Okay, that was about the most batshit response I’ve read for while. Up to this point I was wondering if you were a fruitcake. And that confirms it.

    “You’re no different than those women who look the other way why hubby diddles the kid” Classy! Go for the pedophile accusations. *shakes head slowly*.

    I’m not into the whole insane insult thing, so welcome to the killfile, I’ll chalk it up to not listening to my gut after your first attempt to troll me.

  • I’m not trolling, I’m talking. You just don’t like being called out for the freaking hypocrite you are.

    But, yep, better keep your child in that church because you are talking like a preacher now.

    I compared you not to the child abuser. I compared you to those who aid and abet the child abuse by looking the other way because having that cushy Pleasant Valley Sunday lifestyle is ever so much more important than any harm done to a child particularly your own.

    Maybe your kid can follow in your footsteps. Okay, if he cheats and scams as long as he earns some cushy lifestyle. Maybe you should leave your little church and start up one of those megachurches. It’ll net you even more gold and your kid can strive to be like Franklin Graham.

  • But since I put actual values ahead of moolah, guess I’m batshit crazy.

    But don’t talk to me that you’re doing this for your kid. You ain’t. You are doing this for you.

    If you gave a shit about your kid, you would care about what the effect of being subject to that church is doing to him.

  • Pseudonym

    Haven’t seen the video yet, but I remember reading the original report and noting the marked contrast between the “liberals” and the “literals”.

    I don’t recall seeing anything dishonest about the “liberals” take on things, and I also seem to recall thinking that we need far more clergy like them.

    BTW, I thought the most insightful comment was from Marcus Borg. “Disbelief” is not the same thing as “different beliefs”.

  • Actually, the video they have associated with the story isn’t about the story–it’s a “man on the street” bit illustrating the atheists know more about Christianity than Christians story that came out a few weeks back.

  • Non-Litigious Atheist

    But since I put actual values ahead of moolah, guess I’m batshit crazy.

    @muggle: That, and you believe in ghosts – but aren’t cashing in on the Indian paranormal challenge either.

  • FriendlyAtheistPastor

    I have been a pastor for 12 years. I have been in Christian ministry for nearly 20 years. I have a religion degree from a Baptist college. I have no training outside of that. I make about as much as a tenured secondary teacher with a graduate degree. My family of nine (Not unusual for a ministry family – think 7th heaven) depends on my income. We live in a home provided by the church. Unlike my wife, I no longer believe. What would you do in my shoes?