A decade ago, Catherine Dunphy was on her way to becoming a religious leader, having already been a Roman Catholic student chaplain… but that changed when she began to have doubts about God. Her journey out of religion led her to start (and lead) the Clergy Project to help others pastors out of the pulpit — she was one of the original members and its eventual Executive Director.
She tells her story in a new book called From Apostle to Apostate: The Story of the Clergy Project (Pitchstone Publishing, 2015):
In the excerpt below, Dunphy talks about why shedding her faith is more complicated than just not believing in God:
Losing relationships is not the only loss that members of the project detail after leaving their faith. For most of us, faith played a significant role in our lives and in how we understood and defined ourselves. Faith was more than an idea or talisman that we held close to our hearts; it had a life of its own, it was imbued with power and deemed essential to survival.
I had an opportunity to speak at length about the losses associated with rejecting one’s faith with Mary Johnson, a former nun who served in the Missionaries of Charity. I had read her memoir, An Unquenchable Thirst, in which she details her twenty-year journey as a sister and her work with Mother Teresa. Reading her words, I found myself laughing and weeping in remembrance of the believer I had been, and in recognition of the humanist I have become. I told Mary that her book had led me to consider, for the first time since leaving Catholicism, the things that I had lost when I left my faith.
We began to reminisce about our former lives and identities, listing off the many things that we have left behind, including rites and rituals that we had enjoyed. One of the things high on that list, believe it or not, was prayer. Mostly this was due to the fact that prayer provided the space for silence, and that silence is something that is not necessarily cultivated in the secular world. At one point during this conversation, I looked at Mary and said, “This well that we drank from is too deep.”
Losing faith is not something that Clergy Project members set out to do when they first started asking questions about their beliefs. In fact, many would say that their search for answers represented an attempt to better understand their faith and to have more impact as a religious leader and person of faith. But once you are confronted by the uncomfortable glare of your own reasoned assessment, there is little left to cling to as you face the loneliness of your loss of faith.
As members of the Clergy Project, our religious lives took years to construct; they are part of our formation and our history. We may have extracted our beliefs, but we cannot extract their imprint on our lives. In many ways, our past experiences have made us who we are, and we are challenged to take what we have learned and reanimate our values in light of reason and the beauty of reality. We have learned that despite the losses, outside the walls of faith, the truth is beautiful.
From Apostle to Apostate is available beginning today.