When faith no longer moves mountains

The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Science and Reason and the Freedom From Religion Foundation have announced the formation of a new group to help clergy who have “seen the light” to move beyond faith.

The Clergy Project — a private, invitation-only “safe house” community of current and former pastors, priests, imams and rabbis who no longer hold the supernatural beliefs of their religious traditions — was started in March 2011 with 52 members. It has now grown to more than 125 “apostates,” including 34 who are active clergy. Since the unveiling of the public informational website ­— clergyproject.org — on Oct. 7, the group has received 75 applications for membership, 33 of whom have been accepted into the group, with more applications being processed by a screening committee from within the group.

“We know there must be thousands of clergy out there who have secretly abandoned their faith but have nowhere to turn,” says Dan Barker, a former evangelical preacher who “lost faith in faith” after 19 years of preaching the gospel. “Now they do have a place to meet, a true sanctuary, a congregation of those of us who have replaced faith and dogma with reason and human well-being.”

“The Clergy Project: Moving Beyond Faith” was started by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, philosopher Daniel Dennett, researcher Linda LaScola and Barker. Dennett and LaScola’s 2010 study, “Preachers Who Are Not Believers,” was the source of some of the initial members. Dawkins, author of The God Delusion (whose foundation provided most of the initial support for the project), has been concerned for many years about helping ministers who no longer believe. Elizabeth Cornwell, executive director of the Dawkins Foundation, was very instrumental in getting the project off the ground.

Barker, who is now co-president of FFRF, which also provided some of the initial support, has been collecting records on former preachers for decades, and was the source of dozens of clergy members. These include many still-active pastors who have contacted Barker after reading his book Godless: How An Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists, and his previous book, Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist.

Current project administrators are “Adam” and “Chris,” both active pastors in Southern U.S. states, though “Chris” has recently left the ministry (read his story in an upcoming issue). The logo for the group was designed by “John,” another active U.S. preacher.

Another participant, “Lynn,” writes:

“The Clergy Project has been a lifesaver for me. I am an active Methodist pastor who is also an atheist. I began the ministry full of great dreams and full faith in what I preached. However, over time I began to realize that the ‘truth’ I was preaching wasn’t so true. I resisted my doubts at first, but the nagging in my brain wouldn’t stop. So I embarked on a journey of researching and discovering that what I had believed for so long wasn’t true.

“I’m still in the pulpit, as I stated above. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, I made a commitment to my church and my denomination to serve this appointment. Second, the financial issue. If I walk away now, my family will suffer greatly. Trust me, this decision to stay for now hasn’t been an easy one. Every week I feel like a fraud. Every week I struggle with the fact that I’m lying when I stand before my congregation. I’m leading a double life.”

Double jeopardy

The toughest issue for these religious leaders is financial. Most of them would leave the pulpit immediately if they were able to change careers readily. Former clergy help by sharing their own success stories of finding gainful secular employment.

Welcoming new members to the project, Dawkins writes:

“It is hard to think of any other profession which it is so near to impossible to leave. If a farmer tires of the outdoor life and wants to become an accountant or a teacher or a shopkeeper, he faces difficulties, to be sure. He must learn new skills, raise money, move to another area perhaps. But he doesn’t risk losing all his friends, being cast out by his family, being ostracized by his whole community.

“Clergy who lose their faith suffer double jeopardy. It’s as though they lose their job and their marriage and their children on the same day,” Dawkins says. “It is an aspect of the vicious intolerance of religion that a mere change of mind can redound so cruelly on those honest enough to acknowledge it. The Clergy Project exists to provide a safe haven, a forum where clergy who have lost their faith can meet each other, exchange views, swap problems, counsel each other — for, whatever they may have lost, clergy know how to counsel and comfort. Here you will find confidentiality, sympathy and a friendly place where you can take your time before deciding how to extricate yourself and when you will feel yourself ready to stand up and face the cool, refreshing wind of truth.”

Membership currently includes many evangelical Christian pastors, some liberal clergy, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Roman Catholic priests, a deconverted rector in the Church of Ireland, missionaries to Africa, Southern Baptist pastors, a Mormon elder, a number of Pentecostal preachers, three rabbis, an Orthodox monk who was thrown out of his monastery when he announced his lack of faith and a missionary in Southeast Asia. A former imam who lives in the U.K. may also join.

Jerry DeWitt, a former Pentecostal preacher in Louisiana who can now use his real name, was the group’s first “graduate.” He publicly announced his rejection of faith and left the ministry this summer. Some of the project members have been interviewed on Freethought Radio and on other media. (Those interviews can be heard at clergyproject.org.)

All applicants are carefully screened to protect the confidentiality of existing members. “If the identities of the active ministers were revealed to their congregations and community, all heaven would break loose,” quips Barker. No more than two “screeners” (who are current project members) know the actual identity and location of each member (held in strict confidence), and each active clergy must use a pseudonym within the group.

The Clergy Project exists in three parts: 1) a confidential, invitation-only forum; 2) a public website announcing and describing the project, with instructions on how to apply for membership; and 3) a Facebook page where nonclergy members can potentially interact with the project.

“This is exciting,” says Barker. “It’s not often we get a chance to ‘Save a Preacher!’ ”

Breaking the Spell author Daniel Dennett, who is currently working on part two of the “Preachers Who Are Not Believers” study, adds: “I am very happy to witness the launching of this vessel and to offer my wishes to all who are getting on board for a safe journey to better places.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation