FFRF convention speech: The founding of The Clergy Project: By Linda LaScola

Linda LaScola’s speech was delivered on Oct. 7 at FFRF’s 39th annual convention in Pittsburgh.

Linda is one of the founders of The Clergy Project and is a clinical social worker with years of experience as a qualitative researcher and psychotherapist. She is co-author, along with Daniel C. Dennett, of Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind.

She describes how The Clergy Project came about, and her speech was, in essence, a long introduction for former minister Carter Warden, who was known only by the pseudonym “Adam Mann” for years. Warden publicly “came out of the closet” as an atheist following LaScola’s speech at the convention.

To read the transcript of the speech by Warden, see the November issue of Freethought Today. Or to watch it online, go to ffrf.org/warden.

By Linda LaScola

First, I want to extend my personal welcome as a western Pennsylvania native: Hello, younz guys! Any of younz from New Castle? I am. I never said “younz” as a kid. My mother told me it was wrong — and she was born and raised in Pittsburgh, on the north side. I told my girlfriends that if they ever left western Pennsylvania, they couldn’t say “younz.” It just wouldn’t fly outside the tri-state area.

So now I’m back saying “younz” from a podium in a stunning, downtown Pittsburgh that didn’t exist when I was growing up. And I am here to talk about something I had no clue about back then — atheist clergy.

Thanks, Dan and Annie Laurie, for giving me this opportunity.

I’m also here to briefly discuss the nonbelieving clergy study I conducted with Dan Dennett and with help from Dan Barker. And then how it relates to a pastor who is not so “Caught in the Pulpit.”

When I made my personal academic study of religion in 2005-2006, I learned that clergy learn about the mythological basis for the bible in seminary. As a qualitative researcher and former clinical social worker, I couldn’t figure out how they could then go out and teach and preach something they knew wasn’t true. How could they deal with the cognitive dissonance? I learned that philosopher Daniel Dennett had the same question. So, to make a long story very short, we teamed up with Tufts University to conduct a small pilot study, and then a larger study of 35, including current and former pastors, seminary students and professors.

It was a qualitative study, meaning it was open-ended, with no set list of questions asked the same way, and done in hour-long interviews. It resulted first in a paper on the pilot study called “Preachers Who Are Not Believers” in 2010 and later in the book, Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind.

Dan Barker provided three of our first five participants. Nonbelieving clergy were calling him out of desperation for someone to talk to. They knew he had once been a pastor because of his 2008 book, Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists. One pastor called Dan on the phone with a fake name — “Adam Mann” — then agreed to have an initial anonymous phone conversation with me about participating in the study.

He was so concerned about protecting his identity that he called from a roadside phone booth to my fax line because it didn’t have caller ID. After that phone call, he agreed to participate in the study, and trusted me enough to give me his real name.

The pilot study caused quite a stir and soon Dan Dennett and I had lots of clergy contacting us directly to be in the next part of the study.

This is when Dan Barker and Richard Dawkins saw an opportunity, with these newly discovered atheist clergy, to start the private online meeting place for apostate clergy that they had been thinking about since they first met in Iceland at the 2006 International Humanist and Ethical Union Convention.

Soon, what came to be known as The Clergy Project was being planned. I was thrilled by the idea. Emails started flying between me, Dan Barker, Dan Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Todd Stiefel and others in the secular movement. To my surprise, “Adam Mann” was also on the list. Dan Barker had added him without mentioning it to anyone. I was not happy about this. I thought it was a bad idea.

In October of 2010, I carefully crafted and sent this email: “Hello, Dan B., Dan D. and Richard. Our study participants so appreciated the opportunity to speak openly with me about their situations, I’m sure they’d appreciate even more talking to people in similar situations, and to counselors who could offer the straightforward assistance that I as a researcher could not.

“I’m leaving Adam off the response list for now. I certainly do think he could be helpful (as well as helped) in this effort, but knowing the pain he’s suffering, I wanted to spare him what might start out as an intellectual exercise that doesn’t provide the immediate support he needs. Perhaps we can bring him back in when we have some concrete ideas to run by him.”

Then I wrote this email to Adam: “Adam, don’t feel you have to spend a lot of time on this. My feeling is that you should be a recipient of this service, rather than focusing your energies on helping to plan it.”

This was the immediate response from Adam: “No way am I just going to sit back on this one. This is an opportunity to use my talents and passion for a ‘real’ good cause. Maybe I can be a recipient and contributor at the same time. I’m just a pup, but you’re in league with the big dogs now!”

After that, Adam became an active member of The Clergy Project team, and he and I worked very closely and very hard, exchanging emails fast and furiously to get the secret, private Clergy Project website up and running by March 2011, already with 52 members! And then we got the public site up a few months later. Our relationship had changed from reserved, objective interviewer and anxious, isolated pastor to that of colleagues working on a common cause.

Adam was a founder of The Clergy Project, along with me, Dan Dennett, Dan Barker, Richard Dawkins and another pastor called “Chris.” Adam received secular counseling and was the first beneficiary of the outplacement program, finding a good public sector job, which he holds today.

He also composed and secretly recorded some secular hymns with Dan Barker and he met Richard Dawkins via a secret Skype call made from his car in a shopping center parking lot. He hasn’t met Dan Dennett yet, but he’s about to.

After all this time, Adam decided that he wanted not only to be out of religion, but to be open about it, hopefully helping others who are in the same spot he was in seven years ago.

Freedom From Religion Foundation