Preachers who are not Believers, a study by Daniel C. Dennett and Linda LaScola of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University.

The Washington Post has published a piece on “Christian” minsters who are non-believers. This article is based on in-depth interviews with five such ministers and has caused quite a stir.

P Z Myers has of course picked up on this one:

Dan Dennett has been studying the phenomenon of preachers who don’t believe what they preach, and the paper and commentary are available at the Washington post. Strangely, the newspaper has headlined it as “Skeptical clergy a silent majority?”, which is odd — the work doesn’t attempt to quantify how many unbelievers there are in the ministry, but is more of a case study of those they’ve found…and since they are only describing the in-depth interviews of five people, it’s absurd to try and draw conclusions about proportions.

It’s interesting stuff, but utterly unsurprising to atheists. These are people who entered the ministry out of a sincere desire to do good in the world, and as they delved into religious scholarship, they discovered they couldn’t believe anymore…but hey, they were still humane and concerned about their fellow human beings. They’re also concerned about what will happen to their income if they leave the church, and what will happen to the opinion others have of them. And they engage in some difficult and twisty rationalizations for their situations.

One other interesting point is that several of them came to their atheism by way of reading books by Ehrman and Spong, and also Harris and Hitchens. These works do make a difference. Unfortunately, we also learn that while they have received enlightenment, they’re very, very reluctant to share that shameful knowledge with their congregations, and continue to reassure them about belief in god.

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And so has Albert Mohler

Are there clergy who don’t believe in God? That is the question posed by a new report that is certain to receive considerable attention — and rightly so. Few church members are likely to be disinterested in whether their pastor believes in God.

The study was conducted by the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University, under the direction of Daniel C. Dennett and Linda LaScola. Dennett, of course, is one of the primary figures in the “New Atheism” — the newly aggressive and influential atheist movement that has gained a considerable hearing among the intellectual elites and the media.

Dennett is a cognitive scientist whose book, Breaking the Spell, suggests that belief in God must have at one point served an important evolutionary purpose, granting an evolutionary advantage to those who had some belief in an afterlife as compared to humans without such a belief. The reality of death, Dennett surmises, might well have been the precipitating factor. In order to make life meaningful in the face of death (and thus encourage reproduction), Dennett suggests that primitive humans invented the idea of God and the afterlife. Now, he argues, we have no more need of such primitive beliefs.

Interestingly, Dennett also proposes a new interpretation of theological liberalism. Noting that many modern people claim to be Christians while holding to virtually no specific theological content, Dennett suggests that their mode of faith should not be described as “belief,” but rather as “believing in belief.”

Given Dennett’s own atheistic agenda, we can rightly assume that he would be thrilled to see Christian ministers and believers abandon the faith. Indeed, the New Atheists have made this a stated aim. Thus, this new research report, “Preachers Who Are Not Believers,” should be read within that framework. Nevertheless, it must be read. This report demands the attention of anyone concerned with the integrity of the Christian church and the Christian faith.

Dennett and LaScola undertook their project with the goal of looking for unbelieving pastors and ministers who continue to serve their churches in “secret disbelief.” Their “small and self-selected” sample of ministers represents a microcosm of the theological collapse at the heart of many churches and denominations.

In their report, Dennett and LaScola present case studies of five unbelieving ministers, three from liberal denominations (“the liberals”) and two from conservative denominations (“the literals”).

Wes, a Methodist, lost his confidence in the Bible while attending a liberal Christian college and seminary. “I went to college thinking Adam and Eve were real people,” he explained. Now, he no longer believes that God exists. In his rendering, God is a word that “can be used very expressively in some of my more meditative modes” and “a kind of poetry that is written by human beings.”

His church members do not know that he is an atheist, but he explains that they are somewhat liberal themselves. His ministerial colleagues are even more liberal: “They’ve been de-mythologized, I’ll say that. They don’t believe Jesus rose from the dead literally. They don’t believe Jesus was born of a virgin. They don’t believe all those things that would cause a big stir in their churches.”

Rick, a campus minister for the United Church of Christ, perhaps the most liberal Protestant denomination, was an agnostic in college and seems to have lost all belief by the time he graduated from seminary. He chose ordination in the UCC because it required “no forced doctrine.” Even as he graduated from seminary, he knew, “I’m not going to make it in a conventional church.” He knew he could not go into a church and teach his own theological views, based on Paul Tillich and Rudolf Bultmann. He did not believe in the doctrinal content of the Christian faith from the beginning of his ministry. “I did not believe the traditional things even then.”

He does not believe “all this creedal stuff” about the incarnation of Christ or the need for salvation, but he remained in the ministry because, “These are my people, this is the context in which I work, these are the people that I know.” In the pulpit, his mode is to talk as if he does believe, because “as long as … you are talking about God and Jesus and the Bible, that’s what they want to hear. You’re just phrasing it in a way that makes sense to [them] … but language is ambiguous and can be heard in different ways.”

He doesn’t like to call himself an atheist, but: “If not believing in a supernatural, theistic god is what distinguishes an atheist, then I am one too.”

Darryl is a Presbyterian who sees himself as a “progressive-minded” pastor who wants to see his kind of non-doctrinal Christianity “given validity in some way.” He acknowledges that he is more a pantheist than a theist, and thinks that many of the more educated members of his church hold to the same liberal beliefs as his own. And those beliefs (or unbeliefs) are stated clearly: “I reject the virgin birth. I reject substitutionary atonement. I reject the divinity of Jesus. I reject heaven and hell in the traditional sense, and I am not alone.”

Amazingly, Darryl is candid about the fact that he remains in the ministry largely for financial reasons. It is how he provides for his family. If he openly espoused his beliefs, “I may be burning bridges in terms of my ability to earn a living this way.”

Adam ministers in the Church of Christ, a conservative denomination. After years in the ministry, he began to lose all theological confidence. After reading a series of books, he became convinced that the atheists have better arguments than believers. He has moved fully into an atheist mode, yet he continues to lead his church in worship. How? “Here’s how I’m handling my job on Sunday mornings: I see it as play acting. I see myself as taking on the role of a believer in a worship service, and performing.”

This “atheistic agnostic” stays in the ministry because he likes the people and, “I need the job still.” If he had an alternative source of income, he would take it. He feels hypocritical, but no longer believes that hypocrisy is wrong.

John is identified as a Southern Baptist minister who has primarily served as a worship leader. He was attracted to Christianity as a religion of love, but his pursuit of Christianity “brought me to the point of not believing in God.” As he explains, “I didn’t plan to become an atheist. I didn’t even want to become an atheist. It’s just I had no choice. If I’m being honest with myself.”

He is clearly not being honest with his church members. He rejects all belief in God and all Christian truth claims out of hand. He is a determined atheist. Once again, this unbelieving minister admits that he stays in the ministry because of finances. Amazingly, this minister even names his price: “If someone said, ‘Here’s $200,000,’ I’d be turning my notice in this week, saying, ‘A month from now is my last Sunday.’ Because then I can pay off everything.”

Early in their report, Dennett and LaScola point to a problem of definition. Many churches and denominations have adopted such fluid and doctrineless identities that determining who is a believer and who is an unbeliever has become difficult. Their statement deserves a close reading:

The ambiguity about who is a believer and who is an unbeliever follows inexorably from the pluralism that has been assiduously fostered by many religious leaders for a century and more: God is many different things to different people, and since we can’t know if one of these conceptions is the right one, we should honor them all. This counsel of tolerance creates a gentle fog that shrouds the question of belief in God in so much indeterminacy that if asked whether they believed in God, many people could sincerely say that they don’t know what they are being asked.

In other words, some theologians and denominations have embraced a theology so fluid and indeterminate that even an atheist cannot tell the believers and unbelievers apart.

“Preachers Who Are Not Believers” is a stunning and revealing report that lays bare a level of heresy, apostasy, and hypocrisy that staggers the mind. In 1739, Gilbert Tennett preached his famous sermon, “On the Danger of an Unconverted Ministry.” In that sermon, Tennett described unbelieving pastors as a curse upon the church. They prey upon the faith and the faithful. “These caterpillars labor to devour every green thing.”

If they will not remove themselves from the ministry, they must be removed. If they lack the integrity to resign their pulpits, the churches must muster the integrity to eject them. If they will not “out” themselves, it is the duty of faithful Christians to “out” them. The caterpillars are hard at work. Will it take a report from an atheist to awaken the church to the danger?

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9 Responses to “Preachers who are not Believers, a study by Daniel C. Dennett and Linda LaScola of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University.”

  1. Jim Says:

    Crikey! But then is this really new?

    A long time ago I became aware that certain clergy just went through the motions of belief – What they had bought into was the way of life – and they had no intention of biting the hand that fed them.

    Thinking back 200 years or so, it was indeed customary in Britain for the youngest son of “respectable” families to be expected “to go into the Church”. I believe my ancestor was one of them. I have no doubt he was a good man, but I think his theology was somewhat suspect.

    I can’t help feeling that so long as the priest is providing the clerical and pastoral care that his congregation desire, then he is fulfilling a valuable and necessary role.
    I do wonder however how such a person lives with their decision. It can’t be something that is easy to reconcile.

  2. Webmaster Says:

    That’s the issue for me really, one of moral conscience.

    It reminds me of a pacifist working in the army, which at first may sound overboard.

    Instinctively I think there are more examples of unbelieving ministers than we would know or guess.

  3. V Says:

    I believe you have completely missed the point of this article. While you are still caught up with the doctrinal directions of the bible, i.e. of ‘embracing theology’, these preachers mentioned in the bible have taken steps that go beyond such didactic restrictions, to understand why non-believers think the way they do. It is unfortunate, or maybe fortunate, that these preachers have lost their faith in their pursuit for faith. But at least they have made a pursuit for truth, in an objective manner that many christians refuse to undertake. And this is precisely why christians cannot see past the box they confine themselves in. There are more ways than one to embrace theology, and i suggest that it goes beyond just one huge metanarrative and metacircular argument based entirely on the bible.

  4. Jim Says:

    Really? I think you are reading rather more into the article than is there V.

    Actually I can empathise with those who search for deeper spirituality and find instead atheism, as that was my experience. It was not easy to “come out” and declare my lack of faith, but at least I can live with my conscience.

    What I find very hard to swallow is the concept of hiding one’s lack of faith purely for secular reasons, such as security of tenure and income.

  5. Webmaster Says:

    Jim said:

    What I find very hard to swallow is the concept of hiding one’s lack of faith purely for secular reasons, such as security of tenure and income.


  6. Goy Says:

    Have these people no conscience the only motives here are greed and self-preservation in any mesure of human inter-action those who continue to preach with deception in mind are the lowest of the low.

  7. Goy Says:

    They demand revelation and payment, self-gratification is not faith.

  8. Jim Says:

    I don’t quite see it that way Goy. Who in the right mind has not had doubts at some stage? The move away from belief can be a slow journey, punctuated by peaks and troughs. At what point does the priest decide that there is no going back – and might he not hope to regain his faith,eve after he has lost it completely? The reality of giving up everything that the calling entails must be incredibly difficult, and who in their right minds wants to cast their family out onto the street?
    I guess I’m just asking you not to be so quick to cast a blanket judgement over all. It’s not a black and white issue.

  9. Goy Says:


    “and who in their right minds wants to cast their family out onto the street?”

    The dole or some council scheme not good enough for these non-believers,
    this reduces Christianity to the meal ticket of fraudsters and is an insult to the poor that maybe in their ministry.

    No blanket judgement here even in secularism deception is wrong and not to be rewarded.

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