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FFRF announces fund to aid nonbelieving clergy

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is announcing the creation of a special fund to help ministers and priests who want to get out of the pulpit. FFRF, along with the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, is a primary sponsor of The Clergy Project, created to help ministers, priests, rabbis and other clergy who no longer believe in the supernatural (atheists, agnostics, secular humanists) and are looking for an exit strategy to a secular life.

The Clergy Project started in March 2011 with 52 members, about a dozen of whom were still in the ministry. By early May 2012, the group had grown to more than 223, of whom 56 are still in active ministry. There are currently more than 60 pending applications, indicating that there may be a huge number of secret unbelievers in the pulpits of the world.

Funds donated to The Clergy Project will help meet many needs, including:

  • Scholarships for educational retraining. It is hard for someone with a divinity degree and a history of preaching to find new employment, especially in today's economy. Without an exit strategy that allows a minister to continue to provide for their family, it is nearly impossible to consider leaving the pulpit.
  • Temporary hardship grants. Some of the clergy in the project tell heartbreaking stories of being unceremoniously thrown out into the street (literally, in one case!) and locked out when their nonbelief became known. Others who have voluntarily "graduated" to civilian life are finding it immensely difficult to land on their feet.
  • Maintenance of the forum. The Clergy Project forum is a secret, invitation-only online sanctuary where former and active nonbelieving clergy can talk freely, comparing stories, suggesting resources, sharing concerns, asking for help, and finding a sympathetic nonjudgmental community of others who have wrestled with this unique situation.

The initial funding for The Clergy Project forum came mainly from the Dawkins Foundation and FFRF and was built and hosted by the Dawkins Foundation, along with many hours donated by clergy volunteering their time and talents (including forum facilitator Dan Barker, FFRF co-president, and other FFRF members who are former clergy).

The busy administrators of the forum are "Adam," a currently active conservative minister in the southern United States, and "Chris," who started out as an active member but has recently made his escape from a pulpit in the South. Members currently come from the U.S., Ireland, Australia, South Africa, England and Canada, as well as a few non-English-speaking countries.

"It is hard to think of any other profession which it is so near to impossible to leave," writes Richard Dawkins. "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. 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 need for The Clergy Project arose from discussions between Richard Dawkins, Dan Barker and Tufts University philosophy professor Daniel Dennett, including:

  • A preliminary study of "Preachers Who Are Not Believers," by philosopher Daniel Dennett, best-selling author of Breaking the Spell, and researcher Linda LaScola, published in March 2010 in Evolutionary Psychology and The Washington Post. They are currently working on a broader follow-up study.
  • Ongoing discussions between Barker and Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist and author of The God Delusion, about the need to help clergy who want to leave the ministry.

Teresa MacBain, whose recent dramatic "coming out" from the ministry made headline news (including positive interviews on NPR and CNN this past week) has volunteered to be acting director of The Clergy Project. "Catherine," a minister from Canada, will be acting secretary, under the acting board members Dan Barker, FFRF members and former clergy John Compere and Stephen Uhl, recent clergy "graduate" Jerry DeWitt and other former clergy who are helping to screen the many new applicants.

To donate to FFRF's "Clergy Project" fund, click here and select "Clergy Project" from the drop-down list. All donations to that fund will be used exclusively to help "Save a Preacher."

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