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Falling from Faith: When Pastors Stop Believing

What are we doing as a church to form clergy that can navigate the complexities of life and faith?

An increasing amount of attention is being given to ministers who lose their faith. In less than a year NPR, CNN, MSNBC, The Washington Post, The Religion News Service, and ABC Nightly News have featured stories about "preachers who don't believe."

At first blush, given the numbers involved, the level of interest in the subject is surprising. Even "The Clergy Project," an organization formed to assist those who are confronting a crisis of faith, reports that it has all of 240 members. That's hardly a tsunami and it's hardly anything new.

There are probably a lot of reasons for the media's interest in the subject: Even with a global economic crisis, a few wars, and a presidential election, there are always a few slow news days. "The Clergy Project" probably has a fabulous PR department, supported as it is by The Richard Dawkins Foundation, Freedom from Religion Foundation, American Atheists, the American Humanist Association, The Appignani Foundation, The Center for Inquiry, The Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, and Recovering from And beyond garden variety religious fervor, there is no religious fervor like that of a former believer. So, it's the kind of story that always draws a crowd.

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My Dear Reverend,

I am obliged to respond to you, for several reasons. First, to address the few points you made about why clergy come to the reasoning that the existence of the supernatural is disingenuous. I understand that you are probably very removed from the secular experience, as the points you put forward are extremely common among believers - particularly the clergy - and have been addressed at length by many of us.

First, allow me to point out that the argument that some clergy who stop believing actually held no belief in the first place is highly insulting, extremely inaccurate, incredibly condescending and decidedly arrogant. Having been in the pulpit myself, I can speak for many, many of us who were just as genuine in our beliefs as the most pious of the clergy. To presume that we never believed not only negates the years that we invested in the cultivation of our congregations and the work we've invested in our sermons and any other church activities, it also suggests that every member of the ex-clergy was guilty of avarice throughout the entirety of their tenure. Secondly, to blame the church or churches because of various actions or inaction as a reason for leaving the faith ignores the individuals doctrinal and theological education, and their ability to employ critical thought. Also, when one disagrees with a church (or entire denomination for that matter), it necessitates a change of venue. The individual church is no different from an automotive service station. When you do not like or agree with how they work on your car, you simply find another mechanic. You don't quit driving.

Thirdly, your point that an immature and simplistic assumption about God, providence and persistent suffering as a possible reason also lacks merit. Those issues are the responsibility of the clergy to impart onto seekers and new converts, and serve as a base for their individual growth. If there is a clergyman in any pulpit in any church who is still drinking milk (1 Corinthians 3:2, etc.), then they should not be there in the first place.

Fourth, your point about struggling with the content of Seminary curriculum addresses my earlier point on using critical thought, as well as a failure on the part of those who are responsible for the curriculum, itself. If a religious school exposes their students to material that will cause them to explore areas of life that are antithetical to a religious education, they should not be surprised when a student has a change of mind. For what it's worth, I started questioning my own faith while in class, after my Professor issued "The Epic of Gilgamesh," with accompanying commentary by a well-known, highly respected and frequently referenced archaeologist who explained in great detail the specifics of religious development in the fertile crescent during the bronze and iron ages.

Fifth, and finally, your closing point that others stop believing for a "deeper reason" is cop-out. Adding a catch-all to an issue that is as complicated as this should not have even been considered.

Reverend, I am not only a member of The Clergy Project, but part of the leadership team. While we appreciate the PR, I would be remiss if I did not address the fact that we exist not to destroy the faith of the Clergy. By the time they reach us, they have already come to the place in their journey where they have already acknowledged the non-existence of the supernatural.

What we provide is support, a like-minded community and place where our members can speak freely and discuss matters of a personal nature without fear of admonishment and judgment. As well, The Clergy Project is a place where our members can feel secure in their anonymity if they so choose to remain so.

Simply blowing our members off as confused, disobedient, improperly educated children is bad form and, as I stated, insulting and condescending. It is my hope that you will realize this and act accordingly.
Al Stefanelli
Georgia State Director,
American Atheists, Inc.
PO Box 3531
Peachtree City, GA 30269



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