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Preachers who are not Believers

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Are there clergy who don’t believe in God? Certainly there are former clergy who fall in this category. Before making their life-wrenching decisions, they were secret nonbelievers. Who knows how many like-minded pastors discover that they simply cannot take this mortal leap from the pulpit and then go on to live out their ministries in secret disbelief? What is it like to be a pastor who doesn’t believe in God? John Updike gave us a moving account in his brilliant novel, In the Beauty of the Lilies, which begins with the story of Reverend Wilmot, a Lutheran minister whose life is shattered by his decision to renounce the pulpit in the face of his mounting disbelief. But that is fiction and Wilmot’s period of concealment is short-lived. What is it like to be a pastor who stays the course, in spite of sharing Wilmot’s disbelief?

With the help of a grant from a small foundation, administered through Tufts University, we set out to find some closeted nonbelievers who would agree to be intensively --and, of course, confidentially–interviewed. The interviews were all conducted by Linda LaScola, a clinical social worker with years of professional experience as a qualitative researcher and psychotherapist, and, until recently, a regular churchgoer. Like her co-author, philosopher Daniel Dennett, the author of Breaking the Spell, she is an atheist who is nevertheless a sympathetic and fascinated observer of religious practices and attitudes. For this pilot study we managed to identify five brave pastors, all still actively engaged with parishes, who were prepared to trust us with their stories. All five are Protestants, with master’s level seminary education. Three represented liberal denominations (the liberals) and two came from more conservative, evangelical traditions (the literals). (We decided to concentrate this first project on Christians, and we would have included a Roman Catholic or Greek Orthodox priest, for instance–if we had encountered any, but we didn’t.) We initially had six participants, but one, a woman in the Episcopal church, had a change of heart as we were about to go to press and, at her request, all further references to her and quotations from her interviews have been removed.
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