The Q&A page from New Humanist, May/June 2010From Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola's research paper, Priests Who Are Not Believers:

“Here’s how I handle my job on a Sunday Morning: I see it as playacting. I see myself as taking on the role of a believer in a worship service, and performing. Because I know what to say. I know how to pray publicly. I can lead singing, I love singing. I Don’t believe what I am saying anymore in some of those songs, but I see it as taking on a role. Maybe that’s what it takes for me to get myself through this, but that’s what I’m doing.” Adam, Minister in the Church of Christ

“The pursuit of Christianity has brought me to the point of not believing in God, I didn’t plan to become an atheist. I didn’t even want to become an atheist. It’s just that I had no choice.” Jack, Southern Baptist Minister

What attracted you to the subject?

Daniel Dennett: When I was doing the research for my book Breaking The Spell, I sought out deeply religious people and had confidential talks with them – just to learn more about how they thought about their personal religious convictions. I was surprised to learn how many of them said that creed just wasn’t important. They didn’t believe the creeds of their denomination and it didn’t matter.

Linda LaScola: After reading an essay of Dan’s on Mother Teresa losing her faith, I wrote to him suggesting that we do a study on clergy who continue in their jobs despite having changed their views about God. As a qualitative researcher, a former psychotherapist and a recent non-believer I was intensely interested in exploring this phenomenon.

How did you go about finding them?

DD: The Center for Progressive Christianity and the Freedom from Religion Foundation provided the contacts for our five interviewees, thanks to Jim Adams and Dan Barker. There is more information about this in the study itself.

How willing were they to talk?

LL: Once people were assured of confidentiality, they were very willing to share. Eager, in fact.

What did you find most moving or surprising?

DD: I was moved by the loneliness that came through in the interviews; they were so clearly grateful and relieved to have somebody with whom to share – for the first time, really – their deepest reflections. Linda did a great job of earning their trust while probing, gently but firmly. I was also fascinated by their candid comments on how they handled various ticklish circumstances.

LL: Despite our participants’ differences in background, experience, motivation and personality, they were all very good people. They worried about being inauthentic and hypocritical. They struggled as they juxtaposed the good they were doing in their communities and their responsibilities to their families with the basic deceit required to keep their jobs. Somehow, I don’t think real hypocrites struggle with these issues. 

What conclusions can you draw?

DD: Our pilot study is too small to support any general conclusions, but it does show at least this: there are people out there who set out to devote their lives to doing good work for their churches, but who got caught in a trap of sorts, obliged by their positions to be less than candid about their evolving beliefs. This puts them in remarkable isolation, coping in one way or another with the mismatch between what they believe and what their congregations think they believe. The plain fact that emerges is that religious leaders have known about this problem for a long time, but kept it to themselves. We don’t know how widespread the phenomenon is, or its effects on the “people in the pews” or clergy as a whole, but we hope that a larger study we are planning  will shed light on this.