In March 2010, On Faith published a study by Linda LaScola and me, reporting on our project to find and interview, confidentially, non-believing clergy.
The discussion at On Faith, and elsewhere, persuaded other clergy to volunteer to be interviewed by LaScola, again in strictest confidence, and as soon as she wraps up a few more interviews we will begin analyzing the transcripts and producing a report of this second phase, which we will publish in due course. Our phase II population includes more than two dozen new participants, a dozen of them currently practicing, with congregations, and drawn from more than a dozen different faiths, including Catholics, Jews, and Mormons. The existence of non-believing clergy is certainly not a trivial or rare phenomenon. No two cases are alike, and the reasons and histories make a fascinating multi-threaded tapestry of good people and how they deal with this secret mismatch.
One of the patterns we have observed, not surprisingly, is that many clergy don’t identify with the label “atheist” even though, from some perspectives, they share many of the same characteristics as atheists, including not believing in the supernatural. In any event, they do not believe what their parishioners assume them to believe. Might they be atheists? Might many self-avowed Christians and members of other faiths actually be atheists in spite of the fact that they don’t see themselves that way? One interesting possibility is that they simply haven’t figured out that they are atheists. If this sounds unlikely, compare it with Anton’s Syndrome, a well-studied phenomenon in which patients have been struck blind by a cerebral accident, but don’t realize it. It is possible. Our minds are actually quite adept at concealing troubling truths from us.
At the Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne a few weeks ago, I spoke on this topic, expecting that although the more than four thousand people in the auditorium there were all untroubled atheists (with a few interloper believers checking us out, incognito), those who might later watch my talk on the Internet would include a lot of people who don’t yet know whether or not they are atheists. Some call themselves agnostics, and may be wondering if that if the most accurate way of describing their view. In my talk I provide some tests for them to apply to themselves.
Being an atheist can be liberating, a breath of fresh air. The Global Atheist Convention was a joyous occasion. Might you discover that you belong in our happy throng?
Daniel Dennett, writes from the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University.