Losing Their Religion

The philosopher and “New Atheist” Daniel Dennett, working together with clinical psychologist Linda LaScola, has undertaken an interesting project: a series of interviews with pastors who have lost their belief in God. Dennett and LaScola have presented the results in a paper now available online. Here is an introductory excerpt:

A spectrum of available conceptions of God can be put in rough order, with frank anthropomorphism at one extreme—a God existing in time and space with eyes and hands and love and anger—through deism, a somehow still personal God who cares but is nevertheless outside time and space and does not intervene, and the still more abstract Ground of all Being, from which (almost?) all anthropomorphic features have been removed, all the way to frank atheism: nothing at all is aptly called God. To some people, deism is already atheism in disguise, but others are more flexible. Karen Armstrong, for instance, in her most recent book, The Case for God, dismisses both the anthropomorphic visions (“idolatry”) and the various brands of atheism, while claiming, as she recently put it while speaking with Terri Gross on Fresh Air, that “God is not a being at all.” Assuming that she meant what she said, she claims, by simple logical transposition, that no being at all is God. That would seem to be about as clear a statement of atheism as one could ask for, but not in her eyes.

There is no agreement at all, then, about where to draw a line across this spectrum, with belief in God on one side and non-belief on the other, and many people are quite content to ignore the question. But two of our pastors have felt the need to draw the line, and to recognize that, given where they draw the line, their own view has crossed it: they no longer deserve to be called believers, whatever others may think. The other three say that they may not believe in a supernatural god, but they believe in something. Still, they all find themselves with a secret: they don’t believe what many of their parishioners think they believe and think they ought to believe.

The fact that they see it in such morally laden terms shows how powerfully the phenomenon of belief in belief figures in our lives. Most people believe in belief in God; they believe that it is a state one should aspire to, work strenuously to maintain, and foster in others—and feel guilty or dismayed if one fails to achieve it. Whether or not our pastors share that belief in belief—some still do and others no longer do—they recognize only too well that revealing their growing disbelief would have dire consequences for their lives. So they keep it to themselves.
After introducing them, we will explore the most interesting similarities and differences we discovered. We have given them fictitious names and scrambled the inessential details of their stories that might serve to identify them, so any similarity seen between their stories and known individuals should be viewed as mere coincidence. Here are their stories.

It is a sad report, and one that points out, above all, the distinction between religion’s sociological role and the actual content of its message; it shows that belief in belief is what really makes the world go round. So clear is this to the pastors themselves — if not explicitly articulated — that none of them feels obligated, despite having seen through the ruse, to alert his flock. Their own livelihoods and closest personal relationships would be damaged or destroyed by open apostasy, and so they live in an awkward, closeted world:

Plausible deniability is maintained by both parties, just in case either of them is making a dangerous mistake. It seems that atheist gaydar is not yet a well-developed sensitivity among the clergy, and one of our pastors acknowledged that his efforts at sounding out his friends struck him as much like the forays of homosexuals in earlier times, when so much calamity could be triggered by coming out.

You can read it here. There is also an online forum, with some thoughtful remarks by various savants, and the usual torrent of rubbish from the general public (incuding one comment from your humble correspondent), here.

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