New congregations that don’t do God may be a sign of the timesby Jessica Abrahams / December 12, 2013 / Leave a comment
Ollie Killingback spent most of his career as a clergyman for the Church of England—and for much of that time he was an atheist. “I had doubts before I entered the Church,” he says. “The study of theology [during ordination training] was supposed to relieve those.” It didn’t and he entered the ministry anyway. “I’d been on that track for so long… [but] I found myself with more and more unsatisfying situations where I couldn’t, with what I had been taught, find an adequate answer.”
Other priests go further. “Iain” still works as a Protestant minister in Ireland. In an interview with the Irish edition of the Sunday Times, he referred to God as “total and absolute nonsense” adding that trying to instil religious faith in children amounts to abuse. His congregation doesn’t know this, only his wife; he can’t look at her while he’s preaching. Ollie and Iain are members of the Clergy Project, an international online group of more than 530 clergymen and women who do not believe in God. Many have left the ministry, but about a quarter have not and use pseudonyms online. The project, founded in 2011, receives about 50 applications a month (although not all join—the group has a stringent screening process to protect the anonymity of its members). Some of the newest members are imams in Islamic countries.
Daniel Dennett, the philosopher, and his collaborator Linda LaScola published a study in 2010, “Preachers Who Are Not Believers,” for which LaScola interviewed six non-believing Christian clergymen. Dennett wondered then how many secret non-believers there were still standing in the pulpit. Research is limited, but Catherine Dunphy, Executive Director of the Clergy Project who formerly trained to be a Catholic chaplain, has watched the group grow 10-fold in two years. “If you speak to members of the Clergy Project, the one thing that is heard over and over again is that ‘we’re the tip of the iceberg.’ This is something that we believe is pretty rampant,” she says. “The majority of clergypeople know what it’s like to doubt, and there’s a good percentage that are in the closet with their doubts and have relinquished their faith.”
Leaving the priesthood is not like leaving other jobs. A priest who declares his or her atheism faces financial and social repercussions: income and home depend on the Church. Some lose their spouses and families. Others have faced threats. Dunphy…