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Old 10th February 2020, 08:15 PM   #1
Wolfman
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The Clergy Project -- An Exclusive Organization for Ex-Religious Leaders

I am a member of The Clergy Project (TCP). This is a fairly unique organization...in order to become a member, you must A) have been in a position of religious leadership at some point in your life, and B) must now be an atheist. Not someone who's struggling, or has doubts, but someone who as absolutely and unequivocally rejected all belief in any kind of supernatural entities.

The reason for establishing TCP was simple. While losing your religious beliefs can be difficult or painful for anyone, people in positions of religious leadership can face unique challenges.



Consider a 45-year old Anglican minister. He was a Christian all his life. His only education was a religious education, attending seminary and getting ordained. Since being ordained, his only job has been as a religious leader in his church.


His church provides his housing for him. Virtually all the people he knows -- friends and parishioners -- are Christians like him. His family is Christian.


So...what does it mean to him if he reveals he no longer believes?

First, obviously, he loses his job. The church isn't going to keep a minister who has rejected God and Christianity, who considers the Bible a work of complete fiction. But when he loses his job, he also loses his home.


Not only has he lost his home, but he's virtually unemployable. All of his education and experience are in the religious field, and have little if any application to jobs outside of that sphere.


Then there's the fact that most churches, when they discover their priest/pastor/minister has lost their faith, turn on them with hatred and animosity. They are treated as a pariah, they are shunned, they are condemned. And those who don't react that way generally are trying to convert them back to Christianity.

On top of all of that, they may also have to face the loss of their family. If their wife is still religious, it could mean divorce, and fighting over the kids.


TCP has over 1000 members (think about that for a minute -- one thousand people who were religious leaders, generally very well educated/indoctrinated in their beliefs, and certainly far more knowledgeable than the average believer, who nevertheless concluded that there is no god, and that religion is bunk). Of those 1000 members, approximately one quarter to one third are still in positions of religious leadership! Not because they want to be, but because they feel trapped (for the very reasons I listed above). Most of these would be people who are older, for whom the prospects of finding new jobs and building new lives will be far more difficult.

There are a few who are there because they want to be. These are generally people in much more liberal churches, where God and the Bible are treated more as valuable concepts than as literal truths. A great example would be Greta Vosper, a minister in the United Church of Canada, who lives in Toronto. She gained international attention when she openly declared herself an atheist (and had the support of the people in her church), and the United Church leadership tried to oust her. After a long, public battle, the United Church finally accepted her as an openly atheist minister.

I am not only a member (my own credentials for acceptance are that I served as a missionary, evangelist, and church planter in China from 1993-1998, before finally rejecting it all and becoming a passionate Secular Humanist), but also serve on the Board of Directors, and am the head of a committee that focuses on international outreach (to provide support to members who live outside of North America).

I'd encourage anyone who's interested to check out the organization's website. It's a truly fascinating group of people, and in my opinion, a very worthwhile project.
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Old 11th February 2020, 01:45 PM   #2
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Hello Wolfman.

I recall listening to Daniel Dennett giving a presentation titled “The Evolution of Confusion” some years ago. Dan and his his colleague Linda LaScola, interviewed many non believing clergy and it was Dan's observation, that many in the number lost, or started to lose, their faith in seminary. There they were confronted with the very dubious history of religious scripture.

How did it go for you?
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Old 11th February 2020, 04:52 PM   #3
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Actually, Dan and Linda were directly involved in the original establishment of TCP; and I'm a regular contributor to Linda's blog.


I didn't lose my faith in seminary...but it was certainly the beginning of the process. Before I went, I knew what I believed, but if asked why, I would only have been able to say, "Because that's what the Bible says"...with a few Bible passages that provided basic support for my claims.

When I started studying theology, the Bible, church history, etc., I started to see an awful lot of contradictions and logical conflicts. But it didn't make me question my beliefs...I simply assumed that I didn't have enough knowledge or enough faith, and as I prayed and studied more, the 'truth' would be revealed.


I graduated, and went to China as a missionary and evangelist...and was still a strong, sincere believer. But my doubts were growing. As I kept praying and studying, rather than finding answers, I kept finding more questions.


My transition to atheist was fairly quick...within a period of a few days, I realized that this stuff just didn't make sense, and there was no way to rationalize it. I came to the conclusion that I could no longer claim to support it...and bingo, I was an atheist.


As I sought an alternative moral/ethical system to fill the void, I quickly discovered Secular Humanism, and have been a passionate Secular Humanist ever since.
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Old 11th February 2020, 06:16 PM   #4
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Hello Wolfman,

I'm tempted to say Wolfman Jack. But I'm afraid that will date me.

I'm a regular listener to the Atheist Experience and they have mentioned the Clergy Project and Recovering from Religion many times. I also have heard Dawkins and Sam Harris refer to it.

It has to be really hard to move on for a preacher. But the weird think about all this, is that the more one studies Christianity, the harder it is I think to continue believing.

I don't think I ever believed in Christianity literally, but believed in the kindness and care for others that seemed to along with it. When I was about 22 I decided to read the Bible from the beginning. After all, I read a lot of books so I kind of owed it to myself to read the Bible in its entirety. By the time I got through Kings I despised it. Stories like Jepthah and Lot and others made me sick to my stomach.

I wish you the best. My the sun shine and may people smile at you.
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Old 11th February 2020, 11:05 PM   #5
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There was a short series on British radio quite a few years ago that was produced by a vicar that had lost his faith and it covered his own story and interviewed others who had been or were going through the same thing.

He was someone like Wolfman described, he had to give up his job, which meant also he lost his family home, thankfully for him he had been born into the comfortable class, which meant he'd been to the right school and uni so he didn't find it financially devastating. (Which is why of course he ended up doing a series on what happened to him for the BBC.) What was surprising to me is how he described he was treated by his congregation, which was also his entire social circle, they seemed to be pretty much OK with it! (Again probably more to do with his social class.)

However some of the stories from other people were heart breaking, stories of it leading to divorce, poverty and pretty much the end of their life as they had known it for decades. One was an American vicar (?) and he described how he'd been run out of his small town, the local stores refused to serve him or his family, graffiti on his property, even the police pulling them over all the time.

It is easy to forget what a "practical" tragedy it can be for someone to lose their faith when not only their entire social life was based on that faith but their livelihood.

It's the reverse of "no atheists in a fox hole", I wonder how many of the clergy find themselves trapped?
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Old 11th February 2020, 11:13 PM   #6
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Originally Posted by Darat View Post
I wonder how many of the clergy find themselves trapped?
Approximately 1/4 of our members are in that position. Our site has a very high level of anonymity, specifically to protect the identities of members like that.


Consider that we represent what is probably a relatively small percentage of non-believing clergy overall.
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Old 12th February 2020, 12:44 AM   #7
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This is a terrific community needed for those who have felt the profound loss of community.

While not a former member of clergy, as a "preacher's kid" I still do feel ripples of loss from the community I grew up in. I identify as an atheist and have for nearly 20 years. My father started his own offshoot SDA church and then was a pastor in another SDA church. At some point in my youth, he began to question the SDA faith due to a book titled "The White Lie" about the religion's founding prophet, Ellen White. But he never gave up faith. He just switched religions. I couldn't keep my faith. But I had to leave so much behind. I went to private SDA school. Everyone I knew was an Adventist. I take solace in how well being a heathen, apostate black sheep suits me; they all knew I was different anyhow.

It is hard for anyone to leave something they are so deeply a part of. I am glad this is an option for those who have the courage to leave their former calling.
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Old 12th February 2020, 10:29 AM   #8
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A nun told a group of kids about 5 to 12 years old religion used to be a method of controlling the masses in context to something historic.
My youngest brother then asked her what it for now, she was honest and answered it pretty much has that function now.

My brother became an atheist that day. The nun already was and she taught history in the Catholic grade school.
He and I went through the motions for mom until it was confirmation time. The priest asked each in turn "do you want to be a member of the church as an adult." I said no.

It took years for my mother to get past that, but I didn't lie.

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Old 12th February 2020, 11:50 AM   #9
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When I first heard about ministers who had lost their belief in the religion they were practising, it occurred to me they might make good mid-level managers in a business organization. If they were competent handling their church's affairs, they should be able to handle people, interpersonal relationships, money, budgets, and perhaps conflicting priorities—all are things that managers do.

Has this been the experience of any who have left the clergy?
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Old 12th February 2020, 01:25 PM   #10
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Originally Posted by Wolfman View Post
Actually, Dan and Linda were directly involved in the original establishment of TCP; and I'm a regular contributor to Linda's blog.


I didn't lose my faith in seminary...but it was certainly the beginning of the process. Before I went, I knew what I believed, but if asked why, I would only have been able to say, "Because that's what the Bible says"...with a few Bible passages that provided basic support for my claims.

When I started studying theology, the Bible, church history, etc., I started to see an awful lot of contradictions and logical conflicts. But it didn't make me question my beliefs...I simply assumed that I didn't have enough knowledge or enough faith, and as I prayed and studied more, the 'truth' would be revealed.


I graduated, and went to China as a missionary and evangelist...and was still a strong, sincere believer. But my doubts were growing. As I kept praying and studying, rather than finding answers, I kept finding more questions.


My transition to atheist was fairly quick...within a period of a few days, I realized that this stuff just didn't make sense, and there was no way to rationalize it. I came to the conclusion that I could no longer claim to support it...and bingo, I was an atheist.


As I sought an alternative moral/ethical system to fill the void, I quickly discovered Secular Humanism, and have been a passionate Secular Humanist ever since.

Thanks for your story Wolfman.

Dan Dennett told us in the aforementioned talk, that many of the non believing clergy, thought they were the "tip of the iceberg". I ponder about this and can imagine many, many, clergy just hanging in there, because they have nowhere to go. Those that are in that situation I can sympathise with. I can also imagine that many of the more famous, and well to do, are just in it for the money.
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Old 12th February 2020, 02:03 PM   #11
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Originally Posted by Darat View Post
There was a short series on British radio quite a few years ago that was produced by a vicar that had lost his faith and it covered his own story and interviewed others who had been or were going through the same thing.

He was someone like Wolfman described, he had to give up his job, which meant also he lost his family home, thankfully for him he had been born into the comfortable class, which meant he'd been to the right school and uni so he didn't find it financially devastating. (Which is why of course he ended up doing a series on what happened to him for the BBC.) What was surprising to me is how he described he was treated by his congregation, which was also his entire social circle, they seemed to be pretty much OK with it! (Again probably more to do with his social class.)

However some of the stories from other people were heart breaking, stories of it leading to divorce, poverty and pretty much the end of their life as they had known it for decades. One was an American vicar (?) and he described how he'd been run out of his small town, the local stores refused to serve him or his family, graffiti on his property, even the police pulling them over all the time.

It is easy to forget what a "practical" tragedy it can be for someone to lose their faith when not only their entire social life was based on that faith but their livelihood.

It's the reverse of "no atheists in a fox hole", I wonder how many of the clergy find themselves trapped?
I am friends with a former hit singer/songwriter who - although not an ordained minister - lost everything due to his loss of faith. I will call him X. Some of you familiar with music might guess who I am talking about.

His Mormon dad was/is a very famous rock star with international hits. X was raised in that strict Mormon religion. X himself had some pretty major success and became a star in his own right.

Given the fact that X was born into a very wealthy and famous rock star family, his success with the ladies from puberty on was - in his own words - guaranteed. Not only did the women throw themselves at him - so did their Mormon parents. What a catch! He was 22 when he married his 18 year old bride and they had 8 kids.

He and his wife shared a very strong faith-based marriage. That marriage turned to dust when X's education and research made him come to the realization that Joseph Smith was a liar.

What followed in very short order was end of marriage, loss of children, loss of community, loss of wealth, loss of Father's love and support. He became an outcast from the Mormon community - the only community he had ever known.

He stopped performing and the money troubles began due to no income and huge support payments. Down and out, he literally invented another persona to at first gain entry into an exclusive club in his home city - and then to poke fun at the world of celebrity.

Fast forward a few years and a new relationship with a very strong and wonderful lady and X is back on track. He and his father have reconciled - as much as his jerk of a father can (his father's well known reputation as a complete ass is well deserved) - and X now tours and plays in his dad's band which provides a good income and outlet for X's artistic side.

X is lucky. He was close to doing something desperate and final more than once. The right relationship came just in time for him.

I wonder how many poor souls whose lives are torn asunder after discovering that their most firmly held and fundamental beliefs are false or ill-founded never get the opportunity to discover a good life again?
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Old 13th February 2020, 02:08 PM   #12
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Originally Posted by Wolfman View Post
I didn't lose my faith in seminary...but it was certainly the beginning of the process. Before I went, I knew what I believed, but if asked why, I would only have been able to say, "Because that's what the Bible says"...with a few Bible passages that provided basic support for my claims.

When I started studying theology, the Bible, church history, etc., I started to see an awful lot of contradictions and logical conflicts. But it didn't make me question my beliefs...I simply assumed that I didn't have enough knowledge or enough faith, and as I prayed and studied more, the 'truth' would be revealed.
I was pretty happy being a christian until I went to a Catholic high school. The teachers were far more instant that we think for ourselves and they held us to a fairly high standard of figuring things out. Add to that exposure to theology as a course of study and it was very eye opening. The more I learned about physics the more I could see how interesting it was and how much more there was to learn. The more I learned about theology the emptier it seemed as a topic for exploration and useful education. It was more about the container than the contents.

Fast forward to sitting in a meeting at a Catholic church where the youth leader gets up to insist that the parents not rely on sending their kids to Catholic school as a substitution for continuing to practice their faith. He lamented that most of his classmates from his Catholic high school were effectively atheists. I rolled my eyes and thought uncharitably "you struggled a bit in high school, didn't you?"

I have a Jewish-Atheist friend who asserts that Hebrew school is the best way to get your kids off religion. I argue that the Jesuits are the front line for converting religious folks to atheism. I imagine both are full of people that could benefit from your work at TCP.

Thanks for sharing and I hope your work there remains fruitful.
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Old 16th February 2020, 07:34 AM   #13
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Originally Posted by Thor 2 View Post
Dan Dennett told us in the aforementioned talk, that many of the non believing clergy, thought they were the "tip of the iceberg".
That seems evident to me even from the outside listening in. Preachers can choose whatever religious topic they want to write any particular sermon on, so any subject they don't want to talk about wouldn't end up as a sermon; they'd just write sermons on some other subject instead. But it's common for sermons to be all about doubt, loss of faith, spiritual confusion, straying from the path, whatever else they call it... which means that that's something those sermon writers have on their minds.

I first noticed this as an enormous irony in the context of debates I've heard between non-religious people and religious people, especially presuppositionalists. The religious side in these debates often harps on the idea of absolute certainty, claiming that only religion can give you that and atheism must mean living in constant doubt about everything (which they also depict as not merely a state of lack of knowledge but also deep emotional distress). But they use that argument to represent the side that shows much more & bigger signs of significant doubt creeping through not just this subject, but also from there to all other aspects of their lives.
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