The Baptist Press has posted a column by R. Albert Mohler Jr. about the Clergy Project, in which Mohler complains that former believers, Jerry DeWitt, a native of DeRidder, La., and former pastor Teresa MacBain of Tallahassee, Fla. (I wrote about her here), did not simply resign from their church’s after becoming unbelievers but remained on staff and continued to draw a salary based on hypocrisy. Referring to former believers who were part of a study conducted by Daniel C. Dennett and Linda LaScola, Mohler said:
These pastors clearly are not believers, at least in any orthodox or recognizably Christian sense. They spoke openly and in considerable detail about their unbelief, with the ministers explaining how they had abandoned any confidence in biblical Christianity.
Why didn’t they just resign? Most shockingly, some openly spoke of losing their salaries as the main concern. So much for intellectual honesty.
Mohler also presented a dim view of this quote from Richard Dawkins:
It is hard to think of any other profession which it is so near to impossible to leave.
Of course, having presumably never been in the position of DeWitt and MacBain, Mohler is ill-equipped to say how they should or shouldn’t have acted, but as a former believer, I can say that it is sometimes less painful and less stressful to simply remain in the fold rather than to “come out,” which not only strains tensions with family members and fellow churchgoers, but in many cases, a person’s entire social structure can be ripped out from under them.
I experienced some of this, and I was just simply a churchgoer and not really in a position of leadership. From reading about the experiences of former pastors Dan Barker and John Loftus, I can only imagine the feelings of ostracization that come when you are the leader of a church and must proclaim that not only can you not lead the flock anymore, you can’t and you won’t. More so than myself, pastors in small churches, especially in the South, often have no friends and no social framework outside of the church.
So yes, in a very literal sense, the clergy is nearly an impossible profession to leave because if a person is doing it correctly and sincerely, the job comes to define you as a person, as does the religion. So, while Mohler may have a fair point about former believers continuing to draw a salary from the church a) most of them have to continue to support their families while they figure out how they are going to break the news, find a new career and move forward and b) in the midst of the other crushing implications of leaving the church, money is probably not high on the agenda. Having to face life without that a social, and in some cases, familial, framework is probably the highest priority.
Mohler goes on to say that the Clergy Project, an organization with the serious goal of helping former believers (I wish they wouldn’t continue to call themselves clergy) get support from people who are going through similar experiences, is a “magnate for charlatans and cowards.” Cowards? Really? I would be amused to find what would happen if Mohler woke up one day to the truth and then found himself surrounded by people with whom he had nothing in common. Coming out in to the open about who you really are — damn the consequences — is one of the most heroic things a person can do, but that change and that decision does not happen overnight.
He then sets up a bizarre comparison between what he calls “faithful doubt” and “pernicious doubt”:
Faithful doubt leads to a deeper embrace of the truth, with doubt serving to point us into a deeper knowledge, trust and understanding of the truth. Pernicious doubt leads to unfaithfulness, unbelief, skepticism, cynicism and despair. Christians — ministers or otherwise — who are struggling with doubt, need to seek help from the faithful, not the faithless.
Help is not what these pastors and churchgoers struggling with faith are seeking. It is the truth. Under the cloak of religion, the truth can seem like a moving target. Is God real or not? Is he speaking to me or not? What was that voice I just heard in my head? Was that me or someone outside of myself? Why don’t I “get it” like other believers seem to “get it?” What am I missing? Faithful doubt led me into more than one meetings with one of my former church leaders. It led me to my knees on more nights than I can count. It led me to my Bible. And ultimately, when the answers, the proof, the substantiation did not come, it led me right out of the church. There was never anything pernicious or despairing about it. I simply woke up one bright and sunny fall morning when freedom broke, and I was done.