As the famed evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins once said of the world’s religious leaders,
“It is hard to think of any other profession which it is so near to impossible to leave.”
These words begin a welcome letter that Dawkins wrote to The Clergy Project’s charter group of fifty-two participants as its private online forum launched in March 2011.* These same words were then also quoted to begin a scathing critique on that same project just seventeen months later by Albert Mohler, a conservative American theologian and the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. “The Clergy Project is a parable of our times,” Mohler wrote, “a pathetic portrait of the desperation of many atheist and secularist groups.”
I’ve known of Mohler since my days as a student at the Moody Bible Institute in the late 1990s. He would speak on occasion at the college’s annual Bible conference known as Founder’s Week, and to my dormitory brothers and classmates, Mohler had always seemed like more of a stale talking head than an engaging thought leader. I wasn’t impressed by him back then—even as a committed and passionate evangelical pastor. I’m even less impressed by him now.
Mohler’s article entitled “Atheists in the Pulpit—the Sad Charade of the Clergy Project,” posted August 29, 2012 at AlbertMohler.com, is more of an embittered and emotional knee-jerk response focused on two project participants than a careful and researched critique of the project itself. In his 1300-word outcry, he only makes four actual claims against The Clergy Project (TCP), and even with these, his comments play in such shallow depths, it can be difficult to discern what exactly he’s arguing against.
So why do I bother responding? And why do it nearly five years later?
I respond for the simple reason that Mohler’s blog post continues to linger in The Clergy Project’s shadow. Since August 2012, his accusations have consistently produced first-page Google Search returns, largely due to Mohler’s popularity in Christianity’s fundamentalist and evangelical circles. Now this isn’t to suggest that we at The Project have felt any noticeable impact from his words but to simply state that these words have indeed maintained a constant presence in our midst and that maybe it’s possible they deserve a response for that reason alone.
I’m a little newer on the TCP scene. Not an original charter participant on the forum, I only joined The Project in the summer of 2014. It was right after that, in early 2015 when TCP became its own volunteer-led 501(c)(3), and now just recently in January, I’ve taken on the role as TCP’s second president.
One day recently it was mentioned to me, Why don’t we respond? Not that Moher’s attacks are credible, but credible or not, they represent a lengthy series of public misunderstandings that float around the blogosphere concerning the likes of The Clergy Project. And to some degree, I suppose it’s probably true that keeping your organization private and anonymous more or less invites such misunderstandings in the public eye. So why don’t we respond, he said. Maybe try to set the record straight?
So here I am, responding. And taking a step forward in setting the proverbial record straight.
Even if it is nearly five years later.
Truth be told, there’s really not that much to address here. Mohler says very little. And yet the little bit he does say, he says quite forcefully, effectively opening additional yet unmentioned doors of critique.
Mohler begins by attempting to belittle Dawkins for wasting his time on causes that are personally important to him, for “reducing himself to addressing small gatherings” and a “motley crew of pastors.” This is no way for one holding “one of the world’s most coveted academic posts” to behave, Mohler says. With the arrogance of snide remarks, Mohler insinuates that an individual’s credibility should be weighed more by lauded seats of honor than by one’s desire to use their voice to assist otherwise powerless groups of people. Along the way, we have to wonder if such a move by one of Mohler’s devoutly conservative peers would instead be elevated as praiseworthy in its sacrifice.
Rib-cage elbows like these, made both of Dawkins as a TCP co-founder and of other individual project participants, don’t make up Mohler’s actual critique of our organization itself. These only paint the kind of atmosphere he likes to play within. As to the critiques themselves, I count four of them.
Here is my response to each.
1. The Clergy Project’s goal isn’t to subvert, embarrass, or weaken anything.
Our goal at The Clergy Project is to build up, encourage, and strengthen professional religious leaders around the world who had entered their ministries confident in their supernatural beliefs only to later find themselves unable to continue holding those beliefs. We want to build them up and provide a safe-space for them to reconsider and recreate their lives, surrounded by others who have already been there before and have transitioned accordingly. Or as our official mission statement reads, “The Clergy Project’s mission is to provide support, community, and hope to religious professionals who no longer hold supernatural beliefs.”
But instead Mohler accuses The Clergy Project of having much more sinister ambitions, claiming that our goals are to “subvert” the connection between ministry and supernatural belief, “embarrass the church,” and “weaken theism.” Where we’ve created a private online community intended to build up broken sisters and brothers with entirely constructive ambitions, he’s distorted these humble strivings with images of cultural upheaval and political warfare. But we are not the cultural warriors. He is. We’re simply trying to care for the wounded along the way.
2. The Clergy Project doesn’t use intentionally elusive language to define itself.
The word “god” can mean a lot of different things to different people. And therefore when someone responds affirmatively as to whether or not they believe in “God,” it can be a bit tricky sometimes to know what exactly they’re affirming.
For instance, in my personal denials of belief in God, I’ve been met with a number of responses such as that of the lady who said, “I simply believe that God is Love—are you telling me you don’t believe in love???” Well, of course I believe in the human emotion described by the word “love.” And if you want to play word-games where you rename that emotion as “God,” well then I guess I still believe in it.
The word “god” can be used to describe anything from a superhuman member of a divine cluster of cloud-dwelling superheroes to an eternal and all-powerful creator-of-all-things, from an impersonal energy field to the natural universe itself. And yes, apparently even to nothing more than the human emotion of love. Of the gazillion different religious traditions and hybrids wrapped around the globe and throughout history, there are also a gazillion at-least-slightly-different variations and renditions of “god.” The word is tricky in its flexibility. And unless you take time to nail down a specific definition, it’s hard to say exactly which ones you do or do not believe in.
Mohler’s second critique seems to center here. Now at this point in Mohler’s writing his use of antecedents may perhaps be a bit jumbled, but it seems he’s criticizing TCP for our use of the term “supernatural beliefs” in how we define our community. It seems he thinks that in defining project participants as “current and former religious professionals who no longer hold supernatural beliefs,” we’re trying to create a space where active ministers are able to keep their pastorates by saying one thing while meaning another.
Is this really lacking clarity? If someone is said to “not hold supernatural beliefs,” is this elusive in its meaning? Maybe a bit wooden perhaps, but is it really all that unclear?
So he completely misses the point. Mohler completely misses a lot of points, actually. But just one of those points is that we’ve tried to be as explicitly clear as possible. “Belief in a god, gods, or God” might still be a bit elusive, but isn’t “supernatural beliefs” pretty clear. Maybe you can define “god” or “spiritual” in naturalistic terms and get away with it. But if you maintain beliefs in the existence of supernatural things, well then your ideas about God are clearly something bigger than simply redefining it as the human emotion of love or the natural universe.
But just in case this term isn’t enough, we at The Clergy Project have gone to great lengths to spell out and specify exactly what we mean by this term “supernatural beliefs.” We’ve done so on our public website, where we explain the qualifications for project participation. There we explain it as a rejection of supernaturalism, which is to say, an embrace of naturalism. And there we explain exactly what we mean by naturalism, along with what we see to be its further implications. You can access that page and its definitions here.
Again, Mohler’s “article” is more of an emotional overreaction than a carefully researched critique. If it was the latter, he would have taken time to actually see what we mean by the terminology we’ve selected and to consider why we’ve approached it the way we have. Had he exercised even a moment’s care to attempt this, Mohler would have seen that The Clergy Project is not using intentionally elusive language. In reality, we’ve taken great care to craft the exact opposite.
3. The Clergy Project isn’t the “intellectually dishonest” party in this conversation.
Listen. TCP’s goal as an organization is a simple one, but let’s extend it a bit more fully to clarify our endgame here. The Clergy Project provides a community of support and resources to help deconverted religious leaders transition to, well, whatever those leaders’ next chapter might be. And it’s vital to our mission that we intentionally keep those options open for our project participants. These individuals who come to our private online community have often spent their entire lives being instructed as to exactly what they HAVE to think and exactly how they HAVE to spend their lives. The last thing they need is for us to give them a new set of marching orders in how they HAVE to think and HAVE to live.
At The Clergy Project, everyone is fully in charge of how to process and live out the rest of their lives—both for those who resign their religious posts immediately and even for those who decide to push through in closeted disbelief all the way to retirement. They’re in complete control. Our participants have working brains that have already been put to the test, beating hearts that clearly know how to put the needs of others before their own, and a whole lifetime of experiences to inform their next steps.
And we simply provide a community of peers to help empower and encourage them along the way.
This, we believe, is the intellectually honest thing to do. We simply want our members to be empowered and equipped to come to their own conclusions and to live them out effectively and enthusiastically. To tell our project participants that we want them to be free while then caging them within an alternative set of prepackaged prescriptions—that would be intellectual dishonestly.
And yet Mohler charges that we are the “intellectually dishonest” ones.
More specifically, he says, “Why don’t [post-faith pastors] just resign? Most shockingly, some openly spoke of losing their salaries as the main concern. So much for intellectual honesty.”
Now some may concede that though it may be intellectually honest for TCP as an organization to allow its participants to make their own decisions, it nonetheless sounds fishy for religious leaders who no longer believe in the supernatural to continue in a career that pays them to profess it.
So does Mohler have a point? Is it “intellectual dishonesty” for a pastor or an imam or a rabbi or a monk to continue teaching and modeling a belief system that they now reject privately?
I’ve never conducted a scientific study, but my guess is that this is easily the number one criticism received by The Clergy Project—and from believers and disbelievers alike.
But this is where I’d suggest that while Mohler’s question and its accompanying accusation might do a great job rallying crowds of condemnation, it has failed to truly think through the issues involved to any degree beyond the surface-level.
As Mohler himself points out in his article, nearly all ministers “struggle” with disbelief, and Mohler has created two different kinds of doubt in order to attempt making sense of this reality. If the Christian minister eventually wrestles his disbelief into submission, then it was a positive kind of doubt—something Mohler calls “faithful doubt”—one that is seen to make a religious leader stronger for having had the experience. If however, the minister eventually comes to the conclusion that the disbelief itself was healthy for having shown the subject of his faith to have been fiction, then Mohler says, this is of the dangerous variety, something he calls pernicious.
But the point is this. Mohler concedes that it is common, normal, and even healthy for pastors and preachers to have doubts.
Which leads me to wonder how long they are allowed to “struggle” with disbelief before he attacks them with accusations of intellectual dishonesty.
Must I resign after just a few weeks of persistent disbelief? Or may I hold on for six months? Maybe a year? Does it matter if I’m trying really hard to believe even as I know that I don’t? What if the whole reason I stay in ministry is in hope that God will restore the faith that was so long treasured?
But even for those religious leaders who are confident in their disbelief, the issues can be more complicated. And very much so.
Whether such religious professionals had previously seen themselves as employed by the likes of Vishnu, Allah, Zeus, Lono, Yahweh, Jesus, or Olorun, once one realizes their god to be fiction, it becomes a matter of the most practical of life transitions. Now if Vishnu or Zeus or Lono were real, there might be a very explicit list of regulations in how such a transition were required to take place. But now realizing these gods to be the fiction that they are, such regulations are now rendered obsolete.
Take a god out of one’s vocation and it becomes, well, just another vocation.
Though the transition is filled with all the complexities of life, this particular criticism of Mohler’s centers on the career component. And as such, I would suggest, the transition is best handled as any other career transition ought be.
What does a salesperson do after realizing her company requires pushing a product she no longer believes in? What does a project manager at a local charity do once realizing their organization might be contributing to the problem rather than alleviating it? How about a communications director who discovers his own convictions shifting from the platforms he’s been paid to represent?
In each of these scenarios, are they morally obligated to immediately quit the moment a single flash of insight occurs or are they wise to simply begin the long and arduous task of looking for new employment that more fully represents their current convictions and perspectives? I suspect that every one of us would advise toward the later.
Isn’t this how every other career transition works?
Add to this the fact that many professional religious leaders have children—depending on the tradition, they may be likely to have many children. And would not such religious workers have a moral responsibility above all others to make sure their children are provided for prior to up-and-quitting their paid vocations?
Though there are certainly exceptions to the rule, the vast majority of pastors, priests, nuns, monks, rabbis, and imams are already firmly established on the lower end of the income scale. In return, their housing is often provided by their religious organizations. Sometimes even necessities like cars are actually owned by the church or temple. This can make things easier when you’re actively employed, but it also creates a situation where you’re significantly less likely to have rainy-day funds set aside and significantly more likely to end up homeless in the event of a sudden loss of employment.
Add to this your family’s need for medical insurance or the desire to keep your kids in the same school district.
Add to this the fact that if you do find yourself suddenly at a loss of income, home, and car, you’re also significantly more likely to find yourself cut off from the aid of your entire social network and family. You’re literally on your own, suddenly and all at once.
Obviously each situation is different, and not everyone finds themselves completely cut off from everyone they’ve ever known. But it does happen. And there are almost always at least a few people you thought would still welcome you who don’t.
So here’s what it comes down to for many of us who have been-there, done-that. I would suggest the deconverted religious worker’s primary obligation—her or his moral responsibility—falls first and foremost toward making sure their children are well taken care of. This outweighs every other concern. Sure, if Zeus were real, the priest’s primary concern would be Zeus’s appeasement. But Zeus isn’t real. And now that they’ve awoken from that fiction, their new first priority is taking care of those kids.
Food. Clothes. Housing. Insurance. A stable environment. A career path that properly takes care of them. And if such a new career path is not readily available, possibly an investment in a new educational path that will create one.
This, in my humble opinion, far outweighs any concerns of telling half-truths or total lies from a pulpit. In my personal situation, I didn’t realize I had become an atheist until I was already out of ministry, but if I was in a situation such as many of my sisters and brothers, I’d willingly tell truckloads of lies if it would protect my children. Zeus be damned.
This is intellectually honest. Brutal honesty for an honestly brutal world.
Intellectually dishonest, however, would be to expect people who no longer believe in the power of Mount Olympus to still make decisions that prioritize the glory of Olympus above the welfare of their own families. Expectations such as those of Albert Mohler.
I emphasize The Clergy Project’s position on this. TCP takes no position on how deconverted religious professionals ought decide to navigate their life challenges. The organization as a whole does not take an official stand advising one way or the other on this or any other decision-making task. We simply want our people surrounded with a community of others who have also plowed through similar terrain, and we want them empowered and encouraged to take it all in and to think it all through for themselves, whatever it means and wherever it takes them.
And I will rise to their defense with every opportunity I have.
4. The Clergy Project isn’t the “magnet” Mohler should be concerned about.
Throughout Mohler’s blog post, he gets really hung up on the news stories of two widely known Clergy Project participants who quickly grew as leaders early in the movement. Teresa MacBain served briefly for just a few months as an acting executive director with Jerry DeWitt briefly as officer-at-large, and Mohler spends most of the article throwing every punch he can muster in an epic attempt of character assassination. In reality, the decisions he dissects are largely characterized by the same kinds of practical factors detailed above. Life is messy. And Mohler loves to pounce on any hint of a mess as he places himself as personal judge and juror in how and when MacBain and DeWitt revealed their public disbelief.
He pulls all of this to the article’s climax, calling The Clergy Project a “magnet for charlatans and cowards”—one that both celebrates and parades “a few trophies of unbelief.”
It may be true that TCP “trophies” have come and gone. And at least one of them has publically returned to self-described belief in the supernatural. But The Clergy Project remains. I’m not sure TCP has any big trophies at the moment, but the fact remains that it doesn’t need any. Our first priority here at The Project is providing a private online community. And that community remains. Quietly closed away from the glaring judgments of those who voice misinformed and closed-minded condemnations.
Despite Mohler’s claim, some might suggest that religion itself is the real “magnet for charlatans and cowards.” If it’s possible that there might be a trickster or two hiding someplace in a TCP corner, it’s only because religion had them first. And we don’t discriminate, no matter what one’s reasons were for entering their religious professions. Whatever one’s history, we’re here for their post-faith journey. And we’ll discover a better way together.
The Clergy Project: Navigating Reality Together
Mohler might not like the fact that TCP or any of our deconverted religious leaders exist. He might find it frustrating that there are Christian ministers out there preaching in churches even as they secretly harbor disbelief. He might find the news of such truths embarrassing to his religion.
But the truth is that we’re here whether he likes it or not. Though not all of our project participants come from Christian traditions, the truth is that most of us do. So the truth is that we truly believed in his god, and yet claims of his god’s existence ultimately left us unsatisfied. And the truth is that now we’re moving on. Some are taking their time, as is their right. And some may continue serving to retirement. This is their choice as well. And if Mohler’s god is real, then he ought trust his god enough to not get upset about it.
Albert Mohler might find our existence embarrassing. But we call it reality. Our eyes have been opened to the evidence, and now we move forward together in the real world. The Clergy Project’s concern is not to take down the church, as Mohler suggests. It’s not to expose anyone’s secrets or make them look pathetic. This seems to happen just fine on its own. Neither does TCP’s concern intersect with Mohler’s opinion, which is why five years later there’s not been a response. The Clergy Project’s concern is not dictated by the judgments of believers. No, The Clergy Project’s concern is providing support, community, and hope to religious professionals who have come to grips with reality and are moving forward to navigate accordingly.
It’s that simple. Whether Mohler likes it or not.
* For more information on the rise and development of The Clergy Project, begin with “The Story of The Clergy Project.”