Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Doubt in the pulpit

From a non-Faith-based perspective of life, doubt about religion is inevitable.  Holy Books describe frequent and undeniable interventions from Higher Powers over often small matters.  Yet supernatural events that are reliable and repeatable do not occur.  There are no booming voices speaking to us from the sky.  These pages have earlier described the doubt this caused in Mother Theresa, who found some comfort in the idea that the apparent absence is a test.   Others who have devoted their lives are also feeling doubt, although like Mother Theresa, they have strong motivations for not publicly sharing these uncertainties.

Now a project led by philosopher Daniel Dennet is seeking out and interviewing professional clergy that have lost faith.  As explained in the video below, the motivation is to learn more about faith by studying when it breaks down.  And someone who has devoted his life to his faith, and then loses that faith is a clear case of that breakdown.  Why does it happen?  In the example given in this article, the path to faithlessness went through a close study of the Bible:
Jack said that 10 years ago, he started to feel his faith slipping away. He grew bothered by inconsistencies regarding the last days of Jesus' life, what he described as the improbability of stories like "Noah's Ark" and by attitudes expressed in the Bible regarding women and their place in the world.
After learning the history of the Bible, how it was assembled, its origins in various mythological stories floating around in the ancient world, and the different versions, one does not have to be a hardened cynic to conclude it is the work of Man, not of the Divine.  As Dennett explains in the talk, the people he found in the project tended to be bookish and were largely swayed by these types of written arguments.  But the study is still small, as of the talk (from last year) there were only six subjects.  Perhaps more practical, Mother Theresa-style doubters will also appear.  But the results are already interesting to those interested in religion as a psychological and social phenomenon.  This video is recommended for the description of the lives of doubting clergy, including how they maintain their positions while also keeping some measure of self-respect:


  1. I was present when Daniel Dennett delivered this talk at the Atheist Alliance International conference in Burbank in 2009, and it "hit home" for me. My only college-level training was for the ministry (Church of Christ), and after years in the ministry and of struggling with doubts engendered by the inconsistencies I had discovered in my inherited faith, I attempted to find secular work, only to discover that employers had no idea how my previous training could relate to the workaday business world. I had to spend a year and a half flipping burgers at Jack-in-the-Box. If it hadn't been for the fact that I had learned Spanish on the mission field and was consequently able to get a fast-tracked teacher's credential (and later a job teaching at adult schools), I would have had no way of supporting myself or my family -- a situation that Dennett correctly describes as a "tender trap."

  2. Many Americans are trapped in a misconception. They assume that Christianity is about the Bible.

    That is like visiting India when the Taj Mahal was being built, and coming across the toolbox of one of the builders, then coming home telling everybody how exciting it was to see that toolbox. The Taj Mahal itself escaped this visitor's notice.

    This fallacy is "sola scriptura," the nonsensical claim of Luther and Calvin that it's all about a book.

    The greater majority of the world's Christians are not deluded by this Protestant fallacy. They know that the church, not the book, is the custodian of doctrine.

    They are Christians not because of believing the "right" beliefs but because they are baptized with water in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.

    That baptism process is the Christian equivalent of Judaism's circumcision, a rite of induction into the Body, and like circumcision it is irrevocable.

    Qualification to be a member of the Body of Christ is not a matter of belief ("theoria") but of behavior ("praxis.")

    This means that what makes you a Christian is what you DO - and the essential acts are just two, Baptism and the Eucharist.

    With those prescribed acts performed, your beliefs are then your own. This is the basis for Christianity for most people.

    America is poisoned by Puritanism, a life-hating rejection of goodness, truth and beauty. And the vilest outgrowth of the toxic Puritan tradition is the worship of ignorance, fundamentalism.

    Most fundamentalism is book-worship, a violation of the first commandment, an idolatry. The alleged words of G-d are given priority over G-d himself as an object of worship.