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Study: When Preachers No Longer Believe

Wednesday, December 29, 2010
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Dec. 29, 2010

BOSTON -- The Tufts University philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett wasn’t surprised when, during research for a book, he encountered “secret non-believers”—outwardly religious people who don’t believe in the creed of their own churches.
 
But he was stunned when some of those non-believers turned out to be priests themselves.

Prof. Daniel Dennett at a conference in Gemany in 2008. (Wikimedia Commons)

“They’re good people who good stuck in this awful trap,” Dennett said. “We found some that were really suffering.”
 
Dennett anonymously interviewed five active pastors who said they no longer believed the tenets of their church, but he thinks there are many more pastors like them. Now, he’s gearing up for a second, larger study on the issue.
 
For the most part, Dennett found, the non-believing ministers he knew simply didn’t learn early enough that something didn’t feel right about their work. “They’re basically very good people. They went into the clergy because, given their background, how they were raised, they wanted to do good in this world and this is the best path they could see,” Dennett told WGBH’s Emily Rooney. “Their first mistake is they should have gotten out in seminary, when the getting was good. Their second mistake was staying around and thinking, well, I’ll live with this, I can deal with this.”
 
Those priests, he said, are forced into moral, social and professional isolation. “They have to teach the doctrines of the church, and if you no longer believe them, you’ve got a moral problem.”
 
One minister still hasn’t told his very devout wife because he worries she would be devastated by the news. “These people lead very lonely lives, in some cases,” Dennett said.
 
Dennett wants to learn more about how these priests handle their situation. He knows some work out their own private understanding with a God. “They say, ‘I am not an atheist, I believe in God, but I believe in the God that I believe in.’ That’s very much a private God because they can’t talk about that God from the pulpit.”
 
He also wants to learn more about the scale of the issue. “We know there’s Catholics, we know there’s Mormons, we know there’s Jewish rabbis,” Dennett said, “but we have no idea yet how big this phenomenon is.”
 
But an aspect of his first study suggests it’s not uncommon. “Nobody says well, it’s a tiny tiny fraction,” Dennett said. ““Nobody denies that this phenomenon exists, not a single one of our critics has suggested that we are making this up.”
 
 Likewise, he said, no one criticized Dennett and his team for looking into the issue.  They were critical of people admitting it. “It was like magicians getting angry with magicians for telling how a trick is done,” Dennett said.

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