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Unbelieving Pastors

Ronnie McBrayer has reproduced a fascinating brief article and interview with Daniel Dennett about pastors who are secretly unbelievers. I have two thoughts. The first has to do with this comment:

IDEAS: One theme that emerges in the interviews is that it’s a seminary education itself that seemed to start these ministers on the road to nonbelief, because what they learned there about how the Bible was actually put together makes it harder to see it as a holy book.

DENNETT: It’s true, here are these young people in seminary, they have come with the purest of hearts and the noblest of intentions and they’re going to devote their lives to God. And one of the first things they learn is textual criticism. They’re looking at all the existing papyruses and scrolls and so forth and learning about the recension of the texts — the tortuous and often controversial historical path from Hebrew, Greek, and Latin versions of the books of the Bible — and all the Apocryphal books that got rejected — to the King James Version and all the later English translations. And that’s not what they taught you in Sunday school.

That’s the joke that we often provoke from people when we talk about this: Anybody who goes through seminary and comes out believing in God hasn’t been paying attention.

No, seminary education is not the problem. The problem is the disconnect between how people are taught to handle the Bible in church and how they are taught to handle it in seminary. Pastors and other church workers are not doing their parishioners any favors by “protecting” them from academic approaches to Scripture. Peter Enns has tried to tackle the sorts of problems this can cause (especially for conservative or Evangelical believers) in Inspiration and Incarnation. I have made a few comments on the subject in this post about biblical inerrancy. I don’t think sermons should become mini-lectures on textual criticism, but I do think there is a place in church life for exposing people to the fact that there is such a thing!

My second comment is far simpler, and some will probably say far less charitable:

What emerges is a portrait of men…grappling earnestly and incisively with the sort of theological quandaries familiar to anyone who has studied and doubted Christian doctrine. Just as strong, though, is the sense of secrecy and evasion that pervades their lives: having to hide their lack of belief from parishioners, friends, even family members. Some spoke of feeling trapped: questioning their fitness for the pulpit but unable to leave because of a mix of personal, cultural, and even financial reasons.

In the late 80s Sherman Hemsley starred in a TV show called Amen. Hemsley played Deacon Frye, an influential church lay leader. In the pilot episode, he was interviewing a new prospective pastor and asked a single question: “Do you believe in God?” The candidate answered, “Yes.” Deacon Frye immediately announced, “You’re hired!” Sure, the whole thing was played for laughs, but that’s the point. It should go without saying that a minister believers in God. That is a rather fundamental job requirement, isn’t it?

Being a “closeted” unbeliever cannot be emotionally healthy for a minister. It is certainly not spiritually healthy for the church. There does not seem to be any way out of such a situation that will not cause great grief for all parties involved. That said, my sympathies are squarely with the church—they are not the ones hypocritically claiming to be something that they’re not. Atheist ministers need to resign immediately so that everyone can begin to receive the care, support, and closure they require.

Churches have enough problems without their pastors making a mockery of all they stand for.



  1. Paula Fether says:

    Would you say, though, that at least some seminaries are not exactly presenting all the pertinent data and arguments regarding the Bible text? That is, are some facts and arguments being suppressed or marginalized because they might support divine inspiration? This is the same question that can be asked about other topics as well, not the least of which is evolution, some of whose proponents have sought to enact laws that forbid the presentation of data not favorable to the theory.


  2. Absolutely, Paula. Seminaries are as biased as any other human endeavor, but even the most conservative ones, if they’re worth attending at all, delve into these sorts of issues. And churches need to, as well.


  3. Paula Fether says:

    Oh, don’t get me started on what passes for “Christian education”… it’s a scandal, this “school” where no one ever graduates and differing opinions are often brushed off as “divisive”. I think Churchianity needs an overhaul from top to bottom.


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