Why I Support the (Atheist) Clergy Project

What does a priest or pastor do when he loses his faith? That happens, certainly, and it puts the minister in a very tough position. He or she as an identity, a position in the community, and a livelihood based on belief in Christ. There’s a lot at stake. It might be easier just to hang in there and pretend. That’s why I support the atheist Clergy Project.

There’s a church I knew of that had a history of strong Christianity. They brought in a new pastor, and as the Sundays and the sermons went by, questions arose over what he really believed. Some members left the church. Others had long talks with him. He adjusted his message to accommodate their requests. More members left; others stayed because “this is still my church,” even as it shrank by half.

I still don’t know what this pastor really believed, but from a distance at least, it appeared he was pretending. The story is a microcosm of what’s happened in American Christianity over the past several decades. Where leaders boldly and confidently teach the message of Jesus Christ, churches tend to thrive. Where they don’t, churches wither.

And that’s why I support the Clergy Project, an anonymous online community for pastors who no longer believe. Greta Christina, writing at AlterNet, thinks it could be religion’s greatest threat. It’s very small at this point: just 77 members, with 86 “awaiting interviews,” but as it gathers steam (if it does), it could provide the support an unbelieving clergy member needs to finally walk away from the church. And then what? “If clergy members start publicly abandoning religion,” Christina predicts, “the whole house of cards could collapse.”

I say that where religion is a house of cards, collapsing is the best thing for it.

I won’t try to speak for the rest of the world, but Christianity in the United States is afflicted with double-mindedness. It’s sending mixed messages—very mixed, tragically. I church I once visited announces on its website that it “values theological diversity.” A member said to me after the service, “Oh! You’ve got to meet so-and-so! He’s the other believer who attends here!”

This church had the word “Christian” in its name. I can only imagine how confusing that kind of thIng would be for  the man or woman walking in naively off the street. There’s no way a church like that could be a strengthening community for its two believers.

There are other mixed messages in Christianity besides rank unbelief—the prosperity gospel, for one. The Clergy Project couldn’t clear out all of it, but to remove some of it would be salutary. Some churches would close, some denominations would wilt further away—but those that remained would be much more identifiably Christian—and less confusing to all.

Clergy Project? Bring it on!