Closet Doubters in the Church — on Both Sides of the Pew

At AAI9 2009, Daniel Dennet — cognitive neurologist and author of Breaking The Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon — discussed some research he and some colleagues are conducting into the phenomenon of "closet atheists" in the clergy. That is, pastors, priests and ministers who have reached not just a point of serious doubt, but have gone beyond the fold and truly have lost the faith — yet stay their positions in the church, for a variety of reasons.

For some, their only education is in theology. They have families to support, houses and cars to pay for, college funds to maintain, etc.; what else would they do for a living? Still others understand that their friends and loved ones are deeply rooted in the church. A pastor who comes to reject his faith risks losing not only job security, but the trust and companionship of family and friends as well. Remembering my own time in the church, it was hard enough for me to walk away — and I was only in my late teens when I rejected my faith. At that age, going to college means a whole new set of friends, and an opportunity to grow a whole new identity. But for someone not merely rooted in the church, but in a position of leadership for many years, walking away from the church is no small task.

Dennett went on to discuss how these doubting clergy go on to preach and counsel their parishioners, but for me, there was another question of great interest — namely, the phenomenon of doubting parishioners. Deciding whether or not to attend church seems to be a pretty straightforward decision — if you don't believe, you don't go. Right?

Unfortunately for many believers who wrestle with serious doubts or an altogether rejection of their beliefs, it's not that simple. While their financial livelihood many not depend on their church attendance, their social barriers are no different than the doubting clergy. I've always maintained that religion is perpetuated in significant part by the phenomenon of "groupthink"; that is, doubts, debate, and the free exchange of ideas are suppressed for the sake of unity within the community. I originally derived that conclusion from my own experience in the church; I wrestled with a great deal of doubt during my time as a Christian, but found it difficult to openly discuss these doubts with my fellow parishioners and church leaders, who usually offered sincere but vacuous answers — often what Dennett humorously calls "deepities", which are grand-sounding but logically vacuous answers.

But I now know for certain I was not alone in this regard. On my Facebook page, I've added a number of friends from my old church-going days, and a number of others who are believers. I've received quite a few inquiries about my views on faith and religion, and a surprising number of them have come from my Christian friends who are struggling with doubts. Just like me, they are finding it difficult to discuss what are often serious doubts with those closest to them. Church communities thrive on cohesion, not on the free and skeptical exchange of ideas. It's no small coincidence that the only time people can even appear to agree on what God is or wants is when they cluster together in such communities. But the reality is, of course, that much of this apparent agreement may be built on sand.

This isn't to say that there aren't plenty of true believers. And I can't imagine the hurdles in trying to quantify just how many believers wrestle with very serious doubts, or even reject their faith altogether yet still attend church, keeping silent their frustration out of deference to their family and friends. What an unfortunate way to live one's life. For an atheist, an idea is just an idea. We don't "believe" in anything — we accept that which is demonstrably true, and skeptically inquire into that which is not. But for a believer, an idea is much more than that. An idea is a sense of personal identity — one that permeates every corner of their lives. For doubting parishioners, to openly question their faith means to risk losing the support and understanding of those closest to them.

This suppression of free inquiry is not a mere consequence of religious communities, but a pillar of them. Consider what the doctrine of Christianity really is: the belief that a god-man who was his own father offered his life in a ritual blood sacrifice to himself before rising from the dead and ascending bodily into the sky, so that if we confess our wrongdoings and ritualistically drink his blood he will let us live forever in an eternal paradise. That's literally what Christianity requires its followers to believe, and I say that not out of mockery (well... maybe partly out of mockery) but to show that no such ridiculous belief can withstand rigorous skeptical scrutiny. Far too many leaps of logic must be made to justify the belief in such nonsense, and that is precisely why religious communities thrive on groupthink rather than free skeptical inquiry. And I can only wonder how many closet doubters are really out there — some who have completely rejected their faith, and others who are on the brink, ritualistically eating crackers and singing hymns while in their minds wondering just what the point of it all really is.

Here is Dennett's lecture. I highly recommend it, for doubters on both sides of the pew. You're not alone!


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