Atheist clergymen and belief in belief

A while ago, Dan Sperber blogged about research by Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola on atheist clergymen. Their paper, which is available in open access here, provides a fascinating qualitative study on atheist clergymen from various denominations, all of whom were anonymousmy interviewed about their doubts and loss of religious belief. If found out they risked losing their job at the very least, and being expelled from the religious community that had been their home for so long. Yet, many of them expressed moral qualms about not coming out: was their silence a form of hypocricy, or was it all for the best?


Empty church

Could Christian atheism rekindle an interest in religion?


"I’m where I am because I need the job still. If I had an alternative, a comfortable paying job, something I was interested in doing, and a move that wouldn’t destroy my family, that’s where I’d go. Because I do feel kind of hypocritical." (Dennett & Lascola 2010, p. 137)



In Christianity, endorsing the central creeds is very important. This is what Dennett and Lascola term "belief in belief". They write: "The fact that they [i.e., the atheist pastors that were interviewed] see it [religious belief] in such morally laden terms shows how powerfully the phenomenon of belief in belief figures in our lives. Most people believe in belief in God; they believe that it is a state one should aspire to, work strenuously to maintain, and foster in others – and feel guilty or dismayed if one fails to achieve it. Whether or not our pastors share that belief in belief – some still do and others no longer do – they recognize only too well that revealing their growing disbelief would have dire consequences for their lives. So they keep it to themselves" (Dennett & Lascola 2010, p. 125)



Harvey Whitehouse (2000) has argued that this emphasis on doctrinal correctness is typical for religions that rely substantially on repetitive rituals to get transmitted. He makes a distinction between the "doctrinal" and "imagistic" modes of religiosity. The former rely for their transmission on frequently performed and routinized rituals, whereas the latter rely on rare rituals that are highly emotionally laden and that create charged episodic (i.e., autobiographical) memories – such rituals can include initiation rites that involve fear and pain. Christianity belongs more to the "doctrinal mode" (although this division is not absolute – there are also more imagistic branches of Christianity that have features like snake handling). Whitehouse argued that repetitive rituals can get boring; people typically "go through the motions" without reflecting much on their religious belief (or lack thereof). While the reptitiveness enhances the accuracy of the transmission, it may decrease motivation. In order to keep religious practicers motivated, religions that rely on the doctrinal mode of religiosity need to firmly establish belief in a set of central tenets, such as the existence of a supernatual omniscient, omnipresent agent. This, according to Whitehouse, provides an explanation for why doctrinal religions tend to place much emphasis on having the correct beliefs.

An interesting paradox occurs when people who are very interested in religion, reflect on their belief. Whereas normally adherents to doctrinal-style religions do not reflect much on their beliefs, pastors and other professionals do. It is therefore not very surprising that those who make religious reflection their profession frequently encounter doubt. Pyysiäinen observes that atheism is very common in theologians, although he doesn't offer quantitative data "Intellectual unbelief is typical of intelligent people, especially scientists and— surprise!—theologians. It is typical of theologians because doing theology entails that one adopts a representational theory of mind and regards religious beliefs as something to be reflected upon".

It is perhaps paradoxically because of the centrality of belief in belief that doubt is a recurrent feature of Christianity (and I expect also of other doctrinal type religions), as amongst others the candid and insightful book on this topic by philosopher of religion Kelly James Clark indicates.

However, despite this belief in belief, it seems that the phenomenon of atheism in Christianity gets increased attention. For example, in the Netherlands there is an atheist clergyman who came out of the closet: he openly regards God not as a supernatural being, but as a natural phenomen, i.e., something relational that happens between people. The recently published book The Christian Atheist, written by theistic reverend Brian Mountford who has sympathy for Christian atheists has the fitting subtitle "Belonging Without Believing".

What is the significance of doctrinal religions without the doctrine? Could a doctrinal-type religion without belief ever be stable, from the perspective of cognitive science of religion. Can it help rekindle an interest in religion in those who are agnostic or atheist, but do not want the package deal? From Whitehouse's point of view, one would predict not, since the doctrines are central to doctrinal mode of religiosity. But perhaps other cognition and culture perspectives could shed a different light on the matter.


Clark, K. J. (1997). When faith is not enough. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing C

Dennett, D. & LaScola, L. (2010). Preachers who are not believers. Evolutionary Psychology, vol 8, 121-150.

Mountford, B. (2011). The Christian atheist. Belonging without believing. O Books.

Pyysiänen, I. (2003). True fiction: philosophy and psychology of religious belief. Philosophical Psychology, 16, 109-125.

Whitehouse, H. (2000). Arguments and icons: Divergent modes of religiosity. Oxford:Oxford University Press.


  • comment-avatar
    Olivier Morin 24 October 2011 (14:43)

    Thank you for this excellent post! You ask:

    “Could a doctrinal-type religion without belief ever be stable, from the perspective of cognitive science of religion. Can it help rekindle an interest in religion in those who are agnostic or atheist, but do not want the package deal?”

    The answer, I think, is a clear yes. The modernist currents among the heirs of Anglicanism (both the British and the Episcopalians), or the american Unitarian church (as opposed to, say, Hungarian Unitarianism) seem to fit your description perfectly. I have met unitarians who referred to the Gospel as a moving legend, the telling of which connects us with a moving history of solidarity, love and sacrifice — but a legend all the same.

    Of course, when a religious movement goes meta, we cannot expect them to say so too openly. Meta-believers still want to maintain a connection with past and present believers who haven’t gone meta and have no intention of doing so.

  • comment-avatar
    Aniko Sebesteny 25 October 2011 (11:10)

    Thank you Helen for this though-provoking post!

    And thanks Olivier for the comment.

    I seems a clergyman has to have a clear explanation of why he would still be a clergyman if he does not “believe”, and develop an alternative theory of religion where he positions his beliefs and meta-beliefs in a structured fashion to be intellectually convincing.

    A similar situation, wanting to or having to be part of the community of the believers without having the belief, is also faced by non-clergy people. There is the expression “pratiquant, mais pas croyant” / “Practicing but not believing” that developed amongst French immigrants from Islamic communities. Having discussed about it with Malika Gourir who is doing research amongst these communities, it appears that this expression is largely used in a casual, open way: it is not to hide or to be ashamed of. These people participate to the important rituals of Muslim faith, fast at Ramadan, but claim to be non-believers. My bet is that this openness is also the result of this position being widespread amongst these communities.

    There is always an interesting set of relation and interplay between the cognitive and social aspects of religion.

  • comment-avatar
    Seth Edenbaum 25 October 2011 (20:20)

    Language is never stable, whether in common life, Catholic doctrine or the meaning of the US Constitution. Rituals may stay the same, as spelling may, but meanings change. Only reactionaries such as Antonin Scalia argue otherwise.

    See Balkin, Levinson, and Richard Taruskin

    From Text to Performance: Law and other Performing Arts

    The major problem with the contemporary theory and practice of social science is the assumption that the meanings of research will not be subject to change as are other texts. Concomitant with this is the fiction that “scientists” are on one side of the glass and that “the folk” are on the other.

    Historians read and interpret the past as lawyers and concert pianists do. None of them engage in science and none require a god. All require a faith in the representational power of their own language, even while acknowledging that that power will not be shared in the future. All that the future will share with the past will be the form, the rituals, the words, the notes, the numbers. And the last is where scientists get their fiction.

    Numbers are seen by most as modeling the world, but they do not represent it. Representation is a function of meaning and meanings are private. An engineer of highways and an engineer of public transport systems will be of different faiths regarding the use of the same formulae. In a humanist sense the formulae are as meaningless as rocks, all that matters is what’s done with them. The collapse of simple facts, of rocks, with meaning has allowed science to take on the role of a self-supporting faith: that the function of logic presupposes a logical (reasonable) goal. It does no such thing.

    Science does not know irony. The best model of the secular “belief in belief” is the faith of the lawyer, historian and fiddle player.

  • comment-avatar
    Emmanuel Lazinier 7 January 2012 (19:17)

    Thank you Helen and Olivier for addressing such a controversial question as non-theistic religion.

    The topic is not new since it was put forward by the founder of sociology himself, Auguste Comte, whose (much ridiculed at the time) position was that:

    religion isn’t fundamentally linked to beliefs in the supernatural and will outlive their disappearance;
    a non-theistic religion, in which “Humanity gets substituted to God, without forgetting his provisional services”, must of necessity emerge.
    The intesting is that Comte came to that conclusion after having for a long time thought otherwise. He had clashed with his master Saint-Simon when the latter had begun speaking of a “New Christianity”. His law of the three stages was at first interpreted by himself–as it is still today by many of its commentators–as implying the gradual disappearance of religion. But he changed his mind in his “second career”, when he set out to build a theory of the brain, in which he

    invented the concept of altruism, described as an innate drive
    conceived of a new science, naturalistic morals, which he placed at the top of his classification as the “seventh science”
    concluded that if morals can/must become naturalistic, then religion has to go the same way (see his Theory of religion)
    Admittedly, Comte’s Religion of Humanity attracted few followers, mostly in the British Isles where they acquired a modicum of notoriety when they sided, as instructed by Comte, with the working class and the colonized peoples–and where the last Temple of Humanity was still active as late as the 1940s–a century or so after the publication of the System of Positive Polity, or Treatise in Sociology Insituting the Religion of Humanity (see Comte’s Disciples and Admirers: Britain)

    Today, as you note, the same question is, somewhat unexpectedly, raised from the ranks of traditional religion itself.

    As you mention, in the US, Unitairian-universalism, formerly a branch of Protestantism, has, under the influence as such personalities as Emerson, progressively evolved towards a religion without theology, accepting atheists as well as mono- and poly-theists.
    Within the Episcopalian Church a similar move has been recently advocated by bishop John Selby Spong (see his homepage and in French whose best-seller book Why Christianity Must Change or Die (1999) proclaims that the only chance for Christianity to survive is to give up theism.
    the Dutch clergyman Klaas Hendrikse whom you also mention, takes the same stand in his book Believing in a Non-Existent God (apparently not yet translated to English, but already available in French as Croire en un Dieu qui n’existe pas–see a review in French). A characteristic quotation (my translation from the French version): “For an atheist, once posited the conclusion that God doesn’t exist, the matter is closed: he doesn’t exist, full stop. For a believer, things are only beginning: God doesn’t exist, comma. And after? Is there still anything to believe after the comma ?” (p. 103 French ed.)
    And, conspiciously, the question is also revived by the scholars and scientists who are currently striving to come up with a theory of religion conceived as:

    a natural product of the humain brain–e.g. Andrew Newberg, Eugene D’Aquili,Vince Rause, Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief (2002);
    and/or the outcome of an evolution of a more or less darwinian type–e.g. Robert Wright, The Evolution of God (2009) (see in particular “How Human Nature Gave Birth to Religion”), and Nicholas Wade, The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures (2010), of which which I extract the following characteristic passage : “Maybe religion needs to undergo a second transformation, similar in scope to the transition from hunter gatherer religion to that of settled societies. In this new configuration, religion would retain all its old powers of binding people together for a common purpose, whether for morality or defense. It would touch all the senses and lift the mind. It would transcend self. And it would find a way to be equally true to emotion and to reason, to our need to belong to one another and to what has been learned of the human condition through rational inquiry.” See also by Nicholas Wade “The Evolution of the God Gene” (Needless to say, in all that literature, the word “God” is not to be taken at face value, but as a (supposedly adequate) metaphor for “religion”)

  • comment-avatar
    Dennis Smith 30 January 2012 (12:21)

    As a result of the Dennett/LaScola study a group was formed called The Clergy Project with the help of a grant from the Richard Dawkins Foundation. The public site is here.

    There are now around 150 members both former and current clergy who are atheist and applications continue to come in every day. Members not only come from Christianity but other “faiths” as well. Anyone who is a member of the “clergy” of any religion who now “no longer believes in the supernatural” may apply.