The Faith Trap

Originally posted in Washington Post- Click Here to Visit

Q:What should pastors do if they no longer hold the defining beliefs of their denomination? Do clergy have a moral obligation not to challenge the sincere faith of their parishioners? If this requires them to dissemble from the pulpit, doesn’t this create systematic hypocrisy at the center of religion? What would you want your pastor to do with his or her personal doubts or loss of faith?

At a lunch party I was placed next to a well-known female rabbi, now ennobled. She asked me, somewhat belligerently, whether I said grace when it was my turn to do so at High Table dinner in my Oxford college. “Yes,” I replied, “Out of simple good manners and respect for the medieval traditions of my college.” She attacked me for hypocrisy, and was not amused when I quoted the great philosopher A J (Freddy) Ayer, who also was quite happy to recite the grace at the same college when he chanced to be Senior Fellow: “I will not utter falsehoods”, said Freddy genially, “But I have no objection to making meaningless statements.”

Humor was lost on this rabbi, so I tried to see if a serious explanation would go over any better. “To you, Rabbi, imprecations to God are meaningful, and therefore cannot sincerely come from an atheist. To me, ‘Benedictus benedicat’ is as empty and meaningless as ‘Lord love a duck’ or ‘Stone the crows.’ Just as I don’t seriously expect anybody to respond to my words by hurling rocks at innocent corvids, so it is a matter of blissful indifference to me whether I invoke the mealtime blessings of a non-existent deity or not. Non-existent is the operative phrase. In the convivial atmosphere of a college dinner, I cheerfully take the road of good manners and refrain from calling ostentatious attention to my unbelief – an unbelief, by the way, which is shared by most of my colleagues, and they too are quite happy to fall in with tradition.” Once again, the rabbi didn’t get it.

On the face of it, the disillusioned clergymen who form the subject of Dan Dennett’s and Linda La Scola’s study are less immune to the charge of hypocrisy. They are professionals, who accept a salary for preaching Christianity to a trusting flock. And what is true of atheist clergymen is scarcely less true of those who shelter behind Karen Armstrong-type apophatuousness, or ‘ground of all being’ obscurantism. That won’t wash, for the simple reason that it wouldn’t wash with the parishioners. To the trusting congregation, Karen Armstrong would be nothing more than a dishonest atheist, and who could disagree? You can just imagine the shocked bewilderment that would greet a ‘ground of all being’ theologian, if he tried that on with churchgoers who actually believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, walked on water, and died for their sins.

These dissembling pastors might therefore be accused of betraying a trust when they continue, Sunday after Sunday, to get up in the pulpit and bemuse churchgoers who take seriously the words that the clergyman himself does not – and yet continues to speak. Are they not grievously culpable for deceiving their congregation and accepting a salary for doing so?

Q:What should pastors do if they no longer hold the defining beliefs of their denomination? Do clergy have a moral obligation not to challenge the sincere faith of their parishioners? If this requires them to dissemble from the pulpit, doesn’t this create systematic hypocrisy at the center of religion? What would you want your pastor to do with his or her personal doubts or loss of faith?

No, their personal predicament warrants more sympathy than that. They know no other way of making a living. They stand to lose friends, family, and their respected place in the community, as well as salary and pension. All the more praise to Dan Barker, who had the courage to throw over the whole nonsensical enterprise and jointly found the admirable Freedom from Religion Foundation. But even Dan preached on for a year before taking the plunge.

As Dennett and La Scola mention, one of the things I would consider doing, if my charitable foundation managed to raise enough money, would be to endow retraining scholarships for clergymen who have lost their faith. Perhaps they could retrain as counselors, teachers, policemen – or even join the hallowed profession of carpenter?

The singular predicament of these men (and women) opens yet another window on the uniquely ridiculous nature of religious belief. What other career, apart from that of clergyman, can be so catastrophically ruined by a change of opinion, brought about by reading, say, or conversation? Does a doctor lose faith in medicine and have to resign his practice? Does a farmer lose faith in agriculture and have to give up, not just his farm but his wife and the goodwill of his entire community? In all areas except religion, we believe what we believe as a result of evidence. If new evidence comes in, we may change our beliefs. When decisive evidence for the Big Bang theory of the universe came to hand, astronomers who had previously espoused the Steady State Theory changed their minds: reluctantly in some cases, graciously in others. But the change didn’t tear their lives or their marriages apart, did not estrange them from their parents or their children. Only religion has the malign power to do that. Only religion is capable of making a mere change of mind a livelihood-threatening catastrophe, whose very contemplation demands grave courage. Yet another respect in which religion poisons everything.

BY RICHARD DAWKINS  |  MARCH 20, 2010; 6:51 AM ET

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