Losing their religion

First aired on Tapestry (24/07/11)

What happens when a preacher loses his or her belief in God? Well, according to a recent study from Tufts University, many still work in churches, still spread the gospel and continue to counsel the faithful. These atheist preachers are isolated and, in some cases, unable to confide in their own families, out of fear of what their newfound disbelief may do to their relationships.

prayer-175.jpgDaniel Dennett, a philosophy professor at Tufts University and co-author of the study Preachers Who Are Not Believers, said it's not known how many of these preachers are in the U.S. But during his research he spoke with several in deep confidence and learned about their difficult circumstances.

"The thing that impresses me or moves me the most is that by and large these people were trapped by their own good intentions," Dennett told Tapestry's Mary Hynes recently. "They got into this pickle by wanting to lead a good life and to help other people and the best way they could see was to go into the ministry. Once they got into the ministry they saw things differently and it was too late. They were trapped in years of promises and commitments and then metaphors and then shading the truth and hypocrisies and sometimes outright lies."

One of the preachers who took part in the Tufts study, a man named Adam, also spoke with Hynes and shared some of his story. His voice was digitally altered in order to better protect his identity, as he still works for his church.

Adam, who was a preacher with an evangelical church that interpreted the Bible literally, recalled the first time that he wavered in his faith. He was studying the book UnChristian in order to better address common criticisms directed by non-believers at Christianity.

One of the criticisms mentioned was that non-believers believe Christians to be sheltered and unable to consider other options and opinions. Adam realized this to be true about himself.

So he embarked on a journey of spiritual evaluation — in secret. He read atheist texts, watched religious debates online and even took several online college courses about religion. Within a couple months, he began to lose his belief in God.

"Christianity doesn't make sense, whatever explanation could there be?" he asked himself. "The one answer that answers everything in my mind is the fact that there's no all-loving, all-powerful God."

"Of course I prayed about it ... [I] lost countless hours of sleeping, fearing for my own salvation."

Adam desires to quit and leave the church. He actually wrote a letter of resignation months ago. But he's concerned that revealing his secret will embarrass his family and hurt people in his "wonderful community."

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