“It is hard to think of any other profession which it is so near to impossible to leave.” That is the judgment of Richard Dawkins, perhaps the world’s most famous living atheist, as he welcomes unbelieving pastors to join the Clergy Project, a group designed to help unbelieving pastors make their way out of the ministry. Apparently, some are not moving out very fast.
Dawkins explains that the Clergy Project “exists to provide a safe haven, a forum where clergy who have lost their faith can meet each other, exchange views, swap problems, counsel each other — for, whatever they may have lost, clergy know how to counsel and comfort.” Dawkins, who once held one of the world’s most coveted academic posts, has now reduced himself to addressing small gatherings of atheists and celebrating a motley crew of pastors who have abandoned the faith — even if some have not abandoned their pulpits.
The Clergy Project’s own statement is even more blunt, describing itself as “a confidential online community for active and former clergy who do not hold supernatural beliefs.” Most people, believers and unbelievers alike, are no doubt in the habit of thinking that the Christian ministry requires supernatural beliefs. That assumption is what Richard Dawkins and the Clergy Project want to subvert. More precisely, they want to use the existence of unbelieving pastors to embarrass the church and weaken theism.
This past Sunday, The New York Times Magazine told the story of Jerry DeWitt, once a pastor in DeRidder, Louisiana and later the first “graduate” of the Clergy Project. He is now the executive director of a group known as Recovering from Religion, based in Kansas. DeWitt told the magazine of his struggle as an unbelieving pastor. “I remember thinking,” he said, “Who on this planet has any idea what I am going through?”
As the story unfolds, DeWitt tells of being the pastor of a Pentecostal church. What readers will also discover, however, is that even by the time he assumed the pastorate, DeWitt “espoused a more liberal Christianity.” Though he never earned a college degree, he educated himself by reading authors such as Carl Sagan, an atheist astronomer, and Joseph Campbell, a proponent of the mythological. Later, he read Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, key figures in the New Atheism. By the time he had read Dawkins and Hitchens, “even weak-tea Christianity was becoming hard to follow.”
When he found that he could no longer pray for his own parishioners or preach a coherent message, DeWitt resigned, preaching his last sermon in Cut and Shoot, Texas in April 2011. Now he travels the country organizing Recovering from Religion local chapters and working with the Clergy Project.