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What Can A Flock Do When The Shepherd Has Lost His Way?

(Lawrence Whittemore/Flickr)

(Lawrence Whittemore/Flickr)

A recent article by Daniel Dennett, a Tufts University professor of philosophy, shares the stories of non-believers. They’re not seminarians, not congregants, not people in crisis; these people who have lost faith are religious leaders themselves.

Dennett first came across closeted non-believers when doing research for his book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. In an article for Tufts Magazine, Dennett remembers that, “in off-the-record conversations, outwardly religious people — lay church leaders or regular church-goers — routinely confided that they didn’t believe the creed of their own church.”

Learning of Dennett’s findings, Linda LaScola, a Washington D.C. qualitative researcher, proposed a more systematic exploration of this issue. She and Dennett started with a small sample: five clergy within the Protestant Christian tradition.

The article, published in the Journal of Evolutionary Psychology (PDF), shares the stories of these pastors. Some of the clergy have doubted the existence of God since the very beginning of their training, others feel trapped, and some feel that doubt is an integral part of their faith life. In spite of their complex journey, the five respondents have one thing in common: they remain active as religious leaders.

Is this news to you? After Mother Teresa’s death, the world learned of her doubts and struggles. How would you feel if you found out that your pastor/rabbi/imam/priest is a closeted non-believer? We’ll take your calls and comments, and we’ll speak with an ordained minister and professor of ministry studies about this phenomenon, and about what it means to have “seasons of faith.”


  • Daniel Dennett, co-director, Center for Cognitive Studies, professor of philosophy, Tufts University
  • Matthew Myer Boulton, associate professor of ministry studies, Harvard Divinity School; ordained minister; director of the early choir, Old South Church


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  • John

    Why are they perpetuating this religious fraud instead of being honest? These hypocrites are not true to their own rational beliefs, continue to enable superstition, and are stealing salaries from their followers.

  • Paul Huffman

    How do religious leader without faith handle members in their congregation that have doubts or disbelieve? Do they overcompensate, or do they share their doubts?

  • John

    Typical theological hairsplitting between faith and belief.

  • Reggie

    Maybe they are “trapped” in the place they are in, are trying to find a way out but cannot because they have no marketable skills apart from ministry. Don’t be so judgmental. Until you have walked in their shoes you have no idea what they are going through. The truth is, your response is typical of a believer who makes a subjective judgment about others without consideration for the facts behind or related to the story of the individual. Get a heart, like the one that is supposed to have come from god.

  • Gay

    The issue is complicated by many factors other than the depth of individual faith :
    *each religion and denomination within that religion has unique and often unclear requirements for how close one has to stay to the “party line’
    *Clergy are highly trained in skills that are often not transferable. this training costs a lot and takes a lot of time – high commitment results in reluctance to change professions
    *the reward for the high commitment is low pay which does not give them the financial cushion for change that some professions might provide
    *social life and professional life are integrated more closely than any other profession making those who leave immediately cut off from all their support systems
    * as the leader of a particular community is it required of them to carry the faith without flagging, or is is realized that human growth and development requires some “doubt” in order to move forward either in psychological maturity or faith maturity.

  • John

    They could use their unique training to sell used cars.

  • Mark

    Don’t ministers also have to learn counseling? They could become counselors for people who can’t afford a real psychologist.

    It’s like music schools. They need to offer classes in gourmet cooking and bartending for those majority of their students who won’t succeed financially as musicians.

  • ana

    Changing careers is wrenching for anyone – if the concern is about skills and finances, then your challenge is no different than mine, were I to want to become …. a writer, or a journalist, instead of the office manager I am.

    If the challenge is about your beliefs, then again, I have very little patience: If you’re teaching something you don’t believe, it might conflict with your ethics. If it does, then just stop. If it doesn’t, then keep going.

    Either way, come to terms with your own self, and act accordingly. It’s remarkably easier than you seem to think.

Hosts Meghna Chakrabarti and Anthony Brooks introduce us to newsmakers, big thinkers and artists and bring us stories of relevance to Bostonians here and around the region. Live every weekday at 3.

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