Albert Mohler Calls Closeted Atheist Clergy “Charlatans and Cowards”

Who’s being the coward here? Albert Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and an unapologetic young Earth creationist, plays rough with secretly atheist clergy members who have talked in confidence to Daniel Dennett’s The Clergy Project, writing at his blog the following:

The Clergy Project is a magnet for charlatans and cowards who, by their own admission, openly lie to their congregations, hide behind beliefs they do not hold, make common cause with atheists, and still retain their positions and salaries.

Methinks Mohler here doth protest too much, for isn’t it also cowardice that drives the believing clergyman to sublimate, by a leap of faith, an honest confrontation with his own doubts? Additionally, isn’t it charlatanism for a clergyman to then enter the pulpit on a weekend morning, and know that what he says may not be true, and yet he says it (with the confidence of faith) anyway? Mark Twain famously wrote that “faith is believing things you know ain’t so.”

So faith isn’t being brave, it’s being in denial. It’s the let’s pretend game. Let’s pretend we know things we don’t–and pass that off as knowledge shared with courage.

But acting like you have knowledge and courage isn’t the same as actually having knowledge and courage. It’s playing the confidence man–the charlatan–the very thing Mohler accuses the atheist clergyman of being.

A double-bind on atheist clergymen (and women). Let’s give closeted atheist clergy their due. They’re in pain, and the Clergy Project gives them a place where they can talk in private about their conflicted lives. The clergy member who makes use of the Clergy Project is at least admitting her inner truth to someone somewhere. She’s at least not practicing self deception and cognitive dissonance (like so many of her believing colleagues). It’s a first step.

And think of the callous logic of Mohler’s position. He’s basically saying that once you’ve committed yourself intellectually and vocationally to the ministry, you can’t be like Lot’s wife and start looking back. You’ve got to just keep plowing forward in faith, perhaps for decades, and then, if you find yourself losing your beliefs, you’ve got to cut bait and get out. There’s no middle ground to negotiate, only either/or, black or white.

Put another way: Get with the program, stay with the program, don’t doubt the program. That’s Mohler’s alternative to the Clergy Project.

And if you’re going to be a Judas, what you do, do quickly. This means coming out all at once to friends, family members, and one’s supervisors within your religious organization, and walking away, abandoning your source of income (which may be supporting kids in college, etc.).

How many people are really capable of such a traumatic bridge-burning gesture? Probably only very few.

Thus Mohler, by laying the scarlet letter C (for cowardice; for charlatan) on those who contact the Clergy Project, is putting his fellow clerical colleagues in a double-bind: if you doubt your vocation, and secretly contact Dennett’s group, you’re a coward; if you don’t talk to Dennett’s group, and your doubts persist, you’re expected to man-up, confess your sin to everybody of significance to you, and hit-the-road into the secular wilderness, bereft of support.

Call them Ishmael. So if you’re a member of the clergy, you’ve been forewarned. Confess your doubts to unbelievers, and you will not get sympathy or emotional support of any kind from your clerical colleagues. Choose ye this day which team ye are on. Here’s Mohler in the same blog post:

Pernicious doubt leads to unfaithfulness, unbelief, skepticism, cynicism, and despair. Christians — ministers or otherwise — who are struggling with doubt, need to seek help from the faithful, not the faithless.

Pernicious doubt. Did you catch that? Doubt is framed by Mohler as something that causes subtle harm; it’s not a positive virtue. It’s something to be tamped down. If you’re going to get sympathy for your doubt, you have to bring it to your fellow clergymen; you’ve got to keep it in the guild, and your intent must be to kill the infant of doubt in its cradle. It’s Damian; it’s Rosemary’s Baby.

But to treat doubt in this way means the objective truth doesn’t really matter, for doubt leads humans to the truth. Doubt is the bloodhound of truth; the seeker-of-truth’s best friend. Mohler is thus giving his fellow clergymen very narrow parameters for their doubts to chase the truth. They must send forth their doubts in such a way that: (1) institutional religion is not harmed in reputation; and (2) confirmation bias toward one’s religious faith remains in tact. The bloodhound of doubt must pass through “the faithful, not the faithless.”

Which may not get you to the truth at all.

Doubting, Thomas? At the end of his essay, Mohler puts on a brave face as to what the Clergy Project means for religion: “Christianity has little to fear from the Clergy Project. Its website reveals it to be a toothless tiger that will attract media attention, and that is about all.”

And as for squishy liberal members of the clergy who don’t preach red meat superstitions (like a literal Noah’s ark and the rapture) and orthodox doctrines (like Jesus’ virgin birth and physical resurrection), Mohler puts them all on notice as well, writing in the last sentence of his essay the following: “The greater danger to the church is a reduction in doctrine that leaves atheism hard to distinguish from belief.”

Got that, liberal doubting Thomases? Blessed are those who have not seen, yet believe.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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14 Responses to Albert Mohler Calls Closeted Atheist Clergy “Charlatans and Cowards”

  1. andrewclunn says:

    As the son of a preacher, a former believer, and an open atheist, I’d just like to say that they are indeed cowards and liars. People lying about their beliefs to maintain positions of power in institutions they are actively working against are at best moles. They should be treated with contempt both by people of faith and honest atheists. This isn’t like homosexuality where they were born some way and had to hide it at one point to avoid open discrimination and hate. This is a lifestyle and position they chose. If they have since lost their faith, then they are no longer fit to hold their positions. Integrity over empathy. Honesty over emotional appeals. On this issue Albert Mohler is completely in the right.

  2. Santi Tafarella says:

    Andrew:

    Wouldn’t having faith–actually being able to convince oneself of the bullshit–also disqualify one from holding a responsible position? Who’s scarier–the clerical doubter who makes compromises or the clerical true believer who’s dangerous as hell (precisely because he doesn’t)?

    • andrewclunn says:

      That is really tribalistic. The mere act of believing in religion should disqualify somebody from being a preacher because it’s a position of authority, even though that authority is based on the supposition of faith? I’m all for honestly opposing religious dogma, largely because I think religious institutions lie to people. But if we allow persistent dishonesty as a means to oppose them, then we are no better. Hold yourself and yours to a higher standard or you represent nothing worth defending.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      What you’re saying sounds righteous, but it’s more complicated than that. Historically (say, over the past century and a half), if liberals had simply abandoned religion, biblical archaeology wouldn’t have developed; form criticism wouldn’t have developed; the academic study of the Bible wouldn’t have developed, etc. The hen house would have been left to the most extreme conservative foxes. Christianity would be as shut-in on itself as Islam is today.

      The Bultmanns and John Dominic Crossans of the world who muddy up Jesus’s resurrection, etc., even as they stay within their respective faith traditions, are doing everybody an enormous favor. They’re the feather beds for catching people as they ease their way out of the burning barn of 21st century fundamentalism. And they keep the broader sweep of Christianity, as it evolves through time, from getting too cultish and out of touch with reality.

      • andrewclunn says:

        You are conflating liberalism with atheism. There are plenty of liberals who actively believe in God. There are plenty of different interpretations of the bible and different sects of Christianity. A questioning believer is one thing, a person who has concluded that they do not in fact believe in God is another.

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        But the path out of religion probably starts with a shift in the definition of God. Two people can SAY they believe in God, but what are they really affirming? Do they themselves even know?

        What if the preacher knows what he means by “God,” and knows he doesn’t mean an old man in the sky, and knows his parishioners do mean an old man in the sky. Does he tell his parishioners that they mean very different things from one another–or does he just let it go?

        From the vantage of one, the other might not even believe in God. Many fundamentalists think that if you don’t believe God is personal (has desires, preferences, knows your name, etc.), then you don’t really believe in God. Others think a personal God is a form of idolatry; that God is just the impersonal First Cause of classical Aristotelianism; the Ground of Being.

        What good is half an eye or half a god? Well, evolution suggests plenty good. They get things done; they move an organism in the direction of something else.

      • andrewclunn says:

        We’re not talking about deists, people with different interpretations of their faith, or people who are confused about their faith. We’re talking about people who know that they no longer believe in a god, by their own interpretation (not requiring anyone else’s subjective judgement). If you disagree, and believe that their lying is justified then fine, but so far all I’ve gotten is rhetorical attempts to muddy the water (from yourself) and personal attacks on my ability to comprehend their situation (from others).

  3. Personally, I think those people were put in a hard place. The comments above call them liars but lack any empathy. Imagine believing in something you were raised to believe and believing so completely you want to serve that faith. You then go out and become a Minister and you truly want to help people in your community.

    After some considerable time, with considerable soul searching, you confront your belief system and realize you no longer believe. Your entire life is now built around this religion. Your friends and family, your job, your very community life is based around this. If you leave, you stand to lose everything.

    But you eventually do. You find a way out. The clergy project.

    If anything, I find these people inspiring and think they’re courageous. Not everything is black and white.

    • andrewclunn says:

      “Empathy” is a lie we use to justify not holding people accountable for their transgressions when committed by ourselves or members of our tribe. If we really want to rise above emotional appeals, then using empathy as a justification should be dismissed the same way that fear and anger are.

      • Empathy definitely is not a lie. And it’s easy to say that when it’s not you in that situation. It’s not your wife and children who will leave. You aren’t going to lose anything from your vantage of safety.

        And who says they won’t be held accountable?

        They will know that they preached something they didn’t believe in. They may feel guilt. They will possibly still lose many things, including a great many friends and family.

        You have no idea what they’re going through.

        You seem like a very black and white sort of person. That usually means you miss out on many of the nuances of life. Not everything is black and white.

      • andrewclunn says:

        I shared that I’m the son of a preacher above specifically to show that I am very much aware of the situation and what the costs are. You “seem like” a very [insert generalization about somebody I don’t know, so that I can dismiss them] person.

      • I didn’t dismiss you. I responded to your post. You also seem very angry and unpleasant.

        Hope that works out for you, man.

        And being the son of a preacher will not make your ’empathy is a lie’ statement any more true or your seeming unwillingness to use it when considering other people.

      • Alan says:

        Empathy makes life as a human, even a bird or mammal for that matter, possible. Empathy is a primary responsibility for a functional human.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Godless Cranium:

      I think you’re right about the slow evolution part, and let’s face it, being an intelligent clergy member in 2015 entails all sorts of different psychological mind fucks coming at you from a lot of different directions. If you keep to the faith, doubts shadow you, and you have to suppress them. If you let the doubts rise to full consciousness, your life blows up. In a lifetime, a person can remake his or her life once, maybe twice–maybe even three times. But people aren’t infinitely malleable, and age becomes a factor (depending on how close one is to retirement). I don’t envy the 21st century clergyman. He’s on a sinking ship. Stay or jump? And if you jump, who takes your place–a dull fanatic? Is that good for your congregation–for society?

      The Clergy Project I think exposes the dilemmas, not just of doubting clergy, but of all intelligent clergy, for all contemporary intelligent members of the clergy either doubt or frantically sublimate their doubts. They’re different sides of the same coin; of the same inner drama. Mohler is just playing the doubting clergy game from the other side of the table; the shored-up faith side, battening down the hatches.

      Is that another leak in the boat?

      Everybody is on the cross. Everybody. Including atheists and agnostics like you and me.

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