Atheist Pastors? Yes, They Exist…
A friend of mine, who does a good bit of research on the ‘Net regarding a variety of issues, sent me a link to a group known as “The Clergy Project” (Thanks, Marie!). A fairly innocuous name for a group that “is a confidential online community for active and former clergy who do not hold supernatural beliefs.” [1; emphasis added] Not surprisingly, “The Clergy Project” provides words of welcome from atheists like Richard Dawkins and many others.
That’s interesting, isn’t it? I realize that there are religious groups that are far more New Age than Christian, though they attempt to pass themselves off as authentic Christian groups. To those groups, I’m not surprised when I read their doctrinal statements to understand that their view of God in general is one that is so nebulous as to really beg the question as to whether or not they actually believe in God Himself, or simply “god” as the individual chooses to conceive. We all know of allegedly Christian groups that have long ago jettisoned true orthodoxy (if they ever had it) in favor of concepts and ideas that are far more in keeping with what is taught within the New Age movement than anything that resembles actual biblical Christianity. Please understand that I’m not condemning these groups (though I am certainly in disagreement with them), but merely saying that their rejection of the facts of Christianity is obvious.
However, when you read testimonies by individuals who have worked in what are certainly considered to be mainline churches and even many churches found deeply within America’s Bible Belt, and now claim that there is no God, it tends to take one back a bit. It probably shouldn’t, but it does.
I have dealt with this issue in detail in my book The Anti-Supernatural Bias of Ex-Christians so I’m very familiar with how many of these people think. That is not to say I know all about them, but it is to say that based on what they have shared, they have pulled back the curtain on their own diminishing beliefs in the supernatural, providing insight to the rest of us.
The Clergy Project is specifically designed to help those within the clergy transition from believer to unbeliever. They do this through the following:
- Wrestling with intellectual, ethical, philosophical and theological issues
- Coping with cognitive dissonance
- Addressing feelings of being stuck and fearing the future
- Looking for new careers
- Telling their families
- Sharing useful resources
- Living as a nonbeliever with religious spouses and family
- Using humor to soften the pain
- Finding a way out of the ministry
- Adjusting to life after the ministry
Now when I look over the above list, I’m saddened for a variety of reasons. First, I am forced to ask myself if these folks ever really believed in the God of the Bible. The obvious answer to that is “no,” though many would undoubtedly argue that they were in fact, Christians. According to my understanding of what the Bible teaches, they could not have been. What they likely believed in was a mirage; something they created based on what they thought they knew in order to say that they were believers in God. I’m not saying they did this superficially or even intentionally. I believe that certainly for most, they accepted something, though one must ask, how defined was their concept of God and what was it based on? Feelings? Secular knowledge?
Apparently, there are 365 members, with “more than 200 church leaders across the country now say they no longer believe in God, including a Houston-area pastor who was one of the first to publicly announce his decision.” 
I’m certainly not here to condemn these folks and I wish to be clear on that point. On one hand, I have to give them credit for even wanting to come to terms with their growing disbelief. Moreover, the fact that most appear willing to leave the pastorate for some secular post is also something for which they should be commended. I cannot imagine how difficult it must be to go from week to week, teaching people about something that one no longer believes in! If left unchecked, it would surely create a dichotomy within that individual causing – at the very least – a deep sense of guilt for pretending to be something they are not.
As I stated in my book – The Anti-Supernatural Bias of Ex-Christians – whether folks like to hear this or not, whatever the reason happens to be as to why someone arrives to the conclusion that God no longer exists, one thing (at least to me) seems sure. Paul spoke about this “great falling away” that would occur in the last days (cf. 2 Thessalonians 2:3). Here is the full verse and the reader would do well to read the entire first and second letters to the Thessalonians: “Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except their come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition.”
Paul was warning and clarifying for the Thessalonian believers that the Day of the Lord had not occurred yet (and commentators do not agree on the exact meaning of the Day of the Lord; what else is new?), so he assures them that before that day could occur, a great falling away would need to occur. Had that falling away taken place yet during Paul’s day? Obviously no, it hadn’t and thus he wrote encouraging his readers that they would know when they were getting close because of that falling away.
Like just about everything else in God’s Word, people disagree over the exact meaning of “the great falling away” that Paul mentions. What is it? Some say it means that people will leave the visible church in droves. Others say it means that authentic Christians will turn away from God in large numbers and become unbelievers like they were before they came to Christ originally.
I am of the opinion that because I do not believe that a true Christian can actually lose their salvation, that Paul must be talking about people who are “religious” in nature. These people likely attend church, they read the Bible, they pray, and many of them preach or teach and even hold positions of authority in the local church. These people are not necessarily authentic Christians though they would argue the point with you. Only God knows their hearts obviously, but He does tell us certain things in His Word that allow us to know whether or not someone is, at least, on the right path based on the fruit of their lives (cf. Matthew 7:16). Of course, there are pretenders too and that makes it more difficult for us. Beyond this, though I am allowed to judge a person’s actions and words, I am never allowed to judge a person’s intentions or their heart because that is not something I can ever see (John 7; Acts 17).
In the gospel of John, chapter 3, Jesus speaks very clearly to Nicodemus about what it takes to gain salvation (or to go to heaven after this life). Jesus states simply that in order to gain eternal salvation, one must be “born again.” Nicodemus is mystified of course and quickly thinks that Jesus is saying that each person must go back into the womb and exit…again in order to gain salvation. This of course, is absurd and Jesus calls him on it even asking him why he is unable to glean what He (Jesus) meant since he (Nicodemus) is a religious leader of the nation of Israel. That’s a good question.
Jesus then explains that to gain salvation, a person must be born of water and of spirit. In other words, we must be a human being first, then we must have a spiritual birth, second.
We are born of water during our physical birth. The water in the amniotic sac breaks and birth occurs not long afterwards, normally. Once a person is born physically, they cannot be “unborn.” Even if they are killed in an accident, or eventually die a natural death, they were still born the first time. Death does not undo the physical birth.
By the same token, Jesus references being born by the spirit (born again) or being spiritually born and of course, this takes place after a person has been physically born. Likewise, a person who is spiritually born (born again, or born from above) cannot be “unborn” spiritually once that takes place. It is as impossible as being unborn physically. It cannot happen.
So, a person who is physically born into this world generally becomes a viable human being (though I believe they are a living human being from the moment of conception). Once physically born, they now live in this world, grow, become adults, then age into being elderly and often infirm, then they die. It’s the natural process of life since the time when Adam and Eve fell and the sin nature became part and parcel of the human condition. We are born, we live, we die.
Now, if during that time of living, a person is never born again (or born from above), when they die, they are sequestered to what is known as hell, until the judgment. Once they are judged (told why they are in hell in the first place), they are then give their eternal place in the Lake of Fire. In essence then, a person has their entire life (however long that might be) to become “born again” spiritually though unfortunately, many to most will never take that step. It is a step of the will, based on the knowledge that God provides about Himself and His purposes. Paul tells us that the general revelation of God is known, being seen in His Creation so that people are without excuse in their rejection of Him (Romans 1).
Just as the thief on the cross had his eyes opened by God Himself, allowing him to see and understand who Jesus was and is, based on that information, that same thief literally changed his mind about Jesus then and there and gained salvation. He essentially became “born again,” this time, spiritually. Jesus promised him that day he (the thief) would be with Him (Jesus) in paradise. You can read about it in Luke 23. Entering this life through physical birth qualifies us as human beings. Being born again spiritually gains for us eternal life.
So there appears to be from Jesus’ own lips, the promise that when a person becomes born again (or goes through the second birth, which is spiritual in nature), salvation becomes theirs. Since a person cannot become “unborn again,” the erroneous belief that a person can lose their salvation makes no sense, logically, or biblically. In order for that to happen, a person would literally have to undue the process of being born again, something that cannot occur in the physical or spiritual realm. As stated, once a person is physically born, they are born. Even though they will eventually die, they were still born initially. Death does not undo that process. Death merely ends life in this physical realm. It does not annihilate a person or their soul (which is eternal).
So these people who are members of the clergy now find themselves in the unenviable position where they do not believe in God or the supernatural (in most cases) any longer. For them, it has to be extremely awkward to say the least. At the same time, in my view, there can only be one of two things happening here. 1) Either they are going through a period of severe spiritual failure and though they are actually born again, they are overcome with severe doubts, causing them to think that what they have believed is a lie, or 2) they were never born again in the first place. If the first, then God will bring them back from their doubt. If the second, then they are in the position – like all lost people – to receive salvation and become born again.
Some will accuse me of judging people (that’s the good standby in a discussion of this type). Yet, if one takes the time to really read (and understand) what I’m saying, they will have to admit that I’m not judging anyone per se. I am merely judging their words against Scripture. I do not know the heart of any of these people at all (and frankly, sometimes, it’s difficult enough to know my own heart).
In my “Anti-Supernatural” book, I discuss this at length. If you’d like a copy of it, go here and download the FREE version of the book in PDF format: http://studygrowknow.com/ex_christians.html
There is no need to pay for it, but bear in mind that this is not the softcover book. It is a PDF document that you will download to your computer and you are then free to print out on your printer if you choose to do so. No registration is required. You do not even need to send me an email. Just click the link and download. I’ll never know if you downloaded it or not. It’s there and it’s free to take a look if you’re interested.
My heart truly goes out to these folks. I know how difficult it can be to work in ministry and constantly be thinking of the fact that you are a model by which others in a congregation look to you for direction, insight, help, and strength in their time of need. It is not always possible to “feel” that God exists and that He is always there. Yet, in spite of those times, authentic Christians push their way through those dark times in faith, believing that God is there (whether we feel it or not) and that He will provide the faith to continue.
If one stops to consider that often, our feelings are allowed to dictate to us how we should feel and think, it becomes easier to understand why people walk away from the visible church. A person may have spent all of their adult life in church for instance, with nagging feelings that they were living a lie. This may continue until they simply must address the issue, being unable to avoid it any longer. The resultant decision to admit that there has not been nor is any real belief in a god becomes overwhelming. Once they arrive to that position, they also realize that they must (if they are honest) move out of ministry. Again, I truly appreciate how difficult it must be for them to arrive to that decision. Their honesty at least deserves some measure of praise. At least, they are not remaining in the clergy solely as a job, though some have done so unfortunately.
One individual tells us the reasons she remains in ministry. “First, I made a commitment to my church and my denomination to serve this appointment. Second, the financial issue. If I walk away now, my family will suffer greatly. Trust me, this decision to stay for now hasn’t been an easy one. Every week I feel like a fraud. Every week I struggle with the fact that I’m lying when I stand before my congregation. I’m leading a double life.”
Again, at least she is honest and she goes onto say that she does have an “exit strategy” which will allow her to eventually leave the ministry. It’s not easy, I’m sure.
It is interesting to read some of the other testimonials associated with The Clergy Project. They are sad, they are poignant, they are from the heart. Yet, my heart is terribly sad for these folks because I truly wish they knew the Savior. He does exist. He is there for them and He continues to offer them salvation.
Numerous testimonials speak of breaking away from God and the church because they actually read the Bible. One individual states, “I became an agnostic, then an atheist, NOT because I hadn’t read the Bible, but because I had! An atheist, by the way, is simply someone who does not believe in a supernatural being. I am convinced that the evidence supports that view. All religion suffers from being bound by unchanging myth.”
Another person writes, “The Clergy Project has been a lifesaver for me. I am an active Methodist pastor who is also an atheist. I began the ministry full of great dreams and full faith in what I preached. However, over time I began to realize that the ‘truth’ I was preaching wasn’t so true. I resisted my doubts at first, but the nagging in my brain wouldn’t stop. So I embarked on a journey of researching and discovering that what I had believed for so long wasn’t true.” This individual is still in the pulpit.
Jack says, “I live out my life as if there is no God.”
Another clergy member, Adam “is part of the pastoral staff of a small evangelical church in the Bible Belt.”
Years ago, I would have been angered at such admissions, as if someone else’s testimonial somehow voided mine. That is no longer the case at all. Now, as I stated, my heart goes out to these folks and I pray that the Lord will one day truly bring many of them to Him in true faith. They will then be able to turn around and minister to others who are in the same position they once were. Who better to minister to someone than another who has walked that same path? Certainly, God is aware of the potential and He has His plans in the works.
But again, what we are witnessing with groups like “The Clergy Project” and those I mention in my “Anti-Supernatural” book is – I believe – a fulfillment of the very thing that Paul speaks of when he clarifies for the Thessalonian believers that a time would come when people who wander away from the faith. He is not saying that authentic Christians would deny their Lord and somehow walk away from being a true Christian. There is no need for us to go that far because there are many individuals who attend church, who rigorously go through the motions of being a Christian (and may well believe it themselves), but in the end, are not Christians if they are not actually in relationship with Jesus. It is not because they are deliberately living a lie either. I believe it is because they have not fully had their eyes open to the truth. Again, they would disagree with me and certainly, that’s their right. I’m not writing this to denigrate or belittle them, but to provide some insight from my perspective, based on Scriptural evidence.
I believe that many of these people who have walked away from the faith were (and are) very caring people who wanted to do something that would help the average person. They not only cared about people, but saw themselves in positions where they could help them best, through teaching, encouraging, and promoting something they at one time believed in (though as stated, I do not believe they were authentic Christians).
The fact that many to most of them simply state now that there is no supernatural being proves to me that they could not have actually been an authentic Christian since being an authentic Christian involves being in an actual relationship with THE supernatural being. If that supernatural being does not, nor ever did, exist (according to them), then what were they “in relationship” with? The answer has to be nothing. It was a figment of their imagination, or for them, religion itself (not a relationship) was the thing that married them to their former career as clergy.
It is amazing to see what is occurring throughout the world today. It is changing at a breakneck pace. Nothing remains the same. Had I been able to see what the world was to become when I was far younger, it would have scared me, to be sure. It is still, at times, difficult to accept. We see things happening throughout the world politically that causes distress in many. We see things occurring on a social level as well as economically that adds to the flames and now we see many who have been associated with the visible church, deliberately walking away from it and breaking ties with it.
Folks, we are – according to the Bible – in the Last Days. It is interesting (though tragic) to see so many walking away from any association with the visible Church and yet, in many parts of the world, many more seem to be clamoring to get into God’s Kingdom. Since 9/11 for instance, Muslims in droves are coming to know Christ and make Him known. God is at work throughout the world and no one who truly longs to know the truth will be rejected. Those who reject the truth will – unfortunately and quite tragically – perish (cf. 2 Thessalonians 2:10), unless of course, they turn from their error. Their time is limited, as they only have the remainder of their lives to embrace the truth and enter into a spiritual relationship with Jesus Christ, by being born again.
Does your heart go out to people like the ones described here? Do you want to see them saved? Do you want them to come to actually know the Risen Savior? I hope so and to that end, I pray that you will join me in prayer for these and many other souls. They will tell you that do not need or want our prayers. Pray anyway. Their souls depend upon their embrace of the truth. Will you join me in this?
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