Now what about religions? They, too, thrive on the goodness of people. For the past few years, Linda LaScola, a clinical social worker, qualitative researcher and psychotherapist, and I have been investigating the curious, sad phenomenon of closeted non-believing clergy - well-meaning, hard-working pastors who find they do not believe the creed of their denomination, but also find that they cannot just blow the whistle and abandon the pulpit. We knew that many churchgoers have lost whatever faith they had but continue their membership for social and psychological reasons, and surmised that there might be clergy who were similarly attached to their church. What is it like to be a non-believing pastor? We found some examples who were willing to tell us, and are now completing a second survey of volunteers.
We want to know, ultimately, how this happens, and how common it is. It is apparently not rare - nobody knows what percentage of clergy fall into this category, not surprisingly. Our first study reported on five pastors in different Protestant denominations, who were interviewed in depth and in strict confidence by LaScola. Because it was published electronically (on the website On Faith) and under the headline "Preachers who are not believers" (Evolutionary Psychology, volume eight, issue one), this first pilot study has received considerable attention and brought us a host of new volunteers for our ongoing research.
There are many paths into this predicament, we find, but a common thread runs through most of them: a certain sort of innocence and a powerful desire, not for social
prestige or riches, but rather the desire to lead a good life, to help other people as much as possible. The tragic trap is baited with goodness itself.
Here is how it often works: teenagers glowing with enthusiasm decide to devote their lives to a career of helping others and, looking around in their rather sheltered communities, they see no better, purer option than going into the clergy. When they get to seminary they find themselves being taught things that nobody told them in Sunday school. The more they learn of theology and the history of the composition of the Bible, the less believable they find their creed. Eventually they cease to believe altogether. But, alas, they have already made a substantial commitment in social capital - telling their families and communities about their goals - so the pressure is strong to find an accommodation, or at least to imagine that if they hang in there they will find one. Only a lucky few find either the energy or the right moment to break free. Those who don't break free then learn the tricks of the trade, the difference between what you can say from the pulpit and what you can say in the sanctum of the seminary, or in your heart. Some, of course, are unfazed by this.