Clergy Who Quit
James A. Haught
[James A. Haught is the editor of the Charleston Gazette, West Virginia's largest newspaper. This essay is adapted from his ninth book:
Faith: The Rise of the Secular Age
Gustav Broukal Press - 2010 - $16]
One indicator of religious decline in America is the significant number of clergy who cease believing the supernatural tenets of their churches. Deep, deep inside, some preachers gradually sense that their lives are devoted to fantasy. They come to suspect that creeds, dogmas and scriptures about deities and devils, heavens and hells, miracles and messiahs, are fiction. But they don't dare reveal such qualms, lest they wreck their careers, their status, and their pensions. So they hedge in the pulpit, speaking in metaphors, living a pose.
However, a few have integrity enough to
chuck it all - to throw away everything
they worked hard to attain, and
publicly disavow their past beliefs. Such traumatic reversals require courage
couple of my friends, Richard and Dotty Kendig, grew up in fundamentalist
families, were married in Bible college, were ordained, and became missionaries
to Peru. They were deeply compassionate and truly desired to help primitive
Amazon villagers. But they were repelled as they watched fellow missionaries
abuse the natives, treat them with contempt, and count them only as
"souls" to be added to the convert list. Some missionaries forced
native women to cover their bodies, and stormed into huts to smash yucca beer
pots. After fifteen years, the Kendigs quit, leaving with humanist values.
"We went there to convert the Indians, and they converted us," Dick sometimes told me. He and Dotty subsequently tried preaching in Pennsylvania churches, but felt awash in hypocrisy. They quit Christianity, became freethinking Unitarians, and moved to a remote West Virginia farm, where Dick was killed by an overturning tractor. His widow is now a schoolteacher.
How many other ministers undergo this type of pilgrim's progress, slowly abandoning supernatural faith? Here are some famous cases:
up in Toronto, Templeton was afire with intelligence and creativity. He became a
teen-age sports cartoonist for the Globe and Mail newspaper. Later he
experienced an emotional conversion, started his own church, and rose rapidly to
be Canada's top evangelist in the 1940s. He became a major broadcast preacher.
He teamed up with Billy Graham for huge revivals in arenas across America and
Europe, "saving" thousands. Together, they spread Youth For Christ
But Templeton began having intellectual problems with fundamentalism. Trying to make his religion rational, he earned a degree from Princeton Theological Seminary, then became a special preacher for the National Council of Churches, then became head of evangelism for the Presbyterian Church USA.
changes didn't save his church career. His doubts wiped out his faith. In 1957,
he announced that he was an agnostic and renounced Christianity - stunning the
evangelical world in which he had been a superstar.
drive swiftly took him to new achievements. He became a Canadian television
commentator -- then managing editor of the Toronto Star -- then a leader of the
Ontario Liberal Party - then an advertising executive - then editor of Maclean's
Magazine - then host of a long-running daily radio show. By the 1980s, he had
retired mostly into writing, turning out novels and nonfiction books.
In the 1990s, just before Alzheimer's beset him, Templeton summed up his religious transformation in Farewell to God: My Reasons for Rejecting the Christian Faith. It was another slam to the church community that once adored him.
His book says Christianity rests on "fables" that no scientific-thinking person can swallow. The church teaches "beliefs that are outdated, demonstrably untrue, and often, in their various manifestations, deleterious to individuals and to society," the former evangelist wrote.
Page after page, he lists Bible miracles that are absurd to modern minds. Then he asks how an all-merciful father-creator could have made such a cruel universe:
"All life is predicated on death. Every carnivorous creature must kill and devour another creature. It has no option.... Why does God's grand design require creatures with teeth designed to crush spines or rend flesh, claws fashioned to seize and tear, venom to paralyze, mouths to suck blood, coils to constrict and smother - even expandable jaws so that prey may be swallowed whole and alive?... Nature is, in Tennyson's vivid phrase, 'red in tooth and claw,' and life is a carnival of blood.... How could a loving and omnipotent God create such horrors?"
book concludes: "I believe that there is no supreme being with human
attributes - no God in the biblical sense - but that all life is the result of
timeless evolutionary forces.... I believe that, in common with all living
creatures, we die and cease to exist."
died and ceased to exist in 2001.
Instead of writing a book about his apostasy, Gortner made a movie.
He was a remarkable denizen of the underbelly of religion. His parents were California evangelists leading revivals that were money-making hokum. Onstage, they exchanged secret signals while manipulating worshippers to emotional peaks and extracting large offerings from them. They sold "holy" gimmicks guaranteed to heal the sick.
named their son Marjoe for Mary and Joseph, and trained him as a squeaky child
preacher, a religious sensation. They drilled him in sermons and stage antics,
sometimes holding his head underwater to force him to memorize his lines, Marjoe
At age three, he was ordained by the Church of the Old-Time Faith. At four, he performed a wedding, triggering an uproar that caused California legislators to forbid marriages by preachers under twenty-one.
For ten years, Marjoe the boy wonder performed across the South and Midwest Bible Belt. He estimated that his parents raked in $3 million. Then Marjoe ran off at fourteen and lived with an older woman who served as both lover and surrogate mother. Eventually he returned to the revival circuit, strutting and prancing onstage as his parents had taught him. Money rolled in again.
Gortner knew that his religious act was a sham. Yet, strangely, he had an honest streak and decided to expose his own fraud. He engaged a film crew to make a documentary about his ministry. After revival shows, the cameras followed the preacher to hotel rooms where he tossed armfuls of money, crowing "Thank you, Jesus!"
film, Marjoe, jolted the fundamentalist world when it was released in 1972.
As an ex-preacher, Gortner became a minor movie star and recording
artist. He went bankrupt while attempting to produce a movie about a crooked
evangelist. In 1995, he appropriately played a preacher in Wild Bill.
Gortner's heyday on the revival stage, another star was faith-healer A.A. Allen,
who toured with jars containing bodies he said were demons he had cast out of
the sick. (Doubters said they were frogs.) Allen disappeared after a show at
Wheeling, West Virginia - and was found dead of alcoholism in a San Francisco
hotel room, his pockets crammed with wads of cash.
said Allen once taught him how to tell when a revival is finished and it's time
to travel to the next city: "When you can turn people on their head and
shake them and no money falls out, you know God's saying, 'Move on, son.'"
Some bookish Americans may not know that Baldwin, the great black author, formerly was a boy evangelist like Gortner.
grew up in Harlem, where his tyrannical stepfather was pastor of Fireside
Pentecostal Assembly. In a New Yorker essay titled "Down at the
Cross," later published in his civil rights book, The Fire Next Time,
Baldwin recounted the bitter hopelessness of the ghetto, where jobless men
fought and drank themselves into the gutter.
surrounding misery "helped to hurl me into the church," he wrote. As a
child, at a prayer meeting, "everything came roaring, screaming, crying
out, and I fell to the ground before the altar. It was the strangest sensation I
ever had in my life." Newly "saved," he became a
preacher at the family church and soon was "a much bigger drawing card than
was the most frightening time of my life, and quite the most dishonest, and the
resulting hysteria lent great passion to my sermons - for a while," Baldwin
wrote. Since crime and vice filled surrounding streets, he said, "it was my
good luck - perhaps - that I found myself in the church racket instead of some
other, and surrendered to a spiritual seduction long before I came to any carnal
While he tingled to the "fire and excitement" of Pentecostalism, he nonetheless experienced "the slow crumbling of my faith." It occurred "when I began to read again.... I began, fatally, with Dostoevski." He continued handing out gospel tracts, but knew privately that they were "impossible to believe."
was forced, reluctantly, to realize that the Bible itself had been written
by men." He dismissed the claim that the Bible writers were divinely
inspired, saying he "knew by now, alas, far more about divine inspiration
than I dared admit, for I knew how I worked myself up into my own
written by men." He dismissed the claim that the Bible writers were divinely inspired, saying he "knew by now, alas, far more about divine inspiration than I dared admit, for I knew how I worked myself up into my own visions."
The ex-minister wrote that he might have stayed in the church if "there was any loving-kindness to be found" in it - but "there was no love in the church. It was a mask for hatred and self-hatred and despair."
seventeen, Baldwin left religion behind forever. He later called himself a
"nothing" theologically. Eventually, his switch to writing enriched
the world of literature immensely. In "Down at the Cross," he summed
"Life is tragic simply because the Earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have."
Baldwin, the sun went down a last, last time in 1987.
How do supernatural beliefs die? Very slowly, year after year, in a thousand small expansions of the mind - according to Barker, who evolved from teen-age evangelist to co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
was a gradual process, a growth," he told an Iowa newspaper. "It would
be like asking you, 'When did you grow up?' You probably could not answer that
question with one defining moment."
At fifteen, Barker experienced a typical hysterical conversion at a California revival, then flung himself fervently into adolescent religiosity. He carried a Bible daily, joined fundamentalist youth groups, and preached to everyone in sight.
intelligent and a gifted musician, he rose rapidly in the teeming evangelical
culture. His preaching and music-arranging blossomed for several years. He
pastored small churches, married a gospel singer and they toured the revival
circuit for eight years, rising toward success.
But doubts insidiously crept into Barker's innermost thoughts. Later, in his book, Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist, he explained:
was some time in 1979, turning thirty, when I started to have some early
questions about Christianity.... I just got to the point where my mind was
restless to move beyond the simplicities of fundamentalism.... So, not with any
real purpose in mind, I began to satisfy this irksome intellectual hunger. I
began to read some science magazines, some philosophy, psychology, daily
newspapers (!), and began to catch up on the liberal arts education I should
have had years before. This triggered a ravenous appetite to learn, and produced
a slow but steady migration across the theological spectrum that took about four
or five years. I had no sudden, eye-opening experience. When you are raised as I
was, you don't just snap your fingers and say, 'Oh, silly me! There's no
Painfully, during his backslide, he suffered shame as he continued leading church services. "I felt hypocritical, often hearing myself mouth words about which I was no longer sure, but words that the audience wanted to hear.... I became more and more embarrassed at what I used to believe, and more attracted to rational thinkers.... I no longer believed what I was preaching."
Barker frantically sought an escape from his dilemma. He began a side job in computer programming. His transformation wrecked his marriage. Finally, scrupulously conscientious, he wrote a mass letter to former church and gospel music colleagues, telling them: "I can no longer honestly call myself a Christian. You can probably imagine that it has been an agonizing process for me."
Barker is married to Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From
Religion Foundation - and is just as exuberant for intellectual honesty as he
once was for fundamentalism.
Born in Mexico in 1958 into a Pentecostal family, young Hector was a gifted child and became a fiery boy preacher. After he moved across the border with his grandmother, churches featured him as a small denouncer of the sex-drugs-and-rock-n-roll liberation of the 1960s. At age 9, he addressed hundreds of worshipers at a convention in Glendale, Arizona.
But in high school, he plunged avidly into science and philosophy -- and by his first year of college, he no longer believed in supernatural deities. "Miracles went down the drain," he recounted. After his childhood faith evaporated, he switched his intellectual brilliance to scientific rationality. He earned a doctorate from Harvard and became a professor at Iowa State University.
Bible Study Made an Unbeliever Out of Me" was the title of his testimonial
in Freethought Today (August 1991).
He wrote skeptic books such as Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious
Violence and Se Puede Saber si Dios Existe? [Can One Know if God Exists?]
He became director of the Committee for the Scientific Examination of
Religion, and addressed a World Humanist Congress in Mexico City in 1996.
Avalos attacked "intelligent design" advocates who attempted to sneak
biblical Creationism into school courses in the guise of science.
He drafted a statement against ID that was signed by hundreds of Iowa
He was featured in a 2008 documentary movie, Expelled: No Intelligence
Evangelical congregations can be petty, vindictive, unforgiving - and this lack of compassion can help propel a minister into doubts and loss of faith. That's what happened to Loftus, formerly an intense Church of Christ pastor.
I Became an Atheist, an earnest autobiography, recounts how Loftus grew up in a
Catholic home in Fort Wayne, Indiana, attending parochial school, without much
religious commitment. In adolescence, he was a problem teen, kicked out of high
school, sent to a juvenile home for repeated minor police troubles. Then he
underwent an emotional conversion and became "on fire for God. I burned
with passion for the Lord. And for good reason: I believed God turned my life
entered the rebellious "Jesus Freak" subculture and
"witnessed" on street corners. Then he attended a Church of Christ
seminary and became a pastor. But several congregational conflicts soured him on
church life. A church board fired him because some leading parishioners thought
(mistakenly) that his removal would win back a prominent couple who had moved to
a different church. Then Loftus became active in another church, of which his
cousin was pastor -- but the cousin angrily suspected that Loftus was trying to
grab his pulpit. Worst of all, a homeless shelter director, a former stripper,
falsely accused Loftus of rape, and fellow Church of Christ leaders wouldn't
and other squabbles caused the young minister to think deeply about religion --
and the more he thought, the more it seemed a fantasy. He finally shifted to
complete atheism, and found it liberating. While he was an evangelical, he
suffered constant guilt and shame for his human frailties. But now he has no need
to apologize. "Today, I am guilt-free."
holds two doctorates and has written 40 books. He now contends that Jesus never
existed as the Bible depicts him, but was a fabrication from many risen-savior
magical legends of the Middle East. Yet Price attends a Christian church and
calls himself a "Christian atheist." What a tangle!
in a fundamentalist Baptist church, he led an Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship
in college and attended an evangelical seminary, where Billy Graham was his
commencement speaker. Then he became pastor of a New Jersey Baptist
he was ravenous to read and learn. Over two decades, he earned two theological
doctorates from Drew University. His intense study wiped out his supernatural
faith, and he left the pulpit in 1994. He dabbled with ultra-liberal Unitarian
Universalism, but became disenchanted with that, as well.
joined the Jesus Seminar, which tries to separate fables from historically
accurate verses in the Bible. And he became a prolific author, pouring out
volumes such as Jesus is Dead, The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man,
Deconstructing Jesus, The Reason-Driven Life, etc.
His biography says he now "attends the Episcopal Church and keeps his mouth shut."
Other backsliding clergy handle their loss of faith in diverse ways. The legendary Mother Teresa was plagued for decades by secret inner doubts that either God or Jesus is real, and she often confided that she was unable to pray -- yet she lavished adoration on the deities in public appearances, and prayed before television cameras.
In contrast, the great mentor Will Durant almost was ordained a Catholic priest, but he ceased supernatural beliefs and withdrew from orders. Later, he gave a talk about phallus-worship in religion -- and his bishop excommunicated him swiftly, announcing the action to newspapers. Durant's devout mother collapsed in shock and his father ordered him to leave their home.
wrote: "There are moments when I doubt all. It is then that I sometimes ask
myself as I'm looking out my office window, 'What on earth am I doing here?
They'd fire me if they only knew.'" She left the seminary in a bitter
conflict, but remained religious, despite her doubts.
Even seminary professors can slip from certainty. In Walking Away From Faith, Dr. Ruth A. Tucker of Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids,
Michigan, wrote: "There are moments when I doubt all. It is then that I sometimes ask myself as I'm looking out my office window, 'What on earth am I doing here? They'd fire me if they only knew.'" She left the seminary in a bitter conflict, but remained religious, despite her doubts.
Similarly, Dr. Bart Ehrman, chairman of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, described in Misquoting Jesus how he journeyed from born-again Christian to agnostic.
In addition to clergy, multitudes of lay churchmen likewise cease believing. One was university librarian Edward Babinski, who told his own story and related several others in Leaving the Fold. Similarly, former Los Angeles Times religion reporter William Lobdell wrote Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America. Once a born-again evangelical, he slowly realized that intelligent people cannot swallow magical tales.
The process of secularization - erosion of supernatural beliefs in Western society - encompasses many who once were devout, but came to see church claims as fairy tales.
In addition to the few ministers who make dramatic public breaks, how many more remain in the pulpit, reciting dogmas and creeds they no longer believe, afraid to face their real selves? Perhaps, like Tolstoy's Ivan Ilytch, in the final hour before death, they will see that their lives were meaningless.