I was a Sunday School teacher when I hit what turned out to be the initial months of my deconversion. I’d promised myself years earlier that I wouldn’t testify that anything was true unless I believed it to be true. As belief ground down, that eventually meant that I couldn’t say very much at all. So I began to notice that I hadn’t been teaching church doctrine as ‘true’, but rather as merely ‘helpful’ (although that claim could have used some scrutiny). My Sunday School lessons tended to focus not on the truthfulness of the gospel, but on self-improvement, learning to be happy in life, and other humanist values. Pretty watered-down stuff, but it was best I could do if I wanted to hang on to religion and reason.
I remember the last lesson I ever gave in Sunday School. I hated it. I realised that I was talking around the subject material, probably because I was coming to the uncomfortable realisation that I didn’t believe it. I guess I was having a conflict between what I had always thought and believed was true, and a whole body of opposite information that seemed to be demonstrably true. How I hated that conflict.
Toward the end of that lesson, I said “I’m grateful for the scriptures. They’ve taught me a regard for truth, and while insisting on truth isn’t always comfortable, I’ve found that it can be a help when…”
The class waited.
“…when your belief system changes very rapidly, as mine has.”
It was the closest I ever came to making a public confession of doubt in church.
Of course, I closed the lesson “in the name of Jesus Christ” as was customary, but it felt like my mouth was full of sand. How could anyone presume to do anything in his name? What were we all doing here?
Compared to some, I got off easy. It’s difficult to go through a deconversion, but how hard must it be when your religion is also your job? Jeffrey has forwarded me this article about priests and pastors who deconvert.
McAllister has learned that you can tell inspirational stories, grounded in social justice and tolerance and peace, without having to bring God into the picture—and this sermon was a masterful case in point. A woman in his congregation had recently dropped everything to care for her cancer-stricken daughter, and that selfless commitment was sacred in its way. “You can see how I cook the books a little bit to make it easier to look in the mirror,” he says of his sermons. “But there are times when I get that sort of empty feeling in my stomach, like I’m a fraud.”
I hear that.
McAllister is not just scared for himself. “I know that my parishioners look to me for comfort,” he says. “They’re coming to the end of their life and they want some assurance that it’s all going to be OK. I have sat at the deathbed of people in my congregation and told them what I regard as lies—or fantasies, at least—just to give them comfort. I’m willing to do that up to a point, but not for the rest of my working life.”
Then there’s the practical dimension. McAllister owes the church $18,000 for his schooling, at the same time as he’s trying to put his last son through college. “I’m 56, which isn’t a real good age to be pounding the pavement, and I’ve got a master’s of divinity, not the most marketable degree in the world.”
Ouch. I guess the Mormon tradition of having a lay ministry saved me some pain.
But have a look at an idea being floated by the RDF:
Richard Dawkins is convinced that McAllister’s situation is common; in fact, he hopes one day to address it through “clergyman-retraining scholarships,” set up through his charitable foundation, to “bridge the gap between living a lie and getting a new life,” as he puts it.
Damn, that is forward thinking. I’m going to have to give a serious look at adding the Richard Dawkins Foundation to my charity list.
This is an amazing article. I felt like every one of the stories from the ex-clergy contained something from my own experience. See if you don’t agree.