In this OnFaith Forum, Disbelief in the Pulpit, we asked contributors: What should pastors do if they no longer hold the defining beliefs of their denomination? Do clergy have a moral obligation not to challenge the sincere faith of their parishioners? If this requires them to dissemble from the pulpit, doesn’t this create systematic hypocrisy at the center of religion? What would you want your pastor to do with his or her personal doubts or loss of faith?
Perhaps the two best known professions in which leaders are expected to have strong religious beliefs are clergy and politicians. And they often give similar rationales for lying or evading questions about those beliefs: namely, that they can do a lot of good if they don’t get sidetracked by superfluous issues. Translation: “I don’t want to lose my job.”
I can make a very mild case for their rationales. Some clergy focus on good works of a particular faith tradition, and feel the community would suffer if a replacement focused primarily on doctrine. Some politicians care about issues that have nothing to do with religious belief, and fear a replacement might turn a secular issue into a religious one.
Now to tell you what I really believe, this atheist will quote from John 8:32: “The truth shall set you free.” I respect people for being honest, whether I agree with them or not. And how does a skeptic like me decide when clergy or politicians are honest? When they say something that is more likely to hurt than help their careers. And a bonus for doing that, as John indicates, is a certain personal freedom that comes with telling the truth.
Best of all, sometimes you can be honest and still keep your job. The good news is that every member in the club of open congressional atheists has overwhelmingly won reelection. The bad news is that there is only one member in this club: Rep. Pete Stark (D-Cal).
I expect that many, if not most, clergy have lost some of the beliefs of their youth. I like to think that Paul had the “talking snake” crowd in mind when he said in 1 Cor.13:11: “When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things.” Perhaps many parishioners would better be able to identify with and respect a preacher whose belief system has changed and matured.
While politicians are certainly justified in saying their personal religious beliefs are nobody else’s business, I had an unusual reverse experience in my church. (Yes, I do belong to a church. I joined the local Unitarian Church in Charleston after I was invited to give a sermon on “Positive Atheism,” and a significant number of congregants told me they agreed with what I said.).
At this church, a search committee invited members of the congregation to interview a new candidate for minister. At a private discussion with the candidate, I asked him about his personal theology, and was quite surprised when he told me he remembered at least eight of his past lives. I mentioned this in a discussion about the candidate by the congregation, and many of them were also surprised. But the search committee said the candidate had met other important criteria, and they didn’t feel it would have been appropriate for them to ask him about his religious beliefs. I didn’t vote for this honest minister, but he was hired, once again confirming that honesty is the best policy.
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