Choosing My Confessions (A Sunday Post)

August 29, 2010 Posted by Jay Livingston

What happens to clergy who no longer believe?
It suddenly hit me: “growth” is a euphemism for “I don’t believe the same crap I did when I started my divinity school training.”
This quote at Missives from Marx provides one answer: they use psychobabble to turn apostasy into “growth.” But then what do they do? Who do they tell? Do they leave? How do they handle the contradictions?

The quote took me back to “Marjoe,” the 1972 documentary about Marjoe Gortner, child revivalist prodigy at age four. When we see him in the film, still preaching in his twenties, he has lost his belief. The film (go here for excerpts) follows him on his last tour.

I have used “Marjoe” in class to illustrate Goffman’s idea that what is crucial for a situation is the performance. Whether that performance is sincere or cynical is secondary or even irrelevant. Marjoe, alone in his motel room (alone except for the film crew), tells us that he doesn’t believe in God. But when he preaches – laying on hands, speaking in tongues, working the crowd, and generally doing a great job – we realize that his unbelief doesn’t matter.

It makes you wonder about the other preachers. They all have their gimmicks; after all, they do need to rouse the audience (and raise money). They may still believe strongly in God and Jesus and the Bible. Or they may not. There’s no way to know.
Here’s how I’m handling my job on Sunday mornings: I see it as play acting. I kind of see myself as taking on a role of a believer in a worship service, and performing. Because I know what to say. I know how to pray publicly. I can lead singing. I love singing. I don’t believe what I’m saying anymore in some of these songs. But I see it as taking on the role and performing. Maybe that’s what it takes for me to get myself through this, but that’s what I’m doing.
That’s not Marjoe 1972. It’s “Adam,” currently a minister in a Church of Christ congregation in South Carolina. The quote appears in “Preachers Who Are Not Believers,” by Daniel C. Dennett and Linda LaScola. Their sample is small (N=5), but that’s probably five more than anyone else has come up with as far as I know. Dennett and LaScola present the five as individual case studies, tracing both the institutional and internal aspects of their careers.

Nonbelieving preachers in 2010 have much in common with homosexuals (especially in earlier eras). For example, the authors note that “atheist ‘gaydar’ is not yet a well-developed sensitivity among the clergy”
Among their fellow clergy, they often develop friendships, and suspecting that their friends share their views, they gingerly explore the prospect, using all the ploys that homosexuals have developed over the centuries: “And I let on like I do have an uncle who’s a non-believer, and he always said, ‘You know, it’s…’”
An uncle -- yeah, right.

“Coming out” is difficult because of the web of institutions (work, family) that define them. So the preachers must devise strategies for handling their secret – practical strategies for dealing with others and psychological strategies for resolving the personal contradictions.

The article sounds much like Chicago sociology-of-deviance studies that go back nearly 100 years. Yet it was published in a journal called Evolutionary Psychology, though its links to that field remain hidden, at least to me. I guess evol-psych works in mysterious ways its wonders to perform.

1 comment:

Beloved Spear said...

Honestly, they should stop pretending and go do something that has integrity. They serve neither their own interests or their communities if they remain. Hiding one's authentic self leads to levels of dissonance that aren't healthy, and that can manifest in all forms of destructive behavior.

It is, of course, difficult to transition from the pastorate into other careers, particularly given the highly specialized skill and knowledge base. Then again, one could always just become Unitarian.