Well, the semester is up and running at full pace now, so I find myself with less time for blogging than before. But I couldn’t resist putting up a link to this fascinating new article in Evolutionary Psychology by Dan Dennett and Linda LaScola entitled “Preachers who are not believers”. The article consists primarily of interviews with five members of the clergy, from five different Protestant denominations, who continue as clergy despite not believing in God.
The article is interesting in part because one has the impression that Dennett and LaScola intended to explore the psychology of a certain kind of self-deception, or at least insincerity; to unmask these clergy as folks who are in some sense forced to live a lie by the Church. Towards the end of the article, for example, they ask what will happen to these pastors, and although the question is ostensibly about what role they will end up playing in their communities, the authors seem to be insinuating a broader indictment of the Church and their role in it:
We all find ourselves committed to little white lies, half-truths and convenient forgettings, knowing tacitly which topics not to raise with which of our loved ones and friends. But these pastors – and who knows how many others – are caught in a larger web of diplomatic, tactical, and, finally, ethical concealment. In no other profession, surely, is one so isolated from one’s fellow human beings, so cut off from the fresh air of candor, never knowing the relief of getting things off one’s chest.
On the other hand, by listening closely to the interviewees themselves, one is struck by the impression that at least some of them see no inconsistency whatsoever between their position and their beliefs. Partly this is because they believe that Christianity, presumably like all religions, allows for a wide array of interpretations. Indeed, despite being non-believers of various sorts, at least some of the pastors refuse, even in these confidential interviews, to call themselves atheists. Dennett and LaScola tend to see their ways of evading or softening the question of God’s existence as merely the exploitation of various long-established errors: conflating the use of God’s name with the mere mention of it, for example. But one is struck by the impression that even if this is literally true, Dennett and LaScola have missed something more important about what is going on in these people’s lives. They have no way of taking seriously, for example, the insistence of at least one of the pastors that their attempt to paint him as feeling “trapped” in his position has no basis in reality.
One is left feeling that there is something much more interesting than self-deceit going on here; perhaps even with the idea that what is at the heart of the way these people live their religion is something more like a mood of existence than a particular range of beliefs. In the book we explore an interpretation of the Gospel of John that takes seriously the idea that John’s understanding of the center of Christianity is the mood that Jesus manifested in his life, a mood that those around him could catch and be caught up in themselves. The idea of human beings as those beings who are open to moods that have authority over them then meshes with Melville’s idea that moody Ishmael – who is capable of getting in sync with the mood of various forms of the sacred – manifests the saving possibility for the culture. I would be fascinated to know whether this reading rings true for the pastors in question.