February 03, 2006

Is the Pope an atheist?

Let me begin by saying that this question is not aimed at the current Pope. I have no reason to believe that the present Pope is any less religious than his predecessors and, for all I know, may be the most pious of all the Popes. My question is really more general and deals with my suspicion that you are likely to find a high level of atheism amongst clergy and theologians, with the levels getting higher the more senior those people are.

The reason I pose the question is that it seems to me that the more one is steeped in religious matters and thinks about issues of doctrine, the more likely that one becomes an atheist. So my question would apply to all priests, rabbis, ayatollahs, mullahs, swamis, monks, theologians, and other religious scholars. Are you more likely to find atheists among those groups than in the general population? This is, of course, a question for which one can obtain an empirical answer. You could simply survey such people and report the results. The obvious catch is that one is unlikely to get an honest answer. Saying you are an atheist is probably a bad career move for clerics.

My belief that most people intimately involved with religion are likely to be atheists may seem to be counter-intuitive. After all, we associate these people with being more religious than the average person, not less. But the reasons for thinking so arise from looking at the usual factors that lead people to atheism.

Most people begin life growing up in religious homes and have some kinds of religious belief as children. So what makes some of them become atheists?

One factor has to be personal experiences of seemingly unjustified tragedy. To have loved ones, people who by any measure lived good and decent lives, suffer and perhaps die can shake the faith of some. But most ordinary people have the good fortune to usually experience just a very few such things personally. In such cases, one's faith may be shaken but not broken. For some, it may even be an occasion to reinforce one's faith as a coping mechanism.

But if many of one's friends and relatives and acquaintances keep falling victim to suffering and illness and death, then you might begin to increasingly question god's purpose and existence. And this is what happens to priests. They are constantly called upon to deal with this kind of problem. When religious people fall very sick or are the victims of tragedy, they immediately tend to call for the priest for support and prayer. So priests are constantly having to deal with the kinds of questions of meaning that the rest of us may have to deal with only a very few times in our lives. That must be tough to handle for any thoughtful person.

The second issue is that priests have studied theology and the origins of their religious texts more than other people. Hence they know (or must strongly suspect) that these documents are human creations with a somewhat dubious history. For example, the documentary film The God Who Wasn't There takes direct aim at the historical evidence for Jesus' existence and finds it weak. Religious scholars know that the claim to textual infallibility is highly weak. Most lay people rarely think about these things but clergy cannot avoid it. They have to deal with these arguments and convince themselves that they can still believe what the Bible says. That cannot be easy.

Similarly most lay people do not really have to confront on a regular basis the major existential questions of meaning. Why are we here? What is our purpose? We also do not have to deal with, on a daily basis, knotty theological problems such as (for Christianity) the virgin birth, the nature of the Trinity, and the resurrection, not to mention all the other problems caused by stories in the Bible. But people are always asking priests to explain away these things to them, so priests cannot avoid repeatedly dealing with such questions, and even more troubling, have to come up with explanations that can overcome the questioner's skepticism.

In the film Million Dollar Baby, the Clint Eastwood character goes to mass every morning, waits for the priest after service, and then pops a theological curve ball at him, to the priest's increasing exasperation. Questions that may only occasionally and passingly occur to lay people (such as why god would be so petty and vengeful to use bears to attack forty two children who merely called his prophet Elisha "baldy") are constantly being asked of priests. What is an occasionally question for us are asked of priests all the time. In a more extreme case, recently a lawsuit was filed by an atheist against a priest asking him to prove that Jesus existed. One can imagine that dealing with such things would wear them down

The final reason for my suspicion is that those priests who have risen in the hierarchy tend to be intellectuals and scholars. Such people have a natural tendency to try and tie ideas together, to make them internally consistent and coherent. Hence they are more likely to study other religions to see what commonalities and differences exist, and to try and reconcile religion with science. But that kind of thinking runs the great risk (if you are religious) of arriving at the conclusion that god does not exist, that all religions are wrong, and that the only worldview without irreconcilable contradictions is the atheistic one.

It is possible that the truly devout priest might develop a much stronger belief and faith because he or she needs it to overcome all these doubt-generating issues that are being constantly thrown at them. But apart from such exceptions, I hypothesize that priests are more likely to be atheists than the population at large, with the probabilities rising as one goes to the higher ranks of the clergy. Thus my question as to whether the Pope is an atheist. It is too bad that one cannot check this out.

In a previous post, I spoke about the fact that if more and more atheists are public about their beliefs, the climate might change since others will realize that atheists are all around them, living normal lives, and are not crazed, amoral, baby-eating, serial killers.

As examples, when I mentioned to a very religious cousin that I had become an atheist, she confessed that she too often wonders if there is any thing after this life and is reconciled to the fact that there may not be. A colleague at the university said that after he told people that he was an atheist, he was surprised at the number who said that they were too.

Maybe there is a potential snowball effect here. If enough people come out and say what they truly believe, then many more may recognize that they actually have been closet atheists all along, and had simply been denying it out of habit and convention or for fear of what others might think.

Who knows, it might reach a stage when so many people have openly said that they are atheists that even the Pope is comfortable coming out.

POST SCRIPT: Another religious furor over symbolism

In a recent post, I expressed bafflement as to why some religious people get so upset at perceived slights aimed at their religion. Now a full-blown international incident has been created by the publication of cartoons (first in Denmark and then in France) that allegedly disrespect the Prophet Mohammed.

The BBC reports "In diplomatic protests, Syria and Saudi Arabia have recalled their ambassadors to Denmark, and Libya has closed its embassy in Copenhagen." Boycotts are being threatened. All this fuss over cartoons? This is as silly as the so-called 'war on Christmas' in the US and its threats to boycott stores whose employees did not say "Merry Christmas.".

In response, in order to defend speech rights, other newspapers in Europe have reprinted the cartoons. "The front page of France Soir on Wednesday carried the headline "Yes, We Have the Right to Caricature God" and a cartoon of Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim and Christian gods floating on a cloud."

People who make sweeping generalizations about religions or go out of their way to say nasty things about them may be not being very polite and sensitive. But why do religious people care what others think about their religion? Isn't their faith strong enough to withstand ridicule?

In general I tend to be a first amendment absolutist and to oppose hate speech codes and other policies that try to stifle speech. People should be allowed to say obnoxious things if they want to as long as they are not disruptive or actually threatening other people with harm or creating a real and palpable danger of harm to others or all the other exceptions that the courts have ruled is consistent with first amendment rights.

The rest of us should learn to just ignore such people if we don't like what they are saying.


Trackback URL for this entry is:


I have always found it amusing when people are offended by others insulting or joking about their god. If their deity is as powerful as they believe, then it should be able to deal with such criticism and there is no need for its followers to defend it.

Posted by Joe on February 3, 2006 10:37 AM

Enjoy the blog. I disagree with a lot of your essays, but I usually find them intelligent and thought provoking nonetheless...

This one missed the mark though. Your argument seems circular. Essentially you suggest that since God and religion are myth, then anyone who studies religion will eventually realize it is myth and become athiests who believe God and religion are myth. The key assumption though is that it _is_ myth, and that's a prety big assumption. I realize that this statement alone may draw some ire and/or lead some to dismiss any argument I make, but an intelligent discussion must include it as a possibility.

Now, regarding the reference to Elisha and the bears, an oft-cited 'moral difficulty' in the Bible: It must be remembered that English is not the original language in which this story was written. When one examines the original Hebrew one finds that they weren't really children (at the least they were teenagers of unspecified age, probably close to if not adults) and they weren't just pointing and laughing at 'baldy' but were indeed mocking God Himself. Thus a supposed quandry for religious scholars is not really so.

Of course this won't change one's mind about God. "After all," some might say, "this supposedly loving God still killed people for mocking Him." It's a little like trying to explain to someone why the sky is blue when that person believes it is pink: such a person can dismission any explanation of the physics behind the blue color by simply saying, "But it's not blue, it's pink. All of your fancy physics are wrong." But the point is that this is the very deep and detailed study of the Bible that Christians (specifically) and regligous people (in general) are accused of not doing. And yet when this type of reasoned, intelligent evidence is submitted for discussion, it is often still dismissed.

As someone who was once an atheist and is now a Christian, someone who has both questioned God and praised Him, I can see both sides of the coin. But I think that coin revolves not around the intellect, but around the heart (that sounds cheesier than I intended - my apologies). I graduated with honors in mechanical engineering; I likely took some of the very courses you teach. I don't consider myself a mental giant, but I hold my own. And yet, none of my own intellectual arguments or the arguments of others were ever able to explain God away for me. Eventually I had to come to the conclusion that if I couldn't explain Him away, then maybe the basis of my arguments - my assumption that He didn't exist - was wrong. The very study you suggest should lead someone away from God only lead me to Him. And I discovered a remarkable thing along the way: faith and reason can coincide.

And last, yes my faith is strong enough to survive ridicule. As the saying goes, "If you don't share my beliefs, that's okay; my beliefs don't require you to."

Posted by Mike on February 3, 2006 12:01 PM

The arguement doesn't assume *everyone* will reach the conclusion that God is a myth, although I can see where the confusion comes in. The arguement that was made said that there is a real possibility of an athiest religious scholar.

The rationale is analogous to the "1,000 monkeys with typewriters" problem - with so many clerics studying theology and dealing with the less fortunate, somewhere along the way, somebody drew on their experiences and came to the conclusion that there is no God.

I would guess that more than a few high ranking clergy of the major religions have serious doubts about their own faith. Why they don't renounce their religion and spread word of their own enlightenment points at the true purpose of organized religion: power through submission.

The Pope could easily be an athiest, but he understands the need to propogate the myth in order to keep everyone in line. Again, nothing specific about the Pope, I'm sure the same could be said for Islam and Judaism.

It's obviously not a popular opinion, but any open minded intellectual must be able to see how leaders have used religion to subvert the masses throughout history, so why should today be any different?

Posted by Barry on February 3, 2006 03:20 PM


While it is true that my own personal assumption is that god is a myth and hence theistic religions are based on a myth, I don't think it forms a central part of my argument.

Basically I was saying that all the factors that tend to cause doubt in people of faith, that normal people have to deal with only very occasionally, are confronted by clerics and thoelogians all the time. Hence as Barry points out, mine is a kind of probability argument that says that the probability of doubt increases with the number of doubt-causing incidents one encounters. And people like the Pope and theologians are in high probability situations.

This does not mean, of course, that they will necessarily become atheists. Like you, many will arrive at some kind of personal synthesis that satisfies them. But it does take some effort to do so, as your Elisha/bear explanation suggests. The Bible is full of such incidents that need this kind of explaining away. Most of us don't have to do that. But priests do.

Posted by Mano Singham on February 3, 2006 06:05 PM

While I agree that there are probably a lot of atheist religious figures, and that rigorous study of religion is more likely to make someone an atheist, I disagree with the idea put forth that these religious figures continue to perform their function to maintain order or power over people. The question of whether or not there is a God and whether or not the church does good in the world are two separate questions.

I've long since stopped believing in God, but I still have huge respect for many Christian churches because of the services they do for their community. When a religious figure loses their faith but doesn't quit, I argue it's more likely that they feel they're doing good in the world. In a service oriented church, relatively little of that good is directly related to dogma.

On that note, I really like the books by John Spong, who was an essentially atheist Episcopalian bishop, and argues for a non-theistic interpretation of Christianity. A bit unlikely, but an interesting thought.

Posted by Cindy on February 3, 2006 09:21 PM

I don't know Mano, something about this argument just doesn't click with me. I guess I don't understand why someone would want to be a priest if they didn't believe wholehaeartedly in the teachings they are conveying. It's not like being a priest is some great, highly-paid, powerful profession. In the Catholic church, priests are even asked to be celibate. My priest at home took a huge paycut when she switched from her old job as a nurse, and she works unpredictable hours with a dwindling budget in a church that is undergoing lots of turmoil (due to the gay bishop issue). This is just one example, but in my observation these challenges are fairly universal. I have a hard time believing that someone would remain in this lifestyle of self-denial and true sacrifice for others if he or she didn't believe in the message in the first placee.

Posted by Katie on February 3, 2006 11:00 PM

Your argument would make sense if people really thought and made decisions rationally. However, the higher someone is in the church, the more they have invested in believing their particular doctrine. My observation is that few people are courageous enough to doubt their basic axioms, in part because they have so much invested in them, and stand to lose so much if they can no longer believe them. I can't imagine that it would be easy to continue to work as a priest or minister if one had "lost one's faith," so to speak. Once people become invested in their beliefs, they are no longer willing to challenge them, and they use various defense mechanisms (anger, denial, rationalization, etc.) to avoid any serious threats. I would suspect that atheism is rare amoung those committed to the church, as those who are likely to seriously question their beliefs would be less likely to choose this life path.

Posted by Robert on February 3, 2006 11:55 PM

I think that Katie and Robert make good points. Those who choose the church late in life probably have thought it through. But what about those who at a relatively young age think they have a calling and join? In a sense, they are not that different from young people who choose other careers, and later on find that they have committed themselves to something they do not enjoy. While continuing to work at it while saying "I hate my job" may be common, and even the norm, for most lines of work, a priest does not really have that option.

So the priest either has to quit (hard to do since so much self-identity is involved in this particular life choice and it does not rally prepare you well for other careers) or rationalize one's doubts away. But rationalization makes one's beliefs particularly fragile.

As I said, it would be interesting to get hard data on this but is probably not f easible.

Posted by Mano Singham on February 4, 2006 01:07 PM

Cindy's reference to Spong is interesting. He has been recommended to me by others but I have not yet read him. I did not know that he was an "atheist Bishop" in the Episcopal church. How did he pull that off?

Was it that his theology made him seem to be effectively atheist while he himself would have rejected that label?

Posted by Mano Singham on February 4, 2006 01:10 PM

From my reading, John Spong would not call himself an atheist, but definitely does not believe in any "theistic" interpretation of God. It seems like a bit of a word game to me, but he really did include all the aspects of theism I have a problem with. He outright rejects all supernatural events in the bible including the resurrection, and most of the serious ethical problems with Christianity (tribalistic deities and such.)

He argues that religion, and Christianity in particular, has a lot to offer beyond magic tricks and can grow beyond viewing its stories as literal history. While I didn't entirely agree with him, his books paint a really interesting picture of theology-free religion, or at least philosophical Christianity.

Posted by Cindy on February 4, 2006 02:46 PM

Mano et. al.,

Thanks for the clarification. I understand what you're trying to to say; perhaps it is my point that requires more explanation.

I wonder if you were conscious of your use of the phrase 'explaining away', as in the Bible is full of things that need explanation and thus, by extension, cannot be true? Returning to my blue sky analogy: does an understanding of the physics make it any less beautiful? Probably not, nor are you accused of trying to subvert that beauty by trying to understand its underlying principles.

But not so with Christianity/religion; somehow a careful study intended to better understand a text (and indeed God) becomes 'explaining away' or 'rationalizing' the belief. Atheism is presented as the height of (religious) enlightment while Christianity somehow requires a sacrifice of some degree of reason (the 'personal synthesis' that you refer to). By extension, this must mean that anyone high in the church must have studied to become so and therefore must become more enlightened and therefore must realize the myth (which requires that they be too prideful or power-hungry or whatever to admit their mistake, else they would leave the church).

Perhaps the problematic assumption is not that religion is myth, but an assumption that doubt in religion or God must result (ultimately) in the abandoment of faith, that somehow doubt alone is enough to stop seeking the truth. Perhaps I have been imprisoned for most of my life and am allowed outside only at night; I have seen blue sky, but it seems like only a distant memory. I may argue, based on my experiences and observations that the sky is not blue, nor could it be; clearly it is the blackest black with just tiny specks of white.

At this point I have a serious doubt, and stemming from this doubt I have a choice: I can abandon any faith in a blue sky (since for me there would be no observable, repeatable evidence of such a thing) and dismiss your talk of a revolving Earth and a fusion-driven sun and scattering as merely an 'explaining away' or a 'personal synthesis' of how you want the world to be.

If I did dismiss your argument like this, would you admit you were wrong? No, you would not admit defeat so easily for not only do you have an explanation, but you have seen it with your own eyes. Yet religion is often considered wrong if it so much as attempts to explain any aspect of itself.

While someone in my circumstance may have a greater liklihood of doubt, the result of that doubt is far less predictable. My doubt may lead me to study, to experiment for myself and to ultimately experience something I have never seen: a blue sky.

All I'm saying is that I and others have experienced such a blue sky; our 'physics' - the explanation - may not quite wash with you, and that's okay. But its not enough to simply wave off the explanation, nor does your choice to do so invalidate the 'physics' I have observed time and again.

Thanks for the debate. I'll leave any further response to higher thinkers (or better communicators) than myself. Keep up the good blogging.

Posted by Mike on February 6, 2006 02:37 PM

I was having this discussion with an extremely intelligent & highly religious friend in high school and it ended when he said: "You want to know why I believe? I believe because I can feel it in my soul. It is part of my being."

I can't argue against that. I can't prove he doesn't believe, all I could say was that I don't share that feeling, and that's why I don't believe.

Posted by Barry on February 6, 2006 03:41 PM


Thanks for the terrific comment. It looks like it is I who have to explain away my use of the phrase "explaining away"!

What I meant by that was not that the resulting explanation was necessarily false but that the surface meaning of the words was incompatible with what most religious people would believe about a loving god. The idea that god would unleash bears on children would be repulsive so one has to dig deeper to find a meaning that is compatible with a belief in a benevolent god. This does not make it necessarily false (as you point out in your physics examples, deeper explanantion may well be the true ones) so I apologize for that impression. But it does involve some effort on the part of the person seeking to find the deeper meaning.

The Bible is full of such incidents that seem, at least on the surface, to be incompatible with a belief in a just and humane deity. Hence to retain a belief in such a deity, an effort must be made to find benign explanations for why the surface meaning gives the wrong message. This is what is done by most of the more thoughtful believers. And I did it too, when I was a believer. But it takes time and effort.

Now people who are true believers will be willing to do this. And they have reasons for doing so. I was recently talking with a woman who said (like Barry's friend) that she has had personal experience of god's intervention in her life and that is why she believes. I did not for one moment question her sincerity about this. Such people will believe that there must be some plausible reason behind the surface meaning of the stories. But most lay people are not obliged to actually find those benign explanations because no one asks them to. But people are always asking priests, and priests have to find them.

Most people also don't know most of the stories that are problematic but priests do. Most people know the story of Lot's wife turning into salt (maybe because that scene was dramatically portrayed in the famous film The Ten Commandments and has passed into popular cultural knowledge) but most have no idea of the much more sordid story that immediately followed that incident. But religious scholars do know about it and so have to find benign explanations for that too.

Now those who are truly devout because of some personal experience of god will seek and find explanations for all these things that are compatible with their beliefs. But it surely must be the case that others find it harder to do so.

I am sorry also if I gave the impression that closer scrutiny of all these things inevitably leads to unbelief. All I am saying is that there must be a temptation for religious scholars to wonder sometimes if the effort to find justifications for what on the surface seems unjustifiable, is worth it. Perhaps they sometimes wonder whether maybe there isn't anything deep behind the Elisha story.

And those who do not have a high level of devoutness may be tempted to just succumb to the doubts.

All this is not to say that what I believe is right and what religious people believe is wrong. What I am saying is that it is easier to create a coherent personal philosophy the less one is required to have it also conform to a set of received beliefs. So I think it is definitely harder intellectually to be a religious believer than an atheist, though for many people the emotional benefit more than compensates for it, and they are willing to do the intellectual heavy lifting required.

Thanks for the stimulating comment!

Posted by Mano Singham on February 6, 2006 03:59 PM

I understand your argument more and more, but agree less and less. To be expected, I suppose...

This would make for interesting dinner conversation, but for the sake of thread length I'm willing to call it a day. Keep up the good work!

Posted by Mike on February 6, 2006 05:52 PM


I just stumbled onto this site. Religion and education are two of the bigger issues in my life these days. I'm a father of a two year old with one on the way, and an atheist with a wife who wants to become an Episcopal priest. I have a degree in philosophy with honors and am a military intelligence officer. I plan to check out your books and the Spong book(s).

I now, in middle life, finally appreciate what some churches do in terms of service and inclusion of people and can also easily agree with your proposition that more senior clergy may very well be more atheistic. As an officer in a large organization and with my recent exposure to the Episcopal church from the inside, I understand the nature of the manager, leader, administrator or professional and how universal that role is whether in a religious, corporate, or military organization. The mechanics of leadership are very different from what I imagined as a "lay person" both in terms of religious organizations and the military. I think your argument will take root more easily with people who have more experience with upper echelons of any sort of organization.

I think a parallel situation probably exists in the military too. I think a lot of senior military leaders start out with various good intentions and beliefs and eventually simply find a home for their talents and appreciate the job they do in any number of ways. Much like you suggest a religious leader might decide there is no god but the job is still worth doing, I think and hope that military generals don't believe war is the answer, but also have found a way to rationalize performing their function well. If being an executive in a religious denomination is tough, imagine being one where the myth you are supporting can radically change every 4-8 years.

I would hypothesize that of all professionals and executives out there many believe in the "cause" of their jobs initially, when they don't really know that much about their organization or profession, but the process is so thorough you go through to get to becoming a Bishop, Pope, General, Vice President, etc... that your professionalism and functional role in a working system takes over and a somewhat detached view on the thing you are in charge of may be intellectually necessary.

One reason I support my wife becoming a priest is that I realize that our life will be very similar whether she is a military officer, a church leader, or a corporate type. The education requirements, the pay scale, and the job descriptions really don't change that much. Episcopal seminary is a three year graduate program just like law school. And as for pay, my understanding is that Episcopal priests right out of seminary start around $70,000 about the same as a manager in a corporation or a Captain in the military.

I know this wasn't quite in the same vein as the other posts here, but I hope it was relevant.

Posted by Chris Tucker on April 30, 2007 01:30 AM


You hve taken this discussion in a very interesting direction. I had not thought of generalizing the idea to other areas where one starts with a sense of mission and then finds that one no longer believe in it or the mission itself has changed.

I suspect that this is why there is a lot of mid-career unhappiness.

Posted by Mano Singham on April 30, 2007 12:51 PM