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February 18, 2011

Why atheism is winning-3: The dilemma facing clergy

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In the previous post, I wrote about how modern scholarship based on scientific and literary analysis has shown that almost all the things claimed in the Bible and their stories and characters are fictional.

One can immediately see why this knowledge is so dangerous to religious institutions and why they would not be anxious to have it widely known. The religious establishments have a vested interest in hiding the truth about the religious texts because they must be well aware that their entire business model and revenue stream depends on people thinking that at least some of the major parts of their religions are true. All religious institutions thus have to find a way to keep their followers in the dark about what their own scholars know.

After all, what would it mean to be a Christian if Jesus did not actually rise from the dead? What would it mean to be a religious Jew if the story of Moses and the exodus and the ten commandments were false? What would it mean to be a Muslim if the Koran had not been directly dictated by god or if there was no historical Mohammed? People would be uncomfortable living their lives according to the lessons of a work of fiction, however compelling a narrative it provides. One could make a persuasive case that the works of Shakespeare provide more useful moral lessons than the Bible but one is unlikely to find people willing to base their lives on a religion that is derived from the lessons learned from Macbeth. It is the belief that the religious texts are at least substantially true that give them their power.

It should not be surprising that most religious people grow up with a knowledge of religion based largely on what they learned in Sunday school or from their parents, consisting of a loose collection of stories, chosen for the purposes of delivering a moral lesson, with the selection of stories and how they are emphasized depending on what message that particular religious faction wishes to convey. 'Moderate' religions end up using a highly expurgated series of feel-good stories that omit all the cruel, murderous, racist, xenophobic, homophobic, and misogynistic elements, while those religious groups with different social agendas pick different sets of stories to emphasize.

Since children are never explicitly told that these stories are fictional, they naturally assume that these stories are based on history. Unless they actively seek it out on their own, people will never in the normal course of their lives learn the full extent of what their religious texts say or discover that those texts have little or no historical basis. Those who do can find it undermining the religious beliefs they developed in their formative years. The more one studies these questions, the more one becomes convinced that the texts simply lack any historical validity. Hence it should not be at all surprising why so many professors of religious studies are either atheists or agnostics and why sophisticated theologians of religion develop complex belief structures that are not dependent upon the historicity or truth of the texts. But since such people live in a largely academic and intellectually self-contained world of like-minded people, their lack of belief in the truth of religious texts do not disturb the world of everyday religions.

The people for whom this knowledge causes the most difficulty are those clergy who have to deal on a daily basis with ordinary religious believers. They are caught between a world of knowledge that they acquired as part of their training and a fundamentally different world of knowledge that they feel obliged to tell their flock.

Most clergy start out in life like most religious believers with a naïve Sunday-school based set of religious beliefs. Those warm and uplifting stories are probably what inspired many to seek to become clergy. But when they attend any fairly decent seminary that has scholars as instructors (as opposed to religious ideologues) and learn that there is no evidence for most of the people and events in their religious texts, their Sunday school based beliefs can be shaken to the core, to the extent that some become outright unbelievers while still undergoing their training. In their study of unbelieving clergy Daniel Dennett and Linda La Scola quote one such priest as saying, "Oh, you can't go through seminary and come out believing in God!" and in an article based on that same study they say that two jokes they often heard were "If you emerge from seminary still believing in God, you haven't been paying attention," and "Seminary is where God goes to die."

But whether they remain believers or not, all clergy know that it would be a terrible career move to share their scholarly knowledge about their religious texts with their parishioners because it would destroy their Sunday school knowledge too and cause an uproar. So they skirt the whole issue, never saying that there is no evidence for much of their texts. As one such priest said about why his fellow clergy cannot share the full extent of their knowledge with their parishioners "They don't want to rock the boat. They don’t want to lose donations. They want to keep their jobs. They don't want to stir up trouble in the congregation. They've got enough trouble as it is, keeping things moving along. They don't want to make people mad at them. They don't want to lose members."

While they may personally think of all the Biblical stories as nothing more than metaphors, these clergy never come right out and say so from their pulpits, except in the case of those few stories which mainstream churches have already conceded are metaphors, such as the story of Adam and Eve. These clergy are burdened with having knowledge that if generally revealed would likely destroy the religious beliefs of the very people upon whose beliefs their livelihood depends. As such they may even persuade themselves that they 'sort of' believe, just in order to preserve their sanity. As Upton Sinclair said, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."

Next: The decisive shift by the new atheists

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