Battle hymn of the nonbelievers

Several years ago, I read an article called “The Pastor’s Secret,” written by a philosophy professor at Tufts University named Daniel Dennett. The subtitle of this article says, “What Happens when Preachers Don’t Believe?” That little tagline grabbed my attention, as I was otherwise mindlessly flipping through the magazine in which the article was printed. It’s an article that has – the word “haunted” comes to mind. This article has haunted me. And I’d like to talk about why.

Back in 2006, Dennett wrote a book titled Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, an “unblinking look beneath the veil of orthodoxy” that adds to the growing body of skeptical inquiry regarding religion. While Dennett was writing this book, he came across numerous “secret nonbelievers” – clergy and churchgoers who looked very religious on the outside, yet inwardly didn’t believe a word of their church’s preachings. Taking a specific interest in clergymembers who had lost their faith (or who maybe didn’t ever have it in the first place), Dennett and his colleague Linda LaScola conducted a pilot study of five nonbelieving pastors – all of whom had entered their respective ministries as true believers, but had lost their faith somewhere along the way. For some, it happened early on, while in seminary. For others, the loss of faith occurred after settling in with a congregation. In one case, the pivotal faith-busting moment came after reading Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great. Yet even though all of them had lost their faith, every single one of them chose to remain in the clergy. Each gave different reasons for staying, but those reasons essentially boiled down to one simple truth: I’m stuck. I’m trapped. I can’t get out – at least not without serious consequences.

It’s been several years since I read this article. And yet, I have a vivid, almost photographic memory of setting the magazine aside, sinking my head back onto the couch, closing my eyes and taking some deep breaths, and, well, praying. My prayer was pretty simple – childlike, really: God, don’t EVER let that happen to me.

To me, there’s nothing worse than feeling stuck. Or trapped. Or feeling like there’s No Way Out. Some people fear being physically stuck or trapped – stuck in an elevator, on a bridge, in a tunnel, in a basement. Some have a profound fear of being buried alive. And there are some who experience significant anxiety (possibly escalating into a panic attack) in minor “confinement” situations, like getting a haircut, or receiving a pedicure, or waiting in line at the grocery store. There’s a reason why so many people suffer from claustrophobia – because, from a very basic evolutionary standpoint, being stuck or trapped threatens our very survival.

But I don’t necessarily fear those kinds of things. The pastors in this study probably don’t either. They weren’t physically trapped – rather, they were caught in a situation that challenged their integrity. They had all found ways of rationalizing their choices, but the reality is that, at the end of the day, they were no longer walking their talk. And not walking your talk – especially when it involves your core, fundamental sense of truth – is like a continual assault on the soul. That is what I fear, more than anything.

Fear calls for immediate action. When the elevator doors close, and the panic rises, claustrophobics will do whatever they have to do in order to escape – even if their escape tactics are completely dangerous. When the soul is continually assaulted, and you are constantly confronted with your lack of integrity, your soul will do what it has to do to save itself.

And when you’re fighting in a war that you don’t believe in, and you’re repeatedly ordered to do things that go against the grain of your conscience, and you see wrongs being committed that nobody’s owning up to – and, on top of that, you’re doing all this while presenting as a gender that isn’t at all true to who you are, largely because you feel like you have to – you’re likely to do some crazy things. That’s why, when I learned of Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning’s 35-year prison sentence, and when I read the statement given by Manning’s attorney, I immediately thought of the “nonbelieving pastor” study. Stuck. Trapped. No Way Out.

David Coombs, Manning’s attorney, said this in an interview aired on Democracy Now! (prior to Manning’s public coming-out statement):

“…[Y]ou see a young man hoping that when he gets there he can make a difference. He can hopefully save lives. Hopefully get people back safely. How disheartening it must have been when he got there that it really wasn’t always the mission. And we didn’t always just kill bad people. Sometimes we just kill people because they were in the wrong place, and no one asked questions. And no one investigated to see did we do something wrong. And when we did do something wrong, we didn’t come forward with that information. We didn’t readily admit the mistake and say we’re sorry and show how we’re going to prevent this from happening in the future. . . .I think that is probably what accelerated his belief that the public needed to see this information. ”

These statements were made (prior to Manning’s public coming-out) by David Coombs, Manning’s attorney, in an interview aired on Democracy Now!  There’s certainly no shortage of opinions about Manning’s actions and about the 35-year prison sentence, and I won’t add to the cacophony of angry voices on all sides. What I will say is this: to me, Manning’s story is strikingly – hauntingly – similar to the stories of the five nonbelieving pastors. And frankly, the underlying themes of these stories aren’t at all unfamiliar to most LGBTQ people – we know, from firsthand experience, the terrible toll that silencing our convictions, our identities, our truth takes on our souls. The irony, to me, is that it was Manning, not the pastors in the study, who ultimately took the big leap of faith – to find some way, no matter how risky, to maintain some sort of integrity in an integrity-lacking situation. From leaking documents to coming out as transgender, it all seems crazy to a lot of people. But if you’ve ever experienced psychological claustrophobia, I bet it actually makes sense.

Religious zealots preach often about saving the souls of the sinners. Who will save your soul if you don’t save – and honor, and respect – your own?


Filed under mental health, psychological research, religion, transgender

2 responses to “Battle hymn of the nonbelievers

  1. felicita fields

    Just read this and the post about being out (or not) in rural communities. Wonderful, insightful writing.

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