Clergy Project Milestone 1000 – The Elephant in the Room
As we approach the milestone of 1000 Clergy Project participants, I recall that when I joined The Clergy Project (TCP) in November of 2011, I was only four years into my life as an out-of-the-closet atheist. Sixteen years earlier, I had been licensed as a minister in the Central New York District of the Wesleyan Church, and I pastored Wesleyan and Methodist churches for the next six years. After four years of preparation and six years pastoring, I left the pulpit as a believer and returned to industry in the interest of making a better living. It was not for another six years, in 2007, that I discarded any residual belief in a god and embraced the atheist label. Not long after that, my wife started asking questions. She was not happy with my transformation, so trying to explain what happened was not productive. Our sons too, were religiously indoctrinated (thanks to me), so empathy was hard to come by. It was another four years before it occurred to me that I might do an online search for apostate clergy. That’s how, in November of 2011, I discovered The Clergy Project. I was in a tight spot, but I found that I was not alone. Here was an online community established for the purpose of offering mutual support and encouragement to people like me. I was elated and immediately applied to join. A few days later, a TCP screener contacted me to set up a time for an interview. I took the call in a school parking lot, while my grandchildren were inside rehearsing for a play.
In 2007 (when I first realized I was no longer a believer), TCP did not exist. Only the year before, Dan Barker and Richard Dawkins met at a humanist conference in Reykjavik, Iceland; there, they discovered a shared desire to help non-believing clergy in similar circumstances to Dan’s journey from preacher to atheist. In 2008, when writing the forward to Dan Barker’s book, “Godless,” Richard Dawkins again expressed his continuing desire to help non-believing religious leaders, both in and out of the pulpit. In 2011, it was only on a hunch that I decided to search the subject of apostate clergy; I was lucky to discover that TCP had been launched only eight months earlier.
Perhaps in those early days, an “under the radar” approach was warranted. But now, as we’re approaching 1000 strong, I think that we can and should do more. I don’t mean that we should evangelize believing clergy to our way of thinking. I’m suggesting that we are only the tip of the iceberg–that there are probably many more clergy out there, suffering in silence, with no idea that TCP exists. Could TCP become the proverbial elephant in every room that just cannot be ignored, pointing the way out of religion?
Speaking of elephants, I do like them (not that I’ve ever spent any significant time around them). I did go to the circus at least once in my childhood. I’ve seen them on TV and in movies, and I have observed that elephants are very large.
According to Defenders of Wildlife:
Elephants form deep family bonds and live in tight matriarchal family groups of related females called a herd. The herd is led by the oldest and often largest female in the herd, called a matriarch. Herds consist of 8-100 individuals depending on terrain and family size. When a calf is born, it is raised and protected by the whole matriarchal herd. Males leave the family unit between the ages of 12-15 and may lead solitary lives or live temporarily with other males.
This seems like a very workable social construct–and not only for elephants. The same source tells us that, “Elephants are extremely intelligent animals and have memories that span many years.” We have all heard that an elephant never forgets.
As elephants are very large and socially evolved to live and travel in herds, they are particularly unsuited to being kept as house pets. If you had a matriarchal elephant in your living room, she would be very difficult to ignore. Thus, we are all familiar with the idea of an issue so big, so controversial, so problematic, that it just can’t be ignored.
What does all this have to do with TCP, you ask? We have talked before about TCP existing in a bubble that stays primarily within the secular movement. We have discussed the idea that most religious professionals are not even aware of our existence. Our ability “to provide support, community, and hope to current and former religious professionals who no longer hold supernatural beliefs” (our stated mission) is severely restricted to those few who discover us.
I am proposing that we utilize the spectacle of TCP Milestone 1000 as the right time to promote the TCP brand. Ideally, everyone (particularly, every current religious leader) should be fully aware and comforted by the knowledge that we are here. The statement that, “we all have doubts,” is both cliché and code for, “we don’t really believe what we are paid to preach to our congregants on a regular basis.” I don’t know how many doubts it takes to make an unbeliever, but as many of us used to sing, “it only takes a spark to get a fire going.” Well, it only takes a doubt to get the doubt fire burning.
I suspect that among current religious professionals, there are far more doubters than unquestioning believers. TCP doesn’t need to create apostates; we only need to be commonly known and available to the closeted religious professionals who already exist. We need only to be obviously present with the good news:
- Unbelief is more than “okay.”
- You are in great and excellent company.
- TCP is right there in the room with you, offering to provide support, community, hope, and a wealth of experience to help you transition to a better and more rational, secular life.
Yes, my vision is for TCP to grow into being that ever-present and undeniable elephant in every room that can be deliberately ignored only with great difficulty and at the risk of triggering great embarrassment. By aggressive propagation of the TCP brand, we can become the obviously existent elephant in every room where religious services are conducted; in every room where church business is conducted; in every seminary classroom where the bible, religious history, theology, homiletics, comparative religion, and apologetics is taught; in every room where a young person is about to be bedazzled into pursuing a career in religious ministry which sooner or later will be regretted.
Elephants are extremely intelligent animals and have memories that span many years. We, as TCP participants, are an intelligent and empathetic herd. We have decades of memories, vast quantities of experience, and mountains of lessons learned that can be of great benefit to the millions of doubting religious professionals around the world. We are doing a good thing at TCP; it’s up to us to make sure everyone knows we are here.
According to Daniel Dennett:
[The Clergy Project] will not only provide guidance and support and community for those who are trapped in their pulpits, but also provide a perspective on the clerical life that might alert many idealistic young people to the dangers and dissuade them from committing themselves to such a life. This in turn might starve the churches of pastors and priests, until they have to let in the sunlight and change the nature of ministry altogether.
We don’t need to engage in theological debate or atheistic evangelism. We only have only to be the obvious and undeniable elephant in the room.
It’s our responsibility to use TCP Milestone 1000 to propagate the TCP brand, and the harder the religious establishment tries to not think of the magnificent TCP elephant in the room, the larger and more relevant we will be. We know where we’ve been, and we appreciate how far we’ve come. An elephant never forgets, and the ever-present TCP elephant in every room must never be denied or ignored.