What percentage of Christian ministers, do you suppose, believes (more or less) what they preach? Please, indulge me by taking a minute to think about this honestly before reading on. Maybe they don’t believe it all, but certainly, let’s say, in the divinity of Jesus Christ?
It was always my assumption that that number must be in excess of 99%. Why would you become a minister if you didn’t believe, how or why would your beliefs change once you were in the clergy, and why wouldn’t you bail if they did? I debated my first minister when I was 7, and from then on until very, very recently, I’d never once doubted that every “theist” I debated was exactly what they purported to be—a theist.
Now Christopher Hitchens had always claimed that he was frequently approached by clergy who confessed to him that they had lost their faith. Some of them retained a belief in a higher power (and geared their sermons in that direction), but not in Jesus Christ, while others lost all belief in the supernatural(1)Note that in both cases, this qualifies as Atheism, both from the atheist’s point of view, and the church’s. When he asked why they remained in the priesthood, they all hovered around the same reasons: they had no other employable skills, they had worked hard for their career, their families and/or spouses were still faithful, the community depended on them, and/or they had no community whatsoever outside of the church. In almost all cases, to quit the clergy would be devastating. Further, they would add, there was real good that could be done, comfort that could be offered, even if one didn’t believe. It seemed to most of them that remaining an atheist in the pulpit was the lesser of two evils.
I’ve found Hitchens to be a man of the highest intellectual integrity, never once embellishing the facts even for a harmless rhetorical flourish. But I also could not accept that this could have ever happened more than once or twice. I tucked away this little contradiction, as it didn’t pertain to any of his arguments with which I was concerned.
But other well-known atheists repeated similar claims, in their own words. The most earnest Daniel Dennett had the same reports, and said that it was accepted and understood by most clergy that a significant number were atheists, that they all understood a common policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
These accumulated stories stayed in the back of my minds, ministers who had said to my face “but isn’t it nicer to believe?” a rhetorical question which none the less on its face suggests the premise that it all may not be true.
It wasn’t until I was doing research for this very codex, specifically into the beatification of Mother Teresa for an essay on the obviously false nature of most miracles, that I came to a startling discovery.
Imagine you’re a Catholic Bishop. You’re tasked with helping canonize Mother Teresa, one of the most important figures modern church history. It’s a deep honor and a privilege, and you want to do a good job. Where do you start?
Well, you’ve got to find two miracles she performed, post-mortem. Almost immediately into your search you hear that there may have been a posthumous miracle in the village of Dhulinakod, India. A Bengali tribal, Monica Besra, claims she had cancer in her belly, and after she put a picture of mother Teresa on it, the cancer went away.
Based on that claim, do you certify the miracle?
Obviously the answer is no. You need to gather at least a little evidence. So you investigate, starting with her doctors. You talk with them, and they confirm that a year ago she was indeed diagnosed with a tumor resulting from tuberculosis. However, it was eminently treatable. They prescribed a course of treatment, and the prognosis was that she should be cancer free within about a year. She followed the treatment, the tumor shrank, and a year later it was gone. The doctors provided all of the medical document to prove this.
Now do you certify the miracle?
Still doubting if this recovery was medical or divine in nature, representatives of the church asked if this was true, and if she had followed the proscribed treatment. She said she did in deed.
Now do you certify the miracle, or go on and wait for another one?
They decided to investigate more, and interviewed her husband. He confirmed that she had taken the medicine and that her recovery was exactly as the doctors had predicted. He then added that this was “a hoax”, that the picture of Mother Teresa hadn’t been put on her belly until after the cancer was gone(2)After learning that the church would lift his family out of poverty, pay to educate his children, and fly his wife to Rome, he claimed it was indeed a miracle. He did not, however, recant his hoax claim, or explain the discrepancy, but it’s all still a matter of record..
The church certified the miracle, and Mother Teresa stands beatified, with half of the requirements for sainthood now complete.
My question is simple… Why would any believer accept this as a miracle?
If you’re a bishop at the Vatican, you know that God wants her canonized (the pope has declared it). You know that she will perform miracles, it’s God’s will, it’s the very definition of sainthood. Why accept this claim? This isn’t low hanging fruit, this is fruit that’s fallen of the tree and been rotting on the ground for three weeks. The real miracles may already have been performed, you just need to find them. To accept this as a miracle, to credit this to the name of your most revered and cherished figures (soon to be a saint, no less). It is, quite literally, blasphemy. How could they do this?
They don’t believe.
That’s the answer. They aren’t looking for a miracle, they’re looking for the first thing that can remotely pass as one. They want to check off the box and move on. They don’t care the offence to the memory of Mother Teresa, they’ve no care of the offence to God, it didn’t even enter their minds. And I say “they” because this can’t be the work of one bishop, dozens of people, from the nuns who held the picture, to the pope himself, needed to sign off on this. It’s a rubber stamp, they already know she will be sainted, the how or why of it doesn’t matter to them at all.
The only way this kind of irreverent disregard can happen is if if there is a significant swath of disbelief inside the Vatican itself.
And Mother Teresa?
Shortly after her death, it was revealed that she was one of them, a non-believer, going through the motions while having no belief in God(3)Even Fox News, while brief, covered it here. In letters to friends and confessors, she wrote that she felt like “a hypocrite”, and asked “Where is my faith? Even deep down there is nothing but emptiness and darkness. If there be a God — please forgive me.” This proves her faith, says the church (who by now appear to be able to twist the darkest sin into a virtue) when it learned that she wrote “I am told God lives in me — and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul… I feel just that terrible pain of loss, of God not wanting me, of God not being God, of God not really existing.” And this isn’t one letter, these are a chain of letters and writings expressing her non-belief… her atheism, stretching nearly 50 years (if this is proof of her divinity, as the church claims, is there anything, anything whatsoever, that one can do or say, that isn’t divine? Indeed, by this standard, when I pass on, I should be canonized before my casket can be lowered into the ground).
It was her dying wish that these letters be destroyed, and I am quite thankful that they were not. But Mother Teresa was an atheist. This cannot be denied. How many more out are out there? How many more priests, bishops, cardinals, even popes, secretly are today or have there been in the past who were atheists? How many such letters have been destroyed on their behalf to protect them and the church.
What’s more, Mother Teresa confessed her non-belief (not doubt, mind you, but non-belief) to her superiors. They knew, she wrote to them, confessed to them. They knew she didn’t believe, and hoisted her up as the paragon of virtue (indeed, much to her suffering) anyway. What does this say about them?
The only possible conclusion is: they don’t care. Belief isn’t important to them. What’s important is that people do as they’re told, that they follow the rules, that money flows into the church. All other things are secondary(4)Indeed, the church abandoned Monica Besra to her life of abject poverty, fulfilling none of their promises to her (here). And the bulk of the donations made to Mother Teresa, ostensibly to help the poor, went to missionaries instead.
So how many ministers don’t believe? It’s impossible to know, but the number can’t be insignificant, it’s clear in the church’s beatification of Mother Teresa and it’s continued obstructionism in the sex abuse scandal, none of which can be said to be respectful of the teachings and beliefs of Jesus. There’s no way to know for sure, but the Clergy Project (a nonprofit support group for religious professionals who no longer have faith in the supernatural) registered over 500 members (priests, ministers, rabbis and nuns) in its first three years, and now, at its five-year mark, had roughly 700 members now. Daniel Dennett did a formal study of this. He contacted 9 ministers, 2 agreed to participate, and his study had only 5 participants, so the numbers are too small to be scientific (the study can be found here, and it’s heartbreaking), but between the study, anecdotal stories, and an examination of the workings of the Vatican itself (with its gold plated toilet handles), I can’t fathom that any fewer than a quarter of all practicing ministers are theists (and the number may well be twice that).
Now, what we really need is a study, and a good one. Were the church genuinely pious, I’d assume they’d be interested in such an. If there are atheists in the pulpits, wouldn’t they want to know? They’re lying, they’ve no spiritual connection to Jesus, how can that be allowed to continue? It’s cynical, even blasphemous, to know, or even suspect, that this is going on and not want to correct it.
But I suspect there isn’t a soul reading this, theist or atheist, who doesn’t doubt that the church would not, under any circumstances, endorse such a study, which would have to do the power to undermine the one thing, which I am increasingly convinced is the only thing, they care about, and that is their power over their congregation.
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↑||Note that in both cases, this qualifies as Atheism, both from the atheist’s point of view, and the church’s|
|2.||↑||After learning that the church would lift his family out of poverty, pay to educate his children, and fly his wife to Rome, he claimed it was indeed a miracle. He did not, however, recant his hoax claim, or explain the discrepancy, but it’s all still a matter of record.|
|3.||↑||Even Fox News, while brief, covered it here|
|4.||↑||Indeed, the church abandoned Monica Besra to her life of abject poverty, fulfilling none of their promises to her (here). And the bulk of the donations made to Mother Teresa, ostensibly to help the poor, went to missionaries instead.|