The Clergy Project is fascinating; it’s a confidential online community founded in 2011 for active and former clergy who have lost their supernatural beliefs. The community’s 500 plus members use the network to discuss what it’s like being an unbelieving leader in a religious community. I interviewed their Executive Director, an atheist and passionate feminist, Catherine Dunphy.
VB: Catherine, tell us more about your project and how it approaches faith, atheism and feminism.
CD: The Clergy Project is a confidential online community for active and former clergy who are non-believers – our members identify as secular humanists, atheist, agnostic and freethinkers. I identify as a secular humanist. The Clergy Project provides a safe house for unbelieving religious leaders of every persuasion. Inside the virtual walls of our community we are free to interact and to share our stories.
Our private member-only site was created in March 2011 with 52 members – we now have over 500. As a virtual community the Clergy Project works to protect our members’ anonymity, especially given that many of our members are still in active ministry.
All of our members came to us after they had already decided they are no longer believers. Our members come from a variety of backgrounds, denominations and religions. Currently we count active and former Pastors, Chaplains, Rabbis, Imams Nuns, Monks and Priests as our members.
VB: How did it all start?
CD: I ‘m often asked how the Clergy Project came to be – it’s founding came about from a number of simultaneous conversations regarding the existence of unbelieving religious leaders and a concern for their unique dilemma.
First, there was the preliminary study “Preachers Who Are Not Believers,” by philosopher Dan Dennett and researcher Linda LaScola and second, conversations between Dan Barker, a former minster himself, and Richard Dawkins, concerning the need to help non-believing clergy who want to leave ministry.
These secular leaders, together with the first 52 members, founded the project. When we launched our public site, clergyproject.org, it was with the goal of communicating the existence of organized non-believing clergyand to develop programs and services to aid active members in leaving ministry.
VB: Tell us about you and your personal journey…
CD: Sure. I attended a Roman Catholic seminary with the goal of becoming a chaplain and obtaining a PhD in Theology. It was during my studies that I began to question my belief in god. It’s quite a conundrum, that despite the obvious goals of educating religious leaders, most seminaries allow for diversity of theological perspectives; many radically unorthodox.
By the time I graduated I had let go of god and all the theistic concepts that go along with it. However, it has only been since November 2010, when I stumbled upon the Dennett & LaScola’s study, that I knew there were other people like me.
VB: Were there specific influences that played a part in your transition from believer to non-believer?
CD: Yes. I’d say there were three main influences. First, Biblical Scholarship and the cumulating knowledge of the origins of the Torah and the Christian Bible demanded that I conclude that religious texts are nothing more than human works of fiction.
Second, my study of liberation theology and philosophy expanded my concept of god to include feminist, pluralistic and humanist perspectives.
Third, the simple fact that after careful discernment I realized that the church, its actions and its teachings did not reflect my values of equality, human rights, and social responsibility.
VB: Is your personal journey one that holds similarities to those of the other members of your site?
CD: In some ways, yes. My experience speaking with other members of the Clergy Project (TCP) is that they too asked questions and were dissatisfied with the responses they received. It might not be all that surprising that in most instances, when members of TCP began to scrutinize their religious traditions, they also began adopting more liberal social mores. Each step in the process became a rung in the ladder to rejecting theism and supernaturalism.
VB: What sort of community is The Clergy Project in its expressed relationships?
CD: Well, it is in my experience, an egalitarian community. I think this is due, at least in part, to the disillusionment that our members felt with their respective religions and their patriarchal roots. I and other members of the Clergy Project recognize that sexual politics is deeply intertwined with religious traditions. The pervasive dominance by which religion dictates the functioning of human sexuality is at best creepy and at worst abusive.
VB: Some would argue that this isn’t true of Christianity; how would you respond to them?
CD: As an illustration, I’ll tell you a story. Looking back on it now I can see this experience played a crucial role in my eventual abandonment of religion and in my commitment to humanist values.
When I was a teenager, there was a major sex abuse scandal in my diocese, unfortunately the bishop at the time thought he should come out swinging in defence of his priests. In an article in the local paperhe stated that the victims of the abuse were adolescents so they should have known better and that their continued participation in the church was proof that they had “wanted it.”
Shortly after this public relations fiasco, the bishop thought it would be a good idea to make some inroads with the youth in the diocese and he stopped by for a visit at the youth camp I was attending. When he got up to address our group, one of girls interrupted him to ask him why he would say such horrible things about the victims of these predatory priests. He was outraged at her insubordination and he ridiculed her, saying that she was “too young to understand” and that she had no rights to question his authority as Bishop.
VB: Gosh…what happened next?
CD: Well, our group of about 60 teenage girls were horrified at the hate he was spewing so we walked out on him. Needless to say, the bishop was more than a bit flustered and he left shortly afterwards.
These comments haunted the diocese and the bishop, and in his 2012 obituary, he was described as “a man of strong views” who ruffled feathers with his statements regarding the sexual abuse of children by priests. Unfortunately his successor wasn’t much better. He was recently defrocked and is now notorious for his conviction of possessing and importing images of child pornography.
VB: Do you think you were ever fully a ‘theist’ or were you a humanist who just hadn’t fully realized that identity yet?
CD: I will say that I was a true believer, but that experiences like this, desire to know and understand my faith point to a humanistic and/or sceptical method. To clarify, I mean a sceptic in that I have always ask questions and a humanist in that I am a proponent of social justice and human rights. The simple fact is, that the continued hypocrisy and unrelenting demand for submission based on the presupposed apostolic tradition only furthered my distance from the church.
VB: Was leaving the church easy or hard for you?
CD: Despite knowing it was what I wanted, leaving the church for the unknown isolation of non-belief did not come without its challenges. Not only was I giving up my community and dealing with painful conflicts within my family, but also I had to somehow take my seminary and theological training and make it work in the real world!
I have heard other members of the clergy project compare losing their faith with a divorce. In many ways I would say it is indeed similar; however divorce has become a commonplace event and the shame and shunning that one once had to endure has all but evaporated. For clergy seeking to annul their relationship with a religious institution, they must bear the burden and condemnation for rejecting “god” and in many instances for destroying relationships with family and friends.
VB: Tell me about your passion for feminism and how this influences you.
CD: While studying theology I read and reread the gospels and Gnostic scriptures pining for a pro-woman Jesus and for a theology that was not limited by salvation history and tied to Eve’s fatal mistake. I argued in papers that early Christians were egalitarian because women were early leaders. I spent a considerable amount of time researching feminist theologians like Rosemary Reuther and Mary Daly, as well as feminists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.
Eventually, engrossing myself in these authors pointed me to the exit door and forced me to confront the fact that there is no place for women in religion; there are just degrees of servitude.
VB: Are there many women in the Clergy Project community?
CD: When it comes to the Clergy project, the breakdown between the sexes is interesting. Of the more than 500 members, only 13% are women. A glaring difference I know – but if you look at the U.S. federal labor statistics we see that since 1996 women have counted as, 1 in every 8 clergy persons in the United States. Also, if we consider that the phenomenon of women clergy is relatively new and that several religious groups and or denominations still bar women from ordination, then it makes more sense why there are fewer women among our members.
VB: In the States is the number of women clergy rising?
CD: It is. A 2006 New York Times article, “Clergy women find hard path to larger pulpit” by Neela Banerjee, stated that “the percentage of female graduate students at 229 North American Christian schools of theology rose from 10% in 1972 to 30% in 1997. In some schools of theology, over 50% of the students are women.”
When I completed my degree in 2004 I was by no means a minority in my class and the ratio was consistent with these statistics. This may be in part to the liberalization of many mainstream denominations, which have been impacted in part by egalitarian movements like feminism.
VB: So your feminism means that you want women to be totally equal within The Clergy Project and feel welcome?
CD: Absolutely. Though women are outnumbered by men in the Clergy Project, our status as a minority does not allocate us to the periphery. The female members of TCP are fully engaged and are active leaders.
The project has been able to foster an egalitarian organization that strives to communicate our values as secular humanists, agnostics, atheists and freethinkers.
VB: What do you think The Clergy Project offers, in terms of interest and education, to those outside it’s community?
CD: Our unanticipated existence has spiked quite a bit of interest and I am sure that there are readers who would love to observe us in our natural habitat. It is a little odd, feeling like a science or social experiment, but ultimately we recognize that we are doing something revolutionary just by saying that non-believing religious leaders exist. The fact that we have so naturally organized ourselves as an egalitarian community speaks to the reality of turning our backs on the systematic sexism that religion continues to advance.