Sunday, April 6, 2014

Why clergy lose their faith


People convert to faith and people lose faith. But what happens when clergy lose their faith?

Last year I posted an article about conversions, deconversions, and transformations. In December, Philosopher Daniel Dennett and Clinical Social Worker, Linda LaScola reported the results of their qualitative study of 35 clergy and seminary students who lost their faith. The title of the book, Caught in the Pulpit, captures the dilemma.

Who did they study?

All of the participants were Caucasian Americans.  Most were clergy with pulpit ministries (27) but some were in seminary (5 students, 3 professors). There were Jewish Rabbis but the rest were Catholic or Protestant Christian clergy. There were men (30) and women (5) from theologically conservative and liberal denominations.

The authors use the word literal to refer to fundamentalist groups. By literal they mean religious groups that view the Biblical text as inerrant. They offer examples of literals: Pentecostals, Mormons, and Seventh Day Adventists. Liberals rely on metaphor, symbolism, and poetry when interpreting Scripture. Examples of liberals include Unitarians and Episcopalians.

How did they conduct their study?
They conducted 90 interviews of 35 volunteer participants. The initial list of participants came from people who contacted the authors and colleagues over several years. The interviews yielded 120 hours of recorded results, which were analyzed by the authors. Because many were employed, they used fictitious names.

What did they find?
I selected several of their findings. You can find more in the book or by viewing Linda LaScola's interview on YouTube
The participants were all "very good people" who struggled with their faith.
They entered ministry because they wanted to help people.
Their doubts created inner distress. Many began to doubt their faith during seminary.
Their search for truth led them to give up on various beliefs. “It shook them,” Linda reported.
Many would like to continue their ministry but struggle with sincerity.
Linda reported four themes that characterized their seminary experience:
1. Some were fascinated with the new knowledge.
2. Some struggled with doubts but thought they would stick it out
3. Some reported the seeds of doubt began in seminary.
4. Some did not analyze what they learned. Instead, they focused on their studies.
Many reported their joy at the freedom to understand the world better.
Many acknowledged their losses in terms of faith and concerns about relationships with friends and family.

Some liberal clergy who are still in the pulpit interpret the Bible and the creeds in a metaphorical manner. They might focus on moral teachings.

It is harder for fundamentalist clergy who may feel more desperate to “get out.”
Fundamentalists were more prone to depression, including suicidal depression. They disguise their beliefs by talking about what the Bible says.

What are the limitations of the study?
Well it’s pretty hard to tell what percentage of clergy share these experiences. The authors don’t deny this difficulty. So, at best, we have an idea that some religious leaders struggled with doubts that led them to either deconvert or find ways to maintain employment despite uncomfortable feelings.

How might these results fit with other studies?
It is hard to know how these results fit with other research because there are few published studies on this subject.

Recent survey research suggests a growing trend toward people identifying as less religious than in the past. But it is hard to know if this is a change in the percentage of people who have given up faith or a change in how many people are more willing to admit that they have no faith. See Pew Forum.

Also, we do not know how many of the nones (people who do not identify with faith) are agnostic, atheistic, or just not identifying with traditional religions.

Streib and Klein asked some research questions in their 2013 summary of "Atheists, Agnostics, and Apostates." “Are the shifts to atheism, agnosticism, and apostasy associated with an increase or a decrease in psychological well-being? How do these religious positions affect physical health? Do they lead to differences in preferences in the ways of coping with major life stressors?” (From the abstract).

More Thoughts
The authors realize people vary in terms of their literal-liberal dimension. I would prefer a more refined distinction based on what beliefs they endorsed at some point in their spiritual journey.

Although there is a role for qualitative research, it would still be nice to know a little more about the mental health status. How many of the sample struggled with what type of stress and depression? How many sought counsel for spiritual or other conditions?

I like the intratextual model of religious fundamentalism put forth by experienced psychology of religion scientists. In this study, the authors seem to describe differences for clergy who were from fundamentalist vs. liberal traditions. I think the intratextual model could help identify some of the differences within the small sample.

It would be nice to know what factors might predict deconversion and if there are common pathways for people with certain characteristics.


Religious fundamentalism

Religious conversions

Link to a YouTube interview with Linda LaScola.

Dennett, D. C. & LaScola, L. (2013). Caught in the pulpit: Leaving belief behind (Kindle Edition). 

Streib, H., & Klein, C. (2013). Atheists, agnostics, and apostates. In K. I. Pargament, J. J. Exline, J. W. Jones (Eds.) , APA handbook of psychology, religion, and spirituality (Vol 1): Context, theory, and research (pp. 713-728). Washington, DC US: American Psychological Association. doi:10.1037/14045-040

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