The “On Faith” column of the Washington Post is the scene this week of a discussion of a phenomenon that many Christians barely know exists. It seems atheists Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola of Tufts University’s Center for Cognitive Studies have been looking at what might be called the “Klaas Hendrikse Syndrome,” wherein former Christians who now self-identify as atheists or agnostics continue to hold office in the church.

The 28-page report from Dennett and LaScola is a fascinating look inside the minds of five men–a United Methodist pastor , a PCUSA Presbyterian pastor, a United Church of Christ campus minister, a Church of Christ pastor, and a Southern Baptist worship leader–who talked openly about their loss of faith even as they continuing to serve, and in three cases even preach, in their respective ministry situations. For instance, there’s Wes, a Methodist who seems to have never taken the teaching of the faith very seriously, and is actually a political activist in clergy robes:

“I will be the first to admit that I see Christianity as a means to an end, not as an end unto itself. And the end is very basically, a kind of liberal, democratic values. So I will use Christianity sometimes against itself to try to lead people to that point. But there’s so much within the Christian tradition that itself influenced the development of those liberal values, you know. They didn’t arise through secular means. They came out of some religious stuff. …I could couch all that in very secular language. If we were in a college setting, I would. But we’re in a religious setting, so I use the religious language.”

“The difference between me and an atheist is basically this: It’s not about the existence of God. It’s: do we believe that there is room for the use of the word ‘God’ in some context? And a thoroughly consistent atheist would say, ‘No. We just need to get over that word just like we need to get over concepts of race. We quit using that word, we’d be better off.’ Whereas I would say I agree with that in a great many cases, but I still think the word has some value in some contexts. So I think the word God can be used very expressively in some of my more meditative modes. I’ve thought of God as a kind of poetry that’s written by human beings. As a way of dealing with the fact that we’re finite; we’re vulnerable.”

Then there’s Darryl, a Presbyterian who is essentially a mole working for the other side, trying to “rescue” people from all that icky religious stuff:

“I reject the virgin birth. I reject substitutionary atonement. I reject the divinity of Jesus. I reject heaven and hell in the traditional sense, and I am not alone.”

“I am a ‘Jesus Follower’ for sure. It is arguable whether I am also a ‘Christian.’ I can’t imagine continuing in this work if I did not have a strong personal faith of some kind. My cognitive dissonance revolves around the urge to rescue others who find themselves in the same boat – and who still strongly believe in God in some sense, and find Jesus a compelling religious figure.”

Darryl’s “Jesus” might just as well be Gandhi, or Socrates, or any of a dozen other “compelling” individuals, and perhaps some day he’ll be honest and drop the pretense.

Jack, the Southern Baptist, never seems to have gotten it at all:

“OK, this God created me. It’s a perfect God that knows everything; can do anything. And somehow it got messed up, and it’s my fault. So he had to send his son to die for me to fix it. And he does. And now I’m supposed to beat myself to death the rest of my life over it. It makes no sense to me. Don’t you think a God could come up with a better plan than that?”

“What kind of personality; what kind of being is this that had to create these other beings to worship and tell him how wonderful he is? That makes no sense, if this God is all-knowing and all-wise and all-wonderful. I can’t comprehend that that’s what kind of person God is.”

Then there’s Adam, a Church of Christ pastor who is pretty frank about what’s going on when he stands in front of his congregation on Sunday morning:

“Here’s how I’m handling my job on Sunday mornings: I see it as play acting. I kind of see myself as taking on a role of a believer in a worship service, and performing. Because I know what to say. I know how to pray publicly. I can lead singing. I love singing. I don’t believe what I’m saying anymore in some of these songs. But I see it as taking on the role and performing. Maybe that’s what it takes for me to get myself through this, but that’s what I’m doing.”

Of course, in describing his journey to non-belief, Adam makes clear both how intellectually arrogant he was, and, at the same time, how little he actually knew about the faith he supposedly professed:

“If God is God, he’s big enough; he can handle any questions I’ve got. Well, he didn’t. He didn’t measure up! And that sounds, you know, so funny, because if I heard somebody else saying that a year ago, I’d have thought, ‘You are such a sacrilegious person. God’s going to strike you dead by lightning or something!’ I’ve actually thought and tried to pin-point, but I can honestly say that intellectually, from within the first few weeks of my studies, I thought, ‘Wow! Could this be true?’ So almost from that point on, it’s almost been downhill if you’re Christian; uphill if you’re a non-believer. Coming to the truth — and I always thought there was absolute truth out there. Now I’m a lot more relativistic.”

So he went from a believer in absolute truth to the verge of atheism in a few weeks? In a way that’s not real surprising; one of the really appalling things about these guys is who they looked to for understanding. Darryl, for instance, says of the abysmally ignorant John Spong, “Well that guy has a glow to him; he’s just fantastic.,” and of Bill Maher, the equally ignorant, bigoted propagandist whose movie Religulous stands as one of the most embarrassing moments for the New Atheism, “He’s a genuine, honest guy who’s acknowledging the questions in his heart, and is fed up and passionate and angry about the religious violence in the world….I’m right there on 80-90% of the stuff.”

Adam, on the other hand, is a fan of Christopher Hitchens, whose book God Is Not Great has been condemned even by some atheists for the amazing number of factual errors and deliberate misrepresentations of his opponents’ thinking. About Hitchens, Adam says:

“I tell you, the book that just grabbed my mind and just twisted it around, was Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great. It was shocking, some of that stuff – the throws and jabs against faith and stuff. I would think, ‘He’s crazy.’ But then I’d say, ‘No. Step back and read it for what it is.’

His first reaction was the right one, of course, but the gaps in his education apparently didn’t keep him from falling for Hitchens’ line.

According to the authors, each of their subjects is convinced that there are a lot more clergy out there like themselves–closet atheists or agnostics or pantheists, who dare not talk about what they actually believe because they are worried they’ll lose their jobs. Dennett and LaScola, as well as most of their interviewees, point to why they think this is a widespread phenomenon:

What gives them this impression that they are far from alone, and how did this strange and sorrowful state of affairs arise? The answer seems to lie in the seminary experience shared by all our pastors, liberals and literals [sic] alike. Even some conservative seminaries staff their courses on the Bible with professors who are trained in textual criticism, the historical methods of biblical scholarship, and what is taught in those courses is not what the young seminarians learned in Sunday school, even in the more liberal churches. In seminary they were introduced to many of the details that have been gleaned by centuries of painstaking research about how various ancient texts came to be written, copied, translated, and, after considerable jockeying and logrolling, eventually assembled into the Bible we read today. It is hard if not impossible to square these new facts with the idea that the Bible is in all its particulars a true account of actual events, let alone the inerrant word of God….

A gulf opened up between what one says from the pulpit and what one has been taught in seminary. This gulf is well-known in religious circles. The eminent biblical scholar Bart D. Ehrman’s widely read book, Misquoting Jesus (2005), recounts his own odyssey from the seminary into secular scholarship, beginning in the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, a famously conservative seminary which required its professors to sign a statement declaring the Bible to be the inerrant word of God, a declaration that was increasingly hard for Ehrman to underwrite by his own research. The Dishonest Church (2003), by retired United Church of Christ minister, Jack Good, explores this “tragic divide” that poisons the relationship between the laity and the clergy. Every Christian minister, not just those in our little study, has to confront this awkwardness, and no doubt there are many more ways of responding to it than our small sample illustrates. How widespread is this phenomenon? When we asked one of the other pastors we talked with initially if he thought clergy with his views were rare in the church, he responded “Oh, you can’t go through seminary and come out believing in God!”

I don’t quote this to suggest that the five clergy in this study are somehow “victims” of their seminary education. They had, and have, a responsibility for their own education–to read and listen with critical eyes, not swallowing everything they hear from somebody with a Ph.D., and to do their own independent research. They might also, as ostensible Christians, be expected to approach their academic tasks with eyes of faith. For all of them, one or more of these elements seems to have been missing.

That, however, just makes the seminaries that much more culpable, because rather than foster good intellectual habits, all too many faculty members are themselves not people of faith, or are too busy demonstrating how “relevant” or “up-to-date” they are. The weird thing is that more and more seminaries are realizing that, academic problems aside, they’ve done a lousy job of spiritual formation, and implementing strategies to remedy that weakness, but at the same time all too many of them employ faculty whose mission in life seems to be one of undermining the faith of their students.

As you might imagine, this subject has brought all kinds of weasels out of the woods at “On Faith.” In the next installment, I’ll take a look at some of them.