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Priests and Pastors who Become Atheists and Agnostics

Updated on November 4, 2015
TessSchlesinger profile image

An interest in God and religion dominated Tessa Schlesinger's life for half a century. A decade ago she walked away to become an atheist.

More than thirty five years ago, I was attending a service at St. James Church in Cape Town, South Africa. The Rev. Frank Retief was sharing how he had just gone through a very difficult period asking himself whether he really believed. The sermon was of particular interest to me because I had some pretty grave doubts myself. However Rev. Retief (he has since moved onto becoming a bishop, etc.) never did clarify why he still continued to believe. Maybe he thought he did, but when one is listening with one's intelligence, one hears differently to when one is listening with one's wishful thinking.

That said,have you ever wondered why it is possible that people like (insert world famous preacher who's just had homosexual affair) can preach so ardently about the sins of homosexuality and still havea little gay horseplay on the side? Or have you wondered how Catholic priests demonstrate a large number of paedophiles in their ranks or why super rich mega churches even exist when the gospel quite clearly says that if one person has two fields and another has none, then the person with the two fields has to give his other field to the person without a field? Do you sometimes ask yourself how they can believe in God and do the things they do? Perhaps they don't believe in god...

Richard Dawkins and friends sponsor the Clergy Project

My daughter with Richard Dawkins.
My daughter with Richard Dawkins. | Source

No answer to prayer and no evidence of god.

When one has been preaching God for a very long time, it goes without saying that one knows the bible pretty thoroughly.Because the bible has many, many contradictions, eventually no matter how much they want to rationalize, the doubt begins to set in. In addition, pastors are even more aware of the failing effectiveness of prayer. Day after day, week after week, year after year, they see the absence of response to prayer. Yes, certainly, there are times when it seems that god responded, but they also become aware that when a comparison is taken with a non-believer, that the statistical odds are the same. In other words, it wasn't answered prayer, they reason, it was simply the outcome of other factors like medication, a helpful friend, or a caring community. Pastors and preachers begin to see, over a period of time, that there are other explanations that they previously attributed to god.

Also, as a pastor or a priest, one faces questions like, "How could a merciful God allow that to happen?" Eventually, the only answer that makes sense is that all those prayers fall on deaf ears - or rather no ears. In other words, people are praying to something that doesn't exist. It's the only answer that some pastors, priests, and/or ministers can find.

Soon it becomes a struggle to teach their congregations something that they no longer belief. Sites like The Clergy Project provide a safe haven for these once religious people to admit that they no longer retain any supernatural beliefs. The site contains many stories of pastors and priests coming out. Some have confessed to their congregations that they have become atheists but continue as pastor, dishing out pastoral care to their congregations.

One such story is that of Tony who grew up in a pentecostal home. One day at a youth camp, with blaring music and the pastor telling the congregation that some were being called by god, Tony felt that this was a direct voice to him. Those are, of course, typical brainwashing techniques.

They're also more inclined to see the parallels between other religions and their own, plus when they look at secular history, they often find that the supposed evidence is nothing of the kind. These religious leaders become atheists as a result of solid study, no evidence, and the constant contradictions between reality and belief. This was typically what Tony experienced. To quote from the website, he says, "But the process was incremental, epiphanies gathering until their weight was undeniable. ... It was the accumulation of scriptural discrepancies and horrors, the mismatched accounts and genealogies, the brazen endorsements of genocide, human sacrifice, and slavery. It was the accumulation of prayers that never got answered..."

Tony is still a pastor. He appears not to have told his congregation that he is now an atheist. He no longer teaches dogma but focuses on things like being a good citizen and/or talking people out of doing bad things. When the opportunity is right, he will leave.

This organisation is called
This organisation is called | Source

The inclination towards evil

Many people become religious because they think that they do things that are are evil. They feel tremendous guilt about the particular action and it's an unconscious decision to believe that if they became a priest or a pastor, they would be forgiven their sin. How many times have you heard a pastor witness to how sinful he had been and then he had a meeting with god and he was a changed man?

Yet it's not that easy. If one accepts that there is no god, then it's quite obvious that no god came along to save one from oneself. Stories abound of the evil that pastors and paragons of god indulge in.

Take for instance, Creflo Dollar, the pastor of a mega church. Apparently he choked and punched his fifteen year old daughter because she wanted to go to a party. The fifteen year old daughter reported this to the police and her nineteen year old sister confirmed this happened. Yet Dollar denied it. To quote from the police report, "She went into the kitchen with her older sister. When her father asked why she was crying, she told him, “I do not want to talk right now,” the report said. Her father charged at her, put his hands around her throat, began to punch her and started hitting her with his shoe, she told the deputy. The deputy noted a scratch on her neck."

Dollar continues to preach to his 30,000 strong congregation. He was investigated between 2007 and 1010 for the personal use of church-owned credit cards, luxury homes, and airplanes. Now this man may or may not believe in god, but for those who are ethical people, their observation of these kind of religious beacons, serious questions begin to make themselves know. Not the least of these is, "If there is a god, why are these men getting away with this?"

“Iain” still works as a Protestant minister in Ireland. In an interview with the Irish edition of the Sunday Times, he referred to God as “total and absolute nonsense” adding that trying to instil religious faith in children amounts to abuse."
“Iain” still works as a Protestant minister in Ireland. In an interview with the Irish edition of the Sunday Times, he referred to God as “total and absolute nonsense” adding that trying to instil religious faith in children amounts to abuse." | Source

Coming out as an atheist

If you Google Atheist Pastors, you will find all sorts of personal testimony of people who speak about their slow walk from faith to atheism. If you listen to the videos attached to this article, you will see evidence of sincere people with excellent values who wish to go on serving humanity but simply cannot tell people that there's a god who cares about them anymore.

One such story that comes up on Google is that of past Seventh Day Adventist pastor, Ryan Bell. He decided to spend a year without god as he had lost his faith (rather than pray endlessly for his faith to return). A year later, he confessed, "I don't think that God exists. I think that makes the most sense of the evidence that I have and my experience".

These days he works with a homeless organisation. He says, "I think before, I wanted a closer relationship to God, and today I just want a closer relationship with reality."

Coming out as an atheist is painful. If someone has spent thirty years teaching something and leading other people to believe what one has taught, and then suddenly to realize that there is no god, can be traumatic. Not only has one spent half one's life in an area which is nothing more than myth but one has misled a great many people. It's a tough thing to deal with.

One pastor admits candidly on this blog that he needs a job because he has three children to support. On his blog, he tells the story of going to a restaurant with his wife. Coincidentally it is pride week and there are the normal lot of 'Christians' telling gays that they are going to hell. His wife is upset and doesn't see this as Christian behaviour. The atheist pastor says, "honey...some people out there that think they’re doing the “right thing”, but mostly it’s part of the persecution complex. To them, it makes them feel holy to come out here and be mean to people. It makes them feel holier when people argue back. I’m sure if they got the shit kicked out them today, they’d consider it suffering like Jesus and for Jesus.

Coming out as a pastor is hard. One has to find another job. One has to face the congregation. One feels a great sense of loss for all the time spent on investing in something that wasn't real. It's not easy.

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So next time you sit listening to your priest and/or pastor preaching about God, ask yourself, “Does this guy really believe what he is saying?”

There are pointers. Strangely enough, the answers lie in the bible. Pastors of mega-churches are not following Christian doctrine, so they are not likely to really believe in God. They might simply like the money.

The next question is this, "If your pastor behaves in a way that contradicts what the bible says, can you believe him when he tells you there is a god?" Interesting question.

© 2015 Tessa Schlesinger


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    • Nadine May profile image

      Nadine May 2 years ago from Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa

      In a fascinating way you have exposed a lot of truth that you rarely read about. I questioned the bible and the Dominee from the childhood into adulthood and by the time I was in my twenties I stopped going to any church. Today I do not belong to any religions institution and never will. I have no problem excepting that there is a higher power but this creative spiritual force resides within all of us. I have never visited the St. James Church in Cape Town, South Africa, but I live not far from - Clovelly around the corner from Kalk bay.

    • TessSchlesinger profile image

      Tessa Schlesinger 2 years ago from South Africa

      I don't really think that at age eleven one can be considered an atheist so much as a secular person. Generally atheists have spent around 20 years upwards studying the bible intellectually. They are known to know more about the bible than religious people Atheism is a decision based on thorough knowledge - not a lack of belief or lack of consideration.

      Once an atheist, it is impossible to return to Christianity or any other religion. Those who lived merely secular lives without intense consideration, can and do return to the fold. The scripture for that is, "Train up a child in the way he should go, and he will return to it." That is so because the brainwashing can only be removed by a thorough study and working through of all unconscious beliefs still retained.

      The fact that you are only now learning the things that these pastors had already learnt is indicative that you haven't taken their path - yet. :)

    • serenityjmiller profile image

      Serenity Miller 2 years ago from Brookings, SD

      Interesting perspective. For me, faith ran full circle: I abandoned God at the age of 11 and lived as an atheist/agnostic into my mid-twenties, then I experienced an adult conversion and am now working to enter licensed ministry. I'd be curious to know how the story ends for those ministers who have presently lost their faith.