The Common Good

Skeptics Wonder if Ex-Clergy Should Lead Atheist Movements

By definition, skeptics are pretty skeptical. They question what they see as unfounded claims or dubious motivations, whatever the source. Now, they are questioning some of their own leaders.

Photo courtesy of RNS
Jerry DeWitt, a former Pentecostal preacher, came to be an atheist while still preaching in the pulpit. Photo courtesy of RNS

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With the success of organizations such as The Clergy Project — an online community seeking to provide a safe place for clergy members who reject supernatural beliefs — numerous former ministers are joining the ranks of the publicly nontheistic.

Some have risen to the leadership of prominent atheist organizations. Last week, Teresa MacBain was dismissed from her high-profile position at Harvard University’s Humanist Community after it was revealed she inflated her resume. The former United Methodist pastor claimed a degree from Duke Divinity School she did not have.

“Our society needs so much and thriving secular communities could make significant contributions, ” wrote Donald Wright, author and organizer of the Day of Solidarity for Black Non-Believers, on Freethought Blogs. But, he added, “My unsolicited advice is to be skeptical of this new wave of leadership.”

While Wright believes former members of the clergy should be welcomed with open arms by the secular community, he feels they should be heavily vetted.

Others, such as Paul Fidalgo, communications director for the Center for Inquiry, said MacBain’s resume-inflation mistake should not define or derail the freethought movement.

From Jerry DeWitt of The Clergy Project to Mike Aus, a former pastor who founded a Houston church based on reason not revelation, many ex-pastors are now leading the nonreligious. DeWitt, the first minister to drop anonymity as part of The Clergy Project and a self-described “secular minister,” said there are 511 ministers in the online community.

“The trap is that after nonbelief, these ex-pastors join the movement and find a new platform for this new truth,” DeWitt said, substituting secular ideals around their charismatic personalities.

“One of the joys I celebrate in escaping from religion and church is no longer participating in this unbridled authority and reverence given to the pastor,” said Wright. He fears that handing over atheist institutions to ex-ministers will muddle the purposes of the burgeoning movement and cause problems down the road, “because a secular church in the hands of a cult personality is a religion disguised as a humanist community,” he said.

Wright encouraged his fellow atheists to scrutinize what spurs these ex-pastors to ensure their “integrity matches their charisma.”

Added DeWitt: “The atheist community doesn’t necessarily need more evangelists.”

Ken Chitwood writes for Religion News Service.

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