I don’t know his real name; no one does. Using the alias of “Adam” he participated in a 2010 Tufts University study of Christian clergy who no longer believe in God yet continue to serve as active ministers and who, in most cases, have kept their loss of faith a secret.
Adam came to my attention through an interview with Mary Hynes of CBC’s radio program Tapestry. You can listen to her interview with Adam here. The whole thing seems strangely theatrical; his voice electronically disguised to protect his identity, he speaks with Hynes via Skype while sitting discreetly in his car somewhere on a shopping mall parking lot somewhere in the United States. He describes himself as pastor of a “fundamentalist, Bible-believing church” which believes strongly in “a literal interpretation of scripture.” Although Adam no longer believes that God exists, he continues to serve as a minister, preaching sermons every Sunday, sermons that he doesn’t believe are true. He is ashamed of his duplicity, but carries on due to financial need and a complete dearth of career options (all of his education, training, and experience have been in religion and theology).
Born and raised in a strict religious environment, Adam knows exactly what to say and do to fit in with those around him, so in theory, no one would ever need know about his lack of faith. And so far, no one does, except his wife–and her reaction was hostile and angry. He has learned, the hard way, that she will not walk this road with him.
What strikes me most about Adam’s story is the full horror of the loneliness he endures. He has no one to talk to no one to empathize with him, no one to encourage him or give him strength–although an online community of fellow disillusioned clergy offers some solace.
I’ve been thinking a lot about loneliness lately, and I’m currently studying an intriguing essay on the topic recently published in the New Republic (at some point I’d like to explore that essay in an future post). Adam’s story also makes me think about the nature of belief, and the underlying psychological reality that we cannot choose what we believe; in an undeniable sense, our beliefs tend to form and grow and change on their own. (If you doubt this, then try this simple experiment: for the next thirty seconds, choose to believe in dragons. See? You can’t.)
Adam’s story lies somewhere on the intersection between loneliness and belief, two topics that I think are of profound importance for teachers. For now I’m still collating what it all means, but one thing stands out as quite powerful: a person can be married, have children, be admired in his community, even be revered as a leader, yet still suffer from aching loneliness, loneliness that is all the worse because it comes, uncontrollably, from within him.