A journalism test piece I wrote during a short-lived attempt to get out of the games ghetto – I never pushed to get it published.
The outside of New Unity church on Islington’s Upper Street doesn’t look much like a church. You could believe that the pale brick and painted wood belonged to a cheap village hall. But not to a congregation that’s been around since the Great Fire of London and that had Mary Wollstonecraft as a congregant. Investigate more and you find a sign proclaiming that the current chapel is a result of the German bombing campaigns of the 1940s. But I’m not here to judge the external merits of the building. Inside, there’s the unusual item I’m here to see; the smiling Andy Pakula.
Reverend Pakula is an unusual leader for the 350 year-old congregation because he’s been an atheist for his whole life. “(I grew up) in this Jewish family where we had a Christmas tree, no one ever talked to god, clearly no-one ever believed anything.” he tells me. “I’ve always been an atheist, except when maybe when I was five and I wanted to run faster. And that had nothing to do with god – I just wanted to magic it. ”
The first recorded English-language use of ‘atheist’ is in John Martiall’s 1566 A Replie to Mr Calfhills Blasphemous Answer Made Against the Treatise of the Cross, as an insult. Indeed atheist was exclusively used as an insult in 16th and 17th century Britain, meaning ‘one who lacks moral restraint’. The first person I can find who reclaimed atheism as a positive word was Jean Meslier. This seemingly-pious French village priest wrote a strident Testament, published posthumously, which was the first defence of atheism. (We only know about the Testament because Voltaire Bowdlerised it into a defence of deism.) Meslier also seems to have been the first person we can say for certain was a faithless priest.
After studying at MIT and working in biotech for many years, Pakula joined a Unitarian church in America. Soon, after he started the long process of seminary study that resulted in his acting as New Unity’s minister since 2006. All normal, if he hadn’t been an atheist. Yet the two core pastimes of ministers in monotheistic religions seem to be prayer to, and praise of, the god. Pakula can’t indulge in either of those. So what does he do, as a priest who has declared he has no faith?
“Unitarian congregations are all different, they’re not like franchises. There’s no one to tell you what to do. Some of them would be ‘of course god exists’. I try to be open and I hope I say things that allow for many interpretations. But you know, I talk about real life and why hope and compassion are important, and why change is hard… I believe in love.”
I suggest to him that his function is something like a community social psychologist. “Yes. Especially positive psychology, not abnormal psychology… Every person has worth and dignity. Go from there. You can make that religious and say every person has an immortal soul. You can take the Hasidic, Qabalistic view about the fragments in the divine in everyone. Hinduism with Atman and Brahman is lovely. We can work with that, it’s just stories. I base (my value system) on the values that I think will make a better, more peaceful, loving just world. What else can we really be for?”
Can we still call this a religion? Well, the UK supreme court has recognised that god isn’t necessary for a religion, recently ruling that Scientology is a religion. On that reading, secular organisations like London’s Sunday Assembly may one day get state religious backing.Of course, Revd. Pakula is unusual amongst atheist priests in that he’s ‘out’. Though the numbers are unknown, many more clergy are still ‘in’, hidden away in congregations around the world. A study by the Free University of Amsterdam found that 1 in 6 protestant priests in Holland were either atheist or agnostic.
Of course all clergy express doubts. Many faiths emphasise that part of being a good theologian is testing your faith. But for some that process of testing can be catastrophic. Daphne (not her real name) is a Baptist Reverend in the UK. Her congregation emphasises a process of breaking down and rebuilding beliefs as part of the training process. “One of the first things that they try to do is strip down what you’ve inherited.” she says “They help you to own what you really believe. Then they question you… some people come away with a huge frustration over the institution and faith. They end up with a deeper faith, but they can’t cope with the hypocrisy of the institution.”
And some end up with no faith at all. For a priest that has lost his or her faith, the next step is hard. That’s because being a priest is more than being a font of godly power. It’s also a profession which comes with associated benefits. To be a priest, is to have a house, lifestyle, income, car, family, and community, all tied to that role. To step away from that – or even to risk it – must seem huge. Most faiths inculcate you with an ethics that praises openness and truth-telling. And as a priest and community leader, your role is to be a clear standard for that moral system, no matter the consequences.
Yet as the incentives against honesty include the loss of everything that defines you, it’s a hard thing to step away from. According to letters published by her postulator, even Mother Teresa managed to conceal her loss of faith for over fifty years. After all, it’s not like there’s a clear career path for ex-clergy. Thankfully, many of the more progressive Western faiths are supportive, like the Unitarians. The Church of England tacitly allows Christian non-realists to be ministers – that is, ministers who do not believe in the objective existence of a God. This has allowed ministers such as the former head of the Church of Scotland, Richard Holloway, to come out as non-believers. The PKN church in Holland is also supportive.
Gretta Vosper is similarly lucky. Her faith – the United Church of Canada – has been ordaining women and LBGT ministers for many decades. Yet until Vosper came out to her congregation, it hadn’t had an atheist minister. “I preached an utterly spontaneous sermon deconstructing the idea of a supernatural, interventionist god called God.”
Unusually, the board of Vosper’s congregation decided to follow her. “We met. I openly acknowledged that I did not believe in god although at that time I did not call myself an atheist. I used the term non-theist…I acknowledged that this took me outside of what they had called me to do in ministry with them and they considered what they wanted to do. And they decided they wanted to head out in this direction and see where it led. The leadership of the congregation has been unbelievably amazing, supportive, wise, patient, loving, and encouraging. They have offered to stand by me as heresy trials have been threatened and been with me through everything. I feel so privileged to be in a congregation with them.”
Leaving god has also allowed the values that Vosper teaches to shift. “We place (positive values) before us in the same way we once placed god which was, to be true, simply a projection of a collection of values. We have distilled the good ones and use them. And I often speak of the future as a kind of god against which we can assess our actions. Are we living and making choices that will be judged positively by future generations or are we not?”
Vosper is now a member of the Clergy Project. This community, created by Daniel Dennett and Linda La Scola, hosts discussion for religious leaders who’ve lost their faith. It currently has 556 members, including Christian clergy, rabbis and imams. Of those, around a quarter are still serving as ministers. A message from Richard Dawkins welcomes new members saying. “It is an aspect of the vicious intolerance of religion that a mere change of mind can redound so cruelly on those honest enough to acknowledge it.” The project financially supports ministers who want to use outplacement services to find new roles. Vosper is working to expand their remit to the conversion of congregations. “We have not yet set up a process to support clergy as they transition their congregations beyond belief but I am hoping to be able to do that with TCP’s support.”
The project emphasises anonymity because few faiths and nations are as forgiving of atheism as the Unitarian church or the UK government are. The International Humanist and Ethical Union’s 2013 report noted, “The non-religious are discriminated against, or outright persecuted, in most countries of the world.” It also showed that 13 Islamic countries have the death penalty for atheism. Last year, the UK government granted asylum to an Afghan atheist, as apostasy carries the death penalty in Afghanistan. Given that the majority of Islamic scholars agree that the punishment for apostasy is death, an imam who loses his faith is in a dangerous situation.
For that reason, all the clergy I spoke to were thankful that they lived in a society that tolerated their beliefs. Daphne says, “All the ministers in our area are basically preaching ‘let’s be tolerant, welcoming and open for our communities, however messy life may be’.”
Interviews with Pakula, Vosper.