By Lauren Cooper
For most clergy members, guiding the non-believers and doubters back into the fold is part of the job description. But where do the clergy turn when they have lost their own faith? In the age of the internet, one can find an on-line forum for any conceivable topic, where individuals who share similar views can come together to discuss, debate, and offer support to one another. Such is the case with The Clergy Project, an on-line organization where clergy members, both current and former, can discuss their transition from believers to non-believers.
On March 23, 2011, The Clergy Project was launched with the support of The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science and The Freedom from Religion Foundation. The Clergy Project is a private on-line community where current and former clergy members meet to discuss personal beliefs- or rather, a lack thereof. The public website was created to provide information, testimonials, and examples of media coverage to individuals outside of the project. The public website also provides information about how to become part of the on-line community. When it began, the project included only fifty-two members; today, the website boasts of over five hundred active members.
At first glance, one would think that The Clergy Project is a tool for recruitment-something to be used to uproot people from their religious communities. However, this is does not seem to be the case. In order to participate, a prospective member must apply via the public website and then go through a rigorous screening process conducted by current members before being invited to join. Perhaps what is most interesting about The Clergy Project is its actual intended purpose. Although it is primarily supported by known atheist groups that emphatically champion science over religion, the project is not necessarily about promoting these opinions. Rather, it was created as a support system for individuals who are coming to terms with their own atheism. Reading through the testimonials, one is confronted with a variety of reactions-from relief and celebration to something akin to mourning.
The Clergy Project was intended to bring together all of these different individuals into one supportive community in order to facilitate discussion of these emotions in a safe environment. It is worth noting, however, that currently much of the focus of the public site is on providing examples of clergy members renouncing their faith. The homepage includes several links to public news stories of this nature. So perhaps these supporting atheist groups are making their point in another way.
With the creation of a highly visible forum of discussion like The Clergy Project, is it possible that more former clergy will come forward to discuss their own declining faith? While there has been a considerable amount of media coverage concerning clergy members “coming out” as non-believers, it will be interesting to see what sort of impact The Clergy Project will have on the religious world in the future.