When Clergy “Just Say No” to Christianity

A Review of John Compere’s book, Outgrowing Religion
Pope Francis may, as a show of theistic solidarity, offer handshakes and hugs to leading Protestant, Jewish and Muslim clerics. Such posturing plays well with the faithful and the media. We’ve all seen the feel-good photo ops. (I wonder, are the Mormons ever included? Or do they still smell too much like a cult?)

The pope knows full well, of course, that the other theistic brands are wrong about God—and he could tell you why. They all could point out the errors of the others, and they all have teams of apologists to back them up. When the most devout theists disagree with each other—as much as they disagree with nonbelievers—why aren’t they embarrassed by the discord? Sad to say, the brains of these hardcore faith fanatics have been wired not to allow interference. Each brand specializes in capturing brains at the earliest possible age.

Doubt Can Crack Stone

But sometimes doubts find a way; they can act like water freezing in the cracks of an elegant façade. After a few winters, breakage and crumbling are inevitable.

John Compere describes how this happened to him, in his 2016 book, Outgrowing Religion: Why a Fifth-Generation Southern Baptist Minister Left God for Good. Some popes may not be able to claim fifth generation grounding in the faith, so it is encouraging to see that doubts can gain a foothold where least expected.

George Carlin once described his reaction to the Christian story at an early age: “This is a wonderful fairy tale they have going here, but it's not for me." So sometimes the early-age hardwiring doesn’t work. The egregious flaws in the Christian story stand out in bold relief. As Compere puts it:

“As I look back on it now, I wonder how I could have ever believed any of the basic teachings of Christianity. They appear so patently absurd.” (p. 2) One of these absurdities is God’s ongoing grudge against humanity; that, in the end, he will get even. This seems hard to escape for all Christian brands that believe in hell. Compere describes how a wave of doubt hit him, at age 18, while he was delivering a sermon. It happened when he was a guest preaching at a large church—yes, at age 18!

“It was going very well until I found myself saying something about the eternal punishment which awaited those who did not believe in Jesus—standard Protestant fare. All of a sudden, quite unbidden, a thought intruded on my mind. ‘Is that really true?’ Could it possibly be that everyone who hasn’t trusted in Jesus is doomed to spend eternity burning in hell? Even all those billions of people who live in distant lands and have been raised in other religious traditions?” (pp. 5-6)

Following the service, he began his drive home: “No sooner had I gotten behind the wheel than the doubts about this horrible doctrine of eternal punishment for all non-believers began again. In earnest. Big time! There was no use trying to stop the thoughts.” Compere turned to others for guidance: “I shared my doubts with some of ministerial student friends, many of whom agreed that I posed legitimate questions, but no one had answers.” (p. 6)

No One to the Rescue

Surely the high-up church bureaucrats could help, i.e., “seasoned ministers, religion professors, my father and his minister friends.” But these folks had learned long ago to bluff through the tough questions:

“All of them treated my doubts as if they were no big deal. Many told me how they, too, had entertained doubts along the way, but God had, in time, taken the doubts away. One answer, which encapsulates the kinds of answers I got from all the more experienced ones I consulted, was: ‘John, you go ahead and kick the rock. You won’t break it. And when you’re done kicking, you’ll know it truly is the Rock of Ages.’

“What that answer really said was, We don’t know any good answers to the questions you raise. But we’ve managed to stick it out, and you should, too.” The church bureaucrats knew that this is the only way for the bureaucracy to survive. If intellectual integrity doesn’t matter, then, of course, doubts can be smothered; playing the ‘minister role’ is all that matters. But Compere knows better, and he sees how much phoniness is required: “I was determined not to end up like so many ministers I had come to know: publically phony and privately cynical.” (p. 30)

And it’s a fairly good bet that many clergy don’t buy the ‘essentials’ of Christianity: “Many parishioners would be thunderstruck to know how many ministers don’t believe half of what they preach.” (p. 30) Because they are required to preach the absurd essentials of the faith. “My prayers were genuinely heartfelt but intellectually dishonest. I knew no one was listening—not anyone who could respond, not anyone who could do something.” (p. 33)

To make an escape—to re-engineer his life and career—Compere went on to earn a PhD in Clinical Psychology. It was a great relief: “Finally I was free of the excruciating bind of having my professional career demand a belief in supernatural folderol for which I found no credible evidence.” (p. 36)

So Many Holes to Poke

While the first 50 page of Compere’s book are autobiographical, in the balance of the work he offers a tour of Christianity’s sensationally baffling beliefs: baffling in and of themselves—and baffling that anyone with the capacity to think can take them seriously. These chapters are titled:

• The Bible: It Ain’t Necessarily So
• The Sad History of the Church
• Jesus as Paul Bunyan
• Faith: Believing without Evidence
• The Born-again Syndrome
• Bloody Religion: A Bloody Shame
• In Religion, “Sex” is Spelled S-I-N
• Untouched by an Angel
• A Realistic Look at Prayer
• Requiem for the Soul

This is a partial list of Christian vulnerabilities, and folks who are used to a practical approach to life can, following Compere’s insights, easily see though the banalities and follies that have been passed off as “timeless truth.” Apologists have had to work so hard to convince the faithful that nonsense somehow does make any sense.

I suspect that Christianity can be taken down most effectively when the gospel stories are seen for what they are, i.e., narratives invented to advance theology. So I especially appreciated Compere’s chapter, “Jesus as Paul Bunyan.” The percentage of believers who look at the gospels with a critical eye (as historians do) must be vanishingly small. Hence they fail to see the realities, as Compere points out:

“The myth of Paul Bunyan makes a good story, as does the story of Jesus. But neither tale withstands factual scrutiny or gives us a clue about the meaning of life. For that, we have brains.” (p. 103)

Compere also hits a home run—as can be expected from a clinical psychologist—with his 10-page analysis of born-again fanaticism, based on the story of Nicodemus visiting Jesus in John 3. Compere points out that, yes, people can change:

“The reality is that lots of non-religious experiences produce life-changing conversions.” (pp.127-128) “Genuine change for authentic reasons must be powered by something deeper then mere religion-infused wishes.” (p. 134)

An Alternate Project for Clergy: Finding New Voices

As noted earlier, Compere knows full well that many clergy don’t believe half of what they’re expected to believe. But what happens when they go beyond that halfway tipping point? Compere includes a chapter titled, “Atheists in the Pulpit: The Clergy Project.” He was one of 52 charter members of this online support group for clergy who no longer believe—and many of them do remain in the pulpit while trying to make career changes. The Clergy Project was conceived by Dan Barker, Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennett, and Linda LaScola. It is designed to provide information and support for non-believing clergy who seek to move on in the face of daunting obstacles.

Three years ago, when I was on the hunt for an agent/publisher for my own book, I was told by one agent, an atheist himself, “That bookshelf is already full”—meaning books written by clergy who have given up belief. He was speaking from a business perspective, the bottom line: What will sell? That’s the reality of book publishing.

But what’s best for the marketplace of ideas? Every year there is a boom in Christian devotional publications; what’s the other side of the story? There are now more than 700 members of The Clergy Project, with hundreds of different stories about how they snapped out of it. I’m really curious about each one of them. What exactly, pushed them over the edge? All those potential books by ex-clergy atheists? Bring them on!

Can we expect that each one will say something new about why Christianity is wrong? No, of course not, and that’s not really the point. Each ex-clergy atheist has his/her own voice that may resonate just the right way with people who are wrestling with questions and doubts. We each have our unique perspectives, as well as the life experiences that helped us see through the faith.

John Compere’s brand of Christianity—the brainwashing he was subjected to—was so starkly different than the one I was exposed to. That alone made his escape story—and his list of glaring Christian flaws—especially fascinating for me personally. We’re lucky to have his book on the expanding secular shelf—or as I like to call it, The Cure for Christianity Library.

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published in 2016 by Tellectual Press.