Friday, October 20, 2017

Amish vs. Everybody

End times: when clergy turn atheist

New movie about atheist pastors: “Losing Our Religion”

Losing Our Religion is a feature length documentary about preachers who are not believers, and what atheists do when they miss church. Allowed access to the 600 members of The Clergy Project – a safe haven for preachers from all faiths who no longer believe – the documentary follows ex-members and clergy who are still undercover.

They are not just losing their religion, for many they are losing their friends, community and even family. As well as their job.

As events unfold that change lives forever, their stories also connect with secular communities that are growing in surprising places. New groups are experimenting in ways to have church without god, and asking the same question as unbelieving clergy – “what’s next?”

Losing Our Religion is a documentary about community, acceptance, and a view inside the complicated lives of clergy who are stranded in the rising tide of non-believers.

Losing Our Religion is produced by Zoot Pictures Inc. in association with documentary Channel, the financial assistance of the Canadian Film or Video Production Tax Credit, the participation of the Canadian Media Fund, and the participation the Government of Manitoba - Manitoba Film and Video Production Tax Credit and financial investment from the Manitoba Film and Music Feature Film Production Fund.

I recorded this film which aired on the Documentary Channel, left it on my PVR a while, then watched it last night, kind of reluctantly. And it did turn out to be sort of depressing. (These films are always disappointing somehow, so I don’t know why I watch them). This wasn't so much about The Clergy Project as individual pastors who had “lost their faith” (in essence, become atheists) after a long period of spiritual disillusionment.

Through a lot of very talky interviews and not much else, the film traced their need to get out of the church, or even (in the case of one man) to stay put in it and continue to lead, and preach something he absolutely did not believe in. To my shock, Gretta Vosper (the woman who was asked to step down as a United Church minister because she was an atheist) was interviewed, and presented as something of a martyr. Her hurt and sense of rejection by the mean old church was obvious, though I don't see it that way at all. 

If you are clergy in any mainstream Christian denomination, it makes no sense to me to preach Communism or Buddhism or Scientology – there HAS to be a basic belief system based on the Bible and the teachings of Christ. That is what makes the Christian church Christian, but when Vosper spoke, the filmmaker's sense was, “How dare they persecute such a brilliant, sensitive spiritual leader?" This is what comes of telling five or ten per cent of a complex story.

The rest of it was quite sad. One couple, somewhere in the States, just battled and battled and twisted and turned, and it was extremely painful to watch. The wife's bitterness and even bafflement at what was going on was disturbing. The soon-to-be-ex-pastor husband was offered a juicy plum of a job that he knew he could do well and love, but his wife made him turn it down because she would “lose her support system”. Support system? This was completely gone already because everyone in the church had turned against her (she said) and wasn’t even speaking to her. It was strange to see her try to hang on to the shreds of what she only half-heartedly believed in, mainly in a desperate attempt to hang on to her identity and status in her religious community.

From sort of liking her, I came to actively dislike her and the way she had put herself in a box and was angry and self-pitying, often spitting venom at people she once loved (and even, nonsensically, at God, whom she called an asshole). Watching her face contort with anger and internal conflict was unsettling. But why did she think her friends would continue to support her? What did she think they’d say? “Oh, it's OK if you hate God now and call him an asshole! We still respect and accept you as the minister’s wife.” It was completely unrealistic. 

Never once did she seem to think of the fact that THEY might have felt hurt, angry and abandoned by someone who used to support them. The congregation's belief in a personal, all-loving and all-powerful God was being threatened by someone at the very heart of the church. The minister's wife is often the most accessible person in the area of pastoral care. It's possible and even likely that in their minds, SHE dumped THEM instead of the other way around.

In fact, it never seemed to occur to any of the disillusioned clergy in the documentary that they may have hurt and abandoned their flock, as they spoke only of how lonely and hurt and persecuted they felt because no one understood or empathized with their agonizing plight. The filmmakers did nothing to emphasize or even acknowledge this pastoral black hole. Or perhaps it was just edited out because it was too complicated.

Much of the tone of the film was atheistic in an antiseptic way, and one scene showed the crowd in one of these "alternate" groups singing “What a Feeling” from Flashdance (!!), self-consciously jumping up and down and trying to look un-embarrassed. Pep rallies for non-belief. These were utility halls, all-purpose rooms that may have been practical, but I sure didn't see any beauty or grace, or hear music that wasn't lame and devoid of real passion.

Of course there were standup comics for atheism, too, and a sick song at the end about different denominations, concluding that instead of all that, "all I have is a brain”, implying that no one who believes in this stuff does. It was hateful, but they ran it as a whimsical, funny, lighthearted way to end the documentary. Apparently, we were supposed to laugh.

I am something of a refugee from organized religion myself, so I did get a large part of it, or some of it, but I felt the need to write about the part of the film and its approach that turned me off.  I think religious leaders need to handle their loss of faith in God with extreme care, and with great sensitivity toward the people they are walking away from. But according to this film they are mostly concerned with themselves, with whether they'd still have a job and how they would support their families, and how this sudden lack of a loving God in their lives made them feel sad, alone and misunderstood. 

They seemed to be asking their people: why are you so upset with me?, as if unaware they were jerking the rug out from under them. But I kept thinking their people were justified. What would it have said about them if they had been completely indifferent to their minister's loss of faith? Anger and hurt is a more honest response than the phony pseudo-acceptance I constantly saw in the United Church. If anyone was angry about anything, they swallowed it and tried to be okay with everything that was going on, no matter how outrageous. Hypocrisy on toast.

I have a theory as to why this is. I call it the Titanic Theory. The United Church of Canada, like all mainstream Christian denominations, is a sinking ship. It's crucial to put asses in seats so that they can continue to exist (and, most especially, to hold on to those drafty old buildings with their outrageous upkeep), so they now have to be very, very careful what they say.

During my 15 years in the church, I was constantly being squeezed for money. Once a year, someone would come to my house to talk to me about how much I was going to give, laying on a subtle guilt trip if it wasn't enough. The annual meeting was an exercise in misery and depression, even doom, as once again we were told the church was failing financially, and it was basically our fault. One minister even resigned over it, claiming from the pulpit that our church would be thriving if we weren't all so stingy and selfish. Obviously, our priorities were all wrong.

I didn't find out for years and years that practically every United Church in the country had this same problem, and that in fact our givings were higher than the national average. My own offering, which by the way my family could not spare, was well above average, but who knew? No one told me that until much later - in fact, I found out by accident. Secrecy about money is the norm, as is the chronic isolation of individual churches. There was a sense we were better than the others, didn't need them, or at least had to figure out our problems on our own.

My beliefs are very hard to contain within an institution of any kind. My experiences of mysticism were feared and disapproved of, so I learned to keep them to myself. Love Jesus, but for God's sake don't really love him or at least express any of it, except in wheezy old hymns by John Wesley. I was seen as crazy and unstable for weeping in church, while at the same time the lack of expression of emotion on Sunday mornings was criticized.

To stop believing in God, become an atheist, lose faith, or however you want to say it, is not the same - at all - as becoming disillusioned by all the human bullshit that goes on in churches. True, my spirituality no longer fit, and I was tired of using a shoehorn to try to make it fit. But it was the sickness of the institution that made me sick, the sense of constantly bailing out the ship, of everything turning on money, of frantic attempts to modernize and be cool and "inclusive" (my ass!) while our rituals couldn't have been more wheezy and out of date, even irrelevant.

I was done with it, and was only sad about missing all the years when it was still good. It's the same (I hear) when a marriage breaks up. You mourn for and feel nostalgic for the years when it still worked. But having it end doesn't mean that it all meant nothing. 

As for these atheist clergy, the fact is that many people in many different fields become disillusioned with what they do. But what exactly does "disillusioned" mean? It means you had illusions in the first place. Perhaps the whole structure was built on illusion. If so, leaving is a bold step towards reality, wholeness and health. Remember how you preached forgiveness for all those years? Then forgive all those people who depended on you for being hurt, angry and pissed off at you for changing. Atheism is not what you signed on for, it's not what they expected or what they need, and to expect sympathy and understanding from them is  ludicrous. If your head is where I suspect it is, the view must be dark indeed.