Have you ever done something nice you’re really not tuned in to and then had to continue or be rude? Often social manipulation relies on this kind of goodwill. It can be worse if you’re a religious leader.
If you’ve ever been lured by your own basic goodness into a situation where you (or your neighbor or both of you) must suffer unjustly, think how your predicament pales next to that of the preachers Linda LaScola and I describe in our 2010 pilot study of five Protestant pastors, “Preachers Who are Not Believers,” and our 2013 book, Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind, which reports on 35 participants from diverse religious backgrounds.
How many little white lies, how many whoppers, how much dissembling, how much systemic hypocrisy have they accumulated in their quest to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable?
None of the secretly non-believing preachers and pastors who have poured out their hearts to Linda in confidential interviews went into the ministry for the money — a laughable goal — or for fame and glory or political influence. A few of them may have been particularly attracted to a career in the clergy by their self-assessment as natural-born preachers, relishing the spotlight for their eloquence or indulging their love of ceremony or showmanship in the service of God. But when their faith wanes, they pay a heavy price for their play-acting, since their congregations include many — or so they must assume — who would feel deeply betrayed to learn that their speech acts had been less than the candid truth.
For many there is still a need for community, social enthusiasm, and even spectacle.
Many of these people miss the traditional ceremonies — the art and music, the processions and rituals — and the sheer opportunity for moments of solemnity in their hectic lives. Well, we already have a well-established set of traditions, needing no introduction, no training or reminders, that could serve here: the traditions of the theater.
When the curtain goes up, the audience goes quiet; everyone realizes that it would be anti-social, and an act of vandalism, to interrupt the actors in the middle of a scene, to stroll up and down the aisles, to talk to one’s companion. The respectful attention almost automatically paid to the activities on stage is at least close kin to the decorum observed when sitting in church. Dramatic ceremony requires a family of attitudes and postures that are infectious — and welcome. Whether laughing or crying, or frozen in horror, we in the audience feed off the synchrony of our reactions with those around us. Just like in church. A theater audience is almost a community.
If people think of church as theater they can assume the speech is a role, a lie even. It doesn’t matter if the pastor is spouting bullshit if you think of them as an actor. Daniel Dennett shows keen insight here. Atheists wonder why we are told to lie when it is a sin to lie. This dissonance is suspended by many when they consider church theater. Atheists use conferences as a kind of revival and community building with well known and “visiting” speakers adding to the mix. It is still a theater as we never agree with everything a speaker says but we support them anyway as close enough.
The main ingredient distinguishing church ceremonies from dramatic ceremonies in theaters is the presumption that the performers actually believe the speech acts they utter so eloquently, actually adhere to the creeds their performances symbolize. Imagine a new kind of theater, which, instead of presenting revivals of beloved musical comedies or yet another version of Hamlet or MacBeth, performed carefully researched, respectfully mounted replicas of Latin masses, Quaker meetings, Congregational Easter Sundays, Southern Baptist baptisms, Oxford College evensongs, revivalist prayer meetings, and any and all variations and combinations of these — whatever the people wanted to experience — without the slightest pretense that the celebrants were anything other than professional actors.
Then add a program of good works, community service, outreach, and a collection plate, and you’d have gatherings that were all but indistinguishable from “real” church services.
Sounds a lot like the new and positive call for community outreach, leadership, and public good works as an expression of the social justice within the movement. A mixture of followers such as skeptics, skepchicks, freethinkers, or whatever interests a group allows an intermingling of attendance that would vitalize the community. But he is also talking about real religions acknowledging their narratives of belief as fictional plays.
The coexistence of both kinds of celebration, believing churches and theater churches, in the same towns and cities might make for some useful confusion. People might begin to wonder if it mattered which one they attended. Since many churchgoers are already in the position of non-believing supporters of their traditional churches, they would be hardly upset to contemplate the possibility that their own minister might be one of them, but just playing a more official role.
It is pleasant to imagine a “real” Baptist minister moonlighting on occasion and playing the role of a Baptist minister in the local theater-church — a role he knows so well — and telling a congregant that it didn’t matter which event she attended. They both serve the same ends.
Another nice transitional step would be for the pastor of a church to announce that next Sunday, “Ecumenical Sunday” perhaps, instead of leading the church’s regular ceremonies, she would be introducing to her congregation the rites and creeds of another religion, so that they could see firsthand what it is like to be an adherent of that religion. Nobody would expect her to believe the creed she declared, and nobody would expect her, or the congregation, to believe the words of the unfamiliar hymns they sang together. But they might well decide that they liked one of the hymns well enough to request it be added to their “real” services in the future, with or without the alien words.
If as an atheist one acts like an anthropologist one attends churches as if studying a forreign culture it is much more easy to suspend judgement to personal investment. I find this really difficult unless it is in other countries, or Native American ceremonies, or other religions in which I know little.
It would be a means of allowing the traditions, changing the moral imperatives, and transitioning to less hurtful interactions. I’m not sure how this would work at all but it is thought provoking. It does help explain how religious people can live with lies and avoid dissonance.
Here’s an interview on the book with Linda LaScola.
Jim Newman, bright and well www.frontiersofreason.com