Saturday, March 26, 2011

The psychology of deconversion

Fascinating article at Psychology Today on clergy losing their faith: (HT: Mockingbird) The diversity of reasons for losing faith is always worth exploring. Some simply come to believe religion is nonsense in the face of modern science. Others see moral failings in the church, i.e. hypocrisy, while others come to believe that religious moral claims are simply false, apart from any hypocrisy. I found it especially compelling to read about the experience of clergy, who have invested their whole lives in a theological system. Religious belief is still a social issue, despite our official separation of church and state; it isn't as easy as just picking what you believe.

One story that interested me, especially in light of this recent evangelical outburst over Rob Bell's supposed universalism (or whatever he calls it), was of a pastor who didn't become an atheist, at least not quite:
Carlton Pearson is an example of a clergyman whose spiritual about-face need not end up where neo-atheists say it should. In the 1980s and early 1990s, Pearson, then a Pentecostal bishop, was among the most prominent and beloved fundamentalist preachers in the American South, heading up a megachurch in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with a loyal congregation 5,000 strong.

But something happened to Pearson as he and his church nosed toward the millennium. He stopped believing in hell and sin and the literal interpretation of the scriptures.

He was eating dinner in front of the TV with his baby daughter. On the news, Peter Jennings was revisiting Rwanda, investigating the fallout from that country's civil war. The scene was nightmarish: tiny infants, flies in their eyes and hair red from malnutrition groping at the empty breasts of their skeletal mothers. Carlton looked over at his own plump-faced child, then back at the TV. These African kids would soon be gone. Gone where? According to his own formal belief system, they were bound for hell. Somebody, he thought, needs to preach the gospel to these kids right now. To save them.

And then another thought formed. "You think I'm sucking them into hell? Carlton, look. They're already there." This, he thought, is where the pain comes from, all the weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. We do it to each other, and to ourselves. "I saw emergency rooms and divorce courts and jails," Pearson recalls. "For the first time in my life, I did not see God as the inventor of hell."

It was a very different Carlton Pearson who returned to the pulpit. A lot of things he had been preaching, he told his congregation, were wrong. The central premise of their faith, the idea, "as my dad used to put it, that 'You gonna be cookin,' but you ain't never gonna get done!' " was bogus. There is no eternal damnation.

Almost all of the flock abandoned Pearson, who was officially declared a heretic by the College of Pentecostal Bishops.
Pearson hasn't lost his faith entirely, but it has taken a dramatically different direction:
"I believe the logic of God is inerrant," he says. "I don't believe that the letter is. The logic of God would be love; the letter of God would be law."
And he can hardly be accused of pandering to cultural beliefs in order to gain a following. On the contrary; this change of faith has come at a price:
Since his new direction, Pearson's fortunes have plummeted. Only about a hundred people hear him preach on Sundays at 1 p.m. because they have to wait until the Episcopalians finish their service. "We're in a foster-care program," he says.
He now has this perspective on doubt:
Doubt, for Carlton Pearson, isn't a sign that one's faith is evaporating; it's just a sign that it's going underground and changing.
The whole article brings up deep questions about power and its relationship to truth and honesty. We all have our own personal biases. But in many ways our biases aren't so personal; they are the product of institutions which lay claim on our lives. We cannot simply transcend these ties. Contrary to how atheist rhetoric usually makes it appear, skepticism is not a neutral ground on which to stand. But this doesn't at all excuse the church from dealing with serious questions about its members' ability to be honest with themselves and others about spiritual questions.

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