Ask Richard: When an Atheist Considers the Ministry


Dec. 16, 2009

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Dear Richard,   

I have been "out" as an atheist for about one year. I work in a divinity department where I am surrounded by liberal, thoughtful and sophisticated religious believers.

Recently, I have been thinking about becoming an ordained minister in the Anglican Church. I feel that this job would give me personal fulfillment and allow me to do what I really want to do in my life, which is to minister to people's needs, be there for them in the hard times and help them celebrate the good times.

I believe that religion does not have to be about beliefs but rather about actions, that it can be a force for good rather than hatred and that "God" can be useful as a symbol providing many different meanings and frameworks for different people.

I also believe that I would perhaps be more useful to the furthering of reason and tolerance if I were within the system promoting religious moderation, rather than simply being an outsider.   

Should I pursue this career path while remaining an atheist (or a "theological non-realist," to give it a theologically acceptable term)?   

I would greatly appreciate your advice on this issue.   

Best wishes,   



Dear Conflicted,

You've expressed two goals that you would like to accomplish in your life. One is to attend to the wants and needs of others, which most people would agree is a very noble and admirable desire. Your other is to bring about positive change in the church by making it more responsive to a wider range of people's needs and by improving its influence on society (to, in a way, humanize it). Many people would approve of that as well.

However, your proposed method poses some difficulties. Being secretive about your atheism would pose ethical problems and being open about your atheism would pose pragmatic problems.  It isn't clear from your letter, but I'm going to assume that if you were to apply to the ministry, you would do so openly as an atheist, just as you are now at your workplace. I'm assuming this because I think you know you wouldn't be able to cover up your lack of belief for very long. 

Concealing your atheism would require lying. That by itself is an ethical breach that should not be acceptable to a person who wants to be a professional helper in any capacity. Hiding it would most likely also cause injury to others.

Since people look to their ministers for ethical guidance and moral modeling in addition to spiritual solace, a closet-atheist minister would be running a serious risk of implanting cynicism, bitterness and deep hurt in those who trust in him once the truth eventually comes out. (Because, eventually, it always does.)

Being open about your atheism might stop you right at the front door of the Anglican seminary or divinity school. From what I can find through online research, the initial process of "discernment" involves intense and intimate examinations by your own personal priest, a discernment committee, a commission on ministry, a bishop and perhaps even a mental health professional.

These people will assess the suitability of your intentions, personal history, values, attitudes, ideas, goals and your beliefs.  If you don't believe in their God, they may see you as missing an essential prerequisite. Your desire to help others and to bring more breadth, reason and tolerance to the church from the inside may not be enough for them to trust you with either their doctrine or their flock. 

Even if you somehow get past all those barriers and become a minister, the hardest questions will come from the people whom you are trying to help. What happens if someone looks you in the eyes and says, "My little girl died today. Please tell me that she's going to heaven." Will you respond with reason or with the comforting myth they so desperately want to hear you confirm? 

Conflicted, I don't want to extinguish your wonderful longing to be of service to others–to "be there for them in the hard times and help them celebrate the good times," as you so movingly put it–by only listing reasons why your idea may not work. 

Perhaps your experience in the divinity faculty and your knowledge of the Anglican Church is extensive, and you know how you could overcome those pragmatic hurdles. Perhaps you can find ways to reconcile fulfilling a person's desire for a reassuring bedtime story with your rational mind's demands to tell them the truth as you see it. Perhaps influencing the church from the inside is also somehow attainable.

When people propose lofty aspirations, I never use the word "impossible" because thousands of people have personally amazed me. However, I can point out that you have other options and other venues for helping people on a personal level.

For instance, you sound like you'd make an excellent counselor. That is a broad and varied field, and one in which you don't necessarily have to specialize too narrowly. My years as a counselor were immensely fulfilling. I made a positive difference, and I even saved a few lives. I still get great pleasure from the little bit of service I can offer with this column.

But if this path does not appeal to you, there are many other ways that you could find satisfaction as well as sustenance by making the world around you a little better than it was before. That is the whole point of life for people like you and me–that we somehow, even in small ways, make a positive difference in others' lives.

Use your imagination. Your generous spirit can be of great value in so many unexpected ways. Find them all!



(Richard Wade is both a humanist and an atheist. He has worked as an artist and as a Marriage and Family Therapist with many years in the specialization of addiction. Now retired, he has counseled more than ten thousand patients. Questions to this advice column are welcome from any perspective or belief, not just that of humanism or atheism. Richard Wade's column can also be read on a regular basis at The Friendly Atheist blog.)