Interview with Catherine Dunphy – Author & Former Executive Director, The Clergy Project

Image Credit: Center for Inquiry.

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Catherine Dunphy is an Author, Operations Manager for Rational Doubt, and the Former Executive Director for The Clergy Project. Dunphy wrote From Apostle to Apostate: The Story of the Clergy Project. Here we talk about The Clergy Project and Losing Our Religion, and her background.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: To begin to set some framework, so people know where you’re coming from, what was personal and family background in brief – geography, culture, language, and religious affiliation if any?

Catherine Dunphy: Sure, okay, so religious affiliation: Roman Catholic. My whole family was Roman Catholics. I go into detail into in my book. In The Clergy Project, I tell my story.

I was raised in a Catholic home. We went to mass all the time. So, I was raised in a religious environment. I did an undergraduate in theology and an M.Div. I used to work for the Archdiocese of Halifax.

I worked for non-profit groups that were an arm’s length away from the Church but were affiliated via ministry. So, that’s a brief summary of my background. I was training to be a chaplain in the secondary school board here in Ontario, but then I had my crisis of faith in seminary.

Jacobsen: It’s an interesting place to have it.

Dunphy: Yes, superficially, this is not the place to have a crisis of faith, but I would say it is the place to have a crisis of faith. I say that, specifically, because of the vocal scholarship. When you first start studying Biblical scholarship, you take the Bible and look at it – like you would any other book.

You tease apart aspects of it. You look at the origins of the text and what scholars tell you about how it was originally written, and then compiled and hammered together: as if the greatest MacGyver story ever told.

Being exposed to that, I didn’t have a challenge with it. My cognitive dissonance was strong at the time. I thought it was cool and interesting, but it didn’t plague me the way that it plagued other students at the seminary.

It bothered them to hear about the origins of the Bible. To think, it wasn’t issued by God in one fell swoop. It was piecemealed together.

Jacobsen: I talked to an Edmonton school board trustee who stepped down from the role, Patricia Grell, who has been in the national news for Canada. When I was interviewing her, she did mention something similar, when she was studying her own M.Div.

She had a major – I guess you could call it a – ‘crisis of faith,’ which is past the time she got her M.Div. However, she reflected on it and noted that the source was probably back to when she got her M.Div., in a similar manner you’re describing.

Looking at the text, looking at the history, and then doing a proper critical analysis of it, I think that’s interesting that comes up as a point of critical inquiry about it and further doubt.

Dunphy: Yes, that’s a consistent theme among The Clergy Project members. Reviewing the Bible, reading biblical scholarship, you encounter it. For example, from an Evangelical background, from a denomination that didn’t require an M.Div., it was self-recovery.

They would review some of the biblical criticism scholarship that was available. They would read and be shocked by it. There’s this huge disconnect between what’s taught in seminary and what’s preached from the pulpit every Sunday.

The reality is that most parishioners probably wouldn’t be able to take the whole of it. The virgin birth is a myth. There was no Adam and Eve. Even the stuff that is obvious once you’re aware of it, like two creation stories in Genesis, most people think, “There are two creation stories in Genesis?” Yes, there are.

There’s two. The reason there are two is because they were written by two different Jewish groups. So, this comes as a huge surprise to theology students. Then it would be a huge, upsetting surprise to parishioners in churches too.

They would be devastated by these realities.

Jacobsen: I want to shift the conversation more to the documentary film, Losing our Religion, if I may. But within the context of the background provided by you. So, what is the content and purpose of Losing our Religion?

Dunphy: The story is about members of The Clergy Project. Some who left religious life many years ago like myself. Others who are still caught in the pulpit. The documentary takes the time to look at the founders of The Clergy Project.

Some of the original members of The Clergy Project and a few newer members who either were in the process of leaving their Churches, or their congregations, or some that are staying.

So, the whole purpose of the film, based on Leslie Mair the documentary film maker, her whole purpose, is to be able to tell this story because it’s unique. But also because she thought it would give hope to people that are struggling.

That is struggling with their faith to realize ministers and clergy people struggle too. Sometimes, the conclusions that they come to are not as what you would expect. Because in seminary, for example, the idea of doubt is something that comes up, but it’s always like, “Go back to prayer. Reinvest in your prayer life. Double down on your Hail Marys.”

Something in order to reinvigorate your faith process. So, it’s the goal of the documentary to give a voice to these voiceless people. I don’t think most individuals walking down the street would think that their clergy person could be an atheist, but they could be.

It’s definitely a possibility, maybe even likely depending on the denomination. Some background can help here. The membership of The Clergy Project. My book goes into this. I analyzed the content from the website, and took it apart and broke it down according to denomination, location, gender, and so on

However, a good percentage of The Clergy Project members – both of the current clergy and former clergy – are Evangelicals. So, they are Biblical literalists, who are fleeing their churches. That is not what you would expect.

Even that surprised me, because you would think with the literal religious people, it would be an easier ride out of religion. They would have deconstructed and baby proofed the faith. You softened all the sharp edges.

You put the electrical plugs in the outlets to protect you from getting shocked. You’ve taken away all the nasty, cranky bits of it, and then turned it into this hippy-dippy, “Jesus loves you,” stuff.

Jacobsen: You use the term “fleeing” from their community.

Dunphy: Yes.

Jacobsen: You also mentioned “baby proofing” some things, in other words, softening of the sharp edges of doubt, particularly the difficult ones.

That makes me think a bit in reflection about the defence mechanism, either in community from a pastor, a preacher, or a priest to an individual, lay member in the pews, saying, “Go to your bible, pray more, do not doubt, it’s the Devil’s work,” and so on.

Are the defence mechanisms relatively pervasive based on your own research and knowledge on this?

Dunphy: Religion is like a Jesus meme-making machine. Christianity is anyway. It’s like, “What’s your response to the fact that bad things happen?” That’s soul building if you’re a Catholic. That’s the thing you would hear.

Something bad happened? Jesus is testing you. There are definitely go to responses that are a cop out. Bad things happen because they do. It’s God testing you or God gave you this burden because he knew you could bear it.

So, there are definitely their calling cards. They’re very much a cliche. I think that most of, not The Clergy Project people and even the active ones but, the parishioners and everyone, in general, has this fatigue about these ridiculous nothing sayings.

The “Let’s pray for New York because of the terrorist attack” or Paris when it happened. But prayer doesn’t accomplish much other than to say, “I’m thinking about you guys.” It is like a get out of jail free card.

I did something. I said I would pray and I did. You can’t prove otherwise. It’s not my fault if God doesn’t listen. Maybe, he listened, but you missed his cue. There’s always a way to shuffle the responsibility for God’s failing to respond to a crisis. We weren’t deserving.

If you’re Evangelical, it’s God knows you can do this and bear this. That’s why he’s given it to you if you’re a Catholic. It’s, “Life sucks sometimes if you’re Jewish.” A different type of religious response would have its own monotonous plotting.

I would call it a dance more than I would call it pastoring or taking care of someone. It’s like, “You stepped there. So, I’m going to move there.” It’s completely mindless actually in my opinion.

Jacobsen: In a way, does this make the ordinary follower, a decent citizen who wants to do the right thing, not only for their country and their fellow person, but also wants to be an upstanding individual within their church, their synagogue, their temple, and so on, the best representative for the failings of what they would term their God?

In other words, they’re filling in the gaps and making excuses?

Dunphy: It’s hard. I don’t want to burden people with the guilt of perpetuating an ideology, so that they can have a need met. But that’s what they’re doing. They’re perpetuating an ideology whether it be Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, or Islam because they’re getting something from it.

There’s a cost-benefit ratio. They’re having a need met or trying to get a need met. They’re in the process of actually trying to get that need met. They’re utilizing this religious ideology in order to accomplish it.

I think part of me is like, “You know what? Wake up! Go get some therapy and stop leaning on this crutch that you’re using to direct the ebb and flow of your life because, maybe it’s not helping you make the best choices.”

But it’s hard to have that conversation with people because they have free will. They are individuals. As an individual, I need to respect the autonomy of another individual because I want my autonomy to be respected. So, it’s a precarious balance.

The only time I would need to intercede is when a particular ideology tries to eclipse the commonality, the secular commonalities in Canada, the US, or Europe. Or even what’s happened in Turkey, where you used to have secular Turkey, it is being morphed into an Islamic state.

I think it’s a question everybody needs to be asking themselves because we’re seeing things like that unfold.

On the microcosm, you think about individual relationships within families. However, if you look at what’s happening on the macro level, you look at what’s happening in Turkey or with Indonesia as with the Islamization of Indonesia.

Even in America is now, where now you equate religious people with Evangelicals specifically being more patriotic, this God-patriotism tool is used as a control mechanism. It’s fascism. So, it’s hard not to want to intercede when you see it happening on the macro level.

You have to intercede. You have to speak out. When you’re talking about one-on-one, for my instance, my mother is still a religious practicing Catholic. We didn’t speak for a number of years because I left the Church.

However, we found a place, where we can be nice to each other for the sake of my son. Trying to tease apart, “Where’s the commonality?” That work is important on an individual level as much as the work to make sure that there are no transgressions from religious ideologies to compromise rights.

Jacobsen: Some feel concern over recent work done by Will Gervais, Ara Norenzayan, and others. But there’s a recent publication, I think in August (2017), it was about “global evidence of extreme intuitive moral prejudice against atheists.” That was by Gervais and others.

It was looking at the potential extended co-operative networks provided by religion while at the same time creating the possibility for the strong intergroup conflict and tacit prejudice against nonbelievers.

So, when you speak of rights, whether reproductive rights for women or human rights generally, I think in North America in particular. It comes up, repeatedly.

Dunphy: The Nones. Maybe, I’m more optimistic about this because I know that the Nones are a growing trend. Yes, because someone is not religiously affiliated, it doesn’t mean that they don’t believe in woo.

They could still believe in reading minds, horoscopes, séances, and so on. There are all sorts of woo. I’m not going to police everybody’s particular brand of crazy. It’s not as dangerous.

That type of crazy is not as dangerous as the crazy American Fascist Christian stuff ongoing. Where you have people creating these crazy disturbing images of Jesus leaning over Donald Trump as he signs these documents in the White House, that is creepy beyond belief.

So, I understand the concern with atheists. The fact that we’re so stigmatized. However, I am hopeful because the Nones are growing faster than any other religious group. A study is showing that there’s an increase in the non-religious.

Most non-religious people don’t give a shit if someone is an atheist or not. They are like, “Okay, whatever.” It’s a non-issue for many, many non-religious people. It’s only the deeply entrenched religious Right or fundamentalist religions that have an issue with atheism.

Yes, right now, they’re the majority worldwide, but I don’t think that is going to be forever. Maybe, I’m being overly optimistic, but I do think that in my lifetime: atheism has grown. In my son’s lifetime, it will grow more.

My hope is religion will slowly continue to erode more and more. Churches are already empty. They’re already dying. They’re in the process of decaying and losing their relevancy.

I think, “Yes, it’s not nice. It’s not a good thing, but you have to also look at in the context of eons, generations upon generations, where apostasy was treated in Europe the way that apostasy is currently treated in Saudi Arabia.”

So, it’s not that comforting when someone like my friend Jerry Dewitt loses his job because someone he knows discovers he’s an atheist. Because he has a picture on his Facebook page standing next to Richard Dawkins.

However, we need to be optimistic. We need to be proactive. If that means talking about it, filling up the internet with atheist content, then let’s do that. If that means Sunday assemblies and Houston Oasis, then let’s do that.

It’s a problem. But there are people out there that are chipping away at it.

Jacobsen: That leads me to an opposing question to balance the budget – so to speak. I do mean this as also a moderate concern within the community. So, for the formal non-religious or the formerly religious, within that community, what social trends and conversational strategies with the religious or the public at large with media, concern you?

In other words, counter-productive tactics to the goals of the more active members of the community.

Dunphy: I don’t think that sitting around or arguing with Christians online worked. I think that’s a waste of time and energy. I’m saying this as someone who has engaged with Catholics about Mary and abortion.

I’m like, “No, you’re not going to say that because you think that’s so. Mary is not a feminist. I’m sorry. She is a Bronze Age Barbie. No good for women. Let’s stop right there.”

So, you can have arguments on the internet with theists, but they’re not going to go anywhere. They’re only going to be further entrenched. You’ll be further entrenched. My thing is this: I think Ecumenicalism is a tool that non-believers can use to pony on up to the table for interfaith dialogue.

You’re probably scratching your head going, “Why should we have interfaith dialogue?” Because that conversation is going on without us. And it shouldn’t. We need our voices at that table. We need to volunteer.

You’re at a university. Here’s a suggestion for universities: for a period of time, I was the humanist chaplain at the University of Toronto or one of the humanist chaplains at the University of Toronto. We worked out of the multi-faith center at U of T.

We had to get along and be nicey-nicey. We were working collaboratively to support the students on campus. So, that’s one thing. Be engaged wherever the multifaith center is and have a voice at that table.

Akin to this is the social justice work, because, why should the Christians, Jews, Muslims Buddhists, Baha’i, and whoever else, have an opportunity to work as a community for the betterment of society at large?

Why aren’t we doing that? I know that there are different groups that do that. I think about Responsible Charity, out of India, and then there’s the Foundation Beyond Belief. But why isn’t there a connected university social justice system?

That helps students who are nonbelievers, who are humanists and have a community. Not only for the community, but also for doing good for the sake of doing good. That will go a long way to help improve the reputation.

Even though, we don’t need our reputation improved, mostly, for atheists and nonbelievers. Because we care about the planet too. We care about other people too. We recognize how valuable the one life is that we have to live.

That it’s important to do what you can to improve your wellbeing and the wellbeing of the people around you. So, I think that’s the missing component right now. That is, there’s no goal within the atheist community.

Right now, it’s clamouring to be heard. Maybe, we can be heard if we’re doing something while we’re being heard. Then we’re changing minds and changing hearts.

I had that pull from the whole context of the question, but it works because we’re doing good because we want to because we want to make things better.

So, I would challenge atheists out there to volunteer at a soup kitchen, to go volunteer at their kid’s school, to spend time at a nursing home, to engage with refugees, or people in a mental health crisis, or whatever it’s going to take to help eradicate that idea that we’re immoral.

But also it would help us too. I think that’s the one thing that we’re missing. We go to these big conferences. We see our rock stars, our movement. That’s awesome. But what’s our takeaway? How are we taking that information and going back into our communities and making our communities better? For us, but for everyone else too.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Catherine.

Dunphy: Thank you.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen founded In-Sight Publishing and In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal.

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