The Unbelieving, a new Off-Broadway play opening in previews this week, digs into the secret lives of practicing clergy members who no longer believe in God.
It’s based on actual testimonies from closeted pastors and priests that were first made public in 2010, when philosopher Daniel Dennett and researcher Linda LaScola released a groundbreaking study of clergy members who no longer believed in God yet were still in the pulpit. That study soon led to the formation of The Clergy Project, a private forum for closeted clergy members, as well as the book Caught in The Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind (affiliate link).
And now, from those stories comes a new play bringing those stories to life:
In the classic tale of religious conversion, finding God holds the promise of a life filled with purpose and meaning. But what happens when this transformation occurs in reverse, and a faith you have built your life around begins to fall away? THE UNBELIEVING takes a penetrating look into the lives of practicing clergy members—Catholics, Episcopalians, Evangelicals, Fundamentalists, Jews, Mormons, Muslims—who have stopped believing in God.
The show is scheduled to run for a month with previews beginning on Thursday night. (Linda LaScola told me that on opening night, October 27, four of the original study participants will be in the audience. Many of their stories are featured in the show.)
In a piece she wrote for OnlySky over the summer, LaScola talked about why she was inspired to do this research in the first place. It wasn’t a reflection of her own journey, she explained, but a desire to add human faces (or at least their stories) to the religious shift taking place all over the country:
The play is achingly honest about the clergy’s plight, thus providing the audience with a learning opportunity as well as great drama. I want the learning to extend to changing society’s prevalent view of religion as having a deep and mysterious personal meaning that everyone yearns for and that some people struggle with. That’s a characterization that the religious establishment puts forward and that society has accepted, but in reality, it’s not that way for a lot of people, including me.
If the show is successful in that way, it could help audience members realize that even their religious leaders may have doubts, and those doubts can quickly develop into a personal struggle with no end in sight. Is it more important to be honest or fake it? Should a pastor follow his curiosity or play the role for the sake of the congregation?
By making it easier to express doubt in a safe way, a show like The Unbelieving can create an off-ramp for professional clergy members. Tickets are available now.