I’m very excited that the play “The Unbelieving,” based on the interviews I conducted with non-believing clergy, is opening in New York City in October. The playwright, Marin Gazzaniga, weaves together verbatim excerpts from personal interviews I conducted with clergy between 2007-2011. The play is produced by The Civilians, a New York theater company that produces “new work at the intersection of the theatrical and the real.”
I can hardly believe that this play has come into being and is about to open in New York. It was nothing I planned on. It was my colleague in the study, Dan Dennett, who, while reading transcripts of the interviews I conducted in the early 2000s, thought “This is drama”—then did the groundwork to get to where we are now.
The drama is in the stories of the clergy, not in the story of the interviewer. But a play has to develop all its characters, so there came a time when the play’s creative team asked me to reflect on my own “spiritual journey.” The implication was that I must have had some profound or hurtful religious experience that spurred me to investigate the pastors.
After pondering this, I determined that it was another example of society assuming that religion affects people deeply—assumptions that are examined and exposed in the play, relating to clergy. The truth is that it was my researcher instincts, not spiritual or religious issues, that spurred me to do the clergy study.
I think a good takeaway from the play would be that a deep interest in researching an aspect of religion doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s a deep personal story to be told about the researcher, any more than there would be a deep personal story about a journalist who became immersed in a fascinating, unexplored topic and wrote a blockbuster report on it, or a scientist who invented a vaccine. In my case, I was not driven by religious turmoil, but by my researcher’s desire to get to the bottom of things. In today’s era of “fake news,” a lot of theatergoers will likely relate to that. And it’s the simple truth, not a contrivance from the religious establishment.
For the pastors, changing their beliefs is a big deal, because it changes their whole lives. In contrast, for many others, the process of changing religious beliefs can be much simpler. Still, the pervasive religious influence in the US presumes that religion or “spirituality” is very, very important. This simply is not true for many people, which is evident by the growth of the “nones.”
As I frequently say when people ask about my religious journey, “My story is boring.”
I was raised as a Roman Catholic, a religion that my parents didn’t seem to take very seriously, and I drifted away as I got older. I think that many people will relate to this pattern, Catholic or not. I became a “None” (before they were called that) and then an atheist, many years later, when I set out to study religion, realizing that I didn’t know much about it academically.
Again, it was researcher instincts, not spiritual or religious concerns, that spurred me to do the clergy study. What is relevant about me is not my “spiritual journey”, but my intense curiosity and my desire to learn. This curiosity does not extend to all subjects, but when I get interested in something, I focus on it until my curiosity is sated. It’s part of the reason I became a qualitative research consultant. I found that I got bored with jobs once I figured them out, but not necessarily when I had mastered them. As a research consultant, I could earn a living by learning all about something, then moving on to the next project. The process was the same, but the people and the subject matter were different.
I think what is interesting about me is that, while doggedly pursuing my curiosity, I hit upon a fascinating topic and a very distressed group of people: non-believing clergy. As I say to anyone who asks, “They are the interesting ones, not me.” And there are many of them out there. In 2011, while the study was still in progress, The Clergy Project, an idea that Dan Barker and Richard Dawkins developed years earlier, was formed, with 52 members who were current or former clergy. Half were people who had contacted me about the study and half were people Dan Barker had met through the years. There are now over 1,000 members. The founding of The Clergy Project is depicted in the play.
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.
For some people, religion is not an important part of their lives, even if they go through the motions. Nonetheless, we all have to deal with religion at some level, because it’s such a great (but waning) force in our society. I told the creative team that with just a little tweaking, the play could accurately portray the Linda character and thus the growing number of nones and non-believers, many of whom will likely be in the audience. I think they would get it. They might feel relieved, just as I did, after thinking this through, about not being put in a box they don’t fit in. More importantly, the religious establishment would have less control over religious dialogue.