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Tales of a Seminary Nothing

By Jason Bachand ~

There is a bit of common wisdom, in religious circles anyway, that seminaries make more atheists than clergy. I'm proof that - at least occasionally - the adage proves true.

Andover Newton Theological School, 210 Herrick...Image via Wikipedia

As an outspoken non-believer, many have taken it upon themselves (as a moral imperative apparently) to explain my atheism using the vocabulary of the religious, ethical, and (I'm not kidding) psychological disciplines. That's a delicate way of saying that I've been accused of being an apostate, a nihilist, and a bitter, angry killjoy - among other things. The possibility that someone might come to not believe in gods or the supernatural through a combination of experience and rational deliberation seems foreign to many; they suppose (or perhaps prefer) that non-belief must arise from wickedness, vindictiveness or neurosis. I wonder if these same people apply a similar rubric to the nature of faith - could it be that belief is the product of negative experiences, wishful thinking, or emotional insufficiency? But let's reserve that investigation for a future date. Presently, I'd like to share my personal journey from belief to reason.

I have been an atheist for most of my life. From a young age, I was an avid science buff who was greatly awed by the rationalism of scientists like Carl Sagan (whose Cosmos was a staple of television consumption when I was in my early teens) and Stephen Hawking (I read "A Brief History of Time" in middle school). I enjoyed science fiction programs like Doctor Who and Star Trek in part because they presented an optimistic vision of a human future built on reason. The good Doctor never failed to point out the superstitions or wayward thinking of those he met, and earned victories over his adversaries through wit and intelligence. "To the rational mind nothing is inexplicable - only unexplained," he mused.

True to my character, I studied behavioral neuroscience in college and remained a steadfast if taciturn atheist throughout. Atheism is the default position in the scientific community so I was never challenged on my non-belief. The one practitioner of religion I did encounter, a professor with whom I did two research units in hippocampal learning, admitted to only practicing Judaism for its cultural value - he, too, did not believe in any gods.

After I completed my undergraduate work, I was employed to work in research laboratories at UConn and Brown University. After several years, however, I became uncomfortable with the use of animal subjects -particularly felines and primates - in experimentation. (It was a cost/benefit analysis. The life of two or three cats sacrificed weekly did not justify the marginal increase in mapping the corticothalamic neuronal connections in the visual system). A pragmatic concern also came up when I became violently allergic to rodent fur. My career in neuroscience - at least of the type based on animal experimentation - was over.

Concurrent with this major change in vocational plans came several personal tragedies: the passing of two family members, the end of a long-term relationship, the discovery that my siblings had become addicted to narcotics, and an episode of crippling depression. I was weak and floundering, in search of a new self-definition and some source of hope.

One autumn evening I was entreated by my mother to come to Sunday service at the church I had attended as a child. I had not set foot in the sanctuary in some 16 years, but eager to show support to my family I chose to go. I remember feeling uncomfortable at first, but perceiving two things about the service that had a powerful appeal. First, I was attracted to the respect and deference that the congregation showed to the pastor. The unquestioning loyalty and devotion a church shows to its clergy can be quite astonishing to behold. Second, I recall the powerful feeling of truth which pervaded the air. Even if the statements made and the rituals offered were based on a mirage, they were nevertheless offered with the gravity of absolute certitude.

It wasn't long after that I began to entertain thoughts of entering ministry. The liberal stance of my childhood denomination (the United Church of Christ) on social concerns like same-sex marriage, reproductive rights, and scriptural authority added to the allure of a career in their clergy. I imagined quite simply that "these theists are different" from the militant sorts of which the majority of Christians in America are comprised. (In retrospect, had I known more about the cognitive components of religiosity I would have quickly understood that all belief arises from essentially the same neural processes.) The evident social justice aspects of progressive Christianity also appealed to me. The regions of my frontal and temporal lobes and limbic system implicated in moral reasoning and empathy must be robust indeed, as I have always had strong affective responses to injustice and human suffering. In the event, I made a decision to apply to several seminaries and pursue a Master of Divinity degree. I was accepted to three, and opted for Andover-Newton Theological School (ANTS) for its distinguished alumni, historical significance as the oldest Protestant seminary in America, and ideal location in the suburbs of Boston.

I began my proper schooling in theology in September 2004. And it was a proper education indeed, as I began with almost no knowledge of the bible, or the ancient traditions of the Christian faith, or of the expectations and duties of the clergy. It's quite simple for me to grasp, now, why faith thrives in ignorance; before I undertook a study of the bible, for example, I was easily enthralled by the (apparent) epistemic power of its baronial tales. The long journey of demystification began on day one of the semester, as my Old Testament professor commenced with the statement that "the bible is a beautiful work of fiction." To be fair, I was dutifully warned by the faculty that my faith would endure an obligatory "dark night" of doubt, but I was also promised a "second naivete," the reallocation of child-like innocence in my belief. The blackest hour of that long night came during my second year, when the many challenges to my faith thrust me into a more conservative posture on such matters as biblical inerrancy and denominational authority. This period of reaction formation was mercifully brief, however, and by the third year of seminary I was ready to accept that my trust in religion and indeed God had been tragically misplaced. I had succumbed, like so many others, to wishful thinking and subjugated my rational faculties in order to serve a selfish emotional end. I had made the all-too-common error of mistaking what I wanted to be true to reflect the material reality of the universe. But the universe doesn't exist to make us feel good about our mistakes or soothe our fears in the face of the mystery. And so I became a universalist, then a deist, then a Tillich-ian non-theist, and at last an atheist. I abandoned my divinity degree and took up the phenomenological study of religion, a path that ended in 2010 with my graduation from Harvard University.

The spartan living quarters in Farwell dormitory. Each student was given a battered wooden desk, a lamp, a bureau, and a cot.

Giving up faith wasn't solely an intellectual process, however. It was also a gradual disillusionment with the intent and ends of formal ministry and the touted "holiness" of the clergy. Ma vie quotidienne on the sprawling, countrified campus of ANTS (an anomaly in the greater Boston metropolis) was nothing like I expected it to be. For a start, the ancient crumbling buildings and pock-marked roads presented all the vigor of a bone yard, hardly the atmosphere of an institution that trumpeted its relevance on the American religious scene. The massive water boiler creaked and - when it worked - squeaked out a meager heat during the frigid winter; the long silent corridors of the dormitories were scarred with mold and chipping paint; the student center in Sturtevant Hall had less endearing charm than a funeral home. (I must have visited the student center two hundred times in my years on campus, and reckon the number of encounters with fellow students there to be about thirty. The damp basement of the building housed the Operations staff, the second floor had been rented to an outside concern, the third floor served as a center for art and meditation but received such scant use that it was eventually closed, and the fourth floor had been abandoned due to irreparable environmental damage.) Colby Chapel, the center of worship on campus, groaned under the weight of centuries; its most notable feature was a plaque on the hardwood floor marking the spot where a worshiper had given up the ghost. In fine, the seminary that pleaded its vitality in the cluttered religious landscape was, much like the denominations associated with it, a corpse in the making - disused, disregarded, and derelict.

ANTS proudly proclaimed the building of a"beloved community" as primary among its many missions. But some significant percentage of the student body (I have heard 70% but n.b. that I cannot verify that number) were commuters, and thus when classes weren't in session the campus became a veritable ghost town. The resident population was indistinguishable from that of a retirement home - mostly over 50, at least two thirds female, statistically Caucasian and middle class. I sensed immediately that one of two types of people came to seminary: the wounded, seeking an escape from the real world in the ideal retreat, and the vainglorious who quite literally believed to be God's elite. For this latter type, it's an essential aspect of "vocation" (itself derived for the Latin "to call") in ministry to feel the directed, personal, and unambiguous "hand" of God guiding herself to ordination. My "call" was examined and discussed as part of my denominational evaluation for candidacy in ministry, it was a compulsory piece of my admissions essays, and it was almost unfailingly broached in any conversation with new people I met. By the time one enters seminary, and certainly by the close of the first semester of study, I daresay every seminarian is imbued with the confidence that they have been personally chosen by God to lead the people. (If that thought makes you uncomfortable, good. It ought to.)

The silent campus, December 2005

It would be fascinating to see a proper sociological study of seminary populations. Certainly my experience of seminary life suggests that a large group of people with a divine sense of entitlement fosters suspicion, distrust, and conflict. I saw more of these undesirable qualities than I did examples of authentic compassion and selfless concern. The elderly population, for instance, exhibited a barely masked disdain for us "younger" folks (I was 28, one of only a handful of students under the age of 30). The population as a whole, moreover, sorted itself into like-minded tribes - by denomination, or age and gender, or else by ideological persuasion. The conservative students, by far a minority, were openly shunned by the progressive majority - a fact which I now understand to be part of the "in-group" mentality inherent in religious behavior. Every hero must have a villain, every crusader pursues a heretic, and every "called" Christian needs a Pharisee or a demon to cast out. Faith cannot exist without an "other" that serves as the template for evil against which a definition of "holiness" is fashioned. I suppose I thought it would be different in a "progressive" context, but I was wrong.

I mentioned previously the wounded who gathered for healing in seminary as well. Though less likely to put on the vestment of ostentatious piety, the wounded were beset by internal conflict and self-harm. My heart goes out to those who, by virtue of emotional incapacity - and I count myself among this lot - sought faith and seminary as a palliative for deeply rooted anguish. These were the folks who, in my tenure at ANTS, acted out through drug use (including two dear friends expelled for it in my first year), showed up to classes inebriated and nursing soda bottles filled with vodka, cheated on spouses, cut themselves, engaged in promiscuous sex, or sank into suicidal depression. (In my second year, I called attention to this silent and unacknowledged group at a town-hall meeting. To the great credit of the Dean of Students, resources for mental health and addiction services became highly advertised on campus and remain so to this day.) I recount these tragedies not to impugn the collective population of aspiring clergy, but rather to discredit the notion that there's anything select or superior about the "called." They, like all of us, are human - all too human. With that understanding, we can begin to understand and indeed sympathize with the pathology or incompleteness that bestows belief on the most vulnerable of us.

What should be made of all this? For once, I'm saving the broader implications and extrapolations to others. As I stated earlier by way of introduction, here I am being merely anecdotal. I present this personal history only to explain my present atheism. I believe that my seminary experience is representative of some greater truths about faith and religion, make no mistake. Yet for me, it was the combination of imminent truths about supernatural claims and the reducibility of even the most intricate systematic theology to basic cognitive drives and universal behaviors that sealed the coffin of my belief. No matter how alluring the character of an article of faith may be - and make no mistake, the prospect of an all-loving God who answers our deepest needs has a powerful attraction to the human mind - any claim made without evidence can, and should, be dismissed as misguided wish-fulfilment. If one does truly desire social justice and human flourishing, arguments from faith are a dead end. The hopelessly subjective character of faith will always cause moral deliberations to collapse into a struggle for power to enforce and impose one view upon all, with no objective reality to provide a corrective and mitigating influence.

I must give credit where it is due, however - to the faculty at ANTS who presented the facts about the bible and theology without obscurantism or apologies. Whatever the state of the campus itself, and ultimately that is a negligible concern, the faculty during my tenure were unfailing in their dedication to scholarship, even when it came with the cost of eroding a theological ideal. A lesser seminary would have spared no effort to hide or excuse the blatant lies about the accuracy (in historical and archaeological terms), reliability, and relevance of Christian traditions. (This is precisely how most conservative seminaries define theological education.) I once queried Old Testament professor Greg Mobley on what percentage of his conclusions about the Book of Job were intellectually accurate (we were scrutinizing the Hebrew source text) and how much he was simply "fudging it." The class erupted in awkward laughter, and Greg walked out of the room momentarily - presumably out of shock at the audacity of the question. But he came back in, smiled, and answered as silence settled in the room: "Liberal or conservative, we all fudge it, Jason."

Thank you, Greg.