Imagine what it must be like to live a huge lie, to live a life which is based upon deception, and has deception at it’s core. Now imagine if in that life you were mainly dealing with notions of truth, and moral correctness. Yes, imagine that you were a priest who did not believe in God.., Daniel Dennet and Linda La Scola have given us a fascinating study of 5 priests who don’t believe in God.
This is social science at it’s absolute best; peering into a secret, hidden, and important corner of human thought and behaviour. This research brings together so many of the key areas of psychological and sociological inquiry: role and situation, social expectation, cognitive dissonance, the presented self, the impression management, self schema etc etc.
I wonder what the long term effects of the dissonance caused by their situation are, I can only think that it must be immensely damaging to lead a life which is entirely formulated on a lie. Indeed we see all of the priests featured assuming coping strategies (e.g. “I see Christianity as a means to an end”)
I find it interesting how each of our Priests seem to have found themselves in Ministry by means of opportunity (e.g. as a mean to avoid the draft, or as a means to gain credit towards a PhD etc.). How many of our life decisions are actually the product of readily offered opportunity rather than value based beliefs ? As such I start to posit that maybe much of the artifice that we find underlying maladaptive thought and behaviour is because of a forced sense of self built through apparent social and individual constraint. I think Carl Rogers had a lot to say about this !
All of our priests are spiritual in the sense that they seek a better understanding of existence than that offered by positivist materialism. On the whole, they each express a belief in systems beyond that which can be experienced by the human senses. They seek a more purposeful, and philanthropic, nature for their lives. In short they want to do good in their lives. In many ways, I thought that they are better “Christians” than many who go by this label.
Bravery and Mental Health.
Ultimately, reading the interviews with these men I started to realise what courageous and honest men they were. To start to deal with a core contradiction in their lives and mental framework must take great bravery. However, to start to bring it out into then open, to examine the contradiction is a cleansing process. It helps them to avoid mental distress, displacement, repression and all consequent maladaptive behaviours. The obvious links to Ethics as an AoK could also be widely explored with this real life situation.
If only we could all find such courage to deal with the many inner contradictions that we all carry around and repress in our everyday lives. In showing us an example of how to lead a more honest and healthy life these priests may, paradoxically, be fulfilling their missions.