Feature Interview: Catherine Dunphy,
Member of the Ontario Humanist Society
Former Executive Director and Founding Member, The Clergy Project
Author, From Apostle to Apostate: The Story of the Clergy Project, 2015
Presenter: Non-Conference, Non-believers Conference, 2016
Catherine Dunphy says the Roman Catholic faith was an intricate part of her life growing up. She was raised in a “very catholic home”. They attended church weekly and daily during lent. They prayed the rosary, novenas etc., and their home was filled with religious statues and art. She approached a nun at one point about entering the convent and was advised to study theology. After finding that she enjoyed this area of study, she decided to become a chaplain rather then enter the convent. It was during this time that she realized her ideas and belief system were beginning to change. In this online interview, Catherine Dunphy speaks of her evolution, her experiences and her current philosophies on faith, non-faith and what it means to be human.
Q: You have written that you were a “slow learner to give up God”. Can you tell me about your experiences both growing up and while doing your theology training and that evolution in your thinking?
A: It took years of indoctrination to become a conservative catholic so it was a slow evolution to becoming and academic more liberal catholic to, feminist catholic to agnostic to atheist to humanist.
Q: There appears to have been a few key turning points in your academic career. One involving an internship in Halifax and the other in a class with a less than inspiring professor. Can you elaborate here?
A: The church functions like a propaganda machine – it has a core message that it espouses but behind the scenes it functions very differently – the church has high expectations and is very heavy handed with its clergy people. Healthy self esteem and self awareness are not part of formation in my opinion. As for the academics – it is a constant process to find relevant examples to radically resonate with students. Seminary is full of “Deepities” a term coined by philosopher Dan Dennett. Phrases that sound radically important but really are subjective interpretations built to evoke a feeling or emotion.
Q: What was going on in your mind and in your heart as you felt your feelings changing about your long held faith?
A: I was heart broken, and angry – annoyed and fearful. You go through a grieving process, not unlike losing someone you love or a lost relationship like a divorce.
Q: You went to see your theological advisor about some of the issues you were having at one point and he/she reminded you that “no one could fully understand God – that we can only do our best to interpret him”. What did those words mean to you at that point in time? How did you understand what you were being told?
A: I was being told to return to prayer. To let go of doubt and trust that I would understand gods motives eventually. That’s how most religious people manage their quiet relationship with god – they go from one silent encounter to another… all the time lamenting but yet attempting to maintain hope.
Q: How did you decide to “come out” to your family and community and how did it go?
A: I didn’t want to come out to my family – the issue was pushed by my mother – that encounter took place three years ago. It is only in the last few months that we have been able to move past that experience and have begun talking again.
Q: Can you tell me the story of the Clergy Project and your involvement with it?
A: I go into great deal about this in the book- but précis is as follows. I found out that there were other clergy people who were no longer believers via the Dennette Lascola Study Preachers who were not believers. I contacted Linda and Dan (this was before the Clergy Project was founded). Myself and 51 others were invited to join the private members forum in March 2011.
Q: You have also written a book about your journey. Why was it important to publicly renounce your faith?
A: I think it was important to capture the early history of the clergy project and its founding as well as to provide an example of what the process of shedding your faith is like for clergy people. My hope is that it will be a resource for those who are going through this difficult change in worldview and that it will give them the solace of knowing that they are not alone.
Q: How common do you think your story is among religious clergy?
A: I think it is fairly common – particularly given that doubt is the ever companion of faith.
Q: You wrote in your book that “faith offers the comfort of arrogant certainty”. Can you tell me what you mean by that exactly and whether you think that atheism in certain respects (as a certain non-faith) might do something similar?
A: Faith tells you know that your inner narrative is correct – while science asks you to test your theories. That said it doesn’t mean that atheists can’t be arrogant – they’re people too!
Q: The debate over the existence of god in Academic and other circles has become highly polarized. Indeed some of the more notable and vocal non-theists have characterized those who believe in some kind of god as child-like, stupid, non-rational, non-thinking and as believers in magic and fairy tales. What has your experience been in this regard?
A: I have said that faith is the articulation of post death wish fulfilment. That could be an over simplification – but I do think that accepting one’s finite existence and acknowledging the inevitability of non-existence, is really hard for most people. So I can appreciate that struggle. As for academia – I don’t think there has been a sufficient proof or philosophical argument made for the existence of a god, (Pascal’s Wager).
Q: Furthermore, what effect do you think those kinds of characterizations have had on public discourse and discussions, particularly with respect the more nuanced views among those who are part of many faith-based communities?
A: I think that reformers of any faith tradition and humanists have very similar goals – we each want the world to be a better, more peaceful place. We want freedoms, human rights and the ability to articulate shared values and work towards the common good. As for discussions surrounding atheists’ opinions about religion – I don’t think we should censor valid criticism. “There is no right to not be offended” (Oxford Declaration). People will say things you won’t like – there is no singular process that will allow for harmonious homogeny of ideas and ideals – and think we need to stop striving for that. Rather we need more compromise.
Q: Richard Dawkins, in his foreword in your book, wrote that you succeeded in tempering his advice to religious sceptics who he has said should “just leave” their communities. He wrote that you convinced him that this might be too “dispassionately scientific, too briskly cold”. How do you think you managed to do that?
A: First let me say that I was honoured he said that – The Clergy Project was really Richard’s idea – he is a very caring and compassionate person – that said I don’t think it was too much of leap for him to have amended his opinion.
Q: You consider yourself a Humanist and an Atheist. There are however many Humanists who don’t consider themselves Atheists. Can you be one without the other? Do you see them as the same?
A: People can define themselves however they want – that is the joy of secular society. I think Jerry DeWitt sums it up the best when he said
Skepticism is my nature
Free-though is my methodology
Agnosticism is my conclusion
Atheism is my opinion
Humanism is my motivation
Q: There are Humanistic Jews (who leave god out of prayer for instance) and Humanistic Buddhists (who concentrate far less on any notion of afterlife). Indeed there are many people who find great comfort and community in their faith-based or organized religious communities who also say they firmly believe in science and do not believe in god as an all-knowing, supernatural or magical being who directs events of the world. Instead, they use the name as a way to describe what is often unknowable; the creative power of the cosmos or universe unfolding around us. Do you think it is possible to reconcile those ideas? If so or not, please explain.
A: Yes I think this relates to feeling grounded in a cultural identity but not a religious one.
Q: The talk you gave at the Non-Conference: The Conference for Non-Believers in August was called “Faith – thinking your way out”. Is there any place for mystery in your current belief system and if so, what does it look like?
A: There are things we don’t yet understand about the universe and ourselves – but that said I don’t have a sense of mystery that is supernatural.
Q: How do you feel about prayer generally but also as a secular Humanist and a former Roman Catholic?
A: Prayer was very important part of my life when I was a catholic – it taught me how to be quiet, how to discern and how to cope with difficult situations. I would say that I still use these methods today, but in a modified way via autogenic and biofeedback meditation.
Q: What has surprised, delighted and disappointed you most about secular Humanism and also Atheistic communities?
A: I was surprised that they secular community existed, and delight by the diversity and passion of non-believers to make the world a better place. One thing I’ve learned is that Atheists are people too – and though we may not like it, but we are susceptible to fallacies that engulf believers. We have a vested interest in particular outcomes just like believers and perhaps a little more discernment might be a good thing.
Q: What if anything do you miss about Catholicism and/or your Catholic community?
A: I don’t really miss anything, anymore particularly now that I have friends that are former clergy. I have found replacements for prayer, community and purpose. Funny think is that aside from tossing out god and dogma very little else has changed about my motivation.
Q: What would you say you learned most from your life as a Catholic?
A: I learned what not to do.
Q: After giving up on religious clergy work, you chose, through the Clergy Project, Officiant work and your activism, to essentially still dedicate yourself to a life of service. Is this something you could have imagined back in your university days — that you would still be able to pursue work that meant so much to you?
A: I think I always wanted to do work that meant something to me.
Q: If there is a final key message you would want to give to others out there (Clergy or not) who are afraid to come out as non-believers to family, friends and community?
A: Everyone is different and there is no need to come out – what’s important is your feel empowered to do the things that give your life meaning.
Interview by Cortney Pasternak