New Wave of Secular Leadership? Be Cautious

Donald Wright, author
Donald Wright, author

By Donald Wright

Sunday morning is approaching and churches will be occupied and active, not like the emptiness on the other days of the week. The congregants are excited in preparation to hear the message from the pastor. When I was attending a mega-church here in Houston a few years ago it was not uncommon to hear some members express that their attendance is mostly predicated on the pastor giving the sermon, not by one of the associate ministers. None of them can do it like the pastor. This is an example of cult personality and charismatic influence. Decreasing attendance means lesser amounts in the offering so the pastor has to be there to protect the financial statement.

The secular community should prepare for a new wave of leadership as ex-pastors shed their cloaks of god-talk for their robes of reason. They will be looking for a new podium perched on a new pulpit seeking a new follow-ship. Some may be bringing their former but de-converted members for a ready made support base that will give comfort and credibility to this new message utilized in a familiar process in attempt to build a secular church. It’s like getting a new car, learning the new gadgets, but using the same driving skills.

One of the joys I celebrate in escaping from religion and church is no longer participating in this unbridled authority and reverence given to the pastor; the position of entitlements. Their needs and desires are always met or a concerted effort is attempted by the membership with much toil and sacrifice. The pastor is doused with honor and respect, given a god-like public image, and proclaimed a truth teller. A celebrity is added to the culture.

After receiving these former religionists with open arms and nurturing their non-belief, how will the secular community respond when they seek leadership positions? Will the secularists, humanists, freethinkers, atheists, agnostics, and skeptics embrace these individuals with greater enthusiasm just because they are ex-pastors? Will they seek to find the true character and uncover those holy skeletons? Will they put forth adequate vetting to determine that their integrity matches their charisma? These are my concerns, because a secular church in the hands of a cult personality is a religion disguised as a humanist community. Will there be a secular church on every corner filled with sheeples?

I hope this is not the scam of the 21st century. After all, they need to make some money, so do what you do best is normally sound advice.

Our society needs so much and thriving secular communities could make significant contributions. However, my unsolicited advice is to be skeptical of this new wave of leadership. Ask the tough questions. It’s what we should always do. As many of us ex-Christians can attest, it is difficult to remove a preacher from the pulpit unless they find another one. More importantly, there are many in our community that need jobs too, and let’s not forget healthcare.

Donald Wright is the author of The Only Prayer I’ll Ever Pray: Let My People Go.  He is a former deacon in a Baptist church and a professional engineer. He currently owns an engineering consulting firm in Houston, Texas.


New Wave of Secular Leadership? Be Cautious
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22 thoughts on “New Wave of Secular Leadership? Be Cautious

  1. 1

    Great post, which caused me to do some thinking. Is religion a form of entertainment? If some folks treat it as such, this would explain the success of the mega-churches since the bar has been set so low. Personality cults and hero worship strike me as being part of human nature, as is the “feet of clay” phenomenon. We should indeed examine the new scoundrels while throwing the old scoundrels out, realizing that all of them are human and don’t deserve to be treated as saints, no matter how strongly we agree with (some) of their ideas.

  2. 3

    do you think people without charisma and without experience leading and nurturing groups will be better secular leaders than people with these qualities?

    Is it a bad thing to want a job doing something you’re good at?

    1. 3.1

      I prefer the leader to be a quality person. I value character and integrity over charisma. But most importantly, I prefer a community where the focus is on the people not the leader.

      I support doing jobs that match the skill set but I despise jobs that cause harm and create delusion.

      Thanks for reading and commenting on the article.

      1. All of the qualities you mention would be good in a leader – no reason that they would be mutually exclusive, is there?

        Are you implying the the former clergy you mention by a name have only the potentially negative qualities? If so, let’s see some evidence.

        The links you provide go to an article and an hour long video of a humanist service. If there’s anything in those sources that you think illustrates your point, please let us know.


        1. Oops — I realize that the links I referred to came to me via personal email.

          Still the request stands – please provide specific examples of problems with ex-clergy

  3. 4

    Is the personality cult really limited to the religious? The cult-like following some atheist leaders have, put into stark relief against the revelation of women stepping forward to relate sexual assaults by them. And this may just be the tip of the iceberg. This speaks greatly of how much authority some leaders in the secular movements already have, how entitled they think they are, and how willing they are to abuse that power.
    Any movement that has its celebrities risks the personality cult, religious or not, and the abuses that frequently go with it.
    Attributing this to religion as though this wouldn’t be something the secular movement has without it reminds me of how, just a few years ago, many thought sexism wasn’t a problem in the atheist/skeptic/secular world. Funny how that turned out.

  4. 5

    I agree that this can (but doesn’t have to) be a double-edged sword. Experienced community builders and ambassadors are important for us, no doubt. In volunteer work, having someone who’s been there and done that, is a huge advantage. Things like counselling, officiating at weddings, funerals, and so on, are also areas where we have to do better, and former clerics might be very helpful there. But I also see the risk that people may bring certain ideas from their old belief systems that are less beneficial. Atheists may then be tempted to adopt them, because they’re being served on a silver platter, and this in turn may keep us from innovating in areas where innovation is desperately needed.

    One area in particular concerns me, because it affects my credibility as a parent:

    Philosophy, in my opinion, is central where it has a direct impact on community building and social organization. I see an evolution of world views from simple animism, to more abstract spirituality, including most contemporary religions, to freethought. And this is paralleled in social frameworks: from simple, practical rules imposed by local leaders, which would correlate to animism, to a more universal, dogmatic morality, which neatly fits in with spirituality – and then nothing that would correspond to freethought.

    I’m aware of the “good without god” and “Atheists can be moral” slogans, but they’re not without problems. One of the central tenets of freethought is that the axioms we use in our thought processes should come from observation, as opposed to tradition and authority, and that they should be updated as new information becomes available. Traditional moral frameworks, on the other hand, are only stable as long as the underlying axioms remain constant. It takes a lot of shoehorning to reconcile that with freethought and critical thought – this is a daily parenting experience for me.

    Again in my opinion, a viable successor to morality would probably involve some form of experiential learning instead of learning by accepting fixed norms on faith. And it would most likely have to be communal, so that young people have an environment where they can, in a way simulate the real world, and explore the short-term and long-term effects of their actions on individual and communal well-being. My concern is, that if people enter the Atheist community with seemingly ready-to-use social frameworks – and this may be the case with former clergy – it may create the illusion that we’re fine in this area, and that no further work is required here. That doesn’t mean former clerics shouldn’t be welcomed of course. On the contrary, they should be made to feel at home in Atheist communities, but as you said, we must also be aware of the potential mistakes this may cause us to make.

    (Should anyone reply to my comment, my internet access will be sporadic over the coming weeks, so it may take me some time to respond)

  5. 6

    is this a real problem or just a conjecture? Have any of these former pastors demonstrated what we are being warned about? Are they outliers? Are they really being accepted by our community? I think that if any of the negative characteristics of preachers were to be exhibited, they would be shouted down, and rejected as leaders by the skeptical, atheist, humanist members. I ask again, who are these ex-preachers whom we are being warned about, or are we just crying wolf? I also fear that ALL ex clergy will be cast as tainted and unworthy of leadership roles in our movement. We should proceed with caution as we explore this unprecedented phenomenon in our budding and fragile movement. Let’s not forget also that we already have had, and have still, certain personalities that have achieved almost “worshipful” status: Paul Kurtz, Richard Dawkns. Who can name some others?

    1. 6.1

      Steve your curiosity is bulging. I will not attempt to draw any conclusions. Please research Houston Oasis/Mike Aus and Jerry Dewitt, two ex-pastors that are now leading secular organizations. Mike serves as the Executive Director and Community Leader.

      I am familiar with Houston Oasis because I played a major role in the planning and getting it started. The first official gathering was September 9, 2012. I served as the board’s vice-president until I resigned in April and then in early May I decided to end my association with the organization. I will not give the details supporting my decisions but my experiences and discoveries prompted my concerns thus I wrote the article. Also, during the planning I failed to ask the tough questions. I hope Houston Oasis will make a positive impact on the Houston community

        1. This is part of the reason I very seldom participate in blog-talk. I shared my thoughts in a manner of being helpful; be skeptical and ask the tough questions. Accept them or discard as you see fit.

          1. seems like a blogger like yourself is regularly participating in blog-talk.

            You’re certainly entitled to your opinions and it’s certainly possible that a former clergy could make a poor humanist leader. Of course some non-clergy could make poor humanists leaders too.

            so I think when naming names and issuing warnings, it helps to be explicit about the concerns — or not suggest that issues exist.

        2. efavorite, take Donald’s warning for what it is. Do your own research if you find it necessary.

          If you think this is merely “gossip”, then leave it alone. I know the situation and it warrants a warning. It doesn’t mean that all ex-clergy are one way or another, but honesty is something that takes an upbringing to mature. It’s not easy to become honest late in life, although it’s possible.

          To think that secularists are free from believing on the wrong ideology, even if it’s masked as humanism, is inaccurate. We all still believe in many things that later on we find out were never true. Donald warns us about being vigilant.

  6. 7

    I’ve seen both the short-term importance and long-term pitfalls of ready-made religious leadership. When I was living in a conservative city in the Deep South, some local religious leaders began to organize around a progressive issue that I supported. The relative respect some of these leaders commanded and the resources to which they had access were initially impressive, but this prefab leadership core had difficulty sharing leadership or developing leadership among the oppressed people who the issue affected the most. It was the religious leaders who wrote the op-eds, spoke at rallies, decided meeting times, and meeting locations. Because the most oppressed group was not allowed to develop their own leadership ad organizing skills, many of them lost interest.

    While I never lost interest per se, I had to stop as well. I was working a full-time job at night and was a full-time student during the day and had to arrange my schedule very carefully just to have time to sleep. The pastors would call a meeting usually just a couple of days (and once or twice a couple of hours) in advance and would often show up quite late. This made it almost impossible for me to plan my sleep schedule, and the tardiness felt disrespectful for the working people who made time in their busy schedules for the meetings. I wonder what part of this chronic lateness had to do with the fact that pastors are in control of their churches and church schedules and can’t easily be fired, whereas if more ordinary people show up late to everything and fail to honor our commitments, we’d be out of a job pretty fast.

  7. 8

    Firstly, congratulations, Donald, for the shout-out from PZ Myers on Pharyngula. That’s super cool, regardless how I feel about this post, which I’ll get to shortly.

    I think there is an important difference between secular leaders’ potential for corruption, “cult-of-personality”, etc. and that of traditional believing clergy. Clergy are peddling supernatural claims to an already over-credulous audience. “Prosperity Gospel” preachers (Creflo Dollar, et. al.) prosper because their flocks are easy marks; they claim to have divine pull with the Creator of the Universe. They wield enormous power because of their social position in the community. Some women are especially attracted to powerful men, and so it’s no uncommon for sex scandals to be the downfall of these men, especially owing to Christianity’s harsh and perverse attitudes about human sexuality generally. It’s the mega-pastor’s ultimate Catch 22.

    My ex-mother-in-law was an Evangelical Disciples of Christ member; not well off, decidedly working class. Kindly, heart of gold, but also simple-minded and really not a good critical thinker. She was forever being scammed, ripped off, etc, because she was just too naively trusting of people in general, which reinforced her beliefs about the “evil, fallen nature” of the world, and thus only reinforced her Christian beliefs, which continued to hobble her critical thinking, repeating in a vicious circle. And voting Republican–of course.

    I suppose these things *can* happen in a secular context…such as organizations centered around a strong ideology, say…like SDS in the 1960s, from which the Weather Underground became a more radical splinter group, or any number of Communist affiliated groups, say.

    As far as local secular organizations go, I know that I tend to be skittish with HCOF. At first it was because the word “Church” is actually in their name. But I also know that the director and many senior members of HCOF are of the libertarian/Ayn Rand objectivist persuasion, and though they soft-pedal it during services, there are occasional positive references to F. Hayek, et. al. that irk me. I profoundly disagree with this particular ideology and because I know that is what the leadership of HCOF sincerely believes, I just can’t bring myself to lend it my full support, even though I agree with them on atheism & secularism. I knew the current director before he became director and I always found him personally abrasive. I’ve enjoyed some HCOF services, and lunch gatherings afterward, but my support for HCOF will always be tepid at best until there is a change of leadership there.

    Cult of personality is quite a strong term, and I just don’t get that vibe around Houston Oasis. The leadership there seems much more humble and tentative. There’s nothing wrong per se with someone being charismatic. It’s how they use that charisma that matters. I’m sorry that things did not work out between you and H.O., Donald. We’ll have to talk about that sometime privately. I don’t sense a strong ideology around H.O., just a mild, welcoming secular humanism. You evidently feel differently and I have to respect that.

    Although I was never a sincere believer (save for a very brief, embarrassing span of my life in graduate school), I was raised in the Presbyterian church, confirmed at Westminster Presbyterian when I was in middle school. Back then the church was led by a kindly pastor named Dr. Paul Thompson. Dr. Thompson was very light on the theology; though he did teach bible verses more than some Baptist congregations I’ve witnessed, his sermons were mainly stories about what he’d done during the week to try and be a good person and to encourage us to be good to others as well. No talk of salvation, or hell, or sin or temptation, just emphasis on the Golden Rule, week after week. Looking back, I wonder if Dr. Paul Thompson was a closet atheist and if he might be considering the Clergy project if he’s not already a member. He eventually did leave his post as senior pastor to go into drug counseling. The junior pastor that took over had big shoes to fill and it just was never the same. The junior pastor just lacked the charisma and the perceived wisdom of age and experience. I quickly lost interest in Westminster Presbyterian and stopped attending. I became a teen “apathist”, and then a bit later on, reading about the antics of the Religious Right, I not only declared myself an atheist, I became positively anti-theist.

    Secularists and atheists, especially those who left a religion, know what cultish behavior looks like, and I have confidence in my fellow local Houston Atheists that if H.O. started getting all culty, we’d vote with our feet and get out. I get that some atheists reject ANYTHING that resembles a church in any way, shape, or form; but I also am still not willing to give up on the experimental idea of a way of community organizing that is able to confer the positive aspects of Church life (a sense of shared community, shared humane values, a yearning for a better world and a willingness to work for that) without the patently ridiculous supernatural mumbo-jumbo. It’s an experiment I find fascinating and hope it can find a way to succeed. As I see it, Secular Humanist social organizations can potentially fill the void being left behind by shrinking mainline liberal protestant denominations whose members become unaffiliated “nones”.

    I feel as though the main difference between Houston Oasis and the mainline, liberal Westminster Presbyterian Church I grew up in is that H.O. doesn’t have the need to pay lipservice to some 2000+ year old ancient text or associated religious tradition. H.O. has the freedom to drop any such pretense and just declare itself secular humanist in orientation. I think Dr. Thompson would’ve liked to drop that pretense but was unable to in his day. I can’t know that, of course, but that is my general sense of the man, looking back on my childhood memories.

    For me, H.O. feels like “cool musical Jam session, followed by an amateur TED-talk, followed by more music, followed by lunch with cool people I can relate to”. I don’t feel obligated to go EVERY Sunday, but it’s nice to know that it’s there if I want to go.

    In any case, take care, Donald, and I hope we can discuss this issue more in person later on.

    1. 8.1

      Thanks PZ for the comments. Since we haven’t met, I would like to express my appreciation for your contributions to the secular community. Please note that I was not just a casual attendee to the Houston Oasis gatherings. I was involved in the planning and made significant contributions to get it started. I remain hopeful that the organization will hold true to its mission and not just be a safe-haven for secularists. I look forward to the conversation.

  8. 9

    Donald, you and I have had many phone discussions about this very topic. I recently heard an interview on NPR with Jerry DeWitt who was ‘outed’ as a nonbeliever. According to him, he posted a picture of himself and Dave Silverman of American Atheists that was taken when Jerry went to the Texas Freethought convention. He said he didn’t think anyone he knew would see the picture but apparently someone did, and I guess from that point he kind of indicated that he no longer believed–kind of. The title of his book indicates that he’s a former pastor but during the interview he indicated that he still ‘pastors;’ he apparently also misses the attention he got as a pastor; misses having people seek out his counsels, etc. I imagine that coming into an environment where people are very vocal independent thinkers; where one person’s word doesn’t cancel everyone else’s opinions, etc., may have been the height of culture shock. He certainly is ‘entitled’ to organize a church–many people do; create a new religion–many people have. He’s still a pastor, he wants a church, a congregation; he wants to preach; last I heard he was advocating that atheists engage in prayer. He sounds like a theist to me–many people are!

  9. 10

    Amazing that so many commenters find this an implausible scenario for which to be looking out. Evidence? That would rather tend to be provided by those who would make observations in the future that might support the potential warning given here, no?

    And why is the suggestion so unbelievable to start with? There is enough of this already going on in the secular-orientated communities. Hero worship. People who like to lead, people who like to follow. People who have come to be atheists in entirely uncritical fashions. Religious skeptics. Accomodationists and apologists. So, why wouldn’t a charismatic person with a penchant for pulpit fit in there? And, given the hypothetical that members of a congregation may deconvert and follow their pastor, you know that such people were following and certainly not coming to atheism by critical examination of their beliefs. (Same as happens when congregations split into sects.)

    I’ve already seen several deconverted preachers/theologians who have recognized names in the atheosphere reveal themselves to be stuck in a quasi-religious mindset, or to have a mentality that refuses to examine some aspects of life critically (or to be unrepentant self-entitled jerks). Why would the population of future deconverted preachers be so different as to not have these sorts of people among them?

    And lets not forget about the sorts of humanist/atheist who thrive on recognition, enjoy being “leaders” or having some sort of fame and following, and those who actively promote use of the trappings of religion in ceremonies, communities, and temples, and (not in the military bureaucratic sense) humanist chaplains. Former charismatic preachers may fit right in there, without bringing anything other than charisma or a following to the table.

    But whatevs, continue being hyperskeptical about these oh-so unrealistic hypotheses and experiences the author shared with us. I thought Donald Wright made some fair points. He wasn’t instituting a moral panic or a witch hunt.

  10. 11

    You know, I saw this coming. I heard one of these so-called “Atheist preachers” at the last AA convention in Texas in March of this year. At first, I thought it was all mockery and fun,but as he continued “preaching,” I found his preaching disturbing and offense. Consequently, I began paying close attention to his speeches and so-called lectures.

    I hear some Atheists argue that the reason for this sudden need for “Atheist church,” is that the demand is so great for this sort thing. I disagree. That argument reminds me of the supply and demand argument the capitalistic system uses to rip others off. I think that argument was propagated to help boost these preachers argument that our community is lacking community experience.

    Frankly, I think these so-called “Atheist preachers” are missing their religious congregation where they had the worshiped and adorations of weak minded people and are not finding it in the regular Atheist community. The mere fact someone thinks their way out of servitude, is proof that they really don’t have to have that community. So, the so-called “atheist preachers” have allow themselves to imagined and created this venue, to once again regained the power they so greatly craved. It is pretty audacious to prentend that people needs you ehen it is the other way around. I can’t imagine any bonified freethinker going to them for help, unless they are short on funds, and need a few dollars. I find this kind of “church” very troubling. especially because it is done under the disguise as Atheism. I hear one of these “preachers” actually said he misses his congregation. These so-called “atheist preachers” are oviously coming from leadership positions in pentecostal churches. and therefore are trained how to get weak people to depend on them. Atheists or no Atheists. These religious preachers (that’s how I see them), want their cake and eat it too. They want the best of both worlds. The freedom to think and reason, and the “religious like” behavior.

    It doesn’t make any sense. If Atheist are looking for someone to hold their hand, then they should have thought about it when they started to use their brain. They should have turned off their brains realizing what the costs were. Why do we continue to margalized them? Why do we think that is our responsibility to monitor other Atheists. It is not my responsibility to see that Atheist remains Atheist. If they are truly a fraud, or genuinely weak and need a “godlike” figure, then so be it. It is entirely up to them.

    A lot of so-called Atheist are really “backsliding religious people.” They are angry at the “god” for one reason or the other.

    The Universe is a tough place, it doesn’t recognize your plight. Get used to it, without being handheld.The Universe won’t take the place of the “gods.” Why would someone who has a relationship with reality needs a paternal or maternal comforter all over again? If you are an Atheist, and you need fables and comfort, from someone in that kind of a venue, I suggest you check yourself to see whether you are in the faith or in reality. I know we need other people, and we can find that if we change our racist ways, and embrace other fellow Atheist Thanks Donald, for being so candid about this issue. Respect!

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