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Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

Play about unbelieving clergy is a hit

Gathering outside the theater before a performance of “The Unbelieving” are co-founder of The Clergy Project Dan Barker, qualitative researcher Linda LaScola, Clergy Project member David Madison, playwright Marin Gazzaniga and creative consultant Megan Kingery.

By Dan Barker

I can now say I have appeared on Broadway! Well, it was off-Broadway, and I wasn’t acting. I was part of an after-play talkback on the stage of “The Unbelieving” on Nov. 5 at the 59E59 Theater on East 59th Street in Manhattan. 

The play is about clergy who no longer believe, and since I am a former preacher involved in the lives of some of the characters in the play, I was invited to share the stage for the talkback with playwright Marin Gazzaniga, producer Melissa Hardy and the qualitative researcher Linda LaScola, whose interviews were the basis for the play’s dialogue.

It was a strange and wonderful experience to be watching a play about people I know. “The Unbelieving,” produced by The Civilians, which ran for about a month and ended on Nov. 19, is based on transcripts of interviews of clergy who no longer believe, conducted by LaScola. Those transcripts led to the book Caught in the Pulpit, co-written by LaScola and philosopher Daniel C. Dennett. Some of those clergy became charter members of The Clergy Project, co-founded in 2011 by me, Dennett and the scientist Richard Dawkins.

The play begins with LaScola interviewing “Adam Mann” (not his real name, obviously), a conservative preacher from East Tennessee who has stopped believing and is seeking an exit strategy from the ministry. We now know “Adam” as Carter Warden, who came out publicly as an atheist at FFRF’s 2016 convention in Pittsburgh.

While Annie Laurie and I were watching the play, I recognized Mohammed Cisse sitting in front of us, watching the actor relate Cisse’s story of deconversion from Ivory Coast imam to atheist. Cisse (who is now on The Clergy Project board) laughed out loud hearing his own words coming from the stage.

LaScola, who attended the play several times, told me that it was a weird experience to see herself portrayed by an actor. Other characters I know include “Carolyn,” the former Catholic nun Maureen Hart, and “Johnny,” playing the part of former Louisiana Pentecostal preacher Jerry DeWitt. 

A rabbi, Adventist minister, Episcopal priest, Black gospel preacher and Mormon bishop were also portrayed, all describing the agonizing intellectual and emotional struggle when they stopped believing in the supernatural, forcing them to abandon community and career, sometimes losing family in the process.

Critics loved the play. The New York Times called it “smart . . . inquisitive and welcoming” with “a lot of anguish . . . a lot of courage, too.” Broadway World called it a “superb, thought-provoking play” with “just the right touches of humor and heart.” Theater Review called it “a must-see for both the faithful and the faithless.”

When I receive the Tony Award for Best Supporting Chatter at a Talkback, I will say that “The Unbelieving” is unbelievably moving. It is refreshing to see freethought so honestly and powerfully portrayed on the stage.

Dan Barker is co-president of FFRF and author of many books, including Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists.