Should a Christian Preacher Turned Atheist Stop Using His Public Speaking Skills?

preacherShould a Christian-preacher-turned atheist-stop using his public speaking skills? Before this question can be answered, perhaps we should ascertain whether the person in question actually has public speaking skills. I’ve heard more than a few preachers over the years who were horrible public speakers. Their sermons were poorly crafted and their speaking skills ranged from incoherent to monotonous. Personally, I don’t know how some people listen to this kind of preaching year after year. Perhaps this is their purgatory.

I always prided myself in preaching well-crafted sermons. I worked hard in the study to produce the best sermon possible. I spent hours and days preparing my sermons. My goal was to preach in such a way that people would not only hear me but be moved to make a decision. The goal of every sermon was to force people to choose. Neutrality was never an option. Choose YOU this day whom YOU will serve, the Bible says. Even now, the most powerful speeches are the ones that demand something of listeners.

When I preached I was animated and passionate. In my early years, I moved around a good bit, but as I got older my movement lessened. Over time, I developed a style, a methodology of preaching. Generally, people found my style pleasing and my voice easy to listen to. I wasn’t a raging, fire-breathing, pulpit pounding, aisle running Pentecostal, but neither was I a droning, lifeless Methodist. (sorry for the stereotypes)

Words are powerful tools. Coupled with the methodology of preaching, words have the ability to move people and motivate them to do great things. However, words also have the power to manipulate and control. Numerous readers of this blog can testify to how the words of their pastor were used to sway, exploit, shame and abuse.

Any preacher worth his salt knows the power his words have over others Preachers know that the right word at the right time can elicit a certain response. They know what words can trigger an emotional response. Yes, preaching is supposed to be about knowledge and instruction, but mere knowledge will never cause a people to rise to the occasion and go to  war with Satan, the world, Democrats, secularism, and atheists. Great orators know how to stir people to do that which they might not normally do. Therein lies their power, and that power, when used wrongly, can hurt people or cause them to do things that are harmful, not only to themselves, but to others.

So what is a person such as myself to do? I preached my first sermon at age 15 and my last sermon at age 48 I spent 34 years telling people, thus saith the Lord. I have given thousands of sermons, having preached through most of the books in the Bible. Preaching is very much a part of who and what I am.

As a preacher-turned-atheist, I find myself in uncharted waters. I still have a passion for public speaking. I know I could be good at teaching most anything. I suspect, knowing my skill-set, that people would find me engaging and easy to listen to. As most any former parishioner of mine will attest, my ability to hold a crowd’s attention was never a problem. Oh, I had plenty of problems and shortcomings, but when in the pulpit I was at my best.

I miss preaching. I miss the personal interaction with people. I miss seeing my words move, challenge, and motivate people. As most ex-preachers will tell you, preaching was not the reason they left the ministry or deconverted. It was the stuff outside the pulpit; endless meetings, personal squabbles, or financial struggles that caused the most stress and angst.

In 2012, Pentecostal-preacher-turned-atheist, Jerry DeWitt, delivered a powerful speech at the American Atheist Convention. His speech, dare I say sermon, was given using the preaching skills that had served him well as a Pentecostal preacher.

Dan Fincke, a friend of mine who blogs at Camels with Hammers, wrote a lengthy post  about Dewitt’s message and his speaking skills and style. Dan thoughtfully raised some issues that former preachers like Dewitt and I need to consider carefully:

So, as Richard Wade watched this former evangelical go so far as to present the narrative of his turn to atheism in the precise idiom of a Pentecostal preacher, he turned to me and said, “You were right!” It made the dynamic so clear.

So—is this a good thing? I think in most ways it is, but I have a reservation. There is nothing wrong with a narrative in which “once I was blind but now I see”. This has always been a part of secularism. The Enlightenment’s emphasis on the “light of reason” was coopted, for example, by Descartes from St. Augustine. We need to reclaim some of the emotionally resonant metaphorical terrain that is part of our linguistic and cultural means of expressing certain kinds of experiences. Just because a certain emotionally powerful form of personal narrative was cultivated in evangelical circles does not mean it cannot have genuine parallels among apostates. We are not just ripping them off or somehow remaining Christians. But sometimes we do remain evangelicals, only now atheistic kinds. The apostate’s narrative often just has some basic formal similarities that make it true to co-opt similar categories to evangelicals when conceiving of and narrating what is happening within oneself.

But what about the Pentecostal delivery? I can imagine some atheists with what I like to call “religious PTSD” rejecting it out of hand for its “triggering” connotations that remind them of the shameless charlatans who pioneered, and up through today still, exploit those techniques to manipulate people into falsehoods and religiously based moral corruption. But the vast majority of the auditorium seemed happy to play along with DeWitt and to really enjoy the experiment. He got a hearty standing ovation from a good portion of the room when he was done and was one of the day’s leaders for applause lines for sure.

But the Pentecostal style might also simply look so well practiced and formulaic and manipulative that it is the equivalent of a shameless Hallmark card or a schmaltzy movie providing cheap emotional triggers using the easiest and least respectable methods in the book for pushing people’s buttons.

I think that if the emotional button pushing is a way to make an end-run around reason, that is corrupt and despicable. But if it is to package and deliver rational truths and moral ideals of rationalism to people in a way that will properly align their emotions to what is actually true and ethical, then ultimately I am not convinced there’s anything dishonest or manipulative about that. I am open to arguments though….

…As I also explained to Richard the morning before seeing DeWitt, I have preachers’ rhetorical skills and yet for the most part I assiduously avoid them in my classrooms, and instead work with my students dialectically and put the stress on the development of their own reasoning skills. Occasionally, I will get on a roll about something I’m passionate about and reach back to make a rhetorically boosted little speech. But even then I hold back on going quite to preacher levels. And if I do, it’s tempered and not exploitative.

There are two reasons for my hesitation. One is purely technical. I once picked up the interesting advice that if you can do something exceptionally well you should do it only selectively, so as not to diminish its impact. In general you should only put as much rhetorical push into an idea as it needs and save your force for when it’s really needed, always calibrating force applied precisely to what is necessary at every level.

But the more morally serious and germane reason I hesitate to go into preacher mode is that it can be downright anti-dialectical and counter-productive to cultivating an atmosphere of rationalism and habits of careful reasoning. Preaching, rather than just teaching or guiding through questions, runs the risk of inherently training and reinforcing the audience’s infamous preexisting susceptibilities to falling for passions and pretty words at the expense of rational thought. Even if you convince them of your point with your bluster and poetry, you do not train them in careful critical thinking in the process, and so you have not guaranteed they have learned to think for themselves, so much as to simply think like you. And you may have just contributed to their ever ongoing habituation throughout the culture in being led by irrationalistic appeals rather than rational ones. This is not just a pitfall of the parts of our movement that dance with religious forms but also the ones which dance with dubious political rhetorical tactics too.

I’m not sure if it is the case that the preacher’s style is always mutually exclusive with training in critical thinking. Clearly a major part of why it’s so dangerous in actual religions is because it is explicitly coupled with injunctions to just have faith and with countless dubious appeals to unjustified authorities. Can a rationalism which explicitly denounces such things be compatible with some fiery preaching? Can one preach successfully against authoritarianism and faith or is there an implicit bogus appeal to faith in the ungrounded authority of the speaker that is structurally there every time a teacher takes recourse to the tactics of the preacher?

Dan waves the red flag of warning and rightly so. Preaching, particularly certain styles of preaching, can be used to manipulate and control. Dan wisely warns about making an end-run around reason. Far too often preaching is nothing more than the reinforcing of this we believe and we shall not be moved from this we believe.

As a preacher turned atheist, I cannot turn off the speaking skills I used to ply my trade for 34 years. They are very much a part of who I am. The best I can do is be mindful of the power of the skills I have and make sure I use them in such a way that people are not only moved but instructed. I need to be aware of the power I have to manipulate people with my words. Self-awareness of this fact will keep me from falling back into using the tricks of the preaching trade to elicit the desired response from those listening to me.

That said, I want to put in a plug for passionate, pointed, challenging public speaking. Quite frankly, the atheist and humanist movement needs a bit of life pumped into it. I have listened to many speeches, lectures, seminars, and debates that people told me were wonderful. Well-known atheists and humanists, aren’t they great? Uh, no. B-o-r-i-n-g. Dry. Monotonous. Some  atheist and humanist speakers would be better off if they stuck to doing  what they do best: writing books and magazine articles. Leave the public speaking to those who do it well. If they are unwilling to do so, then they need to go back to school and take a few speech classes.

The atheist and humanist movement needs people who have the ability to passionately move people to action. I would rather suffer a bit with Jerry Dewitt’s preaching style (and I am not a fan of the Pentecostal style of preaching), than listen to a well-educated, boring man WOW me right into an afternoon nap. We are in a battle against religious zealots and theocrats, and we need speakers who can stir and motivate people to action.

Some atheists and humanists naïvely believe that knowledge is all that matters. Like Joe Friday, they think if they just give people the facts they will see the error of their way. Don’t get me wrong, knowledge is important; it’s essential. Way too many people becomeatheists out of anger or disappointment with the Christian church. Just like the Christian zealot, the atheist should know why he believes what he does. Or as the Bible says, the atheist should be ready to give an answer for the hope that lies within them. But, at the same time, we should not divorce our beliefs from our emotions. Some things matter, and if they matter, our emotions should be stirred, motivating us to act accordingly.

Paul, in 1 Corinthians, wrote about being a voice heard above all others. There is so much clamoring for truth these days. Who do people turn to? Those who stir them; those who speak to them. As atheists and humanists we must not disconnect our intellect from our emotions. If we believe we have the answer to what ails our universe, then we must be passionate about it, and that passion ought to come out in our public speaking. Yes, people need to hear what we have to say, but they also need to feel it.

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5 Comments

  1. Karen the rock whisperer

    Should an ethical person become a politician? IMHO, it is impossible to be a successful politician and remain truly ethical There are too many choices where the first two options are evil, and the only remainder is to step down. OTOH, a mostly-ethical politician can accomplish a great deal of good. So, how to balance the greater good against the personal good? It is often a difficult decision.

    I think your question about public speaking is much the same. Can you do it and remain true to all your core ethics, as you would describe them now? Maybe not. Can you accomplish great good by doing so? I don’t know. That is something you have to figure out for yourself.

    But as much as we dislike them, we need politicians… or we would have no government. I am personally quite pleased with some of my state and federal congresscritters at the moment, others not so much. But they do serve, and they make trade-offs in their service. Again, you need to decide what your goals are, and what is worth doing for them; what the risks are to you, and your ethics. For as soon as your job is to persuade people by appealing to their emotions, you enter the realm of tradeoffs.

    I’m sure this isn’t helpful, but it needed to be said.

    Reply
    1. Carolyn Patrick

      You are fortunate, Karen. My congresscritters are Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, My representative is John Carter, who is not a lot better, but at least he is not the national embarrassment that is Ted Cruz.

      Reply
  2. Zoe

    But what about the Pentecostal delivery? I can imagine some atheists with what I like to call “religious PTSD” rejecting it out of hand for its “triggering” connotations that remind them of the shameless charlatans who pioneered, and up through today still, exploit those techniques to manipulate people into falsehoods and religiously based moral corruption.

    Exactly. It doesn’t haven’t to be a “Pentecostal delivery” either with PTSD. I’m triggered by any delivery though with time it is getting better.

    Reply
    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      I think there is a fine line between good oratory and manipulation. No one would say President Obama’s stump speeches are manipulative, but every time I hear him speak I hear the influence of black preachers.

      Passion is fine, manipulation is not. Former preachers must be very careful not to use their skills in the manipulative ways they used them in the past. Part of the problem is that the ex-preacher might not even know that he is doing so.

      Reply
  3. Zoe

    Passion is fine, manipulation is not. Former preachers must be very careful not to use their skills in the manipulative ways they used them in the past. Part of the problem is that the ex-preacher might not even know that he is doing so.

    Passion/manipulation – and they are so entwined together too that often one can’t find or won’t find one without the other, knowingly or unknowingly as you pointed out.

    For me, the triggering also keeps me from knowing accurately whether the ex-preacher is in fact being manipulative. They could be innocent but I likely won’t hear it.

    Reply

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