I can now say that I have appeared on Broadway!
Well, it was off-Broadway, and I wasn’t acting. I was part of an after-play talkback earlier this month on the stage of “The Unbelieving” at the 59E59 Theater 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 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,” 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 qualitative researcher Linda LaScola. Those transcripts led to the book, Caught in the Pulpit, co-written by Linda and philosopher Daniel C. Dennett. Some of those clergy became charter members of The Clergy Project, co-founded by me, Dennett and the scientist Richard Dawkins in 2011.
The play begins with Linda interviewing “Adam Mann” (not his real name, obviously), a conservative preacher from East Tennessee who had stopped believing and was 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 Mohamed Cisse sitting in front of us watching the actor relate his story of deconversion from Ivory Coast imam to atheist. Mohamed (who is now on the Clergy Project board) laughed out loud hearing his own words coming from the stage.
Linda, who attended the play several times, told me that it was a weird experience to see herself portrayed on the stage. 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 the Freedom From Religion Foundation. A teenage Christian evangelist, he got ordained, pastored in three churches, and did missionary work in Mexico, had a musical ministry and graduated from Azusa Pacific College majoring in religion. Barker preached the gospel for 19 years before he “just lost faith in faith.” Now Dan is an advocate for reason and freethought. He has participated in more than 120 debates, including at Oxford University. Dan has authored seven books including: Godless: How An Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists with a foreword by Richard Dawkins; Losing Faith In Faith: From Preacher To Atheist; Life Driven Purpose: How an Atheist Finds Meaning with a foreword by Daniel C. Dennett; and God: The Most Unpleasant Character in All Fiction with a foreword by Richard Dawkins. He’s also written three freethought books for children including Just Pretend. He’s produced three albums of freethought music released by FFRF.