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Interview with Leslea Mair — Co-Director, Losing Our Religion


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): Medium (Humanist Voices)

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2018/02/08

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: You co-directed the documentary film Losing Our Religion. How did this become an idea?

Leslea Mair: Sheer curiosity! I’ve always been interested in the idea of religious belief, and happened across a blog post about Dan Dennett and Linda LaScola’s study. I just found it fascinating.

To go from being a very dedicated believer — to be in ministry you have to be really committed! — and then to stop believing sounded like such a difficult journey. When the follow-up study came out and The Clergy Project formed, it became even more interesting to me as a filmmaker. There was a sizable group of these people. It felt like a story that needed to be told.

Jacobsen: How were Professor Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola crucial to its foundation and direction?

Mair: First of all, there wouldn’t have been anything to base a film on if it weren’t for Linda’s interest in clergy and Dan’s idea that a formal study should be done. The original study wouldn’t have been done at all without those two factors coming together and that was the foundation for the film.

By the time I came on the scene, their work had given rise to an organized group. Linda was the first person I had contact with from The Clergy Project. She and Dan being involved in the film was essential and my first round of shooting included interviews with both of them.

They were my entry point, both idea-wise and in a very practical sense. Linda also facilitated my contact with Clergy Project members, so she took on the role of guide through the issue both on and off screen. I couldn’t have made the film without her.

Jacobsen: Who were some stars in the film, who represent the non-religious leader movement in North America?

Mair: We were really fortunate to have some very high-profile people in the film! Richard Dawkins very generously gave us some time out of his very busy schedule — he’s not North American, but he is one of the secular movement pioneers internationally.

That’s not why we interviewed him, though — he fit into the story we were telling. He was instrumental in the founding of The Clergy Project and without his foundation’s funding, we wouldn’t have had much to tell! Dan Dennett was also very generous with the time he gave us.

Dan Barker, one more important figure in the formation and continuing life of The Clergy Project, was a terrific interview. He’s doing such important work with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, too, around the seperation of church and state.

Bart Campolo has been a real groundbreaker in the secular movement, and his experience as a former pastor and where he’s taking his secular “ministry” was such a great fit for the film.

Jerry De Witt has done a lot of speaking and was one of the very early people to “come out atheist” after joining The Clergy Project. He was actually one of the founding members.

Gretta Vosper has had a lot of media attention as well, and her work within the United Church to accept non-believers has ruffled some feathers. Again, she’s part of The Clergy Project. Catherine Dunphy has done quite a few speaking engagements on the subject as well.

And of course, Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, founders of the Sunday Assembly movement are stars in their own right. They’re both gifted performers and what they’ve created is such a hopeful, uplifting and totally fun experience. Beyond the fun, though, they’ve fostered a growing community. And they’re lovely people.

The real stars of the show, though, were Brendan and Jenn Murphy. I am still blown away at how willing they were to be open with us, let us come into their lives and work through something so personal in front of the camera.

Jacobsen: If you reflect on the losses, what do those who stop believing who intend to leave ministry bet on losing in that act? I ask this because some may think this is in some way a publicity stunt or a way to simply gain in some way over and above the losses.

Mair: I haven’t spoken to a single person who’s found themselves in the position of being non-believing clergy who didn’t deal with a great deal of hardship over it.

The first thing is reconciling the loss of belief with yourself. These are people who took their beliefs seriously and who really felt an attachment to their god. It’s something that really defines who they are.

The loss of that relationship is really tough. People finding out is tough, too. Your relationships with friends, family and congregation are damaged, sometimes irreparably. So not only are you trying to figure out who you are without that belief system, you’re losing the moral and emotional support you’d normally seek from your tribe.

And then there’s the economic side of things. Changing your career is risky and having to make a change quickly and be able to continue to support your family can be incredibly stressful. I don’t know of anyone who didn’t deal with financial hardship leaving the ministry, especially in the short term.

The net gain, though, is on the emotional level. That comes with time.

Jacobsen: Who notably kept their ministry and church, e.g. Minister Gretta Vosper?

Mair: The two people who managed to stay in the ministry are Gretta Vosper with the United Church of Canada and John Shuck, a Presbyterian minister in the US. They both belong to very liberal churches, and they’ve managed to balance questioning, faith and community in a way that is just amazing. It also says a lot about the congregations they’re pastoring.

Jacobsen: What books can people look into for more information on the non-religious community who have leaders that left pastoral roles based on a change of faith into non-faith?

Mair: When you’re dealing with people who’ve had a career in ministry, you’re dealing with communicators! So many people involved with The Clergy Project have written books!

Jerry De Witt wrote “Hope After Faith”. Catherine Dunphy wrote “Apostle to Apostate” (and she let me come shoot video at her book launch party). Another Clergy Project member, Bob Ripley — who was interviewed but didn’t make it into the film — wrote “Life Beyond Belief”.

And Bart Campolo, who isn’t a Clergy Project member, but has had that same path, wrote “Why I Left, Why I Stayed” with his father, evangelical minister Tony Campolo. I recommend them all!

Jacobsen: How have the public reacted to the film with some time for the narratives to sink in more?

Mair: The public reaction that I’ve gotten has been very positive. Anyone who has had anything negative to say hasn’t bothered to reach out to me. I think, though, that the message of the film isn’t something that’s easy to call out. Who can argue with the idea that people need community? Or that being kind, whatever you believe, is a good idea?

Jacobsen: What are your next projects? How people help out?

Mair: My partner, Leif Kaldor, and I make films about a wide variety of subjects. We have a particular passion for science documentaries, and we’re working on a film about environment and health right now.

We also have a few things we’re working on that aren’t ready for discussion yet. I’d love to do more projects on the secular movement, but haven’t had just the right one come along yet. Always open to new ideas!

Jacobsen: Any final thoughts or feelings in conclusion?

Mair: I can’t think of anything!

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Leslea.

Mair:​ Thanks so much for talking with me!


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


© Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing 2012-Present. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. All interviewees and authors co-copyright their material and may disseminate for their independent purposes.

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