November 23, 2017

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A crisis of faith, not filmmaking

Documentary follows preachers who have given up God

‘What do you do if you’re a minister and you don’t believe in God?”

This thoughtful and compassionate documentary, from Winnipeg filmmaker Leslea Mair and her production partner Leif Kaldor, follows several members of the clergy as they respond to that difficult question. The answers are varied, complicated and often unexpected.

There are practical issues. “Closeted” preachers who “come out” about a loss of faith — the language, as one commentator notes, resembles the early gay rights movement — will probably lose their jobs. More than that, especially for those located in small towns, these people risk losing home, family, community and even the defining sense of who they are. Being a pastor isn’t just a job, as one of the film’s subjects suggests — “It is you.”

There are also devastating emotional effects. Most of the people in Losing Our Religion do not make a sudden choice to renounce their beliefs, but suffer this loss of faith as a kind of protracted and painful death.

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‘What do you do if you’re a minister and you don’t believe in God?"

This thoughtful and compassionate documentary, from Winnipeg filmmaker Leslea Mair and her production partner Leif Kaldor, follows several members of the clergy as they respond to that difficult question. The answers are varied, complicated and often unexpected.

There are practical issues. "Closeted" preachers who "come out" about a loss of faith — the language, as one commentator notes, resembles the early gay rights movement — will probably lose their jobs. More than that, especially for those located in small towns, these people risk losing home, family, community and even the defining sense of who they are. Being a pastor isn’t just a job, as one of the film’s subjects suggests — "It is you."

There are also devastating emotional effects. Most of the people in Losing Our Religion do not make a sudden choice to renounce their beliefs, but suffer this loss of faith as a kind of protracted and painful death.

"If this was a choice, why would I choose it?" asks Brendan, the pastor of a small evangelical church.

Supplied</p><p>Evangelical pastor Brendan is one of several subjects in the film Losing Our Religion, which focuses on religious leaders who no longer believe.</p></p>

Supplied

Evangelical pastor Brendan is one of several subjects in the film Losing Our Religion, which focuses on religious leaders who no longer believe.

The filmmakers explore the work of the Clergy Project, founded in part by English academic and celebrity atheist Richard Dawkins, who also speaks briefly on camera. The Clergy Project is an organization and online resource for non-believing clergy, both past and present, open and hiding.

Kaldor and Mair talk with a United Church minister whose congregation accepts her lack of faith, with a former nun whose mother no longer speaks to her and with a one-time pastor at a traditional Pentecostal church.

Shot over a period of two years in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K., the film, which will be shown on the Documentary Channel on Oct. 15, is able to follow several members of the clergy as their lives change dramatically, with a particular focus on Brendan and his wife, Jen. We see Brendan talking about losing his faith while Jen still holds to hers, which puts a visible strain on their marriage.

The film’s pacing can be uneven. Some areas feel skimped, while other sections are drawn out.

Overall, however, the filmmakers handle difficult material with intelligence and care, in particular balancing individual stories with the investigation of larger issues, such as the increased and accelerating secularization of the Western world.

Mair and Kaldor visit a Sunday Assembly — motto: "Live Better, Help Often, Wonder More" — a gathering for people who "don’t miss God but do miss church," as one participant puts it.

These are mostly atheists who want to celebrate community and strive for social justice, who are looking for a place apart from everyday life to come together and search for meaning, purpose and connection.

This is a new kind of space — a sort-of-church, but also not church as it has been conventionally defined. The film itself, which is questioning and critical but not stridently anti-religious, occupies a similar territory.

alison.gillmor@freepress.mb.ca

Read more by Alison Gillmor.

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