“Born Again Atheist?”

May 1, 2012

Yesterday I heard this story on NPR:

From Minister To Atheist: A Story Of Losing Faith

It’s worth hearing for yourself, if you’re interested in such things. For those that didn’t click the link to read or listen to the story, I’ll provide a brief summary before offering the response it prompted me to make. The piece profiled Teresa MacBain, a woman who grew up a conservative Southern Baptist, felt the “call” to ministry at a very young age, and later became a United Methodist Minister (likely because her previous denomination doesn’t allow female pastors). As the pastor of a Florida UM congregation, MacBain spent a lot of her personal time struggling over the “bigger” questions. According to her, asking the big questions in an effort to strengthen her faith actually led her to abandon it. When she ultimately realized she did not believe in what she was preaching, and furthermore that she was an atheist, she was left with a conundrum. Her entire life from career, to prior sense of purpose, as well as her coworkers, friends, family, and community were all tied up in her life as a Christian pastor and her belief in God. So would she remain a closet atheist to hold onto her life as best she could or would she be honest with herself and “come out” as an atheist at the risk of losing her place in her community?

Now, Teresa’s story is not wholly unique. Many believers who devote their energy to learning, growing, challenging and working through their faith go through periods of doubt as a result of their education, be it formal or personal. Many move from a prior way of “being Christian” (or being Jewish or being Muslim, etc.) to a new, much different way that perhaps their old friends and acquaintances don’t quite recognize as the faith they have. Some of these believers lose all sense of faith and no longer see themselves as belonging to the religion they once held so dear. This certainly can include ministers and clergy–the person at the front of the congregation leading the service may be filled with doubt. Some pastors leave their tradition completely when it no longer seems valid to them. Many stories similar to MacBain’s would have left me with little to comment on. My lifelong study of religion and parallel search for how to be authentically spiritual and religious myself has certainly had its periods of doubt, many which continue, some which will (and should) never really end. I’ve certainly changed my affiliation with denominational bodies and theological systems as my thoughts, experiences, relationships, and education have transformed me. The quest for spiritual authenticity is different for everyone. Many who undertake it find it better (or easier, or more sensible, or for whatever reason more acceptable) to abdicate that quest altogether. I certainly empathize with Teresa’s sense of loneliness and fear born out of being “different” in thought than seemingly all of those who surround her. Even on matters much less existential than the existence of God, being politically or religiously different from everyone you come into daily contact with is never an easy struggle for anyone. The sense of dishonesty she felt when it seemed she could never truly say what she believed or felt quite obviously left her in an emotionally claustrophobic place, which is why she must have felt so liberated in her public acknowledgment of atheism.

Yet I feel highly critical at the way she presented her story and the larger issues her story points to in general. I’ve written about “fundamentalism atheism” and criticized some of the vehement exhortations of particular strains of modern atheism on this site before (see a-response-to-ricky-gervais-defense-of-atheism,   the-secular-bible, or concerning-fundamentalist-atheism), yet I understand and respect those who see themselves as Atheists or Agnostics. My own views about God invoke a great deal of panentheism, metaphor, artistic creativity, science, and yes, uncertainty, and the way I reject many current “traditional” views of a “Deity” would likely strike many believers as atheistic as well. I take issue with Teresa as she comes across in her profile not because of her doubt and not because she has “left the tribe,” but because she seems to still be a literalist with a stark worldview; because she seems to be embracing all the fallacies of fundamentalism but this time in an atheist context. Take a look at her “coming out” clip at the American Atheists Conference of this year (linked above). She uses the language of “born again.” She takes the stage and makes a deceleration of faith–she now has the “right” faith and the people deliver their claps in a thunder-roll. Folks in the audience echo her feeling of finally being with the proper belief in-group. She triumphantly intones that she will “burn in hell with you” to her fellow “nonbelievers.” When speaking with her NPR interviewer, she bemoans that sometimes she wishes she could have just not asked the “right” questions,” that she could have just blindly been “like all the other sheep.” She mentions that she never felt as accepted by any group as she did by those who cheered her on at the Atheists conference.

Teresa MacBain presents a problem to any of us concerned with faith communities and religion in America. She presents a problem not in what she asks and not in how she searches–one assumes that she attended a Seminary to become a UM-ordained minister, and the type of thinking she did on her own should have already been prompted in her Seminary. Any worthwhile mainline Seminary in the Country should (and almost always does) throw every big issue imaginable at an aspiring minister. One should have already confronted the “big questions” in such a context, directly staring down any and all doubts. If the doubts are insurmountable after every bit of education, questioning, and soul-searching, then that person should choose another career. A seminary should not be afraid that some are “weaned out” of the clergy-track. Bear in mind, however, this is not about enforcing nor inculcating “proper belief.” MacBain, her critics, and her supporters mostly all got that wrong. She was afraid to have the “wrong beliefs” while in her Church position, she was quite reprehensibly shunned by her community for then having the “wrong beliefs,” and she was over-joyed to find great support at the AAC for having discovered and proclaimed the “right beliefs.” Neither churches nor humanist organizations should be in the business of ecstatically supporting “right belief” as an end-all destination.*  If beliefs don’t lead to better actions and personal positive transformation they are useless. If she is right that the AAU gave her more support than her church  community ever did, good for the AAU and shame on her church. Can the AAU provide her with a community built on personal and societal transformation for the better? For a continual journey and a constant search for vital truth? Can it provide her with the network of people capable of coming together to address the real problems facing each member’s own community and then collectively the national community of the entire board and ultimately the world? Can the AAU continue to support her now, not for daily having the “right beliefs” but for herself in her own context as a human being? Can they see more in her than carbon and tissue and see her as vastly and uniquely important and support her for that, loving her unconditionally but inspiring her to daily become a better her? If all of this is true about the AAU and none of this was true about her church community or the national church body she was affiliated with then she most definitely made the right decision. I have my doubts that the AAU can meet all of those criteria, however (and I’m not saying the Church does either, but it’s supposed to).

The problem that MacBain represents is the modern American Church’s failure to address truth in a progressive yet timeless manner.  She struggled over basic modern Christian problems. Is Jesus the only way? Could a just God punish forever those with “wrong ” beliefs? What about the role of women in the overall Church? These questions have been addressed in many different positive ways over the centuries and clear, strong voices in the modern church were there to speak if she was able to listen. These voices surely addressed her in her Seminary context and if not, her seminary failed her by not showing her all of the options inherent in her faith community. It’s time to move these voices from the sideline to allow them to be heard in all of the church. Agree or don’t, but don’t act as if they have no place in the mainstream consideration of modern Christianity. Voices like Marcus J. Borg who up to his latest book is constantly searching for way to free the ancient creeds and Christian language from their cultural baggage to allow them to speak anew to the most thoughtful of seekers. Voices like retired Bishop John Shelby Spong who spent his career trying open the church to full equality and inclusivity on the clergy and the parishioner level so that women and men, gay and straight, young and old, and those with every level of intellectual doubt could both serve and be served by the Church and find a way to transform the world in a just manner. Voices like scholar Karen Armstrong who has consistently detailed the societal evolution of God, pointing to ancient and “Orthodox” ways in which all three of the monotheistic traditions have had more expansive, progressive, and “non-traditional” views of God. Voices like Desmond Tutu who details the power of full and true forgiveness, equality, and anti-racism. Voices like Martin Luther King Jr., who saw God as on the side of the oppressed, actively engaged in liberation just as the Prophets of old did. Ultimately, if none of these voices were convincing and if none of the other paths of faith (from the active nonviolence and reverence of the Quakers to the liturgical mysteries of the Episcopalians to the life-affirming question-asking Unitarians, etc.) and the thought of converting to another Religion altogether seemed unthinkable, MacBain most certainly should opt out of organized religion. Pursuing all of the options listed above are not for everyone anyway; but labeling everyone who does pursue such paths  as “sheep” and assuming that none of these variations on her faith answer (or depose completely of) the questions that brought her belief to an end is an erroneous and unthoughtful move on her part.

What all too many believers, skeptics, and all in between forget is that the real notion of “God” cannot be proven by theological assertions nor disproved by the modern version of vehement atheism. A Deity can be disproved. Any God that can be unequivocally dismantled ought to face such a fate (to paraphrase an old religious idea). But we all have a God, like it or not. God is whatever we serve, be it money, pleasure, or self. God is whatever we do not fully understand, be it science, nature, or fate. God is that which we love and that which we existentially fear.



5 Responses to ““Born Again Atheist?””

  1. J. said

    To read a much more detailed and well-thought out story about “loss of faith,” pick up Dan Barker’s book Godless.
    As to your final assertion about the inability to prove or disprove a deity: I wholeheartedly agree. But the burden of proof always rests upon the one making a positive assertion rather than a negative one. See Bertrand Russell’s cosmic teapot.
    And to label all of those things in your list “God” is intellectually dubious; this is how Einstein has been notoriously misquoted as believing in a god. “God” with a capital “G” may mean many things, but in contemporary America and many other places in the world, it refers to the Judeo-Christian conception of “God.” Give it a little “g” and I’ll withdraw my objection.

    • dmhamby2 said

      I appreciate your comment and will check out the book you recommended. As to your point, I actually did say ” a deity can be disproved” but “the real notion of God” cannot. You are right that in contemporary America a certain interpretation of God filtered through very particular Jewish and Christian interpretations is envisioned by the word “God.” I believe the list you find dubious to better encompass the full range inherent in the term “God,” however. I recommend Karen Armstrong’s “A History of God” in which she details the many ways Jews, Christians, and Muslims have experienced and pronounced God through history, from Rabia and Rumi to Aquinas and Francis of Assissi to 20th century giants like Martin Buber and Paul Tillich who express God in terms consistent with my closing paragraph.
      Once again though, thanks for your input.

  2. J. said

    My apologies about my lack of attention to your actual words. I must say, then, that the issue I have is with the negotiable term “real” as to your “notion of God.” This suggests that there is a “real” god; you do make a point of relating the subjectivity of gods, but when you equate a god with love or fear, you have lost the necessity for the term “God”: just say “love” or “fear.” Otherwise, you run the risk of creating a neo-Platonic mindscape of forms. What I love and what I fear are all concrete; a god is not.

    • dmhamby2 said

      I understand your point and appreciate it. As for letting go of the term “God” when referring to “love” or “fear” though, I cannot when I am using it in the sense that I am. For me, an adapted form of panentheism (God is both in all and outside of all that is) best describes “God.” God is, in the Christian term, “whom in which we live and move and have our being.” God runs through all and surrounds all, both inherently close yet wholly seperate also. God is the unifying force of the universe, the “big bang” that was creation and the unending act of creation as galaxies still emerge from that first move. I cannot use a concrete term because God isn’t fully concrete. God, in Tillich’s words, is “the ground of all being.” These are all concepts found in the monotheistic traditions and expressed by the sages, the divinely inspired, and the mystics. Granted, you run up against the wall of subjectivity. I believe the unifying force of the universe, that God, is love. God is a passion for justice and rehabilitation, for creation. God is never destruction, prejudice, etc. As a theological universalist, I believe God is Truth, be that truth expressed in Christian terms, Muslim terms, Buddhist terms, or Scientific terms. I hope I am not incorrect in assuming you identify as “atheist.” If so, the above paragraph likely seems to be poetic nonsense to you and I accept that. It is an ideology I try to live within because when I briefly catch pieces of it in reality, it inspires me to do work for a better world and to be a better person, as well as to search for deeper truths. I fail more often than not, but I try because it is in my religious nature to do so.
      However one defines God or (defines an absence of God) I am fine with as long as that perception inspires goodness and justice and not hatred. Though the history of religion is littered with violence and hatred it also is peopled by those with a thirst for a different and better world and I feel that in the community of faith one can best connnect with others to do real, grounded justic-work and in the history of liturgy, worship, and tradition one can find new real-world applications that connect them with their past and drive them to their future.

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