When an Atheist Falls From Grace: On Teresa MacBain

I wish I didn’t have to write this post, but if I’m going to call attention to religious misbehavior, I can’t ignore it when it happens in our own community. So, here’s a sad story about Teresa MacBain, a former Methodist minister who dramatically outed herself as a nonbeliever on stage at an atheist convention. (Full disclosure: I’ve met Teresa and talked to her at several conventions, most recently at Women in Secularism 2 in May.)

Earlier this month, she was hired as the new director of the Humanist Community at Harvard, with a mission of helping to organize atheist, humanist and secular groups across the country. But just a few days after that news was reported, it came out that her claim to have earned a master of divinity degree from Duke University was untrue. When this news broke, the Harvard Humanists dismissed her, and MacBain admitted she’d been untruthful:

My dear friends,

It is with great sadness that I write to you today. I have committed a grave error in judgment that I deeply regret. While I did not do anything with malice or with intention to harm others, my actions were still wrong. I take full responsibility for my inaccurate reporting of my education in the recent NYT article and offer my apologies to all of you.

While it is true that I attended Duke Divinity under a special program for pastors transferring from another denomination, I did not earn a degree. As I’ve worked among you, I claimed the latter degree status instead of explaining the true nature of my theological education. The truth is… I lied on my resume. I did not earn a degree.

Many assumed the degree was a standard M.Div. and I went along with it. I should have stopped the error immediately, but did not. I cannot change these things so I must face them head on and own them.

With the loss of my job, my family and I will be moving soon to an undetermined location. Because of my choices I’ve placed my family in dire straits. This too is a consequence of my actions.

Thank you all for your kindness and love. No matter what happens from this point forward, I’ll always remember the way that you all wrapped your arms around me and lovingly carried me through the past 18 months. When the church shunned me, you embraced me and I will be forever grateful.

She also resigned from the board of directors of the Clergy Project.

I’m profoundly saddened by this story – and, I have to admit, also shocked by the obviousness of the deception. Of all the things one might lie about on a résumé, one’s academic accomplishments seem like the worst choice, if only because it’s so easy to check. It’s hard for me to believe that anyone could do this and expect to get away with it.

But as JT said, I very much doubt that the Harvard Humanists hired Teresa on the strength of her claim to have a theology degree from Duke. More likely, they hired her based on her demonstrated abilities at speaking and community-building, as well as the moral courage and clarity she showed by giving up her religious career in such a dramatically public fashion.

I’m not saying that they were wrong to fire her after this came out. That’s a legitimate response to an employee being untruthful on their résumé, particularly in a movement like ours that ought to pride itself on having strong moral standards. (If it hasn’t happened already, it’s only a matter of time before some Christian apologist claims that MacBain’s deconversion was prompted by a desire to evade divine punishment for her dishonesty.) But in the hierarchy of misdeeds, this is nowhere near as bad as, say, embezzling, or sexually harassing a subordinate. Those are offenses that I’d consider unforgivable or damn close to it – the kind of thing that ought to disqualify one from future involvement with the secular movement. I don’t think this is.

Although I don’t condone what Teresa did, I still respect and admire her, and I don’t think she ought to suffer economic destitution for it. Having high moral standards means we shouldn’t tolerate dishonesty, but it also means we should place the proper value on forgiveness. (By coincidence, that’s #4 on my new ten commandments.) I still think, and hope, that she has a bright future within the secular community if that’s where she chooses to use her talents.

UPDATE (9/30): I’ve been told that MacBain amended her statement on Facebook since this post was first published, removing mention of a study she participated in. I’ve updated this post to reflect the current wording.

Image credit: Jacek Cisło, released under CC BY-SA 3.0 PL license; via Wikimedia Commons

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