Media Shines Spotlight on Pastors-Who-Become-Atheists

The Clergy Project is getting some well-deserved attention in the press.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty tells the story of project director Teresa MacBain:

Her secret is taking a toll, eating at her conscience as she goes about her pastoral duties week after week — two sermons every Sunday, singing hymns, praying for the sick when she doesn’t believe in the God she’s praying to. She has had no one to talk to, at least not in her Christian community, so her iPhone has become her confessor, where she records her private fears and frustrations.

Moments later, in the darkened, cavernous conference room, MacBain steps onstage.

“My name is Teresa,” she begins. “I’m a pastor currently serving a Methodist church — at least up to this point” — the audience laughs — “and I am an atheist.”

Hundreds of people jump to their feet. They hoot and clap for more than a minute. MacBain then apologizes to them for being, as she put it, “a hater.”

MacBain tried to see the church’s district superintendent to explain, but he canceled the meeting. She was immediately locked out and replaced…

But MacBain did go home. People shunned her. Job interviews were canceled. The Humanists of Florida Association offered to pay her salary for a year, but there’s no guarantee. Only two of MacBain’s friends called her and took her to lunch…

Teresa has her family, but many pastors-turned-atheist don’t even have that.

It’s a more powerful story when you listen to Teresa speak for herself and you can do that here. The moment right after she declared her atheism at the American Atheists convention can be seen below:

Meanwhile, Kimberly Winston of Religion News Service profiles both Teresa and Jerry DeWitt, the first “graduate” of the Clergy Project:

Speaking in March before a cheering crowd of several hundred unbelievers at the American Atheists conference here, he described posting the picture [of himself with Richard Dawkins] as “committing identity suicide.”

The response was swift. His congregation put him out, friends cut him off and some family members will not speak to him, he said.

Today, DeWitt is the executive director of Recovering From Religion, a group that helps people — not just clergy — find their way after a loss of faith.

“Not only can you survive, but you can thrive through this process,” he said as the crowd erupted into applause.

You can see a part of Jerry’s speech from the American Atheist Convention below:

Keep in mind that neither Teresa nor Jerry have full-time jobs in the same way they used to. Their skills — as speakers, as (unlicensed) counselors, as motivators, as managers — are no longer being utilized.

One of the biggest challenges these ex-pastors face is trying to figure out what they can do with their life — to be fulfilled and to make money — now that they’ve left the ministry. The church isn’t about to help them — they prefer to take care of their own kind. And we don’t have atheist organizations flush with money that can provide job support or even loans to help the pastors get back on their feet. (Granted, in this economy, it can be hard for anyone to find work, period.)

If we want to see more members of the clergy come clean about their atheism, though, we have to give them a path out.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • mkb

    Ethical culture leaders and UU ministers don’t have to believe in a god.  Maybe they should sign up for the Humanist Institute.

  • Servant

    I live in Tallahassee, and am an acquaintance with Teresa.  I can tell you many Christians reached out to her in love after this announcement (look no further than her Facebook page).  Please give the full story here, it’s only fair.

    • http://www.facebook.com/ellenbeth EllenBeth Wachs

      That may be so but more reached out to her with hatred and scorn. No full story can be given in a paragraph or two and that wasn’t what was intended with this article. 

    • pagansister

       My husband and I are recent citizens of Tallahassee!   Both children live here also.  

    • Teresa

      You’re right, some of my friends did reach out with support which I shared when interviewed. That wasn’t included in the final article. One of my former parishioners was interviewed as well sharing her support and that wasn’t included. However, I received an enormous amount of hate mail, some bordering on death threats.

      • Jordan

        If you were having doubts why didn’t you look into them and find answers? You don’t have to have blind faith that’s not biblical at all. I would recommend you look into these doubts.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ellenbeth EllenBeth Wachs

    Please support the Humanists of Florida support ex-clergy!

     http://exclergy.chipin.com/hfa-ex-clergy-fund

  • http://www.facebook.com/robcurry Rob Curry

    This shunning is a terrible, heartless and inhumane thing; I think that decent people (including Christians, atheists, and others) recognize the fact and deplore it when it happens.

    Even when there are some delightful exceptions–and there are a few–the general hostility which a few caring people reject can be devastating to a person’s life. Before meeting Teresa Macbain, I never really thought about this plight that many clergy find themselves in, much less put a face to it. Now I cannot ignore the unfairness and cruelty of it, and hope to be able to make a difference somehow.

  • http://twitter.com/39Blogger Ryan Scott

    Abuse is wrong, but judging Christians because they stand for something is just someone else standing for something.  Someone that knows Teresa is corrected with a comment that “many more hated and scorned.”  Isn’t that scorn in it’s own right?  It’s kind of hypocritical to stereotype all christians as being hateful while ignoring the own hate from atheism is kind of funny.

    Anyone who jumps from one worldview to the other is going to meet disapproval from those who still hold that world view.  It works in reverse as well. Check out Lee Strobel’s story in his conversion from atheism to christianity.

  • pagansister

    I was raised in the Methodist church, but had questions for a long time and finally stopped labeling myself as a Christian at 17.   Most of my family (excluding my husband, raised a UU and children) are devout Christians, but have accepted my long ago decision.  Raised my children in the UU church and neither turned to Christianity, but they at least had knowledge to base their decisions on.  

  • MHVK

    I did not hear the original story on NPR (and haven’t had time to yet, but I’m familiar with the background.) But I did hear the weekly listener feedback on All Things Considered on Tuesday evening. There was one response from an atheist/humanist listener thanking ATC for the compassionately done story. But predictably they read several Christian complaints, and implied that they had a giant stack. The story was, according to these missives, biased toward the atheist viewpoint, didn’t interview anyone from the wronged congregations or who doesn’t doubt the faith, and didn’t stand up for the “fact” that god exists.

    If their demand for ‘fair and balanced’ coverage was genuine, then Christians should have no problem when NPR finds atheist commentators to express doubt and dismay in every story about a Christian going about their religious life.

    The truth is that Xtians simply hate being reminded that atheists exist.


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