Is Coming Out as an Atheist Always a Good Idea? A Conversation with Three Former Pastors

If you’re a pastor who doesn’t believe in God, what do you do?

If you look to prominent former pastors Teresa MacBain, Jerry DeWitt, and Catherine Dunphy, the answer may seem obvious: Stop hiding your secret. Tell people you don’t believe in God. You’ll be okay!

But is it really always the best option?

I asked those well-known former pastors a series of questions to find out if there were legitimate reasons not to come out of the closet if you were an atheist still in the pulpit. They didn’t brush off the questions and say that coming out was always a good idea. Instead, they gave me honest answers as to why, at the very least, it deserves a second thought, while still encouraging those pastors to work through the difficulties.

As pastors, what were the biggest problems with coming out as an atheist?

Teresa MacBain: I think there are two big issues that affected me. 1) The loss of relationships. The majority of my long term relationships abandoned me immediately. I really have a hard time still dealing with the grief involved. It’s not so easy to turn off the love you have for a person, especially ones you’ve had a relationship with for many years. Add to that the fact that a number of these people responded with hate mail, compounding the hurt. 2) The feeling of “lostness” after leaving a lifetime of church and ministry. I spent 44 years embedded in a religious life. When I left all that, I realized that I had no idea how to exist apart from church. It was the world in which I existed. I’m still trying to get a handle on the new normal. Basically, my entire world has been turned upside down. Everything about life is entirely different. That’s not so easy to get over.

Jerry DeWitt: I describe my life losses as “Losing the Four Fs.” The first F was Finances. Even though I had stopped pastoring, was only evangelizing part time, and was working a fulltime (secular) job, my coming out as a non-believer cost me my livelihood. Religious county administrators pressured my boss into firing me. My family lost almost all of our income which eventually put our home into foreclosure, which I only avoided by filing Chapter 13 bankruptcy.

The second F was the Favor of the community. We had worked for over 25 years to deserve a place of influence in our little world of ten thousand residents. Along with ministry, ten years of public service with City Hall was instantly deemed meaningless by many in the church world.

F number three was Friends. Fair-weather friends, that is. Suddenly their best buddy, me, who once apparently represented a means to an end, was now found to be bad for business. In one way, learning who your real friends are should feel like a form of emotional spring cleaning. Yet, it also can feel like finding out that your lover has been cheating on you for years. What’s real? Does true friendship really exist? Stripped of so many relationships all at once can break a person’s confidence.

The last and most important F was Family. Knowledge of, thus judgment about, my non-belief eventually made its way to my street. Ostracism from our neighbors was more than my wife of 22 years could take. While I was busy trying to save our home, she felt she had no choice but to leave the state. Several of my most religious relatives couldn’t resist sending me threatening message before severing all ties. Those that remain seem to be dressed in an invisible suit of armor. Movement through everyday conversations with them are clumsy and defensive. There always seems to be an elephant in the room that everyone, including me, is so afraid of addressing that we all simply prefer silence.

Catherine Dunphy: I would identify two key areas; first financial. After coming out and/or leaving ministry, the primary problem is how to find and secure employment. I was lucky. I was a recent graduate so it was easier to make a career transition. I will say that I spent a lot of time networking and volunteering in a field I was interested in to build connections. I must underline that this would not have been possible for me if I had been married and had a child at the time.

The second key area is the personal relationships or family challenges. For me, and for many other members of The Clergy Project, this is an ongoing challenge. My mother is a very religious Catholic who attends Mass at least weekly, goes on retreat, prays the rosary, etc. She is not happy that I am an atheist and that my husband and I have not baptized our son. Generally she does a good job of keeping her religiosity to herself, but there are regular ongoing occasions like holidays or the death of an extended family member when things get a bit uncomfortable.

Last year I had a serious health scare when I went to have a routine surgery. For a brief time I was unresponsive and had to be resuscitated and put on a ventilator. My mother freaked out, as mothers do when their children are in danger. This health crisis put her into hyper-Christian mode and after she was sure I was ok, she gave me a “sermon” that included defining me as “spiritually decrepit.” My only response to her was, “You know I am a good and loving person, so I am not by your definition ‘decrepit,’ but I am an atheist.”

My own experience shows that this conflict continues, but you do get better at defusing difficult situations. Navigating the waters in relationships between believers and nonbelievers is a bigger challenge than many might expect and I know from speaking with active members of The Clergy Project that it is one of the biggest (if not the biggest) deterrents to coming out.

Were there any unexpected surprises after you told people you were atheists?

Teresa MacBain: The biggest surprise for me was the embrace of the freethought community. I had no idea that there would be such a wonderful support network for me. So many people have eagerly embraced me as a friend, even though I was formerly one who spoke out against atheists and held the typical presuppositions that religious people have toward non-believers. The community at large didn’t care about that. Their only goal, as demonstrated by their actions, was to offer love and support as I worked through my transition.

Jerry DeWitt: The only real surprise has been the few people who have said my non-belief doesn’t matter to them and, even more so, those who have expressed some level of doubt themselves. I guess I was also very surprised by how few “true believers” have tried to re-convert me. Lastly, I’ve been taken back at how many times I’ve been told “I love you, anyway.” This is actually a very painful and egotistical insult masked in the appearance of tolerance.

Catherine Dunphy: I was surprised that more people (believers) didn’t want to know the details of my deconversion. There were two general responses: “I don’t want to know you any more” & “Let’s agree to disagree and not discuss this.”

Do you regret coming out as an atheist?

Teresa MacBain: No. Even with the enormous difficulty and pain I’ve experienced, being honest with myself and others makes it all worthwhile. My coming out has had the added benefit of allowing me to speak out for so many who, because of their circumstances, are not able to be out in the open. Many clergy persons have become aware of The Clergy Project because of my coming out. These are very important things to me and I’m proud to be a part of supporting others in these and many other ways.

Jerry DeWitt: As I’ve stated before, I regret coming out the same way a house fire survivor regrets having inhaled smoke. Being myself and expressing myself was as natural as taking a breath — a very, very painful breath. Though my regrets are few, I do grieve over the pain my loved ones have experienced during my outing. If it all could have happen in a much less painful way for them, I would have gladly paid any price.

Catherine Dunphy: No, I don’t regret it. For a long time I just wallowed in the feeling of being the only one. Now that The Clergy Project exists and I know I have peers, I am very happy to have a community. I also recognize that what happened to me was not odd or strange, but rather a direct result of education and an openness to relinquish the hold that my religious tradition had on my life.

What would you warn fellow pastors (who are secretly atheists) about if they were ready to come out?

Teresa MacBain: I would warn them to plan very carefully. The impact reverberates through every part of their lives and is difficult to manage at best. I would also share very frankly the difficulties that I’ve encountered over the past year. My intent would not be to discourage these pastors, but I feel obligated to give them all the facts so that they may make an informed decision.

Jerry DeWitt: I would warn them that the secular support for them is just now being put into place and still has a good ways to go. I would tell them that they should do everything in their power to not be broken and “broke” at the some time. The loss of three of the four Fs is most likely inescapable. Favor, Friends, and some Family will fail you, but if you can continue to support your immediate family Financially, you may be able to support them better emotionally.

Catherine Dunphy: I would recommend that before any member consider coming out, they should make a plan with contingencies, depending on the who, what, where, and why of their situation.

All of our [Clergy Project] members have such unique stories. The one commonality, however, is the strain that it places on their relationships, whether they be with family, friends, or the wider community. I have often heard this transition compared to a divorce — you can be sure it is not like walking away from any other job.

Many of our active members want to quietly walk away from ministry which is part of the reason that Todd Stiefel’s donation (through the Stiefel Freethought Foundation) is so important: it gives them the tools they need to prepare and plan for their own personal exodus.

In case it’s not clear already, any pastors considering leaving the pulpit should check out The Clergy Project and have conversations discussing the pros and cons of coming out with people who have been there or who are going through the same internal strife.

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.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke

    here’s my suggestion for all of you: hook up with actual secular communities with an interest in religious studies. i had the good fortune to go to a divinity school like this, and if certain things had gone a bit differently for me (none relating to my atheism, but an abusive ex) i’d be teaching at one now. maybe you can too. i’d be teaching as an atheist, and accepted as such, much like my old PhD advisor.

    you have expertise, and skills. you can make the transition into teaching at welcoming communities if you want. it might take a little money and time, but it’s worth looking into. or volunteer/non-profits of a secular or accepting nature. you don’t even have to give up “church” life! the UUs, some jewish groups, Wiccans and pagans and other “non traditional” spiritual groups… there are lots of options.

    i totally understand. a few years after leaving div school, i went to a famous blogger gathering and attended a session on religion. i so missed it! the back and forth, the spirit and discussion, the contemplation of greater mysteries. these days, i’m an out and proud “militant atheist,” but that’s mostly for political reasons. i still entertain the notion of “spirit,” and find comfort in it as a purely human construct, but one that has interest and mystery and value.

    what you have done is what so many of us thinking spiritual people have done: rejected a hateful orthodoxy and organization(s) filled with greedy liars and hypocrites. for that you are to be lauded! praised! and i do. but you are not alone.

    an agnostic friend of mine likes to joke, “you atheists. you’re all so obsessed with religion” and it’s sort of true. we are people who want, and need, to ask these kinds of questions. embrace that. just accept that now, you’re fighting the good fight from a higher, and harder place in our society. most of all: wear your expertise as a shield, and use it as a sword, in the battles against the haters.

    i have found that to be very inspirational. i love being able to say, “i own a copy of the BDB and can read it, how about you?” to door to door buybull salesmen. or “i translated the original “moses” story… from the sumerian/akkadian. do you know it?”

    there’s no den of religious theocrats i fear to walk into. this is the purpose for which we were born, if you want to ascribe such to your existence. go with it. it’s a lot of fun, also. but understand: you have lived in one world and crossed into another. that has value. run with it, and embrace the love and acceptance and accolade you will find from your fellow non-believing brothers and sisters. we are, heh, legion.

  • b33bl3br0x

    Does Jerry have enough grounds for a discrimination suit?

  • alconnolly

    Enjoyable read. Jerry I really admire. Reading his story shows a man of integrity. He left the church when he had established in his mind that he truly did not believe, and did his best to retain relationships regardless of the faith of the people involved unless they would have none of it. Catherine I know nothing about. Theresa chose an approach that showed a complete disdain for everyone she knew and supposedly loved, by not sharing her new found understanding of the world with those she had been preaching to and taking money from, and instead choosing to announce elsewhere to a large crowd of perfect strangers that she had rejected the faith. That is similar to announcing to a bunch of perfect stranger on twitter that you are divorcing your wife before mentioning it to her. Then she talks about the grief of abandoned relationships. She has never acknowledged her actions were hurtful and will not respond to the slightest questioning of that behavior, but seems to think that she was abandoned rather than the other way around. She shows herself to be completely un-reflective regarding her actions and rather self pitying. Not a person to look up to.

    • smrnda

      I have a hard time being judgmental since I’ve never been in a similar situation. My whole world was never an ideological bubble full of people who all thought the same way, so changing my mind on anything never could have come with the same social cost. I don’t think there was any way she could have announced it without pretty much the same consequences. It’s hard enough for just regular believers to leave a religion, let alone a higher up. They don’t leave you the possibility of a clean and easy exit.

  • LesterBallard

    Isn’t that Kevin Smith in the middle? Clerks was great; things kinda went downhill from there.

    • Sinfanti

      Are you kidding? Dogma was brilliant!

      • LesterBallard

        Second best, but a distant second for me, though I loved Carlin as the Bishop.

        • kevin white

          I actually liked Dogma better. Then again, Alan Rickman as an angel is always hi-freaking-larious. That and Alanis Morrisette as GOD.

          • LesterBallard

            Alan Rickman should be the voice of GPS.

            • kevin white

              YES YES YES! This + 1000

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    The majority of my long term relationships abandoned me immediately… Add to that the fact that a number of these people responded with hate mail, compounding the hurt.

    Several of my most religious relatives couldn’t resist sending me threatening message before severing all ties.

    This is mouth-fall-open appalling, even though I’ve seen it many times. I just can’t get used to it. What a vile toxin religion can be to instantly obliterate long-established love and the instinct to be supportive of family. Those friends and family described here are not practitioners of the “Religion of Love,” they’re members of a vicious, savage hate cult.

    I think the most telling test of how well Christians live by the best teachings of their savior is in how they treat non-believers. From my observations so far, most (not all) get an F-MINUS! They’re not even trying. Like addicts, they just want their hate fix and their superiority rush, and nothing else matters.

  • Lori F – MN

    Leaving the clergy as ‘burn out’ wouldn’t be so far from the truth. From there they can go to other places and eventually give up church and come out as atheist.
    Best of luck to all of those.

  • shopguy

    I was baptized an Anglican as an infant, and confirmed as a young man at age 24. That’s a big deal in the Anglican community. I left the faith about 15 years later.
    I live with a wife who is still a Christian, and that’s tough.
    I have some sympathy for those who chose the ministry and left it – to become as I did an apostate, but not complete sympathy.
    Yes you’ll lose those who consider themselves “people of faith” but so what? Why would you want them? I tolerate my wife for my kids, and endure her constant belittling. I can take it. So can you.
    I don’t associate with those of the faith, at least not those that promote it. They know better than to engage me in a philosophical discussion because they know that I’ll eat them for lunch. I understand Hitchens’ aggressive stance towards the faithful, and I know that one can be passive to in dealing with them. I take a middle road. “Don’t tread on me” probably sums it up best.
    I knew that rejecting what I accepted was a hard road. For a minister to do that is a lot harder, and a bigger threat to one’s self esteem. I don’t envy you. But it was a mistake to embrace religion just as it was for me. I don’t look for sympathy, and neither should you.

  • http://www.facebook.com/dave.warnock.7 Dave Warnock

    I think it’s unfair to judge Theresa or anyone for how they do something like this. Unless you have experienced it, you don’t really know what it’s like to walk away from not only your livelihood, but your complete identity. The response from people you once led will vary from sadness to anger to everything in between. There is a grieving; there is an identity crisis; there are times of depression; it is an earthquake. There is simply no “right” way to do it. One has to do whatever one can to maintain sanity and dignity while making changes of this sort. It’s going on 3 years for me and there are some situations I encounter with people that still leave me reeling. The poison of religion lingers within relationships for years…

    • alconnolly

      I agree. Actions taken in the thick of the experience can be legitimately misguided. But after some time to reconsider and get ones bearing, a little reflection on how ones actions would have affected others, and saying “it looks like I hurt people by going about this in the wrong way even though I did not see it at the time” would show integrity. Doubling down on that behavior shows someone who refuses to reflect upon and consider their actions, and speaking of lack of empathy, it shows a strong lack of empathy for the very “flock” that she shepherded for many years.

  • ORAXX

    The reaction of family and former friends says it all. There are certainly loving Christians in this world but there are at least as many smug, self satisfied, intolerant, intellectually lazy, mean spirited, true believers, who never miss church, and who would burn heretics at the stake if they could.

  • Pain.Strumpet

    Every encounter I have with a Clergy Project article involves the same reactions: hostility for the clergy; followed by thinking, “It’s okay, they’re looking for a way out now.” Then I try again, and I get vengeful: “The poor dears are having a hard time? As well they should.” And I try to think, “This leads to a world I want to live in, where it’s easy to get out of the church and drain the pulpits dry.” But I still can’t shake the hostility.

    Try reading the above excerpts, not as written by ex-clergy members who had a hard time leaving a congregation and a faith, but as written by Bruno the Bruiser leaving a powerful organized crime outfit. He’s going to lose a lot of lifelong relationships, old friends may threaten him, he’s going to have a hard time keeping his standard of living, etc.

    Do I want Bruno to stay a criminal, or would I rather there be one fewer criminals? What if I can live in a world where such criminals can find a safe, even desirable, way out of a lifestyle of crime? Obviously, I want to back the Bruiser Project: it leads to a world I want to live in.

    But I’m still having a hard time not being hostile to the ex-criminals. I’d welcome a better perspective, because I think my automatic reactions get in the way of getting to a better world.

  • http://mindprod.com roedygreen

    I compare this with coming out as gay in 1969. There were some big negatives to coming out. Death threats, 350 abusive calls a day from Christians. Harassment from the landlord. However, you do this not just for yourself. You do it for the entire community. Coming out creates a tidal wave. Your courage gives others courage. If you hide, you become part of the problem. If you hide, you manufacture shame. If you come out, you are freed of it. Christians are bullies. We must stand up to them.

  • Stuart M.

    Fascinating! AdChoices put an ad here saying, “God – Click to see 6 reasons God exists.” I clicked on it, and they’re all tired old ID arguments. I hope clicking on the ad at least cost them some money, or even better, “Friendly Atheist” got a commission!

    My heart goes out to these three. It’s not the same, but I remember when I was young, I was quite the right-winger. I mean that in the economic sense, Reaganomics and all that. I was never religious, even considered myself a feminist, but was willing to put up with religious “bedfellows” when it came to fighting perceived liberal bias in the media or in foreign policy. When communism fell (in Europe), I and my similarly conservative friends were at a crossroads. My best friend in the movement became a fanatic Catholic, but to his credit, he didn’t shut me out. He has never tried to convert me, but the anti-evolution emails just won’t stop coming! I think he knows he doesn’t have a leg to stand on when it comes to proving god exists, so he just tries to chip away at atheist arguments. As I matured, I found myself drawn to environmentalism and even voted for Obama these last two elections. The economic collapse in 2008 finally cured me of my belief in the free market system. What I’m trying to say is it’s never too late to reexamine one’s beliefs. What these three did is far more courageous than anything I have ever done.


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