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 editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.