You’ve probably heard about Teresa MacBain being fired from the Humanist Community Project at Harvard. The reason for this was because she lied. On her résumé she repeated a lie that had been circulating since she entered into the atheist movement: that she had a Master’s of Divinity from Duke Divinity School. It came to light in the New York Times that Teresa did not have the degree she claimed. MacBain was subsequently fired.
So where do I stand?
Well, Teresa was certainly wrong to do this. I’ve hung out with Teresa and I think she’s a warm, somewhat insecure, but ultimately good person, but even wonderful people can fuck up and she certainly fucked up. The sad thing is that it was a completely irrelevant lie. Teresa was hired on at American Atheists because she was competent, not because she had a M. Div. Teresa was signed on with the Humanists of Florida because she was competent, not because she had a M. Div. And I imagine she was hired on at the HCP because her past work stood as a testament to her competence and dedication, not because she had a M. Div.
So if the degree was irrelevant, what would motivate her to tell the lie? I’m not exactly Sherlock Holmes, but it seems fairly elementary to me. Upon leaving religion, MacBain was shunned. Like Jerry DeWitt, she lost pretty much everything and was desperate to show her new community that she was admirable enough to belong. So she exaggerated her education. The sad irony is that even that was unnecessary. Atheists are not like the biblical god – we do not demand perfection. Our world is not as black and white as the one expressed in the bible where there are only two boxes: perfect or an ultimate disappointment. Teresa was welcome with atheists whether or not she had a M. Div or if she was the world’s most inept chimney sweep. But looking at us from the outside, in an environment that is saturated with derogatory sneers about what cruel bastards atheists all are, I’m not sure I can blame her for thinking that just being a good person wouldn’t be enough.
What’s more, I think the nature of her lie also says some things. In this movement there have oft been times when lies have been thrown around explicitly to harm people we don’t like. I have had this happen to me on a few occasions. But Teresa did not tell her lie to hurt anybody. Instead, she told it because she so desperately wanted to be accepted. You all know that my goal in life is to be as honest as possible at pretty much every opportunity, but even I have lied in the past in order to be accepted. It’s a strong pull to which I suspect we’ve all succumbed at one time or another.
Make no mistake: firing Teresa was the right thing for the HCP to do. Christians are already leaping on Teresa’s lie in order to extrapolate her dishonesty onto all atheists. It’s the nature of lies, even when they don’t intend to do damage they often do damage anyway. This is why we must be swift to condemn the lie – but my hope is that we don’t leap to condemn Teresa as completely as we condemn dishonesty. The question of whether or not Teresa should be forgiven is an entirely different question than if what she did was wrong. The latter question has been settled, by Teresa, before any of this went public, on her facebook page:
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 false 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.
With deep sorrow,
That’s the right way to handle it. Not to go into hiding, but to be the first person to speak. While this bit of integrity may not overrule her recent lapse of character, it’s a start – and it’s a start that many people never take. So since the question of ethics is resolved, it’s time to move on to the question of whether or not to forgive. I’m not sure I could forgive a malicious lie, but that’s not what this was. MacBain’s lie was told out of an immense desire to be a part of our movement. Ironically, it was told out of a drive to contribute to our cause. It betrayed loyalty – a loyalty confirmed by her last 18 months of extremely competent work for our cause. Teresa made a mistake, but she’s definitely on board with a purpose we all share. That cannot be in question.
I can forgive that. I think we all should, and it seems most of us are. Teresa and her family are now going to have financial troubles and I’ve been told that several atheists have opened up their homes to her. Thankfully, nobody takes this as condoning what Teresa did, but instead as expressing love and optimism that she will atone. I believe she will. Hell, if Teresa spends the next 18 months working as feverishly as she did the last 18 months, I suspect that any fair person will consider her redeemed and then some.
But redemption takes work. We may not be as willing as Jesus to forgive anything even if no effort has been put in to earn that forgiveness (which I think is a good thing), but we are willing to forgive once sufficient contrition has been expressed and once sufficient work has been put in to make it right (or, at least, most of us are). I’d say the contrition is taken care of (and then some). Now it’s up to Teresa to put in the work.
Teresa MacBain is a great person who made a mistake. What matters to me is that she’s a great person, and that leaves me with no doubt she’ll make it right. I’d bet my own reputation on it.