Teresa McBain in the New York Times

Teresa McBain in the New York Times September 23, 2013

The New York Times has an article about Teresa McBain and what she’s doing now. For a brief time she was the PR director for American Atheists, then another brief stint as the president of Humanists of Florida. And now she has a new job that I think is really cool.

Now, 18 months into a new life, Ms. MacBain is bringing much of her old one to the task of building congregations of nonbelievers. She has been hired as the director of the Humanist Community Project at Harvard with the mandate to travel the country helping atomized groups of atheists, agnostics, humanists and freethinkers replicate the communal structure and support that organized religion provides to its faithful.

This line of work draws directly on Ms. MacBain’s experience of seeing her father create and build congregations throughout the small-town South and of her own track record of ministering in churches, prisons, nursing homes and drug-rehab centers. Were she not helping to develop communities of nonbelievers, she would be called, in Christian parlance, a church-planter.

In her insistence on recognizing the social value of religion, rather than merely disparaging it as superstition for saps, Ms. MacBain operates every much in sync with her boss, Greg M. Epstein, the humanist chaplain at Harvard. In his 2009 book, “Good Without God,” and in a subsequent 50-city speaking tour, Mr. Epstein espoused the creation of secular communities. By hiring Ms. MacBain, he has put nonbelieving boots on the ground.

“The purpose of these communities,” Mr. Epstein wrote in an e-mail, “is to help us connect with one another more deeply, to spur us to act in the interest of the common good, and to change the way we think about values and purpose in a world where traditional religion is no longer vital for us. We’re not trying to build antireligious groups — the intention is more to answer questions about alienation, isolation, economic justice, and political and environmental sustainability, fighting back against religious privilege only when necessary.”

I think this is exactly what we need to do in this movement, create communities. Studies show that this is the real benefit of religion, that it creates intentional communities that provide the kind of social network that is very important for our individual happiness. My friend Luke Galen’s study of religious and secular communities found that is the existence of the community and our participation in it that helps keep us happy and content because we have that network of friendship and support.

His study had two phases, one that focused on the community that he and I both belong to, CFI Michigan, and another that focused on secular communities around the world. Finding CFI Michigan seven years ago has been a huge benefit to me in so many ways. I’ve made dear friends, been constantly challenged intellectually, and supported emotionally. The importance of building such communities, both location-specific and virtual ones, really can’t be overstated. And Teresa will do a terrific job of helping build them.

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  • Why not just join Kiwanis?

  • imst

    I saw her speak a couple years ago at the Northwest Freethought Conference as part of the Clergy Project. She was great and I think this is an excellent role for her that she’ll excel at.

  • tbp1

    Studies show that this is the real benefit of religion, that it creates intentional communities that provide the kind of social network that is very important for our individual happiness.

    Yep. When I was growing up a significant part of my family’s social life was with people we knew from church. It wasn’t that the bridge parties, barbecues or whatever actually had religious undertones, it’s just that we were comfortable with the people we knew in that setting. I haven’t found anything exactly like that and I honestly kind of miss it. For one thing church is a place to meet people who don’t do what you do professionally, not always easy. It also gives you some automatic topics of conversation.

    Still, since I’m not a believer I just can’t make myself go to church, even to a Unitarian church, like some of my atheist friends. I’d love to have a roughly equivalent secular alternative.

  • abb3w

    @1, :

    Why not just join Kiwanis?

    (NotSureIfSerious.jpg ?)

    Because "spirituality" is a component of Kiwanis. Poking around shows more than a few traces of inamicability toward non-theists and secularists; EG PDF.

  • magistramarla

    Thanks to Ed’s suggestion, we sought out an Atheist group when we moved back to Texas.

    We found FACT (Freethinker’s Association of Central Texas) and it has already proven to be a great social outlet for us. We’re both enjoying the monthly breakfast discussions. One sweet couple gave me a ride to a lecture that the group sponsors, since I can no longer drive and the hubby is too deep into his research and writing a dissertation. One of the lovely ladies of FACT picked me up to take me to lunch and shopping – yay!

    These are the kinds of connections that we as human beings need to make.

    I’ve been involved in many social organizations over the years and I’ve made lots of friends, but it is very important to have friends with whom we can be honest and not have to worry about offending with our non-religious/political points of view. I’ve very often worked closely with ladies in other groups and I’ve had to remain very quiet while they chattered about their churches. I even have to bite my tongue quite a bit around a few of my own children. While all five of them aren’t religious, three of them would be a bit shocked that we identify as Atheists, and two of them are somewhat conservative, so I have to watch what I say.

    I feel extremely comfortable with the folks of FACT, and I’m just getting to know them.

  • bybelknap

    Heh. In my neck of the woods it’s the NEPA free thought group. The one run by Justin Vacula. No thanks.

  • Markita Lynda—threadrupt

    Start your own, then!

  • And now she doesn’t have that job due to fabricating part of her resume!