My Take on Teresa MacBain

My Take on Teresa MacBain October 2, 2013

A phone call from a mutual friend I share with Teresa MacBain prompted me to write out my thoughts on her sad situation. As I’m sure many of you know, Teresa has been fired by the Humanist Community at Harvard for inflating her resume. She explained exactly what she did on her Facebook page:

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.

The New York Times had done a profile of her only a few days earlier, which is how this all came out. Someone at Duke read that article, didn’t remember her being part of that grad program at the university, looked it up and informed the Times that she did not actually have such a degree. The Times also did a follow up article noting the deception. Teresa has had to endure public humiliation and is, I’m sure, quite devastated about all of this. But she’s also dealing with it about as well as she could, taking full responsibility and promising to win back everyone’s trust over time. What more could she do?

But let’s also recognize something important: What she did was very normal and very human (which is not the same thing as saying it’s okay). If you’re familiar at all with the social psychological literature, you know that embellishment is so much a normal part of human behavior that virtually no one is likely to have not engaged in it at one point or another. Once again I strongly suggest reading Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. It will make you understand, if you don’t already, how we justify such decisions to ourselves, one little step at a time. We all do it.

And as someone who doesn’t have a college degree, I can fully understand why she felt the need to do it. I have been tempted to pad my resume at times when applying for a job myself because I never finished my degree but I know that I am almost certainly more competent than many people who do have a degree. I’ve never done it, but I’ve been tempted to do it. So I get it. And I understand how our ethical resolve can be diminished through self-justification and rationalization. It’s one thing our human brains do exceedingly well.

At the risk of being highly ironic, let me quote Jesus: Let he who is without sin cast the first stone. You may not have padded your resume, but you’ve embellished your accomplishments when telling a story. I have too. I bet we all have. And we’ve justified it to ourselves, if we bother at all, by saying it’s just a little white lie. And it makes us look better. And besides, they aren’t going to catch me at it. Welcome to being a human being. The fact that we are all so prone to doing the same kind of thing should allow us to react with understanding and compassion.

Harvard did the right thing by firing her. What she did was wrong and they had little choice. But we don’t have to fire her from the movement. We don’t have to ostracize her. We can and should embrace her. I don’t know Teresa well. We’ve emailed a few times and we’ve met once, at Skepticon last year. But I know a lot of people who know her well and every single one of them adores her and thinks the world of her. I’m betting that she can bounce back from this, earn our trust again and retake a prominent position in the broader community. And I’m rooting for her to do just that.

But let us go one step further. Let us stop with the hero worship, the entire concept of atheist celebrities. Hero worship is rarely a good thing, it leads us to put people on pedestals whether they want to be there or not. And then we’re shocked when they turn out to be human and make mistakes. But that’s all they ever were in the first place, human. I’ve been the object of that kind of thing myself in a very small way with what little bit of micro-celebrity I have in this movement and it’s quite uncomfortable for me.

Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, James Randi — our biggest seculebrities are flawed human beings who have legitimately been criticized for many things. The same is true of me. And you. And everyone else. And we shouldn’t stop criticizing anyone, celebrity or not, when it’s warranted. But we should recognize our common humanity and our common flaws. We are all a mixture of good and bad. I know for sure I am. I suspect you know you are too. So I’m gonna cut Teresa some slack and I hope you’ll join me.

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