Life takes many strange turns. If you would have told me ten years ago that I would be writing a story about my journey from faith to atheism, I would have called the elders of my church and held an all night prayer meeting for your soul! Yet, here I am. A former pastor, well known, well respected, and…an atheist. I didn’t start out thinking that I would lose my faith. In fact, I believed that my faith was so strong that it could withstand anything. It turns out that it could withstand most things, but not the truth. You see I followed Christ all those years thinking HE was the truth, but now I realize that the faith I had followed all my life was just a house of cards. Whoosh! A puff of the wind of reason and they all came tumblin’ down.
My story is probably similar to many you’ve heard before. I grew up as a PK, a preacher’s kid. But unlike some of the ones who were wild, I was just the opposite. I was 100%, on fire, dedicated, committed to the gospel, and sold out for god. I loved church, I loved God, and I loved being a believer. I felt ‘called’ into ministry at a very early age. The majority of my young life and early adulthood was focused on pursing God’s call on my life. When I finally accepted my first pastorate, all I wanted to do was change the world for Christ! Preaching the gospel to all those poor souls bound for hell was my passion. I could feel God speaking through me each week as I preached. Many people made professions of faith (were born-again), repented of their sins, or experienced God’s work in their lives during these church services. Now before you think that I’m way too full of myself, allow me to explain. Often people pose a popular argument that those of us who walked away from our faith were never saved or had a true experience with God. (The “no true Scotsman” argument) As you can see from what I’ve shared, I had an experience! If I wasn’t a true believer, then no one was! So how did everything change?
At six years of age I believed that God had called me to be a pastor.
Knowledge requires questioning and examination. Since I was a little girl, I’ve had questions. Tiny, little things in the Bible that didn’t seem to add up would pop up, but like a good little Christian, I told myself that ‘God’s ways were higher than my ways’ so how could I, a feeble human, understand the ways of God. So I filed all the questions away in a safe little drawer that I created in the back of my mind. With full resolve to please God, my tactic worked pretty well for a while, but then a new one would pop up. Immediately, I’d bury myself in the Bible or service in order to silence the questions.
I am sure you know the kind of questions I am talking about. The places in the Bible where the text is contradictory, so we choose to skip them, or the ones that are so tough, you hope no one ever asks you! Like, “Where was God when the hurricane hit killing so many innocent people?” or “How could God condemn someone to hell who has never even heard of him?” or “I prayed like the Bible teaches, and my family member wasn’t healed!” Using my tried-and-true method, I would banish each one in the hopes that it would stay away forever. But here’s the problem. That drawer that contained all my questions and doubts was so full that it began to overflow!
Ten years ago, the little drawer had become so full that it started to overflow. I couldn’t tuck things away or ignore them any longer. The only solution was to peek out of my spiritual fog and begin dealing with the questions.
In order to manage my overflowing questions, I began digging through mounds of research, information, studies, and anything else that could help me solve this puzzle. Honestly, I started this journey in order to answer all my questions from a spiritual standpoint. When I began working through all of this, I believed that, in the end, I would be a much stronger Christian and pastor. Little did I know that the process of discovery would be the very path that led me out of the shadows of faith and into the light of reason. Piece by piece, as I dug through those drawers, my faith began to change. At first, I simply morphed into a different kind of Christian. I became a less conservative, somewhat liberal Christian. However, when that didn’t answer the questions, I moved far from my strict, fundamentalist upbringing into progressive Christianity. Little by little, as I studied and grew in my knowledge, the truth began to dawn on me.
I considered myself an ‘agnostic Christian’ at first. (Don’t ask me what that means. I just pulled the term out of thin air.) That was kind of safe—I could handle that. It wasn’t long before the ‘Christian’ part of it went away and I was just agnostic. Actually, when I became a part of The Clergy Project, I considered myself an agnostic. I guess the big “A” word was just to hard for me to accept at that point in my journey. Looking back, I can see that I’d actually been an atheist for some time I just didn’t know it or didn’t want to admit it.
I knew at once that I had to get out of the ministry. Priority number one became working on an exit strategy that would allow me to walk away as quickly as possible. In order to lessen the financial impact on our family, I took a temporary job. At the same time, I began looking for a full-time job outside of the church. I must have submitted over 100 resumes in my desperate attempt to find a way out.On March 18, 2012, I knew I couldn’t do it any longer. Living a double life was slowly killing me inside. When I left church that Sunday morning, I submitted a letter to my superintendent informing him that I was resigning for personal reasons.
A wonderful friend insisted that I attend the Reason Rally along with the American Atheists National convention two weeks later. Interestingly, the opportunity presented itself for me to officially ‘come out’ as an atheist…on stage…in front of 1000+ people…at the conference. I thought to myself, “People will finally see the growing number of clergy who are no longer believers. Maybe they will understand our struggle.” With those words, my life changed forever.
With shaky knees and butterflies in my stomach, I stepped up onto the stage. Gripping the podium for support I looked at the audience and said,
“My name is Teresa MacBain…and I am an atheist!”
To my surprise, the crowd jumped to their feet and applauded, many with tears in their eyes. As I looked out on the faces before me, the notes that I had prepared detailing my journey from faith to atheism, were swept to the side. In that moment, I was completely overcome with a need to apologize for spending so many years actively opposing atheists.
In my wildest dreams, I couldn’t have imagined the response I received. Tears stained the cheeks of the majority of the attendees. As I left the platform, a long line formed, extending around the back of the main hall. These people all wanted to share their story and their love with me! Needless to say, I was completely blown away by their response! These atheists, the ones I had been taught to hate, embraced me openly and honestly. With warmth and compassion, I entered a new chapter in my life.
Leaving the convention, I felt so happy, so peaceful. Finally, I could be myself. No more hiding! No more double life! I was out in the open.
That wonderful, encouraging bubble burst two days after my return home. An attendee video taped my speech and uploaded it to You Tube. Once it hit the internet, it went viral immediately. The local news station picked up the story and ran with it. NPR, Talk of the Nation, CNN, and many other news outlets followed suit. The news was everywhere! Former friends and colleagues began inundating me with hate mail and phone calls. These responses completely caught me off guard leaving me depressed and hurt. I was devastated by the rejection of people who I loved! People that I’d spent my entire life caring for, encouraging, counseling, and loving—all gone in a second because I no longer held to their beliefs.
My initial days were spent hiding in my home. Going out meant that I could encounter an old friend or just someone who watched the local news. Imagining the glaring looks were enough to keep me away. Without ministry, I felt disconnected and unsure of my purpose. It was all I had ever wanted to do and all I knew. Now that I was out in the open, I had to find a way to move forward into this unknown terrain.
Taking things one day at a time helped me deal with the transition. Leaving the familiar terrain I had walked for 44 years has been very difficult, but it is worth it. Each day I have learned more about who I am and what I, not god in me doing the work, have to offer. Currently I am working with secular groups across the U.S. in developing local secular/humanist communities. Being a former pastor gives me a big advantage in building communities—it is what pastors do all the time.
The road ahead leads to unfamiliar territory, but I’m ready for what’s around the bend.
Gazing into my rearview mirror, I can see the God whom I followed for decades fading into the distance. The road ahead leads to unfamiliar territory, but I’m ready for what’s around the bend. Being out and being honest about who I am fuels my journey as I navigate this new life.