Editor’s Note: This is one of a two-part series by Clergy Project members reflecting on the news that a prominent member, Teresa MacBain, has announced a return to Christianity. Both writers, Alexis Record and Catherine Dunphy, sent me unsolicited essays, each moved in her own way to address this unsettling event. We are Freethinkers using this space to express our views and state facts freely.
By Alexis Record
I have just returned from a trip to the state capitol with Secular Coalition for California where we urged senators and assembly members to keep matters of church and state separate. We wanted to show them that nonbelievers exist and are affected by religion’s reach into our laws. During this experience I met some new atheist friends who were interested in my story. I had been a Christian for three decades and am now very clearly not. What happened? What changed? For me, embracing the physical world by coming to realize the supernatural world lacked evidence was like looking at those paintings with the hidden images. Once I saw it, I couldn’t un-see it. During one conversation with a Secular Coalition volunteer, Kristin, I compared this epiphany to coming out of The Matrix.
While I missed my old life, once I’d seen what the world was like outside of faith, how could I let the machines plug me back into the goo pods? Of course a character in the Matrix famously fought to go back into it. While I don’t understand that, and that isn’t the case for most of the atheists I know, I do realize that it happens. This morning I woke up to the news that Teresa MacBain, a member of The Clergy Project (TCP), was promoting faith in God again. Our formerly shared atheism had become a part of her continuing Christian testimony.
Her actions make my life harder. MacBain decided not to tell the church she pastored about her lack of belief in a deity back in 2012. Instead she made a public declaration of atheism at the American Atheists convention, recorded on video for her church to discover. Recently TCP discovered her renewed belief in a deity, and again, because of a video on the Internet.
While not being completely transparent can be understandable for self-protection, there is a big difference between a religious institution that 70% of the population identifies with, and a support group for some of the most vulnerable people I know. The big guy can take it; the little guy can be pretty devastated.
TCP sometimes acts as triage for those who are trapped or hurting inside their religious communities. There’s a real fear of being discovered by the religious majority and losing health care, homes, spouses, and children. It’s unnerving that a person who had access to our deepest thought was no longer on board with our basic tenents. I’ve shared really personal things in TCP forums, and I’m one of the few who does not have a pseudonym, as I’m no longer in the closet. I admit I worry about her reading my thoughts and wondering if she’ll use any of that to spread her faith or try to convert doubters. But that’s fear talking. I’m sure MacBain won’t betray confidences if she hadn’t before.
While I try to understand why MacBain handled things as she did, her actions have consequences that affect me. My deconversion experience has come under doubt before, but this has put those doubts to the forefront of people’s minds again. I am seen as going through a phase (a “sinning” phase) instead of merely coming to a logical conclusion about deities. My “once-saved-always-saved” family members can now say,
“See? All our preconceived ideas about atheists are validated.”
Even if they simply start hoping I follow MacBain’s footsteps, they will be disappointed. As Proverbs says,
“Hope deferred makes the heart sick.”
I’m not miserable like MacBain has said she was. I’m happy and fulfilled and grounded. I do have people in my life praying that I become miserable, even very sick, in order to come back to God. (Full disclosure: I used to pray the same exact things for nonbelievers.) MacBain’s testimony supports that kind of thinking.
I am not going to make atheism a prerequisite for my friendships. So where do I go from here? When I went to my first Sunday Assembly meeting, I quickly became friends with Laura Heywood, who was on our assembly’s board of directors. As we harvested crops for a food bank during an outreach project, she told me that if I ever believed in God again that she would still be my friend. She said she would think I was nuts, but her friendship would not be based solely on atheism. The more I think about what she said, the more I realize how much that kind of friendship means to me. It is absolutely freeing. She saw that I had lost so much of my life coming out as an atheist, and she didn’t want me to go through that again. That’s priceless to me. It’s hard, but I want to be that kind of friend to others.
For those of us who have been honest about our atheism, there’s nothing gained by leaving our religious communities. Sure, you gain a new community — eventually, usually — but the initial loss can be staggering. Recovering is very difficult. While tempted to speculate about MacBain’s intentions, I can see no rational way this was done for or fame. It would be like setting yourself on fire just to be on the news. It doesn’t make sense to me. I doubt MacBain was a sheep in wolf’s clothing, to reverse a phrase. That sounds much like a No True Scotsman fallacy that believers accuse me of. Could MacBain write a book or produce a video about her transient experience in my cherished community and profit from it? Certainly. But I cannot accept that profit was her primary motivation.
Forget (that was a different “F” word originally) tribalism. What better person than MacBain to help us support secular values and the separation of church and state than someone who needed atheism in her life at one point? That kind of freedom to be yourself and follow your own convictions is priceless.
We were good for her. Let’s continue to be good to her. We atheists have done a lot for MacBain. We provided a soft place to land. We were support in the storm.
Childhood indoctrination is insidious and being away from everything you know is extremely difficult. For someone who was miserable, lonely, and at rock bottom, going back to familiar things about her former faith was healing for her. Music has been shown to change the human brain, yet she felt cut off from the worship music she’d relied upon for forty-four years. I can’t imagine. Well, I can, but not to that extent.
MacBain describes a deeply personal and emotional experience that lifted her out of the hole she was in. I’m glad. No, really I am. I’d rather have a former atheist than a dead atheist. That’s making an assumption about her level of misery, but I stand by that statement.
Back when MacBain came onto the scene in tears at the American Atheists convention, she said how scared she was. A woman can be heard yelling out from the crowd, “We support you!” People erupted in applause to show they felt the same way.
Let’s stand by that. Hemant Mehta has said, “We wish her the best,” and that’s a decent response. For many of us who came out of Christendom, we discovered some of our closest friends and family members didn’t have a connection to us beyond a shared set of doctrines. That’s not love. I had to change my will because the person who was set to get my children when I died was no longer speaking to my children or me. There’s no kindness to that relational butchering. My response has to be different. So here am I, parroting the wisdom I once received: “Teresa, I think you’re nuts, but that won’t change our basic humanity towards each other.”
Bio: Alexis Record is a feminist, humanist, special needs adoptive mom and former Bible student and teacher. She devoted the first 30 years of her life to living and teaching the Bible both in the US and abroad. Nowadays she is volunteering at Sunday Assembly San Diego, pouring her heart out on The Clergy Project forums, advocating against Accelerated Christian Education, spreading awareness for her children’s condition of arthrogryposis and contributing to The Radical Notion where she is a senior writer.
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