A job where being an atheist can be something of a struggle: the ministry

Teresa MacBain has a secret, one she’s terrified to reveal.

I’ve taken away the need to guess what it is. NPR is starting a series on the loss of faith and how this change affects those who go through it. Hers is the first story they’re featuring.

MacBain, 44, was raised a conservative Southern Baptist. Her dad was a pastor and she felt the call of God when she was 6. She had questions, of course, about conflicts in the Bible, for example, or the role of women. She says she sometimes felt she was serving a taskmaster of a God, whose standards she never quite met.

For years, MacBain set her concerns aside. But when she became a United Methodist pastor nine years ago, she started asking sharper questions. She thought they’d make her faith stronger.

“In reality,” she says, “as I worked through them, I found that religion had so many holes in it, that I just progressed through stages where I couldn’t believe it.”

She found some online support in a group called The Clergy Project, an anonymous haven for others like her, and eventually found the courage to come clean, announcing her atheism during the American Atheists’ convention in Bethesda in March. Back home in Tallahassee, though, she didn’t face applause and adulation. She was shocked at the vitriol comments writers left on the local TV station’s site about the news and lost friends and potential employment. Her family supports her decision, though her husband still prays for her. He doesn’t elaborate on exactly what he’s asking for when he does. Strength to cope perhaps. To persevere beyond the critics and the hypocrites and be comfortable with who she’s finally realized she is, maybe.

Back at home, MacBain doesn’t hesitate when she’s asked what she misses most about her old life.

“I miss the music,” she says. MacBain sang in church choirs and worship bands most of her life, and even though she no longer believes the words, she still catches herself singing praise songs.

Well, it’s possible to appreciate the music without focusing on the content. Some of them are very beautiful. I like Handel’s Messiah and still remember a few verses from songs I’d sung in choir, myself. If singing is something she adores, maybe there’s a chance of finding a secular choir in town, or hell, even start one herself.

She says she also misses the relationships — she’ll often pick up the phone to call someone, then realize she can’t.

That’s what kills me about stories like this. The kindness of Christianity that is only extended toward those who are still Christian or those you’re convinced you can make Christian. Once you’ve renounced, then to hell with you. Literally.

Maybe she should check out a Unitarian service. Apparently they’re nearly atheists as it is…

And she misses the ritual and regularity of church life.

“It’s what I know. It’s what I knew. And I still struggle with it. Life is just different,” she says.

When it’s pointed out that she hasn’t said whether or not she misses God, MacBain pauses.

“No, no,” she says. “I can’t say that I do.”

While there’s no denying there’s a comfort in thinking someone’s out there looking out for you, she has family in the same room with her looking out for her. She can find community in volunteer organizations or by joining a club or, like I mentioned earlier, starting one of her own. Maybe her story will draw others out who are facing the same difficult choice and don’t know where to turn and she can run an atheist group. It’d be neat if NPR did a follow up down the road to see how things go for her.

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One Response to A job where being an atheist can be something of a struggle: the ministry

  1. tmso says:

    I would like to know that she is doing well down the line. She deserves the best.

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