Teresa MacBain, a former United Methodist minister, just “came out” as an atheist. Her story quickly went viral via NPR, gaining more than 26,000 shares on facebook. I believe this massive following of her faith struggle signals America’s deep need to address this long suppressed issue. Her bravery to discuss this shameful topic has encouraged others to come out, including myself.
I understand that the phrase “minister-turned-atheist” sounds anathema to the Christian community. Before you cast Teresa off as a God-forsaking relativistic, universalistic atheist, please know that her transition to atheism was not a flippant decision to abandon her faith and turn her back on the Divine. Rather, she reached her conclusions after a lifelong journey of great thought, self-examination, and struggle to be an authentic and honest person.
I empathize with Teresa MacBain’s journey because I also underwent a theological “evolution” over the past few years. Similar to her, I stepped down from my church internship (and dropped out of seminary) as I could no longer declare with confidence the message and doctrines of the Christian church. And I too felt that stress of living a double life. Sure, I didn’t have to preach as Teresa did, but I had to present myself to the congregation each Sunday and “declare” my Christian commitments. Perhaps not in my overt statements of faith, but in my conversations, in the ways I presented myself, in the smiles I wore. I could not say with gusto: “I am questioning, I am doubting, I am struggling,” for that is tantamount to, “my relationship with God is rocky;” or worse, “I’m losing my faith in God.”
A few months after transitioning out of church staff and seminary, two church lay-leaders asked me why I left seminary. After doing a rapid internal dialogue in my mind, I decided to be honest.
“I left because I was having intellectual doubts about aspects of the Christian tradition,” I answered truthfully, but remained vague.
“Like what?” one asked. I briefly responded with my bitterness towards the Church’s complicity, and at times reinforcement, towards issues of injustice. “Like the Crusades,” he confirmed. “Yes, like the Crusades…”
“What seminary did you attend?” the other asked abruptly. “Fuller,” I answered, the school with the ‘liberal’ stigma in our denomination. “Of course,” came his retort, as if this confirmed his suspicion that my alma mater was in fact heretical.
Feeling very uncomfortable, I opened my mouth to initiate my exit. Before the words could leave my tongue, the second man interrupted: “Most importantly, how’s your relationship with God?” he pried, with an eye-piercing yet sincere stare. Taken aback, I blustered, “What? Uhh…I-I don’t know,” responding as if he’d asked me “How’s your sex life?” Sensing that the conversation was over, he back-tracked and ended with, “Well, we’ll be praying for you.” “Thank you,” I simpered, and hastily left the room.
Since this interrogation, I have reflected at length about how it felt to talk to those leaders. Although I try to believe that they had good intentions, it was not their conservative theology that bothered me. Rather, it was the sense of judgment and rejection, the feeling that my thinking or questioning somehow made me a “sinful” person. I felt like they judged me based upon what they thought an ideal faith journey should look like, which in their opinion, leaves little room for questioning or doubting. It appeared as if they didn’t care about the process I went through: the bouts of anger, the release of that anger, and the attempts at forgiveness towards my victimizers. Nor did it seem like they considered that perhaps my questioning was a sign of integrity and authenticity, a sign that I’m trying to take this thing called faith seriously and I don’t want to waste my time in a study or career that doesn’t fully align with who I am and what I believe. I felt as if all they saw was a young person eager to enter the ministry and seminary, who got screwed up by a liberal religious education, and who now needs saving.
The Christian-Atheist Dichotomy
Days after Teresa MacBain made her public confession, Candace Chellew-Hodge provided insight on why ministers are becoming atheists. She points out how most Christians cannot cope with questions of doubt because of a false dichotomy at work: you’re either Christian or atheist; you value right doctrine or free thinking. And there is no middle ground. The effect from the Christian side, she says, is that Christians “tend to shun you when you start questioning […and…] want to have nothing to do with you when you reach conclusions about your faith that clash with orthodoxy.”
The sad part about this dichotomy is that people with doubts are confronted with an ultimatum: declare your allegiance and thereby conform to the Church, or disagree and get ostracized by it. They are pushed into unfair corners, forced to reach faith-conclusions, and thus they must choose sides. The time will come when doubters have to take a stance, as Teresa did, and say “this is what I believe (or reject) about God and faith and Christianity.” And that decision means either secretive duplicity and conformity on the one hand, or alienation and expulsion on the other.
For myself, in the midst of struggling with faith questions and doubts, reading stories such as Teresa MacBain’s somehow encourages me. It is not in the “Christianese” method of “drawing near to God” nor in the Atheist method of scientifically appeasing one’s conscience with the non-existence of God. Rather, hearing MacBain’s very real struggles helps me see I’m not alone and that there are numerous others who struggle with faith.
Conversely however, it also scares me that a pastor of nine years suddenly no longer believes in or misses God. I’m not sure if I want to get to that point.
In these weird ways, Teresa’s bravery has helped me better articulate what I’ve been experiencing and to feel more at peace about it. I will not call myself an atheist, for I still believe in God. Nevertheless, I also cannot confidently call myself a Christian, for the Christian community has too many blind spots that make me uncomfortable to identify with it. For now, I guess I’m Chellew-Hodge’s “particular type of religious person” whose life, like Teresa MacBain’s, is “just different.”
In all honesty, at this point I cannot call myself otherwise. And I hope to God that you’re okay with it.