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Categories, Christianity, Church, Self-Reflections

Am I an Atheist? Reflections on “From Minister to Atheist: A Story of Losing Faith”


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.

My Journey

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.”

The Simpsons’ take on Christian Fundamentalism

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.

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Discussion

24 thoughts on “Am I an Atheist? Reflections on “From Minister to Atheist: A Story of Losing Faith”

  1. This is interestingly just the thing I’ve been rummaging for! Excellent and thanks!

    Posted by gw2 gold | September 28, 2012, 10:53 am
  2. i loved reading this.

    Posted by Teej T (@Halfrican_One) | September 16, 2012, 4:59 pm
  3. It’s been another week of bad headlines and rising unemployment; sometimes it almost seems that it might be easier just “not to know”. And yet as Moms, we need to know; Because keeping our children safe and providing them with all that they will need to grow up in to caring, compassionate and faithful adults who will one day be able to go in pursuit of their dreams is our job.

    Posted by Sugel | September 11, 2012, 5:08 am
  4. I simply want to say I am just newbie to blogging and site-building and definitely enjoyed you’re blog site. Likely I’m going to bookmark your blog . You certainly come with incredible well written articles. Thanks a bunch for sharing your web-site.

    Posted by Shayne Renova | September 6, 2012, 5:41 pm
  5. Thanks for being honest. I ended up reblogging four of your posts. This is a side of the church I have not often come across (in my 21 years lol) so it was eye-opening. Appreciate it. Also, (pleasepleaseplease don’t take this the wrong way) I was reminded of something Endo wrote about his Life of Jesus–that he would revise it, that there was too much white European thinking that prevented him from saying what he really wanted to say. Something to that effect. I don’t know how to work with that kind of thought–if you really believe what God is saying to you wouldn’t you tell other people?–but I think I should learn it myself.

    Posted by Benjamin | August 11, 2012, 5:37 pm
  6. Hi, i’m a japanese wife to an american christian, living in the u.s. for almost 5 years.
    I became a christian at a small baptist church (with less than 10 church members) in a rural area in a southern part of japan.
    But i’ve been struggling with church life in one of the ‘bible belt’ states.

    My church’s people are very nice and I like them individually, but it’s really difficult for me to get along with some kind of ‘norm’ in the church and churches in a general community when it comes to general congregation’s ‘god bless america’-based faith and prayers as well as almost like church life as culture such as ‘i’ve been a christian all through my life since my childhood’-kind of perspectives.

    I’ve been a christian for 11 years and am in my late 40s. My husband, unlike many other christians here, thinks questioning and challenging are important things in our journeys.
    I can BE fully myself with him (and with Jesus, I think) but it’s still difficult when i’m at church (and at other places). This includes my linguistic and cultural adjustment issues, though.

    I haven’t been able to go to church these 2 months and couldn’t do so once in a while in the past also.
    I’ve attended a local japanese fellowship several times till a couple years back but I felt like those people were just like white middle class christians. It seemed like they think it’s ‘normal’ for everyone to have a car for each and to live in a house, neither of which I conform to. They seemed to have become christians just because their spouses go to or used to go to church. So I never heard them talking about how people became christians.

    I guess i’m a kind of difficult person and haven’t succeeded much in making friends here yet other than with my husband. So i’ve been kind of praying for it though i’m aware that my shyness, stubbornness, clumsiness in communication can easily be changed.
    I’m really glad and appreciate that I was able to find your site since I wanted to find sites where Christians who openly discuss their struggles and questions about American church life for their healthy faith journeys. I’d like to explore your site little by little.

    Posted by noriko | July 29, 2012, 7:19 pm
    • I’m glad my writing helped you in some way. It’s good to hear that you can be yourself with your husband; that’s very important in someone you share life with and can deeply trust.
      I’m not very familiar with Christian culture in the bible belts (besides the sound bites and stereotypes I see in the news), but sounds like the Christians around you are more culturally Christian, meaning being a church-goer is a part of life rather than a life-altering faith. And also sounds like you experience a cultural disconnect with your church members, but am glad you found the Japanese fellowship.
      I hope you can find others you can discuss these things with!

      Posted by PaulMats | September 18, 2012, 10:14 pm
  7. Tried commenting on FB…but looks like you deleted it…so I’ll have to do it here.

    For what it’s worth, from your writing you seem to be super-sensitive to whatever those around you think/feel/say…as if their thoughts/feelings/words ultimately affect the ultimate issue (and I believe you hit on what that is).

    Maybe I’m just a prick who doesn’t care what “leaders” think. Maybe my experience differs slightly because those around me I consider to be “friends” in the church have looked at my questions/concerns about the church to be genuine questions of integrity and sincerity. IDK.

    For whatever it’s worth to you as someone that’s been in this same wilderness for a substantial amount of time, you may find an interesting read in Phillip Yancey’s “Soul Survivor: How my soul survived the christian church.” Reached some interesting conclusions that have kept me circling around this oasis of faith instead of tearing off to live in the wilderness.

    Other words: I advise you to do your best to not use the imperfections of the church (GVBC, specifically, as my experience dictated) as a crutch: one, it’s not fair by any logic, since we, ourselves, are not perfect; second, my long-held bitterness in that aspect has done little good & I realize that forgiving is highly important to God and doesn’t seem to allow much to happen without it.

    Posted by Ken | July 22, 2012, 8:25 pm
    • Kenny, thanks for your words and sorry it’s taken so long to comment back. I’m glad to hear some of the questions you’ve gone through and I think you’re very right in having to circle back rather than just tear away from the church…and yes, I’m coming to see that the church will never be perfect and i cannot keep pointing the finger where I see the slightest imperfection. At first I felt slighted by the crutch comment but now see that it has been a very strong barrier for me to forgive and at least move past the anger and resentment towards something more healing and constructive.

      Posted by PaulMats | September 18, 2012, 10:20 pm
  8. Your thoughts are so well-articulated and they resonate with me, Paul. I also consider myself a Christian who does not fit into the conventional, traditional definition. I want my faith to be real to ME rather than to just adopt what I’m told is the “truth.” Also as I”ve grown older, I see things less and less in black and white, which seems to sometimes be a requirement for “good” Christians in some church circles. You made this point very well. I admire you for “coming out” about being a questioner and doubter…welcome to the club!

    Posted by Marian | July 22, 2012, 7:39 pm
  9. Posted by Kevin | June 9, 2012, 5:36 pm
  10. Superb weblog here! Also your web site loads up quickly! What host are you making use of? Can I get your affiliate link to your host? I wish my web site loaded up as swiftly as yours lol 412216

    Posted by My Homepage | May 26, 2012, 7:10 pm
  11. what a gem of a blog! your thoughts and articulations on the faith and its cross sections w/various areas of life are wonderful to read, keeping it real w/o compromising intellect, personal conviction, and alienating your readers.

    i get frustrated how the christian tradition and its proponents handles issues in such black/white terms and i struggle to believe in a god who is so starkly this or that, a god who created a beautiful, nuanced, subtle, intricate, complex world and life would be reduced to right or wrong. i can’t confidently declare myself a “christian” but i do believe in a god who overwhelmingly loves his creation, and perhaps this is the reason why i cant sit still during sermons or feel out-of-place in church where “tradition” lives on, and you either accept it or become alienated/ostracized for believing in a different shade of gray.

    wherever your journey takes you, i hope you’ll find peace. 🙂

    your sis’s friend,
    joyce

    Posted by joyce | May 16, 2012, 10:53 am
    • Thanks, Joyce! It’s always affirming to hear when someone is okay with where you’re “at” in your faith journey, and doesn’t feel the need to “change” you.

      I find it funny (or perhaps meant-to-be) how most people who cross the Matsushima clan’s path all are pretty similar. 🙂

      Posted by PaulMats | May 16, 2012, 2:27 pm
  12. I would agree that doubt is a part of faith, and in many of your assertions about the Church in general. Miss hanging out with you guys man. Dinner sometime?

    Posted by Tommy Park | May 14, 2012, 8:21 am
    • Thanks, Tommy. Yeah, Monica and I have been talking about having you over for a while but have done nothing about it…so let’s get it done sometimes 🙂 Also, her family loves quwirkle!!

      Posted by PaulMats | May 14, 2012, 11:55 am
  13. Thanks, Paul, for the honesty of this post. I can relate to much of it. My own feeling is that doubt is not the opposite of faith but part of it. I find Pete Rollins’s work useful in thinking about some of this (you might find this video over-produced, but I appreciate the point he makes): http://vimeo.com/18881658

    Posted by Scott | May 12, 2012, 10:38 pm

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Every night before saying goodnight, my father prayed for his children to "be strong and courageous." This blog is an attempt to live up to that hope.

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