Religion
1:57 pm
Mon April 30, 2012

From Minister To Atheist: A Story Of Losing Faith

Originally published on Thu January 30, 2014 7:02 pm

This is the first in a series of stories on losing faith.

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

"I'm currently an active pastor and I'm also an atheist," she says. "I live a double life. I feel pretty good on Monday, but by Thursday — when Sunday's right around the corner — I start having stomachaches, headaches, just knowing that I got to stand up and say things that I no longer believe in and portray myself in a way that's totally false."

MacBain glances nervously around the room. It's a Sunday, and normally she would be preaching at her church in Tallahassee, Fla. But here she is, sneaking away to the American Atheists' convention in Bethesda, Md.

Her secret is taking a toll, eating at her conscience as she goes about her pastoral duties week after week — two sermons every Sunday, singing hymns, praying for the sick when she doesn't believe in the God she's praying to. She has had no one to talk to, at least not in her Christian community, so her iPhone has become her confessor, where she records her private fears and frustrations.

"On my way to church again. Another Sunday. Man, this is getting worse," she tells her phone in one recording. "How did I get myself in this mess? Sometimes, I think to myself, if I could just go back a few years and not ask the questions and just be one of those sheep and blindly follow and not know the truth, it would be so much easier. I'd just keep my job. But I can't do that. I know it's a lie. I know it's false."

MacBain made that recording in her car on the way to Lake Jackson United Methodist Church several weeks before the American Atheists' conference.

Finding Atheism

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."

The questions haunted her: Is Jesus the only way to God? Would a loving God torment people for eternity? Is there any evidence of God at all? And one day, she crossed a line.

"I just kind of realized — I mean just a eureka moment, not an epiphany, a eureka moment — I'm an atheist," she says. "I don't believe. And in the moment that I uttered that word, I stumbled and choked on that word — atheist."

But it felt right.

About a year ago, MacBain found The Clergy Project, an anonymous online community of clergy who have lost their faith. Now she had allies, but no easy escape. She began applying for jobs, but when prospective employers asked why she wanted to leave the ministry, she didn't know what to say. She recorded her worries on her iPhone.

"So what the hell am I supposed to do?" she asks in one recording, her voice sounding desperate. "Really, the options are work at something like Starbucks or McDonald's — and even there they're going to ask those questions. I could even clean houses and not make a great amount of money — but at least nobody would be asking me questions."

Driving to church on Sunday, March 18, MacBain realized she could no longer bear her double life.

"I got to come out. I got to get out of it," she told her phone. "It used to terrify me, what people's reaction would be. But it's been so long now and I've done this for so long, I don't even care."

The sermon she gave that day was her last.

The 'Freedom' Of Coming Out

On March 26, at the American Atheists' convention in Bethesda, MacBain seems almost giddy. The day before, she decided she would go before the conference's 1,500 or so nonbelievers and announce that she is officially an atheist.

"I am nervous," she says, "but at the same time I am so excited. I slept like a baby last night because I knew I wasn't going to have to live a lie anymore. Such freedom."

Moments later, in the darkened, cavernous conference room, MacBain steps onstage.

"My name is Teresa," she begins. "I'm a pastor currently serving a Methodist church — at least up to this point" — the audience laughs — "and I am an atheist."

Hundreds of people jump to their feet. They hoot and clap for more than a minute. MacBain then apologizes to them for being, as she put it, "a hater."

"I was the one on the right track, and you were the ones that were going to burn in hell," she says. "And I'm happy to say as I stand before you right now, I'm going to burn with you."

A few minutes later, MacBain strides off the stage into a waiting crowd. One man is crying as he tells her that her speech is "one of the most moving things I've seen in years." Another woman says she, too, had been a born-again Christian. "Join the club," she says as she hugs MacBain.

"I have never felt so appreciated and cared for, you know?" MacBain says later, noting that she has left one community — Christianity — for another. "New member, just been born — that's what it feels like."

The Fallout

Two days later, MacBain returned to Tallahassee — and to reality.

"I didn't know how far or how explosive her coming out would be, but, then again, nobody did," says MacBain's husband, Ray MacBain. "The next morning, we got up, I went to work and my son Alex texted me and said it went viral."

The local TV station, WCTV, ran a series of stories about MacBain, interviewing her boss but never MacBain herself. Hundreds of people wrote comments on the site, and MacBain says they were painful to read.

"The majority of them, to begin with, were pretty hateful," she says, although some nonbelievers soon came to her defense. "For somebody who's been a good guy their whole life and been a people pleaser, it's really hard to imagine that overnight you're the bad guy."

MacBain tried to see the church's district superintendent to explain, but he canceled the meeting. She was immediately locked out and replaced, so she flew out to Seattle to meet with her colleagues at The Clergy Project. There, sitting alone in her hotel room on Palm Sunday, MacBain again turned to her iPhone.

"I don't want to go home," she muses in the recording, deflation flattening her voice. "I don't want to have to be in Publix or Wal-Mart or somewhere and worry about who's going to see me and who's going to corner me and just tell me off."

But MacBain did go home. People shunned her. Job interviews were canceled. The Humanists of Florida Association offered to pay her salary for a year, but there's no guarantee. Only two of MacBain's friends called her and took her to lunch. Meanwhile, her family was a refuge, even if they didn't all agree with her new views.

"I believe in God," says her husband, Ray. "And to be honest, I pray for her every night, I got friends praying for her."

But he says he adores his wife and defends her right to disbelieve. "That's why I spent 23 years in the Army. That's why I'm still a police officer. We have freedom of speech and freedom of thought. And God never forced anybody to believe, so who am I to step up?"

'Life Is Just Different'

A few minutes later, Teresa MacBain goes for a drive to the church at the center of her story. She says she has butterflies — this is the first time she's seen her church since she went public. Its 11:20 a.m., nearly time for the sermon. She's glad she's not inside.

"Not because of the people or anything," she says, "but because if I were in there, I know what I'd be doing. And that would be standing up and proclaiming something that I no longer believe in. So, yeah, I'm relieved that I don't have to do that."

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.

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

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

In this part of the program, a story of faith and the loss of it. Imagine being a minister and realizing you no longer believe in God. Your world view, your friends, your community, your career - all suddenly in jeopardy.

NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty introduces us to one minister in the Bible Belt who traveled the lonely road from faith to non-belief.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY, BYLINE: Teresa MacBain has a secret, one she's terrified to reveal.

TERESA MACBAIN: I'm currently an active pastor, and I'm also an atheist.

HAGERTY: She glances nervously around the room. It's a Sunday. Normally, she'd be preaching at her church in Tallahassee, Florida. But here she is, sneaking away to the American Atheists convention.

TERESA MACBAIN: I live a double life. I feel pretty good on Monday, but by Thursday when Sunday's right around the corner, I start having stomachaches, headaches - just knowing that I've got to stand up and say things that I no longer believe in, and portray myself in a way that's totally false.

HAGERTY: It's taking a toll - two sermons every Sunday, singing hymns, praying for the sick, week after week. Her iPhone has become her confessor.

TERESA MACBAIN: On my way to church again. Another Sunday. Man, this is getting worse.

HAGERTY: MacBain made this recording in her car on the way to Lake Jackson United Methodist Church. It was weeks before the atheist conference.

TERESA MACBAIN: How did I get myself in this mess? Sometimes I think to myself, if I could just go back a few years and not ask the questions, and just be one of those sheep and blindly follow, not know the truth, it would be so much easier. I'd just keep my job. But I can't do that. I know it's a lie. I know it's false.

HAGERTY: Forty-four-year-old Teresa MacBain was raised a conservative Southern Baptist. Her dad was a pastor. She felt the call of God when she was 6. She had questions, of course, about conflicts in the Bible or the role of women, but she set her concerns aside. When she became a United Methodist pastor nine years ago, she started asking sharper questions. She thought they'd make her faith stronger.

TERESA MACBAIN: In reality, 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.

HAGERTY: The questions haunted her. Is Jesus the only way to God? Would a loving God torment people for eternity? Is there any evidence of God at all? And one day...

TERESA MACBAIN: I just kind of realized - I mean, just a eureka moment. Not an epiphany, but a eureka moment. I'm an atheist. I don't believe. And in the moment that I uttered that word, I stumbled and choked on that word, atheist.

HAGERTY: But it felt right. Online, MacBain found the Clergy Project, an anonymous community of clergy who have lost their faith. Now she had allies, but no easy escape. She began applying for jobs. People would ask, why did she want to leave ministry? She worried about this as she drove around. She didn't know what to say.

TERESA MACBAIN: So what the hell am I supposed to do? Man, really, the options are work at something like Starbucks or McDonald's. And even there, they're going to ask those questions. And I could even clean houses and not make a great amount of money, but at least nobody would be asking me questions.

HAGERTY: One Sunday on her way to church, MacBain realized she could no longer bear her double life.

TERESA MACBAIN: I've got to come out - I've got to get out of it. It used to terrify me of what people's reaction would be. But it's been so long now, and I've done this for so long, I don't even care.

HAGERTY: The sermon she gave that day was her last.

TERESA MACBAIN: I'm here at the American Atheist convention, where in just about two and a half hours, I will be standing before a group, sharing my story, and coming out officially as an atheist.

HAGERTY: March 26th, Bethesda, Maryland. MacBain seems almost giddy.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMERICAN ATHEIST CONVENTION)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: She is still undercover. And so...

TERESA MACBAIN: I'm nervous but at the same time, I'm so excited. I slept like a baby last night, because I knew I wasn't going to have to live a lie anymore. Such freedom.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMERICAN ATHEIST CONVENTION)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Please, come up.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE AND CHEERING)

TERESA MACBAIN: My name is Teresa. I'm a pastor currently serving a Methodist church - at least, up to this point.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

TERESA MACBAIN: And I am an atheist.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE AND CHEERING)

HAGERTY: The 1,500 people jump to their feet. They hoot and clap for more than a minute. MacBain then apologizes to them for being, as she put it, a hater.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMERICAN ATHEIST CONVENTION)

TERESA MACBAIN: You were just those people, and I was the one on the right track. And you were the ones that were going to burn in hell. And I'm happy to say, as I stand before you right now, I'm going to burn with you.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE AND CHEERING)

RANDY: Hi, Teresa. My name is Randy.

TERESA MACBAIN: Hey, Randy.

RANDY: I got to tell you, that was one of the most moving things I've seen in years. I was getting choked up.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I was a born-again Christian up until three months ago, so join the club.

TERESA MACBAIN: I have never felt so appreciated and cared for, you know. New member, just been born - that's what it feels like.

HAGERTY: Two days later, MacBain returned to Tallahassee, to reality.

RAY MACBAIN: I didn't know how far or how explosive her coming out would be. But then again, nobody did.

HAGERTY: MacBain's husband, Ray.

RAY MACBAIN: The next morning, we got up. I went to work and my son Alex texted me and said it went viral. And that's when the local TV channel took it.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED BROADCASTER: A local minister stepped down from her post just before announcing she is an atheist. A member of Lake...

RAY MACBAIN: By the time I got to the TV channel, there was 500 and something comments.

TERESA MACBAIN: The majority of them, to begin with, were pretty hateful. For somebody who's been a good guy their whole life and been a people pleaser, it's really hard to imagine that overnight, you're the bad guy.

HAGERTY: MacBain tried to see the church's district superintendent to explain, but he canceled the meeting. She left town briefly. And there, sitting alone in her hotel room, she turned on the iPhone.

TERESA MACBAIN: So I'm sitting in Seattle; Sunday, April the 1st. I found out that the church has locked me out; that they're holding a secret meeting that I'm not supposed to know about. But I don't want to go home. I don't want to have to be in Publix or Walmart or somewhere, and worry about who's going to see me - and who's going to corner me and just tell me off.

HAGERTY: But she did go home. People shunned her. Job interviews were canceled. Only two friends called on her. But her family was a refuge, even if they didn't all agree.

RAY MACBAIN: I believe in God. And to be honest, I pray for her every night; I've got friends praying for her.

HAGERTY: Ray MacBain says he adores his wife, and defends her right to disbelieve.

RAY MACBAIN: That's why I spent 23 years in the Army. That's why I'm still a police officer. We have freedom of speech, and freedom of thought. And God never forced anybody to believe, so who am I to step up?

HAGERTY: I wanted to see the church at the center of her story, so I ask MacBain to take me for a drive. It's Sunday morning.

TERESA MACBAIN: OK, here's the church coming up on the right. And we should have a fairly decent-size crowd. But can't get in the parking lot, but we can at least loop around closer.

HAGERTY: Does this make you a little nervous?

TERESA MACBAIN: Yeah. Yeah, I have butterflies.

HAGERTY: This is the first time MacBain has seen her church since she went public. It's 11:20, nearly time for the sermon. MacBain is glad she's not inside.

TERESA MACBAIN: Not because of the people or anything, but because if I were in there, I know what I would be doing. And that would be standing up and proclaiming something that I no longer believe in. So yeah, I'm relieved that I don't have to do that.

HAGERTY: She wants to leave before anyone sees us.

TERESA MACBAIN: Let's see, which way is the easiest to go?

HAGERTY: Later, at home, I ask her: What do you miss?

TERESA MACBAIN: I miss the music. Music has been a part of my life for a long time. And some of the hymns, I still catch myself singing them. I mean, they're beautiful pieces of music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)

TERESA MACBAIN: And I miss the relationships. So yeah, I do miss that. And I miss the ritual and the regularity of it. It's what I know. It's what I knew. And I still struggle with it. Life is just different.

HAGERTY: I don't hear you say that you miss God.

TERESA MACBAIN: Uh - no, no. I can't say that I do.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)

HAGERTY: From now on, Teresa MacBain says, she's on her own.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.