This just in: “Former atheist becomes minister”

May 1, 2012

We won’t see the above headline any time soon, but it happens. By contrast, a friend asked me what I thought about this piece from All Things Considered yesterday. A United Methodist pastor in Florida named Teresa MacBain came out in March as an atheist.

First, I’m relieved that she had the courage of her convictions and resigned. Out of love, she might have done so quietly for the sake of the congregation that she has now wounded. On the other hand, maybe she wants to proselytize for her new-found lack of faith. If so, she’s off to a good start! The only other way a United Methodist pastor can attract national headlines these days is by coming out of a different closet!

Second, I wanted more information than the story provided. Is she an ordained elder or a (lay) local pastor? (The difference in theological training between the two is vast.) How was she doing in ministry? Did she have any trouble with the churches she served? Was she well-regarded among her peers? Did she get along with parishioners in her current church? Did she have friends in ministry in whom she could confide? If not, why not?

In his recent memoir Hannah’s Child, theologian Stanley Hauerwas said he used to wonder early in his career what would happen if he woke up one day as an unbeliever, having invested so much of his life into a faith he no longer possessed. What would he do? Christianity pays the bills. Unfortunately, I’m sure there are many clergy who, like MacBain, no longer have to wonder—they’re living it.

One thing is sure: No clergy person should get in a place in which they feel isolated. That’s a recipe for disaster.

On my first day of Systematic Theology class at Emory many years ago, my professor, a brilliant and intimidating German Lutheran theologian and pastor, warned us that we need a foundation for our faith that goes beyond mere personal experience. If your Christian faith is built only on your experience of God, he told this classroom of budding pastors, “there’s a chance you won’t even be a Christian ten years from now. Personal experience changes. You need a faith that’s more substantial than that.”

Even as he spoke those words, I imagined that most of the class didn’t believe him. If MacBain were sitting in his class ten years ago, I wonder if she would have believed him?

My prof didn’t think you could do the work of theology without apologetics. We need to be able to defend what we believe. We have to reason through why it makes sense. We have to know why we believe what we believe. “Because the Bible (or the church) tells me so” isn’t sufficient.

His message inspired me, and I bought in. That’s in part why I just finished this two-part series on evidence for the resurrection. It matters that we not simply take these foundational truths about Christianity “on faith.” As I said in Part 1 of “Reason to Believe,” we need faith, by all means, but it isn’t or shouldn’t be blind faith.

MacBain kept an audio journal of her experiences on her iPhone. In one, she said, “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.”

“One of those sheep.” “Blindly follow.” Ugh. Is this really how you experienced all the people you loved and served in ministry? As sheep blindly following? That’s what you think of them? Not to mention your own husband, who continues to be a believer!

Rest assured, my eyes are wide open, Ms. MacBain.

12 Responses to “This just in: “Former atheist becomes minister””


  1. “We won’t see those headlines any time soon, but it happens. Regularly.”

    Where do you get your information to say that it happens ‘regularly’? I’m sure it happens. But how often?

    And when you say ‘atheist’, what do you mean?

    “Is this really how you experienced all the people you loved and served in ministry?”

    All? No. Many? Yes. I can believe that.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Well… I know two personally, and I don’t get out much. Moreover, I’ve read about several more. And you don’t really want to get in the game of “who’s a real atheist” do you? “They couldn’t have been atheists because no true atheist would convert and become a minister!” I think we can agree that traffic between atheism and Christianity flows in both directions. I’m giving MacBain credit for having been a Christian.

      As for her sheep comment, she was including herself in that bunch, so I assume she doesn’t have high opinions of those benighted souls who remain blind to the truth. Besides, her sentence doesn’t leave room for interpretation.


      • “Well… I know two personally, and I don’t get out much. Moreover, I’ve read about several more.”

        I think from that we can say that it happens. ‘Regularly’ may both be stretching the truth and be too vague.

        “And you don’t really want to get in the game of “who’s a real atheist” do you? “They couldn’t have been atheists because no true atheist would convert and become a minister!” ”

        That’s not at all what I meant.

        Only that, one can be something for a plethora of different reasons. And if a former minister told me they used to be an atheist, I would want to know what reasons they had for being an atheist. If their reasons were the same as mine, I imagine I’d want to know their reasons for not being an atheist any more.

    • brentwhite Says:

      NotAScientist, I softened the statement a bit. We can both agree that it happens, as you say.

  2. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, should the title have been, “Former minister becomes atheist”?

    I agree that the “put down” at the end by MacBain has no basis in reality. Most of the time it is the atheists who are “blind followers of the blind, who shall both fall into a ditch.”

    All that said, I can see how a Christian could fall into atheism based on “study of scripture,” in that there are a lot of things “hard to understand” in it (as Peter mentioned as to Paul’s writings). I myself became an atheist for some period of time based on (in part) my difficulties with inerrancy and predestination. However, upon further reflection “after the fact” upon having my faith restored, I can see that this position was fairly stupid, in view of all else scripture has going for it, as well as the lives of Christians (this was the particular most responsible for my “return”), and the bankruptcy of the alternatives to the faith (which for some reason I did not wrestle with–enough simpy to say, “There are contradictions, so that’s false,” without consideration of anything else.)

    Anyway, it would certainly be helpful to “know more” to analyze MacBain’t own “fall.” Her “put down” is not very conducive to giving her much benefit of the doubt.

    • brentwhite Says:

      I was making the point that it isn’t headline news when a former atheist becomes a minister, although that happens, too. It would be something if it were. It was sarcastic.

      I don’t respect people who go out of their way to hurt others. This whole “coming out” party at the American Atheists convention before she even told the church? No class, to say the least.

    • Nelson Says:

      Tom,

      “However, upon further reflection “after the fact” upon having my faith restored, I can see that this position was fairly stupid, in view of all else scripture has going for it, as well as the lives of Christians (this was the particular most responsible for my “return”), and the bankruptcy of the alternatives to the faith (which for some reason I did not wrestle with–enough simpy to say, “There are contradictions, so that’s false,” without consideration of anything else.)”

      Are you saying that inspite of the discrepencies you found (which was the cause of your atheism in the first place), you were like, “it;s all good because there are other things I can believe in? Talk about picking and choosing. lol.

      Also to assert that the alternative is “bankrupt” yet you never experienced it is completely false. How do you know that atheist lives are bankrupt? You stated that you were an atheist, yet not bankrupt. Remember, most of us come from a Christian background here in America.


  3. The title does seem off.

    • brentwhite Says:

      I clarified it in the opening sentence. I’m saying that atheists do also become Christian pastors, but that wouldn’t make headlines.

  4. Mike O. Says:

    There was an article last month about a long time atheist activist Patrick Greene converting to christianity http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/04/patrick-greene-atheist-christianity-conversion_n_1404196.html

    So sometimes it does go the other way and sometimes it gets reported. The fact the a person changes his or her beliefs obviously isn’t of itself earthshattering, but the interest factor grows the higher up that person is in their position or advocacy.

    For a non-religious example, if some nobody in some town council switches political parties then it’s not really news. But if a U.S. senator does the same thing that’s serious news. The higher the position the more newsworthy such a changeover becomes.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Thanks, Mike. Obviously, if, say, Richard Dawkins converted then that would make headlines. By contrast, this pastor, about whom we know very little, was hardly a celebrity. It shouldn’t be beyond the realm of possibility for NPR to spotlight ordinary atheists who become believers if they’re going to do slice-of-life type religious stories.


  5. [...] This just in: “Former atheist becomes minister [...]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 168 other followers