Preacher Turned Atheist Leader Loses Her Job
In the very first post I made to this blog, I ruminated on an NPR segment about Teresa MacBain, a southern pastor who left her church behind when she decided she no longer believed in God. After spending a year in the Clergy Project MacBain made the news by announcing her deconversion at an American Atheists convention in Bethesda Maryland. After her declaration she often appeared in public as an example of the work the Clergy Project does in providing a support group for ministers in “their transition from believer to unbeliever.” At the time of the NPR story, and my blog post, however MacBain had only just begun her journey as a public figure and I wondered out loud about the path that she and others like her would take:
What happens to people who were not only devoutly religious prior to becoming atheists, but were also leaders of religious communities? Do they simply become lay atheists or are they more likely to seek out new leadership roles within the atheist community? And if they gain such roles how much of those religious leaders they used to be come along for the ride? Do they unlearn the rhetorical strategies they utilized to gain converts when they were a preacher or do they adapt them to their new calling?
It appeared that my hunch was correct, because just six days ago the New York Times reported that MacBain had become the director of the Humanist Community Project at Harvard. According to the article MacBain was particularly suited for the job because of her experience with church planting and her new found zeal for the “secular mission” of the Community Project. For those who aren’t familiar with the Project it aims to build a network of Humanist communities across the United States and that was the task that MacBain was meant to take charge of.
Yet as the New York Times reports today, MacBain’s efforts were short lived, but not because she wasn’t a capable atheist leader, but because like so many other human beings caught up in the rat race of personal success she presented the world with embellished credentials. When the Times ran it’s original story they reported that she had earned an MDiv from Duke Divinity School, a claim she had also made on her resume when she hired by Harvard. As it turns out she had no such degree, and the Humanist Community had to let her go.
It’s hard to know how people will interpret this event. It is easy to imagine religious critics blaming the dishonesty on her loss of faith and it is just as easy to imagine the atheists who criticize “atheist congregations” blaming those elements of organized religion that MacBain brought with her. But how much evidence would support either position? After all the ethics of Humanism, which MacBain embraced, do not leave room for dishonesty any more so than religious ethics do, and those climbing the ladder of success within religious organizations are no more prone to lying about their achievements than their counterparts in the secular contexts of business, academia, government and so on. In fact, if there is a lesson to be learned from this event it may be precisely that no one community has final purchase on righteousness. Here’s hoping that those ready to cast stones take that lesson to heart.