Clergy Come Out as Atheists

I really do sympathize with Teresa MacBain. The Tallahassee, Florida United Methodist Church pastor has just recently come out. No, she’s not a lesbian. This is how she explained it to NPR recently:

“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 recently attended the American Atheist’s convention in Maryland, where she came out as an Atheist pastor and has found a home in a new coalition helping such disbelieving clergy called “The Clergy Project: “a safe haven for active and former clergy who do not hold supernatural beliefs.”

As a member of the clergy, I totally get it, but what I think is wrong with this situation is the false dichotomy at play here. Specifically, either you’re a Christian or you’re an Atheist.

I’ve been faced with a similar dichotomy—just as false—that either you’re a Christian or you’re gay or lesbian. The media loves this kind of story, though: a Christian minister jumping the fence to escape the prison of faith to the freedom of atheism.

What drives this false dichotomy, and its kin, is the fault of Christians and Atheists alike.

As Christian clergy we are schooled in the finer points of theological thought. Some seminaries, especially the more conservative evangelical ones, school their clergy in right doctrine and not so much on free thinking. This is where Christianity goes wrong, because they drill into the heads of clergy that it’s wrong to ask questions, and that it’s an abomination to allow, or encourage, your congregation to ask questions.

To be fair, this thinking infects the more liberal seminaries as well. Once, in a classroom full of future clergypersons, I found myself excited by the new and eye-opening things we had been learning about Christian history and theology.

“So,” I asked my classmates. “When you get into the pulpit, will you be teaching your congregation all the great things we’ve learned here?”

There was a collective gasp. The stared at me and crinkled their noses like I had just let out a huge, smelly fart.

“No!” one gasped as she held a hand to her chest, clutching her cross-shaped necklace.

“Why not?” I asked, before it dawned on me that these clergy—future United Methodist clergy like MacBain—had jobs to protect, careers to build—and teaching your flock to ask questions was certainly not part of the job.

I seriously thought my classmates would jump me in the parking lot after that exchange, which brings up another problem caused by Christians: they tend to shun you when you start questioning. They tend to want to have nothing to do with you when you reach conclusions about your faith that clash with orthodoxy.

That happened to MacBain.

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.

This is the true tragedy, that Christianity discourages critical thinking, and abandons its people just when they need their community the most. 

But, wait! That’s not true. There are plenty of traditional Christian churches who would never have me as their pastor, because I don’t believe the majority of what orthodox Christianity says I must believe. For instance, I don’t believe in hell. I don’t believe Jesus died for anybody’s sins, but because of the sins committed against him by the powers that were in charge at the time. I don’t believe Jesus bodily rose from the dead.

You can be a Christian, be religious, without believing in the unbelievable, as Jim Burklo has recently argued.

This is where the Atheists come in. Even now, I have Atheist friends who tell me I’m very close to jumping the fence into their camp and they encourage me to take that final leap. But, this is disrespectful of my faith. Just because I don’t believe every jot and tittle of Christian doctrine doesn’t make me Atheist, or even a quasi-Atheist. It just makes me a particular type of religious person.

I am lucky to have a congregation that loves questions. It’s in teaching my congregation how to live with the questions, and live into those questions, that has made me, and them, better people. A Pagan friend of mine visited just the other Sunday and after hearing a sermon that included stories and words not just from Jesus but from Muslim and Hindu prophets and sages, too, she said to me, “This is what Christianity should be like.”

She’s right, of course. 

Candace Chellew-Hodge is the founder/editor of Whosoever: An Online Magazine for GLBT Christians and currently serves as the pastor of Jubilee! Circle in Columbia, S.C. She is also the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008)