From Pastor to Harvard’s ‘Godless Church’ Planter

Subsequent to the publication of this interview it was revealed that Teresa MacBain had exaggerated her credentials to Harvard’s Humanist Community and in various interviews with media (though she did not do so in her interview with RD). In the wake of yesterday’s revelation, Duke Div School teaching assistant Meghan Florian reflects on how we might approach the issues MacBain has herself raised regarding belief and doubt in light of the fact that she does not appear to have attended divinity school. –eds

After coming out as an atheist at the 2012 American Atheists convention Teresa MacBain, a former Methodist minister, became a professional atheist, subsequently serving as the Public Relations Director for American Atheists and Executive Director for the Humanists of Florida.

Recently, however, she moved to the Cambridge area to become Director of the Humanist Community Project (HCP), an initiative of Harvard’s Humanist Community. With a staff of six full-time and five part-time chaplains—including an African-American Southern Baptist and two fellows from the Netherlands—the HCH is far larger number than most college chaplaincies, with women constituting over half of the staff.

Humanist Chaplain Greg Epstein, executive director of HCH and author of the bestselling book Good Without God, says MacBain is the perfect person to lead this innovative new project to grow “Godless Congregations” across the US.

RD recently spoke with MacBain about her move from pastoring Christians to guiding the formation of godless communities. 

For those who aren’t aware of your very public journey this past year, what led you to take the podium and out yourself as an atheist at the 2012 American Atheist Convention?

I was raised in the Deep South where my dad was a Baptist pastor. I always felt my calling was to be in ministry but the Baptist church didn’t allow women pastors. As I moved through my young adulthood, my theology became more liberal leading me into the Methodist church where I became a pastor. I’d always been a thinker so when questions relating to my faith began to pop up, I ignored them at first. You see, questioning and doubts were sinful in my faith tradition.

But the questions wouldn’t remain silent. So five to eight years ago, I began doing research on these questions. My thoughts were that when people came to me with questions as a pastor, I’d have answers I could share with them about their doubts. But the answers led to more questions that led to more research. I even called myself a progressive Christian for a while, but slowly realized I couldn’t hide from the answers any longer. In the summer of 2011, I knew the faith I held to for all my life was gone.

Tell me about your connection with the project for clergy who no longer “hold supernatural beliefs.”

I joined the Clergy Project soon after it first launched in 2011. At that time I used the pseudonym “Lynn,” because I was still a pastor. I was relieved to find other pastors who were in the same situation. The Clergy Project became my lifeline during the months before I came out. An opportunity presented itself for me to attend the Reason Rally and the 2012 American Atheist Convention.

In an unexpected turn of events, I was given the opportunity to speak at the conference. In the process, I came out publicly as an atheist. Once my video hit YouTube, the world knew about the Clergy Project. All these people working in ministry who no longer believed realized they were not alone, and that there was a place where they could connect with other clergy persons. Over the past 18 months, I’ve developed a number of relationships with people who contact me because they find themselves in a similar situation. They ask questions, I don’t push. I’m simply a listening ear…someone safe for them to talk to.

What was the response to your coming out as an atheist? 

An enormous number of Christians have threatened to do physical harm to me. Many others have been kind in their response. They don’t understand and of course, they offer to pray for me. Some atheists have disagreed with me. I’ve heard comments like “I’ll give you a year but this won’t stick.” But overall the Christian response has been much worse than the feedback I got from the “angry atheists.”

How did your coming out give your son permission to come out as an atheist, and your brother to come out as a survivor of clergy sexual abuse?

I’ve never thought of it this way. When the first person takes the step, it seems like other people have courage to stand up. I’m very proud and supportive of both my son and my brother.

What reaction did you get when the Humanist Community at Harvard announced you would be heading to Harvard to plant godless congregations? 

Since my position was announced, I have been inundated with people calling for advice and assistance. There are a huge number of secular people who are interested in this type of thing. Even before this announcement was made, I’ve had people from across the United States come up and tell me how they desire community. They attend conferences and are able to interact with like-minded people. But then they return home to the struggles of being closeted or out atheists.

These same people complimented me for addressing something deeper, and for talking about the need to build community within the freethought movement. Now I have the ability on a nationwide level to provide training, resources, and on-the-ground-support to help develop a successful community that fits their area and needs. Churches know how to do this very well and I’ve done it in my past profession, so this seems to be a perfect fit for me. I could also see the potential of the Clergy Project members who are out as atheists wanting to work with these developing communities as “coaches” or even “planting” their own community.

How do these communities avoid the trap of other Christian community building efforts like New Monasticism and Emergent Church that showed potential to be the “next big thing” but often ended up becoming yet another author/speaker show?

There’s a danger that any venture can go this way. I’m going to try and avoid this by offering solid training, resources, accountability, and one-on-one leadership consultation. Through the HCP, we want to establish a plan with the communities who want to work with us that includes leadership development, training on conflict resolution, and the support from our main organization. We also want to encourage them not to get too big too fast. Then it’s way too big of a monster for anyone to manage.

Our movement is currently centered on conferences with big name speakers and book signings. So trying to translate that into a model of community that’s offering a chance for people and families to connect and celebrate life events will require a lot of work in educating people to start the conversation. Humanist communities are the cutting edge, and we’re laying the foundation here. Our goal is to fill a need for social connectivity, which religion does very well. Many balk at creating communities because they feel those types of groups are [intrinsically] religious. But community isn’t a religious construct, it’s a human one.

What is entailed in training people to run nonreligious communities?  

If you forgive the expression, there needs to be a period of soul searching for those who want to be leaders. This includes a time where they assess their strengths and weaknesses. Also there are some models I’m going to use that encourage more of a team leadership format that moves away from the traditional “top down” model.

The use of terms like congregations and churches lend credence to the fact that some are now calling atheism a religion.

We need to work with language. Some like the Sunday Assembly are calling these “atheist churches.” Some who have been burned by religion but are looking for community want to reclaim the word “church.” For others even a liberal church like the Unitarian Universalists will not meet their needs. For this reason, we’re using the term “Humanist community.”

When you establish a community, the principles of community organizing are the same regardless of whether the group is religious or secular. But in creating these communities we’re lacking some important elements found in religion, and that’s a deity, doctrine, dogma, and theology. This is not about imposing a new list, or rules and regulations based upon a spiritual direction for people to follow—this is about offering a social construct for those to gather in what is called a community.

How do you see these humanist communities providing the type of outreach programs and social support systems offered by churches?

There are a number of great programs out there like Recovering from Religion, the Secular Therapist Project, Secular Organizations for Sobriety, and Grief Beyond Belief that offer support services to those in need. Through organizations like the Foundation Beyond Belief we can be active in helping others. Through these organizations, we have a good starting point to build a foundation for communities to connect not only with each other, but for individuals to receive support during difficult times, to celebrate life events, and to reach out as a community to offer aid to those in need.

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