Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Believin' what you know ain't so....

So here we go again, except this time we're going here:

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."
The way the story tells it, this event is the equivalent of admitting you are gay, and that you are an alcoholic.  No, really; there's whooping and hollering on the audio as she announces her atheism at a convention of non-believers (which is a rather odd reason to gather together, but then again, it's Florida, so....)  And except, of course, in this case public confession is a good thing, not the first step to recovery.  But there's also the public shame:

"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."

Having grown up in East Texas, I'm sympathetic to an area of the country like Tallahassee, Florida, where  stating you are an atheist rather than a pastor is rather like saying you are a Roman Catholic instead of a Baptist.  The latter might be harder to do, actually; and no, I'm not kidding.  And, of course, there's the problem of finding a job when all you've ever trained for is the ministry.

But I do wonder what seminary Ms MacBain attended, and how she got out of that with her rather simplistic notions of theology and Christology intact.  Because what she says she's given up on is what many thoughtful Christians gave up on a century ago; or much earlier in life, if they aren't that old.  And, to be perfectly accurate, a great deal of what she professes to now not believe would not have been recognizable to Martin Luther or John Calvin or Huldrych Zwingli.  Nor to her more recent spiritual ancestors like John Wesley, or the Puritans, or even the Baptists who pushed so hard for a separation of church and state in the late 18th century.

Which is to say not that I resent her story, or begrudge her the decision she had to make, or even to argue that it wasn't hard for her (who am I to say?).  No, my question is the framing of this.  It fits too neatly into the criticism William James noted about belief:

The freedom to ' believe what we will ' you apply to the case of some patent superstition; and the faith you think of is the faith defined by the schoolboy when he said, " Faith is when you believe something that you know ain't true." I can only repeat that this is misapprehension. In concreto, the freedom to believe can only cover living options which the intellect of the individual cannot by itself resolve; and living options never seem absurdities to him who has them to consider.

The framing of this story (and probably the series) is that "Faith is when you believe something that you know ain't true," and so excludes the reality that "the freedom to believe can only cover living options," although I would not, with James, set those options up as unalterably in conflict with the intellect, or with Wittgenstein as those things "whereof one cannot speak" and which "thereof one must be silent."  My sympathies with Ms. MacBain are that she has access only to the either/or of modern American Christianity:  either you are a Bible-thumping fundamentalist (among the Methodists?  I mean, I went to school with Methodists!  Ah, well....) who believes Jesus is the only hope of salvation and that while "God loves all his children, by gum, that don't mean He won't incinerate some", or you are a godless atheist.  Which is not the fault of the frame of this story, but it is the fault of the reporter to portray this as if the only viable options for anyone are between those two extremes.  Not because Ms. MacBain's story is somehow misrepresented here; but because the story itself is not exactly a representation of much of anything beyond being Ms. MacBain's story.

For the record, I early in my life rejected all of the tenets of Christian doctrine Ms. MacBain finds so offensive it now destroys her belief system; and yet I am still a Christian and, in my heart at least, a pastor.  Like I say, I feel sympathy for her, but at the same time:  Good grief!  Can't we teach people to think?  Especially about something as important as this?

And do we have to frame every narrative of faith as a choice between simplistic soteriology and absolute denial of religion?  It seems to me Teresa MacBain has gone from one simplistic extreme to the other, with no idea there is a vast and historical middle that might well satisfy her needs and answer her questions.  Or, maybe not.

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."
 On the other hand, again I'm fairly familiar with the God she left behind; and I wouldn't miss that God much, either.


  1. I've noticed NPR is going big on pushing atheism, though this morning it was called "Humanism". That can either mean that the new atheism has seeped into the middle-brow lexicon of mandatory ideas or it can mean the fad is spent, now that it has been adopted by white males in their late middle age. I've noted that lately Lawrence O'Donnell has been pushing the absurd idea that atheists are some kind of put upon minority group when they've, actually, had federal civil rights protection since 1965.

    I suspect for this story it's more a change of career choice than anything else, given the apparent trajectory of Ms. Macbain's conversion. I expect books, celebrity appearances at atheist events, etc. The flip side of how some have made out by going from being an atheist to being a religious fundamentalist of the kind that does that kind of shtick.

    You got it, you've got to give up all of the constructed idols before you can believe in God.

  2. Windhorse12:15 PM

    Ms. MacBain would probably have benefited from spending some time with the works of Paul Tillich to remedy the subject-object idea of relationship with God she was laboring under followed by Martin Buber for some instruction in the "I-Thou" relationship and an immersion in Rumi to rediscover the promise of joy in relationship to the Divine. 

    If only someone had been there to suggest to her that maybe what she was losing faith in was what Tillich called theological theism, a kind of tyranny of intellectual idols in which both humans and God are ultimately reduced to objects which are subject to cruel and capricious laws. As is hinted in the James' quote, this kind of belief system cannot survive scrutiny and leads predictably, according to Tillich, to atheism.

  3. Oh God! How many times must I say it? I don't believe in the god that Teresa doesn't believe in either. Lord 'a' mercy!

    Good grief! Can't we teach people to think? Especially about something as important as this?

    Indeed! Makes you want to bang your head against the keyboard, doesn't it?

    Her coming out as an atheist sounds right out of an AA meeting. Is she a recovering believer? Will she need to attend support group meetings to retain her atheism, lest she lapse back into belief?

    I don't mean to mock AA, because the program has helped many to attain and retain sobriety. I believe it is Teresa who mocks AA with the copycat coming out from her cramped view of God. How sad that the two extremes are all she knows. What a sheltered life she's led.

  4. Mimi--I feel for Ms. MacBain, but Anthony is right: you've got to give up all of the constructed idols before you can believe in God.

    Windhorse: Exactly. As I say, what seminary did she attend, and how poor a job of education did they do? I knew several Methodist ministers in my seminary, and if that education didn't make you an atheist, you at least knew better than to rely on a "Sunday school" God as your reason to be in ministry.

    Ministry is hard enough without trying to do it in the name of a false idol.

  5. Mea culpa. I'm ashamed of myself. How soon we forget. I once believed in a god similar to Teresa's. Once I stopped believing in that god, I did not become an atheist. I never stopped believing in God, but I reconsidered my concept of God.

  6. Windhorse1:14 PM

    Just stumbled upon this quote and thought it amplified our discussion. Joseph Campbell says: "Meister Eckhart says, 'The ultimate leave-taking is the leaving of god for God.' That is to say, the folk-god for God, that is to say, the elementary idea. Break through that veil of conditioning and you get to the elementary idea...Our highest god is our highest obstruction. It represents the consummation of the highest thoughts and feelings you can have. Go past that...."

  7. Excellent, Windhorse. Thanks for the quote.

  8. Windhorse1:40 PM

    Thank you, Grandmère Mimi, I'm grateful to have the opportunity for discussion.

  9. Windhorse, Mimi:

    This reminds me of a book title I saw once: "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!"

    Always seemed to be very good advice to me....