Teresa MacBain has a secret, one she's terrified to reveal.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:
"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."
"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.On the other hand, again I'm fairly familiar with the God she left behind; and I wouldn't miss that God much, either.
"No, no," she says. "I can't say that I do."