When We’re Left Behind

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.”

MacBain glances nervously around the room. It’s a Sunday, and normally she would be preaching at her church in Tallahassee, Fla. But here she is, sneaking away to the American Atheists’ convention in Bethesda, Md.

-by Barbara Bradley Hagerty
“From Minister to Atheist: A Story of Losing Faith”

When I read the NPR story, my immediate reaction was one of anger. I took the actions of ordained ministers who have become atheists and yet continue to serve in the pulpit as personally insulting and hypocritical. I also felt that NPR’s publishing of this story was an attack on Christians.

Of course, I shot my big mouth off on twitter and received replies asking why I felt that the telling of one person’s story on their journey of faith (even if it’s away from faith) was an attack on Christianity.

Good question. Why do I feel this way? If someone loses faith and a news agency decides to write a story about it, why do I care? For that matter, if some people choose to walk away from the church, why should I feel that they’re invalidating everything I believe in?

I don’t mind when people disagree with me. I don’t expect everyone in the world to have the same, thoughts, ideas, and opinions as I do. In fact, the world would be a pretty boring place if everyone were just like me. I actually enjoy a frank debate on interesting topics now and then. I guess it’s just the sense of being completely devalued, considered unintelligent, superstitious, and finally, irrelevant that bothers me. It’s one thing for a person to have never had faith and to refuse the option to consider God. It’s another thing entirely to be a person who was once devout and who helped others come to faith, do a complete u-turn and say God doesn’t matter anymore.

It’s like saying I don’t matter anymore, either. Faith isn’t something that I put on like a raincoat when the forecast is for thunder showers. Faith and trust in God is the fabric of my personality and the substance of my being. If we were once alike in our faith and you walk away, it’s like you’re saying who I am is no good anymore.

Two days later, MacBain returned to Tallahassee — and to reality.

“I didn’t know how far or how explosive her coming out would be, but, then again, nobody did,” says MacBain’s husband, Ray MacBain. “The next morning, we got up, I went to work and my son Alex texted me and said it went viral.”

The local TV station, WCTV, ran a series of stories about MacBain, interviewing her boss but never MacBain herself. Hundreds of people wrote comments on the site, and MacBain says they were painful to read.

“The majority of them, to begin with, were pretty hateful,” she says, although some nonbelievers soon came to her defense. “For somebody who’s been a good guy their whole life and been a people pleaser, it’s really hard to imagine that overnight you’re the bad guy.”

This is a very tragic consequence for a person, a member of the clergy, to experience when she “comes out of the closet” and admits to losing her faith. While the NPR story is very sympathetic to MacBain and others like her, I can see why people in the church would be angry.

broken-crossThere’s a sense of being betrayed. Imagine going through your own spiritual and emotional crisis. Who do you turn to for help? Often secular counselors, though well-meaning, just don’t understand the dynamics of a crisis of faith. For many people, the first person you turn to is your Minister or Pastor. You go to them, pour out your heart, fearing some “fire and brimstone” lecture, but hoping and praying he or she will understand. Then they do, they help you, they pray with you, and they gently guide you to a place where you feel like you can trust God again.

And then you find out they were lying between their teeth.

OK, it’s probably a lot more complex than that, and I certainly don’t want to be unfair to the practicing clergy who are atheists and enduring their own spiritual conflicts and crises in the pulpit, but yes, I do understand how the people around them could get very angry, could feel ripped off, and could feel discounted and even attacked.

It’s as if the one person in this world who you depend upon to be your spiritual anchor turns out to be made out of paper mache. I guess this is why we’re supposed to have faith in God and not in people, but for most human beings, it really helps to have someone spiritually stronger than you to rely upon when times get tough.

But people lose their faith. Really good and kind and wonderful people lose their faith. They go through hard times. They watch other people who they love go through hard times. Little children die of horrible diseases. Relationships are shattered. Where is a loving and compassionate God? I can see how faith could take quite a beating. Then your Minister announces to the world that she is an atheist.

Gee. What’s the point?

I’ve mentioned Joe and Heidi Hendricks before. I’ve mentioned they both have cancer. I’ve talked about the emotional roller coaster ride they’ve gone through on a daily basis for years and years. They are the two most remarkable people I know. I don’t know what holds them together…except their faith in God and their love for each other.

Put two Christians through identical horrible circumstances and then never let up on them. Hurt, terrify, and disappoint them over and over again until they both feel like they’re going to explode. Offer them comfort and hope, and then rip it away at the last possible second. What enables one Christian to endure with their faith intact or even strengthened, while the other’s faith is torn to shreds and they crawl away defeated, abandoning God as they feel they have been abandoned by God?

I don’t know. I’m not so cruel as to say one person’s faith was stronger or that the ‘weaker’ person didn’t have a ‘real’ faith at all. I can’t judge another person’s faith. I have no idea what they’re experiencing.

So if someone loses faith and walks away, what does that do to the rest of us? Why do we let it affect us at all? After all, it’s the other person’s decision. They’re making it for themselves. Pastors and Ministers and Rabbis are human beings after all. In fact, the demands of being a religious leader can make things harder rather than easier, and who knows how many of them silently suffer week after week, pretending to their congregations that they have a faith that has long since evaporated like an ice-cube in an Arizona heat wave.

We know we’re supposed to love one another. We know it isn’t easy. But that’s the point. Love isn’t easy. We have to love when it’s hard, too. If someone like Teresa MacBain in the NPR story is our Minister and she tells us she’s lost her faith, how should we respond?

“I believe in God,” says her husband, Ray. “And to be honest, I pray for her every night, I got friends praying for her.”

But he says he adores his wife and defends her right to disbelieve. “That’s why I spent 23 years in the Army. That’s why I’m still a police officer. We have freedom of speech and freedom of thought. And God never forced anybody to believe, so who am I to step up?”

This could have torn the MacBain family apart. For all I know, someday it might do just that. But we’re supposed to love and to try to understand, even when it’s not easy, and even when we feel attacked, and even when we feel insulted and take what the other person says and does really personally.

Love isn’t a warm and fuzzy feeling or lots of hugs and kisses. Love is setting aside your (my) personal reactions and trying to understand what the other person is going through. And then, you try to offer them what they need, even when it’s not what you want to give (and sadly, a recent study indicates that very religious people aren’t particularly motivated by compassion).

Is God that hard to find? When someone walks away and leaves us behind, God says we’re supposed to love them. Sometimes, with so many atheists telling us how bad we are and how evil Christianity is in the world, it’s hard to believe in love at all. It’s not rational, but if we acted like the rest of the world around us (and some religious people do), then we’d be as bad as they say we are. Jesus said to love. It hurts when someone who used to be a believer tells us they’re and atheist and that they’re “better” or they’ve “grown up” now. If we want them to respect our choice to be a person of faith, we have to allow them the same right and not take it as a slap in the face.

10 thoughts on “When We’re Left Behind”

  1. It is so amazing that people in america that say they believe in Jesus are so radically different than those in third world countries that come to faith in Christ. On the other side of the world they are tortured, raped, beaten, and killed for Christ. These people not only refuse to disbelieve but in fact become stronger in there faith. JESUS IN FRONT.

  2. Greetings, Carlo. I agree. We have a tendency to look at our faith relative to our experiences and expectation. One of the reasons I mentioned my friends Joe and Heidi in the blog post is becausea they have suffered greatly and yet maintain a steadfast faith. I’m not sure how I’d hold up if what is happening to them happened to me.

    We all like to think our faith is rock solid. Then God tests us and we know. Pray He never tests us too severely.

  3. I went through a period, perhaps as long as 18 months or even 2 years, in which I entertained strong doubts about my faith (and it was during my tenure as a blogger). I think good advice for clergy is to wait through such periods and not make hasty moves and decisions during the struggle. We often emerge from changes with a more mature faith. I don’t know enough about MacBain’s story. Had she been convinced of her atheist position long enough to be reasonably certain it would last? Once that line has been crossed, it is time to find another career.

  4. I think most of us go through something like that, at least if we’re not taking our faith for granted. I continue to struggle, not with faith per se, but with how it is to be expressed, my place in relation to God and other believers, and so forth. Of course, none of that is the same as the pressure the clergy goes through, always having to put on a “happy” or “holy” face, regardless of what their personal life is like, and regardless of the state of their faith.

    While I agree that once a person like MacBain has firmly established that she is an atheist, it’s time to move on, if a person has been leading a congregation for years or even decades, even if their faith is gone, those people are family. The struggle to walk away from both God and them must be amazingly difficult.

  5. I have lost some faith, but never completely. In the past 5 years I have lost both parents, and when my 12 year old son was 4, he lost his best friend to Leukemia. My neighbor of 14 years battled paranoia all his life and in 2011 he took his own life. To me, it seems a tragic event triggers what you start to believe and what you no longer want to believe. I still believe in my faith and I know that I will one day be reunited with my parents and neighbor.

    I also think I would need to hear this woman speak. The difficulty I am having with the article is that she said she got the call at age 6, but that “she sometimes felt she was serving a taskmaster of a God, whose standards she never quite met.” Just from reading, I’m not sure she got the call, or maybe she misread the call. Maybe the call was “do not go into ministry”, and she misinterpreted it.

  6. “They on the rock are they, which, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no root, which for a while believe, and in time of temptation fall away.”

  7. I suspect a lot more people in the church struggle with faith than are willing to admit, and perhaps with good reason. Anyway, my “morning meditation” for tomorrow will pick up where this one leaves off.

  8. Neat Fact: Did you know that when the Romans would sentence a person to death for becoming a Jew, the crime was called “Atheism?” Since the Jewish G-d cannot be seen or described, they considered this person to be without any g-d at all. Turns out that Judaism is closer to Atheism than most people’s Theism. As Rabbi Sholom Dovber of Lubavitch once put it, “The G-d that the Atheist doesn’t believe in, I don’t believe in either.”

  9. That’s certainly interesting, since Judaism was considered an “official religion” in the Roman empire. That’s why Jews could (among other things) refuse to work on the Shabbat as a religious practice and not be penalized by the Romans.

    However, non-Jews coming to faith in the Jewish Messiah (but not converting to Judaism) as “Christians” were not seen the same way because “Christianity” was *not* a state recognized religion.

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