Saturday, April 28, 2012

And We're Worried About Pagans?

What a fascinating sight to see on the major thoroughfare that leads to our state Capitol building in Tallahassee.  Big, bold and visible through the trees, the question comes at you: Are you an atheist?

Quite a change from the billboards you normally see in Florida where you might have a looming cross or very Anglo-Saxon looking Jesus and the famous John 3:16 passage: " For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son to the end that all should not perish but have everlasting life!"

As a good New Hampshire-born Episcopalian, I find all of these types of billboards gawdy and off-putting.  And we don't do marquee signs to glorify the Messiah either, thank you.

But this billboard on Apalachee Parkway comes at a time when one of the local clergy from a United Methodist Church announced that she was resigning because she is an atheist.  Pastor Teresa MacBain had had enough of standing in the pulpit every Sunday preaching about a God that she just didn't believe in any more.  She spoke at the American Atheist Conference on March 26th, telling them:

"I was one of those crazy fundamentalists, haters...  I want to apologize for verbally abusing you from the pulpit. I was the one on the right track and you were the ones who were gonna burn in hell. And I am happy to say, as I stand before you right now, I'm gonna burn with you!"   

As you might imagine, the fallout from this event has been well... bitter.  According to a post MacBain put up on the Richard Dawkins Foundation site, her former church "locked her out" and she was unable to get in, presumably to collect her things.  And, this being the Richard Dawkins site, you can imagine that everyone thinks the "theists" are the bad guys, Teresa MacBain is a martyr, so much for Christians being about "love," and all religions are stupid and silly.

There are many things that I think are highly-regrettable in what I have heard about the Teresa MacBain story.  I don't think she deserves death threats, or hate mail, or to be marginalized in any way.   I don't think that's Christian, and I don't think that's the right response especially to one who has now professed un-belief.  From what I have read and heard in her statement that she made to the American Atheist Conference and elsewhere, she didn't come to this decision overnight.

At the same time, MacBain's actions are not so innocent or innocuous.  She apparently went public as an atheist before her congregation knew.  In the meantime, it was revealed that she had been posting on the Richard Dawkins sponsored site "The Clergy Project" under a pseudonym.   And if you listen to MacBain, and others on the site, apparently there are a lot of clergy out there who really don't believe in God but are afraid of losing their paycheck, not to mention friends and family, if they come out as atheists.

Call me insensitive, but I think if you are a priest, pastor, rabbi, religious leader of any kind and you don't believe in God, then I'm sorry: get out of the pulpit and earn your paycheck some other way.  It is ridiculous, not to mention unethical, for someone who is a non-believer to pose and offer spiritual counsel to people about God or Jesus while secretly denying God's existence.   God can handle the unbelief.   But the people of God in a religious institution have a right to expect their spiritual leaders to be real believers.  And there are plenty of people who do believe who would be happy to take the place of this legion of clergy posers.

Does this mean that religious leaders aren't allowed to have doubts about church doctrine as dictated throughout the centuries, or question where is God when the world looks like it's going into the crapper?  No, absolutely not.  Religious leaders need to wrestle and struggle with all of it.  It is in the questioning and the struggle that one's faith should grow stronger.  And if it does not, and you lose your faith in God, and believe the whole story is poppycock, then tell your congregation or your vestry, "I need to retire."

Like it or not, dear ministers:  your "job" is more than just something where you punch-in and punch-out like a mid-level bureaucrat in an office.   You have supposedly been granted this place in the church by the grace of God to guide and nurture people in their journey toward a deeper relationship with God.  Yours is a vocation that is with you always and should be a part of who you are not just in the church but in the world.  You are a public figure.   And there are ways public figures exit their public stage.  You can either go out quietly or you can slam doors and make a spectacle.  I know; I was a public radio journalist.  People hated me for quitting radio.  But I knew what was the healthy thing for me to do.  And when I resigned,  my on-air announcement said nothing about the level of constant backstabbing I was enduring in my work place.   I was professional and appropriate.

And I played "Balm in Gilead" as the closing music on that edition of "Capital Report".  Those intimate enough to know what I had been enduring could read between-the-lines.

People have said that coming out as an atheist is like coming out as a gay person.  To an extent, in a Judeo-Christian society like this one, that is true.  But a clergy person who comes out as an atheist?  That's more like filing for a divorce.   It stings and it causes hurt and resentment.  The wounds may heal, but whether there will ever be forgiveness will depend on the people deciding they'd rather live in joy than misery.

And to think that the clergy in this city are afraid of the pagans?  My goodness, at least pagans believe in something sacred!



Anonymous said...

Woo Hoo! Great piece my little darling.


PaxDonnaVerde said...

Don't be quite so quick to judge Theresa McBain. Almost every minister, priest and theologian will admit to times when they could not believe in God, oftentimes repeatedly. We are not always privy to when these occur. They go on preaching, writing usually expecting that the disbelief will pass. Theresa was no different except that she came to a point that she understood that her disbelief would not pass. As I understood the NPR report, she did tell her congregation that she was leaving before she attended the athiest conference.

SCG said...

PaxDonnaVerde: thanks so much for the comment and welcome to the discussion.
I listened to the NPR report from All Things Considered. It was not clear to me that she told the congregation why she was leaving, or even if she had made it clear that she was leaving... like really leaving. They made a reference to her sermon on the 18th of March being "her last." I'd be interested to know what she said in that "last" sermon.
I'm sure Teresa didn't feel comfortable telling her church she was going to Bethesda to "come out" as an atheist. As such, it just makes more sense for her to have quit long ago rather than leaving and then publicly announcing that she had been leading a double-life.
For her sake, I'm glad Teresa has come clean and come out. I hope she is able to find peace.
I know she was wrestling with this issue for awhile.
As for how much questioning and doubting clergy, theologians and laity are doing in their heads and hearts... I know that happens all the time. But it is quite the leap to go from telling everyone about the wonderful love of God and then admitting, you don't think there is a God.
As for the NPR report itself... I was sadly not surprised that the piece failed to interview anyone besides Teresa and her husband. If Barbara Brown Haggerty took the trouble of driving by Lake Jackson United Methodist Church, she might have tried to talk to them about where they were at with all this. Or find a religious ethicist to discuss when clergy lose their faith.
Human beings are prone to projection, and clergy are very susceptible to becoming "God" for their congregation. If "God" says, "it's all a bunch of crap," that's bound to cause a lot of hurt. I've seen something similar happen in my own church, and the wounds are deep.
There are better ways to leave, and I think she could have done things differently and possibly spared herself some of the in-your-face pain.