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A pastor loses her faith

NPR has launched a series of stories on losing faith, and Godbeat pro Barbara Bradley Hagerty's piece on an atheist pastor gripped me from the beginning:

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.

Her secret is taking a toll, eating at her conscience as she goes about her pastoral duties week after week — two sermons every Sunday, singing hymns, praying for the sick when she doesn't believe in the God she's praying to. She has had no one to talk to, at least not in her Christian community, so her iPhone has become her confessor, where she records her private fears and frustrations.

I kept reading, assuming that "Teresa MacBain" would be revealed as a pseudonym. After all, surely a pastor with such a "secret" would not share it with NPR using her real name, right? I recalled that first names such as "Adam" and "Jack" were used in 2010 when Religion News Service and our own esteemed tmatt reported on a study on unbelievers in pulpits.

Alas, as the story proceeds, I realized that the intro was a storytelling device — an outstanding one. It turns out that, in the course of her journey, MacBain has come out and revealed her lack of faith both to the atheists' convention and, indirectly, to her church.

The story is told almost entirely from the perspective of the pastor, with the exception of input from her husband, who still believes but supports his wife:

But MacBain did go home. People shunned her. Job interviews were canceled. The Humanists of Florida Association offered to pay her salary for a year, but there's no guarantee. Only two of MacBain's friends called her and took her to lunch. Meanwhile, her family was a refuge, even if they didn't all agree with her new views.

"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?"

If the piece has a weakness, it's the total lack of perspective from the church members who suddenly discover that their pastor is an atheist. I'd love to know their reaction, both to the news of their former pastor's unbelief and how she chose to reveal it — to an atheist convention as opposed to the congregation itself.

Religion News Service (which received a $50,000 grant from the Stiefel Freethought Foundation to bolster its coverage of atheists) also covered MacBain's "coming out party," as the news service described it.

Like NPR, RNS did not talk to anyone from MacBain's congregation. But to its credit, RNS did quote someone from another church whose pastor revealed his lack of faith:

Aus’ congregation, unaware of his change of heart until learning about it on television -- on Palm Sunday, no less -- decided to disband. Their final service was Easter Sunday.

“There was anger, yes,” said Joe Vingle, a member of Aus’ Texas church. “Some people had been with Mike for 20 years or longer. Those were the ones that were really hurt. They are feeling that everything they were taught by him is a lie.”

But Vingle said there was also understanding. “He is still a friend and I am interested in seeing where this takes him,” he said.

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