Month: October 2016

Postscript to Teresa MacBain’s eisstasy

Yesterday I wrote about the pastor-turned-atheist-turned pastor again, Teresa MacBain (Teresa MacBain’s Eisstasy).

Since writing the post, I’ve been able to listen to her sermon telling her story (“Grace Redefined”), available from her website.

(I know…I should have listened to this first)

It confirms my conclusions, but I found it fascinating listening, and it filled in most of the blanks for me. If you have a spare half hour, I’d recommend listening.

It confirms that her reasons for trying atheism were emotionally driven and her reasons for returning are arguably even more so.

Even though Teresa and I are both former pastors, our stories are fundamentally different.


For me, it is all about knowing what is true and accepting that (despite the costs).

For Teresa, it is all about being known and being accepted.


Obviously, I believe Teresa is wrong in her conclusions, but I do think I understand her and (for what it’s worth) I can accept that.

When her life turned tough (and it really did), she no longer felt loved by God and so concluded that there was no god.  But when life went from bad to worse in the wake of her public apostasy (and the disgrace of the Harvard debacle), and Teresa realised it was no easy thing to find community outside the church, she admits that she needed community, and so went to a progressive church again to find it.

And she found it.

And the acceptance was wonderful.

And although she doesn’t give any hints that she has resolved any of the intellectual difficulties with Christian belief, those were never the key things for her anyway, and she has chosen to ignore them, because acceptance (grace) is more important to her.


After watching the video her story all makes perfect sense.

The video rings true, and it is excellent to be able to walk in someone else’s shoes for a bit.  There is only one main point in the video which didn’t ring true, and that is her claim that she didn’t understand Grace beforehand.

While this is always possible, I suspect this is instead a convenient refashioning of what she really means, which is that she had never quite experienced how wonderful grace and acceptance feels, until now.  I’d be surprised if we were to look through her sermon archive, if we didn’t find a traditional protestant understanding of Grace being preached – “it’s not what we do, but what God has done for us in Jesus”.  But for Teresa to be able to say that she only just understands that now is an easy way of explaining why she went wrong and of now preaching that message anew.


Her revelation about grace is not new to me, though.  Her ‘redefinition’ is the evangelical standard one (even if a little light on the Jesus bit for those of my heritage).  I’ve preached an entire sermon series on Grace – but now I understand both the flaws in that doctrine and why even if you ignore those flaws the entire Christian system collapses in any case.


Having seen the video, I don’t think Teresa wants the limelight.  I think she just wants to be part of an accepting community who will love her despite her flaws, and whom she can love and minister to.

It’s an important reminder that community really matters – not just to Teresa, but to everyone.

Even though it’s sad at one level that fear, pain and brokenness caused Teresa’s will to falter and to stumble back to the security of the fold, I think I also agree with Galen Broaddus in his blog post,

But after a great deal of reflection, I’m actually glad that Teresa has returned to her Christian roots.

I don’t mean that in a snarky way, like she wasn’t worthy enough to be “one of us.” The more I think about it, the more I can’t help but conclude that atheism was simply never a good fit for Teresa. She wore her atheism like an ill-fitting set of overalls. I don’t think she was insincere about it, but I do think that her attempt to remake herself from pastor to atheist leader never quite worked.


There is absolutely nothing about Teresa’s fall to grace that gives me pause – no new evidence or information that calls my reasoning or conclusions into question.

I think Teresa will be happier with this change, because for Teresa, ‘integrity’ and ‘truth’ fall into line behind ‘acceptance’ and ‘love’.

For me, it’s the other way around.

Teresa MacBain’s Eisstasy

teresatalkAmerican Atheists’ “Atheist of the Year 2012”, Teresa MacBain has rediscovered God.

To coin a word, she has eisstasized (the opposite of apostasy).

To former Christians like me, this raises an interesting question – how does this happen, if, having seen behind the curtain, you know that the religion is myth, without substance?

Some are suggesting that this is consistent with a broader pattern of poor integrity from Teresa.  When she first came out as an atheist, she did so publically to strangers, at an atheist conference, some days before telling her own congregation.  Later, she was found to have fraudulently claimed to have an MDiv when taking a position at Harvard, which she never in fact completed.  She then did not inform The Clergy Project of her changed views, and instead needed to be approached about this (after launching her new website), before admitting that yes, she now believed in the supernatural again.

At best, all this shows poor judgement, though there are plausible reasons for suggesting each of these situations do not necessarily imply calculated intent to deceive or cause harm.

Some suggest there is a pattern of attention-seeking behaviour, which is certainly possible, but not in itself especially good or bad.

Some go even further to suggest that either (i) the whole thing may have been conceived as a fraud in advance, or else (ii) she is still an atheist but is lying now to try to deceive Christians who’ll pay handsomely to hear her tell them they are right.  Certainly, it is true that there is a lot more money to be made from the “prodigal made good” narrative, but again, it will need to be seen whether Teresa seeks to gain financially from this.  Her new personal website perhaps implies this is a trajectory she may take, but the details are yet to be seen.  Because there is undoubtedly money to be made from this story, I expect someone will push her to ‘write the book’ at some point.


Personally, I don’t think we need to imagine underhandedness on Teresa’s part.  I think it is thoroughly plausible that she has simply decided that she would rather have a metanarrative that includes a god, rather than one without it.  Her husband remained Christian, and she is on the record for saying she misses the music, the relationships, the ritual.  And yes, I expect, the income, security and prestige of the pastorate (at some level).

On a simple cost-benefit analysis, I expect the benefits of ‘including God in her life’ far outweighed the benefits of leaving God out.  From a purely pragmatic perspective, her decision makes some sense.

There are real and ongoing costs to the decision to reject Christianity:

“I don’t want to go home,” she [MacBain] muses in the recording, deflation flattening her voice. “I don’t want to have to be in Publix or Wal-Mart or somewhere and worry about who’s going to see me and who’s going to corner me and just tell me off.”

But MacBain did go home. People shunned her. Job interviews were canceled. (

That’s hard to live with.

More to the point, I don’t think there is especially good evidence that her original apostasy was especially rigorously thought through.  Many of her cited reasons are on the emotional end: “how could a loving God torment people for eternity”?

I don’t know, of course, but it’s quite possible she hasn’t looked into the evolution of El or of Yahweh’s place in the Canaanite pantheon of gods and his progression to a henotheistic then monotheistic god, or of the influence of Zoroastrian dualism on the evolution of exilic and post-exilic Jewish thought, or an investigation into miracle claims from across the religious spectrum, or an appreciation of the implications of critical scholarship of the Bible, or any number of other elements that undermine the integrity and plausibility of the Christian mythos.  That is, if her motivations were more along the lines of “I just find it so hard to believe anymore”, then that’s not such a hard thing to overcome, when ‘not believing’ leads to far more trouble than its worth.  If she has moved to the position of a ‘progressive Christian’, then perhaps she is aware of many of these things, but nevertheless finds it hard to let go of a vague noumenal sense of ‘something more’, and the beauty of the best-parts of the Christian concept of grace.


Personally, I think her apostasy was genuine.  I reads as a genuine process.

I think her eisstasy is probably also genuine.  I don’t think she’s now going to deliberately malign those who don’t believe in God, and she’ll try to be sensitive and caring in her progressive Christianity (she’s issued a short statement).

I suspect that she didn’t do the hard work of rigorously working through why Christianity was true or false, and so her atheistic conclusions were fundamentally emotionally based and flimsy, and thus changeable.

I hope Teresa manages to find joy and contentment in the days ahead of her, and is able to help people in positive ways, as she is able, without doing harm (intentional or otherwise).

Frankly, that’s what I hope for everyone.