American 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. (http://www.npr.org/2012/04/30/151681248/from-minister-to-atheist-a-story-of-losing-faith)
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.