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May 01 2012

Missing

Teresa MacBain is another one of those ministers – the ones who lose their grip on god and then wonder how on earth they can deal with the situation.

“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 can’t think of any other job that has exactly that problem. Even various woo-based jobs like homeopath aren’t exactly the same, because homeopathy isn’t a person, or a Person. It’s that that makes it a matter of conscience, I think.

She was raised a conservative Southern Baptist. She had questions about conflicts in the Bible and the role of women.

She says she sometimes felt she was serving a taskmaster of a God, whose standards she never quite met.

For years, MacBain set her concerns aside. But when she became a United Methodist pastor nine years ago, she started asking sharper questions. She thought they’d make her faith stronger.

In reality,” she says, “as I worked through them, I found that religion had so many holes in it, that I just progressed through stages where I couldn’t believe it.”

The questions haunted her: Is Jesus the only way to God? Would a loving God torment people for eternity? Is there any evidence of God at all?

And another, key question: would a loving God make the evidence so hard (we, being atheists, would say impossible) to find and then punish us for not believing without evidence? Would a loving God give us useful capacities to seek out the truth and test for falsehood yet demand that we ignore all that and have faith that there is a loving God?

I say no. That’s not a loving god. I am completely unable to believe in god, and I’m unable to countermand the aspects of my mind that make me unable to believe. That’s not something a loving god could or should or would punish me (or anyone) for.

MacBain misses the relationships, and she misses the music. But she doesn’t miss God.

18 comments

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  1. 1
    Desert Son, OM

    MacBain misses the relationships, and she misses the music.

    Lament lost relationships, find joy in new ones discovered in an environment not predicated on falsehood.

    Religion doesn’t own music (as much as it wishes it did). Find (or better yet, start) a secular chorus/music group that sings/plays what it would like regardless of whatever delusion the composers originally operated under. Every time I listen to a piece by Bach it doesn’t somehow make me Lutheran, or cause a god to actually exist.

    But she doesn’t miss God.

    A powerful first step toward reclaiming joy in the other two things she finds missing: genuine human contact and artistic expression through music.

    Still learning,

    Robert

  2. 2
    Ian MacDougall

    Was JS Bach a Lutheran? I thought he was a Catholic (Mass in B Minor and all that.)

    A minister who loses his or her faith is like a 747 pilot who no longer accepts the principles of aerodynamics, classical physics.or satellite navigation. One helluva situation, and one that few could remain in for long; at least, not with any mental satisfaction.

    She has also been socially outcast, presumably because she threatens group serenity.

  3. 3
    Sili

    Was JS Bach a Lutheran? I thought he was a Catholic (Mass in B Minor and all that.)

    His only mass if you paid attention.

    Recycling bits from his many many motets, which he – rightly – feared were going out of fashion.

  4. 4
    InfraredEyes

    A minister who loses his or her faith is like a 747 pilot who no longer accepts the principles of aerodynamics, classical physics.or satellite navigation.

    Except that aerodynamics still works, even if you don’t believe it, so the pilot won’t plummet out of the sky. His/her ability to fly the plane doesn’t depend on faith.

  5. 5
    Eamon Knight

    I was at that AA Convention. It was an, um, emotional moment.

  6. 6
    Ysanne

    Except that aerodynamics still works, even if you don’t believe it, so the pilot won’t plummet out of the sky. His/her ability to fly the plane doesn’t depend on faith.

    As the above-quoted example shows, a minister’s ability to conduct church services doesn’t depend on their faith, either. It’s just very uncomfortable without the faith (and so is the pilot’s situation).

  7. 7
    Erp

    I must admit announcing just before holy week and not first to her congregation probably hit her congregation in the hardest way possible (though in no way would it have been easy).

    I wonder whether she might find a local UU church that would provide some of what she is looking for. I note the Tallahassee one has a “Freethinker’s forum” on Tuesday nights.

  8. 8
    Ian MacDougall

    Sili @ #3:

    Now let me make sure I have this right. Bach ‘recycled’ motets, [and possibly bits of Gregorian chants, plainsong, bluegrass and a few old car parts] into his B Minor mass.

    But does that make him a Lutheran?

    Please note: I have not gone searching the Net for clues. He could have been a born again Calathumpian for all I know.

    ;-)

  9. 9
    Eamon Knight

    While not a musical historian, I have a slight acquaintance with Bach’s biography: he was most definitely Lutheran. (Among other things, he was cantor at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, which was Lutheran).

  10. 10
    Ian MacDougall

    Eamon,

    JS Bach is considered by many to have been the greatest musician of the entire western tradition. His ‘Mass in B Minor’ is also widely held to be his finest single composition, ‘recycled’ or otherwise.

    How extraordinary then that in a region with such history of religious strife that we find a Protestant composing a mass.

    Life is full of surprises.

  11. 11
    Ian MacDougall

    Life is very much indeed full of surprises, including mysteriously duplicated blog comments.

  12. 12
    Ophelia Benson

    Heh. Gremlins. Fixed it.

  13. 13
    Eamon Knight

    JS Bach is considered by many to have been the greatest musician of the entire western tradition.

    No argument here — you’re talking to someone whose MP3 player invariably contains several hours of the man.

  14. 14
    Uncle Glenny

    Was JS Bach a Lutheran? I thought he was a Catholic (Mass in B Minor and all that.)

    Not only not Catholic, but one of the cantatas calls the Pope “the demon from Rome.”

    I’m partial to St. Matthew Passion, myself, although B minor mass is way up there along with many of the cantatas. For jollity, check out the coffee cantata.

    /trivia

  15. 15
    M'thew

    @various

    Bach wrote more masses than just the B Minor; he also composed several Lutheran Masses.

    So: one missa tota (B Minor, BWV 232), probably written to ingratiate himself with a new (Catholic) king, and several missae breves (Lutheran, BWV 233-236). And don’t forget the Magnificat (BWV 243) – a magnificent work as well.

  16. 16
    Musical Atheist

    Definitely Lutheran, and as M’thew points out, he wrote the B minor mass for a catholic king – Augustus III, Elector of Poland and King of Saxony. Bach subsequently became his court composer. Court and Church – it’s just work, and an artist who relies on patronage has to be pragmatic, even if he is devout.

  17. 17
    Musical Atheist

    So in order to pay the rent an artist may take jobs that have ideological implications that they disagree with, but at the same time they have a freedom that someone like Theresa McBain really doesn’t. I can be paid to sing the Johannes Passion, and for me it’s like participating in a reading of the Iliad, or some equivalent great work of storytelling of great cultural significance. I don’t have to believe it. I only have to decide if I’m willing to be paid money by a given organization, or participate in a given event. It has its moral difficulties, but Theresa and other clergy who don’t believe are in a much more invidious position.

  18. 18
    Eamon Knight

    I suppose I should say something more relevant: I miss the music. Yes, Handel is still Handel, ditto more modern works in the popular vein (no, I don’t mean [spit] CCM), but I can no longer *enter into* the music in a devotional way. And there’s too much historical baggage to just casually enjoy it; modern Christianity manages to be a relatively decent, humane enterprise (well, the bits of it that are — lots of it isn’t) largely despite a history of cruelty and oppression.

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