My Take on Teresa MacBain


A phone call from a mutual friend I share with Teresa MacBain prompted me to write out my thoughts on her sad situation. As I’m sure many of you know, Teresa has been fired by the Humanist Community at Harvard for inflating her resume. She explained exactly what she did on her Facebook page:

It is with great sadness that I write to you today. I have committed a grave error in judgment that I deeply regret. While I did not do anything with malice or with intention to harm others, my actions were still wrong. I take full responsibility for my false reporting of my education in the recent NYT article and offer my apologies to all of you.

While it is true that I attended Duke Divinity under a special program for pastors transferring from another denomination, I did not earn a degree. As I’ve worked among you, I claimed the latter degree status instead of explaining the true nature of my theological education. The truth is… I lied on my resume. I did not earn a degree.

Many assumed the degree was a standard M.Div. and I went along with it. I should have stopped the error immediately, but did not. I cannot change these things so I must face them head on and own them.

With the loss of my job, my family and I will be moving soon to an undetermined location. Because of my choices I’ve placed my family in dire straits. This too is a consequence of my actions.

The New York Times had done a profile of her only a few days earlier, which is how this all came out. Someone at Duke read that article, didn’t remember her being part of that grad program at the university, looked it up and informed the Times that she did not actually have such a degree. The Times also did a follow up article noting the deception. Teresa has had to endure public humiliation and is, I’m sure, quite devastated about all of this. But she’s also dealing with it about as well as she could, taking full responsibility and promising to win back everyone’s trust over time. What more could she do?

But let’s also recognize something important: What she did was very normal and very human (which is not the same thing as saying it’s okay). If you’re familiar at all with the social psychological literature, you know that embellishment is so much a normal part of human behavior that virtually no one is likely to have not engaged in it at one point or another. Once again I strongly suggest reading Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. It will make you understand, if you don’t already, how we justify such decisions to ourselves, one little step at a time. We all do it.

And as someone who doesn’t have a college degree, I can fully understand why she felt the need to do it. I have been tempted to pad my resume at times when applying for a job myself because I never finished my degree but I know that I am almost certainly more competent than many people who do have a degree. I’ve never done it, but I’ve been tempted to do it. So I get it. And I understand how our ethical resolve can be diminished through self-justification and rationalization. It’s one thing our human brains do exceedingly well.

At the risk of being highly ironic, let me quote Jesus: Let he who is without sin cast the first stone. You may not have padded your resume, but you’ve embellished your accomplishments when telling a story. I have too. I bet we all have. And we’ve justified it to ourselves, if we bother at all, by saying it’s just a little white lie. And it makes us look better. And besides, they aren’t going to catch me at it. Welcome to being a human being. The fact that we are all so prone to doing the same kind of thing should allow us to react with understanding and compassion.

Harvard did the right thing by firing her. What she did was wrong and they had little choice. But we don’t have to fire her from the movement. We don’t have to ostracize her. We can and should embrace her. I don’t know Teresa well. We’ve emailed a few times and we’ve met once, at Skepticon last year. But I know a lot of people who know her well and every single one of them adores her and thinks the world of her. I’m betting that she can bounce back from this, earn our trust again and retake a prominent position in the broader community. And I’m rooting for her to do just that.

But let us go one step further. Let us stop with the hero worship, the entire concept of atheist celebrities. Hero worship is rarely a good thing, it leads us to put people on pedestals whether they want to be there or not. And then we’re shocked when they turn out to be human and make mistakes. But that’s all they ever were in the first place, human. I’ve been the object of that kind of thing myself in a very small way with what little bit of micro-celebrity I have in this movement and it’s quite uncomfortable for me.

Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, James Randi — our biggest seculebrities are flawed human beings who have legitimately been criticized for many things. The same is true of me. And you. And everyone else. And we shouldn’t stop criticizing anyone, celebrity or not, when it’s warranted. But we should recognize our common humanity and our common flaws. We are all a mixture of good and bad. I know for sure I am. I suspect you know you are too. So I’m gonna cut Teresa some slack and I hope you’ll join me.

Comments

  1. says

    Ed said:

    Once again I strongly suggest reading Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. It will make you understand, if you don’t already, how we justify such decisions to ourselves, one little step at a time. We all do it.

    Indeed. That book will make a person humble for the time it takes to read it, and a little while longer if they’re lucky. I therefore recommend repeat readings.

    But let us go one step further. Let us stop with the hero worship, the entire concept of atheist celebrities.

    Stopping hero worship is a difficult thing in itself, but I think a little bit more difficult for atheists since we tend to have this rebel mentality where we automatically admire those of our own who are “sticking it to the man,” where “the man” is anything and everything religious. Underdogs are so much fun to root for, so easy to respect for their bravery. And there’s just so much satisfaction to be found when someone eloquent is passionate on your behalf, you know? Vocally critical of power. Speaking the words you wish you could say, loudly, and being heard.

    But sometimes, weirdly, it just means admiring angry people. Because even the most eloquent of us don’t always hit our targets exactly. And sometimes we get them badly wrong.

    So, a little more humility all around sounds like an awesome idea.

  2. says

    Oh well, at least she stayed in school long enough to learn what a REAL apology is. That’s more than some people can say.

    And I understand how our ethical resolve can be diminished through self-justification and rationalization.

    Um…that’s not all of the picture. Our ethical resolve also gets diminished by other people’s DEMAND for self-justification and rationalization. Let’s face it — we do tend to reward the braggarts and blowhards, at least in our own respective “tribes.”

    And what’s this about “dire straits?” That sounds a bit scary when combined with the “undisclosed location” bit. Is someone overreacting to her fibbing?

  3. says

    I pretty much agree with you, Mr. Brayton. High dudgeon is a very ego-stroking state to be in, and should always be regarded with suspicion for just that reason.

  4. pHred says

    No, I haven’t padded my resume. No, I haven’t embellished stories about my accomplishments. No I am not perfect and yes I make mistakes but I really sick and tired of this assumption that “everyone” does this.

    Most women in academia that I have worked with, and I, actually undersell ourselves terribly, and as a result miss out on extra service pay, raises and “glory.” In fact, we get a double-whammy *because* of this damn assumption that we are inflating our work. ARGH!
    You are musing about sociology and have hit a nerve for me.

    I made a colleague re-write her tenure application several times because it kept sounding like she hadn’t done all that much when in fact she had gotten over twice as much grant money as a male colleague applying at roughly the same time. She also had many, many more publications that she was first author on but people were assuming that the male applicant had more publications because she didn’t talk in detail about everything she had done.

    Allowing people to assume that you have a degree that you don’t acutally have is not a little thing – it is not a little white lie. It is a massive misrepresentation.

    Sorry for the soap box and I am totally on-board with the no hero-worship thing – though I do aspire to achieve things that I have seen other people I respect achieve. I just really hate how you got there. Other than some basic things like requiring oxygen to survive, there are very few things that “everyone” does.

  5. says

    @3 Gretchen
    Indeed. That book will make a person humble for the time it takes to read it, and a little while longer if they’re lucky.
    I’m going to make a correction and say that it should make a person humble, not will. I bought that for my brother (after having read it myself) and later on when I asked him what he thought about it, he had an arrogant attitude along the lines of “Everything in that book is obvious.”

  6. Anthony K says

    Let us stop with the hero worship, the entire concept of atheist celebrities.

    And how’s that supposed to happen, exactly? Advertisements for exciting upcoming atheist conferences featuring panels of people nobody’s ever heard of? Slap stickers over Dawkins’ name on the covers of The God Delusion?

    Our emotional relationship with people who are more well-known than us is a complex thing, likely evolved over millennia. It doesn’t end with an incantation any more than saying “stop smoking” changes the relationship between nicotine and the brain.

  7. magistramarla says

    Ed,
    It’s very surprising that you don’t have a degree. I assumed that you had a background in law or history from reading many of your posts.

  8. TGAP Dad says

    …let me quote Jesus: Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

    Point of order: you can’t quote someone who never actually existed.

  9. says

    Heroes no. Role-models yes.

    The problem with heroes is that they don’t really exist and are part of this whole black/white, good/evil, sideA/sideB, dichotomous thinking problem that our simple minded culture has.

    Role-models are complicated. They have flaws they need to overcome and characteristics that we want to emulate and identify with. So role-models are excellent learning tools while the hero is merely a bookend.

  10. scottbelyea says

    I agree with much of what’s been said here However, I do get awfully tired of the “Pad a resume? Cheat on income tax? Come on … everybody does it sometime” rationalization. No, everybody doesn’t.

    I have enough trouble living up to my own failings. I resent someone scraping mud off someone else and throwing it at me.

    To be clear, it’s not MacBain doing this, to her credit.

  11. says

    From the article in the Boston Globe:

    Using her “experience with Evangelical megachurch pastor Rick Warren’s ‘church planting’ method” MacBain was to be “put to use building a movement of atheists and agnostics,” according to a Humanist Community at Harvard press release announcing her arrival in August.

    Well, I’m glad she won’t be doing that. I see this as the fundamental problem with HCH: the strong desire to mimic religion and transplant religious practices into secular movements. I have to assume it played a role in their hiring someone in a top leadership position who’d been active in the community for less than two years.

    The article also says she was to supervise a staff of 11 people and work out of a new office on Harvard Square. I still want to know where they get most of their money.

  12. pHred says

    @scottbelyea #12

    However, I do get awfully tired of the “Pad a resume? Cheat on income tax? Come on … everybody does it sometime” rationalization. No, everybody doesn’t.

    I have enough trouble living up to my own failings. I resent someone scraping mud off someone else and throwing it at me.

    YES! You put it much better and more succinctly than I did.

  13. eric says

    Brony @11:

    The problem with heroes is that they don’t really exist and are part of this whole black/white, good/evil, sideA/sideB, dichotomous thinking problem that our simple minded culture has.

    Completely agree. The balloon we have to pop is the tendency to think “good people” don’t do bad things and “bad people” don’t do good things. Everyone is a bit of a mixed bag. In an ivory tower discussion it is easy to say “of course that’s the case.” But I think in the real world, as we go about our business, we tend to backslide into A/B thinking, just exactly as you point out.

  14. cry4turtles says

    I, for one, will continue to have athiest “hero’s” and ” heroines”. These are people who do things I just can’t do. They defy odds and establishment, fight the good fight, etc. I can’t risk losing my home ( I rent from xians),or my job ( boss’s mom is a pastor). So I have to look to my hero’s to be more courageous than me. When/if I ever summon the courage, my heroes and heroines will then turn into role models. In the meantime, I’m quite aware that no one “walks on water.”

  15. says

    For the record, I did not say that everyone pads their resume. You will search this post in vain for anything that says that. What I did say was that we all tend to embellish things about ourselves, stories from our past. The high school football game we lost becomes the game we won, with us scoring the winning touchdown, that sort of thing. I suppose perhaps there is someone out there somewhere who has never done so, but I would be very surprised to meet them (and couldn’t verify it even if I did). I highly doubt that anyone who is honest with themselves could claim that they have never done so even once.

  16. says

    @Brony:

    Yes.

    I don’t really have heroes–of any sex. I do respect the accomplishments, courage and intelligence of a number of people but fully understand that they are all as human as I and just as prone to failures of judgment.

    Heroes are problematic for me, because I see people getting way too invested in someone that they really don’t know and then having a hard time not being apologists when that person turns out to be a human being, with all that being human entails.

  17. grumpyoldfart says

    npr interview with McBain, published April 30, 2012:

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

    Old habits die hard.

  18. Nick Gotts says

    Point of order: you can’t quote someone who never actually existed. – TGAP Dad

    a) Yes, you can. Fictional characters are frequently quoted. In the case of Jesus, quotations are always quotations of the Jesus who appears in the gospels, whether the real Jesus actually said them or not.
    b) The view that Jesus didn’t exist is roughly as cranky as the view that Francis Bacon wrote the plays attributed to William Shakespeare: it’s not impossible, but there is a strong consensus of the relevant experts (and yes, this does include atheists and other non-Christians) that it’s false. The irrational attachment of a significant number of atheists to this view is embarrassing.

  19. cullen says

    No degree here; never lied about it, but do put my college experience on my CV / resume; if questioned I answer honestly that I didn’t finish but majored in biology.

    Of course I’m not an academic so qualifications from universities don’t matter as much and I have 7 years in the US military so lots of people seem to equate “7 years military + 2 years university + 15 years experience in my field” as on a par with a Bachelor’s degree when applying for a new job.

    Or maybe it’s just that I’m at a level where it doesn’t matter anymore if I achieved a degree 20 years ago but more about what I know now and my more recent experiences.

    I do feel for this lady, though; I’m sure some HR folks have seen that I don’t have a degree and rejected my CV out of hand and not having serious credentials is a real detriment in a purely academic field. Harvard did do the right thing though.

    And the whole heroes vs role models thing – it seems role models can be more than a single characteristic in most people’s minds, but so can heroes. Some of the biggest heroes I respect and want to emulate were deeply flawed individuals; I try to honor what made them heroes and ignore their flaws. Call it cherry-picking if you will, but nobody’s perfect, including me.

  20. says

    “it’s not impossible, but there is a strong consensus of the relevant experts (and yes, this does include atheists and other non-Christians) that it’s false. The irrational attachment of a significant number of atheists to this view is embarrassing.”

    This is not clear to me. Do you mean that the strong consensus is that Jesus did not exist? If that is not the case, why is it irrational to suppose that the individual, Jesus, to whom so much is attributed in the NT is an amalgam of numerous persons, a mere idea that became a person or someone who actually lived and had their resume padded by their biographers?

  21. Blondin says

    I highly doubt that anyone who is honest with themselves could claim that they have never done so even once.

    One important point that I learned from “Mistakes Were Made” was that honesty is not the only factor involved. Our clearest memories and most sincere beliefs can still be influenced by unconscious dissonance reduction.

  22. freehand says

    democommie: “it’s not impossible, but there is a strong consensus of the relevant experts (and yes, this does include atheists and other non-Christians) that it’s false. The irrational attachment of a significant number of atheists to this view is embarrassing.”

    This is not clear to me. Do you mean that the strong consensus is that Jesus did not exist? If that is not the case, why is it irrational to suppose that the individual, Jesus, to whom so much is attributed in the NT is an amalgam of numerous persons, a mere idea that became a person or someone who actually lived and had their resume padded by their biographers?

    It is pretty undisputed that Paul (Saul) took over the cult of Jesus, the Christians, a generation after Jesus supposedly lived and died. Most cults are personality cults when founded. I find it highly unlikely that a new cult (about 30 years old) had been founded based on the teachings of a man whom nobody actually remembered ever seeing. A teacher and the cult he founded is a very common occurrence (Do I need to list examples?). I don’t need to have corroborating evidence to find his mere existence the most parsimonious explanation for a Jesus cult in 70 A.D.

    On the other hand, quotes attributed to him are easy to fake or misinterpret, deliberately or otherwise. The books in the Christian bible were largely written through the authors’ filters of belief and desire, and some were chosen and others rejected. I think the existence of Jesus was extremely likely. the quotes attributed to him are possible but questionable, and the miracles attributed to him about as impossible as anything ever claimed. (although possibly just highly embellished accounts of real events.)

    And has been mentioned, one can quote fictional people in any event. We quote folks in Wizard of Oz, Huckleberry Finn, movies, Aesop’s fables, poetry, Diskworld. and television commercials.

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