AUSTIN, Texas (RNS) A former United Methodist minister-turned-atheist was dismissed from her high-profile position at Harvard University on Thursday after it was revealed she falsified her resume.

RNS photo by Colin Hackley Photo

Teresa MacBain, one of the most high-profile nonbelievers in the country after profiles by NPR, The New York Times and Religion News Service, was fired from her newly created position with the Humanist Community at Harvard. RNS photo by Colin Hackley Photo


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Teresa MacBain, one of the most high-profile nonbelievers in the country after profiles by NPR, The New York Times and Religion News Service, was fired from her newly created position with the Humanist Community at Harvard.

MacBain, who started her job at the beginning of September, had planned to travel the country starting humanist communities at schools and organizations nationwide.

In a statement posted on Facebook Thursday (Sept. 26), MacBain acknowledged she had misrepresented her education to Harvard, to the broader atheist community and to reporters.

“I have committed a grave error in judgment that I deeply regret,” MacBain wrote. “While I did not do anything with malice or with intention to harm others, my actions were still wrong.”

The deception was discovered after a New York Times story about her new position at Harvard appeared earlier this month. In it, reporter Samuel Freedman reported that MacBain had a master’s of divinity from Duke University. Officials at Duke said she attended a summer course at the school.

MacBain acknowledged as much in her Facebook statement.

“While it is true that I attended Duke Divinity under a special program for pastors transferring from another denomination, I did not earn a standard divinity degree,” she wrote. “As I’ve worked among you, I claimed the latter degree status instead of explaining the true nature of my theological education.”

MacBain said the deception started when someone else misrepresented her credentials and she let it stand.

In March 2012, MacBain stood at a podium before hundreds of people in a Maryland hotel ballroom at the national convention of American Atheists and told them that, after a lifetime as a Christian and 15 years as a pulpit pastor, she had lost her faith.

She eventually lost her pulpit, many circles of friends and family members. Going public as an atheist, she learned, carried risks.

“Go for it, but be prepared,” MacBain said in an interview earlier this year. “They should be prepared for unexpected love and acceptance from the freethought community and they should be prepared for the worst from friends and family and people you would have never imagined.”

Greg Epstein, Harvard’s humanist chaplain and director of its humanist community, declined to be interviewed but issued a statement on the chaplaincy’s website.

“Many of us at HCH have come to care very much about Teresa as a person,” he wrote. “We wish her the very best in the future. We will also learn a great deal from this experience as we move forward with energy and renewed determination.

The dismissal has sent an undercurrent of sadness through the nontheist community, which has struggled to establish an image of morality in the absence of faith — “Good without God” is the American Humanist Association’s motto.

“I do not believe any one mistake by any one individual will define or derail us,” said Paul Fidalgo, director of communications for the Center for Inquiry, an organization founded by Paul Kurtz, author of The Humanist Manifesto.

“We, as a community, define who we are every day in millions of ways, large and small, by how we interact with those around us. And that’s a very positive story.”

26 Comments

  1. Eh…how could Harvard get this wrong? Why didn’t anyone even ask for transcripts? They’re running the center with less professionalism than most high schools are run.

  2. Daniel Berry, NYC

    Well, misrepresentation of the truth isn’t exactly the exclusive province of non-believers: every day we read about so-called Christian clergy and other leaders putting out lies, misrepresentations and distortions about gay people, Muslims, liberals and anyone else they don’t agree with.

  3. This shows, along with the Catholic clergy sexual abuse, how very universal and ecumenical deceit and other corruption can be. It is up to every individual, in the outlook of ethics they maintain from all their life experience, to decide in each instance of behavior what is right and what is wrong.

    Lying is rather universally considered wrong, but even the Jesuits condone “white lies” on occasion under a theological category of mental reservations. Not that MacBain was “reserving” claims about her background rather than outright complying in their distortion for self-promotion “to do good”!

    It takes time for any claims to become confirmed by the support of facts, so it would be inappropriate to accuse Harvard or its humanist community of participation or laxity in MacBain’s distortions about her past. It was all MacBain’s fault, and Harvard acted in a timely and appropriate way.

    • Incredibly angry and distorted view of this event.

      1. She lied, and Harvard should’ve known better.
      2. She wanted to use the Harvard brand to sell atheism to schools.
      3. She did not possess the training or the stature she had represented.
      4. Believer-turned-atheist just wasn’t true. She was never even a minister!

      You try really hard to rationalize hers and Harvard’s outrageous actions. Are modern atheists so callow?

  4. Russell Thornberg

    Most professional organizations ask for transcripts and/or a diploma well before hiring an individual. That the Harvard Center did not do this speaks to the cronyistic culture of that organization as MacBain was not hired from a randomly generated pool of applicants but was hired based on her friendship with the director.

  5. Deacon John Bresnahan

    Harvard’s easy to gull, We in Ma. now have a Dem. liberal senator who “worked” her way up to Harvard by doing jujitsu with her family tree so she could take advantage of affirmative action programs for American Indians. But in this state gulling people for noble liberal purposes–no matter how fraudulent– gets one ahead. Harvard apparently never did check to see if Elizabeth Warren was entitled to be classified as an Indian for promotion purposes on her way up the academic ladder.

    • Charles Freeman

      You made a number of allegations about Elizabeth Warren. You didn’t back them up with facts. Cite your sources. Defaming a politician is a game I don’t appreciate whether it’s Bush or Obama, or, in this case, Warren.

      • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

        One of the best accounts of Sen. Warren and her use of an alleged (but unsubstantiated) Indian heritage for advancement purposes is in the Washington Post of Sept. 27, 2012.
        My family feels strongly about her fraud and her excuses because my daughter IS married to a real Penobscot Indian and their children are authentic members of the Penobscot Tribe.

    • She’s from Oklahoma. A great deal of people from Oklahoma have Native American ancestors. Unfortunately, after the many atrocities committed, it’s no surprise that the registration of Native American tribes and members are not comprehensive, and many people aren’t counted as members, even though their families have such a history. Warren was told by her family that they have Native American ancestors, and although she never used that information to get into Harvard, she still has the right to claim that identity on the census and other forms.

      • Deacon John Bresnahan

        Hey! Great!! if great, great grandma tells us a legend about our family history, no matter how unsubstantiated, we can make affirmative action claims.
        Most tribes, including the Penobscot, have strict rules for being able to claim that you are genuinely full-blooded enough to legally call yourself an American Indian. Senator phony Hiawatha’s “heritage” came and went on forms and in publications resulting in helping both her and Harvard. (Harvard desperately needed a minority or two to not look like liberal hypocrites in hiring. Warren was just the ticket).
        The story is too long (and pathetic) to put it all in a combox, No wonder she was so embarrassed by her machinations that she refused to talk with Indians that were delegates to the Democratic Party Convention. (They only wanted to hear her side of the story from her own lips.)

  6. Howard Pogorsky

    Undoubtedly, her former immersion in the fairy tale lies of organized religion has left her moral abilities weakened. I am sure with double doses of atheist reason, she will wake up to a stronger moral self.

    • Deacon John Bresnahan

      I’m sure she will learn a lot from atheist thinkers if she carefully studies the “great”
      religion-haters of the 20th Century– like Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Hitler. She can even learn how to build bigger and better gulags, concentration camps, crematoria, etc., etc.,etc.

      • When you say “great” I think you mean “notorious”. There is a difference. John Lennon was a greater thinker than your list, and he was an atheist. Also, you might wanna stop mentioning Hitler, because he was a catholic and wrote in his own memoirs that he believed he was doing god’s work by killing Jews. And if you want atheists to take ownership of those people (even tho their actions weren’t in the name of atheism), then you’ll have to take ownership of crusaders, inquisitors, jihadists, and the Phelps family. Fair is fair, buddy.

        • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

          My response was to strongly point out the fallacy in the comment that atheism will help the woman have “A stronger moral self??” and that religion had left “her moral abilities weakened.” What better proof is there that atheism does not automatically make people more moral than religious people (as claimed in the comment above attacking religious belief ) than the list of 20th Century atheistic mass murderer leaders (who had plenty of supporters of the same ideological persuasion)..
          It always amazes me to see some people on the internet constantly mention the Inquisition etc. (of centuries ago), but then get all furious when someone brings up modern 20th Century atheist anti-religious leaders whose record for killing makes any other historical statistics absolutely miniscule.
          The problem is that the 20th Century and its crimes ( mostly led by atheists) are being, for some reason, buried in George Orwell’s “Memory Hole” so that people are shocked to be reminded that atheism has failed as a solution to the disrespect for human life that has plagued humanity. Witness the millions of Ukrainians who were starved to death under Soviet atheistic communism. Or the uncounted (probably in the millions) Chinese killed in the atheistic Communist Great Leap Forward. Or the millions of Russians who disappeared in the atheist Soviet gulags. Or the thousands of priests who were killed or tortured in Hitler’s Dachau camp.
          Did those who perpetrated these crimes have a “stronger moral self” because they were atheist??

          • “Hence today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.”
            Mein Kampf

            ::walks away, whistling::

          • Deacon John Bresnahan

            Sadly, It seems that some people appear unbothered by the Gulags, the Great Leaps Forward, the Red Guards, the Cambodian Killing Fields, the Ukrainian Starving, etc..
            But just as the Holocaust of the Jews should never be forgotten-a Holocaust organized and perpetrated by Nazi Germans to be historically accurate– (and no one seems bothered to state this accurate history repeatedly in books, movies, on the web, etc.
            –as it should be repeated lest we forget..).
            And to be historically accurate the killings I mentioned were mostly organized and perpetrated by people and organizations which were aggressively atheist (mostly fanatic atheistic Communists). But no one is supposed to mention that factual truth..
            However the truth about all mass killings should be repeated lest we forget any of them and see them repeated in the future.

      • You comment disgraces the word “deacon.” There is nothing to suggest she any admiration on her part for the dictators you trot out in the usual histrionic right wing mode. When did smearing someone and delighting in a basically good person’s fall become gifts of the Holy Spirit conferred on ordination to the diaconate. Criticism is justified,but not hateful comment you make. Why don’t you re-read the Scriptures on the gifts of the Holy Spirit?

  7. Ethical Culture and Unitarian Universalism both failed to establish and maintain communities of disbelievers. Paul Kurtz and the Humanist Manifesto crowd insinuated themselves into the Unitarian Universalists but could not maintain an inspiration from “Reason” that could still feed the sheep. Atheism is not new, and has had every opportunity to justify and legitimize itself over the centuries, to little avail. Its qualities were sharply noted by the father of the scientific method, Francis Bacon, in his essay “On Atheism” (1601):

    It is true, that a little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism; but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion. …

    … atheists will ever be talking of that their opinion, as if they fainted in it, within themselves, and would be glad to be strengthened, by the consent of others. Nay more, you shall have atheists strive to get disciples, as it fareth with other sects. And, which is most of all, you shall have of them, that will suffer for atheism, and not recant; whereas if they did truly think, that there were no such thing as God, why should they trouble themselves? …

    The Indians of the West, have names for their particular gods, though they have no name for God, … which shows that even those barbarous people have the notion, though they have not the latitude and extent of it. So that against atheists, the very savages take part, with the very subtlest philosophers. …

    But the great atheists, indeed are hypocrites; which are ever handling holy things, but without feeling; so as they must needs be cauterized in the end. …

    The causes of atheism are: divisions in religion, if they be many; for any one main division, addeth zeal to both sides; but many divisions introduce atheism. Another is, scandal of priests; … A third is, custom of profane scoffing in holy matters; …And lastly, learned times, specially with peace and prosperity; for troubles and adversities do more bow men’s minds to religion.

  8. I have been involved with the non-theist community for a long time and I consider Teresa to by my friend. I don’t believe she meant any harm and I think it took a lot of courage to come clean right away instead of the normal denials we are used to hearing when someone is caught doing something wrong. She has instead taken full responsibility for her actions and apologized and accepted the consequences. I don’t think any prominent religious leaders have ever done that for any scandal (and more of their scandals are much worse than lying on a resume). Did the Pope Emeritus ever taken responsibility for moving pedophile priests around the world in order to avoid prosecution and obstruct justice?

  1. […] Minister-turned-atheist Teresa MacBain loses Harvard job after inflating resumeReligion News Service In March 2012, MacBain stood at a podium before hundreds of people in a Maryland hotel ballroom at the national convention of American Atheists and told them that, after a lifetime as a Christian and 15 years as a pulpit pastor, she had lost her faith.Deception, Doubt and Divinity (School)Religion Dispatches […]

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