(RNS) By definition, skeptics are pretty skeptical. They question what they see as unfounded claims or dubious motivations, whatever the source. Now, they are questioning some of their own leaders.

With the success of organizations such as The Clergy Project — an online community seeking to provide a safe place for clergy members who reject supernatural beliefs — numerous former ministers are joining the ranks of the publicly nontheistic.

Some have risen to the leadership of prominent atheist organizations. Last week, Teresa MacBain was dismissed from her high-profile position at Harvard University’s Humanist Community after it was revealed she inflated her resume. The former United Methodist pastor claimed a degree from Duke Divinity School she did not have.

Teresa MacBain of Tallahassee, Fla. was a Methodist pastor for 10 years, in March of 2012 she spoke at the American Atheist convention and announced she no longer believed in God. MacBain left her position as senior pastor at Lake Jackson United Methodist Church in Tallahassee, a post she held for 3.5 years, prior to speaking at the conference. RNS photo by Colin Hackley Photo

Teresa MacBain of Tallahassee, Fla., who was a Methodist pastor for 10 years, in March 2012 spoke at the American Atheists convention and announced she no longer believed in God. MacBain left her position as senior pastor at Lake Jackson United Methodist Church in Tallahassee, a post she held for 3.5 years, prior to speaking at the conference. RNS photo by Colin Hackley Photo


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Now skeptics are wondering if onetime clergy leading nonreligious groups is the best idea.

READ: Minister-turned-atheist Teresa MacBain loses Harvard job after inflating resume

“Our society needs so much and thriving secular communities could make significant contributions, ” wrote Donald Wright, author and organizer of the Day of Solidarity for Black Non-Believers, on Freethought Blogs. But, he added, “My unsolicited advice is to be skeptical of this new wave of leadership.”

While Wright believes former members of the clergy should be welcomed with open arms by the secular community, he feels they should be heavily vetted.

Others, such as Paul Fidalgo, communications director for the Center for Inquiry, said MacBain’s resume-inflation mistake should not define or derail the freethought movement.

From Jerry DeWitt of The Clergy Project to Mike Aus, a former pastor who founded a Houston church based on reason not revelation, many ex-pastors are now leading the nonreligious. DeWitt, the first minister to drop anonymity as part of The Clergy Project and a self-described “secular minister,” said there are 511 ministers in the online community.

“The trap is that after nonbelief, these ex-pastors join the movement and find a new platform for this new truth,” DeWitt said, substituting secular ideals around their charismatic personalities.

Jerry DeWitt, a former Pentecostal preacher from DeRidder, La., came to be an atheist while still preaching in the pulpit. He's out now, so to speak, and beginning to gain some prominence in atheism and humanist circles (June 10, 2012).

Jerry DeWitt, a former Pentecostal preacher from DeRidder, La., came to be an atheist while still preaching in the pulpit. He’s out now, so to speak, and beginning to gain some prominence in atheism and humanist circles. (June 10, 2012)

“One of the joys I celebrate in escaping from religion and church is no longer participating in this unbridled authority and reverence given to the pastor,” said Wright. He fears that handing over atheist institutions to ex-ministers will muddle the purposes of the burgeoning movement and cause problems down the road, “because a secular church in the hands of a cult personality is a religion disguised as a humanist community,” he said.

Wright encouraged his fellow atheists to scrutinize what spurs these ex-pastors to ensure their “integrity matches their charisma.”

Added DeWitt: “The atheist community doesn’t necessarily need more evangelists.”

14 Comments

  1. Ministers often study religion and its history much more thoroughly than other people. It should not be surprising that many of them, even more than non-ministers, should often reach the point of agnosticism or even non-theism. It’s part of living, learning, thinking, and growing.

  2. DeWitt and Wright are so right. Brilliant atheist lawyer Ronald Dworkin is a perfect example. His last book, “Religion Without God,” is a perfect example of someone who had long ago left church religion and is attempting to establish solid ground based on a few comments of Einstein’s that one can be religious without the beliefs of theology. Unfortunately, he downplays Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and other atheists who reject religion because they cannot accept theology.

    It appears to be semantics. Dworkin sees his atheism through the eyes of a superb lawyer whose atheism seems to have been unable to let go of a notion of religion just because he has left theology and churches. But that is exactly what Dawkins does from a very basic scientific angle. Dennett does the same from both a philosophical and scientific angle. And Sam Harris was led to his conclusions as a neuro-psychologist.

    They are all, like other people, expressing similar belief–or non-belief–from the angle of their individual expertise. The end result is a rejection or non-acceptance of theological belief in that which is not demonstrable reality. It behooves all of us to try to understand the basis on which beliefs and/or non-beliefs of others are held and explained.

    Pope Francis is giving us good examples. He did not include his Christian-Catholic ritual of blessing when he met with a mixed crowd of reporters soon after his election. He has no problem chatting for publication with the atheist editor of the Italian La Republica. Those are good lessons for everyone.

  3. I am not sure how the “unsolicited” advice of one blogger and the disappointing behavior of a single clergy-to-atheist individual translates into the dismissal of the leadership in the atheist movement of anyone once involved in religion or how it qualifies as religious news. Nonetheless, because I am an out atheist still “in the pulpit”, …..
    You could dismiss my work by saying I’m too entranced with the trappings of religion to leave or that I have simply built a personality cult. We’d have a lively conversation about that. Studies, however, show that the relationship aspects of religion, are what lead to increases in well-being, not beliefs. More studies show that the “higher authority” (in my congregation, it’s humane values), recognizable ritual, and social groupings all do the same thing. These organizational aspects of religion have, I believe, done much to further the development of human society and are needed, without the theology, to counter our increasing isolation and the breakdown of social cohesion as wel as the detrimental effects those things have on civic discourse. Mainline denominations are dwindling and when them go their strengths (yes, they have them; pick up The United Church Observer or another denominational magazine and you’ll find the evidence) – social, sexual, and eco-justice and advocacy work, the mitigation of fundamentalist morality, challenges to political and ideological positions that threaten human and/or environmental welfare, responses to emergent disasters, etc. I’m not arguing for religion; I’m arguing for the good it can do and has done when at its best.
    There are good clergy and there are bad clergy just as there are good people in the atheist movement and there are bad people. Making generalizations is unhelpful and seriously short-sighted. It would be better for us to stop eating our young and to nurture leadership when and where we find it regardless of the “job” the person had before but with careful discernment into their character, qualifications and, yes, charisma. If we’re going to get anywhere better than where we are now, we need solid, engaging leaders whether they were once evangelicals or beauticians, farmers or professors. And we need to temper our eagerness to prove ourselves worthy or get (inter)national attention in order to allow for the best leadership to emerge.
    (For information on my post-theistic, secular, United Church of Canada congregation, see http://www.westhill.net)

    • Gretta – your fine response saves me from repeating your many good points. An anecdotal disappointment is hardly the basis for wholesale criticism of an emerging group of clergy who are exploring new ways to be of service in community without benefit of a theological ‘belief system.’ Your own work as an atheist pastor is remarkable but no longer unique, thank goodness, starting with the rest of Harvard’s stellar Humanist chaplaincy. Last April The Interfaith Observer published a dozen articles about welcoming humanist/atheist communities to the interfaith table. You can find it on the The Interfaith Observer’s website – including a moving story of Gretta Vosper’s spiritual journey.

  4. My husband and I were impressed with Teresa McBain when we saw her last year with Richard Dawkins shortly after she “came out”. We wished her nothing but the best. We were so sorry to learn recently of the inflated resume that caught up with her at Harvard. I hope that she will find a good position that uses her talents.

    Minister Barry Lynn has been executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State for quite some time. Obviously, there can be a role for ministers and former ministers in Secular Humanist organizations. We all need to work together to achieve goals that increase the well-being of all of us.

  5. After reading through your article, there are a few things that I would like to speak to, specifically when you quote me as saying, “The trap is that after nonbelief, these ex-pastors join the movement and find a new platform for this new truth,”

    My point was that many ministers live a life of self-sacrifice for the sake of their religious “truth” and/or religious communities and once they become non-believers this same characteristic can drive them to once again give too much of themselves for the truth and our community. My advise was that newly ex-ministers take a long break from any kind of leadership or “ministry”, so that they can give themselves every opportunity to find their true selfs outside of the life of sacrifice.

    Second when I said that, “The atheist community doesn’t necessarily need more evangelists.” I was speaking from my experience over the past two years as an out atheist. I have only now just begun to appreciate the similarities between my last two years in the atheist movement and my first two years as a Pentecostal Evangelist.
    When I first began giving talks in the secular movement, I was proud of this fact, now I see it as a mistake that has had personal and professional consequences.
    Since atheism is not a religion and thus does not have a message that must be preached, there no need for a self-sacrificing “Great Commission” for spreading non-belief. What there is, however a need for community, and experienced leaders. It may be so that clergy need time to acclimate to the secular community, but this shouldn’t be a deterrent to those that are willing and able to fill leadership roles in the secular organizations.

    • “I was proud of this fact, now I see it as a mistake that has had personal and professional consequences.”….Jerry, you may be too hard on yourself here. I enjoyed your videos during that period as well as your ‘preaching’ the non belief ala charismatic preacher. It is what you knew at the time and I view it as a transition period for you. No doubt you will be asked to do it again from time to time as it has entertainment value as well as a message value. Combining the rational with fellowship is not a bad thing! I still think the time is ripe for your run at civic politics using both your past experience in civic gov’t and your presentation skills as a former pastor. Just sayin’!

    • Your point about needing an atheist community is spot on. Organized religion does a great job at fostering this very human need and former clergy have the experience to help foster it. Atheists need community identity. You, Theresa MacBain and Seth Andrews are skilled at this and are vital to our cause.

  6. The thing about the atheist community is that we aren’t authority driven. We may have people who have leadership positions in organizations, but atheists don’t take orders; we give them. We tell our organizations what we want them to do and they do it. Our organizations are based on a grassroots mentality.

    Ex-ministers have advantages and disadvantages. They are great public speakers, awesome motivational speakers, they know the religious material, and they are natural leaders. On the down side, it takes time to learn all the science and all the counter-arguments.

    Personally, I don’t really care whether or not Teresa has a degree in make-believe or not. She clearly knows the religious material and is a great motivational speaker and community organizer. And after working with American Atheists, she has learned the science and the counter-arguments. I am proud to call her my friend.

    I recently met Jerry for the first time at the PA State Atheism/Humanism Conference and I got along with him instantly. We need motivational speakers like Teresa and Jerry who can help us form stronger communities.

    We also need people like Rosco Jackson who plays the character of Sam Singlerton, Atheist Evangelist. He is a different kind of motivational speaker and his voice is also important.

  7. I’ve met Jerry DeWitt, Teresa McBain and am friends with Donald Wright. All of them are certainly very nice people, however, as I read the replies to this article, sadly, it occured to me that truth-telling is irrelevant in our day-to-day discourse. I heard Ms. McBain’s 2012 revelation at the American Atheist convention. Unlike others who deal with their religious doubts or their decision to reject belief in the gods in private, Ms. McBain and Mr. DeWitt (and others) chose to make very public declarations and/or reveal the abandonment of their faith via social media, TV, and/or newspaper interviews. As a result, unfortunately, it was also through these very public modes of communication that friends, family, and members of their congregations first learned of their defections as well. Furthermore, these same ex-pastors claim to have experienced serious theological doubts as well as atheism for many years while continuing to remain in the pulpits and in the employment of their respective congregations.

    As a member of American Atheists, I was both surprised and very concerned that Ms. McBain was offered a position in the organization. Most of the organizations in the secular community rely on volunteers–some of whom have supported these organizations through thick and thin for decades. If none of these hard-working, committed, longstanding Atheists qualify for a high profile paid position, what qualifies ex-pastors who–for all we know may have not necessarily fully recovered from religion–for a paid position?

    Of course, clerics who reject theological indoctrination aren’t a 21st century phenomena, and, tragically, there are places throughout the world where people who disagree with their religious as well as their secular leaders are jailed, brutalized, exiled, or killed. But I doubt if earlier clerics to rejected the gods expected to be taken care of by the secular community–assuming that there was a secular community.

    Some people, even those who say they are nonbelievers, are unwilling to let go of religious trappings and I think it is a good thing that the Unitarians, etc. can provide them with a community. I agree with Jerry De Witt thta the secular community doesn’t need any more evangelists; more accurately, it doesn’t need ANY evangelists nor so-called Atheists churches, either. I disagree with the description of clerics as ‘self-sacrificing.’ Today, anyone with a job and the ability to pay their bills, may not notice that there are close to 40 million people in this country who are either under-employed (unable to find full-time work); or unemployed. Most clerics are dependents and believers feed, house, and clothe them; when clerics become nonbelievers should they also expect nonbelievers to continue to feed, house, and clothe them as well? In his book, The Only Prayer I’ll Ever Pray: Let My People Go, ex-Baptist deacon, Donald R. Wright is quite candid and correct in his assessment that the black community would be much better off financially if it didn’t cave under the pressure of preachers to continually donate money to their churches out of guilt!

    I applaud both the self-help efforts of any ex-clerics to become self-sufficient as well as those of the Clergy Project in terms of assisting ex-clerics to find traditional employment. But, primarily I respect ex-clerics who come down to earth as they descend from their pulpits determined to earn a living just like the rest of us. Unfortunately, those who suddenly gained celebrity Atheist status may also think that because they’ve spent much of their lives ‘leading’ believers they are automatically qualified to ‘lead’ nonbelievers despite the fact that most of us don’t want to be and won’t be lead around by anyone and the last thing that we need are more personality cults–secular or otherwise.

    Apparently, Atheism wlll be expressed in different ways by different people. But, Atheism–the absence of the belief in the existence of the gods–ceases to be Atheism when ‘nonbelievers’ infuse it with religious trappings such as prayer, preaching, hymns, rituals, spirituality, a belief in a ‘conscious’ Universe, Karma, etc.

    I’ll end with two quotes from Robert G. Ingersoll–a man who was the very definition of a nonbeliever:

    “The priests and cardinals, the bishops, priests, and parsons are all useless. They produce nothing. They live on the labor of others…Every church is an organized beggar…Every church cries: ‘Believe and give’.”

    “Labor is the only prayer that Nature answers. It is the only prayer that deserves an answer–good, honest, noble work.”

  8. having ex-clergy running Atheistic movements is the one way to turn atheism into a “RELIGION”, which has been the MAIN belief of thiests in regards to Atheism!

    Atheism is NOT based on a BELIEF, as NOT believing in GOD is NOT a form of belief, IT is the act of NOT buying the rap of those preaching GOD!

    And the idea that those that have been clergy ARE nee3ded for those that are looking for a spiritual connection is completely false, because those oif the Clergy have ONLY been taught to WORSHIP, they have been taught NOTHING else, they are incapable of teaching any form of meditation that doesn’t have some form of Worship involved in it because they have no understanding of anything but Worship !

    the problem is that they consider themselves to Supplicants to the universe, they have very little interest in LEARNING about their place in the universe!!
    they are constantly begging for forgiveness from the universe, which is JUST switching Words, there is NO change in the way they look at the World, since they have never worked on getting BEYOND belief nor have they worked on entering the World of Knowledge, were belief is NO longer needed, and this is exactly were the problem lies, they are incapable of leaving BELIEF behind, they have become addicted to making believe and can’t conceive of a world without their intoxicant of Fantasy!
    And this is WHY ex-clergy should NOT be trusted in this position of Atheism, since they refuse to stop pretending that making believe is important part of Spiritualism, which is completely false, that is why the CHURCH pushes Making Believe, Because making believe is the ONE way to make sure your Congregants NEVER Learn anything of Knowledge, Ignorance NEVER leads to Knowledge!
    Knowledge is the Path of Heaven, Ignorance is the path of HELL !

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