Atheist Ministers

Recently, the story of Teresa MacBain – the United Methodist minister who “came out” as an atheist at the American Atheists Conference in March 2012 – went viral.  Welcome to the fold, Teresa.  As a fellow member of this very small association, let me offer some advice as you face your new life.

In the coming weeks and months, your relationship with the people around you will change drastically.  You will be ignored, shunned, and hated, sometimes by people you considered colleagues, friends, even loved ones.  You will hold out a hand only to have people turn away.  You will be pitied, almost like an unfortunate object incapable of both rational thought and compassion.  But, you will find not only allies, but legions of people out there desperately searching for the spiritual guidance that you can offer.

Once the excitement surrounding your announcement subsides, you may find yourself feeling very alone.  And, in a sense, you are doubly alone.  You will lose not only many people in your life, but you have also lost the enormous comfort that a belief in a supernatural father provides.  You will grieve these losses.  But, you have obviously felt this calling for a long time.  Our journey is rarely a flash of light on the road to Damascus.  The path of the atheist minister is not for the faint of heart.  You will have little support and your beliefs will be questioned every day.

Every time you meet a new person, you will be calculating what words to use when the topic eventually arises.  You will hear every stereotype.  And you will learn that we are the least trusted minority in this country.

But, you have tools that most people think are not available to us.  The articles about you all talk about how you “lost your faith” or how you “lost your belief.”  These are inaccurate portrayals.  The only thing you have lost is the delusion that the mythology of god provides answers to anything beyond our primitive fears of death, long winters, lightning, and monsters in the night.  You have only lost a narrative, not your faith.  You have only lost one story, not your beliefs.

In fact, I believe atheist ministers possess more faith and belief than any of our colleagues.  We have more faith and belief because these things are not handed to us for the small price of the suspension of our critical thinking and our innate curiosity and exploring spirit.  When we decide to walk the path of Jesus, Buddha, Lao Tse, Gandhi, or Martin Luther King, Jr., we do it having analyzed their teachings intellectually, reflected on their deeds emotionally, and experienced their lives spiritually.

For they were the true prophets, whatever cosmology lay behind their belief systems or whatever shape they viewed the awe and mystery of all existence. They taught that Love is the only force in the universe that should drive the construction of our laws and the design of our societies. They taught that the only fulfilling way to live was with justice, acceptance, and equality.  They taught that morality is not proclaimed from above, but must be found within each of us.

The atheist minister has faith that humanity will someday accept this message.  The atheist minister believes in the beloved community, a world with peace, social justice, economic fairness, and freedom.  The atheist minister knows that someday, we will build a world in which every child is fed, everyone has a home, all illness is treated, and each person is free to pursue their path in life and proclaim their own identity.

As John Lennon sang, “you may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.  I hope some day you’ll join us and the world will live as one.”  Welcome, Teresa, to the covenant of dreamers.

5 thoughts on “Atheist Ministers

  1. What does an atheist call the power beyond human power, Jeff? I don't use the word God much myself and I believe the definition has changed hugely over time, but I do know, empirically, that there is power beyond human power. For many, that's nature and I agree with that idea. I don't hear many people—atheist, anti-theist, agnostic, etc.—use that term. What do you call it?


  2. Lilylou, this is a good question and I have worked hard on finding the right language for this. From an empirical sense, I simply call it the fields and forces beyond our ability to measure or comprehend. I resist using “nature” only because that term has acquired similar baggage for many that the term “god” has over the centuries. Now, from a broader, metaphysical sense, I do not differentiate between “human” and “non-human” powers. I believe that distinction is illusory and only necessary because we need a frame of reference. I feel that all existence simply is, and that we exist as part of what is. Nothing is “beyond” or “higher.”


  3. Well said, Jeff. You've given me more to think about! By the way, you probably know me as Ms Kitty; I went over to the Gmail side and lost my original blogging identity!


  4. Sad but unsurprising how badly she was treated after she came out. I hope that she continues her career by becoming a UU minister.


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