After a Crisis of Faith, a Former Minister Finds a New, Secular Mission
Finally, she realized her faith crisis was over. She no longer believed in God. The daughter of a minister, the product of a divinity school, the enthusiastic evangelist doing the Lord’s will, she told her followers that she was resigning her pulpit.
Her first public comments, a few weeks later, sounded brash, as she told a convention of atheists that she would gladly burn in hell with them. Deeper inside, however, she felt more sorrow than triumph, more exile than liberation.
“After I stepped away from my ministry, I literally stepped off the cliff,” Ms. MacBain, 45, recalled in a recent interview. “I didn’t know what life would be like without a church. I was depressed. I was out there in limbo all at once. There is no community. There is no social network. The majority of friendships are gone. There is no place I can go every week where I know people and they know me.”
Now, 18 months into a new life, Ms. MacBain is bringing much of her old one to the task of building congregations of nonbelievers. She has been hired as the director of theHumanist Community Project at Harvard with the mandate to travel the country helping atomized groups of atheists, agnostics, humanists and freethinkers replicate the communal structure and support that organized religion provides to its faithful.
This line of work draws directly on Ms. MacBain’s experience of seeing her father create and build congregations throughout the small-town South and of her own track record of ministering in churches, prisons, nursing homes and drug-rehab centers. Were she not helping to develop communities of nonbelievers, she would be called, in Christian parlance, a church-planter.
In her insistence on recognizing the social value of religion, rather than merely disparaging it as superstition for saps, Ms. MacBain operates very much in sync with her boss, Greg M. Epstein, the humanist chaplain at Harvard. In his 2009 book, “Good Without God,” and in a subsequent 50-city speaking tour, Mr. Epstein espoused the creation of secular communities. By hiring Ms. MacBain, he has put nonbelieving boots on the ground.
“The purpose of these communities,” Mr. Epstein wrote in an e-mail, “is to help us connect with one another more deeply, to spur us to act in the interest of the common good, and to change the way we think about values and purpose in a world where traditional religion is no longer vital for us. We’re not trying to build antireligious groups — the intention is more to answer questions about alienation, isolation, economic justice, and political and environmental sustainability, fighting back against religious privilege only when necessary.”
Everything in her life prepared Ms. MacBain for such a role. She grew up a “PK” — a preacher’s kid — and savored the role. She tagged along with her father on hospital visits. She went with him to classes at Bible college. She sang in the youth choir and taught Sunday school.
She also strained to accept the theology of her father’s Baptist faith, which reserved the ministry for men.
“For me, the lesson was that doubting is sinful and wrong,” she said. “If you have these things come up, you suppress them, you ignore them, you pray them away. This natural inquisitiveness and questioning is just wrong. And if I did them, I was displeasing God. For me, life was about being the person who loved God and wanted to be everything God wanted me to be. That just carried me on through decades.”
Growing into adulthood, however, Ms. MacBain ran aground on what seemed like irreconcilable messages in Scripture. In First Corinthians alone, for example, Verse 14:34instructed women to be silent in church, while Verse 11:5 referred to women praying and prophesying. If text is divinely inerrant, as Ms. MacBain had been taught, how could both statements be true?
She tried to solve her dilemma — and answer God’s call — by earning a degree from Duke Divinity School and being ordained as a United Methodist minister in the early 2000s. She took her Christian mantra from the denomination’s co-founder John Wesley: “In the essentials, unity. In the nonessentials, liberty. In all things, charity.”
Yet despite her sense of purpose in aiding the needy, despite her professional pride in a well-prepared sermon, her doubts never subsided. They ultimately led her to write that letter just before Easter 2012.
An atheist would never believe in providence, so let’s just say that by very welcome coincidence Ms. MacBain found herself speaking at the American Humanist Associationconvention one month later, with Mr. Epstein in the audience. After she finished her address — using the characters in “The Wizard of Oz” as examples of how to build community — he approached her.
“I can’t believe you just said those things,” she recalls his having told her. “I’ve been working on them for 10 years.”
Then he described the Humanist Community at Harvard, which was previously unknown to her. He was in the process of raising its annual budget to $500,000 from $28,000. And his immediate goal was to hire a point person to assist nascent congregations of nonbelievers.
Seven weeks ago, moving from Tallahassee to Cambridge, Ms. MacBain became that person.“Without knowing it at first,” she said of herself and Mr. Epstein, “we were on the same page, seeing the desire of people — atheists, humanists, nonbelievers — who want to connect into a community and don’t know how. Within the free-thought world, the secular world, it’s desired, but the resources to build it haven’t been there.”