Saturday, September 21, 2013

From Faith to Atheism

What would you think was being talked about if you read the following:
"I got to come out...It used to terrify me, what people's reactions would be. But it's been so long now...I don't even care...I slept like a baby last night because I knew I wasn't going to have to live a lie any more..."
This isn't a young gay or lesbian person coming out to the family - it's Teresa MacBain, a Methodist pastor, telling NPR about "confessing " to her congregation that she has lost her faith and is now an atheist.

I interpreted the NPR interview and an article in today's New York Times in light of my Rosh Hashanah post about religion and medicine. Teresa MacBain stopped believing in God, but terribly missed the community solidarity, shared values, and supportive rituals that being part of a congregation provided. While she no longer believed in the divinity of Jesus, she had not lost faith in what she calls “the philosophy of Christ.” She averred that leaving religion did not mean she had left morality - she still adheres to the Ten Commandments, the Golden Rule and other moral teachings common to many world religions.(See this article in Religion News to learn more about how she gave up her theology but retained her moral perspective.)

Here's how MacBain described the loss of her religious community:
“For me, religion was everything, my entire world. All my friendships, connections, family,  all the places I went to deal with difficulties, to do good works, to find resources to raise kids — everything was contained within that environment. I miss that social connectivity, that network.”
Not surprisingly, like a divorced person who rapidly enters a new relationship, MacBain affiliated herself with new communities - such as the American Humanist Association and American Atheists. At a meeting she met Greg Epstein, the humanist chaplain at Harvard, who hired her to be a kind of apostle to help humanists/atheists around the country build a non-theistic form of congregational life. MacBain has left the church, but she's again in a role that is structurally much like the theistic pastoral role she occupied before the lost her faith.

Before I ended my beloved clinical practice five years ago I felt great anxiety. Even though the practice was only a portion of my work life, I felt that it was totally central to my identity. I described my fear in images like a becalmed sailboat or a car that was out of gas. In retrospect I see that it wasn't just ending my psychiatric practice that was triggering the anxiety - it was also fear of no longer being part of my equivalent of a religious congregation - the "congregation of medicine."

I chair the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Ethics Advisory Group. Typically we have 25 - 35 participants. The group sits in a U and I sit and stand in the open segment of the U. From time to time when I'm calling the group together to start the meeting I have spontaneously and whimsically said "Dearly beloved..." I do have a feeling akin to love for the group and the process we follow. Sliding into language associated with religious practice reflects my underlying feeling that a group deliberating on the values that inform health care is first cousin to a religious congregation.

Insofar as shared religious beliefs provide the glue that unites a congregation in mutual support and a commitment to social justice I feel a kinship with it. But insofar as it claims a unique truth for its theology and condemns those who do not share its beliefs I see it as undermining the health of society.

[If you want to get a sense of Teresa MacBain's pastoral skills, put her name into YouTube and sample some of the videos of talks she's given since leaving the church.]


Anonymous said...

I feel the wistfulness in this story. Sadly, there is a practical problem with loss of faith: over time it leads to a loss of moral direction. A former professor of mine used to say that it is a three-generation process. The first generation has faith; the second abandons faith but keeps the moral principles; the third generation abandons the principles.

The fundamental problem is that faith and scriptures provide the "moral compass" that is lost when one becomes a secular humanist. Without reference to external moral and spiritual authority, we are free to do "whatever is right in our own eyes." (quote from the Old Testament book of Judges) Without that direction, what is to keep any of us from becoming something terrible?

Jim Sabin said...

Dear Anonymous -

Thank you for your very thoughtful and thought-provoking comment.

The third generation in the process your professor delineated reflects a very real challenge. Religious faith can indeed provide a moral compass. Unfortunately, when the faith is a) literal and b) condemns non-believers, c) the "moral compass" can lead to hatred and war. But there's no doubt that much of what most non-fundamentalists would see as morally admirable conduct has been grounded in faith.

Greg Epstein, the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard who Teresa McBain is now working with, wrote a book addressing the issue you and your professor speak to - "Good without God." I personally have no doubt that a strong moral compass can exist without religious affiliation, but I believe that for most people sustaining the compass requires a group committed to similar values. That's certainly been my experience.

If you have further thoughts on the topic I hope you're bring them forward!