Two days ago the Harvard Humanist Community Project (HCH) let go of their recently hired director, Teresa MacBain, because she misrepresented her credentials (in regards to a supposed MDiv from Duke Divinity). When the news broke I wasn’t sure exactly how people would react, but I did consider that she might be criticized by believers and atheists alike. Since then the reaction from the online atheist community has been mixed. Hemant Mehta, the Friendly Atheist, published a very supportive take on the situation, despite the fact that “the hard truth appears to be that MacBain has no theological degree.” According to Mehta there is also a “softer truth…that it doesn’t really matter,” because MacBain was sincerely religious, had a genuine deconversion experience and really did work to help others transition from faith to faithlessness. However,the well over 200 comments on his post have not all followed his reasoning. Richard Wade, for instance, wrote a lengthy comment suggesting that the HCH’s decision to fire MacBain was correct and that “[i]ntentionally or not, she has harmed others.” While the harm Wade described comes in the form of bad PR for organized atheism, his adjudication of the firing decision was much more universal in nature:
Regardless of whether or not a Master’s in Divinity was necessary for the good work she was doing for HCH, and regardless of whether or not that is a degree in nonsense anyway, lying about your education to get a job or just for general credibility should never be acceptable.
Some commentators agreed with Wade’s sentiment though at times with less outrage, while others echoedHemant’s. It is important to note that despite differences in the levels out outrage and empathy two major factors hold Wade and Mehta (and the rest of the commentators) together–1) the idea that lying is wrong, and MacBain’s misrepresentation is no exception (which she has admitted herself) but that regardless 2) she remains a member of the atheist community. Atheists may have more or less empathy and understanding for what MacBain did, but for better or worse she’s one of them. But what of the reaction from believers?
While it’s hard to generalize about the sentiments of all Christians, or even Methodists specifically, those who have reacted publicly appear to be much more outraged than their atheist counterparts. When the original, New York Times story ran with the incorrect credentials (which has since been amended), a handful of people took to twitter with comments like these” “@nytimes not impressed with @SamuelGFreedman ‘s fraudulent reporting on Teresa MacBain. Pls correct @DukeDivinity ‘s involvement!!” Of course the word “fraud” denotes intentional deception for personal gain, but the idea of Duke’s “involvement” is perhaps even more interesting. Involved in what? Something heinous no doubt, in the eyes of the tweeter.
After the NYT ran it’s corrections and the editorial outlining the nature of the misrepresentation the reaction became more pronounced. It is important to know here that MacBain had been a member of the United Methodist Church (UMC) before she outed herself as an atheist, and that Duke Divinity School has a special relationship with the UMC in training it’s ministers. It is perhaps not a surprise therefore that one of MacBain’s most vocal critics after the story broke has been an Methodist theologian, Andrew C. Thompson, who is also an elder in the church. At the end of a post on his blog Thompson pin pointed three reasons for wanting to bring the story of MacBain’s “outright fabrications” even further into the light:
Ms. MacBain made false claims about her academic credentials to advance her career. She claimed to hold a Master of Divinity degree from Duke Divinity School—an institution that, in addition to being one of the finest theological schools in the country, is also an official United Methodist seminary. The whole narrative of Ms. MacBain’s escape from the Christian faith that she so publicly trumpeted for 18 months implicitly indicts those communities and institutions of which she was a part. Since she was blatantly lying about much of it, the record should be set straight.
Ms. MacBain also made false claims about ordination as a United Methodist minister […] She was lying about her ecclesiastical credentials just like she was about her academic credentials. Her claims allowed her (and the press) to put other institutions in a negative light and the facts deserve to be set straight.
The media often depict the traditional Christian faith (and those who practice it) as backwards, hypocritical, unsophisticated, and unenlightened. […] Those organizations can do what they want to do, obviously. But when they use a charlatan to advance that kind of perspective and the truth comes to light, it deserves to be pointed out broadly.
The overarching point Thompson seems to be making was summed up nicely in a tweet by someone sharing Thompson”s post after it was published: “Minister turned atheist lacks credibility.” In other words for these commentators the issue isn’t just that lying is wrong (as it also is for the atheists mentioned above), but that the act of lying marks MacBain’s very being. To most atheists, MacBain is a person who has erred by lying, but to those following Thompson’s view MacBain is a liar. It’s clear from his three points why Methodists like Thompson might prefer to see MacBain as someone who intrinsically cannot be trusted, because it means everything else she has said about the Methodist Church can be tossed out the door with her false credentials. In fact Thompson suggests that rather emphatically. Yet isn’t there more at stake here than just neutralizing bad PR?
A commentator on Thompson’s blog chimed in with a deeper reflection: “It occurs to me that it’s likely that neither I nor many of the commenters here believe in the God Ms MacBain does not believe in.” According to this line of reasoning even MacBain’s former identity is fraudulent, because she never truly believed in the real God (of Methodism) in the first place. Thompson agreed with the commentator: “The sense that you have becomes more and more clear when you hear Ms. MacBain speak at length about her understanding of God. Here’s a good example: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a4JS4LKqFvg. Thanks for your comment.” In his post Thompson pointed out, in a similar vein, that MacBain frequently misquoted John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. Is it possible that MacBain never embraced God exactly in the way that Methodists are supposed to or that she misunderstood John Wesley?
It is quite likely that Thompson, who is after all a church elder, a trained theologian and Wesley scholar, is correct on both accounts, but what would that mean? It seems like these critics want it to mean, as I’ve been implying, that MacBain was therefore never a Methodist. In other words they want to correct (for the record) the nature of the UMC’s “involvement” with her, to in effect erase her former identity altogether. In fact one could read the tweet that Thompson directed to the Harvard Humanist group with the link to his post, as an appeal asking for atheists to do the same: “My story on MacBain‘s deceit, @HarvardHumanist. She made false claims to your group (and unfairly slandered the UMC).” Why else emphasize that which supposedly binds the UMC and the HCH together–suffering from MacBain’s “false claims?”
Yet such appeals most likely fall on deaf ears however, because atheists like Hemant Mehta are happy to believe that MacBain was sincere about her former identity and her subsequent unbelief. In fact these atheists have just as much reason to accept her sincerity as United Methodists like Thompson have to deny it. While this is clearly not the only reason why atheists might chose to believe MacBain’s story, doing so does provide further evidence for the efficacy of deconversion. In the end (whatever the reason) that’s good news for MacBain, since it also means that atheists will continue to accept her as one of their own, despite the fact that some Methodists appear to want her former identity back.
Addendum: As I pointed out in a response to a comment below, this form of identity erasure is by no means only found in Methodism, Christianity or religion. While the situation was quite different on many levels, there is a comparison to be made here with an event from a couple of years ago involving an atheist blogger (Leah Libresco) announcing her conversion to Catholicism. The similarity is only in terms of in-group/out-group identity politics mind you–not in terms of anything unethical. When Libresco converted one of the prominent reactions to her conversion within the atheist community was to claim that she was never really an atheist in the first place. Some of these reactions were subtle but they still suggested that there was no way she could have become the believer she now is if she had truly fit within the parameters of the atheist identity checklist (whatever that may be). Others were blunt and involved evidence that supposedly proved that she wasn’t a true atheist.
Since posting this I stumbled upon another blog post that suggests that MacBain might never have been a true Christian before her deconversion. Fr. Alfonse writes: “MacBain may very well have “overstated her credentials” well before her conversion to atheism, which would have made her ill-equipped to properly direct and shepherd souls. Finally, she may actually have rejected a faith that was never really the Christian faith. Enough!”