"Christianity was my entire world. Then I stepped off a cliff": Meet the minister who started an atheist church

"My goal is to help non-believers find connections," says Teresa MacBain

Published November 11, 2014 2:13PM (EST)

         (<a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/gallery-140512p1.html'>Jiri Hera</a> via <a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/'>Shutterstock</a>)
(Jiri Hera via Shutterstock)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

AlterNetOn the last Sunday in September, fifty or so people trickled into an old classroom in North Seattle. Classic rock played in the background, and greeters pointed parents to a table at the back where young children could entertain themselves with art materials. They were there for the launch of Sunday Assembly Seattle, an experimental church community without gods, sacred texts or dogmas. The launch was timed to coincide with  similar events in fifteen other cities across the U.S. including Charlotte, Cincinnati, Denver, Detroit, Phoenix, and more.

Sunday Assembly Seattle is a franchise of Sunday Assembly, which made headlines around the world in 2013 as London’s new atheist church. Organizers protest that they aren’t exactly an atheist church, but rather seek to be “radically inclusive.” A 10 point charter clarifies that Sunday Assembly “has no deity; we don’t do supernatural but we also won’t tell you you’re wrong if you do.” The group’s symbol is a triangle bordered by three short sentences: Live better. Help Often. Wonder More.

The Seattle service lasted less than an hour, including singing (“Lean on Me”, “Yellow Submarine”) and a short homily by Korin Leman, leader of  Portland’s assembly, which kicked off earlier in the year. Leman talked about feeling alone after leaving Christianity until her serendipitous discovery of the Portland group. “Research tells us that happiness relates to three factors,” she said. “Gratitude, purpose, and community.” She encouraged her audience to dive in, calling the start-up phase of the Portland assembly one of the hardest and most rewarding times of her life.

The fledgling Sunday Assemblies are part of a broad movement among nontheists who are exploring how  to recreate some of the best in religion, but without the supernaturalism.

Former minister Teresa MacBain helps nontheists build church-like communities that weave together the kinds of social support and rituals that appeal to many religious adherents. She says that Sunday Assembly is just one possible form this can take. In this interview MacBain discusses her work and how the secular church movement is taking shape.

Tarico: You call yourself a secular community building consultant. What does that mean? 

MacBain: My goal is to help non-believers find connections. Since I left the ministry and came out publically as an atheist three years ago, I’ve had many groups contact me about their desire to have some kind of place that they can connect like they did in church. They want to explore whether a community could work in their area. People ask for help, everything from how do you get nonprofit status to how would you organize a weekend gathering and maybe activities during the week? They reach out to me because I was a pastor: those are the kind of things I did and pastors do every single day—create and sustain a type of atmosphere where people can connect and grow and share their lives with likeminded people.

Tarico: Atheist and humanist associations have been around for years or even decades: American Atheists, American Humanist Association, the Freedom From Religion Foundation ... What is changing?

MacBain: It’s the desire for a deeper connection.

In Tallahassee I went every week to a gathering for nontheists. It was in the style of what you might imagine in an atheist or humanist meet-up: Lecture, snacks. But what I’m hearing is that people want to explore building deeper intentional community with tried and true methods—like singing together.

There’s a reason churches use music so much. I’ve gone to church many times after a rough morning at home. I walk in the door scratchy and irritated, not really wanting to be there, and in two songs, my mood has changed. The music transforms me. During a Wesleyan theology class, a professor once asked us to sing a song Charles Wesley has written. We all sang. Then he asked us to quote from John Wesley’s diary—no one could do it. Why? Because music penetrates into our emotion in a way that words can’t.

Tarico: I understand that Sunday Assemblies have now started up in 63 locations around the world, all pulled together by local volunteers who got excited about the concept. Is that primarily who you’re talking about? 

MacBain: Sunday Assembly is a specific model that has captured the imagination of people around the world. Each group of volunteer organizers put their own personal spin on it, but if you’re going to be an official Sunday Assembly you agree to their covenant.

The communities that have stepped up and invited them in—it’s working for them. But you can’t have a single one-size-fits-all model. What works in Birmingham won’t work in San Francisco. A deeply connected community is more than just a communal gathering, and I help groups to explore what that might mean in the context of where they are, for whatever kind of mission they desire. In Birmingham, where I live, one part of the context is poverty. In my county, the rate is 77%! How might a secular group help children in poverty?

Tarico: So service to the broader community is part of the mix.

MacBain: Yes, we have a desire to give of ourselves to help others, and churches provide an outlet for people to engage in service projects. Most folks, when they see someone in need, are moved by it. They many think, “I see the problem, but as one person how can I make it better?” But a group of people, a community, can actually set up a program, like, say, English language tutoring for migrant workers or creating a community garden or developing a disaster relief team. Recipients benefit, but at the same time the volunteers benefit too because they know they’ve helped. Religious people sometimes get accused of doing service for selfish reasons—to woo converts or earn a place in heaven. Partly true, perhaps, but I think the compassion reward is more powerful than the buying my way into heaven part of it.

Tarico: The support provided in spiritual communities may feel particularly meaningful because help flows both ways. In public assistance programs, people may get money, food, or medical assistance. They receive help, but little is expected from them in return. In a church community, equally poor people may receive support, but as community members they are expected to give back in the ways that they are able—staffing a food bank, for example, or helping in the Sunday school. Young people, too, are asked to give back, even though maybe they can’t give much. It seems like there’s a kind of dignity and respect in that.

MacBain: In a church community at its best, people take care of each other. I had a young lady online who messaged me. She had lost her parents and was absolutely torn apart. Why did she contact me? Because she knew that as a pastor I worked with many people who are struggling with loss. She needed someone to talk to as she dealt with the grief. That is a part of being in community. When I got a call that someone had died, the church went into action. They started arranging to bring food. They went over and comforted the grieving; someone took the kids for a day and gave the family time for a little moment without those responsibilities.

People have real life issues that if you’re not involved in a community you’re going through it alone. For example, divorce. In my last church, they had a group called Divorce Care. The group was life changing for my friend who was trying to deal with the loss of her marriage. Just having someone to talk to in a supportive way can matter a lot when your kids go off to college, for example. Or think about addictions. Or mothering. Why can’t a secular community sponsor a mom’s morning out, where she can go get a massage?

There are all kinds of opportunities like these. By partnering with freethought organizations like The Clergy Project, which I’m part of,  Recovering from ReligionFoundation Beyond Belief, and others, secular communities can find the resources to provide tangible care to others.

A church is not just a church, and it’s not just a social group or service group. It’s a support system that runs deeply through every part of our lives. When you build a community there’s an expectation that there will be coffee hour or walking group, wedding, funeral, a celebration of new life when a baby is born. Those things generally don’t exist in a meet-up group. But they do come into play when you talk about building a secular church or community.

Tarico: One potential benefit of this secular church movement is to make secularism more family friendly. Young parents who have moved beyond belief still sometimes head back to church because they want a moral, spiritual community in which to raise their children.

MacBain: I think that is really important because atheist kids don’t always get a chance to engage in an environment where they feel welcome and at home. Camp Quest is an overnight camp for kids from freethinking families, and it has grown since 1996 to almost 20 different camp sessions in the U.S. and Europe. When I served at Camp Quest, the kids were always saying that they are so grateful to be around kids like them. They can talk about whatever they want to talk about without being worried about being bullied or even beaten up at school. For a family to have a place to go every week where there kids have a sense of belonging, that’s crucial. Even simple things like a Friday night pizza and movie night. The kids can come together in a place that feels safe and lets them build social bonds—a place where they don’t have to act like they’re something they are not in order to be accepted.

Tarico: It seems to me that a lot of non-theists aren’t joiners, though maybe that is changing as lack of religiosity becomes more mainstream and more people embrace different kinds of non-theistic identities. Also, there are all of the folks who have been harmed by religion, who find the idea of any church—even one without gods and dogmas—repellant. Some even experience traumatic triggering, if for example they have suffered religious child maltreatmentor what Dr. Marlene Winell calls religious trauma syndrome.

MacBain: Not everybody desires this type of community. We’re all different, we come from different places. We have different worldviews. For some—they have been missing and longing for this. Others are happy without it. And yes, regarding Religious Trauma Syndrome, there are a lot of people who are triggered by anything that resembles church. I personally would like to see secular communities offer support groups akin to how churches offer space to AA groups or scouting clubs. It would be great if we could create safe spaces for people who have RTS, to help them work through it.

Tarico: Speaking of healing, I’d like to ask about a sensitive part of your own experience. One situation where Christianity can really help is when people screw up and need to start over. The theology of sin and salvation gives people a way to wipe the slate clean, even if they do something seemingly unforgiveable, like murder. You have your own experience of a major screw-up and a fresh start.

My big public transgression was that a year ago I lied on my resume. I put that I had completed a theology degree that I had not, and then I let it stand. When it came out, it cost me my job with the Harvard Humanist Community, and rightly so. Once the truth was out there, in a way I was relieved because it had been tormenting me and I didn’t know how to solve the problem. But it also made me put the brakes on my whole life:  You don’t do stuff like this. How did that happen?

Sometimes, in trying to meet the needs of other people you end up putting on a face for yourself. Religion does that to everybody, not just pastors. Seek perfection, holiness, righteousness. If anybody walks down the aisle, for prayer there’s this huge judgmental stare. But also, in Christianity, if you confess your sins you are automatically washed as white as snow.

Take away the idea that Jesus washes your sins away, and you are left with a very human reality. This person I looked up to made this error. How do I think about that? How do we address that? Maybe by example. After my deception came out, I was relieved, but I also was thinking,  they’re going to hate me and everything good I’ve ever done is gone. I isolated myself. I couldn’t face anybody, not in an email, Facebook post, phone call, nothing, because I was so ashamed. I started talking to a therapist to find out how that happened to me. Once I got clear in my own mind, I went back online.

The first thing I did was publish a long apology. (This actually happened as soon as the news came out.) Maybe it will show people you can screw up and own up. I tried to come back in an authentic way. “This is what I did, this is what I’ve learned, this is what I’m doing now.” Without a religious mandate saying, ‘You must forgive or else’, the secular world is wonderfully understanding and forgiving. For me, that makes their actions more valuable because they’re doing things based on what’s good and right, not because of a commandment.

Tarico: So tell me more about the people who reach out to you for advice and what you say to them. 

MacBain: Typically people contact me with some concrete ideas and a desire to support other freethinkers that live in their area. First we just have conversations. I would ask the group, “You say we want to create something; how many is we? What are the demographics?” Sometimes moving forward doesn’t make sense. The timing just isn’t right.

Tarico: Besides Sunday Assembly, are there other models to draw on? I know Ethical Culture Society, which grew out of Dutch Humanism, has been around now for generations, and some Unitarian Churches embrace humanists and atheists. But both of these traditions seem a bit too intellectual for many people. I know also that Humanist Chaplain Greg Epstein at Harvard is working to create a community there.

MacBain: Several promising efforts are worth watching.

The Houston Oasis is a wonderful model—very, very successful. The founder, Mike Aus, is a former Lutheran minister who came out the very same weekend I did. Aus knew the secular group in the area, and he created a model built around their needs. It does include a Sunday gathering, music and talk—and going out to lunch afterwards—but it is much more.

Jerry DeWitt has started a  community in Louisiana. They are not quite as far along. The have a monthly gathering and are working to put other support systems in place.

Gretta Vosper of Toronto calls herself both a minister and an atheist. She is a member of the Clergy Project—a private, online support community for religious leaders who no longer believe in the supernatural --and she leads a secular assembly that is actually a church,  West Hill United Church. She is an out and open atheist but she has a pretty varied congregation. She is successful and the people are very happy. I don’t know that you could pull that kind of thing off in America. [Vosper has authored  several books on this topic, including,  Amen—What Prayer Can Mean in a World Beyond Belief; With or Without God—Why the Way We Live is More Important Than What We Believe; and Sing it Forward—Traditional Hymns Recast and Rewritten for Religious and Humanist Communities, written with Scott Kearns.]

Tarico: Any parting words of advice for those who might be considering joining or starting a secular church group?

MacBain: Christianity was my entire world. From the time I was born till I came out at 44, I never existed in any other shape. Then, I stepped off a cliff. Sometimes I feel like a toddler learning how to walk, and I know that I’m not the only one who feels this way. People are different and their communities are different. Not every atheist is starting a new life, like I am. But at the core we all need a place to connect, a place to serve, a place to love, and a place to call home.

At a broader level, communities are part of the process of normalizing atheism and increasing acceptance for those who are nonbelievers. When you see people getting together—everyday folks coming together to play a volleyball game or participate in a service project—all of a sudden they are just human beings, even if they are atheists. Hopefully my grandkids and great grandkids don’t have to go through all of this to be accepted for who they are.

By Valerie Tarico

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