Teresa MacBain

Teresa MacBain

Teresa MacBain made national headlines in 2012 by publicly declaring herself an atheist. What’s newsworthy about that, you ask? Her announcement made headlines because Ms. MacBain had been serving as a pastor to a United Methodist congregation in Florida prior to her “conversion.” So her story had shock value, and she embraced the celebrity that came her way as a result.

The American Atheists gave her the podium at their national convention (where she ridiculed the Christian belief in the afterlife). NPR did a sympathetic feature piece on her—which took care to emphasize the “hateful” response she received and the cold shoulder that church officials gave her upon her return from the Atheists Convention. She parlayed her media exposure into jobs as the executive director of the Humanists of Florida Association and as public relations director for the American Atheists. Heman Mehta of the Friendly Atheist Blog remarked on the “beautiful story” of MacBain’s journey to non-belief, and the Religion News Service did a lengthy piece marking the one year anniversary of her new life.

Humanist Community at Harvard logo_9-27-13The remarkable level of fame that Ms. MacBain had achieved seemed to be only increasing when it was announced that she would become the new director of the Humanist Community Project at Harvard University. She went from obscurity in the middle of Florida to being profiled in the New York Times.

That’s when things started crumbling. In fact, the NY Times article to which I’ve linked in the paragraph above is not the one you would have read when it first appeared on September 20th. The original article stated that Ms. MacBain earned a degree from Duke Divinity School. In talking about her service in the United Methodist Church, the story also made a comment identifying her as an ordained minister—I can’t reproduce the exact quote, unfortunately, as the original version of the story is no longer available online.

Interesting claims. Interesting, that is, in the sense that they are outright fabrications. I received an e-mail from Dean Richard Hays of the Divinity School at Duke yesterday which was distributed to faculty, staff, students, and alumni. In the e-mail, Dean Hays writes, “We have checked our records carefully, and confirmed that [Ms. MacBain’s] claim to have a Duke degree is fraudulent.”

Dean Hays goes on to write, “Here are the facts: Ms. MacBain attended one four-week session of our summer Course of Study program in 2010—i.e., year one of a five-year program designed to train licensed lay ministers. She did not return in subsequent summers to continue the program. She was never enrolled in our M.Div. program at any time. Ms. MacBain has subsequently acknowledged to the New York Times reporter that she misrepresented her credentials; she has done so in numerous other public venues.”

MacBain's profile on the Humanist Community at Harvard's website trumpeted her celebrity status

MacBain’s profile on the Humanist Community at Harvard’s website trumpeted her celebrity status

The Duke administration contacted the NY Times which led to the Times heavily redacting its profile of Ms. MacBain. The references to the Duke degree are gone in the new version of the story, although it still describes her as “the product of a divinity school.” That is unfortunate and misleading; the editors have included a note to the bottom of the article, but they should have taken out any reference to a divinity school entirely.

One sidenote: Because only the new version of the Times article is now available, I can’t be sure of the exact quote from the original version about her claims about ordination. I did, however, contact the Florida Annual Conference to inquire about MacBain’s claims to ordination. The response from the official who got back to me: “I can confirm that Teresa MacBain was never an Elder in the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church.” (For what it’s worth, the original NY Times article also referenced Ms. MacBain formerly patterning her life after a John Wesley “quote” which was—ironically enough—a common misquote that gets wrongly attributed to JW.) At any rate, the ordination claim certainly fits with Dean Hays’ comment about Ms. MacBain misrepresenting her credentials widely. The Religion News Service profile of her from last spring describes her as an “ordained minister” in the first line. If she was ordained at all, I can assure you that it was not in the United Methodist Church (which is unfortunately what the RNS story is suggesting by referring to her later in the story as “pastor of a United Methodist church”).

[Update: I have been given the original text of the NY Times article from a number of sources. The relevant paragraph reads as follows: “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.’” All three factual points in this quotation are false, as I explain in the comments section below.]

The New York Times' follow-up story on Sept. 26 reported on Duke Divinity School's challenge of Teresa MacBain's academic claims

The New York Times’ follow-up story on September 26th reported on Duke Divinity School’s challenge of Ms. MacBain’s academic claims

The results of all this coming to light have been predictable. The NY Times issued a completely new story yesterday covering Ms. MacBain’s deceptions. And later in the day, Humanist chaplain Greg Epstein released a statement saying that Ms. MacBain was no longer with the Humanist Community Project at Harvard. My guess is that her days as an atheist celebrity are over.

So why comment on this story at all? Is it to engage in a little Christian schadenfreude over the public humiliation of Teresa MacBain? No, it is not. I wanted to post this article for the following reasons, for anyone who cares to know:

  1. 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.
  2. Ms. MacBain also made false claims about ordination as a United Methodist minister. My guess is that she played on the public’s ignorance about how ordination actually works in a denomination like the UMC. That is, you can serve as a minister licensed by an annual conference to lead a congregation without going through either the academic or ecclesiastical processes to be ordained as an elder (or presbyter). But your licensure in such instances is of a very different kind than the office you would hold as member of the ordained clergy. (And this is why the district superintendent wouldn’t have been terribly interested in meeting with her following her address at the Atheists Convention—a comment presented in the NPR feature as indicative of those hard-hearted Christians and their narrow mindsets.) News reporters generally wouldn’t understand various levels of ecclesiastical office, for obvious reasons, so Ms. MacBain was able to pass herself off as whatever she wanted. 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.
  3. The media often depict the traditional Christian faith (and those who practice it) as backwards, hypocritical, unsophisticated, and unenlightened. When you read the various stories to which I’ve linked above, that’s the underlying narrative. I’m not surprised when I encounter it, even if it remains a frustrating bias in many media organizations. 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.

I am, as always, open to your comments and feedback.