Do Atheists Need a Church? (or, the strange case of Teresa MacBain)

by | Oct 23, 2016 | 3 comments

I first got to know Teresa when she was Director of the Hotline Project at Recovering from Religion.

Founded by author and psychologist Darrel Ray, Recovering from Religion is a US organisation that helps people who are leaving religion. One of their projects involves organising support groups across North America. Another is the Secular Therapist Project, designed to put clients in touch with therapists who do not use religion in their therapy –vital for those who are trying to overcome the traumas of their former religion.

Then there is the Hotline Project. Anyone can phone in and air their doubts about religion to a friendly, non-judgmental ear, get local contacts, links to books and videos, and feel less alone in leaving their previously safe space. There is now also the Chatline, a text messaging equivalent.

Teresa was instrumental in setting up the Hotline and I was one of her volunteers when the service came on-line in early 2015. She is a former Methodist pastor who had left the clergy and wanted to help others who were in a similar position. Without Teresa there would be no Hotline.

Abruptly, as of 15 March 2016, Teresa took a three-month sabbatical. On 25 April, she resigned as Hotline Project Director to pursue a study opportunity.

On 18 October 2016 Hemant Mehta, the “Friendly Atheist” blogger on Patheos, broke the news: “Teresa MacBain, the Pastor Who Became an Atheist, Has Found God Once Again” (

Later that day, the Hotline got this message from Teresa:

“Over the past two years, I’ve had time to really think through things, and working with my therapist gave me the opportunity to begin stripping away the indoctrination of my past. As time progressed, I began to feel less assured in declaring that there isn’t something more out there. I don’t believe in the cruel ‘god’ of my childhood or modern fundamentalism, but I realize a spirituality exists. I’m ok with not being able to define this, not in a blind faith manner, but with a belief that questions are ok and a part of the experience. I’m ok with having more questions than answers.

“I am in a progressive congregation now, playing keys in the band, leading a group for skeptics (sponsored by my church), and working on people struggling with issues of doubt and faith a safe place to talk. I think that there has to be both freethought safe communities and faith-based in order to reach everyone in need.

“I’m comfortable with the people here, and they are excited about the possibilities. Many believe in a similar way and claim the same Progressive Christian label. My goal is to simply work quietly in this community and help those who reach out to me.

“I don’t want to make a big deal out of this. I’ve been in the spotlight before…I didn’t like it then and don’t want to create that situation now.

“I just want to apologize for not sending my email sooner. I’m amazed at how quickly the website popped up. I guess as soon as Go Daddy released my domain name, it populated. (I felt that I needed to update the site to reflect things more accurately.)

“I still should have sent the email months ago. I kept trying to word it just right, and every time I thought it was perfect, I’d find something else to tweak.

“I am NOT a fundamentalist, evangelical Christian by any stretch. My beliefs are very progressive. The recording on my website doesn’t explain everything. It’s kinda impossible in 25 minutes, and that was a recording of my sharing with the staff at my church, not a public talk. My goal is not to indoctrinate but to do what I’ve always done: advocate for acceptance of people no matter who they are and what they believe.

“Someone emailed me and let me know that Hemant and Linda LaScola have posted articles about this. I guess that’s to be expected. I don’t plan to read the comments or get into any online comment wars. I learned that lesson last time around! I’m not sure what happens now. For me, I’m just going to keep leading my small group for skeptics and playing keys in the band.

“Hopefully this helps explain things a little better. I’m always open to talking to you and answering any questions.”

Teresa had mentioned that, as an atheist, she felt isolated in her largely religious community in north Alabama, US. It looks to me as if Teresa went back to religion for the community aspect.

While saddened at what seems to me like a retreat from reason, I wish her well.

atheist hotline

One of our senior volunteers at the Hotline put it well: “I hope you will all join me in offering Teresa the same acceptance and empathy we strive to offer to our many clients. The Hotline Project was built on the premise that people struggling with religious issues – regardless of whether they consider themselves theists or atheists – deserve a safe-space and an empathetic community. That premise remains even when those struggling choose to move toward faith.

Which raises the question, do some Atheists need a church? Even when they don’t believe in a god?

About the Author


Small business owner, civil engineer, computer programmer, hiker, NLP Practitioner, Krav Maga enthusiast, blood donor. Democratic Alliance Branch Chairman (Johannesburg Ward 109), Toastmasters Competent Communicator, Treasurer at Transformers Toastmasters Club, life member of Earthlife Africa, retired as Sgt from the South African Police Reservists (22 years and three medals), Rick is currently Vice-Chairman of the South African Secular Society. He blogs here and at African Atheist Activist, writes to the newspapers (remember newspapers?) and is active in the promotion of science over superstition.