Teresa MacBain, the former pastor who famously came out as an atheist during her speech at last spring’s American Atheists convention, has earned recognition for her remarkable bravery over the last year, including AA’s Atheist of the Year award. She recently reached her Indiegogo goal to raise money to attend the Religious Newswriters’ Conference in Austin this fall, where she will take part in the conference’s first-ever “Meet the Freethinkers” panel. She speaks to Secular Woman, which donated to her campaign, about the conference, the position of atheists in the media, and how our movement can better support the brave people who risk losing their families, friends, and even their careers to take a stand for nonbelief. “Secular Woman is proud to promote and support nonreligious women in their endeavors to strengthen and represent the community,” says SW president Kim Rippere. “We are also pleased to see the Religious Newswriters Conference featuring atheist speakers, thanks to Teresa MacBain’s efforts.”
SW: Take us from last spring, when NPR ran a story about your remarkable, public coming out as an atheist, to now. What has the last year and a half been like for you?
It’s been very up and down. There have been some really great things, but after losing an entire community of friends and acquaintances it’s hard when you think about all the hurt and everything you lost. It can make you pretty down and pretty depressed.
I have been trying to find myself after 44 years of living one way, being not necessarily thrown into this––[coming out] was my own choice––but entering the normal world and not knowing how to make friends has been a real struggle for me. I think I’m finally coming around after a year and a half of just understanding how the whole thing works and discovering who I am apart from being in ministry, figuring out where I fit into the secular world.
How has the secular movement treated you? How can we be more welcoming to those who have recently come out?
For me it’s been very welcoming. There are the people thinking, she’s an ex-preacher, she’s going to go back, but there haven’t been a lot who have said that. I came out in a public way and people identify with me through that; while I don’t think my experience is unique, for me there was an instant connection to people that some don’t get. Some people come out in their community and are somewhat lost. As a movement as a whole, getting the word out, using things like the Clergy Project and Recovering from Religion, where people can get the support they need––I think that helps.
What do you miss about your religious life?
For me, it’s having somewhat of a structured community. The structure offers everything from efforts to do service projects to picnics and softball; it’s a real community.
What should atheists know about the Religious Newswriters Conference?
I was there last year tabling and there was not one single panel with a freethinker or secular communiqe on it. I talked to the organizer and she said she’d never noticed that. She worked with us and people generously gave the money for us to do this panel, and we just started putting together a wide range of people panel who would discuss what atheism and freethought are.
This is the first time a group of atheists, skeptics, etc. have ever been at the RNC, which is typically filled with religious reporters and religious people. It’s a chance for us to not only share about our groups but for these people to see who we are, talk to us afterwards, and understand that our movement is broad, that we have good goals, that we want to bring awareness and we want to normalize the words atheist, humanist, etc. We want them to understand that we are actually doing good things, but we’re ignored in the news media.
The Religious Newswriters Conference will take place in Austin, Texas, September 26–28; for more information visit the association’s website.