Atheist Burned Up

From Minister To Atheist: A Story Of Losing Faith : NPR

“My name is Teresa,” she begins. “I’m a pastor currently serving a Methodist church — at least up to this point” — the audience laughs — “and I am an atheist.”

Hundreds of people jump to their feet. They hoot and clap for more than a minute. MacBain then apologizes to them for being, as she put it, “a hater.”

“I was the one on the right track, and you were the ones that were going to burn in hell,” she says. “And I’m happy to say as I stand before you right now, I’m going to burn with you.”

It’s hard for me to feel sorry for this person, since she doesn’t record any kind of consultation with any other Christians, or even any kind of intellectual effort to deal with theological questions. I don’t see that it matters to her what she believes. She really just wants a nice religious community, where everyone supports her and accepts her even if she tells them they are all idiots.

I think there are a lot of religious communities she could have joined, especially the more ritualistic ones (Anglican, Roman Catholic), that wouldn’t trouble themselves over this; mostly they would just ask her not to publicize it. There are some “emergent” churches where the only thing required is a positive attitude, and they welcome “seekers” and “questioners.” And then there are Quaker and Unitarian-Universalist churches where they encourage not only diversity of belief and lack of belief but even hostility to Christianity. This woman, by contrast, just wanted to make a political maneuver to get sympathy.

Was she “saved” before, and threw it off? The Arminian (Wesleyan) tradition would say she lost her salvation because she fell away. Or was she never “saved” in the first place? This suggests she was never saved: “She says she sometimes felt she was serving a taskmaster of a God, whose standards she never quite met.” So, she never believed that she had been forgiven, much less justified; this is typical of the Holiness movement.

This is the problem with a “works-oriented” church that tells you to just show up and do what you’re told, hoping that eventually you will win favor with God: You’ll never make it, so it’s just a waste of time. The Lordship Salvation types would have wanted to ask her, “Are you sure you’re saved?” That would have led her to at least make an informed choice, rather than just fumbling along and faking it for years. On the other hand, the Lordship Salvation types keep asking that question over and over, because they don’t think anyone can ever give a sincere answer of “yes”; so the end result is the same, with someone running faster and faster on a spiritual treadmill.

Now then, there is also the theological issue she brought up to the atheist convention, about going to hell. Elsewhere in the story she says she questioned whether “a loving God” would “torment people for eternity.” So, really she thought she had to love God and hell or hate both, and since she chose to ignore God (before stating that she was an atheist), I would say she doesn’t believe in hell either and was just making a joke. She doesn’t care if she is going to hell, because she’s happy now. It seems like if all she cares about is being happy now, then there is no reason for anyone else to care if she goes to hell later, and that pretty much summarizes my attitude towards anyone who is happy with not being Christian.

What makes someone a “hater”? Is it criticizing your beliefs or your lifestyle, and saying that it will cause you to go to hell? Or is it saying that even though you are going to hell, you can go on and do whatever you want now (e.g., Jonah)? Traditionally, evangelical Christianity says that the first attitude is loving and the second is not (whereas, the pastor in this story called herself a hater, most likely for holding the first view). I agree that the first attitude is more loving, in a paternalistic or friendly sense.

Yet, if there is no relationship (or if the person does not want to be obligated), we presume a pre-existing capacity for conscious self-will. Let the person take their inheritance and squander it; let them be handed over to the devil. Beliefs and lifestyle cause condemnation in this life, but are signs of spiritual conditions rather than causes, with regard to the afterlife. That is why the attempt to manipulate and regulate beliefs and lifestyles can have a pragmatic function, but not a spiritual purpose, except for the person whose only spiritual affinity is with the things of the world.

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5 thoughts on “Atheist Burned Up

  1. Of COURSE it was a joke, at a guess a reference to Huckleberry Finn: “All right, then, I’ll go to hell”. But it’s Huck, not Mrs MacBain, who is “happy” (your word) – he really does think he’ll go to hell, but he is happy because he is doing right by Jim. She doesn’t sound all that happy to me, she lost her job and her social life – but in so far as the story rings true, I count her an honest woman.

    Her “hating” amounted to believing that, as she put it to the atheist conference, “I was the one on the right track, and you were the ones that were going to burn in hell.” It’s a sort of St Paul in reverse. She was displacing her anger at her own impossible situation on to the atheists, just like Paul with the Christians. “Hating” means actual hating Dave – you’d know it if you saw it. Again, Mrs MacBain was honest enough to see it in herself.

  2. Yes, Huck is a good example of someone happy with the prospect of hell. I agree that MacBain didn’t really seem happy overall, but she is happier than she was, and she is happy with her atheism. This might be because as a self-identified atheist she doesn’t have a reason to hate atheists.

    I think her political objective is to make Methodists more like Quakers, and that includes being noncommittal about hell. There is this aspect of being happy with the idea of hell that includes rationalizing that it’s OK because the people going there are not very nice anyway. After all, if they were nice, they wouldn’t go to hell; so they must deserve it.

    Someone can compound that into a visceral hatred, I guess. Arguably, this happens with immigrants, other races, and wartime enemies: their suffering is rationalized as deserved and then they are hated [there is a literary reference here that slips my mind–maybe Nietzsche or some underground comic book]. But if the other seems too human and undeserving of punishment, it creates cognitive dissonance.

  3. Is this the quote?

    “As events in wartime have clearly shown, our mentality is distinguished by the shameless naivete with which we judge our enemy, and in the judgement we pronounce on him we unwittingly reveal our own defects: we simply accuse our enemy of our own unadmitted faults.” C.G.Jung, Dreams (Routledge Classics, ppbk, 2002, p.58)

    Jung’s explanation is confusing, but I think he is talking about a defence mechanism. Thus, it’s about conflict within the individual; any convenient scapegoat will serve. In Mrs MacBain’s case (and St Paul’s), the “victim” turned out to be the solution.

  4. No, it wasn’t Jung I was thinking of, though maybe it refers to the same mechanism. It is such a vague idea that I probably didn’t read it, but more likely picked it up from a movie. It was the notion that some people hate those who suffer precisely because they suffer.

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