When Religious Leaders Lose Their Faith

Learn more in Barbara Bradley Hagerty's piece, From Minister To Atheist: A Story Of Losing Faith.

Teresa MacBain was pastor of a United Methodist church. In March, she made a confession: She is now an atheist. MacBain, NPR religion correspondent Barbara Bradley Hagerty and Jerry DeWitt, executive director of Recovering from Religion talk about how losing faith changes lives and communities.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Teresa MacBain grew up in church, the daughter of a pastor. She says she felt the call of God at the age of 6, and became a pastor herself nine years ago at a United Methodist church in Florida.

Along the way, she asked herself questions, questions she believed would strengthen her faith but which came to undermine it. In what she describes as a eureka moment, she realized she was an atheist. Since then, her life has changed drastically. In losing her faith, she also lost friends, a community, a once cherished relationship and of course her job.

If you were a leader in your religious community, clergy or laity, and you lost your faith, what happened to you? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, the future of Russia as Vladimir Putin is sworn in for a third term as president. But first, losing faith. You may have heard this story last week on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, our religion correspondent Barbara Bradley Hagerty joins us in just a moment. But the subject of her story, Teresa MacBain, joins us now from member station WFSU in Tallahassee, until just over a month ago the pastor of Lake Johnson United Methodist Church. Nice to have you with us today.

TERESA MACBAIN: Thank you, nice to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: And that eureka moment, if I'm not intruding too much, when was that exactly, and what were you doing?

MACBAIN: It's really hard to put a finger on it because the struggle, at least for me in my own experience, was I kept vacillating back and forth. Even after I felt that I no longer believed, my mind tried to convince me that if I just worked hard enough or just pressed through that I would come out on the side, you know, the side of faith.

Probably, I guess last fall, I really began to understand that that wasn't going to happen and that I needed to find a way as quickly as possible to exit the ministry.

CONAN: And then you're dealing - leading a double life in a sense.

MACBAIN: Exactly, every day, every week.

CONAN: And eventually you make the decision to come clean, but I think some people had questions about why you didn't discuss this with the congregation, with the leaders there before you went public.

MACBAIN: Well, so that's a tricky situation, and honestly, if you've not been in that situation - I don't think there's really any clear answer as to which way to go with it. I did send some emails, a phone call here or there, trying to set something up, but, you know, think about it.

Here's a scenario for you: You call in a member of your congregation and say I need to talk to you, I'm your pastor, I'm your spiritual leader, you've entrusted your life to me, and oh, by the way, I don't believe anymore. Now how would that really work out? And I just couldn't find a way within myself to make that work.

CONAN: And I'm sorry to press on this, but a letter of resignation?

MACBAIN: Yeah, I did actually send in something that - and I don't mean to speak ill of anyone else, but I did send in some paperwork before I came out officially that was not made public.

CONAN: Oh, so there was some communication there, and so - when - but really, the majority of your flock was utterly surprised.

MACBAIN: Yeah, they were not told. There were only a couple of people that actually knew, and I didn't know that until after the fact, and I really regret that. I can only imagine how betrayed and how blindsided they felt when they saw the video or heard the news.

CONAN: And have you spoken with any of them?

MACBAIN: I have. There were three ladies who came to me and physically spoke to me, and they were - they didn't understand. They were confused. They wanted answers, which I gladly talked to them and shared, and the conversations ended with them saying, you know, we love you, we've always loved you, we miss you, we wish this hadn't happened, but that doesn't change the relationship.

CONAN: How is your - how has your life changed in the town you live in?

MACBAIN: Well, when the news first broke, at first it was very difficult. To call it anything else would be just crazy: nasty phone calls, very nasty emails. The comments section of the local news that reported the story, I think 1,500 comments and most of them were pretty rough, which, you know, was difficult. I kind of slipped into a very bad place there.

Thankfully, my husband and my kids are really supportive of me, and otherwise I'd probably still be in bed depressed right now.

CONAN: I can understand. And what are you going to do now?

MACBAIN: Well, at the moment, I'm working with a group called The Clergy Project. They've been an online support group for about the last year, and our - right now we're trying to organize ourselves to help pastors as they are preparing to come out so they don't have to go through as much as I went through coming out.

CONAN: Coming out about their religious doubts, not about their sexuality.

MACBAIN: Right, exactly, yeah, I know, that coming-out term gets used by a lot of groups now.

CONAN: I wanted to read this email, this we got from Joe(ph): When losing your faith, did you explore any other avenues to the divine? I ask because when I listened to your story on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, it appeared the focus of faith was Christian. I'd be interested to hear thoughts on Buddhism or the Baha'i faith. I bring these two examples up specifically because Buddhism can be viewed as a spiritual philosophy without dogma, or with dogma should one choose specific Buddhist theology, and the Baha'i faith accepts all.

And I'm sure this - Joe did not write this, but other people would say there are universalist alternatives, as well.

MACBAIN: Yeah, and I did. That was one of the steps I think that I took as I made my progress was looking at all faiths and all religious groups as equally valid and leading toward God. And at that point, I think I was close to being an agnostic. I even had some conversations, of course not sharing, oh, I'm losing my faith, and I'm looking at your religion, but I did have some conversations with some folks from Buddhism and from the Baha'i faith in particular.

And I've met with the universalist pastor that's here in Tallahassee, but it just didn't seem a fit to me. And I can't explain why. It just seemed that I needed to step away. And at least for the time being, I need to have this period of time away from all of it, you know, not that I'm questioning, saying oh, I may go back and be a Christian, or oh, I think I'll be a Muslim or anything else but just to have the space, especially with all the negativity that's gone on. I just need a little time to kind of relax, regroup and then move forward.

CONAN: Teresa MacBain, former pastor of Lake Jackson United Methodist Church. Barbara Bradley Hagerty, our religion correspondent, is here with us in Studio 3A. Barbara: A, great story; and B, how big a phenomenon is this?

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY, BYLINE: You know, it's really hard to tell how big a phenomenon this is. Apparently in The Clergy Project, there are a couple - there are around 200 past or current clergy who have anonymously come forward to this Clergy Project, this group, and said, you know, I want out, or I am out, and I can help other people get out.

I think since the story aired, about another 25 have joined, as well. So it's hard to know how big a phenomenon it is partly because who do you talk to if you're a clergy, right? It's not something that you talk to people openly about. I mean, everything - your whole world, your friends, your community, your career, everything depends on being a clergy. So I think this is one of those secrets that people really hold in. It's hard to know.

I suspect, given the reaction that we've had to this story, that there are a lot of people out there who have the kind of questions that Teresa has talked about, and other people that I interviewed for this story have talked about, as well.

I suspect there are some people, a lot of people out there like that, but they maybe haven't wanted to address the questions, and so it's still fairly private.

CONAN: As you say, it's really stepping off a cliff. It's not just an intellectual decision. It's not just abstract. It's not just - as important as that has been for these people - their relationship with God, it is their life, their work, their careers.

HAGERTY: That's right, and I know Teresa can speak to this, and also I know that there's going to be another pastor, Jerry DeWitt, on later. Both of - I mean, one of the things you hear over and over again is it's really hard to go with, you know, master's in divinity and then go into a corporation and say you should hire me.

Now, a lot of the skills are transferable, but a lot of times what people say, Teresa has told me and others have told me, is people say, well, why do you want to leave the ministry? And then do you say, does the pastor say, well, it's because I don't believe in God anymore? And, you know, it creates this kind of conundrum.

So what people have said is that - basically what I found is that if people are young, they can often go back and get another degree, become a social worker or something like that. If people are a little further along in their career, their kids are going to college, whatever, a lot of them just stay put and don't do anything.

CONAN: If this is your story, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. We'll start with Joseph(ph), Joseph's on the line with us from Oneonta in Alabama.

JOSEPH: Hello, how are you?

CONAN: I'm good, thanks.

JOSEPH: The problem here with me is that I've started with my doctorate, and I've run across a piece of scripture that simply said - that referenced the Book of Enoch, which isn't in our Bible. And that's where the plague started. And by the time I got to the end of the journey, I decided that I really was not mainline Christian, even though my doctorate was in theology at a conservative Bible institute.

And so I had to start searching, and it ended up that I created Fifth Estate Publishing, which takes non-canonical scripture and makes it available for those who are searching.

CONAN: These are parts of - well, edited out is one way to put it or not included in the Bible is another way to put it, and as you suggest, there are writings by various groups and various individuals that did not make it in.

JOSEPH: Correct, and by the time (technical difficulty), it seemed that I was more of a Gnostic Christian (technical difficulty) mainline Christian, and of course that caused us some problems because no one in the Baptist Bible belt much knows about Gnosticism.

CONAN: They know more about agnosticism, which is different, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JOSEPH: Absolutely.

CONAN: But Teresa MacBain, I wonder if some of those questions that Joseph started asking himself sound familiar.

MACBAIN: Yeah, they do. As a pastor, I don't - I can't really speak for just the person who - the average person who's going to church because I have been really in-depth into the Bible since I was a little kid. I wanted to be just like my dad and enjoyed studying, enjoyed reading. I guess I was one of those kind of egghead Bible people when I was younger.

But those questions came up. The typical response, of course, for me was to just ignore it, but the Gospel of Thomas, the Book of Enoch, several of the other apocryphal books that are not included in a Protestant Bible were very, very troublesome, and most of the time I just ignored it.

CONAN: Joseph, thanks very much for the call.

JOSEPH: May I make one more comment before I go?

CONAN: If you could make it briefly.

JOSEPH: Absolutely. Our sales are tremendous, and that shows a tremendous searching out there in the U.S., and thank you very much for allowing me to call.

CONAN: All right, Joseph, thanks very much for your participation in the program. Our guest is Teresa MacBain, the former pastor of the Lake Jackson United Methodist Church. You may have heard her story last week on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, reported by our other guest, Barbara Bradley Hagerty. If this is your story, if you've lost your faith, what happened to you? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. More than 25,000 people responded after Barbara Bradley Hagerty's story about former pastor Teresa MacBain, "From Minister to Atheist: A Story of Losing Faith." The experience struck a chord with many listeners.

If you missed it last week on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, you can listen through a link at our website. Go to npr.org. NPR religion correspondent Barbara Bradley Hagerty and former pastor Teresa MacBain are both with us. If you lost your faith, call and tell us what happened to you, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. Again, you can go to our website, as well. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Teresa MacBain, some of those - we talked about some of the faith, and we talked about some of the negative reaction, but there are social aspects to this, too. A pastor's life is sort of unlike most people's careers.

MACBAIN: Right, it's completely consumed in just the ministry, being on-call 24 hours a day, being surrounded always by colleagues that are ministers, conferences that are ministry-based, being with church members. It becomes - it has to become the whole focal point of your life if you're going to care and pastor the people correctly.

Study, reading books, I tried to throw a novel in every now and then just to keep my mind out of the constant reading of theological texts or study texts or research texts. So it's an all-consuming task, an all-consuming job or vocation.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go to another caller. This is Tom(ph), Tom on the line with us from St. Louis.

TOM: Hi.

CONAN: Hi, Tom.

TOM: Thanks for the program, it's amazing. Teresa, I'm relating with you in so many ways. I'm trying to control the flood of thoughts and questions rushing through my brain. I think the only - the main thing I want to ask you, I've gone through a similar evolution. I studied theology through my master's degree, grew up very strict Catholic, and bottom line, found myself sitting in the pew feeling very dishonest and hypocritical because I didn't believe.

So I'm - my question, if it's OK, would be from a parent to a parent. My wife and children have also been a huge support of me because most of my larger family has rejected the fact that I'm not still goose-stepping along. And how do you handle, as a parent, my kids are still in Catholic school and still learning at the Catholic environment because I don't want to take that foundation away from them.

I want them to be older when they make decisions about how they really feel and what they really believe in. And have you had to make those same decisions?

MACBAIN: No, I didn't, actually. I guess I'm lucky in that aspect. My youngest son is 21. So they've made their decisions. True, I raised them in a very conservative, Christian atmosphere, but after they got to be about 14 or 15, and I was moving through my stages - I moved out of a conservative Christian denomination into a more liberal.

And I think that benefitted my sons, because they were able to think more, and I encouraged that. And they've made their own decisions. One is a little bit more of a free thinker, and the other still kind of maintains the faith he had as a child.

TOM: That's great. My oldest is 16. So that's happening with her, as well. The younger ones, I just try to coach them through by not be too overbearing with my opinion one way or the other.

MACBAIN: Yeah, I think that's the only thing you can do.

TOM: Yeah, and I just admire your courage so much. I was not a member of the clergy, and I can only imagine the pressure and the backlash, and it's been hard for me just as a regular person with my friends and family. I can imagine being in a high-profile position and having to make that open choice.

MACBAIN: Well, thank you.

CONAN: Barbara?

HAGERTY: I just wanted to say one thing about Tom. Tom is pretty typical, actually. The number of people - the fastest growing religion in America is none, no religion: atheist, agnostic, no affiliation. Now, that's doubled between like 1990 and 2008. Now something like 15 percent of Americans categorize themselves as none.

And so what I think - he's very common, he's very common, and it's a phenomenon that's only growing because young people also are increasingly unaffiliated with religion. So we're just going to see this grow and grow.

CONAN: Let's go next to Jeff(ph) and Jeff with us from San Antonio.

JEFF: Hi, how's it going?

CONAN: Good, thanks.

JEFF: Hey, I just wanted to comment on my personal story. I happened to be a - I was a youth minister for several years, and I was a very devout Southern Baptist. And what happened to me was actually rather ironic, because my devotion to the religion was actually what led to my disbelief in the religion. So our focus on doing Evangelical work, what it did was it forced me to look to other people's religions and the flaws in their religion so that I could, you know, attack their religion, show them what was wrong with their religion, convince them that Christianity was the right way.

Well, that led me to look at my own religion and say, well, how are other people going to question my religion? When I started looking into objections, problems of Christianity, that's when I started to see the flaws and the holes in it. And eventually, you know, I would talk to pastors and preachers, and a lot of times the answer is, well, you just have to have faith. And eventually those answers didn't hold up for me anymore.

CONAN: And was there a moment? Was there a step you had to take, Jeff?

JEFF: To my disbelief?

CONAN: Yeah.

JEFF: If there was any moment, it was more just accepting it. I think I was kind of on a path. It sounds like your speaker there, kind of had the same thing where there's a path, where there's a moment where you just have to accept it and say OK, I don't believe anymore.

I considered myself kind of a Christian agnostic for a while. So I would still go through the rituals and the practices, but deep down, I knew that my beliefs were quickly fading away.

CONAN: Do you miss those comforts?

JEFF: I do miss it sometimes. I feel like - I do miss parts of it. I do miss, like, you know, the worship, the longing for, you know, this deeper connection with something. But if I had to give it - if I had to go back to it, if I had to give up where I am now, I wouldn't do it. I feel like I'm in a place now of truth, and actually I think I'm happier and have more peace now that I am where I am now.

CONAN: Teresa, are there parts of it that you miss?

MACBAIN: Absolutely. I miss the music. I shared that with Barbara in our interview. And the caller said the same thing. Jeff said the same thing, that there's just such a sense of fulfillment and an emotional response and the emotional release that is involved in a worship service, and I miss that. I miss the people that were in my church and in churches that I've pastored.

Those relationships, for the most part, are gone, and that's a huge thing to know that you've lost.

CONAN: Jeff, thanks very much for the call.

JEFF: Yeah, thank you very much.

CONAN: Jerry DeWitt shares the experience of losing faith. He started in the ministry when he was just 17. Ultimately, he held the position of senior pastor at two Louisiana churches. Now he's known as the first graduate of The Clergy Project, which we mentioned earlier, the organization that assists ministers who have lost their faith. He joins us now on the - in the studios of our member station in Houston, KUFH. Good to have you with us today.

JERRY DEWITT: How are you doing, Neal?

CONAN: Was there a moment when you decided you had to come clean about your beliefs?

DEWITT: Yeah, there actually was. It came for me - I began to realize that there was no way that I could live a satisfying life without ministering to someone. I had been in the ministry for 25 years, growing up in the Pentecostal Church, and as I tried to take on just a secular lifestyle, I realized that being a minister is who I am.

And so I had made connections through the Clergy Project and had a connection with an organization called Recovering from Religion. And I said that's the people I'm going to minister to now, fellow clergy who don't believe, people who are trying to move out of their religious experience. I'm going to minister to them, and that's going to require a public commitment.

So at that moment, things begin to really get exciting.

CONAN: Barbara?

HAGERTY: Well, I've talked to both Terry and Jerry, and - Teresa and Jerry, and they have different views on missing God. And I'd just be interested in hearing them talk about that because, well, I think for Jerry, it's more visceral, and for Teresa, maybe not so much. Could you talk about that?

CONAN: Jerry, you first.

DEWITT: Sure. For me, you have to understand the background that I'm coming from is a Pentecostal background, a charismatic background. So everything about us was emotional, it was tangible, and it was all wrapped up in knowing and feeling the presence of God. And so that's just basically the quest that I was initiated into from birth.

So it wasn't just intellectual. Obviously, studying the Bible, studying science, being more exposed to reason, that moved me away from the traditions that I had been raised in, but it did not separate from me my natural tendency to want to, you know, have an emotional experience.

So there are definitely parts of me that miss that spiritual journey. I will say I am learning how to replace them.

CONAN: And Teresa Macbain?

MACBAIN: You know, when Barbara interviewed me, she asked me - one of the last questions she asked was: What do you miss most about church and about ministry? And my response was the one I gave just a moment ago.

CONAN: The music.

MACBAIN: Was the music, the people. And she found it very interesting and even commented: You didn't mention God. And it's a - it almost feels like I'm ashamed to say it, and I think that's probably just because, you know, it's been six weeks since all this has happened, and I'm still in this process. I'm still in this journey. But it wasn't my first thought. It was the thought of people. And I understand Jerry's position. I've preached in Pentecostal churches before, and, yeah, it's definitely a horse of a different color, but...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: There was a caller who couldn't stay with us, but did want to ask the question earlier: What was your relationship with God like before you lost your faith? Teresa?

MACBAIN: Oh, I feel like I had a very strong relationship. Many comments have been made that I really never knew God, and that's the only reason I could have lost my faith. But as Barbara shared, at six years old, I felt like I was called to be in the ministry in some way. I was - I carried around this little red Gideon's New Testament in elementary school and tried - read it at every moment I could get, tried to convert children, even at that young age. If there wasn't somebody who had a love for God and a relationship with God, then I don't know who had one. You know, I was really - God was my life.

DEWITT: Yes.

CONAN: Let's go next to - I'm sorry. I wanted to get another call in.

DEWITT: Oh, right. Sure.

CONAN: But we'll - we could put her on hold for a second if you wanted to say something, Jerry.

DEWITT: Oh, I was just going to say, Neal, that the same people who taught me that the sky was blue and taught me that the stove top was hot are - that's the same environment that I learned that these emotional experiences were the presence of God. And so I felt, from an early age, that I had a relationship with God, though I did not get saved until I was 17, and that was at Jimmy Swaggart's church. I heard an audible voice. I saw visions. I spoke in other tongues. I did all of the things that people do claiming that they have a relationship. So I truly believed that I had a relationship. And I felt like it was very solid, probably one of the reasons that there seems to be a missing element that I'm now filling the gaps in.

CONAN: Jerry DeWitt, former pastor at a Pentecostal church in Louisiana, now at The Clergy Project. Also with us is Teresa MacBain, former pastor of Lake Jackson United Methodist church, featured in the story last week on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED by our third guest Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR religion correspondent. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. And Susan's on the line with us from San Francisco.

SUSAN: Hi.

CONAN: Yes. Go ahead.

SUSAN: Well, I was - hi. Good afternoon. Yes, I'm a daughter of a minister, and I've been struggling with my religion for my entire life. And it wasn't until I went to South Africa two years ago, and I all of a sudden realized that I do not believe in God. And I thought it would be hard to accept that. I thought I would be - it would be difficult to deal with that. And I went to church recently with some friends of mine and felt a tremendous relief. I was delighted. I could sing the songs. I could read from scripture, and yet not through the guilt or the pain that I've been feeling my entire life, and discovering, ironically, that I think I can be the best minister's daughter by not believing in God.

CONAN: The best minister's daughter by not believing in God.

SUSAN: Yes. I think I'm a better person.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DEWITT: Wow.

CONAN: And do you still have a relationship with - what do you say to your dad?

SUSAN: My dear father has passed away. I would probably not have shared this with him. My mother, yes. My mother was very adventurous and more liberal-minded, but I don't think I would have told my father that I didn't believe in God. And it's funny, when I tell friends, I always say, oh, yes, you do. You just don't know it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: And a better person because you're being more honest.

SUSAN: Yes, I'm being more honest. And I think it's important to be good without feeling like you have to be good because of some religion. It's just people should be good.

CONAN: Teresa MacBain, you told us in the piece that Barbara reported that, in fact, your family - your husband's still a believer, but very supportive. What about the rest of your family?

MACBAIN: I feel like I'm very lucky in regard to my family. My husband is a believer, and he is very supportive. We disagree on many things, obviously, but we've been married 25 years and his statement - which means so much to me - is that our relationship wasn't based upon the fact that we think the same. There are many other things that we don't think the same on besides our faith. My father, my sisters, my brother, they have been supportive. They're still believers. My father still - he's a retired minister, but his faith is just the same as it was when I was a kid. Some other family in the extended circles - a little bit different response, but overall, I think it's fairly positive. And those who are kind of got me at arm's length, I'm just going to give them some time to try to get used to it.

CONAN: It's a long time between now and Thanksgiving.

MACBAIN: It is a - that's right. I timed it pretty well.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: I just wondered, Jerry DeWitt, what about the experience of your family?

DEWITT: I'm somewhat fortunate in the same way. My wife, we affectionately refer to her as an apatheist. She's pretty apathetic about the subject, and was even when I was in the ministry. Now, she definitely regrets that I have, as it where, another public ministry.

CONAN: I'm glad you clarified that. I was afraid she was worshipping bees there for a minute.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DEWITT: And my son, he's my hero. He'll be 20 in a couple months, and we pretty much raised him secular at home. We were afraid of the influence of religion inside our home, or at least the pressure of being a pastor's son. And so we raised him secular in home, and he came out as a nonbeliever well before I did. So he's the hero of the family. Everyone else is religious to one degree or the other. There has been a huge loss of my connections to my extended family. And I live in a small town so, you know, I know when they're not honking back going down the highway.

CONAN: Here's an email we have from Annette: Your story on moving out of religion resonates with me. I was born and raised a Mormon in Utah. Leaving meant reassessing everything, not just theology. Do I believe this really, or just because I've always believed it? Fighting my own voice, though, has given me peace of mind. I'm now an atheist and trying hard to live this one life with as much meaning and intensity as possible.

Susan, if you're still with us, that sounds like a soul sister. I think Susan has left us. But in any case, I hope she's still listening. We're going to take this over the break and take in a couple more of your calls when we return.

Stay with us. Our guests are Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR religion correspondent. Her piece, "From Minister to Atheist: A Story of Losing Faith," ran last week on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Also with is, the subject of that story, Teresa MacBain, former pastor of the Lake Jackson United Methodist Church in Tallahassee, and also Jerry DeWitt, former pastor at a Pentecostal church in Louisiana, now with the Clergy Project. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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CONAN: Right now, we're talking about losing your faith, what happens when religious leaders no longer believe. Our guests: Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR religion correspondent, Teresa MacBain, former pastor of Lake Jackson United Methodist Church, and Jerry DeWitt, former pastor at a Pentecostal church in Louisiana, now executive director of Recovering from Religion. And here's an email that we have. This is from Stacey: You asked at the top of the program to hear from pastors who have lost their faith. I've been a pastor for the past 16 years, and I would say not that I've lost my faith, but I've lost certain elements of my faith, and that's a good thing.

I feel like it's natural, healthy and mature to go through losses and disillusionments in faith and in life, but that doesn't have to mean that faith itself is destroyed. I feel like my faith is bigger and more mysterious than it was 10, 15, 20 years ago as I have let certain understandings go. It can be very scary as a minister to go through faith crises, and it can be a particularly daunting prospect to deal with a possible loss of faith when one's whole vocation is tied up in that faith. In some ways, I think clergy might be more prone to faith crisis because we are having to talk and think so explicitly about faith all time. Teresa MacBain, that must resonate to some degree?

MACBAIN: It does. I love her last statement, that we think and talk about faith and theology explicitly all the time. And I know for me, that really was my undoing. And there were pieces, just as the writer said, that slowly began to erode. And I know Jerry can share the same thing, that just little pieces started to fall away. This theology thinking of hell is a place of eternal torment for human beings who try their best to live their lives and just happen to miss the boat...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

MACBAIN: ...that kind of fell away. I couldn't believe that any longer. As I shared earlier, the fact that God was so diverse that all religions had to be the ways that we were just attempting to connect with that God based upon our culture. And there were many, many other things that kind of filled in. I just want to give you a couple of examples. But, yeah, I definitely relate.

CONAN: Now, let's see if we can go next to - this is Gabriel, Gabriel with us from Oklahoma City.

GABRIEL: Hi, Neal. How are you today?

CONAN: I'm good, thanks.

GABRIEL: Thanks for taking my call. First-time caller, longtime listener. I just wanted to share real quick. I am from the Midwest. I grew up in a pretty conservative, devout family. Also, we went to a very exegetical congregation, very much about the scriptures and how they apply to one another. And throughout my late teenage years, probably my junior or senior high school is when I got to a point in scripture where things didn't really jive, where, like, the Pauline epistles and the Gospels didn't say the same thing.

And so I think I probably came about it a little backward from most people when they lose their faith. But I thought if this book is where I'm basing my faith on and it doesn't even agree with itself, how can I put stock in that? And that sort of started the downward spiral, where eventually I had a real crisis of identity. I was just going into college and, you know, leaving my parents' home. And so it was a couple of years where I had a real hard time sort of picking up the pieces. But I'd say on the whole, after everything, I feel more at peace. I feel like I don't have the pressure to please this God. I just like to make people happy because it feels good.

CONAN: And, Gabriel, I'm sure this thought occurred to you that there is a difference between religion, as expressed in that particular book, and faith.

GABRIEL: Absolutely. Absolutely. I would say that I wouldn't - I would never call myself an atheist, mostly because the one tenet of my own personal faith that I have is that I can never 100 percent say that something is or is not true. I feel like if you're not always open to new evidence and able to re-evaluate it, then that's - how can it actually be true if it's not based on evidence? Does that make sense?

CONAN: Yeah. Barbara Bradley Hagerty, Gabriel's got to be one of those young people you were telling us about earlier in the program.

HAGERTY: Yes, I think so. I think - and, you know, it's interesting, because Richard Dawkins said the same thing about - he said he couldn't be absolutely 100 percent sure that there is no God, but he was going to, you know, bet on it. And - but I think there are a lot of people who have these small doubts, and then the whole faith unravels when they see inconsistencies in Bible and things like that. You hear about that a lot, and I think we're going to hear about it a lot more.

CONAN: As your series continues. Thanks very much, Gabriel, for the call. I wanted to end with this question by email from Mike. And, Jerry DeWitt, I hate to put you on the spot but he writes: Both of you speak of having a relationship with God in the past. How do you explain that now? Were you deluding yourselves?

DEWITT: I think we had been deluded by our upbringing. I have been taught when I felt certain emotions, I have taught from an early age that that was the spirit of God. I didn't know any different until I learned a little bit more about biology, until I learned a little bit more about the rest of reality and of the world. So were we deluding ourselves? I don't think so. I think that we had been, maybe with good intensions, deluded by our upbringings.

CONAN: By hearing voices, seeing visions?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DEWITT: Yes. Well, you know, a lot of those things are, from time to time, natural phenomenon that people experience. You know, the human condition is very exciting and has a lot of variety in it. And if you've been taught in your culture that a daydream is a vision or if you've been taught that by hearing a voice in your head very loudly that that is the voice of God, you have to go through a certain process to even be able to doubt that that's what it is because religion itself is telling you not to doubt those things. And so it's very, very, very difficult to walk through that process. You first have an identity crisis, which can eventually lead to identity suicide and bring about the things that Teresa and I have experienced.

CONAN: Teresa, that call, you were very young, but 6 years old, that obviously set out your career and your life since then. Was it genuine?

MACBAIN: I think so. A child - I guess that's kind of a double-sided question because a young child - you have to think about a 6-year-old - how capable are they of making a life decision? At 6 years old, can you really say what's going on? For where I was and from what I believed and the way I was raised and the faith that I possessed, I think I made a decision based on those things. Obviously, I've grown and I've matured and I've explored and really did some hard work as I've gone through this challenge of losing my faith. And so looking back, yeah, I think it was genuine then as much as a 6-year-old could be genuine about a life-altering decision.

CONAN: Thank you so much for sharing your story. We appreciate it.

MACBAIN: Thank you very much for having me.

CONAN: Teresa MacBain joined us from WFSU in Tallahassee. Jerry DeWitt, thank you for joining us today.

DEWITT: My pleasure.

CONAN: Jerry DeWitt with us from member station KUHF in Houston. Barbara Bradley Hagerty, we look forward to the subsequent entries in your series.

HAGERTY: So do I, Neal.

CONAN: Barbara Bradley Hagerty joined us here in Studio 3A. The third term for Putin coming up.

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