Jerry DeWitt is an atheist. So am I. I was more or less born and raised an atheist (Unitarians being notoriously tolerant about who they let in their doors), I am still an atheist, my cancer is highly unlikely to change that, so I will probably die an atheist. No real surprise there. On the other hand, Jerry DeWitt comes from a background about as far removed from the customary intellectual, secular and academic breeding ground for atheists as is imaginable. For twenty-five years, Brother Jerry was a Louisiana-born, hardcore Jimmy Swaggart styled tent revivalist Pentacostal evangelical preacher. As in... wow.
So I read Jerry DeWitt’s soon-to-be-published book, Hope After Faith, with great interest and am looking forward to a live blogchat this Tuesday - June 18th at 2:00pm EST - where our readership can engage in real time questions and answers with Mr DeWitt. But first, some background on Mr DeWitt and a review of his debut book.
Jerry DeWitt preached his last sermon in April, 2011, after decades of privately questioning his beliefs. Six months later, his ‘deconversion’ became public after an on-line photo taken of himself with Richard Dawkins at a meeting of freethinkers was circulated by an irate relative. A pastor who becomes an atheist is rather frowned upon in some circles, particularly those in the deep South. His home town of DeRidder, Louisiana, proudly considers itself ‘the buckle on the Bible belt,’ and Jerry DeWitt’s personal loss of faith was seen as a public affront to many in his community. As a result, he became a pariah – friends deserted him, most of his family shunned him, his wife left him, he was kicked out of his ministry, fired from his secular job as a buildings inspector and he nearly lost his house in a bankruptcy and is still hanging on to it by a thread. He regularly receives hate mail and threats. A cautionary tale indeed for anyone who thinks walking away from their fundamentalist Christian faith is going to be easy.
But from the ashes of his religious life, he rose to become the first graduate of The Clergy Project, a safe, private on-line support group created by Richard Dawkins, Dan Barker and Daniel Dennett for former and current clergy members who had lost their belief in God. Soon after, he was appointed the Executive Director of Recovering From Religion, where he worked to help laypersons similarly disoriented by their loss of religious beliefs. He’s rapidly become a ‘celebrity’ atheist who – somewhat to my own envy – has publishers coming to him to write a book, newspapers chasing him for stories. He’s the subject of an up-coming documentary film, The Outcast of Beauregard Parish.
The same driving ambition he acknowledges in his book – from his resentment of other ministers promoted over himself to preach to congregations he longed to lead, to noticing how women were attracted to charismatic preachers and wondering if he’d married too young – are still evident today. Despite his reputation as a self-effacing nice guy who is all about tolerance and compassion, quick with smiles and hugs, I suspect DeWitt has an iron enough backbone to hold his own as well as any of the formidable Four Horsemen of atheists; Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett.
Hope After Faith is a genuine page-turner, I couldn’t put it down. Literally; I read a big chunk of it while lying on a gurney waiting my turn to be wheeled in for yet more surgery, and finished it a couple days later during chemotherapy – at a private religious hospital, ironically enough. DeWitt is definitely not anti-Christian, writing with deep affection for friends and family who are still inflexibly religious, and with an honesty about his own successes and failures, personal and professional, that is refreshing and even endearing. He’s not reticent about recalling how he became a Born-Again Christian at a Jimmy Swaggart tent revival when he was an impressionable 17-year-old, guided by a beloved school teacher... or of the pressure to prove himself a ‘true’ Pentacostal, which requires speaking in tongues.
For those of you who, like me, have had limited exposure to such religiously induced glossolalia, it can be quite an astonishing spectacle; I spent a Thanksgiving with a friend and her family who, unbeknownst to me, all belonged to a Pentacostal church. The evening was quite pleasant, until one man began praying, his eyes rolling up in his head as he babbled incoherently and fell writhing to the floor while the rest went into spasms of ecstasy, hands jerking in the air as if they’d been hooked up to electric wires... and I ignominiously fled to the refuge of the kitchen. They scared the holy crap out of me.
So these aren’t the sort of people one might assume are likely to ever renounce their faith. Which makes Jerry DeWitt’s story all that more remarkable, if – surprisingly – not unique. While DeWitt might be one of the more charismatic representatives, he's hardly the only, or even the first ex-preacher to ‘deconvert’ to atheism. I'm astonished by how many there are. Then again, maybe I shouldn’t be; my grandfather was a devout Southern Baptist, but his son lost any belief in God whatsoever by the time he was in third grade. More famously, Nate Phelps, the son of Fred Phelps of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church, not only rejected his father’s homophobic fanatical theology, but is a regular speaker at atheist events. The number of Doubting Thomases amongst those we least suspect may be far larger than they are willing – or perhaps able – to admit to being. Hopefully, Jerry DeWitt’s book will resonate with other nascent atheists searching for a way to cope in a country that has become increasingly radicalized by fundamentalist Christianity and hostile toward those with differing points of view.
DeWitt’s book is largely an autobiography, chronicling not only his internal spiritual debates but his disastrous personal and financial struggles. The majority of the book concentrates on his gradual progression from his search for a life of deep spiritual meaning and a genuine connection to God over his quarter of a century as a minister to a rather short chapter on becoming an atheist; understandable, as he’s only been an atheist for a couple of years. He began with a simple but compelling dilemma: how can a God who loves everyone condemn any of His creations to the torment of an eternal Hell?
‘If God really does love everyone why is it so difficult for God to pour out his spirit? Why doesn’t he just do it, make it come to pass [...] and save everyone and bring about a universal revival? And if God loves everyone, doesn’t he want everyone to be saved?’
When that domino fell, it started a chain reaction as he questioned fundamentalist doctrines and the mesmeric personalities, both the genuine believers and the eccentric charlatans, who expound them. When he adjusted to the idea that contradictions in the Bible meant it could not have been created by divine spirit but by flawed human beings to be read as metaphor, he then found himself in a struggle to reconcile religious beliefs with what he discovered in such books as Joseph Campbell’s seminal Hero with a Thousand Faces, Darwin’s Origin of the Species, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. In the end, it was the spectre and nature of death itself his inquisitive intellect couldn’t reconcile with faith – he couldn’t force himself to pretend to pray for a woman’s badly injured brother fighting for his life in a hospital.
‘I struggled to pray because all of the conflicts that had existed inside me about my faith, which I’d temporarily resolved time and time again through my motivation to remain in the ministry, suddenly fused into an awareness that there was no God.’
Not only wasn’t God going to save everyone, He wasn’t going to save anyone, because God doesn’t exist.
Once the last convoluted trappings of religion fell from his shoulders, DeWitt, oddly enough, came full circle to realize what he’d been searching for all his professional life: a way to simply love humanity. He even lists himself on Facebook as a secular humanist rather than atheist.
In part, it may be because DeWitt is finding the world of atheism – like Christianity – isn’t any more unified in our opinions. Organizations such as American Atheists, dedicated to defending the civil rights of atheists and advocating for a complete separation of church and state, uphold objectives I certainly agree with, but some of the methods they employ make me uneasy. While I would like to see the old motto E Pluribus Unum reinstated on our national currency rather than In God We Trust, I’m not overly incensed by it. Most atheists truly couldn’t give a toss about the ‘War on Christmas.’ One’s beliefs, or lack thereof, is a personal and private matter; it’s when it invades public and political arenas it transmutes into something rather less benign. Even DeWitt has expressed reservations about the ‘hard side’ of atheism that regards religion as a disease or mental illness to be cured, or a foe to be fought and conquered. ‘I do struggle with the idea of being connected to people who automatically offend and turn off the other people.’
And having watched him on YouTube, I realize his delivery technique is honed by years of professional preaching; the ‘Can I get a “Darwin”?’ (a riff on the ‘can I get an amen’) is humorous the first time, but starts to grate by the tenth – I resist, even in jest, the deification of anyone, including Darwin. Perhaps especially Darwin. But when he slipped into his best Pentacostal Come To Jesus sermonising at the end of this clip, his performance is electrifying, amusing... and oddly disturbing.
He is still, by his own admission, a preacher, even if in some ways he’s traded in one form of ‘worship’ for another – that deep-rooted desire to belong to a like-minded and accepting community inherent in many Christian sects translating itself to belonging to another community that welcomes and appreciates very different beliefs. Even his description of his new-found atheism was couched in religious terms: “I felt born again; it was like a salvation that I stumbled across. I could minister to people, I could be in their lives, all without pretending I was someone who I wasn’t or pretending to know all the answers.”
That compulsion to minister has not waned for Jerry DeWitt. But atheism is not a religion. As an atheist, I find proselytising distasteful – whether it’s for Jesus or for atheism. The passionate desire for everyone to renounce religion and convert to the secular humanist tenants of reason so that we can all live in a better world is far too close to the evangelistic zeal of converting everyone to Christianity in order to save their souls from the everlasting fires of hell. To his credit, this is something DeWitt understands very well. So while he has turned his remarkable preaching talents to promoting atheism, he’s carefully balancing that skill with supporting those who are seeking answers without trying to pressure anyone to ‘convert.’ He’s doing an admirable version of Unitarian ‘proselytising’ – knocking on someone’s door then running off to let them figure it out for themselves.
‘We’re trying to have meetings, we’re trying to form organizations, we’re trying to get a message out, until the meetings and the organizations and the messages aren’t necessary anymore. We’re following in this very long and beautiful tradition of people fighting for their rights,’ DeWitt has insisted.
Fair enough, I suppose. For those folks who feel trapped in their religion – either by doubts or because of family or financial or community ties they find difficult to break – maybe this is exactly what’s needed; a sort AA for religion to help and support those who have no idea how to do it on their own. Although I’m not sure that analogy is all that constructive, either.
Many of the messages DeWitt and other atheists employ are likewise heavily borrowed. I'm a little uncomfortable with some of the language used, such as DeWitt being described as a ‘closet’ atheist who was ‘outed,’ second-hand terminology from the gay community that possibly benefits neither party. The idea that one ‘recovers’ from faith as if it’s a disease, or ‘graduates’ from religion inferring those who believe in God are somehow intellectually inferior, troubles me.
So while I’m sure there are plenty of atheists who do view religion or belief in God or even just a vague mystical ‘higher power’ as some sort of mental illness or disease, I’m not one of them. I rather doubt Jerry DeWitt is either. For some people, it’s an outlet that gives them comfort, like collecting china dolls or going to Star Trek conventions dressed as Klingons, or allows them to help their community, like fostering puppies for Guide Dogs or volunteering at the Cancer Council charity shops – as long as they're not hurting anyone, who cares? I know there are many people, including a few in my own family, who are praying for me during this illness – is my own atheism so dogmatic, am I so petty that I can’t recognise their sincere expression of love and concern? In the end, it all just boils down to three simple words:
Love One Another. As an atheist, I can embrace that. And, I dare say, so does Jerry DeWitt.
So it is a pleasure to welcome Brother Jerry (sorry) to this live chat on our blog – I hope you can all join us tomorrow at 2:00 pm EST. I’m sure it’s going to be a fascinating conversation.