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.