How a Pentecostal Preacher in Small-Town Louisiana Became an Atheist Activist
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Try to imagine: You're a Pentecostal preacher in small-town Louisiana. Your public reputation, your connection with the people you love, indeed your own sense of self-worth, not to mention your livelihood, are hugely dependent on your passionate faith in Christ.
You've struggled to make a reputation for yourself as a man of God, a conduit of the Holy Spirit, who can bring spiritual hope and healing to the people around you. You've struggled to balance the rigorous demands of your religious calling with the pressing practical needs of your family. You've struggled to make sense of the contradictory teachings of the Bible; of the widely divergent and often contentious sects competing for your loyalty; of the deep conflicts between your deeply held Christian doctrine and what you know, as an ethical human being, to be right.
And you're realizing that you don't believe in God. At all. Not just in Pentecostalism; not just in Christianity. You have come to realize that religion of any kind simply doesn't add up.
What do you do?
That's the story of Jerry DeWitt. It's a story you may have heard bits and pieces of: if you read his profile in the New York Times, or if you've heard about the Clergy Project, the support network for non-believing clergy members, which DeWitt has been intensely involved with since its earliest days. It's a story that paints a very different picture from the one many people have of atheists: set in the blue-collar and working-poor small-town Bible Belt, it's a story of a life driven by emotional devotion to service as much as an intellectual devotion to learning. It's a story of a deep desire to understand and serve God... battling with a deeper desire to understand and accept the truth.
It's the story told in DeWitt's new book: Hope after Faith: An Ex-Pastor's Journey from Belief to Atheism (available in print and Kindle editions). Fascinating, suspenseful, compellingly written, often heartbreaking, sometimes hilarious, and always hopeful even at its darkest, the book had my head spinning. DeWitt kindly took the time to discuss the book with me, and to talk about some of its more absorbing questions and ideas.
Greta Christina: Can you briefly sum up what got you started questioning your faith? What were some of the thoughts and experiences that moved you forward out of religion and into atheism? And what was the final straw?
Jerry DeWitt: The catalyst was an investigation into the idea of Hell and Eternal Punishment. I grew up with an awareness of the Hell concept and even prayed for forgiveness before falling asleep most nights of my childhood, but it wasn't until it became my responsibility to teach this doctrine that I began to be troubled by it. Is it justifiable for a person to be painfully punished eternally for 70 years of sinful behavior? Something wasn't adding up.
After more than 25 years of ministry and misery, I found that I had completely dismantled the theological house that I had been dwelling in. Although there were countless timbers of religious thoughts that one by one were tearfully discarded, I have condensed my transition into five stages:
- God LOVES everyone
- God SAVES everyone
- God is IN everyone
- God is everyone's INTERNAL dialog
- God is a DELUSION
GC: It's often said that people need religion in hard times, and that that's especially true of people whose lives are particularly hard. Reading your book, I do get a sense of the comfort people get from their religion, but at the same time, I get a strong sense of guilt.