Belief

How a Pentecostal Preacher in Small-Town Louisiana Became an Atheist Activist

Jerry DeWitt talks about his new book "Hope After Faith," and how he realized that religion of any kind simply doesn't add up.

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:

  1. God LOVES everyone
  2. God SAVES everyone
  3. God is IN everyone
  4. God is everyone's INTERNAL dialog
  5. 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.

You talk about that a lot in the book: the feeling you had that if your faith were stronger, your life wouldn't be so hard, or that if you could just find a missing piece of the puzzle of doctrine, your doubts about your faith would clear up and you could be a better leader.Can you talk about that? How did the comfort and the guilt religion provides play out for you, and for the people around you?

JD: Many times the comfort religion offers comes at a very high price. This form of comfort is at the same time both temporally present and linked to an uncertain moment in the future. I'll use the doctrine of Healing as an example. If you are ill, you may be comforted by the idea that God can heal you and may very well do so...one of these days. For some, this is more comforting then "knowing" you don't know what the future truly holds.

The exorbitant price that is paid at the very same time that a measure of comfort is received is the emotional abuse one silently suffers while trying to receive/earn the promised Healing. Knowing that God could heal you immediately, but doesn't, naturally causes the believer to ask, "Why not?" "What do I need to do to better please God?" "Is it God's will for me to suffer?" "What's God's purpose in allowing this illness in my life?" The list goes on and on.

GC: I've seen you speak at atheist events, and you have a passion, and a powerful and distinctive speaking style, that clearly comes from your years of experience as a Pentecostal preacher. Do you feel any differently when you're preaching about atheism and humanism than you did when you were a preacher?

JD: As with most things, yes and no. I still feel the nerve-racking anticipation of being in front of a group and the excitement that comes from the audience. I even feel what I once thought was the presence of God, the Holy Ghost, as we would have call it.

What does feel very different is my personal congruency with the message I'm delivering. It has been some time since I felt completely at one with the concepts that I'm presenting and standing for.

GC: Reading your book, one of the things that really jumped out at me was all the competing churches and congregations and sects that were around, all with such different and mutually hostile views of God and what you had to do to be saved -- down to minute details like whether you shaved or cut your hair. How did you see all that at the time? How do you see it now?

JD: Earlier on I saw those differences as possible missing-links back to an original (thus more effective) form of Christianity. Later, after years of bible study and personal experiences with believers of all types, I slowly came to see them as sincere misunderstandings of scripture.

Now they seem to be more like tribal customs or subcultural expectations, originally instituted with the hope of drawing closer to God but now, more or less, followed to stay close to the religious group.

GC: A pattern I see again and again in your book is the way you would decide on the interpretation you wanted to be true, and then look for the doctrine or the Bible verses to back it up. You had a strong aversion to the idea of Hell, for instance, so you found doctrine that would support you rejecting it.

How common do you think that is? And how did this affect your rejection of religion, if it did at all?

JD: I think this is so common that it is the origin of most subsets of religion. Today's "belief-ism" seems to be almost solely based on personal experience and/or feelings. (What feels right to me—not what's right for the group.) It's not uncommon to hear a believer say, "That's not the Jesus I know!" This type of spiritual independence breeds religious independence. If my pastor begins to preach something that I'm not in line with, I can very easily use the bible to justify my ideas, changing churches or even starting my own.

Apparently my love for god, truth and humans kept me at least one step out of sync with whatever religious affiliation I was in at the time. So I did look to the bible for support for my ever-changing theological position. Due to the convoluted nature of the Christian bible, this wasn't very hard to do, until I lost all confidence in the infallibility of the bible and its relevance to modernity.

GC: Reading your book, I'm struck by how easy religion makes it for one person to dominate and control the people around them. When a preacher has convinced people he speaks for God, there's no way to prove him wrong.You were terrified when Brother Goodwin told you that you'd be possessed by the devil if you left his church. Even fairly ordinary churches can have a very cult-like quality. And yet, obviously, people do leave churches, or ignore their teachings, or find churches with teachings they like better. How did you reconcile that when you were a believer, and how does that work for other people?

JD: If I was still supporting the minister that was being rejected by members leaving his church, it seemed obvious that they were being lead astray by the devil. Why else would they abandon the "Man of God"?

If, on the other hand, I (or someone I had confidence in) was the one doing the leaving, then it was God himself delivering me from a false prophet who had strayed from the straight and narrow. Again, it can not be overemphasized how personal and self-justifying the religious experience can be.

GC: When you finally began to seriously let go of your faith, at first you had a great loss of hope, even of the possibility of hope. You said that you thought that without faith, there could be no hope. Do you think that if you'd known then about the existence of good, happy atheists with hope and meaning in their lives, it would have made that transition easier?

JD: It would have made all of the difference in the world. At the time you are referring to, I wasn't sure if there was anyone else in the world that felt/thought exactly as I did. In my discouraged state of mind I had completely forgotten any non-theist names I might have heard of and had yet to fall into the arms of the World Wide Web for help. The fear of losing my religious community was only compounded by the misconception that I would never belong to a like-minded community again.

GC: On a related topic: You said that when you finally realized you were an atheist, seeing Dan Barker's book Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist was enormously helpful in connecting you with a new community and making you realize you weren't alone. How important do you think this sort of atheist visibility—books, billboards, news articles, websites, blogs, etc.—is to people who are questioning or leaving their faith? And what do you say to people who criticize this sort of visibility as atheists "evangelizing"?

JD: Actually, I remembered having seen Dan's book many, many years earlier. Thus, my appreciation for visibility is very high! If a book that I had seen decades before could become my lifeline at my darkest moment, then imagine the effect that activism is having right now in the lives of countless millions.

GC: You write a lot about intense religious experiences you had as a believer: visions and so on. How do you see those experiences now?

JD: I understand these experiences to be natural phenomena. A simple proof that your experience is not personal to your god is the fact that other believers have the same experience with their god as well. So, is it all the same god? What if that experience can then be duplicated in a lab or with medication? It's clear to me that the human mind is capable of many types of altered states and is the source of these experiences.

GC: It seems that a lot of the most famous and recognizable atheist leaders are academics. Do you have any thoughts about that: why that is, and some of the limitations it may create? Are there people you can speak to that the usual suspects don't reach?

JD: Yes, I can reach some that others can not, just like those academically inclined will always be able to reach an audience I can not.

Leaving religion can seem equivalent to jumping from your second-story bedroom window during a house fire. There may be many good (emotional) reasons and ways to jump—but it's more likely to be done and done successfully if there's a fireman's net to land in. For centuries it has been the intellectuals that have supplied that safety net. Now it's our task to supply the support network after the jump is made.

GC: It sometimes seems to me that the believers who become atheists are often the ones who took religion most seriously: the ones who really thought about it at length, until they couldn't reconcile its contradictions anymore. That certainly seems to have been true for you. Do you think that's true? How has that played out in your experience working with the Clergy Project?

JD: It sounds egotistical of us, but yes, it seems that those of us in the Clergy Project did take "it" and the language about it much more seriously than others. Once I was told, "Jerry, you're the problem, you think too much!"

GC: Even very early in the process of questioning your faith, when you still identified strongly as a Christian, but no longer saw yourself as a Pentecostal, you still kept up the facade of Pentecostalism, because you didn't want to upset your friends and family and destroy the image they had of you. With your experiences in the atheist community in general and the Clergy Project in particular, how common do you think that experience is?

JD: Based on the relationships I've made over the past two years, it must be very common. And of course, I can wholeheartedly understand the reasons that people continue to maintain an identity they no longer relate to.

GC: And when your atheism became public, your community turned against you, in some cases made threats against you, demanded that your boss fire you. Why do you think that was? With all the religious divisions and sects and schisms they'd dealt with, why did they have to ostracize and economically ruin the atheist?

JD: First, I'm not sure that they have dealt with that much religious diversity. Yes, there are several different religions represented in our small town, but the majority of our residents are either Pentecostal or Baptist. Both of which think that the other is going to Hell... but have been forced to work together for the last century.

I'm not in trouble for thinking differently, I'm in trouble with this "not in my backyard" town for talking differently.

GC: You spoke about your grandmother, and how it seemed to you that her prayers—especially in hard times—weren't so much a request of God or a conversation with him: they were more like a way of reassuring herself that God was real. Do you think that's true for other believers as well?

JD: Yes, I think many believers, just like the rest of us, are forced to deal with the difficulties of life the best we can. Prayer in the Pentecostal sense has the objective of reaching a feeling of ecstasy, which in turn reassures the believer that God's spirit is present with them, hopefully his presence is an indication of his willingness to help.

GC: I was surprised to learn that, when your ministry shifted from focusing on religious doctrine towards simply helping other people, you got so much resistance from so many of your congregants. When you wanted your church to help Katrina victims, you got serious pushback from people who thought Katrina was God's judgment.

Do you think a focus on doctrine and supernatural belief often interferes with people's impulse to help each other? Or is it just human nature—some people are more compassionate, and some are more judgmental, regardless of whether they're believers or atheists?

JD: Maybe a little of both. My experience in the ministry taught me that personality plays a far great role in people's decisions and behaviors than most of us give it credit for. Personality types seem to be drawn to the theological worldview that suits them best. Judgmental people favor judgmental world views, believers and atheist alike.

GC: For you, the desire to help other people was always a major motivation for wanting to work in the ministry. And when you finally became an atheist—or realized you were an atheist—and got involved with the Clergy Project, that motivation stayed with you; it seems that the ability to help others in the Project was as important to you as the help you could get from them. In fact, you said that becoming an atheist meant you could help people directly and with an immediate connection, "without any layers of pretense."

What do you say to people who say that people only become atheists so they can be selfish and ignore God's rules?

JD: I say, they don't know what they're talking about, at all! There is just as much selfishness within religion as there is in the secular movement or any other movement. Human nature is human nature. For some, there may be even more selfishness hidden behind the piety of religion. Secular people are at liberty to express their desire for pleasure and happiness without having to cloak it with twisted biblical justifications. One extreme example is the Prosperity Gospel movement.

GC: As you moved further and further out of your religious faith, you clearly were undergoing an emotional crisis, but at the same time, you write about the increasing sense of delight and even awe at the natural world. And your increasing acceptance of the natural world was obviously bringing you a great sense of peace. That's a common experience for a lot of atheists. Can you tell me more about that?

JD: The religious framework I hail from envisioned a natural world at war with its human residents due to demonic influence and control, all allowed of course by Adam's sin. This placed a filter over my ability to perceive reality as anything but sad, diseased, destructive and in need of redemption. This obviously create a disconnect between me and my surrounding environment.

Once that filter was removed, I found in nature and reality the "glory" I had been hungering for all along.

GC: You talk in the book about how becoming an atheist meant realizing that it wasn't God or Jesus who had gotten you through so many difficult times, it was yourself. People often say that religion gives people strength in hard times; do you think it can also undercut their strength, or make them feel more helpless and weak than they really are?

JD: It does cause people to greatly undervalue there own abilities and self-worth.

A few weeks ago I overheard a relative of mine saying she couldn't have made it through a difficult situation without "the Lord." Uncharacteristically, I interjected that she was a very strong person and had endured her hardship with her own strength and determination. She was embarrassed by the thought of it and insisted that I was wrong.

GC: To me, one of your most interesting stories in the book is the time you were having panic attacks. Your family saw them as caused by evil spirits, but you were able to see them as psychological, physical cause and effect in your brain. You found that view very comforting, and much more useful than religion, and at the same time, it led you to question your faith even further. In your experience, do you think beginning to trust in science and medicine often leads people to question their religion?

JD: Yes, by that point, reason, science and medication were all that was left for my illness. Had there been another line of religious thought for me to exhaust, I may have tried to do so.

Unfortunately, some dear souls still find a benefit in holding on to something that's not working. Fortunately for me, I wasn't allowed to do that. My love for truth and humanity, combined with my insistence on something that worked, forced me to look beyond faith.

GC: And finally, you talk in the book about how you found a sense of acceptance and community in religion, a social embrace you hadn't gotten much of in your life. How important do you think that is to religious believers? Do you think it's something people can find, or create, in the secular world?

JD: I think in many ways we do socially embrace each other in the secular world. Of course, because religion has set the bar so high, we generally feel as if we still have a ways to go in completely duplicating what we experienced in church... and that's what we're working on now!