From Bible-Belt Pastor to Atheist Leader


Late one night in early May 2011, a preacher named Jerry DeWitt was lying in bed in DeRidder, La., when his phone rang. He picked it up and heard an anguished, familiar voice. It was Natosha Davis, a friend and parishioner in a church where DeWitt had preached for more than five years. Her brother had been in a bad motorcycle accident, she said, and he might not survive.

DeWitt knew what she wanted: for him to pray for her brother. It was the kind of call he had taken many times during his 25 years in the ministry. But now he found that the words would not come. He comforted her as best he could, but he couldn’t bring himself to invoke God’s help. Sensing her disappointment, he put the phone down and found himself sobbing. He was 41 and had spent almost his entire life in or near DeRidder, a small town in the heart of the Bible Belt. All he had ever wanted was to be a comfort and a support to the people he grew up with, but now a divide stood between him and them. He could no longer hide his disbelief. He walked into the bathroom and stared at himself in the mirror. “I remember thinking, Who on this planet has any idea what I’m going through?” DeWitt told me.

As his wife slept, he fumbled through the darkness for his laptop. After a few quick searches with the terms “pastor” and “atheist,” he discovered that a cottage industry of atheist outreach groups had grown up in the past few years. Within days, he joined an online network called the Clergy Project, created for clerics who no longer believe in God and want to communicate anonymously through a secure Web site.

DeWitt began e-mailing with dozens of fellow apostates every day and eventually joined another new network called Recovering From Religion, intended to help people extricate themselves from evangelical Christianity. Atheists, he discovered, were starting to reach out to one another not just in the urban North but also in states across the South and West, in the kinds of places­ DeWitt had spent much of his career as a traveling preacher. After a few months he took to the road again, this time as the newest of a new breed of celebrity, the atheist convert. They have their own apostles (Bertrand Russell, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens) and their own language, a glossary borrowed from Alcoholics Anonymous, the Bible and gay liberation (you always “come out” of the atheist closet).

DeWitt quickly repurposed his preacherly techniques, sharing his reverse-conversion story and his thoughts on “the five stages of disbelief” to packed crowds at “Freethinker” gatherings across the Bible Belt, in places like Little Rock and Houston. As his profile rose in the movement this spring, his Facebook and Twitter accounts began to fill with earnest requests for guidance from religious doubters in small towns across America. “It’s sort of a brand-new industry,” DeWitt told me. “There isn’t a lot of money in it, but there’s a lot of momentum.”

Not long ago, the atheist movement was the preserve of a few eccentric gadflies like Madalyn Murray O’Hair, whose endless lawsuits helped earn her the title “the most hated woman in America.” But over the past decade it has matured into something much larger and less cranky. In March of this year, some 20,000 people marched through a cold drizzle at the “Reason Rally” in Washington, billed as a political debut for the movement. A string of best-selling atheist polemics by the “four horsemen” — Hitchens and Dawkins, as well as Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett — has provided new intellectual fuel. Secular-themed organizations and clubs have begun to permeate small-town America and college campuses, helping to foot the bill for bus and billboard ad campaigns with messages like “Are You Good Without God? Millions Are.”

Written By: Robert F. Worth
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  1. People like Jerry DeWitt and Teresa McBain are now the real heroes of our time. They
    “walk the walk”, when many in the movement can only afford to” talk the talk”. To me, they’re
    very special people.

  2. This is an amazing article.  Thank you for posting!  It certainly gives one a new look on the pastors and ministers in one’s community; perhaps this is only the tip of a HUGE iceberg.  

  3. One mistake:
    “nearly 20 percent of Americans chose “none,” the highest number the
    center has recorded. Many of those people would not call themselves
    atheists; “agnostic,” which technically refers to people who believe
    that the existence of a higher being can’t be known by the human mind…”
    Notice anything wrong?

  4. “People have a really difficult time making decisions after they’ve lost their faith,”
    It’s not the loss of faith that is the problem, it’s losing your routine that makes it hard. Now you actually have to make decisions and not just do the same old thing. Family routine, religious routine, employment routine, entertainment routine, smoking and drinking routine. It’s hard to make a decision in place of a routine that is now gone; there is just a hole.

  5. This article is a humbling read – it’s so easy to be an atheist in Australia, where religion is the preserve of the old, the recently arrived, or shiny-eyed enthusiasts who are widely disliked and lampooned. When to lose your credulity is to lose your friends, family and community, the pain must be intense. Hats off to this courageous man, and others like him.

  6. Excellent portrait of this good and principled man.

     Also later in the interview a good account of a pastor who still preaches at one of the more liberal churches in DeRidder: George Glass and his wife of  the pictured Grace Church.There is a wide spectrum of belief from the extreme literal to the ‘weak tea’ or almost agnostic variety.Many of the latter are continuing their church-going for all kinds of reasons, but not so much because of certainty of belief.Certainly there must be scope for many more closet realists to emerge into the daylight.

  7. Nice article, every now and then the USA news changes from making you bang your head against  a brick wall to believing there’s hope yet. Which is cool because the small amount of time I’ve spent there makes me root for the general populace in the same way we have to do here in Europe and indeed all over the world. Have to believe there’s a chance that reason will prevail. The “ordinary” people everywhere deserve it.

  8. Amanda Schneider, who organized a local Recovering From Religion group in
    Santa Fe (and also helps manage the broader organization). “They
    used to always base it on ‘What is God’s plan for me?’ They are
    still looking for something miraculous to guide them.”

    It is interesting to note that believing you have a purpose, a direction in life works just as well without a religious belief as with it. Those abandoning a religious structure need to learn that all those positive attitudes that they had, that they attributed to a relationship with God (whatever that may mean) work just as well if they are simply, er…. positive. Of course, we can all find a purpose.  If you doubt that, just get up from in front of your computer and take a look outside.

    My heart goes out to all those in the USA suffering the devastating consequences of being honest with themselves and with others. I am glad they are forming new, er…Churches?
    DeWitt’s story reminds me a little of Paul’s road to Damascus experience. The same personality, the same gifts, but working for the “other side”. I wish him well. The USA needs people like him.

    Since this is my first post I should perhaps announce that I am a practising, though rather eccentric, Catholic

  9. Agreed that there is MORE money to be made in the church.
    But you went from a small town towards world celebrity.
    I admire you help the ‘children’ see the real truth now.
    Even countries of less wealth still need you though.
    Never lose your way of the truthful reality of common sense.

  10. Because I was handed my atheism on a silver salver, by my atheist father, I mock no one’s superstitious fears or struggles to escape them. To do so would make me like a man who never tasted alcohol, who mocks alcoholics at an AA meeting. Bertrand Russell cut to the meat of the matter, in his anthem essay “Why I Am Not a Christian.” “Religion is based, I think, primarily and mainly upon fear.” If you’re a serious atheist, and haven’t read Russell’s essay, for God’s sake read it! Religion, wrote Russell, “is a conception quite unworthy of free men.”

    As an EMT, I’ve recited the rosary over and over umpteen times with frightened old ladies on the way to the hospital, because my job is to stablize and support my pt in every way I can. I’m symathetic to Dawkins’s agenda, but have learned infinitely more from Scott Atran. 

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