The Unexpected Atheist

“The Romans called the Christians atheists. Why? Well, the Christians had a god of sorts, but it wasn’t a real god. They didn’t believe in the divinity of apotheosized emperors or Olympian gods. They had a peculiar, different kind of god. So it was very easy to call people who believed in a different kind of god atheists. And that general sense that an atheist is anybody who doesn’t believe exactly as I do prevails in our own time.”

Carl Sagan, “The Varieties of Scientific Experience”

Several years ago, I received a midday phone call and discovered on the other end a young woman with a troubling story. She had reached out to me in my role as then-director of the North Texas Church of Freethought, an occurrence which wasn’t terribly uncommon, as I found myself frequently the recipient of inquisitions from random members of the public. Still, she was surprised to find a real live atheist to talk with, and after some initial hesitation, shared her conundrum.

Raised a Bible-believing Christian, she had been an enthusiastic disciple and parishioner, who at the time found employment with her hometown church, a pleasant little Methodist congregation in rural Texas. She ministered primarily to the young children of the community, running their Sunday School program and youth activities.

She was also an atheist.

The transition from believer to skeptic had begun slowly for her, motivated by theological curiosity more than anything else, then picked up steam in large part due to the Four Horsemen, and ended in a flurry of critical Bible study. Though she had emerged the process psychologically unscathed and intellectually satisfied, her parochial vocation now concerned her greatly. Although she was still happy working with the church’s youth and they were happy to have her, her apostasy gave her the feeling of being disingenuous. After some reflection, she decided to tell the story of her deconversion to the church’s pastor and await his justice.

He listened patiently to her account, to her references of the Books of Daniel and of Dennett, and to her concerns that she had just disbelieved her way out of a job. In response, he smiled kindly, and said that his advice was the same for her as his bishop’s had been for him when he told a similar story: “It’s okay to have doubts, even if you feel that you can’t believe. You’re doing great work for your church, and I urge you to stay.”

She left her church a few months after our call.

Some time later, I received a distressing email from a Baptist pastor in rural North Carolina. He briefly introduced himself and told me a bit about his background and the makeup of his congregation before laying a stunning confession at my feet.

He was also an atheist.

He’d been so for several months, following a long and torturous journey of theological and philosophical exploration. His wife had been privy to this development, and fortunately was supportive of him. His congregation, he feared, would be much less so, to say nothing of the religiously conservative community around him. Did I, he asked, know of any way that he could find support and community? More importantly, did I know of any way that he could make a living for himself and his family after a lifetime of experience only in ministry?

I offered my sympathies for his plight, but little else aside from the names of some atheist organizations in the nearest city.

Then in 2011, in Houston for the Texas Freethought Convention, I was having drinks with a friend the night before the main session began. We were thrilling in the anticipation that Christopher Hitchens, then being treated for late-stage cancer at M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, might be feeling well enough to attend the event personally. At one point she turned to me and said, “Zach, I just HAVE to introduce you to this guy I met, Jerry DeWitt. He’s absolutely the sweetest guy, and a former pastor who just graduated from The Clergy Project.”

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Jerry at the Texas Freethought Convention, October 2011

Indeed he was. From the moment we first shook hands, I found Jerry to be a humble, polite, and unassuming person. A great listener and a great questioner, he possessed none of the self-importance that I typically encounter when journeying through houses of worship. Indeed, such was his modest demeanor that I found it hard to imagine Jerry behind a pulpit, or under a revival tent, or even perched at a church entrance shaking hands and receiving the adoration of the faithful.

That all changed for me the first time I heard him preach.

It was a secular sermon, no doubt. Jerry had traveled to Dallas to speak at the Fellowship of Freethought’s monthly Gathering and promote Recovering from Religion, a new organization that he had taken on as its first Executive Director. Two months after we first met in Houston, many things had changed for Jerry. While initially he had been hopeful that the personal and financial costs of his apostasy would be minimal, during the intervening weeks he had lost his job, had been ostracized by his community, and the strain was beginning to affect his marriage. As he looked ahead to the future, he was worried that he would be struggling to keep a roof over his head and his life from completely derailing.

Still, he was with friends, and he had plenty to say. That day he gave a message that really cut right to the heart of what he had been going through as a Christian pastor slipping into apostasy.

Jerry @ FoFD

Jerry at the Fellowship of Freethought Dallas, December 2011

The face we show in public, Jerry taught, even if done for the most virtuous of reasons, can be used to define us. The traditions that we initiate and continue can be used to restrict us. The expectations that these things create will provide safe passage through the culture that sustains us, but we pay a toll in the loss of freedom and self-identity that can only be recovered by embracing a freethinking life.

This thesis, give or take a few hundred pages, became Jerry’s first book.

Titled, “Hope After Faith,” and subtitled “An Ex-Pastor’s Journey from Belief to Atheism,” it is endorsed by such Hell-bound luminaries as Richard Dawkins and Dan Barker (himself a former pastor as well), and currently enjoys a position of popularity with their books on best-seller lists. At least, among atheists, that is. By contrast, the most popular books out today among Christians are two separate (and contradictory) accounts of near-death experiences told in wildly fantastical (and non-Biblical) prose.

And more’s the pity. Because I think the true audience for “Hope After Faith” is not the atheist unfaithful, but rather the kind of believer whose religious experiences have been so unsatisfying that the active imagination of a four-year-old is preferable to even C. S. Lewis or, Heaven forbid, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Responses to Jerry’s story from Christians who’ve bothered to read it offer only one rejoinder: “You were never truly a Christian.” It’s a common refrain, all too common to those of us who have left the faith of our families.

It’s also a terribly bitter pill to force down someone’s mouth, cutting right to the core of their self-identity, their honest faith, and their cultural context. Perhaps Pentecostalism was the wrong denomination to start in – well, which is the right one? Perhaps Jerry was led to follow flawed leaders with bad theology – who are the right ones? Perhaps he didn’t pray fervently enough, read the Bible enough times, or (most insulting of all) simply wasn’t chosen as one of the Elect? Perhaps there is somewhere a list of confirmed Saints that remains uncontested, but as yet I’ve not seen it.

“We have to recognize, therefore, that even where a single deity is worshiped, the varieties of religious experience represented by the worshipers may differ to such an extent that it is only from the most superficial sociological point of view that they can be said to share the same religion.”

Joseph Campbell, “Masks of God: Primitive Mythology”

In his book, Jerry painstakingly recounts every event of religious significance in his life. It begins with a rock ‘n roll foundation of gospel and revival, prompted by a visit to Jimmy Swaggart’s tent meeting in 1986, that set the course of his religious journey from then on out. An intellectual and inquisitive boy, he more or less taught himself the ministerial trade and showed enough aptitude behind the pulpit to soft-launch himself into a something of a revival preacher. But curiosity and satisfaction are bitter enemies, so his rocky career bounced from church to church, from Brother This to Brother That, as he struggled to pile enough stones in a heap to serve as a witness to God that, yes, he believed in Him and, yes, he trusted in Him and, yes, he sought to do right by Him, as best as he could, as best as any Christian could hope.

In the end, of course, [SPOILER ALERT] Jerry’s heap of stones tumbles, he loses his livelihood, his wife, and his standing in the community.

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The book is divided into five “chapters,” which really only serve to separate the five steps in Jerry’s theology that led to his atheism: God Loves Everyone, God Saves Everyone, God is in Everyone, God is Everyone’s Internal Dialogue, and finally God is a Delusion. The first and longest chapter (taking up more than half of the pages of the book) ends with a personal and spiritual defeat and retreat that culminates years of eking out a living on the revival circuit, trying to please his young wife, and attempting (largely unsuccessfully) to find a satisfying church home. Written with author Ethan Brown, the memoir focuses narrowly on Jerry, which may have been necessary given the manner of its writing, but it unfortunately leaves key figures in Jerry’s life either poorly characterized (e.g., his family), or painfully one-dimensional (e.g., his Pentecostal mentors and friends).

My greatest disappointment with Jerry’s book, however, is that it fails to deliver on the promise of its title. Ending on a grey, lonely Christmas following his bankruptcy, the breakup of his marriage, and the fear of even walking into the local Wal-Mart, Jerry’s hope after faith is a small thing indeed. But perhaps that’s my problem, and not Jerry’s. After all, when he reached out to the atheist community he received plenty of moral support, but not much else. Plenty of people were willing to give him time on their podcast or blog, but who gave him a good-paying job? Who even gave him a “love offering?” Who started a fundraiser to save his house from foreclosure? If Jerry’s hope is malnourished after everything he’s been through, what have his fellow apostates done to feed it?

Many in the atheist community find the idea of an atheist pastor just as distasteful as do many Christians. To be an atheist is to leave all the trappings of religion behind, they say, and revel only in the delight of pure intellectualism. I have found this assumption to be inaccurate, as I have watched communities of freethought and humanism crystalize and grow by leaps and bounds around me, providing the same benefits that churches and temples have known for millennia. But these communities, for all their pluck and hard work, consistently lack something I feel is inescapably necessary, especially at this moment in time: revival.

We need to be reminded of the joys of existence, and to be inspired to manage its sufferings as well. We need to be reminded how to show compassion to those who desperately need it, and how to ask for help in times of trouble. In short, we need to have our humanism recharged. We need Jerry, and lots more like him. We need to prepare the way for doubting preachers, youth pastors, and theologians to enter our community, we need to figure out how to support them socially and financially, and we need to do it now. Otherwise our communities will grow like weeds and die off just as quickly, and people like Jerry will find no fertile soil for their talents and their time.

Happily, Jerry’s story is gaining attention, from a New York Times article to appearances on NPR and MSNBC, as well as an ongoing documentary:

Following his sermon in Dallas, I sat down with Jerry and told him that even if nothing else were certain about his life, I was convinced that he was born to be a preacher. One who, ironically enough, found a satisfying gospel to preach only after leaving the church and community he loved. How many other pastors like him put a mask over their inner theological struggles? How many other Christians like him hide their doubts behind the wall of tradition? “Be Brave,” Jerry says often while tweeting from the road, an admonition as much for himself as for those who follow him. It’s advice that I would give to anyone reading his book as well, especially believers; there but for the grace of God could go any of them.

“Mightier than Estë is Nienna, sister of the Fëanturi; she dwells alone. She is acquainted with grief, and mourns for every wound that Arda has suffered in the marring of Melkor. … But she does not weep for herself; and those who hearken to her learn pity, and endurance in hope.”

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Silmarillion”

6 thoughts on “The Unexpected Atheist

  1. “Who started a fundraiser to save his house from foreclosure?”

    Just a minor correction. There was one effort I noticed (and contributed to) when Jerry was struggling financially, but I’m pretty sure it raised a very modest amount. Maybe one or two mortgage payments.

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2012/05/13/help-a-former-pastor-make-the-transition-out-of-church/

    On that note, there are a lot of people out there in AtheistLand that remain very hostile to ex-preachers, even to the point of equating them with ex-cons or ex-mobsters. I don’t suppose these are ex-believers, because you would think they could relate, but these people are out there. They don’t want to hear the “preaching” and don’t want to help them correct their own “stupid” mistake of joining the racket of religion in the first place.

    • Thanks for that info, Thomas. But that effort was too little, and too late. It wasn’t enough to postpone foreclosure proceedings; it required declaring bankruptcy to save his house. My point is that for all our best intentions, we haven’t actually provided sustainable financial assistance.

      • Yes, it was. If only Jerry had told Wolf Blitzer that he was an atheist on national television, perhaps nonbelievers would have been more forthcoming. How about the haters, though? Have you come across anyone that wants nothing to do with ex-clergy members? Do you think this may play into the lack of financial assistance from the community at large?

        • Precisely the problem. Atheists love to donate in response to immediate tragedy, and especially when their sense of marginalization is provoked, but not in any systematic, regular way that connects with their humanistic values. Compared to believers, even those atheists who seek out organizations and community give ten times less to their home group, and also give ten times less to charities in general.

          Haters are a problem, to be sure, but external to this situation. Those atheists aren’t interested in coming together under any kind of banner anyway (such as the Fellowship of Freethought), and so I wouldn’t expect their support for someone like Jerry. But there are thousands who are thrilled to participate in organized freethought and humanism, they just haven’t been able to bring themselves to donate like their religious neighbors. And as a result, local freethought organizations remain financially castrated and thus socially impotent.

          • Yes, I guess we can just assume that the cynical atheists will never be satisfied, so it’s best to just skip over their internet comments (because they rarely attend things IRL).

            Even popular social clubs, such as Rotary Clubs, are struggling to keep members. A lot don’t want to open to women. Some can’t entice younger members, so clubs are dwindling.

            Freethought clubs have it better and worse. With Rotary Clubs, there is a requirement for membership: you have to be in business. And the hook is that you will meet and eventually recommend the businesses of your fellow members.

            Freethought clubs entice freethinkers to attend, but getting them back the following week is a problem. Meetups are great for getting people out once, but there needs to be a hook to keep people coming back. People need to get more out of it than an oxytocin squirt.

            I don’t know how your club operates, but freethought clubs should concentrate less on science talks, freethinking, and having a good time and more on getting to know the other human beings in your group. At least until it has a healthy congregation. And once everyone is relatively comfortable with each other as friends, and not just people you hang out with to make jokes and talk about video games, then you’re on your way to having a symbiotic, altruistic, and, dare I say, financially stable group. Once the group is robust, then it needs an elected board for leadership, and a big goal, but not too big it’s beyond the means of a local group.

            One thing that freethought clubs could capitalize on is working with everyone in town. Churches can’t do this. Sure, some try the interfaith thing, but that seems to work for Christians and Muslims, rather than Baptists and Pentecostals. Right? Catholics are rarely out feeding the homeless alongside the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

            And depending on the town, there needs to be more than one freethought club. I live in a town with 3 separate Rotary Clubs, and the town isn’t that big, but getting from one side of town to the other is a chore. Do a survey to choose a time and day that works for everyone. I think this is the hardest one, what with everyone working erratic retail schedules nowadays. What Rotary Clubs have as an advantage is that members are business owners or managers, so they can meet at lunch for an hour every week. But some meet for breakfast before work. There are 24 hours in a day. Surely, there is a time that will work for everyone.

            I don’t think I’m telling you anything you don’t already know, doc. But I’ll leave this here for anyone stopping by.

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