Portrait of an apostate pastor

August 23, 2012 • 9:24 am

If you’re feeling down about being a nonbeliever, a big article in the New York Times Sunday magazine, “From Bible-belt pastor to atheist leader,” might cheer you up.  The piece, by Julie Glassberg, will be of intense interest to most of us, particularly because it mentions the influence of the New Atheists in converting believers to nonbelief, and the efficacy of Dan Dennett and Linda LaScola’s Clergy Project, an online community and support group for pastors who have lost their faith.

One of these former pastors, Jerry DeWitt of DeRidder, Louisiana, is the subject of Glassberg’s profile.  Once a a firebrand evangelical preacher who spoke in tongues, DeWitt lost his faith last year and since has been ostracized in his community, divorced by his wife, and is now contemplating living in his car.  So while the article will hearten you with the efficacy of New Atheism, it will depress you with the knowledge of how deeply religion still has its claws embedded in America’s Bible Belt.  And non-Americans may be surprised at how much ostracism one can experience as a public atheist in the south:

At the same time, DeWitt is something of a reality check for many atheists, whose principles rarely cost them more than the price of “The God Delusion” in paperback. DeWitt refuses to leave DeRidder, a place where religion, politics and family pride are indivisible. Six months after he was “outed” as an atheist he lost his job and his wife — both, he says, as a direct consequence. Only a handful of his 100-plus relatives from DeRidder still speak to him. When I visited him, in late June, his house was in foreclosure, and he was contemplating moving into his 2007 Chrysler PT Cruiser. This is the kind of environment where godlessness remains a real struggle and raises questions that could ramify across the rest of the country. Is the “new atheism” part of a much broader secularizing trend, like the one that started emptying out the churches in European towns and villages a century ago? Or is it just a ticket out of town?. .

DeWitt’s downfall began when he went to a talk by Richard Dawkins, had his picture taken with the man, and posted that picture on his Facebook page. DeWitt also changed his Facebook “religious views” notation to “secular humanist”:

It was his grandmother’s cousin, an 84-year-old woman he knew as Aunt Grace, who saw that page and outed him. Word spread quickly. On Dec. 1, his boss asked to meet him at a diner in town. Sitting at the table, the man took out two printouts from secular Web sites with DeWitt’s name on it. “He told me: ‘The Pentecostals who run the parish are not happy, and something’s got to be done,’ ”DeWitt recalled. “Half an hour later I was out of a job.” (His former boss did not respond to phone calls seeking comment.)

Almost at once, DeWitt became a pariah in DeRidder. His wife found herself ostracized in turn, and the marriage suffered. She moved out in June. He received a constant stream of hate messages — some threatening — and still does, more than seven months later. He played me a recent one he had saved on his cellphone as we ate lunch at a diner in town. “It’s just sickening to hear you try to turn people atheist,” a guttural voice intoned. It went on and on, telling DeWitt to go to hell in various ways. “I’m not going to sit around while you turn people against God,” the voice said at one point.

DeWitt, who remains in Louisiana, is a portrait in courage. That, along with the descriptions of growing unbelief in America, the efficacy of Dennett and LaScola’s Clergy Project, and the obvious influence of the New Atheists in areas as religion-soaked as Louisiana, should lift your spirits a bit.  This article is well worth reading.

74 thoughts on “Portrait of an apostate pastor

  1. Mr. DeWitt, if you’re reading this…I’m sorry that humanity has yet to grow up. Not sure what else I can offer, except to express my sincere hope that Fortune may yet smile upon you.

    Something tells me, though that Fortune isn’t very fond of DeRidder….



    1. Ben,

      Interesting that you should put it in just that way: “I’m sorry that humanity has yet to grow up.” Earlier this week a got a text from my eldest daughter in which we we bantering about her atheism and she said, “…I feel like I grew up and nobody else did.” And I feel the same way, religion is just childish.

      1. It’s kinda hard not to come to that conclusion.

        After all, as I so (too?) often put it, the Bible opens with a story about an enchanted garden with talking animals and an angry wizard. It features a talking plant that gives magic wand lessons to the reluctant hero, and it ends with a bizarre zombie snuff pr0n fantasy, complete with the zombie king demanding his thralls fondle his intestines through his gaping chest wound.

        Even the most “sophisticated” of religions amount to nothing more than a belief in a standoffish imaginary friend.

        There are peripheral aspects of some religions deserving respect, such as charity. And some religions put more emphasis in day-to-day living on those peripheral aspects than they do on the fundamental core concepts. But, at its heart, religion is something that should be abandoned along with Santa Christ and the Jesus Bunny. Or, at least, SuperBat and the Incredible Spider.

        Don’t get me worng — fantasy, and especially good stories well told, can be wonderful. The problem arises when you can’t tell the difference between make-believe and reality.



        1. Mostly agree.
          I always admire the religions with bare minimalist creeds, like Quakers who coined the phrase “deeds, not creeds”. Most of my high school classmates were Quakers or Reform Jews. Sheltered in a way.

        2. “…as I so (too?) often put it…”

          not too often for me! the more time you devote to posting yet another repetition of your clever satire, the less you spend torturing small animals in your yard. and, looped interminably, what was at first not funny has become unamusing.

          1. Then I’m sure you’ll be relieved and delighted to read that, as I type, Baihu is enjoying a meal of venison while I’m having barbecue pork for dinner. No small animals eaten tonight!

            Tomorrow, though, I think I’ll let Baihu into the goldfish bowl whilst I dine on hummingbird wings. Thanks for reminding me!



  2. Yes we are here in Louisiana, but as yet must remain silent for the reasons seen in the article. We love our state, but do not feel safe in it. It’s scary to think that law enforcement and the courts are pretty much still in the same camp as those who send garbled voice mail threats.

    BTW, the natives pronounce it “Dridder”

  3. I can attest to the amount anti-atheist zeal in the Bible Belt. I’m from Tulsa OK, and work about a mile away from Oral Roberts University (where I’ve heard that there is actually a mandatory class on tongue-speaking. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I don’t find it unbelievable, just to give you an idea of just how off the ball these folks are).
    All but two of my co-workers go there and it is amusing and shocking- shocking, I say- some of the things I see and hear from these people.
    Venting to a friend from a different part of the country, he was amazed that behaviors and ideas like those fostered, glorified, in fact, by this community still exist in 2012.
    It’s very isolating when your only options for community and a healthy social life maintain that you are either head-over-heels involved with High school or college sports, or you cuckoo for Christ, and if you don’t fit these qualifications, then frankly, there is no room for you here, and good riddance.

    1. Not sure whether classes in tongue-speaking are mandatory for all students at ORU, but ORU’s own catalogue states: “ORU places a particular emphasis on the Holy Spirit, who enables believers to speak directly to God by using the “prayer language of the Spirit” in their private devotions. This is praying in tongues—a deeper level of personal communication with God…” and several classes in the subject are prominent in the syllabi for at least two courses

      1 Syllabus for THE 103—Charismatic Life and the Healing Ministry


      1 Syllabus for GTHE 507—Holy Spirit in the Now


      One wonders what bases they use for awarding marks.

  4. “And non-Americans may be surprised”
    Sure I am. I also realize how lucky I am having grown up in the secularized Netherlands, were outside our Bible Belt nobody makes a fuzz about it. I didn’t have to come out of the closet simply because there was no need to hide.

    1. Don’t over judge either. In many of the populous areas it’s no big deal here either. (Interestingly I have a fundamentalist coworker in Netherlands who assures me that it’s a den of drugs and prostitution)

    2. It really depends where you are. I’m an American and my open atheism has never been an issue for me, but I’ve always lived in or near big cities.

  5. Great article. Many people have their entire identities tied up in their religion. When they turn their back on that, they necessarily turn their back on their entire world.

  6. While it was an illuminating article, a few of the author’s comments chaffed me. First this:

    After a few months [DeWitt] 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).

    Strong strains of the old cliche that atheism is just like another religion. Incidentally, anyone have any clue what glossary terms we borrow from AA?

    Worth admits having an innate bias against persecuted atheists:

    When I first met Jerry DeWitt, I half expected a provincial contrarian hungry for attention.

    Ah, yes. Because anyone unwilling to assent to irrational absurdities must be an attention whore.

    And then even after hearing about all the shit DeWitt took for abandoning this poisonous cult, Worth has the gall to ask:

    But I did later wonder if all the public atheism had done DeWitt more harm than good. Couldn’t he have remained a nominal Christian, as so many others have?

    I wonder if Worth would have advised DeWitt to just keep his head down and his mouth shut if we were trying to leave Scientology, say, rather than Christianity. Methinks not.

    1. Christ! What a poisonous load of crap that last quote is. That line right there illustrates with pristine clarity how completely empty religion really is, and how completely servile accommodationism really is.

    2. “Couldn’t he have remained a nominal Christian, as so many others have?”

      It’s a fair question. The author isn’t saying that DeWitt should have done that, but rather ask questions that the reader might be thinking. I, for one, am interested in why some people stand up for their beliefs and others don’t.

      1. Twenty years ago I would have reasoned that something in our genetic make up requires humans to “believe” certain inanities, and I would have left it that. Likewise, those
        Like myself were mutant and would be better off going along to get along.

        This may still be true to some degree, and JAC’s discussion of our unfree will may corroborate the inefficacy of even debating it. Some will believe, some won’t. Some will lie to remain social, others will not.

        But as I’ve gotten older and more curmudgeonly, I see real value in standing up to the insanity many popular beliefs and practices. Perhaps I would not have achieved the courage, wealth and social stature which has enabled my honesty if I hadn’t gone along in my younger years…we’ll never know.

        Being brave enough to stand up is something that is rarer than it should be, but I cannot fault anyone who chooses to keep their head down. Their circumstances are different than mine.

  7. Yes, the US bible belt is a wonder to behold. Our deeply religious neighbors are leery of us because we do not believe. Their and my children like to play together, and they do allow it, but they treat my children as if they have no confidence that they will behave decently. Which has on occasion led to tears of frustration. Meanwhile they require their children to “train” a certain amount of time on a 1st person shooter video game. Go figure.

    Guns and religion, a match made in heaven.

    1. Guns and religion, a match made in heaven.

      That’s a joke, right?
      Please tell me that’s a joke.

  8. Sounds like Mr. DeWitt could use some community support. Do you think he’d object if the atheist/humanist community held an online fundraiser, as we did for Jessica Ahlquist, and probably other people I can’t think of right now?

    1. I was thinking the same thing.

      I’ve come to think of these fundraisers as akin to an Underground Railroad. Which isn’t an apt image since the beneficiaries aren’t necessarily going anywhere; “underground” is where they used to be; and coming out atheist, however hard, can’t begin to compare to slaves running to freedom.

      But I’m happy to help out these folks in my small way.

  9. Oh, and as for DeRidder, I know it seems like home, but it doesn’t sound like he has a future there. And he ought to knock the dust off his shoes as he leaves.

    1. KJV Matthew 10

      14 And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words, when ye depart out of that house or city, shake off the dust of your feet.

      1. You think they were much freer even after Lincoln freed them? There were segregated bathrooms and worse right into the 1960s.

        I would like to imagine had they not been freed, they would instead revolt and bring the South to its knees, with help and encouragement from the North.

        In any event, I still want to see the South and those with Midwestern “values” disappear, plain and simple. They are living in an anachronism that stifles true progress.

        1. “You think they were much freer even after Lincoln freed them? There were segregated bathrooms and worse right into the 1960s.”

          I live in Tennessee, and I remember separate water fountains in the 60’s. While that’s deplorable, it’s still far better than slavery.

    1. I’ve often wondered what would have happened if this had been done. Or if the Southern states had never joined the Union in the first place which is what really ‘should’ have happened, as it was obvious to everyone at the time that the South and the North would never agree on the subject of slavery.

  10. My wife said the statement “lost his faith”, should be replaced. This man “found his ability to reason”!

      1. I really dislike this term, it makes faith sound like a pen, or a pair of glasses that you might still one day find if you look in the right place! It also seems to me to imply that this ‘loss’ is a bad thing. I’d prefer ‘saw the light’ if the religious hadn’t got there first.

    1. When a priest asked me how “I came to lose my faith,” I replied, “I didn’t. I set it down and walked away from it.” The look on his face was awesome, confusion and understanding all at once.

  11. Throughout my life I have lived among family and friends who at the very least would check the religion box in their census forms as none. It is hard for me to fully appreciate what is going on here. I feel lucky that can skeptically question the value of my cultural beliefs without fear. I will also try to be more empathetic as to why those obnoxious fundamentalist find my ideas so loathsome. For these people to embrace any kind of enlightenment means embracing disaster.

    1. I would love to have a serious discussion about the merits of having a “two nation solution” in the U.S. Give everything below the Mason-Dixon Line to the Republicans/Conservatives. The Federal government can computer match homes and pay moving expenses for all involved.

      And then we would be completely separate political entities. Southerners can put their remarkable political and economic plans into action, and won’t have to spend a dime on health care, the poor, public education, conservation, industry regulation.

      And we Northerners won’t have to spend a dime on the military-industrial complex, programs involving religious schools, the war on drugs, or subsidies for big oil. (We would actually come out way ahead, since most Federal monies go to the South already.)

      And then nobody would have a reason to complain about their taxes, or their government! We could have a nice, controlled experiment on the relative success of the liberal vs conservative worldview, and we would not have to suffer the slings and arrows of living in a broken society to get the answers.

      I frankly don’t see much of a downside, at least until such time as the South is reduced to zombie hordes looking for kcals.

          1. I would gladly let them go if we could no longer have to stomach NASCAR, beer, and all the other trappings of redneck existence.

            Besides, California has great beaches and other attributes.

      1. The killer downside has been and always will be the Mississippi. The entire nation would be sunk if it wasn’t for the cheap transportation the interior river systems afford. Not sure how joint custody of the port and shipping corridors would’ve worked out.

    2. (Posting quickly because the battery is going flat and there are no outlets available.)
      So, what would you use as a shibboleth to guard against the nut jobs getting out of Gilead?

      1. I want to say machine gun nests but I will settle for electric fences and the 24/7 playing of Melissa Ethridge songs over loudspeakers.

  12. Although I would never make the comparison to a religion, atheism is certainly a belief system. Unless something can be proven, unequivocally, it remains a belief.

    That being said I am always stunned by the blindness that exists amongst most theists and atheists.

    Just because you think you have discovered ultimate truth doesn’t give people the right to proselytize and even if you feel it does it certainly doesn’t give you the right to then ridicule those who oppose your views.

    Can people really not see how ridiculous it is to demonize any group of people?

    Hatred is hatred regardless if you feel your cause is just. Stalin felt his cause was just.

    We should all support freedom not the death of religion.

    1. Atheism is certainly not a belief system.

      And I’m not sure how simply provisionally accepting a null hypothesis can be a belief.

      But thank you for not proselytising. 😉


    2. 1. Atheism is the non-belief in gods, so it isn’t a belief system; it isn’t even a belief.

      2.”Just because you think you have discovered ultimate truth doesn’t give people the right to proselytize and even if you feel it does it certainly doesn’t give you the right to then ridicule those who oppose your views.”

      You’re right, but the constitution of the nation I live in does.

    3. Yeah, baldness is the latest haircut and abstinence is a sexual variation.

      “you think you have discovered ultimate truth”
      No, I don’t think that.

      “We should all support freedom not the death of religion.”
      Quite a few religions have died last centuries, without the help of atheists.

    4. …not stamp collecting is not a hobby, and not smoking is not a habit, but strangely enough, not thinking is a habit among people who say “atheism is certainly a belief system”.

    5. Although I would never make the comparison to a religion, atheism is certainly a belief system. Unless something can be proven, unequivocally, it remains a belief.

      This is wrong.

      According to your definition, not believing in Invisible Pink Unicorns, fairies, elves, Bigfoot, UFO aliens, and supply side economics are belief systems. They have never been proven either.

      Unless something can be proven, unequivocally, it remains a belief.


      It remains…unproven. You’ve set up a false dichotomy where something is either proven or a belief system. It can be proven, disproven, unprovable, or unproven at the least.

      BTW, the various versions of xianity have been disproven. Which hasn’t make much difference.

    6. Can people really not see how ridiculous it is to demonize any group of people?

      Yeah we see it. We are frequently the targets of xian hate.

      Hatred is hatred regardless if you feel your cause is just. Stalin felt his cause was just.

      What, you left out Hitler? Tell that to the fundies whose entire religion is based on hate. Who says we hate religionists? I don’t think much of many of them but mom and dad are both church going mainline Protestants.

      We should all support freedom not the death of religion.

      Another false dichotomy.
      And also the murder of another poor, defenseless strawperson.

      Who says we don’t support freedom of religion? Besides you and Pat Robertson. I’m sure the vast majority of atheists and Nones do.

      You can support both. I support freedom of religion and belief.

      And I cheer wildly as US xianity shakes itself apart until it is small enough to go drown in the bathtub.

  13. Well, there’s a loving community for you. If they’re so all-loving, you’d think they’d have a big prayer meeting to implore H (Hypothetical) Jesus to lead him back to the fold instead of all the hate messages.

    But this is just one further demonstration of how right HL Mencken was – at least the first part:

    Evangelical Christianity, as everyone knows, is founded upon hate, as the Christianity of Christ was founded upon love.– H L Mencken, “Bryan” (coverage of the Scopes Trial) The Baltimore Evening Sun, July 27, 1925 (as posted in Positive Atheism’s Historical section)

  14. @ r3formed: Don’t be daft. Is non-belief in Zeus a “belief system”? Is non-belief in the Easter Bunny a “belief system”? Is non-belief in the Tooth Fairy a “belief system”?

    For an up-to-date novel on the situation read Elmer Gantry. Written in 1926, nothing’s changed.

  15. Ken Ham has written on his facebook page: “Here is a sad story from the New York times about a pastor turned atheist. His heroes are ardent evolutionists–and he obviously didn’t know how to answer the question concerning how to understand a loving God in a world of death, disease and suffering–one can only do that when one believes in literal history in Genesis–that it is man’s fault there is death and disease in the world, not God’s fault. Sadly, many Christians have accepted the idea of millions of years–which then means it is God’s fault there is death an suffering and disease–and He called all that ‘Very good.’ No, death, disease and suffering is a result of our sin–our rebellion in Adam”. http://www.facebook.com/aigkenham

    I saw nothing in the NYT article that suggested that his loss of faith was due to so-called evolutionism.

    Nor here.

    But of course Ham wishes to spread the message that if you embrace young Earth creationist teachings you might not ‘fall away’ like Mr DeWitt.

      1. Thanks for that. I was just about to get up and make myself a snack. Now I’ve lost my appetite. The image that came to mind included the curly tail of a pig.

  16. Slight omission in Jerry’s article – from reading it I assumed that being ‘outed’ had cost DeWitt his job as pastor (which is kind of understandable). Not so, he’d already left that job, the job he was actually fired from was – building inspector.

    Which is outrageous.

  17. So gather ’round, gather ’round chillun’
    Get down, well just get down chillun’

    Thanks for reminding me that I need to renew my international passport.

  18. Someday, the greater majority will realize they were born without a religion and a belief in any gods and can live happily thus. That will be a very great day for all humanity for at that time we will not need labels such as atheist or secular humanist or whatever label. Hope the guy gets a job sooner!

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