“What if your whole world was a cult?”: The NYT profiles Jerry DeWitt

September 24, 2015 • 12:40 pm

I’ve met and talked to Jerry DeWitt several times; as you probably know, he was once a Christian Evangelical preacher in DeRidder, Louisiana, about as religious a town as exists in the U.S. But he gradually lost his faith and came out as an atheist. When he did that, he lost his wife, his job (of course), nearly all of his friends, and the love of his family. He’s an apostate, and has suffered tremendously from it, rejected by his loved ones and barely eking out a living.

But despite this, he’s the nicest guy you’d want to meet. He bears none of the marks of suffering, but seems happy, even ebullient, and is now preaching the gospel of secularism. In his talk at the 2014 Imagine No Religion meeting in Kamloops, which you can see here, he not only used his evangelical-preacher voice when he talked (it works very well!), but said that he felt immensely freer since giving up his faith.

In a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of DeWitt at the New York Times, “Bible belt atheist,” which includes a must-watch 8-minute video, Jason Cohn and Camille Servan-Schreiber describe (and show) both DeWitt’s own situation (he’s decided to stay in DeRidder, an immensely courageous decision), as well as his former friends and saddened relatives, one of whom weeps as she fears for his soul. I can only imagine what it’s like to be an atheist in that town. But the accompanying text is as heartening as the video; here’s a snippet:

This Op-Doc video shares those challenges, for Mr. DeWitt as he grapples with his changing social status, and for his community as it struggles to accommodate the idea of secular morality. This difficult conversation is becoming increasingly common in this country: As one Pew Research Center study showed, the percentage of American Christians is on the decline, from 78.4 percent in 2007 to 70.6 percent in 2014, and the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans, including atheists, is steadily growing (from 16.1 percent to 22.8 percent in that same time).

. . . The time we have spent with Mr. DeWitt has helped us to see that the freedom of religion we cherish in this country is meaningless — unless it is accompanied by an equally valid freedom from it.

Yay for that last sentence!

Clicking on the screenshot below will also take you to the page where you can both read the text and see the video.

Screen Shot 2015-09-24 at 1.33.48 PM

h/t: Greg Mayer

18 thoughts on ““What if your whole world was a cult?”: The NYT profiles Jerry DeWitt

  1. We need both types of Jerrys: the Coynes who can explain why Evolution is True and rationally expose the folly of faith; and the DeWitts who can viscerally show why it’s the Jesus that’s the lie, but that throwing out the Jesus doesn’t mean throwing away all the good stuff draped over the Jesus to hide the monster underneath.


    1. Just yesterday I heard a Catholic archbishop opine that the rise in secularism was causing the destruction of morality in the US. People like de Witt expose this for the lie it is.

  2. “This above all: to thine own self be true,
    And it must follow, as the night the day,
    Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

    –some old English guy

  3. I had not known about this before. Mr. DeWitt is an extraordinary courageous person. And those “loving” Christians among him are the dark stalwarts of cruelty here.

  4. His book “Hope After Faith” is marvelous.

    Unlike Dan Barker, JDW spent a considerably longer time lingering in liberal religion than Barker did. DeWitt eventually decided (my paraphrase) that it functions as a methadone to more traditional religion.

    However, he got a lot of his liberal religious thinking from books rather than a local community, and I wonder if he would have lingered longer there otherwise.

    The woman who says that if a pastor like JDW can fall, it shows Satan is very near…words fail.

    Although there is little of this kind of bigotry in the San Fransisco Bay Area, even the local Boy Scouts still won’t accept atheists, and I know more than one youth for which being a Unitarian is a good “cover” re joining the Scouts. Even here….

  5. Encouraging. Though personally, I couldn’t live on the “buckle” of the bible belt. No freakin’ way. Especially if everyone knew I was an atheist. I couldn’t handle all that hate emanating from the freaks.

    1. That would be true of me as well, but I applaud DeWitt’s courage and resolve. It will be interesting to see if the town changes over the coming years.

    2. “I couldn’t handle all that hate emanating from the freaks.”

      I’m be more annoyed by all those other sounds coming out of their mouths that contained no coherent information, but disturbed my reading.

  6. “he gradually lost his faith and came out as an atheist. When he did that, he lost his wife, … nearly all of his friends, and the love of his family. ”

    Isn’t it weird that all of this happened not because of anything he did, but merely because of something that occurred inside of his mind?

  7. Talk about a profile in courage. And just another sad display of the bigotry and ignorance found in so many communities in the South.

  8. This was very interesting. Profile in courage indeed. I wish him and the others in the group well. However, I am a bit concerned for their safety based on the comments from his cousin. All it takes is one to think that way and work himself into a self-righteous rage.

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