Monday, September 3, 2012

From Bible-Belt Pastor to Atheist Leader

from The New York Times

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.”

The reasons for this secular revival are varied, but it seems clear that the Internet has helped, and many younger atheists cite the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks as a watershed moment of disgust with religious zealotry in any form. It is hard to say how many people are involved; avowed atheists are still a tiny sliver of the population. But people with no religious affiliation are the country’s fastest-growing religious category. When asked about religious affiliation in a Pew poll published this summer, 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, remains the safer option. The godless are now younger and more diverse than in the past, with blacks and Hispanics — once vanishingly rare — starting to appear in the ranks of national groups like the United Coalition of Reason and the Secular Student Alliance.

The movement has also begun cultivating a new breed of guru in men like DeWitt and Nate Phelps, the son of Fred Phelps, the leader of Westboro Baptist Church, which pickets military funerals and gay-pride events with signs declaring “God Hates Fags.” Nate Phelps, a big, barrel-chested man who delivers fierce rebuttals of his father’s theology and narrates the agonies of his fundamentalist upbringing, has become a star speaker at atheist rallies and gay-pride events around the country. At the Reason Rally, crowds cheered as he declared that the Sept. 11 attacks played a critical role in blasting away his lingering belief in any sort of deity.

Because they started out as fervent Christians, unlike Dawkins and Hitchens and company, Phelps and DeWitt are seen as heroes within the movement. They tend to live and work in the country’s most Bible-soaked places. “I think what’s happening is that nontheists are realizing we can’t just leave this cause to Ivy Leaguers and intellectuals,” DeWitt told me. “We’ve got to convey the secular worldview in a more emotional way.”

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?

DeRidder is a four-hour drive northwest of New Orleans, near the Texas border. It is a tiny place, surrounded by thick forests of long-leaf pine, where many of the 10,000-odd residents have known one another all their lives. There is one major commercial strip lined with fast-food restaurants and chain stores, and in the rest of town it is difficult to drive a block without passing a church. Many of them are Pentecostals, part of the revivalist Christian movement in which worshipers often speak in tongues — babbling in what is thought to be a sacred language — sometimes while writhing on the floor. In the local Walmart, it’s easy to recognize the more conservative Pentecostal women, who wear modest, long dresses in a high-waisted style, their hair, which they do not cut, pulled neatly into buns.

When I first met Jerry DeWitt, I half expected a provincial contrarian hungry for attention. Instead, he was mild and apologetic, a short, baby-faced man with a gentle smile and a neatly trimmed dark beard. He was earnest and warm, and I soon discovered that many of his fellow townspeople cannot help liking him, no matter how much they dislike his atheism. He appears to have reached his conclusions about God with reluctance, and with remorse for the pain he has caused his friends and family. He seems to bear no grudge toward them. “At every atheist event I go to, there’s always someone who’s been hurt by religion, who wants me to tell him all preachers are charlatans,” DeWitt told me, soon after we met. “I always have to disappoint them. The ones I know are mostly very good people.”

DeWitt is a native son in every way, and this must make his apostasy all the more difficult for others to make sense of and to accept. He is descended from a long line of preachers on both sides of the family. His paternal grandfather helped establish at least 16 different churches­ in Louisiana, including one in DeRidder, he told me. (I found 69 churches in the town directory, though some may be inactive.) DeWitt grew up in the church, but it was only at 17, after being “saved” during a weekend visit to Jimmy Swaggart’s church in Baton Rouge, that he became a passionate Christian. Weeks later he spoke in tongues for the first time. Soon after that, sitting in church, he heard his pastor call on him to deliver a homily. Terrified, he asked if he could have a few minutes to pray for guidance. He stepped to the pulpit with his finger on a passage from the Gospel of Mark, and spoke for 15 minutes on the “seed of David.” The crowd loved it. “It was the biggest high I’d ever had,” he told me. “I knew right then that preaching was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.” He married a local girl at age 20, and two weeks after the wedding, he received an invitation to speak at a camp meeting in Lucedale, Miss. There he preached to overflow crowds of whooping Pentecostals who were speaking in tongues.

He and his wife began touring the South, building a reputation for the power of his sermons. It was a tremendous ego charge, especially for a short, chubby young man with dyslexia. For the first time, he was treated with respect, even awe. “I had this whole prophet persona going on. I wouldn’t really mix with people before the sermon,” he told me. “All kinds of people were seeing miracles, and I believed it 100 percent.”

For the next few years, DeWitt preached across the South, doing itinerant jobs to pay the bills. In 2004 he became a full-time preacher at a church near DeRidder. By that time, though, he had drifted away from the literal claims of Pentecostal doctrine and espoused a more liberal Christianity. He had begun reading more widely (he never got a college degree), starting with Carl Sagan’s books on science and moving on to Joseph Campbell and others. But equally, he told me, he found it unbearable to promote beliefs that only seemed to sow confusion and self-blame. He recalled how one middle-aged woman in his church who was suffering from heart disease asked him anxiously: “How am I going to believe for salvation when I can’t believe enough to heal?”

Finally he began to feel that his rationalist impulses were alienating and hurting his flock, and he resigned — reluctantly, he said, because he loved the human side of being a pastor, “playing Mr. Fix-It for the community.” He continued preaching part time for a while, invoking an ever more misty and ethereal God. By now he had also read Dawkins and Hitchens, and even weak-tea Christianity was becoming hard to swallow. He preached his last sermon in April 2011, in the town of Cut and Shoot, Tex. A month later, Natosha Davis called, and DeWitt found himself unable to pray at all.

DeWitt never meant to go public with his unbelief. He figured he could “stay under the radar,” he said, and continue working as a buildings inspector in DeRidder, where, over the years, he had gained a reputation as a community champion and was talked about as a future mayor. But when he heard that Richard Dawkins would be attending a Freethinkers gathering in Houston, he couldn’t resist. He took a day off, without telling his boss where he was going. He got a picture taken of himself and his son Paul (who was then 19 and who has never been religious) with Dawkins. DeWitt posted the photograph on his Facebook page, assuming that “nobody in DeRidder knew who Dawkins was.” He also, perhaps unwisely, updated the “religious views” box on his Facebook page to read “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.

But DeWitt also hurled himself into his new role as a faith healer in reverse. He became the first “graduate” of the Clergy Project, discarding his anonymity and giving the clandestine preachers’ group its first dash of publicity. It was formed in early 2011 with a few dozen members, mostly recruited through Dan Barker, a former pastor who is co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and through Linda LaScola, who in 2010 co-conducted a study of nonbelieving pastors with Daniel Dennett, the atheist philosopher. The project now has more than 300 members, with about 80 applicants awaiting clearance (the group is very careful about admissions, to secure the members’ privacy).

DeWitt also became the executive director of Recovering From Religion, formed in 2009 by Darrel Ray, a Kansas-based atheist proselytizer. The group grew quickly under DeWitt’s leadership and now includes at least 100 local chapters scattered across the country, each one typically with 10 to 12 participants. Like other public figures in the movement, DeWitt also serves as a one-man clearinghouse for religious doubters via Facebook and e-mail. During the four days I spent with him in DeRidder, he was almost constantly checking his cellphone and tapping out messages.

There is more involved in this work than sympathy. The transition away from faith may start with an intellectual epiphany, but it runs through a difficult reinterpretation of your own past. For believers, this often involves what DeWitt calls a “hook,” or a miraculous story that helps anchor your faith. He gave me an example: he was born again in Jimmy Swaggart’s church thanks to his former elementary-school teacher, who persuaded him to come along with her to Baton Rouge. He later discovered that his teacher almost died while she was being born, and that she had emerged safely from the womb only after a preacher from a neighboring town was roused from sleep to offer a blessing in the delivery room. That preacher was DeWitt’s paternal grandfather. This coincidence had seemed providential to DeWitt, a sign that he was meant to be a preacher himself.

“This story has kept you feeling that God has a destiny for you,” DeWitt said. “So now how do you reconcile that? How do you make sense of your life? It’s not easy.”

I heard parallel stories from a number of other participants in post-religion networks. “People have a really difficult time making decisions after they’ve lost their faith,” said 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.”

One former pastor named Teresa MacBain told me that when she began doubting her faith last year, she ran through her list of friends and acquaintances and realized that every single one of them was religious. With no one to confide in, she began recording her thoughts into her iPhone when she was alone in the car. “It was a huge encouragement when I finally found other people to talk to online,” she told me. Like DeWitt, MacBain joined the Clergy Project. Then, earlier this year, she resigned from her pastor’s position in Tallahassee and went public as an atheist. She was promptly defriended (in the literal and Facebook sense) by almost everyone she knew. But like DeWitt, she has begun receiving frequent messages from doubting pastors and churchgoers, seeking her help in making the leap away from God. “It’s all new friends now,” she said.

That kind of abrupt excommunication is a fairly common experience, and many atheist networks — including hundreds on college campuses — become replacement communities and de facto dating services for many people involved. “Community is a huge problem for people wanting to leave religion,” DeWitt told me as we drove through DeRidder. He pointed to a church as we passed, then another, and another, and another. “How do you escape it?” he said. “It’s not like you can avoid driving past the church every day.”

In late June, Jerry DeWitt allowed me to accompany him to church in DeRidder. It was the first time he had attended since his apostasy became public, and he half-jokingly predicted that we would be attacked, or that the service would turn into a prayer session for our wayward souls. But he also made clear that he had no desire to hold religious doctrine up for ridicule. He wanted me to witness the emotional power of the ceremony and the music. He wanted me to understand why people are drawn to church, not just why they leave it. The church we attended — known as Grace — was one of the most liberal in town, multiracial and less orthodox than hard-line Pentecostals. He had delivered sermons there himself, and he was known by many, perhaps most of the parishioners.

As we arrived outside the church’s white porticos on a hot June morning, I could tell DeWitt’s fears were unfounded. “I’m praying for him” is the refrain when his name comes up, his mother had told me. Love the sinner, hate the sin. Sure enough, everyone we met was gracious, though there was often an undercurrent of unease. The service, by my own etiolated WASP standards, was an orgy of religious passion: people of all ages praised themselves hoarse as a high-decibel gospel band and choir shook the walls with heartfelt rhythm and blues. The preacher then delivered a homily about the risks of being a “catch-and-release Christian,” and I couldn’t help wondering if this was aimed at DeWitt.

Afterward, we met with the church’s founding pastor in an elegantly appointed office adjoining the main auditorium. He was a 79-year-old man named George Glass, with a wrinkled face and a magnificent deep voice full of warmth and gravitas. He hugged us both as we came in, chiding DeWitt for having stayed away for so long. We sat down, and over the course of an hour, he spoke movingly about his own struggles as a younger man, when he lost his first ministry and had to start from scratch. He reassured DeWitt that he understood his doubts and did not think any less of him. As we said our goodbyes at the door, Glass spoke again in his slow, Southern cadence, fixing DeWitt with his gaze. “The thing of it is,” he said, and we all waited as he allowed a weighty pause to fill the air — “you’ve just got to keep your mouth shut.”

Everyone laughed. 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? Even the old pastor, George Glass, acknowledged that others in the church had had problems with literalist claims about the Bible, and prefer not to talk about it. It is easy to see why. Open confrontation with faith, some would say, just provokes angry gestures from the faithful. In DeWitt’s case, those gestures had taken a wrecking ball to the life he spent 42 years building. He was once seen as a potential mayor of DeRidder. He helped clean up some of the town’s uglier spots when he worked at City Hall, and he knew the insides of almost every building in town; he knew and cared about most of the residents. Now many of them, he was told, believed he was a Satanist. During my short stay in DeRidder, I heard him take a call from the lawyer handling the foreclosure of his house, and I saw his wife’s moving boxes on their living-room floor. She’d had enough.

Was it possible, I wondered, that he was doing this deliberately? DeWitt is an intensely curious man, a homegrown intellectual who seems a little stifled in DeRidder. Was this a way of moving on? Would he really still want to be mayor of DeRidder someday, if it were possible?

“I’m so entrenched in this community, I feel like I’d be lost if I went anywhere else,” he said. “As for being mayor, who knows, stranger things have happened. I’d like to stay.” The town had changed a lot since his childhood, he explained. The old Pentecostalism had mostly softened into a more open, tolerant Christianity. He said he’d been amazed by the number of quiet atheists he discovered in towns throughout the South, looking for congenial voices online. Perhaps his community would one day welcome atheists, too.

DeWitt stood thinking as we waited in a stone garden outside the church (he said he wanted to make sure Glass and his wife got off safely in their car before he left). He said he admired the Glasses­, and the congregation, and many aspects of the church itself: its good works, the beauty of the music, the community it fostered. “Religion does a lot of good, especially the loving kind, like at Grace Church,” he said. “I know people who went to a more liberal kind of Christianity and were happy with that. The problem is, for me, there was a process involved in moving from Pentecostalism to a more liberal theology, like Grace Church. What makes me different is that process didn’t stop, and it took me all the way. In the end, I couldn’t help feeling that all religion, even the most loving kind, is just a speed bump in the progress of the human race.”

Robert F. Worth is a staff writer for the magazine. He last wrote about militias in Libya.

Editor: Jillian Dunham

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