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Unbelieving preachers get help to 'come out' as open atheists
Minister-turned-atheist Jerry DeWitt speaks at ReasonFest in Kansas earlier this year.
June 13th, 2012
10:47 AM ET

Unbelieving preachers get help to 'come out' as open atheists

By Dan Merica, CNN

(CNN) - Jerry DeWitt entered the ministry when he was 17, launching a 25-year career as a Pentecostal preacher. He traveled all around his home state of Louisiana, preaching and ministering wherever he could.

All these years later, DeWitt, 42, is still on the road, and now takes his message all over the United States. But the nature of that message, along with his audience, has changed dramatically.

DeWitt is now an avowed atheist, and his audiences are made up of religious “nones,” the growing number of Americans who are atheist, agnostic, humanist or just plain disinterested in identifying with a religion. Today, DeWitt preaches a gospel of disbelief.

During his speeches, he talks about the process of leaving his preacher job. “If you don’t believe, then you will be like me - you’ll suddenly find yourself where you only have two choices,” DeWitt told a group in Johnson County, Kansas, earlier this year.

“You can either be honest that you don’t believe ... or you can pretend that you do,” he said. “Which is what so many people are doing and that is called faith.”

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The transition from preacher to outspoken atheist has not been easy, and DeWitt is trying to smooth the way for other former believers. He is executive director of Recovering from Religion, an organization founded in 2009. Its slogan: “Thousands of organizations will help you get INTO religion, but we’re the only one helping you OUT.”

But a relatively new effort goes a step further than his own group by focusing on helping clergy in particular. In March 2011, a coalition that includes national groups such as American Atheists, the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the Richard Dawkins Foundation helped launch the Clergy Project, which is aimed at giving doubting and atheist preachers a community in which they can talk about their disbelief.

The program's ultimate goal: to help unbelieving preachers to “come out” in real life.

A safe online community

The Clergy Project’s key component is a private online community of active and former pastors discussing their conversions to lives of active disbelief. It lets congregational leaders come out anonymously, using an alias.

“It is important to focus on any group of people who are in a lot of pain,” said Linda LaScola, a co-founder of the Clergy Project. “That is why the Clergy Project exists, and it wouldn’t be growing if there wasn’t a need for it.”

When it launched last year, 52 clergy signed up for the online community, according to LaScola. A little more than a year later, 270 members are contributing to the message boards and connecting anonymously with one another.

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According to LaScola, the community includes some rabbis, imams and Catholic priests, but the majority are Protestants.

Members are barred from disclosing what is discussed on the boards, but DeWitt said it’s a blend of humor, advice and encouragement. DeWitt, who left his congregation just over a year ago, is considered the group’s first graduate.

“It gave me confidence to come out,” DeWitt said of the Clergy Project. “Knowing that I was not alone, that I was not a fluke, that I was not a freak of religious nature, but that this is a process; it most definitely gave me confidence and a purpose.”

Jerry DeWitt, far right, in his days as a minister.

DeWitt said that after connecting with people on the message boards, he realized he faced fewer obstacles than some others who are trying to leave the ministry. For example, DeWitt's wife and son already knew about his disbelief, while other questioning preachers had not yet told their families.

“I think it is important when you are struggling that you talk it out, that you write about it, that you find support,” said Teresa MacBain, acting executive director of the Clergy Project. “I still try to reach out to people who are questioning, who are doubting, clergy people and laypeople alike, and let them know they are not alone, that there are people who care.”

How does he feed his family?

For 44 years, MacBain was involved in some sort of ministry, from organizing worship music to being a senior pastor at a Methodist church in Florida.

At a recent American Atheists convention in North Bethesda, Maryland, MacBain first publicly announced her atheism, inspiring a roaring round of applause. American Atheists President David Silverman walked onstage and hugged her as MacBain began to cry.

"I was the one on the right track, and you were the ones that were going to burn in hell," MacBain told the crowd. "And I'm happy to say as I stand before you right now, I'm going to burn with you."

She said she sees plenty of growth potential in the Clergy Project. In the near future, she said she hopes to incorporate it as a nonprofit and begin raising funds for clergy who have decided to leave ministry jobs. She also wants to compile a group of employment recruiters to help former clergy find new jobs.

DeWitt, for his part, is struggling financially and said his house could be foreclosed on in the next few months.

For former preachers in search of work, their old skills can be hard to translate into new fields. What references do former ministers use if they have disappointed their congregants by leaving the pulpit?

MacBain said that some “formers,” as she calls ex-clergy, have left their hometowns for new jobs in fields ranging from radio to counseling.

To aid those transitions, Recovering from Religion has started the Clergy Professional Relief Fund, dedicated to “helping ex-ministers have a soft landing after coming out of the ministry.” Though little money has been collected so far, the hope is to help former ministers with job training and relocation expenses.

“Even if you have a degree in divinity, that doesn’t really mean anything,” DeWitt said. “That is the biggest fear that a nonbelieving clergy member has. How does he feed his family?”

Losing faith, losing friends

As a young fresh-faced minister, DeWitt was first confronted with his disbelief when he “became the person who got the burden of preaching about hell,” he said. “I really loved the people I preached to, I loved them like family. So imagine preaching that if you don’t do this, you are going to burn in hell. That wasn’t easy for me.”

After doubt about hell, DeWitt began to research other schools of thought about God and belief. He began to develop other doubts, about certain biblical translations and about healing.

“The next big issue was the failure of prayer,” DeWitt said. “People are passing away, whenever we pray for them to live. People aren’t getting jobs, whenever we pray for them to have jobs.

“The harder we tried to alleviate suffering within our church, it seemed like the worse things got,” he said. “It didn’t seem like prayer made any difference. It just continually crushed my heart.”

When DeWitt decided to come out as an atheist, some in his congregation appeared shocked.

“I was very heartbroken actually because his family means so much to me; they are actually like family,” said Natosha Davis, 30, who attended DeWitt’s church for four years. “I was very heartbroken for him that he had to go through that and struggle.”

Many congregants were less charitable. “Some people where he lives just totally turned their backs on him,” Davis said. “He was ostracized, excommunicated. It is like he has a disease, but he doesn’t.”

When DeWitt runs into people he used to preach to, he still averts his eyes. Going to the post office and to Walmart, he said, can be stressful because of the possibility of running into a former congregant.

“It is because places in which you were once admired now you are suddenly scorned or pitied,” DeWitt said, who admits not having many friends anymore. “It makes for an extremely uncomfortable life.”

And yet DeWitt said his atheist life mirrors his old religious one in some key respects. In some ways, he said, he’s still a minister.

“The origin of the symmetry is me, is my personality, my love for people, my love for ministering,” DeWitt said. “What I have always tried to do is to minster from where I personally am at.

“When I was 17, I preached what I believed was best for people at the time; when I was 20, it was a little different; at 25 it was different, too,” he said. “And now at 42, I am still the same guy preaching what I see is best for people.”

- Dan Merica

Filed under: Atheism • Christianity

soundoff (5,298 Responses)
  1. The Dog Delusion

    The guy in the picture above holding "Reason" booklet actually had this thought:

    "My buddy didn't that job he prayed for. Therefore, God doesn't exist"

    Looking on the bright-side, we aren't exactly losing a franchise player in DeWitt. So if someone of his intellect were to represent any group, I'd rather it not be theists.

    June 13, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
    • ME II

      The question is, does anyone ever get what they pray for because of the prayer?

      "Intercessory prayer itself had no effect on complication-free recovery from CABG, but certainty of receiving intercessory prayer was associated with a higher incidence of complications."
      (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16569567)

      June 13, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
    • Ruff

      @The Dog Delusion,

      Yeah, you go ahead and represent 'em, Fido... perseverating on one statement from the article like a dog with a bone.

      June 13, 2012 at 5:59 pm |
    • Ruff

      p.s. Perseveration is a symptom of several serious brain diseases - may want to get that checked out, k?

      June 13, 2012 at 6:03 pm |
  2. Colin

    Jerry DeWitt is a brave man. Congratulations to you Mr. DeWitt for rising above the nonsense you were fed as a child.

    June 13, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
    • The Dog Delusion

      The DeWitt Doctring: "Bubba didn't win the lottery he prayed for! I guess there aint no God!"

      June 13, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
  3. Puzzled in Peoria

    If some of the preachers on TV actually believed in God, they wouldn't be preaching what they do, because they would fear his retribution. They are nothing more than sophisticated con men, bilking the naive who think that donating to such phonies is somehow going to make them rich. It's called the Prosperity Gospel, and it's false.

    False preachers are nothing new. Paul complained about them in his New Testament letters.

    June 13, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
  4. 3N1Amen

    Every knee WILL bow...every tongue CONFESS, that JESUS CHRIST is LORD!!!! Including all the knees and tongues of those who've turned their backs on God.

    June 13, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
    • nope

      nope

      June 13, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
    • 3N1Amen

      yep

      June 13, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
    • sam stone

      Wow. Nothing more convincing than a quote from edited, translated iron age hearsay

      June 13, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
  5. Marcus

    There is proof that God exists all around us. Look at the human body and how everything works in harmony. Look at the complexity of the heart and the brain and how we can function. Look at how our bodies can fight disease. Look at our world, the temperatures that accomodate humans perfectly. This proves we are of inteligent design. Ask yourself, could an explosion in a printing shop create a dictionary?

    June 13, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
    • sam

      LOL

      June 13, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
    • ?

      The car engine works the same way. Just metal not gooey organs.

      June 13, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
    • OOO

      Another god-of-the-gaps person.
      Don't be arrogant.
      If you don't know something, at least admit it. End of story.
      Don't start making up fairy tales as truth and teach your (or our) children it.

      June 13, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
    • 3N1Amen

      Amen Brother!!!

      June 13, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
    • nope

      ask yourself, could an explosion in your brain somehow cause it to start functioning?

      June 13, 2012 at 5:46 pm |
    • Madtown

      Could be. But, that in no way validates organized religion. Religion isn't necessary to believe in God, in spriritual terms. Religion is a creation of mankind, meant to try and answer questions we're just not able to answer.

      June 13, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
    • Marcus

      I dint finish skool so I got none of that booklernin like sience

      June 13, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
    • Rick

      Actually an explosion in a printing shop could create a dictionary. There are none so blind as those who will not see my friend. If you really think that what you see around you is proof of a God then you already had your mind made up and never were open-minded in the first place.

      June 13, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
    • sam stone

      marcus: how do you make the logical leap from a creator to a god?

      June 13, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
    • Marcus

      @Rick I wish you the best of luck making that dictionary 🙂

      June 13, 2012 at 5:56 pm |
    • Marcus

      @sam stone. from years of study and personal experiences.

      June 13, 2012 at 6:00 pm |
    • Harel

      Marcus, the scientific answer to your quest is Evolution. Good luck.

      June 13, 2012 at 6:32 pm |
    • Harel

      By the way, how's your appendix been functioning lately?

      June 13, 2012 at 6:34 pm |
  6. Lux Et Veritas

    Herman

    How old must you be to no longer be a child?

    ******************
    According to various scripture threaded in the Bible and which also corresponds scientifically with the complete development of the human brain ~ about 22 years old.

    June 13, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
  7. Collin

    This is why a lay ministry is best. You aren't in it for the money.

    June 13, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
  8. abcdxyz

    Can we get the Clergy Project to drop leaflets over the Vatican?

    June 13, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
  9. ?

    Folks the only true God is the FSM. He sent his only meatball to give you savory salvation. Open your hearts to his love and be touched by his noodle appendage. Repent from the evil life of the Taco.

    June 13, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
    • sam

      R'amen.

      June 13, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
  10. Racheln24

    ..and who is this Chad? you're alter christian ego?

    June 13, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      YOUR alter ego.

      June 13, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
    • Racheln24

      good come back Tom.

      June 13, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Just correcting your writing, dear. No need to thank me.

      June 13, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
    • Racheln24

      So I made a typo.. does that mean I'm stupid? I'm a graphic designer, not a writer.

      June 13, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
    • sam

      I think you wouldn't know where to feed yourself if you didn't flap your mouth so much. Yes, I think you're stupid.

      June 13, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
    • Racheln24

      And you are a perfect example of why Atheists believe that they can say/do anything and be accountable to no one. Sad and self serving indeed.

      June 13, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
    • Racheln24

      Besides, who asked your opinion Sam? I was having a conversation with Tom.

      June 13, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      A typo? No, you don't know the difference between "your" and "you're". One doesn't need to be a writer to know that, just someone who has an education and isn't careless.

      Now, when are you going to answer the question? You said I "better believe" you do something, but since you didn't write a complete sentence, you were not clear as to what you "do" that you somehow think might "blow" my mind. You support a woman's right to choose? Believe that creationism and ID should be required in science class? Support the rights of gays to marry? If so, good for you. Do you think the majority of Christians support these same things? It doesn't look that way from the posts on this forum.

      June 13, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      This isn't a private little chat, Rachel, and sam can give his opinion if he wants.

      June 13, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
    • Racheln24

      Not everyone believes the same things so stop the senseless stereotyping. I'll make sure that my grammar, punctuation, etc. is tip top since you just can't seem to take me seriously otherwise. Hope you've learned something today.

      June 13, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
    • sam

      Now I'm an atheist? What are you, psychic or just judgy today?

      June 13, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Run along, Chad. I knew you'd be too much of a coward to answer the questions I asked.

      June 13, 2012 at 5:56 pm |
    • sam

      Yeah stop that crazy stereotyping, like deciding people are atheists and shit.

      June 13, 2012 at 5:56 pm |
  11. Ginger

    I believe only one thing related to religion – that like so many other things some of our brains are hardwired to believe and some are not.
    Just as there are so many different types of religions and even within the "major" ones, so many different sects... there are many different types of non-religious folks. Seems to me that the folks in the article aren't really all that newsworthy – people change religions every day. Interesting how intense people get when their particular belief system is challenged. If that belief is strong, what difference does it make if someone else believes otherwise? Isn't your personal belief/non-belief the beginning and end of what should matter?
    Anything else is what causes wars.
    Lets all just mind our own business and move along.

    June 13, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
  12. Johnny

    God is spirit. God exists OUTSIDE of time, space, and matter. JESUS CHRIST is the eternal God who was born into this world PHYSICALLY (2,000 some years ago) so that we can be "born again" SPIRITUALLY. Amen!

    June 13, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
    • Kafir

      Hogwash

      June 13, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
    • ?

      They said the same about Zeus.

      June 13, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
    • YeahRight

      "God is spirit. God exists OUTSIDE of time, space, and matter. JESUS CHRIST is the eternal God who was born into this world PHYSICALLY (2,000 some years ago) so that we can be "born again" SPIRITUALLY. Amen!"

      The bible has been proven not to be an historical document, so please prove your god exists and Jesus really was really the son of a god and not just a cover up for a woman who had sex outside of wedlock.

      June 13, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
    • Steward

      Mithra was born to this earth too and he rose again to save us all – ALL HAIL MITHRA!

      June 13, 2012 at 5:46 pm |
    • Rick

      Did Santa Claus teach you that?

      June 13, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
  13. 1927 henritta

    When! He dies he will know? To late.

    June 13, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
    • Get Real

      And your verified evidence for this is...?

      June 13, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
    • QS

      If that's your birth year I can understand why you would think this way.

      June 13, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
    • Lux Et Veritas

      He knows now ~ is my guess.

      June 13, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
    • NEC

      Exactly Get Real, they have no evidence.

      June 13, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
  14. SugarCube

    Any pastor who claims to be an atheist is a fake phony baloney fraud. How can you preach about what you don't believe exists.

    June 13, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
    • 1927 henritta

      For. Him it was just a job. From the beganing

      June 13, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
    • Kafir

      So, you still believe in Santa Claus then?

      June 13, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
    • andy1142

      "How can you preach about what you don't believe exists." -Ever heard a politician speak? They preach stuff they don't believe all the time because they realize their congregation likes hearing it. It keeps them employed and in a position of power and authority.

      June 13, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
    • Rick

      Any preacher from any religion is a phony. Religion is the world's oldest scam.

      June 13, 2012 at 6:03 pm |
    • Harel

      Be nice everybody. Some preachers are hard-working people who provide for their families and who give comfort to those in discomfort. Can you do better than that?

      June 13, 2012 at 6:29 pm |
  15. Dorf

    We are truly living in the end times. Let us pray that God gives our leaders the courage to hasten Jesus' return.

    June 13, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
    • sam

      Thank goodness, I've had enough of this nonsense. Can we schedule the Rapture soon?

      June 13, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
    • sam stone

      How long have these end times been coming?

      June 13, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
    • 1927 henritta

      Sorry. He! Will not! God will come in his own time not yours.the son of perdition must come first. Thessalonians 2.2 threw 12

      June 13, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
    • Castiel

      The son of perdition is not coming, he is locked in a cage with Michael.

      June 13, 2012 at 5:57 pm |
  16. Yarah

    All I can say is. He'll be back, you can take that to the bank, he'll be back.

    June 13, 2012 at 5:35 pm |
    • sleepytime

      Who will be back?

      June 13, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
    • Kafir

      Not everyone is quite as frail as you (might make them out to be).

      June 13, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
    • Yarah

      That Pastor will be back once he has thought about the mistake he has made giving up on God.

      June 13, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
    • NEC

      He finally realized that there is no deity. Why would he bother going back into a fantasy?

      June 13, 2012 at 5:46 pm |
    • sam

      Noooo, god will probably just smite him.

      June 13, 2012 at 5:46 pm |
    • Silverlake

      Wow, Kafir, where is your evidence?

      June 13, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
    • UncleM

      The terminator.

      June 13, 2012 at 5:54 pm |
  17. 3N1Amen

    I would like to know if any one read the book of Jude?
    And why do people continue to read only what they want to read in the Bible...what God says about 'hell'???

    I think it is so sad to hear someone tell people that she will now be in hell with the rest of the people whom she once preached hell to. Very, VERY sad.

    May God help you see the Truth.

    June 13, 2012 at 5:35 pm |
    • sam

      You forgot to add "...or else."

      June 13, 2012 at 5:58 pm |
  18. LizB

    II think it's okay for some people to believe, and it's ok for some people to not believe; so long as each keeps matter to themselves.

    One of the things I noticed from this guy is that he is preaching from what he personally thinks is good for people, no real God abiding pastor/preacher/priest would do that, they would preach and teach from what GOD says is good for people.

    This is, of course, my personal opinion, and I wouldn't go running to his camp giving up my money lol!
    Whether I am a believer or not, money management is a personal issue, as are religious choices. -=sigh=-

    June 13, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
  19. André

    God is imaginary. This guy realized it.

    June 13, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
  20. realitypolice

    I actually believe that a great deal of people who make a living in the ministry are atheists that simply realize that they have a set of skills that can make them a ton of money preaching. The cynicism is obvious. I deal with the guys on a business level on a regular basis and let me tell you, they spend far more time figuring out ways to maximize revenue coming in through their congregation than they do helping anyone.

    June 13, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
    • DarthWoo

      That's not a far-fetched notion. A significant number of ethnic Jews only participate in the religious activities of their culture for the sake of social interaction while they are in fact atheists. I've no doubt that there are at least a few atheists who go to churches just to hang out when they have nothing better to do.

      June 13, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.