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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. JSAD

    Hey CNN for once can you have a story that reflects a little good on Christianity. Like how atheists,muslims , hindus are coming to Christianity.OR even how churches have helped communities in times of disaster OR even when pastors/priests have stood up for the rights of the poor or unjust...all The events i described DO happen...but then again CNN you clearly have an anti-christian agenda..

    June 13, 2012 at 9:18 pm |
    • Mithead

      The majority of their Belief Blog is what your describing... You are probably just used to one-sided/extremist journalism. That's found at Fox...

      June 13, 2012 at 9:27 pm |
    • Pheadrus

      That's true about Christian charity. And its done because charity is a tenet of... and dictated by religion.

      It's also true that many secular charities do the same thing. But it's done with humanity, not fear of fire and brimstone.

      June 13, 2012 at 9:40 pm |
  2. MuyGuapo

    I always chuckle about the Atheist organizations out there. They gather together not about something they believe in but rather about something they don't believe in. They might as well gather together to talk about the Easter Bunny.

    June 13, 2012 at 9:18 pm |
    • Mithead

      Easter Bunny... your god ... same thing. Funny thing is, when religious people question there faith, the answer is blind faith. A preacher will guide you to the answer you want to hear. When an atheist questions religion, common sense is the answer.

      For the record, the majority of atheist don't go to meetings. We gather in forums and laugh at the stupid.

      June 13, 2012 at 9:39 pm |
    • Humanist11

      We gather to let the millions who are questioning their faith know they are not crazy or alone in their reasoning. You can think of it as therapy for those that have been damaged by religion. It is a lot easier to come out if there is a support structure.

      June 13, 2012 at 9:52 pm |
  3. GAW

    Seems like most of the posts from the atheists will be saying the same things over and over an over again perhaps the same from the fundys too.

    June 13, 2012 at 9:15 pm |
  4. joseph

    He wasn't truly called to begin with.

    June 13, 2012 at 9:15 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      Another No True Scotsman fallacy. What a surprise.

      June 13, 2012 at 9:16 pm |
    • HappyMadison

      I was called. I have the voicemail to prove it.

      June 13, 2012 at 9:18 pm |
    • Humanist11

      What is your argument to support that thought? It is very shallow. Jerry DeWitt has a massive amount of information that he has made available to support his position. Go ahead and google him and find out if you dare.

      June 13, 2012 at 9:56 pm |
  5. TomCom

    I really believe athiest tend to be less judgemental of people. If you look at other religions that's not the case.

    June 13, 2012 at 9:15 pm |
  6. Lux Et Veritas

    OOO

    If someone wanted you to believe faith was a virtue, they would do exactly what you mentioned above. They would tell you to expect to be "mocked, maligned, and persecuted for our beliefs"
    Then they will tell you your reward is something amazing, like heaven.
    Then they walk away laughing.

    ***

    No, honey, that's something Satan would do. Laugh and walk away... and perhaps lie and twist the truth for his own ends.

    June 13, 2012 at 9:14 pm |
    • Amistavia

      Satan's body count in the bible is nothing compared to your evil "god". Maybe you're on the wrong side?

      June 13, 2012 at 9:16 pm |
    • HappyMadison

      I find it strange that God made Satan. Or he at least made an angel named Lucifer that he knew would eventually become Satan. God is, afterall, perfect and all knowing right?

      June 13, 2012 at 9:23 pm |
  7. Bootyfunk

    don't let the door hit you in the @ss on the way out, religion!

    June 13, 2012 at 9:13 pm |
    • Humanist11

      I believe that will be true in about 30 years. That is good news for my future grandchildren.

      June 13, 2012 at 9:58 pm |
  8. Strong Man

    Feeling it crumble around you faith? Come back to reality now. Satan is not typing to you on the internet. Lithium is good for that kind of condition.

    June 13, 2012 at 9:12 pm |
  9. Humanist11

    When I was in high school many years ago, I dreaded trigonometry because it was a foreign concept to me and seemed downright hard. I didn't think it had any purpose in real life and I could certainly live my life without it. When I finally understood trigonometry and realized its usefulness it open my eyes to many possibilities and applications throughout life. That is how one feels when they take off the eye glasses of religion and see the world without artificial boundaries. Life is fantastic and wonderful and there is no reason to hold yourself back.

    June 13, 2012 at 9:10 pm |
    • Scott

      So do you disbelieve the laws of gravity since John Newton was a Christian? Maybe Dr. Ben Carson shouldn't save peoples lives since his beliefs must surely blind him...generalize much?

      June 13, 2012 at 9:44 pm |
    • Humanist11

      Scott,

      Science is wonderful! Just because someone is religious doesn't make him irrelevant and ignorant in every area. Newton's discoveries have been proven and even revised by scientists many times all over the world. There is EVIDENCE to support his scientific statements. Einstein was atheist and his discoveries are just as valid. I really don't get your point.

      June 13, 2012 at 10:04 pm |
  10. Frank

    Question...why do Christians think the opposite of Christianity is atheism? Is it arrogance or do they not really know?

    June 13, 2012 at 9:10 pm |
    • Amistavia

      In general, they don't know much. Remember, learning is discouraged by religions.

      June 13, 2012 at 9:12 pm |
    • Humanist11

      If atheism is a type of religion then:

      Bald is a hair color. Not being a stamp collector is a hobby. Not being a baseball player is a sport. Well, you get the picture.

      June 13, 2012 at 9:14 pm |
    • misunderstood

      We don't think that at all. Atheism is not the opposite, it is either belief or unbelief, those are the opposites that we believe.

      And if you think that religion doesn't believe in educating, How many universities in the world were started by Christians for the pursuit of knowledge in more areas than just theology? Study to show yourself approved... That is one of the fundamental disciplines of Christianity. Does everyone follow it? No, but to say that we preach ignorance is an uniformed statement. In all my years as a Christian, I have only been encouraged to learn more about everything and question everything, even God. I have a degree in Bus Man, but I will continue to take masters classes and other forms of education to further my understanding of people and God. That is what I find in my Bible.

      June 13, 2012 at 9:31 pm |
  11. Peikovianyi

    It's the tribal lore of Bronze Age goatherds. It's the influence of Greek and Roman invaders who saw history as the intervention of man-gods. It's the suicidal brutality of desert bandits. Let it go. Grow up. Be a man.

    June 13, 2012 at 9:10 pm |
    • Ecclesiastes 7:17

      Wow..what a compost of factless drivel.

      June 13, 2012 at 9:12 pm |
    • Strong Man

      Yes the bible is just that, but I figured you'd be arguing the opposite.

      June 13, 2012 at 9:20 pm |
  12. Dozy

    CNN always gives a platform to the strange and unique who happen to take stands which bolster the company's own anti-Christian, anti-conservative agenda. Have you folks there at CNN checked into how many atheists have had a profound encounter with God and become Christians? Of course not! You don't want to know, and you don't want your readers to know! I dare you, CNN, to follow up this story with one about atheists who have "come out" as believers. There are sure a lot of them out there from which you can pick.

    June 13, 2012 at 9:09 pm |
    • JSAD

      I I agree 100%

      June 13, 2012 at 9:20 pm |
    • Humanist11

      I wish they would do that too. It will likely show that far fewer people leave atheism than leave a religion. You see, once someone learns that 5 + 4 = 9 then there is no way you can convince him otherwise. That simply does not happen the other way around.

      June 13, 2012 at 9:22 pm |
    • Humanist11

      Most atheists were either religious or were exposed as children to religion and rejected it early on. The problem is that religion starts with the answer and then seeks out reasons to support their belief. Our brains are programmed to do that. This creates many religious people early in life, but as people get educated and have access to contrary views and information they begin to question silly beliefs. That is when they begin the journey toward non belief and freedom from religion. It is a very natural process. You will see many more leaving religion than going toward it.

      June 13, 2012 at 9:30 pm |
  13. To believe or not to believe

    God loves us so much, he gave us free will. If we wish God not be in our lives, he will honor our wishes when we die.

    June 13, 2012 at 9:09 pm |
    • nogodrequiredhere

      "Worship me, follow my 10 rules, and don't forget you have to ask me to be saved from, well, me, or burn in eternal damnation" is not free will unless you're entirely insane, of course.

      June 13, 2012 at 9:17 pm |
    • Frank

      Why does your god not give free will to victims of rape and murder but give free will to the perpetrators of these crimes? The victims never have the choice to refuse these attacks.

      June 13, 2012 at 9:18 pm |
    • Velia

      Very true!

      June 13, 2012 at 9:18 pm |
    • Mithead

      "God gives us free will". Until something bad happens and it's Gods will or Gods plan....

      I truly wish your god would return and take all of you away....

      June 13, 2012 at 9:23 pm |
    • fsmgroupie

      love me - whorship me - beg me to forgive you - or burn in hell for millions and billions and trillions of years - oh by the way, you have free will!!!

      June 13, 2012 at 9:27 pm |
    • HappyMadison

      Wait a minute, I thought God had a plan. I thought that he knows every possible thing about the past, present, and future. If that's true, than God knew you would exist at the beginning of time, and also knew all the choices you would ever make in life. So, why does God make people that he know he will send to hell? Why did he create people that he knew would be tortured forever and a place to torture them – long before they ever even existed?

      June 13, 2012 at 9:29 pm |
  14. Pheadrus

    Why is it that the religious consistantly feel threatened by atheism? I don't get it. Is it that they are so insecure in their own belief that they feel that by 'defending' the faith their own doubts will subside? And what about the smug comments in that atheists will eventually burn for their lack of faith. Is there some sort of self-satisfaction, some sort of vindication for professing a belief that deep down inside they know is insane?

    It all comes down to Pascal's Wager, I think. Those espousing religion are too scared to admit, even to themselves, that religion is whacky insanity... lest just maybe, just might there be some sort of supreme thingy in the sky watching them. Better to go with the flow and not take chances, even if the whole thing is 12th century bats*%t crazy.

    Just give it up, Pilgrims. Trust me, freedom from religion is as cathartic as it gets....

    June 13, 2012 at 9:06 pm |
  15. Merc

    One has only to read the vitriole being spewed by the "christians on this board to see that what this man has done takes courage. I applaud him.

    June 13, 2012 at 9:05 pm |
    • Lux Et Veritas

      I don't spew vitriol. I try to have decent discussions with unbelievers. But it's too bad no one really gives me that chance without interjecting name calling and ad hominems into the discussions. Very sad and disheartening. Ah well. :=(

      June 13, 2012 at 9:08 pm |
    • Scott

      Here's some vitriol for you: it doesn't have an e on the end.

      June 13, 2012 at 9:46 pm |
    • Pheello

      Congrats Ferd! Way to go to you and everyone on the team. Sounds like you made it thogruh just fine, despite the challenges. Hey, at least day 2 ended on a high note. Thanks for sharing some pics. It's great you got to meet your wish child.Tell me, did you have to ice up any joints when you got home? Cripes, I hurt my knee just walking in heels at BlogHer. I imagine you were at the very least sore when your trip was over..-= Kathy s last blog .. =-.

      October 7, 2012 at 9:44 pm |
  16. Lux Et Veritas

    Faith

    I'm not judging anyone. I grew up around atheists, humanists, anti God people. I know what I am talking about. I am defending my fellow Christians. I am tired of them being mocked.

    ****
    Don't let anyone get to you with regard to your faith, Faith. As Christians, we are told through scripture by Jesus we will be mocked, maligned, and persecuted for our beliefs (though our persecution is nothing like the Apostles who were martyred or the early Christians). It comes with the territory. And for what it's worth, it's not Christians who should be concerned with being on the defensive all the time, it's others who should be more concerned with us being on the 'offensive'. I know they'll make a joke of that 'offensive' line, but that's okay. The strongholds of things unseen can't prevail against the Kingdom of God. It never has and never will.

    June 13, 2012 at 9:04 pm |
    • TomCom

      Give me a break. Go to a school and have a kid announce that he is an athiest, then have another announce he is a Christian.See who is verbally attacked. When the kids go home and tell thier parents see what the parents do then.

      June 13, 2012 at 9:07 pm |
    • OOO

      If someone wanted you to believe faith was a virtue, they would do exactly what you mentioned above. They would tell you to expect to be "mocked, maligned, and persecuted for our beliefs"
      Then they will tell you your reward is something amazing, like heaven.
      Then they walk away laughing.

      June 13, 2012 at 9:08 pm |
    • jmsbois

      Victim alert! Poor hate spewing Christians are misunderstood victims of the mainstream media. Poor dears, they pronounce judgement on gays, women, science, freedom of choice...and when called on their BS, they scream "victim". I am throwing the BS flag on you.

      June 13, 2012 at 9:14 pm |
    • Humanist11

      Would you support muslims or mormons in the same way you support christians?

      June 13, 2012 at 9:34 pm |
  17. nogodrequiredhere

    Just what is a true believer? Isn't that a bit redundant? Can there be a false believer? I think not. One either believes or one doesn't. Believers are so very arrogant. If they could just see how silly it is to believe in something as absurd and obtuse as Santa or the tooth fairy, or something as horrible as living an eternity with all your dead relatives... but no, they think that would be paradise! Think about it, believers, and get back to us on that. You are putting all your delusional, proverbial easter eggs (how does that fit in with the whole Jesus resurrecting again?) in one helluva nasty basket if you ask me... It is all absolutely, unbelievable. No thanks. I do not require the threat of eternal damnation in order to be a good person, and neither should you.

    June 13, 2012 at 9:03 pm |
    • Palago

      Hi, Elaine!I thought about you, too, being in Michigan and all. Two of our team rredis are from Troy. And the Howe's, of course, have DEEP Michigan ties. Yeah, the Saturday weather was nasty in some parts of the state, and we rode through them! We got some drenching rain on all three days, but gratefully only for a couple of hours each day. That is part of the experience. We have to deal with the weather and whatever other challenge comes our way during the ride. And you know, the temperature was in the mid 70's. Perfect. A few years ago we did it with 105 degrees on the pavement!The faces on the children can literally make you cry. At this event, they are joyful, but they are not all "doing well." Many of them have terminal diseases. Our challenges riding are nothing compared to what these kids and their families go through. The kids and families that show up to this event are very grateful for what Make-A-Wish has given them. For us, it's a joy to be part of it. The WAM event is a heartwarming experience all the way around!

      October 7, 2012 at 8:42 pm |
  18. Les

    While this story is somewhat sensationalist in nature, it rings true. However, if these people that leave the church really do feel a call to minister to the needs of people, i wonder why they have not crossed to the Unitarian Universalist ministry where their lack of belief would be a non-issue. Our current moderator is an ex-Presbyterian minster. And our previous one was a Buddhist. What you "believe in" has nothing to do with your ability act humanely toward each other and stand on the side of love.

    The fellowship is based on 7 humanistic principles that have nothing to do with God but are viewed as natural behaviors of mankind. It's "clergy" consists of many faiths including atheists and earth-centered pastors as well as Xtian and eastern religions. Since that group is well over 150 yrs. old, this pastor's group seems to recreating what has already been established. I wish him luck.

    June 13, 2012 at 9:02 pm |
  19. TomCom

    i'm an athiest, but I find no reason to preach about it. It's don't believe in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny either. I really don't feel there is a need for people to go out and tell everyone there is no Santa. Why? Let them believe what hey want to.

    June 13, 2012 at 9:02 pm |
    • Les

      I also have no belief in Santa or the Bunny. However, I find it unimaginable that the Tooth Fairy didn't let you know that you should spread the word about Claus and his furry friend.

      June 13, 2012 at 9:12 pm |
    • cr0sh

      That would be fine if it weren't for the fact that they want to pass laws to stifle our free thoughts, our free expression, heck, even the freedom to do what we want with our own bodies (and that of other consenting adults). They certainly don't want to keep it to themselves, they want control – as much control as possible: http://home.cc.umanitoba.ca/~altemey/

      June 13, 2012 at 9:28 pm |
    • Humanist11

      Do you want your next president to wear magic underwear, memorize four secret passwords to get past the guards in heaven, practice arm and hand signals for entry into heaven and pantomime how god will kill him if he ever divulges this information? Do you want a president that has sworn to uphold the laws of the Mormon church above all else with the punishment of death if he does not. That is what we will get with the republican candidate. Is it harmless to let him or any of those extremists in the middle east have nuclear weapons? Religion is extremely dangerous my friend.

      With all that said I will not be voting for Obama either. I love America too much to do that.

      June 13, 2012 at 9:43 pm |
  20. Faith

    Amen HeisGod! 🙂

    June 13, 2012 at 9:02 pm |
    • Die of cancer

      🙂

      June 13, 2012 at 9:06 pm |
    • Faith

      Of course that's what you want...Satan. As the bible says...these battles aren't flesh, but spiritual. I get it.

      June 13, 2012 at 9:07 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.