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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. Dana

    Of course. Religion is one big hoax.

    June 13, 2012 at 9:49 pm |
    • Answer

      Those that don't want to realize this fact love to defend it because it is all they got left. They need this last crutch.

      June 13, 2012 at 9:57 pm |
    • Ken

      It never ceases to amaze me at how all of you atheists "know so much" and are always harping on how dumb people are that believe in the Lord yet you spend so much time talking about God. Does that sound like a smart person? To spend all this time involved in what you don't believe is real? Wow, I think if I was you and believed what you say you believe the last thing I would be doing is what you "smart people" do. Seems to me you would be doing something besides spending your time on a message board.

      June 13, 2012 at 10:01 pm |
    • Answer

      @Ken

      As compared to the time you waste then telling people who are atheists who are wasting their time? Well geez let me guess you are wasting your time – no that can't be. You should be living it up with your sky daddy but you're not. Funny.

      June 13, 2012 at 10:05 pm |
    • Answer

      I love morons like you Ken.. because the people like you want all talk to stop when your religion is being discussed. You are just that afraid that one of these comments will hit you squarely and make you really defend your absurd religion then you have to convert. Let's continue..

      June 13, 2012 at 10:08 pm |
    • mendacitysux

      @Ken

      It amazes me how much more athesits know about your religion than the "believers"
      Maybe if you researched it as much as us you'd become one of the "smart" people too

      June 13, 2012 at 10:09 pm |
  2. PapaG

    Oh Please, most pastors are atheists to begin with, they became pastors because it beat having to get a real job. they knew it was easy money to lead around a bunch of ignorant sheeple

    June 13, 2012 at 9:48 pm |
    • The Dog Delusion

      Have you heard Bubba DeWitt speak? We aren't dealing with Stephen Hawking here.

      June 13, 2012 at 9:56 pm |
  3. MJC

    You put your faith in the WRONG thing. People let you down. Faith goes to God.

    June 13, 2012 at 9:47 pm |
    • Moby Schtick

      Faith works equally well for any and all gods, so I don't see how that helps anything

      June 13, 2012 at 9:49 pm |
  4. RBSG

    Free your mind and your @$$ will follow.

    June 13, 2012 at 9:46 pm |
  5. Ted Ward

    What a narcissistic opportunist ! If you're faith is that shallow then any trend will do...

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

      Go put your head back in the sand.

      June 13, 2012 at 9:51 pm |
    • Ted Ward

      Dana: is that the best you can do?

      June 13, 2012 at 9:53 pm |
  6. BT

    @HelsGod I'm an agnostic, but you, sir, are moronic.

    June 13, 2012 at 9:45 pm |
  7. across12

    Since the priest from my church told me that is not good to marry a black woman as a white guy, I said to myself...hmm, that means God is blonde with blue eyes and I don't really like that. I really like that black woman and I'm keeping her. So long.

    June 13, 2012 at 9:43 pm |
  8. Noel

    It is sad when others reject or ignore you simply because you stop believing the same way they do. Being Christian is supposed to involve love, compassion, care, mercy, etc. which should include loving Atheists, and any other people who don't share the same faith. If Christians do not show this unconditional love, then they may end up in hell as well.

    June 13, 2012 at 9:43 pm |
    • Moby Schtick

      What kind of horrific freak show makes and sustains "hell?"

      June 13, 2012 at 9:50 pm |
    • Lux Et Veritas

      I'd make one slight change on that one statement ~ true Christians won't end up in hell. The key word here is 'true'.

      June 13, 2012 at 9:50 pm |
    • Ted Ward

      Christian love may be unconditional,but approval of bad or questionable behavior is not. Judge we all must, but judge very carefully and conscienciously.

      June 13, 2012 at 9:52 pm |
    • Answer

      Where is your "true" christian card then? See ya in hell. XD

      June 13, 2012 at 9:52 pm |
  9. Anon

    MuyGuapo, if the only reason you think those things are wrong is because the bible tells you, then you are a fundamentally immoral person.

    'Christians' commit all of those 'sins' all the time, by the way. Christianity does not create morality. It does offer an EXCUSE for your behaviors (the Devil made you do it) and easy FORGIVENESS for being immoral.

    June 13, 2012 at 9:43 pm |
  10. Lee Oates

    Its an encouraging sign for the Naked Ape. Hopefully more will follow and abandon using fairytale figures as role models.

    June 13, 2012 at 9:43 pm |
  11. Dennis

    CNN does not have a "Belief Blog",it is totally against religious belief..You never see articles praising religion or talking about the good it does.CNN does nothing but push their own atheist agenda..

    June 13, 2012 at 9:42 pm |
    • Dan

      What are you talking about? Almost every article on here is pro-religion. There should be more stories like this one.

      June 13, 2012 at 9:48 pm |
  12. Don'tBelieveTheLiesOfReligion

    I'm sure these former preachers have fine careers ahead of them as used-car salesmen, insurance salesmen, and any other occupation requiring the ability to lie convincingly. They've been doing it for many years. As an atheist, I respect their honesty. Too bad most people can't be as honest with themselves. Most people know that religion is just a bunch of bulls**t.

    June 13, 2012 at 9:41 pm |
    • The Dog Delusion

      Unfortunately, he'd probably be as bad a used car salesman as he was a preacher. Just an utter failure in life in general. It's easy to see why his emotions would cause him to reject God.

      June 13, 2012 at 9:43 pm |
    • Hadenuffyet

      Are their extraterrestrial aliens? I dunno , never saw one...

      June 13, 2012 at 9:45 pm |
    • The Dog Delusion

      Using Bubba DeWitt logic: I sent a radio signal to aliens to come to earth in a beautiful ufo. They didn't show up. Therefore, extraterrestrial life does not exist anywhere.

      June 13, 2012 at 9:50 pm |
    • opinyun

      Please site your sources in reference to your reply the "most people....." Thanks!

      June 13, 2012 at 9:52 pm |
  13. Hadenuffyet

    39 pages...ooowww..hot topic . I was taught never debate politics or religion , it's an unwinnable contest.

    June 13, 2012 at 9:40 pm |
  14. The Dog Delusion

    The wisdom and reasoning of Bubba DeWitt:

    If I pray to win the lottery and don't, then God doesn't exist.

    June 13, 2012 at 9:38 pm |
    • mendacitysux

      Prayer works great for sports stars, rappers, actors, prisoners, etc....

      June 13, 2012 at 9:42 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 9:43 pm |
    • Lux Et Veritas

      Honestly, what I think is going on here is that he prayed for people in the congregation who were financially stressed, or maybe a few had illnesses they couldn't overcome, and he took an enormous burden onto himself and he feels prayer wasn't answered. I feel for him ~ I don't hate him. I really hope and pray he finds his way back to God. But in the end, it's his decision and nobody else's to make. That's called free will.

      June 13, 2012 at 9:44 pm |
    • The Dog Delusion

      Enough with that silly study. It's pointless. Once again, I can't imagine how rationally immature one has to be to think of God as a Santa Claus giving out winning lottery tickets and perfect health to anyone that asks.....I take that back, Jerry DeWitt used such reasoning in determining atheism is true.

      June 13, 2012 at 9:48 pm |
    • ME II

      @The Dog Delusion,
      "Enough with that silly study. It's pointless. "
      Why is it pointless? Didn't Jesus say that when two Christians pray for the same thing it will be done? You mock DeWitt for his lost faith in prayer, but yet have none yourself.

      June 13, 2012 at 9:53 pm |
    • The Dog Delusion

      What are you five years old? I guess Jesus is in quite a conundrum if I pray for a coin flip to be heads and you pray for tails.

      Or perhaps God answers prayers however he wants to and doesn't give winning lotto tickets and perfect health to anyone that asks. I suppose you'd have to have the intellect of Bubba DeWitt to think that an unanswered prayer equals atheism is true.

      June 13, 2012 at 10:02 pm |
    • ME II

      @The Dog Delusion,
      "an unanswered prayer"?
      Did you read the study?
      For someone so fond of ad hominem attacks, you certainly seem to do your share of 5 year old logic.

      June 13, 2012 at 11:03 pm |
  15. ReligiousIgnorance

    Your body is going to die one day. When that happens, your spirit will exit your carcass. Do u think it's gonna be like the movie "Ghost" with Demi...(Oooo Demi), trying to achieve the ultimate by kicking the soda can and chasing that long haired, trench coat wearing,cross eyed freak?? Huh? Do ya? Or do you have that subtle uneasiness that you're gonna be ushered into the presence of a Holy God that is the epitome of righteousness in all purity and beauty arrayed in a blinding, soul penetrating light of Glory and that ya might find yourself....uh......ill prepared to handle? Oh....I guess that's just my reptile brains trying to preserve itself.

    June 13, 2012 at 9:38 pm |
    • OOO

      That last line is probably correct.

      June 13, 2012 at 9:42 pm |
    • Don'tBelieveTheLiesOfReligion

      What "spirit" are you babbling about, exactly? Can it be measured in any way? Or is this just something you say exists? What a bunch of bull.

      June 13, 2012 at 9:43 pm |
    • ReligiousIgnorance

      21 grams.

      June 13, 2012 at 9:43 pm |
    • ME II

      @ReligiousIgnorance,
      What spirit, exactly, are you talking about ?

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

      The one that weighs 21 grams.

      June 13, 2012 at 9:45 pm |
    • ME II

      @ReligiousIgnorance,

      "21 grams."
      Seriously? Psuedo-science bs.

      June 13, 2012 at 9:47 pm |
    • ReligiousIgnorance

      lighten up......ur spirit that is.

      June 13, 2012 at 9:48 pm |
    • Religion is the idiots

      Please shut your mouth, I hope you don't have any children.

      June 13, 2012 at 9:56 pm |
    • ReligiousIgnorance

      Brodoggler! I do have some some. They are not for sale. Thanks for stopping by!

      June 13, 2012 at 10:13 pm |
  16. xnay

    Just a continued war on Christianity by CNN producers and executives. Why don't they just publish a headline every day saying we hate Christianity. Apparantly there is little diversity in the ranks of CNN

    June 13, 2012 at 9:37 pm |
    • BigRed

      zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

      June 13, 2012 at 9:48 pm |
    • Duckup

      xnay; Not everyone who does not choose the path you walk, is out to get you. Christianity is in no danger of destruction. It is however, heading down the dogmatic road to extinction.

      June 13, 2012 at 9:53 pm |
    • Dana

      I was hoping that CNN would get rid of this blog because it is usually just a bunch of pro-religious nonsense. It's the 21st century. People are starting to realize that religion is just a big hoax.

      June 13, 2012 at 9:54 pm |
  17. wisdom4u2

    Atheist are here to show err'body some humans' 'err' in the faith God has given them. Just saying.... 🙂

    June 13, 2012 at 9:36 pm |
  18. Noella

    Just another prophecy of the end times coming true from the Christian God..."the angles will sift the chaff from the wheat." The Chrsitan God can harden AND un-harden hearts. We were not meant to know-it-all and we certainly don't understand any of it so...God said that there would be those who an not and will not see the Truth know matter what happens. think it's unfair? What do you know? What do I know? We're not even close to knowing the mind of God – we only know the human mind and His ways are not our ways – whether we like it or not. Whether we agree or not. Who are we anyway? All you know is what you know. Big deal. Dust in the wind.

    June 13, 2012 at 9:36 pm |
    • Bet

      ."the angles will sift the chaff from the wheat."

      So are those acute angles or obtuse angles?

      June 14, 2012 at 1:12 am |
  19. lou

    Every Christian should stop and ask himself this! What does every person who has ever lived crave most? ETERNAL LIFE!! What does every religion on earth promise to believers after death? ETERNAL LIFE !! No one wants to die but its the end of your life as if it were an Oak tree and there is no eternal life. You are simply afraid to admit it to yourself! Admitting it is very hard but once you do then you will enjoy your life and the freedom admission brings. That doesn't make you a bad person, just an honest one. There are no mansions in the sky nor streets paved with gold in the land of milk and honey – nor 72 virgins awaiting the Muslims. Milk and honey will kill you and so will 72 virgins.

    June 13, 2012 at 9:34 pm |
    • The Dog Delusion

      We all want eternal life.
      Therefore, God doesn't exist.

      Brilliant logic there, Lou.

      June 13, 2012 at 9:40 pm |
    • John

      Amazing how faith finds flaws in everyone's logic but their own. If we want something that we can't have, doesn't it make sense to envision something magical that makes it happen? Seems to me that I see evidence of that process all the time. I want this, so I'll do something completely against my own interest because it will make something magically happen to get me what I want. Religion is a fairyland where what ever god you follow plays the role of the fairy godmother. Always remember, when you create something (like god) it will die when you do and you won't get anything for your efforts anyway. Start focusing an how we treat each other. The afterlife, real or imagined, will take care of itself.

      June 13, 2012 at 10:05 pm |
  20. MuyGuapo

    He teaches that atheism is the best for people? How can that be? Stealing, cheating, lying, adultery, domestic violence are okay? Someone might argue that atheists don't believe in these things. But they can if they want if God doesn't exist right? No God, no morality.

    June 13, 2012 at 9:33 pm |
    • mendacitysux

      More like MuyEstupido
      With God, no morality – read the news

      June 13, 2012 at 9:37 pm |
    • Frank

      Is that why 90%+ of prisoners are theists?

      June 13, 2012 at 9:38 pm |
    • oh look herbie has yet another handle

      wow he really is a marvel of brainpower.

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

      You're joking, right? "No God, no morality"? Right, tell it to the bigots running the fundamentalist right wing in the US: the folks who think it's OK with Jesus for people to starve or to die if they can't afford health care. And tell it to the Catholic Church, which finds it morally acceptable to defend and hide pedophile priests, but attacks nuns who are working for social justice.

      So which are you: a fool or an ignoramus, muyguapo?

      June 13, 2012 at 9:41 pm |
    • annmid

      No God, no morality? That is simply not true. Prisons are full of violent people who conviently "found Jesus." What about a Pope and bishops who helped cover up for child molesting priests? I'm not a believer and I do my best every day, not because I'm afraid that god will smite me, but because I'm a human being who wants to do right by my fellow creatures. I've never felt better since I ditched the deity and organized religion.

      June 13, 2012 at 9:47 pm |
    • BigRed

      No brains no post.

      June 13, 2012 at 9:47 pm |
    • Jerry

      The ultimate moral person is a person who lives a good honest life because that is who they are and not because they fear hell or do it for a heavenly reward. This is obvious to anyone but those who live in fear. If you are not a rapist... or a thief... or a liar... only because of the fear of hell or because a book tells you not to then you really are all of those because it is in your heart! As a man thinketh... so he is!

      June 13, 2012 at 9:52 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.