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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. Paul Wilson

    I hope he won't become a habitual drunk like many have in old days who drifted away from a church. Still, reading about the terrible ways people die, as reported in the papers, is bad enough -WITHOUT believing they went to hellfire, too. I, too, am an unbeliever and parroting the same dogmas over & over & over, is far from getting me to believe...

    June 13, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
  2. JohnnyC

    CNN just doesn't quit. This morning I can really smell the sulfur. Get behind me Satan.

    June 13, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
    • boocat

      It's 2012....the 21st century...wish you were here...

      June 13, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
    • serdich

      ..as you see many quit not only CNN get used to it..age of reason is here.

      June 13, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
    • Which God??

      That sulfurus smell is the methane gas from you azz/mouth, and the stench you spew.

      June 13, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
  3. Woody

    ".........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."

    Ah, those words are, if you'll excuse the expression, Heaven Sent.

    June 13, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
  4. Alex

    Dewitt you will once again take up the Gospel and go around preaching. That is my prohesy. Good for now.

    June 13, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
  5. Matthew

    The minute he stop believing in God, he should have stopped being a preacher. The fact that there are preachers still preaching for money is sickening. At my church, my preacher has a REAL job in Construction and doesn't even make enough to have a living as a preacher and yet he donates countless time to go to Revivals at other church and help people at our church. Being a preacher is more then a job where you can make $$$.

    June 13, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
    • Which God??

      Reading comprehension failure, numbnutz. He is out of a job and runing out of money. Go back to third grade, again.

      June 13, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
  6. Sybian User

    OOOOOOOOOHHH GOOOOOD!

    June 13, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
    • joe

      love your handle and hope you're a chick 😉

      June 13, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
    • Which God??

      It was that good, Sybian? I agree with Joe.

      June 13, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
  7. T. Lee

    Blind Guides They Are

    Matthew 15:14

    June 13, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
    • serdich

      Who ? (Flying Spaghetti Monster 1:10)

      June 13, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
  8. No wonder

    Pentecostal preacher? No wonder. Healing and prayer is not about getting stuff but getting through stuff. It is about love. Nobody goes to hell for not doing what Pentecostal preacher says (to intimidate for foolish doctrine or get $). If you believe in hell, it is because of your collective deeds, and nobody is sinless so accept free payment by Jesus and *boom*, no hell.

    June 13, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
    • joe

      ... and which mega church do you donate your hard-earned cash to?

      June 13, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
  9. Atheist

    Forget the relief fund. Hire the guy to lead something in an Atheist organization. Get him back out in the community, preaching about his beliefs and tending to other atheists. Just because we don't believe in a deity doesn't mean we don't need people to tend to our community. People to express compassion to our sick. People to help organize memorials to our dead. People to counsel us in ethical behavior and to confess our fears, doubts, and problems to. This guy is perfect for both filling real needs in the atheist community and for providing decent atheist PR.

    Lots of what a preacher does is independent of belief. Have him start the First Church of the Faithless, start building a proper community instead of the moping, navel-gazing support groups that currently exist.

    June 13, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
    • dman

      Amen Brother.

      June 13, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
    • Which God??

      Should be the "Church of What's Happening Now."

      June 13, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
  10. bg

    It is good to see that Mr. DeWitt has taken the reins and is attempting to undo all the damage and lies he has done for many years. Better late than never.

    June 13, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
  11. PumpNDump

    I love religious, mouthbreathing ignorant nutjobs. Allow me to clue you in:

    The earth is approximately 4.5 BILLION years old
    Dinosaurs existed, just NOT with men.
    Evolution is a scientific fact and man's ancestors go back more than 7 MILLION years.
    The whole "god" and "jesus" thing, a total myth. There is no legitimate academically accepted, peer reviewed proof that "jesus" ever existed.
    Christianity is no more valid than the Greek gods, the Roman gods, the Norse gods, Druidistic faiths, etc. Actually, christianity lifted 90% of all it's tenants and "beliefs" directly from other faiths.

    June 13, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
    • No wonder

      Where you there when the earth was created? Do you know the weakness of carbon dating my shoes?
      Have you seen the dinosaur footprints next to men in the Paluxy river or are you just drinking the Kool-aid of theories? Do you 'believe' in aliens seeding our planet somehow and where does it eventually come from, goop?
      If evolution is a fact, why isn't it a law like gravity, just a theory or faith (speaking of inter-species evolution)?
      Have you seen the evidence in Israel that Jesus did or didn't exist?
      Wow you are a believer in many things, a scientist of none. Christianity traces from Judaism, from Abraham, to Adam. Druids don't.

      June 13, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
    • joe

      @ no wonder:
      "I contend we are both atheists, I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours."
      ...Stephen F Roberts

      June 13, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
    • m

      Allow me to clue you in PumpNDump:

      1)Many Christians accept an old earth (7 billion years or however older it may be) and defend it through scripture.
      2)That Jesus existed is actually not disputed by any reputable scholar (even athiest biblical scholars accept this). What is disputed is whether he was simply a man or something more than that.
      3)The Christian doctrine is as far from other old local religions as you can get. The religious things that influenced early Christian tradition were:
      a) dates on the calendar (i.e., the day celebrated for Jesus birth replaced the day for a former Roman god holiday; it wasn't that they ever though he was really born on Dec 25, but one day was as good as the next so they replaced a pagan holiday date with a celebration to what they came to accept as the real God, who was Jesus)
      b) and also ideals for what was sinful (i.e., ascetic ideals from other cults influenced the RCC into abstinence for the priesthood, which is something that was of course rejected in the Reformation on the grounds that it was tradition only and not based on scripture).

      I could go on, but just something to think about...

      June 13, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
    • wayne

      "Where you there when the earth was created?"

      How do you know that? Is the question you should ask.

      "Do you know the weakness of carbon dating my shoes?"

      Yes, we know carbon dating isn't accurate in every situation. That's why there are several other dating methods used to date things.

      "Have you seen the dinosaur footprints next to men in the Paluxy river or are you just drinking the Kool-aid of theories?"

      Fake and lond debunked.

      "Do you 'believe' in aliens seeding our planet somehow and where does it eventually come from, goop?"

      Some nuts believe in aliens, and what is the goop you are talking about?

      "If evolution is a fact, why isn't it a law like gravity, just a theory or faith (speaking of inter-species evolution)?"

      Idiot, You don't even know what a law or theory means in science. Theories don't graduate to laws.

      "Have you seen the evidence in Israel that Jesus did or didn't exist?"

      if Jesus existed doesn't matter. It's the claims that are made about him that matter. Those claims are nonsense.

      June 13, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
    • aces2jokers

      As an atheist I have to say I agree with a lot of what you say, but there is one fact that I completely see as false. Evolution is not a fact. It is a theory and it makes perfect sense and there is plenty of evidence to support it; however, there has not been any sort of experiment to consistenly reproduce the effects of evolution so it still must remain known as a theory. One day I'm sure it will be supported as a fact, we just can't make that claim now.

      June 13, 2012 at 5:26 pm |
    • bembol

      "Have you seen the dinosaur footprints next to men in the Paluxy river". I't's showing. No wonder.

      June 14, 2012 at 7:01 am |
  12. Beth

    This just makes me sad. Why would someone even decide to become a teacher of something they don't believe? And why wouldn't they go to seminary first, to learn all that they can about what they're teaching?
    The fact that these teachers are leaving can only mean that they never had a personal relationship with Christ. Yeah, I know, you atheists don't understand that concept and think it's stupid to think that a Christian could have a relationship with a God they've never seen, but that relationship comes through belief, reading the Bible, and talking to God.

    You need to know that there are many intelligent Christians who study science and logic and reason (in addition to the Bible) so we can understand why we believe what we believe. Are there stupid Christians who say "well faith is enough for me, and I don't need proof"? Yes. And they need to realize what 1 Peter 3:15 says about "always [being] prepared to give a reason for the hope that [they/we] have." But not all Christians accept simple faith. Many of the first scientists were Christians. A number of modern scientists are Christians. If you're interested in reading about a former atheist's conversion to Christianity and his logical reasons for it, I'd suggest The Case for Christ and The Case for a Creator by Lee Strobel. Good books. They might answer some of the questions and arguments that you have that the general internet population cannot.

    June 13, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
    • Chris

      Stupid is as stupid does.

      June 13, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
    • Atheist

      Math. Lots of people teach it without understanding it. Most grade school teachers have a dismal grasp of it.

      Science. Many people teach it but don't believe in it. There are entire states in this country where biology teachers don't believe in the basic underpinnings of the field. Doubt of evolution also influences other sciences: chemistry, geology, physics, and astronomy.

      Why? Money and lack of other job choices. Religion isn't immune from the realities of life.

      June 13, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
    • blondie

      It should make you sad. You sound reasonable. You are a christian minority. Most christians I've met are bigoted, ignorant, hateful, judgemental, greedy, lying, immoral and ignorant/poorly educated and smug.

      June 13, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
    • Matthew

      I agree with your points Beth. I have a Ph.D. and I call myself intelligent but there is no point making intellectual arguments about God. God desires faith, not proof. Yes there are many intelligent Christians but that doesn't mean Christianity is any more correct. God will speak for Christianity, not intelligent Christians. The path to salvation is usually through a broken heart, humility, and desire for forgiveness. Using facts to prove an argument does not usually bring out that trait in a person. Athiest are correct that there is not a lot of proof regarding Christianity (as a person knowledgeable in history, there is some proof). However, there is little proof to also support Evolution or Big Bang. Remember mankind has only explored less than .00000001% of the Universe, yet we are arrogant to think we can define it into Scientific laws and theories.

      June 13, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
    • ed galbraith

      Beth: I am an atheist...have been for years...but I admire the tone of your comments and wish you well.

      June 13, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
    • poochiebaby

      beth, finally a comment worth reading.

      June 13, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
    • reddragon

      Did you read the article?

      June 13, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
  13. Andicus

    Religion had an important role once upon a time: We all believe in this or the other god, so we make community, and all fight together stronger, with our brothers in arms, against the weaker tribes that are more scattered in terms of believing in different gods, etc, etc. In the mean time it´s mostly anachronistic in Western countries.

    June 13, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
    • Believer

      That's a very well reasoned analysis of the purpose of religion. However, it doesn't even begin to touch the surface of what my faith is to me, or why I need it. My faith is a sustaining force that allows me to deal with all the blows of this life. I don't believe in God so I can be healed, blessed, etc. I believe in God because it soothes my spirit. It provides wisdom that carries me through the tough times. It changes my heart so I embrace others whose beliefs are not like my own. I feel sorry for this man. He was not what I call a true Christian... possibly because he was not truly educated in the faith prior to "owning" it. There are many others out there like him, I'm sure. It's the kind of faith that withers and dies, points away from the path God intends for us, it's a faith full of dogma without spiritual strength. It's exactly the kind of faith that turns to anger and despair.

      June 13, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
  14. joe

    erry DeWitt entered the ministry when he was 17, launching a 25-year career as a Pentecostal preacher. 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.”
    ---------–
    Pal, your credibility is kind of shot. 25 years of running your mouth with garbage coming out of it, it's pretty much over for you. Rather than another 25 speaking out of the other side of your mouth just to try and make a buck, try getting a real job and just letting go.

    June 13, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
    • MANHANDLER 2

      That's it, people started seeing that he was full of dung, and now he preches to the dumb.. What an idiot..

      June 13, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
  15. Mike

    In 2005a federal court of appeals ruled Wisconsin prison officials violated an inmate’s rights because they did not treat atheism as a religion.
    “Atheism is [the inmate's] religion, and the group that he wanted to start was religious in nature even though it expressly rejects a belief in a supreme being,” the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals said.
    They just changed religions! Big deal!

    June 13, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
  16. Nax

    "I am still the same guy preaching what I see is best for people.”

    And that is the fundamental flaw. Stop trying to convince other people you know what's best for them.

    June 13, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
  17. ObammySucks

    Thanks CNN for another unredeeming non-news article. It's good to see the God hate mill still churning.

    June 13, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
    • chelle52370

      You can't hate something you don't believe in.

      June 13, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
  18. Jerry

    This man is celebrated as a hero because of his rebellion against God. That is a reflection of our culture that is rebellios against God. Such rebellion is not of the noble type like that of a courageous people rebelling against an oppressive government. It is rather similar to the rebellion of a wayward teenager against his/her good,loving parents, who only desires their offspings good.

    June 13, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
    • todd in DC

      Oh yeah? Well my invisible sky monkey can beat up your invisible sky monkey.

      June 13, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
    • chelle52370

      If you don't think religion is oppressive, you haven't been paying attention.

      June 13, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
    • Atheist

      People just like you were condemning Jesus for going against his religion and being heretical while trying to help real people. Just saying... WWJD?

      June 13, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
    • Devil made me do it

      Your opinion, that's all. I applaud his "rebellion" against a god that doesn't exist.

      June 13, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
    • Bob

      I bet you said the same thing about slavery.

      June 13, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
  19. Maria

    Jesus is not a religion!
    Going to church doesn't equal being born again!
    Why would anyone who has had a true encounter with the Lord leave Him?
    The truth is: this man has never known the Lord!
    I just don't understand why he entered the ministry in the first place!
    I know who Jesus is and I know that He is alive and everyday I spend time praising Him, worshiping Him, reading or listening to his Word and interceding for others .
    He talks to me and I talk to Him!
    What a glorious inheritance!
    What a joy to accept God's gift to us!
    Lord Jesus, I love you and I will never leave You!- For what?
    However Father God, I ask You in the Name of Your Son to please allow the Holy Spirit to reveal Jesus to those who don't believe in Him!
    I also thank You that a 'rotten apple" was removed from the midst of the congregation of believers.

    June 13, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • wayne

      http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/No_True_Scotsman

      No True Scotsman is a logical fallacy by which an individual attempts to avoid being associated with an unpleasant act by asserting that no true member of the group they belong to would do such a thing. Instead of acknowledging that some members of a group have undesirable characteristics, the fallacy tries to redefine the group to exclude them. Sentences such as "all members of X have desirable trait Y" then become tautologies, because Y becomes a requirement of membership in X.

      June 13, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
    • chelle52370

      I guess you missed that whole thing about "Judge not lest ye be judged", eh? FYI – Jesus said that.

      June 13, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
    • RM13

      a "rotten apple"? , you're happy he was removed? doesn't sound like you know Jesus at all.

      June 13, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
    • Mary

      Agreed!

      June 13, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
    • bg

      Brainwashed. How's that Kool-Aid tasting?

      June 13, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
    • blondie

      Come with me to the padded room now sweetie for your injection....Dr's. Orders!

      June 13, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
    • serdich

      That prayer there ...I dont think is working since the number of Atheist is growing fast...

      June 13, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
    • drb

      "He talks to me and I talk to Him!" <– there is a pill for that..

      June 13, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
    • ed galbraith

      Maria: you said it all when you said,"He talks to me and I talk to Him!". There's a psychiatric term for it...but you call it "religion". You can be very nice, respect others and do good works without hearing voices. Time to mature.

      June 13, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
    • WhatsamattaU

      Maria, please tell us how you know these things, and can you prove it? You see, without proof, what you're saying is little more than unsubstantiated opinion, not fact.

      June 13, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
    • Which God??

      When did they let you run free, Maria? Did you escape again?

      June 13, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
  20. Papaw Nick

    I remember Rosy Greer the great football player said during a mayors prayer breakfast several years ago the following. If you go into your garage and say you are a car, it doesn't make you one. Saying you are a Christian doesn't make you a Christian. A 17 year old preacher? Not likely.

    June 13, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • Which God??

      Pshaw, pawpaw

      June 13, 2012 at 2:51 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.