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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. Ralph

    I was introduced to Christianity at the age of 10. Baptized into the church and attended frequently. I placed my faith in God. I prayed frequently. I fought others whom made fun of my belief and faith. About the time I turned 50 years old it occurred to me that my religion was unfounded, and it made me mad that I had wasted all those years of my life believing something that simply was not true. Religion made me do things that were foolish, such as staying in a marriage that was all wrong from the very beginning. There are millions of Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, etc. Maybe we feel we need religion to separate us from common animals as the dominate human species. I don't have all the answers but I can say with certainty that we are MAMALS.

    June 23, 2013 at 1:28 pm |
  2. lol??

    Is this a black mark on their credit scores?? Why don't they burn in the unemployment line like the folks they love??

    March 6, 2013 at 12:59 am |
  3. Tyrone

    This

    March 6, 2013 at 12:42 am |
  4. Tyrone: God's Preacher

    This fellow NEVER truly had a Born Again experience; he was just religious from the beginning, and being religious is NOT being saved. I pray that this man really allows God to save him before he dies or else he will; like so many others; he will meet an eternal-dreadful fate: REPENT MAN-REPENT!!!!

    March 6, 2013 at 12:39 am |
  5. Soji

    Hi Thank you for sharing eelcxlent informations. Your site is very cool. I am impressed by the details that you have on this site. It reveals how nicely you perceive this subject. Bookmarked this website page, will come back for extra articles. You, my fr

    October 7, 2012 at 7:45 pm |
  6. Rene

    Look at the pic

    September 3, 2012 at 4:27 am |
  7. Nietodarwin

    No wonder they meet in a private chat room, I would be afraid. The religious have been killing non-believers (or believers of a different religion) for centuries.

    August 15, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
    • Dave

      Ah, but if you really want to see people kill the innocent over ideology, you need to go to an Atheist-controlled state. Guillotines and Gulags galore. Or have we forgotten things like the French Revolution's "Reign of Terror" and Stalin's purges? Atheism has a long and consistent track record, and it isn't pretty. Lots of promises of enlightenment, but they just spill lots of blood and mess countries up big time once they're in charge.

      August 17, 2012 at 10:24 pm |
  8. Nietodarwin

    Mars Rover Lands. People in Times Square chant "SCIENCE, SCIENCE, SCIENCE." Religion is FINALLY going the way it needs to, which is AWAY. Great article. We're not the haters, just sick of being hated, and sick of our rights being infringed upon in the name of religion. RELIGION KILLS

    August 15, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
    • Eddie Shelton

      Nietodarwin,I would love to speak @ one of these (Non-believers)convention.I used 2 b an Atheists.I found it such an empty life.Think about this.The next time you peer into the night sky and wonder:Where did I come from? Or What is my purpose?or,Where does it all end? Remember this Gods word says:"God has placed eternity into the heart of every man!"that`s why we think of these things. I ask you.What if you`re wrong?I know the first question you will ask me is:What if you`re in ce I became a follower of Christ,I have a life full of peace and purpose and I no longer wonder.Where did I come from.What is my purpose?Where am I going? Peace and purpose! That`s what I have now! Your friend Eddie Shelton(Former Atheists).:)

      September 17, 2012 at 7:34 pm |
    • hawaiiguest

      So you converted due to your own ignorance on a question which may not even have an answer.

      September 17, 2012 at 7:36 pm |
  9. секс вконтакте

    I loved as much as you will receive carried out right here. The cartoon is tasteful, your authored subject matter stylish. nevertheless, you command get got an edginess over that you want be delivering the following. in poor health certainly come more in the past once more as precisely the similar just about very ceaselessly inside of case you shield this increase.

    July 23, 2012 at 7:16 am |
  10. Dwight

    Christianity puts faith in God, while Athiest place thier faith in nothing. Atheism hates religion, and yet is one in that they hold a creed and organize against religion to destroy it. If you turn to God from atheism you are for some reason kicked out of the atheist fold and seen as the enemy . Go figure.

    July 20, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
    • Lucifer's Evil Twin™

      Since you seem to be the dull knife in the utensil drawer... atheists don't hate your religion ... we just think belief in your religion is stupid... and since christians are so hateful (I mean loving) towards us.. we feel the need to reciprocate that hate.

      Let me know if you need me to explain the word "reciprocate."

      July 20, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
    • Hans

      " they hold a creed"

      Huh? Which creed are you talking about, because when you just make stuff up, no one knows what you are babbling about except yourself.

      August 6, 2012 at 5:25 pm |
  11. Dwight

    It is seen as cruel that people that have been preaching God and then become athiest are de-friended, but this is what happens when you start to play for the oppsong team who is ultimately bent on destroying you. It shoud shock no one. This very things has happened amongst the athiest community when an athiest turned to God, they have destroyed thier past freindships and have become ostracized. And this does happen as well.

    July 20, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
    • Chris

      Simply not true Dwight. Atheists don't hate the religious. How could we? They comprise most of our family and friends and co-workers? We are the minority. The difference is, I don't try to change my religious friends. If they are happy with their beliefs, I am happy for them. Unfortunately, they see me as an enemy and "playing for the opposing team" when I'm not playing a game at all. I'm living my life the best I can, believing that humanity should strive to be the best it can be even if a creator does not exist. How does this harm you?

      August 1, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
  12. SR

    An atheist preacher and those looking to find community but get out "religion" would be more than welcome to join fellow atheists in the Unitarian Universalist tradition – http://www.uua.org.

    July 7, 2012 at 7:57 pm |
  13. Grant

    I hope more ministers come out, it wasn't easy for me to come out as an atheist for my family, and I hadn't spent a life in ministry. Good for Jerry!

    July 4, 2012 at 10:35 pm |
  14. Rick

    Great article and a brave man. It does break my heart to hear about his financial. What is worse is the fact that the people he shared his Sunday mornings with over the years, who he tried to inspire to "love thy neighbor", have turned their back on him when he could use their support the most.

    Rick
    http://nogodsallowed.com

    July 3, 2012 at 7:37 am |
    • Lew Rodd

      That's American Christianity for you.

      July 5, 2012 at 2:54 am |
  15. aaa

    a

    July 2, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
  16. Steve

    mandarax posted: "Yes, smite them thoroughly. But remember to do it in the loving way that God commanded:"

    You need to do a google search on "serpent seed", "kennite", "nephilim", and "nethinim". Hope that will help you a bit.

    June 22, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
    • Ralph

      Life is not a lie, it is true that it is what YOU make it. You can hope to anything you like and ask it to help you. I prefer to hope to my toothbrush box. Everyday i look at it and ask it to provide me with a prosperous day. It comes through about 50% of the time, as much as the skydaddy does. I have been thinking of upgrading to hoping on my soap dish, but I really don't want to offend my toothbrush box.

      June 23, 2012 at 9:06 am |
    • Steve

      To Ralph. ALl you did was to state your own personal opinion. Why is it that you atheists demand that us belivers "prove" our opinions, while you never even attempt to do the same??? How do you expect to be taken seriuosly??? Help me to understand, please.

      June 24, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
    • Lew Rodd

      To Steve
      The first thing you must do is find out what an Atheists is, why? because you are an Atheist when it comes to Islam or any religion other than Christianity, just think how little thought you give to Islam and that's how Atheists feel about ALL religions.

      Why don't you belive in Islam? do you deliberately choose not to believe in Islam or do you just never give Islam a second thought? is your not believing in Islam a religion?

      July 5, 2012 at 3:11 am |
    • Steve

      @Lew Rodd To Steve, The first thing you must do is find out what an Atheists is, why? because you are an Atheist when it comes to Islam or any religion other than Christianity, just think how little thought you give to Islam and that's how Atheists feel about ALL religions. Why don't you belive in Islam? do you deliberately choose not to believe in Islam or do you just never give Islam a second thought? is your not believing in Islam a religion?

      Because I know where it came from and I know about the contradictions in it. You assume that I blindly rejected it. Shame on you!

      July 5, 2012 at 7:54 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      @Steve

      And yet you are perfectly willing to rationalize away the inherent contradications in christianity.

      July 5, 2012 at 7:56 pm |
    • Lew Rodd

      @Steve
      What about the other religions? how much time do you spend thinking about them?

      July 25, 2012 at 4:26 am |
  17. Steve

    @mandarax asked, "Okay, and what if DeWitt did ask himself that, and what if he did indeed "receive the holy spirit?" What then?"

    Steve responds, "In whom ye also [trusted], after that ye heard the word of truth the gospel of your salvation: in whom also after that ye believed, ye were sealed with that holy Spirit of promise."
    -Epesians 1:13 KJV

    Other verses that use G4972 (sealed):

    Concordance Results Using KJV Strong's G4972 – sphragizō Learn More About Our Word Search Tools

    Strong's Number G4972 matches the Greek σφραγίζω (sphragizō), which occurs 29 times in 17 verses in the Greek concordance of the KJV

    Mat 27:66 So 1161 they went 4198 , and made 805 0 the sepulchre 5028 sure 805 , sealing4972 the stone 3037, and setting 3326 a watch 2892.

    Jhn 3:33 He that hath received 2983 his 846 testimony 3141 hath set to his seal4972 that 3754 God 2316 is 2076 true 227.

    Jhn 6:27 Labour 2038 not 3361 for the meat 1035 which 3588 perisheth 622 , but 235 for that meat 1035 which 3588 endureth 3306 unto 1519 everlasting 166 life 2222, which 3739 the Son 5207 of man 444 shall give 1325 unto you 5213: for 1063 him 5126 hath4972 0 God 2316 the Father 3962 sealed4972 .

    Rom 15:28 When therefore 3767 I have performed 2005 this 5124, and 2532 have sealed4972 to them 846 this 5126 fruit 2590, I will come 565 by 1223 you 5216 into 1519 Spain 4681.

    2Cr 1:22 Who 3588 hath4972 0 also 2532 sealed4972 us 2248, and 2532 given 1325 the earnest 728 of the Spirit 4151 in 1722 our 2257 hearts 2588.

    2Cr 11:10 As the truth 225 of Christ 5547 is 2076 in 1722 me 1698, 3754 no man 3756 shall stop4972 5420 me 1519 1691 of this 3778 boasting 2746 in 1722 the regions 2824 of Achaia 882.

    Eph 1:13 In 1722 whom 3739 ye 5210 also 2532 [trusted], after that ye heard 191 the word 3056 of truth 225, the gospel 2098 of your 5216 salvation 4991: in 1722 whom 3739 also 2532 after that ye believed 4100 , ye were sealed with4972 that holy 40 Spirit 4151 of promise 1860,

    Eph 4:30 And 2532 grieve 3076 not 3361 the holy 40 Spirit 4151 of God 2316, whereby 1722 3739 ye are sealed4972 unto 1519 the day 2250 of redemption 629.

    Rev 7:3 Saying 3004 , Hurt 91 not 3361 the earth 1093, neither 3383 the sea 2281, nor 3383 the trees 1186, till 891 3739 we have sealed4972 4972 the servants 1401 of our 2257 God 2316 in 1909 their 846 foreheads 3359.

    Rev 7:4 And 2532 I heard 191 the number 706 of them which were sealed4972 : [and there were] sealed4972 an hundred 1540 [and] forty 5062 [and] four 5064 thousand 5505 of 1537 all 3956 the tribes 5443 of the children 5207 of Israel 2474.

    Rev 7:5 Of 1537 the tribe 5443 of Juda 2455 [were] sealed4972 twelve 1427 thousand 5505. Of 1537 the tribe 5443 of Reuben 4502 [were] sealed4972 twelve 1427 thousand 5505. Of 1537 the tribe 5443 of Gad 1045 [were] sealed4972 twelve 1427 thousand 5505.

    Rev 7:6 Of 1537 the tribe 5443 of Aser 768 [were] sealed4972 twelve 1427 thousand 5505. Of 1537 the tribe 5443 of Nepthalim 3508 [were] sealed4972 twelve 1427 thousand 5505. Of 1537 the tribe 5443 of Manasses 3128 [were] sealed4972 twelve 1427 thousand 5505.

    Rev 7:7 Of 1537 the tribe 5443 of Simeon 4826 [were] sealed4972 twelve 1427 thousand 5505. Of 1537 the tribe 5443 of Levi 3017 [were] sealed4972 twelve 1427 thousand 5505. Of 1537 the tribe 5443 of Issachar 2466 [were] sealed4972 twelve 1427 thousand 5505.

    Rev 7:8 Of 1537 the tribe 5443 of Zabulon 2194 [were] sealed4972 twelve 1427 thousand 5505. Of 1537 the tribe 5443 of Joseph 2501 [were] sealed4972 twelve 1427 thousand 5505. Of 1537 the tribe 5443 of Benjamin 958 [were] sealed4972 twelve 1427 thousand 5505.

    Rev 10:4 And 2532 when 3753 the seven 2033 thunders 1027 had uttered 2980 their 1438 voices 5456, I was about 3195 to write 1125 : and 2532 I heard 191 a voice 5456 from 1537 heaven 3772 saying 3004 unto me 3427, Seal up4972 those things which 3739 the seven 2033 thunders 1027 uttered 2980 , and 2532 write 1125 them 5023 not 3361.

    Rev 20:3 And 2532 cast 906 him 846 into 1519 the bottomless pit 12, and 2532 shut 2808 0 him 846 up 2808 , and 2532 set a seal4972 upon 1883 him 846, that 3363 0 he should deceive 4105 the nations 1484 no 3363 more 2089, till 891 the thousand 5507 years 2094 should be fulfilled 5055 : and 2532 after 3326 that 5023 he 846 must 1163 be loosed 3089 a little 3398 season 5550.

    Rev 22:10 And 2532 he saith 3004 unto me 3427, Seal4972 not 3361 the sayings 3056 of the prophecy 4394 of this 5127 book 975: for 3754 the time 2540 is 2076 at hand 1451.

    June 22, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
  18. liveyourbliss

    I wonder if these preachers have ever considered that they might be praying for the wrong thing? For me, this addresses the question of the purpose of prayer. So often, religions don't address the fact that praying for a specific job might not be what's really best for us. If I'd prayed to keep a job that I ultimately left, I would have been laid off six months later!

    June 22, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
    • Lew Rodd

      The purpose of prayer is to make the person praying feel good about themselves, it serves no other purpose whatsoever.

      July 25, 2012 at 4:29 am |
  19. Hello

    how about starting an Atheist church... to replace the mythic one... teach people how to think.. to no be dependent on the mythic dogma.
    It would be a huge positive change to evolve to a non-mythic culture... to unchurch the churched
    to de-myth them using information on the myths and how they were created...
    create humanist reality centers... in the same buildings that were used to preach lies.

    The same human warmth is there.. in Atheism... even more because you are not judged... now or ever.
    you can be you.. you do not have to FIT a mythic mold to be accepted ... you do not have to be mind slaves..to crazy
    dogma..

    your life is your own.. your money is your own.... you do not need anyone to tell you the you MUST eat, do, wear, go, think what you are told to.... your are a freethinker..... what could be a more natural and happier way to live..

    There isn't....
    Life is not a Supernatural Eternity Test... never has been never will be....

    June 22, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
    • Steve

      "Life is not a Supernatural Eternity Test... never has been never will be...."

      Yet another absolute statement with absolutely nothing to validate it from the group that can't understand theists making absolute statements. : (

      June 22, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
    • Hello

      all the Jewish based myths promise a life after death.... none has proven it to exist...

      To pass that eternity test you must obey the dogma.... which is just a much of crazy krap...

      so
      Life is NOT a Supernatural Eternity Test... The test is a lie... just like the rest of the dogma promises.

      June 22, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
    • Lew Rodd

      Yes and while we're at it we can set up churches for the non belief in the Loch Ness Monster and Bigfoot.

      July 25, 2012 at 4:34 am |
  20. Shills

    Well, since you all are so HONEST, PAY BACK THE MONEY you've taken from these people through the years. Seriously.

    June 22, 2012 at 4:04 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.