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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. Nodack

    Good for him. Another brainwashed cult member that has seen the light. All religions are man made cults. You don't need an imaginary god to be nice to people. Praying didn't save the guy fighting cancer. It didn't save the people starving in Africa. It didn't stop any wars. They died because they got sick or starved or got shot. God didn't have another plan for them. There was no plan for them, they just died and your god didn't lift a finger like always. Wait, somebody got better from an illness? It must have been those prayers that did it right? PFFT.

    June 13, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
    • hzd

      you mad bro?

      June 13, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
    • bembol

      No he isn't angry; are you?

      June 15, 2012 at 9:57 am |
  2. Jack

    thestarofkaduri.com

    June 13, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
  3. richardmachine

    If you really think Noah was able to collect male and female chiggers and put them on a boat, I'm sorry but you're an idiot.

    June 13, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
  4. Tom

    I think it would be helpful for people to realize that not everyone has to go through a crisis of faith. I had a bar-mitzvah, but I never took religion seriously. As far as I was concerned, it was all story-telling, and the more I learned the more obvious it became that all societies exhibit this behavior. Much of the western world is now emerging from the grip of religion – in this country, we're just a bit behind.

    June 13, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
  5. clevercandi

    You should always treat others with respect, dignity and kindness.

    If you don't believe in "God", you will reap benefits in this world.

    If you do believe in "God", you will also reap benefits in the "next" world.

    Peace 🙂

    June 13, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
    • Horus

      Proof?

      June 13, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
    • James PDX Mostly Straight

      Which next world is that? The one where God cosntantly demands ritual sacrifices because he loves the smell of scorched flesh?

      June 13, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
    • apostate

      not so clever, candi

      June 13, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
    • Leigh2

      Yep.

      June 13, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
    • sam stone

      Candi: You have no proof OF the "next world", much less what will happen there

      June 13, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
    • Ryan

      Not a bad little saying. There are thousands of books written by Christian apologetics and scholars providing historical evidence to large portion of the writing in the bible. If you are looking for "proof" I would start there.

      June 13, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
  6. Ricky L

    For the most part, these CNN dialogues resemble first-graders throwing sand in each others faces.

    June 13, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
    • Pot, or kettle?

      And yet you're right here with sand all over you.

      June 13, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
    • Ricky L

      Am I right or wrong?

      June 13, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
    • LOL Religion

      The important thing here is that you've taken the time to show that you're better than everybody else by insulting them. No hypocrisy there, lol.

      June 13, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
    • Ricky L

      Wrong, LOL....I'm better than no-one.

      I'm just pointing out the fact that most commenters will not argue with tolerance for the other side's point of view. And I think you should note the use of the phrase, "for the most part." It's in there for a reason.

      June 13, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
    • Devil made me do it

      Thinks for your in depth analyses Rick. You are so above it all. Dipsh•t.

      June 13, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
    • Ricky L

      Perfect example of what I'm talking about, Dev.....only you felt compelled to put a rock in with the sand.

      June 13, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
    • Ryan

      LOL Ricky....and I am laughing at the responses to you not your well thought out statement 🙂

      June 13, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
  7. Mattski

    Show me some evidence, and then I'll believe. And I'll be the most fervent believer possible. But until then, I'm just not real good at accepting things on faith. I just can't base my life on that. Same with the ET thing. I'm not faulting anyone else, and I don't hate anyone or anyone's "God". It's just not for me without some evidence.

    June 13, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
    • h

      Faith is more of a feeling ,a coinnection that you feel. I feel it and belive it in a place that I cannot explain. I am an educated person and I have questioned but never not believed. I understand what you are saying and it does not bother me for others to not believe.

      June 13, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
    • bloodghost

      your position is completely understandable. i've been wrestling with questions of faith for years. as far as i can tell there is literally no scientifically valid evidence for any faith. and i am almost certain that is the point. i think belief/faith is inherently unknowable in the scientific sense. to me that is the most vital point. like you, i don't think either position is good or bad in a moral application. i have friends that are believers, atheists, agnostics etc... i guess i am somewhere in between which is unsettling for many. it comes down to desire. are there things that exist that are unprovable, unseen, potentially delusional? this is the question of faith. if we desire them enough do the invisible gods of our minds become real, even if just for our own sake? to modify a billy bragg song – i am most disturbed by what acts are committed in the name of God. oh freedom what liberties are taken in thy name.

      June 13, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
    • Read books written by Christian Apologetics

      Marrski,

      There are literally thousands of books written by Christian apologetics providing evidence to support historical biblical accuracy. I would start there and see where it takes you.

      June 13, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
    • bembol

      There are literally thousands of books written by bible sholars providing evidence to support historical biblical inaccuracy. I would start there and see where it takes you.

      June 14, 2012 at 12:23 am |
    • bembol

      There are literally thousands of books written by bible scholars providing evidence to support historical biblical inaccuracy. I would start there and see where it takes you.

      June 14, 2012 at 12:24 am |
  8. Rich

    Don't demonize the poor and less fortunate in the name of religion or the Tee clan

    June 13, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
  9. richardmachine

    Have the guts to think and decide for yourself. Don't just perpetuate nonsense like a lemming just because that's what your parents, friends, and community have always done. In other words, grow a pair and be liberated from primitive nonsense.

    June 13, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
  10. Veritas

    You can BUY a certificate in America and ,Bingo, you're a minister. All most of them want is status and prestige, which they have no chance of in 'real life'. How many of these jumped up ministers preach hate from their pulpits [One recently about gays and ,of course, the disgusting Jeremiah Wright]
    They're just people folks! Don't give them publicity – that's what they crave. God comes a poor second to their over-inflated egos.

    June 13, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
  11. Jack

    For a different perspective, please visit my web site... thestarofkaduri.com

    June 13, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
  12. Leigh2

    It's too bad DeWitt felt abandoned by his friends of faith (or any other pastor who changed belief systems), if that's indeed the case. I would have said to them, remain friends with him, but keep your vigilance against certain strongholds, even though there was now a big difference of opinion and he is actively preaching there is no God.

    June 13, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
  13. LT

    No surprise here. The prophesy found in the Word of God, the Holy Bible spoke of this day thousands of years ago. Before the coming of the Lord, there would be a "great" falling away. A great number of people walked away from Jesus one day after a teaching in exactly the same way. Nothing new here. This day was already prophesied. The Bible also says that the day is coming when men will "pray" for death by crying for the rocks to cover them and to hide them from the face of the Lord, but even death will flee from them.

    June 13, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
    • Kathleen

      Yea, it couldn't possibly be that the authors of the bible knew their followers would eventually realize it was all a bunch of crap....

      June 13, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
    • Horus

      You know the bible is also a collection of revisioned and recycled middle-eastern mythology too......

      June 13, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
    • bernie

      I think the majority people are still religious

      June 13, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
    • LOL Religion

      Idiots like you have been citing this "prophecy" since it was written, every generation thinks this one will be the last. We're still here.

      You're just another Harold Camping.

      June 13, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
    • *facepalm*

      "Yea I say unto you – there shall be those of you on this forum that will disagree with me"

      I guess now everything I say must be true.

      June 13, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
    • richardmachine

      So it's going to be like that episode of the Simpson's where the Kip's Big Boy rips the roof off of Flanders' house and angrily glares down at him? Cool!

      June 13, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      "....And there shall in that time be rumours of things going astray, and there will be a great confusion as to where things really are, and nobody will really know where lieth those little things with the sort of raffia work base, that has an attachment…at this time, a friend shall lose his friends’s hammer and the young shall not know where lieth the things possessed by their fathers that their fathers put there only just the night before around eight o’clock..."

      June 13, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
    • JoJo

      You are so right and that is so scary.....the Lord has given them over to themselves.....

      June 13, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
    • sam stone

      LT: More empty proxy threats from the pious

      June 13, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
    • sam stone

      "The sky is falling! The sky is falling" – Chicken Little

      June 13, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
    • bembol

      Harold Camping, is that you?

      June 14, 2012 at 12:26 am |
    • Kemp

      I don92t really like rnmmocendieg anything I have not used myself so all I can suggest is to google for – outsourcing writing services – or something similar, plus you can request writing services from forum members on many forums.

      October 8, 2012 at 5:23 am |
  14. LostinSLC

    I fell away from God for a long time, over 20 years. I felt the way this preacher did but one day I woke up and realized I had turned my eye on Christ. It hurts my heart to see those who have yet to find their way back or have turned a blind eye. My hope and prayer is he will find his way back.....

    June 13, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
    • TruthPrevails :-)

      You are weak, nothing more. It takes a person with strength to walk away and remain away. This man is better off not believing in the fallacies of your god. This world will be a much better place when the rest of you realize that your god is not real and you finally stop using it as an excuse.

      June 13, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
    • LOL Religion

      Yeah, pray about it, that will certainly have tangible results. LOL.

      June 13, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
    • Veritas

      God is Mercy and love and he welcomed you back . You are indeed Blessed. Thank you so much for sharing that with us. I wish you peace and happiness my friend.

      June 13, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
    • Leigh2

      I think it's fine to give words of encouragement. There's no harm in it.

      June 13, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
    • JoJo

      Amen.

      June 13, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • JoJo

      Amen

      June 13, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
    • bembol

      So you are deluded for the second time. What a waste.

      June 14, 2012 at 12:28 am |
  15. Tom Paine

    In every career field, you have people who succeed and fail. In every career field, you have folks who at one time thought their job was their calling in life and found out it wasn't. Only on the topic of faith would a story like this reach a national outlet. Have we every read about ANYONE from DeRidder, LA. finding they no longer had passion for their job or believed in what they were doing? lol. But for a preacher, even of a small congregation in a rural small town – well that's news! P.S. This has been going on ever since there was a church. It just wasn't seen as newsworthy in the past.

    June 13, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
    • Veritas

      It's all part of CNNs new purpose in life – to denigrate religion!

      June 13, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
    • sam stone

      Veritas: CNN is inanimate, it has no "life".

      Paranoid much?

      June 13, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
  16. Alien Orifice

    I have decided to convert from atheism to Solipsism. The ceremony is going to be a blast, I will be having all my friends and family over and un-validating their existence. Then it will just be a free-for-all. I will also be getting a tattoo of my own face on my a.s.s.

    June 13, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
    • sam stone

      i have decided to convert to the worship of ganja

      June 13, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
    • Big Dave H

      Sounds appropriate, the tatoo

      June 13, 2012 at 3:12 pm |
  17. Rich

    There would be more comming out but non believers aren't good at giving their money away to a false geesus

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

      Protect and guide me, O holy collection plate

      June 13, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
  18. Eric

    Jerry says his love for his flock caused him trouble when preaching about hell. I would submit that if you saw someone in a burning house and did not alert him to his danger that is not only doing him a disservice but not showing love or compassion. Likewise if you see someone whose eternal soul is in danger of damnation and not let them know it is also not showing love or compassion. God is a love and has shown it by sending his Son, Jesus, to die on a cross to act as our atoning sacrifice if we accept it to cover and remove our sin. God is also holy and will not allow sin in his presence and as a result will not allow those who refuse Christ's sacrifice into his presence. I urge anyone who has not accepted Jesus to do so today since we do not know how long we have left to live.

    June 13, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
    • Horus

      Assertions are more readily accepted when accompanied with reason and evidence; you have neither.

      June 13, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
    • Danno

      As an atheist, if I were to become religiojus, why should I pick Christianity over Judaism/Islam/Buddhism? Seriously, tell me why.

      June 13, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
    • MK

      I urge you to stop believing in talking snakes.

      June 13, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
    • Veritas

      We DO know that Jesus lived. We DO know that He was crucified because it was written in the New Testament by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John who lived and worked with Jesus and wrote about Him just after His death – NOT 150 years later as deniers would have us believe.
      John stood at the foot of the Cross when Jesus died – he then looked after Mary, Jesus' Mother.

      St Paul was made an honorary Apostle by St Peter because he was [a] a scholar and [b] totally committed to Jesus [after a bad start!] His letters to the Ephesians, Colossians, Corinthians etc – again written just after Jesus died – were inspirational.

      The Acts of the Apostles gives us chapter and verse of the Public life of Jesus. It is far from "fairy stories"

      June 13, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
    • CMH

      The good news is that you are wrong, so you don't need to worry yourself anymore.

      June 13, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
    • fritz

      Shaddap! Freak!!!

      June 13, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
    • Big Dave H

      Seriously, do all the mental cases start with hearing voices. Religion has excused this insanity for years as the voice of God. It's really just delusional rantings about some myth written by a bunch of old white men to subjogate the masses. See what a good job they did? You're are still too many sheeple who have blind faith over belief.

      June 13, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
    • mickey1313

      When you can PROVE a threat, like fire that is one thing, religion is just a belief. Remember their is a lie in the middle of belief. Absence of evidence is evidence of absence

      June 13, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
  19. cilia

    Religion is the ultimate reflection of human narcissism.

    June 13, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
    • Kathleen

      I agree

      June 13, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
    • dzp

      your ignorance is your bliss.

      June 13, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
    • MormonChristian

      Pure religion as defined by James is to visit the widows and the fatherless. Christ preached and practiced how to love our enemies and to reach out to the poor and less fortunate. Everything he did was an unselfish act. He died even for those who put him to death.

      Kind of like telling someone who saves your life that they are selfish...

      June 13, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
    • sam stone

      mormon: nice story.

      June 13, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
    • bembol

      Mormons wear nice underwear

      June 14, 2012 at 12:33 am |
  20. Kathleen

    @Heavensent-how am I a bad mother by encouraging my son to study religions? You are ignorant.

    June 13, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
    • TruthPrevails :-)

      Good for you Kathleen. I did the same thing with my daughter and after taking a Comparative Religion course she has come to the conclusion that there is no evidence to support a god claim. I think if more parents left it to their children to discover this world would be a better place and we'd see a lot less bullying in schools.

      June 13, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
    • dzp

      of course there's no evidence to support a god claim, that's why it's called a faith. don't act like the statements you're making are so profound.

      June 13, 2012 at 3:59 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.