If you’re feeling down about being a nonbeliever, a big article in the New York Times Sunday magazine, “From Bible-belt pastor to atheist leader,” might cheer you up. The piece, by Julie Glassberg, will be of intense interest to most of us, particularly because it mentions the influence of the New Atheists in converting believers to nonbelief, and the efficacy of Dan Dennett and Linda LaScola’s Clergy Project, an online community and support group for pastors who have lost their faith.
One of these former pastors, Jerry DeWitt of DeRidder, Louisiana, is the subject of Glassberg’s profile. Once a a firebrand evangelical preacher who spoke in tongues, DeWitt lost his faith last year and since has been ostracized in his community, divorced by his wife, and is now contemplating living in his car. So while the article will hearten you with the efficacy of New Atheism, it will depress you with the knowledge of how deeply religion still has its claws embedded in America’s Bible Belt. And non-Americans may be surprised at how much ostracism one can experience as a public atheist in the south:
At the same time, DeWitt is something of a reality check for many atheists, whose principles rarely cost them more than the price of “The God Delusion” in paperback. DeWitt refuses to leave DeRidder, a place where religion, politics and family pride are indivisible. Six months after he was “outed” as an atheist he lost his job and his wife — both, he says, as a direct consequence. Only a handful of his 100-plus relatives from DeRidder still speak to him. When I visited him, in late June, his house was in foreclosure, and he was contemplating moving into his 2007 Chrysler PT Cruiser. This is the kind of environment where godlessness remains a real struggle and raises questions that could ramify across the rest of the country. Is the “new atheism” part of a much broader secularizing trend, like the one that started emptying out the churches in European towns and villages a century ago? Or is it just a ticket out of town?. .
DeWitt’s downfall began when he went to a talk by Richard Dawkins, had his picture taken with the man, and posted that picture on his Facebook page. DeWitt also changed his Facebook “religious views” notation to “secular humanist”:
It was his grandmother’s cousin, an 84-year-old woman he knew as Aunt Grace, who saw that page and outed him. Word spread quickly. On Dec. 1, his boss asked to meet him at a diner in town. Sitting at the table, the man took out two printouts from secular Web sites with DeWitt’s name on it. “He told me: ‘The Pentecostals who run the parish are not happy, and something’s got to be done,’ ”DeWitt recalled. “Half an hour later I was out of a job.” (His former boss did not respond to phone calls seeking comment.)
Almost at once, DeWitt became a pariah in DeRidder. His wife found herself ostracized in turn, and the marriage suffered. She moved out in June. He received a constant stream of hate messages — some threatening — and still does, more than seven months later. He played me a recent one he had saved on his cellphone as we ate lunch at a diner in town. “It’s just sickening to hear you try to turn people atheist,” a guttural voice intoned. It went on and on, telling DeWitt to go to hell in various ways. “I’m not going to sit around while you turn people against God,” the voice said at one point.
DeWitt, who remains in Louisiana, is a portrait in courage. That, along with the descriptions of growing unbelief in America, the efficacy of Dennett and LaScola’s Clergy Project, and the obvious influence of the New Atheists in areas as religion-soaked as Louisiana, should lift your spirits a bit. This article is well worth reading.