CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
Now it's time for Faith Matters. That's the segment on this program when we talk about issues of religion and spirituality in our lives. And today, we focus on the absence of faith.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
JERRY DEWITT: I realized I was standing on a rock. Yes, my friends, there was a rock and it was a rock of reason. I want you to understand that today you're changing the future. You're making life better. And there is hope after faith. Can I get a Darwin?
HEADLEE: That's can I get a Darwin, not an amen. And the speaker is former Pentecostal preacher Jerry DeWitt, preaching to the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers last year. For many years, Jerry DeWitt thought there was no other life outside of his religion. Born and raised as a Christian, Jerry served as a preacher for 25 years, until he began to lose faith.
By small increments, he began to step back from his ministry and his church community, but then, when he was - well, there's no other way to say it - outed as an atheist, he lost everything. He's co-written a new book about the experience called "Hope After Faith: An Ex-Pastor's Journey From Belief To Atheism." Jerry, welcome to the program.
DEWITT: Thank you, it's a pleasure to be here.
HEADLEE: I mean, it's obvious, not only from your stories of days when you were a preacher in the church, your style of giving your atheist message now, that being a preacher is something that you love...
DEWITT: It is.
HEADLEE: And you enjoy that experience. What is it about preaching, I guess they don't say amen anymore, right? What is it about that that you love?
DEWITT: Absolutely everything about it. I think I even love the dread and anticipation, heading towards the moment of addressing the crowd. You never know if it's going to be a disaster or not. I love the stress and, of course, I love the feedback that you get from the audience. I love the theatrics. And then, probably more than anything, I love the testimonies afterwards, if you will, where it appears to, you know, to lighten someone's day or to help change their life.
HEADLEE: You know, there's YouTube clips and other things you can watch to see your style of preaching, but it is not like any other atheist message I've ever seen. What reaction do you get from people who might be expecting a very different type of, I guess, sermon?
DEWITT: You know, unfortunately, there are people that, for whatever reason, their church experience was very negative. And so when they hear my cadence, they're turned off by it or maybe even, you know, flashback to trauma that they've experienced. But that's the exception and not the rule.
By and large, there's either surprise and confusion, or fortunately, there's a lot of nostalgic satisfaction that seems to wash over people whenever we do something that resembles their religious experience.
HEADLEE: So take us back to the moment when you began to lose faith in Christianity, but not in the church experience. Because it's clearly - that the church community is one that you love very much. It's the faith itself that you started to break away from.
DEWITT: That's right.
HEADLEE: But what was the very first thing that sort of made you question your faith?
DEWITT: Well, you know, I come from a type of Christianity, Pentecostalism, oneness Pentecostalism, that bases so much of our faith on the inerrancy of the King James version of the Bible, along with our experience. You know, we think that we experience the moving of the Holy Spirit very regularly. So when I first begin to - begin to see that there were some problems with the King James version of the Bible, I'll admit it, it staggered me because I had gone, you know, 17 years of my life not thinking that that was even a possibility.
HEADLEE: When you say problems with the King James Bible, what specifically do you mean?
DEWITT: What first began to trouble me was the unjustifiable punishment of eternal hell. That's the concept first, the theology that first began to trouble me. At 17, it became my responsibility to preach eternal damnation for people, you know, for people making very humanlike mistakes, for a lack of better words.
And so I couldn't justify that in my heart, so I had to study out the doctrine of hell. And one of the issues that presented itself very quickly was there were other English words that could've, more accurately, been used in the King James than the word hell, such as grave.
HEADLEE: And that led you, I guess, shockingly to me, to atheism. You go from not quite, you know, staying in line with everything in the Pentecostal faith and the King James Bible to not believing in God.
DEWITT: Over a course of 25 years and countless experiences. So that alone wasn't enough, because I was so convinced that my relationship with God was so true. And I was so confident in its reality that every time I ran into an issue, such as hell, I actually thought it was driving me closer to God and that I was getting a purer understanding of Christianity than what I had been taught. So it actually made me feel more like a Christian, at least for the first two-thirds of my experience.
HEADLEE: So now I want to talk about when it actually - we used the word outed...
HEADLEE: ...When you became outed as an atheist. You told your wife and you told your boss that you were an atheist. Tell us exactly how it came to be common knowledge.
DEWITT: As you've already mentioned, I'm very much in love with community, in love with fellowship. I love people, I think it's my love for truth and my love for humanity that has taken me this course. I don't feel like I've lost anything, I feel like I've gained a lot. And so I - when I found out that there was going to be a free thought convention in Houston, Texas where Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens was going to appear, I couldn't help but go.
And I met a lot of wonderful people. So when I came home, I made a few adjustments to my Facebook page, thinking that by now no one in my community would, you know, as we would say, would give a flip, you know, and I was wrong. I made those changes, such as, to secular humanist. Only had a couple hundred friends at the time, but, unbeknownst to me, I had a Pentecostal relative that was very much into Facebook and she quickly allowed everyone in the community to know about it, all for the sake of praying for me, I'm sure.
HEADLEE: And then what happened? What happened with your marriage? What happened with your job?
DEWITT: Yeah, then all hell broke loose.
HEADLEE: To coin a phrase.
DEWITT: To coin a phrase, right? Well, you know, our marriage had always been under stress because of the ministry. There had always been a certain amount of unhappiness because of the ministry to start with. Once everyone in the community knew about my situation and I went from being, you know, the person that everyone wanted to be, to the person who everyone pitied - it was just too much. It was too much for my wife. And so, you know, she left us. She left home. She even left the state, because of being so ostracized within the community.
My boss, who at the time had become my very best friend, I had gone to him months before all of this outing, explained to him, to the best that I could at the time, where I was at and what was going on in my life. He said it was fine. He said we're brothers, everything's good. But whenever it became public and he was pressured by the governing authority within our jurisdiction about my atheism, then he had to fire me. And so it wasn't long until we were in foreclosure and everything, everything had fallen apart.
HEADLEE: I can't imagine, Jerry, myself in that position, not moving. And you're still there in DeRidder, Louisiana.
DEWITT: Yeah, the reason I haven't left is because I shouldn't have to. I'm not a felon. I'm not a convicted child molester. I haven't done anything wrong. I haven't committed any crimes. There's no reason for me to have to leave the community that I love so dearly and that we've invested so much time and energy into and start over somewhere.
HEADLEE: Well, you know, proselytizing is a huge part of the Pentecostal practice, converting others to your own faith.
DEWITT: It is. Sure.
HEADLEE: Do you see proselytizing, conversion, as a big part of your mission in atheism?
DEWITT: You know, I'm probably going to get in trouble for this, but I don't. I was a horrible Christian evangelist. I want to meet everyone where they're at. I want to help them in the situation they're in. I just don't. I don't try to deconvert anyone. Our book's not a deconversion tool, outside of maybe someone will understand where I came from.
HEADLEE: Jerry DeWitt is co-author of the new book "Hope After Faith: An Ex-Pastor's Journey From Belief To Atheism." Thank you so much, I appreciate it.
DEWITT: It has truly been my pleasure. Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.