Atheism is easy for me in a way it’s not easy for people in (for instance) small towns in the South or Midwest – people like Jerry DeWitt of DeRidder, Louisiana, for instance.
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?
That’s very poignant – he’s lost nearly everything but he refuses to leave.
When I first met Jerry DeWitt, I half expected a provincial contrarian hungry for attention. Instead, he was mild and apologetic, a short, baby-faced man with a gentle smile and a neatly trimmed dark beard. He was earnest and warm, and I soon discovered that many of his fellow townspeople cannot help liking him, no matter how much they dislike his atheism. He appears to have reached his conclusions about God with reluctance, and with remorse for the pain he has caused his friends and family. He seems to bear no grudge toward them. “At every atheist event I go to, there’s always someone who’s been hurt by religion, who wants me to tell him all preachers are charlatans,” DeWitt told me, soon after we met. “I always have to disappoint them. The ones I know are mostly very good people.”
But he’s a pariah in DeRidder – and a resource for other pariahs.
But DeWitt also hurled himself into his new role as a faith healer in reverse. He became the first “graduate” of the Clergy Project, discarding his anonymity and giving the clandestine preachers’ group its first dash of publicity. It was formed in early 2011 with a few dozen members, mostly recruited through Dan Barker, a former pastor who is co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and through Linda LaScola, who in 2010 co-conducted a study of nonbelieving pastors with Daniel Dennett, the atheist philosopher. The project now has more than 300 members, with about 80 applicants awaiting clearance (the group is very careful about admissions, to secure the members’ privacy).
DeWitt also became the executive director of Recovering From Religion, formed in 2009 by Darrel Ray, a Kansas-based atheist proselytizer. The group grew quickly under DeWitt’s leadership and now includes at least 100 local chapters scattered across the country, each one typically with 10 to 12 participants. Like other public figures in the movement, DeWitt also serves as a one-man clearinghouse for religious doubters via Facebook and e-mail. During the four days I spent with him in DeRidder, he was almost constantly checking his cellphone and tapping out messages.
Teresa MacBain is on the same trip.
One former pastor named Teresa MacBain told me that when she began doubting her faith last year, she ran through her list of friends and acquaintances and realized that every single one of them was religious. With no one to confide in, she began recording her thoughts into her iPhone when she was alone in the car. “It was a huge encouragement when I finally found other people to talk to online,” she told me. Like DeWitt, MacBain joined the Clergy Project. Then, earlier this year, she resigned from her pastor’s position in Tallahassee and went public as an atheist. She was promptly defriended (in the literal and Facebook sense) by almost everyone she knew. But like DeWitt, she has begun receiving frequent messages from doubting pastors and churchgoers, seeking her help in making the leap away from God. “It’s all new friends now,” she said.
It must be a little like living through a plague, or a huge natural disaster. All new friends now.