Where godlessness remains a real struggle

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.




  1. says

    It’s really hard out here. And all these outspoken, urban, educated, middle class skeptics, atheists, freethinkers have no idea how dangerous and painful it is to live in rural USA. I CAN’t leave; I don’t have the income. And I’m already completely Isolated; I’m stranded here without friends or family and can’t afford to leave. That’s why I work so hard online. Not just as an atheist, but as a QUILTBAG, advocate for poverty & disability rights issues. If these people knew: I’m atheist, Queer, GenderQueer, progressive and have brain injuries, I wouldn’t last a week. And that’s not exaggeration.

  2. says

    Why aren’t there any charities/organizations devoted to aiding atheists in these situations? Something to send them a little money each month, or even (for those that want it), help to move to a new area where they might be more accepted?

    There really should be resources for these people.

    Are there?

    And yes, I’m fully aware that this is easier said than done. But billboards and blogs and websites can only to so much in reaching out to the closeted and marginalized. An organization that directly reaches out to them, offering support and assistance to those who need it, would be an amazing thing to have.

  3. says

    Rogi –


    We don’t make it worse by being outspoken though do we? The idea is that the more atheists who are outspoken, the more atheists will eventually be accepted everywhere. It’s a long process, but it does happen.

  4. didgen says

    Would Jerry accept help, I don’t have a lot but I would be willing to donate to help. I was raised in such a town.

  5. iknklast says

    What Jerry is doing is so important; I hope he realizes it. I was raised in Oklahoma. My father is fundamentalist, and believes Obama is a Muslim. When he comes to visit, I have to denude all my bookshelves, because I can’t bring myself to break the relationship with this man I love in spite of his faults. My job has threatened me on several occasions, because I’m the faculty advisor of the Freethought Group. I don’t sign my real name to atheist stuff on the Internet. I am different than Jerry: I would leave in a flash, but my husband hates the idea of living outside his beloved Midwest, and I love him enough to compromise. I also am at an age where I don’t want to lose a job that has a retirement I hope to look forward to in another decade, and start over (that might become irrelevant soon, after another election or two).

    I wish I were half as brave as Jerry. I wish I could put my own books in the school library, where people could see who I am. I wish I didn’t feel the need to speak in wihspers. And I’m much more outspoken than any single other person in the tri-city area. No one here speaks out, because we all know what would happen. Maybe a few more brave souls like Jerry…people who are able to go through all this, even though they shouldn’t have to.

    I think it’s a great idea to start some sort of fund to help people through this. I’m glad Jerry has the Clergy Project, but it’s probably not enough.

  6. machintelligence says

    For a short, recent report on the Clergy Project, here is part of a longer, and mostly humorous talk by Dan Dennett (under 6 minutes.)
    I think the most telling line is a quote from one of the Clergy Project members: “If you offered help and retraining, you would have 10,000 new members tomorrow.”

  7. says

    I might do that, Ophelia. I wonder who to reach out to, though. I think I’ll ask Surly Amy how to get in contact with the heads of groups like American Atheists and the Freedom from Religion Foundation and such, since she got their attention.

    Maybe it could be a pet cause for A+, too?

    I’ve never had much of a problem myself, but then Boca Raton, FL is a bit of an oasis in the Bible Belt desert (Jewish, but Jews can be more tolerant than fundy Christians). But I feel for people who do have problems. I wish I actually had money, because I’d fund a campaign myself if I could afford to. Reaching out is my only option, however.

    I’ll see what I can do. I think it’d be a brilliant idea.

    One thing I think such a program would have to be able to do is that if potential recipients of any aid asked for discreteness and anonymity, for whatever reason, such a thing is honored as much as the laws allow.

  8. Chris Lawson says

    The very existence of blogs like this could be crucial to people like DeWitt and Rogi. I wonder if we could help simply by making ourselves available on email or Skype just to talk to other atheists who feel excluded by their local communities.

  9. Blade says

    Nate: I’m actually in the process of getting something similar started for queer and atheist college students at the University of Alabama. We have problems with members being vulnerable to being financially stranded due to their religious (non-)belief and sexuality–and have had a few members of both groups have to drop out thereby.

    Depending on how it goes–getting revenue will be a problem, unless we can get enough donors–I’ll try to spread this to other universities.

  10. Interrobang says

    What a horrible, slanted article. Once again, the NYT does its usual “damning with faint praise” trend piece full of loaded language. Worth spent quite a lot of the piece subliminally (or not) pushing the meme that atheism is just another religion, and that “both sides do it” Gack. I feel doubly sorry for DeWitt — first he has to deal with his whole town deciding he’s anathema, and then having to deal with Worth’s sharp-knife hit piece. Wow.

  11. says


    Good ideas. Maybe, besides financial help, create a registry of fellow atheists who would be willing to offer pro bono help. Anything from legal stuff to helping someone move to a new city, or just someone to hang out with and talk to. existing groups could create hotline help etc.

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