Episode 120: Church for Atheists? with guest Jerry Dewitt

dewittAfter 25 years of ministry, Pentecostal preacher turned atheist, Jerry Dewitt, finds himself behind the pulpit once again. He’s still singing, teaching and calling upon his congregation to share testimonials…but this is no ordinary “church.” The Community Mission Chapel, where Dewitt now serves, spreads a humanist message to a congregation of atheists. But do atheists really need a church? Dewitt joins us in the studio to tell us about his church, the challenges of ministering to atheists and to share his thoughts on why some skeptics desire a more traditional form of fellowship.  Also on the episode: sorry, but Jesus was not made up by the Roman aristocracy no matter what biblical pseudo-scholar Joseph Atwill tells you.  We’ll tell you why for this episodes Skeptics Sunday School.

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  1. cmcmillin says

    Hi guys,

    I like your podcast immensely.

    This is meant to be a counterpoint to Jerry Dewitt. It may seem long but, I actually do have a point.

    My name is Carrie McMillin and I live and work in Houston. I grew up in a very serious religious environment.

    I graduated from Living Stones Christian School in ’94. With the combination of a couple ‘coming of age’

    moments and studying the Bible, Greek and Hebrew, my faith faded. I decided to take a break from

    church, and never went back. Fast-forward to a couple of years ago when my husband and I are planning our

    family. He desired for our kids to have Catholic instruction. The environment I was raised in looked heavily

    askance at the Catholic religion. I decided to take the RCIA classes to a) see what they really believed and b)

    so that way I could convert and everyone in the family would ‘match’. Well…..it didn’t go so well. Needless to

    say the more questions I asked, the worse it got. My sponsor was getting a lot of support hugs at the end of

    each session. The final straw was when the priest was very self-satisfied that a Bishop in Arizona had the

    power to yank the Catholic name from a hospital because of a medically necessary abortion performed

    on a mother of three. There were no words of support for the family; or compassion for the people that

    had to make a hard choice against their personal beliefs, just pride that ‘they had that power’. (His phrase)

    I can home that night after RCIA and realized that I didn’t believe any of it, and not only did I not believe it, I

    thought religion and a belief in the supernatural had extremely harmful effects in real life. This is more than a

    head-trip that we tell ourselves to get thru the day.

    Great, now I’m an Atheist-Agnostic. Did i mention the part where I live in the south?

    Almost all my family and friends and co-workers believe in God. I started trying to figure out what actively NOT

    believing means. For the first time I read Dawkins and Hitchens, found a couple of pod-casts that didn’t make

    me cringe, and went to a few Meet-Ups.

    We had our son in Feb. of this year. There was however one point that my husband kept making that I

    couldn’t argue around. Community. We were depriving our son of a community, I thought he was right. At the

    same time I decided that secular humanism was a great addition to Atheist, more descriptive of how I view

    the world. That is when I tried Oasis.

    I was heavily skeptical at first. One whiff of preaching or hymns or having to get up speak about your week

    and I would have hit the door. I sat in the back with my infant son, and watched. People were nice, they said

    hello, there was another lady there with her infant, and there was a separate room for the older kids. They

    didn’t get in my face, they didn’t push or pry. Slowly, I was able to relax enough to listen, and what I heard was

    interesting. Community involvement, making rational choices with our lives, talks that involved science and

    applied psychology, vetted scientists and people in industry giving talks on subjects where they held

    advanced degrees, or knew more than a little something. It was better than what I had expected. No god, no

    woo woo, no religion.

    That was my experience the first few weeks and now after going pretty consistently for about 4 months,

    things have stayed the same (in a good way). There is music, but it is live from area talent. We have

    Community Moment, anyone that has a topic to present can. A good example is someone addressing the

    article in Time magazine about the lack of ‘secular’ help given to victims of the tornadoes. Lastly, there is a

    presentation sometimes by Mike, sometimes by someone else. They do pass a hat; and then for anyone

    that wants, we go out to lunch after.

    That is pretty much it for the weekly meeting. There are organized events for volunteering; these happen

    mainly through already established area programs that don’t cringe at the word Atheist. There are pot-lucks

    and event announcements from other sections of the Houston Atheist, Free-thought, Humanist etc. etc.



    The point is this is not nostalgia for what I use to be a part of. This is not some gimmick to give an

    ex-preacher someplace to go. This is not some sarcastic comment on religion.

    This is a way to share community, to volunteer, to have companionship. This is a way for my son to grow-up

    with those around him that reflect a positive secular life.

    Thanks for reading,

  2. grumpyoldfart says

    All my life I have been going to meetings of humanists, atheists, and rationalists, and never once have I heard anyone describe them as church or chapel. Why do it now? It just gives our opponents the opportunity to say, “See, atheism really is a religion.”

    I’m hoping the atheist church lasts no longer than the term “Brights”.

  3. says

    It was good to hear the “not my problem” answer to the question of what an atheist gathering with ritual and music says about atheism in general. And good to hear respect for that answer. A secular movement needs that more than it needs a manifesto. I’m always looking for paths out of religion for people who struggle with the loss of identity and community. DeWitt and his group provide more than a step away but a step out.

  4. says

    Awesome episode as always. I just wanted to let you know how incredibly stoked I was when you read my comment about Skeptical Theism and how you tied it into the argument from objective purpose. Thanks again, it made my morning.

  5. gil says

    i study biology and i think i have very strong evidence for design in nature

    a) we know that a self replicate robot that made from dna need a designer

    b) from a material prespective the ape is a self replicate robot

    a+b= the ape need a designer

    or even a self replicat watch.the evolution side always say that a watch need a designer because it cant self rplicat. so if we will find a self replicat watch we need to say that is made by itself

    plus: if a self replicate car cant evolve into an airplan, how can a bacteria can evolve into human ?

    the evolution say that small steps for milions years become a big steps. but according to this a lots of small steps in self replicat car (with dna) will evolve into a airplan.

    but there is no step wise from car to airplan

    evolution say that common similarity is evidence for common descent. but according to this 2 similar self replicat car are evolve from each other

    check this site


  6. sarah00 says

    I’ve been thinking about the concept of atheist “churches” since listening to the episode this morning and I have some concerns that I can’t dismiss. It was really interesting to hear Jerry talk about the aims of the assemblies, but the more he spoke the more issues I had. These are:

    1) The assemblies seem to be unwittingly divisive. Jerry made it clear they were for a certain subset of ex-believers and that’s fine, but I can’t see them appealing to anyone outside that subset. He said they would not be seen as frightening by any believers who came, which is a worthy goal. However, as a life-long atheist, I’m pretty sure I’d be frightened if I walked in. If an ex-Muslim walked in would they recognise that it was an atheist event? I know Jerry said that they differed from churches but from his description I can’t see much difference other than the lack of god.

    2) There are other ways of building communities. I’m all for building communities and the old argument that you can’t build movements about disbelief are silly. But why use church? If you want to have a sing-song have a sing-song. If you want to have child-friendly events then have child-friendly events. If you want to have talks followed by discussion then have talks followed by discussion. What I don’t get is why this has to be in a format that follows a church, which excludes anyone who wasn’t raised Christian and anyone for whom these services bring back bad memories.

    3) A common complaint about religion is the boringness of church services. It’s practically a trope. I haven’t been to many church services but the ones I have been to were epically dull. A common refrain from ex-believers is the joy at reclaiming their sundays and of not having to sit through services any more. So why are we trying to reinvent something that so many see as dull and pointless? I understand that these assemblies are trying to be different but the way Jerry described them made my heart sink.

    I appreciate that these assemblies aren’t being held for me and that diversity in expression of disbelief is fine. But if you’re raising your kids as non-believers and attending these assemblies are you really raising them as atheists or as ex-evangelicals, or ex-catholics, or ex-jews, etc? If that’s what people want then who am I to argue, it’s just that for all the talk of building communities these seem to be perfect ways of building divisions. I really think there are better and more inclusive ways for building communities than aping the most boring aspects of religion.

  7. Anthony Steele says

    I have to say that in Austin, unlike the rest of the state of Texas, there isn’t nearly as much pressure to conform, pressure to attend a religious institution. Still, if there were, I’d simply go to the Unitarian Universalists. I really don’t see the point of a community arranged around disbelief.

  8. says

    William Lane Craig says “The growing trend of spiritualized atheism, such as the Community Mission Chapel, has no objective meaning, value or purpose. The congregants may surely find a subjective value for mimicking Christian churches, but this feat is ultimately built upon a scaffolding of personal preference.”

    What is the objective meaning, value and purpose of a Christian life? From what I see it’s a mad scramble to avoid eternal torture and get your slice of pie in the sky.

    Also, “spiritualized atheism” is a stupid term. If there are no spirits, there is nothing causing your brain to feel “spiritual” other than the chemicals and electrical signals mixing it up in your brain. Religious people have found rituals and beliefs that trigger transcendent emotions, but religion doesn’t own that type of feeling. Your lack of belief in god can lock you away from using those particular beliefs and rituals, but it doesn’t lock you away from may other triggers that give the same result. Everyone has the right to seek ways of triggering those transcendent feelings without the woo.

  9. Andrew Ryan says

    I agree Anna. Even if we allow for the existence of a God, I don’t see why that means we have ‘an objective purpose’. Why does God decreeing we have a purpose make it ‘objective’? It’s still either a) subjective from His point of view or b) subjective for us to call it objective.

    If I have a son specifically in order to provide spare organs for me as I get older, does that mean my child has an ‘objective purpose’? I’d say not. And why is a purpose that someone else has given us necessarily superior to one we’ve decided for ourselves?

  10. Con Fuse Us says

    Re: skeptical theism & moral paralysis

    I was referring to these phenomena in the blog for Quivering Pt 1. though I didn’t know the name for it then.

    Thanks guys!

  11. sarah00 says

    gil, I replied but it seems to be stuck in moderation (probably because of the number of links, at least I hope that’s why!). At the risk of repeating myself (or having another comment stuck) look here http://www.talkorigins.org/indexcc/list.html#CI and look at:
    CI101. Complexity indicates design
    CI120. Purpose indicates design
    CI131. Every machine’s origin, where determinable, is by intelligent agency

  12. Lothar Lorraine says

    Having grown up in the secular France, I can tell you there is a world of difference between the sense of fellowship you experience in religious communities and in the rest of the world.

    If one sticks to the historical definition of religion as binding people together in the frame of a shared worldview, it then seems obvious there are many atheistic religions out there.

    But within the anti-theistic world, “religious” is seen as an insult far worse than “pedophile”.

  13. Felix G says

    @ Lothar Lorraine

    There’s a few things I’d like to reply to:

    1.HOW does growing up in “secular France” give you better insight than another human being into the differences between religious people vs non-religions people experiences of having fellowship??

    2. What IS the difference, do you think, between a religious person vs a non-religious person experience of a “fellowship” – type event?

    3. Atheism is an OPINION regarding the existence of supernatural worlds NOT a world view. So therefore it is NOT obvious that “there are many atheistic religions out there”.

    4. An atheist and an “anti-theistic” person are not the same. One doesn’t believe in the existence of the supernatural and the other is against theism. There is a difference. And some people might think that being “religious” is indeed more offensive than being a “pedophile” but that is NOT a shared view within the atheist community. Atheists can have a lot of issues that they disagree on but they all share the same opinion regarding the supernatural. That’s all.

  14. says

    @Felix G

    I don’t disagree with the main thrust of your comment, but I have some clarifications.

    Atheism only addresses the existence of a god or Gods. Naturalism is the broader term that includes disbelief in souls, reincarnation, etc.

    If a religion teaches that there is no creator god, teaches that belief in a god is irrelevant or if it’s gods are considered metaphors, then it could be considered more-or-less atheistic.

    See http://atheism.about.com/od/atheismquestions/p/AtheistReligion.htm

    Any religions that are purely naturalistic might better be defined as philosophies.

    @ Lothar Lorraine

    Sadly, too many religious communities use out-group fear to bind their groups together more tightly.

    When you encounter a person who hates religious people, you have to realize that it doesn’t just spring out of nowhere. It comes from people who have been ostracized and demonized for their lack of belief.

    I’ve experienced it. Once I sat in church where my uncle was preaching and he looked me straight in the eye and quoted “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” My daughter lost her best friend when she brought a book on Wicca to school, and it took her years to get over it. When that’s your experience, it’s hard to consider religion to be some wonderful positive force in society.

  15. Felix G says

    @ Anna Harrison

    Thanks for your reply.

    Your definition is correct of course but many atheist like myself are using the broader definition of atheim which incorporates naturalism. I use this definition because, from my experiences in discussing the topic of souls & reincarnation with believers; they will often begin by saying “I don’t believe in God but I believe in Karma/souls/reincarnation/etc” but then after short discussion they will concede that theremust be a “universal force”, “mind” or “power” that regulates the processes of the reincarnation cycle & of soul-allocation.


  16. Felix G says

    @ Anna Harrison

    [“I don’t understand therefore God.” Where have I heard that before? :D]

    Exactly! That’s what comes to mind when I hear people who say they DO believe in superanatural phenomena such as ghosts, souls, reincarnation, but DON’T believe in a god of anykind.

    However, their tune changes after you ask them if thet think there are rules by which their supernatural world operates, and if so, whom or what regulates it, they then start to introduce the idea of “universal power/s, minds, forces etc” but pull up short of saying GOD!!! OK DAMMIT I ADMIT IT!!! ….lol it’s the old – “I’m not a creationist but I believe in intelligent design!” BS.

    They can fool themselves but not me….well…most off the time anyway ;)


  17. says

    The natural world is capable of complexity without an intelligent designer. If there was a supernatural world, then I’m not sure why it would need an intelligent designer.

    Not that there is one, but still.

  18. gil says

    hi sarah.

    lm not agree with the first. lets say that you will find a robot with dna on mars. did you will say that this robot isnt an evidence for designer or aliens?

  19. sarah00 says


    I’m not sure I understand your question. Are you asking if I find something that is clearly artificial and has DNA on it would that be evidence for a designer? Well, yes. But there’s these things on Mars already, they’ve been sent by NASA and I wouldn’t be surprised that they’ve got a few microbes from earth on them that survived the journey.

    But I don’t think that’s what you’re asking and there I’m stuck. You say I find a robot with DNA which I don’t understand. Is the robot using DNA for computing or something, or is it just contaminated? Or are you saying we find an object that has DNA?

    I’m really struggling to understand what you’re asking. I don’t wish to be rude but I have to ask if English is your first language? I’m asking to make sure that my answers are understandable as I don’t want to cause confusion.

    Please can you clarify your question and then I’ll happily attempt to answer it.

  20. noreligionrequired says

    I don’t have a problem with an Atheist Chapel. I can’t speak for all Atheist but I can speak for one…me. The one thing that held me back from coming out was the fear of losing the sense of community I had with my church family. I think an Atheist Chapel that teaches Secular subjects that can act as a community to help and support it’s members cannot be a bad thing. Even though many would probably disagree with me, even Atheists need a little help sometimes and who better to step up and give support than other Atheists?


  21. gil says

    hi again sarah. yes, i mean to a robot that has dna. if this kind of robot is evidecne for design. why not cat or apes that ar more complex?

    yes, english isnt my native.

  22. sarah00 says

    gil, I would really recommend finding a basic evolutionary text book in your native language and reading it. I think the language barrier may be too difficult as I am having great difficulty in understanding your question. I will try and answer but I’m honestly not entirely sure what you are asking.

    If we found a robot which used DNA as its computing system we would immediately think it was designed. DNA is a complex molecule that is, as far as we know, only found on earth. There are potentially many molecules that can be used to pass on information but on our planet DNA ‘won’ the race and even if there were other molecules being formed they were all forced to extinction by DNA. If a robot using DNA was found on Mars the most simple explanation would be that it was sent there, from Earth, by a human who designed it.

    Even if it wasn’t running on DNA but we just found a robot on Mars we would still assume it had a designer. Robots, in the sense of mechanical machines, cannot reproduce by themselves. They may be able to construct themselves from components but those components are made from materials that must be mined or otherwise extracted, formed into their shapes and them positioned such that the robots can access them.

    However, I don’t think this is answering your question but I’m not entirely sure what your question is. If it is “if a mechanical object is evidence for design then why isn’t a biological object” then I’d say you are missing the big difference: the ability to reproduce. As I said regarding the robot, mechanical objects cannot reproduce. They may be able to construct themselves if materials are available but they cannot manufacture their materials. Maybe in the future they will be able to and then this analogy will break down but for now it holds. In contrast, any two animals or plants can combine their DNA and produce a new organism.

    I think you also have to stop thinking that any complex must be designed. The weather, for example, is extremely complex and cannot be predicted more than a few days in advance yet the underlying physics is fairly straightforward. Simple things interacting can lead to complex things without any need for guidance.

    Evolution at it’s most basic definition is change over time. The Theory of Evolution, first described by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, includes a very important factor that is often overlooked by creationists. The full name of the theory is the theory of evolution By Natural Selection. All that is needed for this to work is that a population has variation.

    To use a very simple, made up example, imagine a population of rabbits. They all have brown fur which helps them blend in to their grassy/muddy environment. One year a mother gives birth to some babies, some of which have a genetic mutation that makes their fur white. In the grass they are really easy to spot and the babies get quickly killed and eaten by foxes. The white fur rabbits were selected against. A few years later and the weather has been getting colder earlier and earlier until there’s snow on the ground a lot of the year. Another mother has some babies with a genetic mutation to make their fur white. This time they blend in against the snow and they all survive and have babies of their own: they are selected for. Their brown-furred relatives have been killed at a higher rate by the foxes as they are easy to spot and quickly the white-furred rabbits outnumber the brown rabbits until the entire population is white. That’s evolution. Do that sort of thing over millions and millions and millions of years and you get to the diversity of life that we have today.

    gil, I don’t mind trying to explain evolution to you but I think there’s probably better places to do it than a dead comments thread for a podcast that wasn’t really about evolution in the first place. There’s masses of information out there and I’m sure there’s some in your native language. If you let me know what that language is I might be able to help you find some if you haven’t had any success.

  23. gil says

    hi sarah

    you said:

    “If we found a robot which used DNA as its computing system we would immediately think it was designed. DNA is a complex molecule that is, as far as we know, only found on earth.”-

    ok. but what if we will find this on another planet with dna all over the place? by the way- we also dont find any dna on earth. only in living things.

    “Even if it wasn’t running on DNA but we just found a robot on Mars we would still assume it had a designer. Robots, in the sense of mechanical machines, cannot reproduce by themselves.”-

    so if we will find a robot that is indeed reproduce, we will claim that this robot is not evidence for design?

    ” Maybe in the future they will be able to and then this analogy will break down but for now it holds. In contrast, any two animals or plants can combine their DNA and produce a new organism. “-

    so its mean they are more sophisticate then any robot by human design.no?.

    “information out there and I’m sure there’s some in your native language. If you let me know what that language is I might be able to help you find some if you haven’t had any success.

    hebrew:) but i acctually learn some books about the topic.

    by the way- how can we test the evolution? or even falsified it?

  24. sarah00 says

    (the formatting seems to be messed up, at least in preview, sorry. I’m providing the links in the next post as they are causing a lot of the problems.)

    Gil, you are misunderstanding so much I don’t know where to start. Of course we see DNA on earth, you can even see your own DNA. Just google ‘extract your own DNA’ and you’ll find pages of simple instructions on how to do this.

    Jerry Coyne’s “Why Evolution is True” is available in Hebrew and is a great place to start.

    I’d also recommend looking at the evolutionary biology pages on Wikipedia. I’m not sure if they have a lot in Hebrew but they have simple English which should help.

    We can test evolution in so many different ways. We can test evolution by making predictions based on evolutionary theory, running an experiment and seeing if the results conform to our predictions or falsify them (this is very simplified but is the essence of any research. Evolutionary biology is no different to any other branch of science). The discovery of Tiktaalik is one of the most famous examples, as the researchers predicted where they might find a transitional fossil between fish and amphibians and their prediction was proven correct. As to disprove evolution, as JBS Haldane said, a rabbit in the Cambrian would disprove it.

    I’m sorry but I’m not continuing this conversation any more. I have answered your questions to the best of my ability but I don’t feel like you’re doing anything to understand what I’m saying. You really need to read some proper books on biology (your local bookshop should have biology textbooks – or go to your local university and look in their bookshop – or else look online). If you want to have more discussions with people about evolution then have a look at the links provided at Talk.Origins for some forums where people will be able to answer your questions.

    As a final thought, I ask you – what would falsify creationism? What would it take for you to reject creationism? If there isn’t anything then you might as well give up now, but if there is then read proper science books and challenge yourself. Good luck!

  25. gil says

    hi again sarah. i will focus in your main claims. you said:

    “As to disprove evolution, as JBS Haldane said, a rabbit in the Cambrian would disprove it.”-

    ok. but what about a human fosil with t-rex? is that kind of fosill is “out of place fossil” to disprove evolution?

    about jerry coyne book. i read some of it. he have a lot of mistakes. for exmaple: he claim that any fossil of human and dino will disprove evolution. its not true. in this case we can just claim that human evolve earlier then we thought and just change the geologocal date for human evolution. =evolution will not diisprove.

    “As a final thought, I ask you – what would falsify creationism?”-

    its easy. show me a animal without eye(or flagellum or ttss) evolve an eye in small steps and you will disprove creation.

    by yhe way- according to evolution even a car can evolve in a close room. because if we will leav a close room for bilions of years. the bacteria in the room can evolve into a human and make a car= a car evolve in a close room.

    check again the website creation.com. it disprove any claim in talkorigins.

    have a nice day/

  26. sarah00 says

    gil, I told you I’m not continuing this conversation. This isn’t the place for it. Find a forum and ask people there.



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