"God is a delusion": I was a Pentecostal preacher -- until I lost my faith

I was a Pentecostal preacher for decades. When I lost faith, I thought I'd lose everything -- but atheism saved me

Published June 29, 2013 2:37PM (EDT)

Jerry Dewitt
Jerry Dewitt

Excerpted from "Hope After Faith: An Ex-Pastor's Journey From Belief to Atheism"

And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; And patience, experience; and experience, hope.—Romans 5:3–4

For the first time since I’d entered the ministry, I settled in my mind that the spiritual fix I sought in order to return to preaching was unlikely to be found. I was going to have to live my life without a spiritual resolution. I needed to face the cold fact that I would not be back behind the pulpit anytime soon. Preaching at a somewhat traditional Pentecostal church was going to be impossible and I’d even been unable to make the liberal Pentecostalism of Grace of DeQuincy or First Community work for me. But I could not completely let go of the ministry: I had been ministering for nearly twenty-five years and from the very beginning it was not a career but a mission. Perhaps, I reasoned to myself then, I’ll find a mentor in the church and quietly work under him—or maybe I’ll pastor to the faithful individually. But as the spring of 2011 began, I had to push my spiritual crisis even further back into my mind. I was just emerging from the training period with Ronnie, which meant that I’d soon assume real responsibilities at BIG. The promotion would be a big boost to Kelli and me financially as we were just beginning to rebuild from the near financial collapse of my Village Profile period. With a happy, contented wife and a boss who treated me as both a business partner and a brother, life was good again. I couldn’t allow my questions of faith to consume me.

But just after midnight on a still-cool night that May, I was thrust right back into the crisis of faith I had labored so hard to avoid. The roar of a box fan in a corner of our bedroom had finally lulled me to sleep when my cell phone, which I’d just silenced, lit up brightly with an incoming call. As I groggily reached over to the antique, rectangle-shaped wooden nightstand where my phone rested, my heart raced. I’d taken dozens of late-night calls over my more than two decades in the ministry and I knew that good news never arrived at this time of night. When I focused my bleary eyes on the phone, I saw the name of the caller and my spirits sank. It was NaTosha Davis, who ran the soundboard at Grace of DeQuincy. NaTosha was truly like a part of my family; I’d even entered her phone number into my phone under the name “NaTosha Davis/DeWitt.” Though she stood at just barely five foot tall—we’d lovingly nicknamed her “Lil’ D”—her huge smile, quick-wittedness and willingness to assist the church with everything from the sound system to our youth group lent her an outsized presence at our church. As a pastor of a small church like Grace of DeQuincy, anyone who wants to help is appreciated but a strong talent and vivacious spirit like NaTosha is an absolute treasure. “NaTosha?” I whispered as I picked up the phone so as not to wake Kelli. “Yes,” NaTosha stammered. Even though she barely said a word, I could tell that she was already in tears. I slipped my shoes on, headed down the staircase, walked silently through the foyer and then into the tiny bathroom of our guest bedroom so as to let Kelli continue sleeping. I stood uncomfortably between the baby-blue-colored bathtub and the bathroom sink, which was illuminated by a strip of round lightbulbs above a mirror that made the bathroom—which we hadn’t had the money to renovate—resemble a tacky backstage dressing room in a theater.

As I steadied myself at the sink, NaTosha told me that her brother had been severely injured in a motorcycle accident in the Lake Charles area. NaTosha tearfully explained that the ER physicians had failed to revive her brother and that specialists were on the way. Listening to NaTosha, I envisioned her standing outside the hospital and having reached that moment that we all have journeyed to in our lives, when inquiries to nurses and doctors about a loved one’s health have been exhausted and our ability to make the situation any better is depleted. It’s at that moment when you call your pastor in hopes of bringing God’s grace and, perhaps, a resolution to a moment that is steadily speeding toward tragedy. I knew that she wanted me to pray for her brother’s condition to improve and for her to have the strength to weather the storm. To pray that she was able to do the right things and not lose it amidst her family’s tragedy. But NaTosha didn’t say any of this. She didn’t even say, “Will you pray for me, Jerry?” She didn’t have to. Any pastor worth his salt won’t let the conversation go that far. The second that anguished call arrives, it is the pastor’s job to pray. It’s just like when a friend or family member initiates a hug—an embrace is understood and instinctual between two people who care for one another—so asking for a hug renders it meaningless. I had no doubt in my mind what my role was as I listened to NaTosha’s tearful telling of her brother’s motorcycle wreck. Yet I could not pray. And every second that went by without my prayer for NaTosha and her brother felt like an eternity, a profound span of time when NaTosha, one of the most beloved members of my former congregation, was left hopeless and without the spiritual reassurance she so desperately and rightly craved.

I struggled to pray because all of the conflicts that had existed inside me about my faith, which I’d temporarily resolved time and time again through my motivation to remain in the ministry, suddenly fused into an awareness that there was no God. But I could not pray for NaTosha because I loved her so deeply and could not bear setting her up for the kind of crushing disappointment I’d witnessed with Grover and Bobbi’s unanswered prayers over my cousin Gary, or my own prayers for Larry Smith’s sick brother. If I prayed for NaTosha and her brother didn’t make it it wouldn’t be me who would have disappointed her—it would be God who let her down. I didn’t want to initiate in NaTosha the long, painful journey of doubt that I had experienced.

For the very first time, I turned to reason. “NaTosha,” I said in a calm, reassuring voice, “it sounds like everyone at the hospital is doing everything they can. Your brother is a young man and a strong man. They’re bringing in specialists, so we’re going to just have to wait this out and see what happens. But, NaTosha, I’m telling you it sounds like he’s going to be all right.” NaTosha thanked me for taking the call so late at night and for the encouraging words. Then, just before we made our goodbyes, NaTosha said, “Keep him in your prayers.” I paused for a moment and then replied, “Of course, NaTosha. Of course.” When I hung up the phone I was heartbroken. I knew that I’d deeply disappointed NaTosha. I realized in that moment that if I could not pray for a person who was so near and dear to me then my dream of returning to the ministry was over. I’d given up on preaching after Cut and Shoot but the ministry remained a far off, remote possibility. Now there was no ministry left. I stared into the bathroom mirror. I was in tears. DeWitt, I angrily said to myself, who the hell are you? It was done. It was over. I couldn’t continue to fool myself into thinking that I’d one day find some form of Christian ministry to participate in. I’d bounced from denomination to denomination, from a literal Bible interpretation to an embrace of Christianity as metaphor and I’d finally reached the conclusion of that quest: I wa llooking at an atheist standing there looking in the mirror. It was a painful realization but the next moments literally tore my soul apart. There, in the guest bathroom, I said three final goodbyes to my loved ones: my cousin Gary, my grandfather and my father.  “Gary,” I began, “I loved and respected you so much. You were a huge influence in my life. I’ll never forget you, Gary, but I will never see you again. I love you.” Nearly overcome with tears, I steadied myself on the bathroom sink again and moved to my granddad, my beloved paw-paw. “Paw-Paw,” I said through the tears, “you know how much I love you. You know that if there was any way to see you again I would do it. But this thing—it just isn’t true. I thank you for being such a huge part of my life. I’m so sorry that I failed you that day by not being able to do CPR the right way. Please forgive me. I love you.” After my farewell to Paw-Paw,

I grasped that so much of my spiritual quest was driven by the loss of my father. I didn’t possess a single memory of my father; all I had was photographs. One of my earliest memories was of me asking Mom about where Dad had gone. “Where’s my daddy?” I’d asked. “He’s in heaven,” she replied. “How’d he get there?” I continued. “By airplane,” Mom replied. So I looked in the mirror and I said, “Dad, I’ve tried to find you but it’s just not gonna happen. I’m sorry.” And that was it. My journey through faith was done.

I went back upstairs and quietly rejoined Kelli in bed and opened my laptop computer. Who in the world, I thought to myself, can understand what an ex-minister is feeling? In a flash of inspiration, I remembered seeing Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist, a book by preacher-turned-atheist Dan Barker, on a shelf in a bookstore in the 1990s. I googled Dan’s name and found his contact information. The next morning I called his office and left a message saying that I was an ex-minister in need of help. The next day Dan called me back; I was honored just to get the call because I couldn’t imagine that a published author would have time to speak to a nobody like me. I told Dan just a little bit about my story—I was still feeling too vulnerable to open myself up completely—and to my relief he was sweet and instantly reassuring. “I’ve encountered a lot of people like you,” Dan said soothingly. “I’ve helped form a group—would you be interested in joining?” Dan explained that the group, the Clergy Project, was a safe haven for former clergy. The idea of a finding a new home after losing my church family was so appealing that I said yes without asking a single question about the organization. The wisdom of my unreserved leap into the Clergy Project quickly became clear after Dan set me up with a user name and password for its online forum. Soon after logging on for the first time, I found myself feeling hopeful again. It was a hope far outside of my hope of finding a spiritually fulfilled life in the ministry. But by communicating with other ministers and sharing my story and hearing their stories, I felt that familiar sense of fulfillment that came with the ministry. Through these forums, I thought to myself, I can help people. My life can have hope—and purpose—again.

With the Clergy Project, I was back where I’d always been most comfortable: in the lives of others. There were only about fifty of us with the Clergy Project back then but the online conversation was always spirited, inspirational and heartbreaking. I’d share my story and empathize with my online friends about just how hard it is to continue in the ministry when you’re questioning your faith, a spiritual struggle compounded by very earthly, practical problems. I remember one minister, who had not yet left the ministry, confessing to me that he had stayed with the church solely for health insurance. His wife had a chronic health  condition that required expensive medication and his decision to remain with the church was literally keeping her alive.

Fortunately, there were no such crises in my home, despite my new embrace of atheism. Kelli and Paul had always been just a few steps behind me in my spiritual journey, so the fact that I’d come to a conclusion that rejected supernaturalism didn’t surprise either of them. In fact, Paul, who’d grown into an independent-minded eighteen-year-old, had already publicly expressed an atheist worldview and left the church. We didn’t even hold a family meeting to discuss the cataclysmic changes to our household. Instead, there was an excited, almost buzzy feeling in our home as Paul and I explored the works of atheists like Richard Dawkins, Dan Barker and Daniel Dennett. That one of the movement’s most important thinkers, Dan Barker, was communicating with me by e-mail was such a huge point of pride that whenever I got an e-mail from Dan I’d print it out and read it to Paul over breakfast around the kitchen table. But while Kelli wasn’t surprised by my embrace of atheism it nonetheless made her uneasy. I’d gone from a spiritual mission in Christianity to a quest to find out everything that I could possibly know about atheism in a matter of days, and the downtime between these journeys was negligible. Regular, normal life for our family had lasted less than a week. But I felt born again; it was like a salvation that I stumbled across. I could minister to people, I could be in their lives, all without pretending that I was someone who I wasn’t or pretending to know all the answers. For me, religion had become like embracing people with a hazmat suit—every emotional connection had occurred with that bulky suit on. Now I could help people without any layers of pretense. I was elated.

With Kelli’s awkward embrace of my new beliefs, I knew that the next task ahead was to break the news to my boss, Ronnie. My hands were clammy and slicked with sweat as I maneuvered my car to Ronnie’s house on the outskirts of DeRidder on a humid afternoon in June of 2011. The visit, after all, wasn’t just about my faith but my future with BIG. Ronnie had hired me with the promise that I would take over the reins of the company and because he was about five years away from retirement he’d already put my name on BIG’s bank account. So I was wracked with guilt about my involvement with the Clergy Project; I didn’t want Ronnie feeling like he was giving the company he’d worked so long to build to a man he no longer knew. It just didn’t feel right to keep where I was at spiritually a secret. It was true that Ronnie knew me as charismatic preacher who was no longer preaching but atheism was something else entirely. Sitting in Ronnie’s back porch that afternoon, I laid out my newfound views about God and religion. “Even if the whole world calls you an atheist,” Ronnie replied, “it won’t change us. And it won’t change your place in the company.” In that moment, I’d achieved something I hadn’t been able to make happen in the twenty-five years since I’d entered the ministry: I resolved my work and faith. My family was fine, my finances ever better, and my boss said that he was okay with atheism. Things had finally come together.

That summer, while talking with my fellow ministers online at the Clergy Project, I learned about two major upcoming events in the atheist community: a banquet to be held by the New Orleans Secular Humanist Association (NOSHA) in September and the Texas Freethought Convention set for October, in Houston. Both events had enormous significance for me that far surpassed mere stops on the atheist convention circuit. I’d been asked to briefly address the NOSHA banquet, which would mark the first time I publicly declared that I didn’t believe in God. At the Freethought Convention, meanwhile, Dawkins himself was going to present the Richard Dawkins Freethinker of the Year Award to a gravely ill Christopher Hitchens, who had become something of a hero of mine thanks to his book God Is Not Great.

Even though the NOSHA banquet was held at a small, 1970sera Italian seafood restaurant in the New Orleans suburbs, I was so nervous when I stood before the crowd that I could see only the flash of cameras. Fortunately, when I got behind the podium I slipped easily back into preacher mode. “Reason and science,” I told the crowd that day, “have done more to ease human suffering in the last two hundred years than all the sermons put together have done in the last two thousand.” The line brought a standing ovation and when the MC took the stage to introduce the next speaker, Dan Barker’s wife, Annie Laurie Gaylor, he said with a laugh, “I don’t know how she’s gonna follow that.” After the banquet, I toured the French Quarter with Annie Laurie and felt a profound sense of belonging and inner peace. My public “coming out” as an atheist had been received rapturously and now I was walking down Bourbon Street with Dan’s family. Life simply couldn’t get any better. But as we took in the honky-tonk Bourbon Street bars, Annie Laurie asked if I’d be a guest on Dan’s Freethought Radio podcast and my serenity was shattered. Speaking to a small assembly of humanists in New Orleans was a private affair, a moment shared by NOSHA members and the few who later happened upon pictures of me from the organization’s newsletter. Dan’s podcast, by contrast, was on the Internet, where the audience was potentially limitless. With the podcast invite, I had to admit to myself that what I’d found so exciting about my transition to atheism thus far—which was composed solely of poring over atheist books in my kitchen and addressing a tiny group of atheists in a city far from my home in DeRidder—was how easy it had all been. I felt like I was getting away with it. The consequences I feared, such as becoming shunned by my friends and my community, had not come to pass, but I hadn’t even begun to face the consequences. That led to a realization that my greatest fear in embracing atheism was not a loss of meaning or hope after faith but of rejection—I was consumed with what my wife, son and boss all thought of me.

The night before the podcast that September, I sat awake in bed with worry. On the Internet, I thought to myself, there’s no taking it back. To relax my nerves, I put on my headphones, fired up my iPod and Christina Perri’s “Jar of Hearts” washed over me. The song, about a final turn away from an obsessive love (“Now you want me one more time . . . / but I have grown too strong / To ever fall back in your arms”) perfectly captured the moment. My religion, my history, my tradition all whispered to me, telling me to refuse to do

Dan’s show—to give in to religion just one more time. I knew that if I participated in Dan’s podcast the next day, my love affair with Christianity would once and for all be over. Late that night and early into the next morning I put “Jar of Hearts” on repeat. I must have listened to the song dozens of times and its chorus—“I have grown too strong / To ever fall back in your arms”—brought tears to my eyes every time. Yet when I did Dan’s podcast the next day, to my amazement it turned out to be as without consequence as the NOSHA banquet. I didn’t hear a word about it from any of my friends and family in DeRidder. I’m truly getting away with it, I thought then.

It was a high that lasted into October when Paul and I drove to Houston to see Hitchens at the Freethought Convention. That fall, Hitchens was being treated for esophageal cancer at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and nobody knew if he would actually make it to the Freethought Convention. There was an air of raw excitement and anticipation surrounding the event, which was held at the Hyatt Regency on October 8. Hitchens hadn’t appeared in public for months and for Paul and me it was our very first encounter with the great public intellectual. When the banquet began that night, a group of staffers walked onto the dais, followed by Dawkins and then Hitchens, who wore a loose, rumpled blue-and-white dress shirt and khaki pants, both of which seemed to envelop his slender, sickly frame. As Hitchens walked into the auditorium, the attendees stood one by one and began clapping. Before long, the entire room, which was packed with well over a thousand people, was on its feet and clapping ferociously for Hitchens. In that moment, if a speaker took to the podium and announced that we could save Hitchens’s life if every person donated at least one year from their own lives, the entire room would have granted the request without a second thought. This moment of such pure love for a dying man instantly ranked as high spiritually for me as finding my faith at Swaggart’s. “Hitch is in a foxhole,” Dawkins said in his short speech honoring Hitchens, a pointed allusion to the well-worn cliché that there are no atheists in foxholes, “and he’s dealing with it with a dignity that any of us would be proud to muster.” Hitchens then rose to the podium slowly and though his voice was raspy and his speech was labored the clarity of his ideas was astonishing. The speech was quintessentially Hitchens, with its sharpest barbs directed at Jewish settlers in Israel and Islamists alike, those who “look forward to the common destruction of our species with relish.”

When Hitchens was finished, he took a seat next to Dawkins on the stage. It was beautiful to witness Dawkins’s tender treatment of Hitchens. Dawkins doted on Hitchens’s every need and when Hitchens said that he’d like to stay a little longer if that was okay, we all felt that the frailty of that remark, coming from the most pugilistic of polemicists, was heartbreaking in its humanity. It touched upon a truth that we felt: all of us in the auditorium that day were wishing he could stay a little longer. Toward the end of the question-and-answer session, an eight-year-old girl rose from the audience and asked Hitchens what books he’d recommend for her to read. Hitchens told the girl that she and her mother should meet him in the hallway later and, sure enough, when the event was over there was Hitchens, surrounded by well wishers snapping photos on their phones and digital cameras, sharing his reading list with the little girl. As Hitchens conversed with the girl and her mother, the crowd surrounding them grew so overwhelmingly large that a young female staffer shouted herself hoarse trying to disperse it. “We’re trying to get Hitchens to the hospital,” she told me in a sandpapery voice, “and no one will listen to me.” I straightened my suit jacket and stood, like a preacher at the pew, on high atop a chair. “May I have your attention please,” I shouted to the throng, “the hotel needs everyone to vacate the corridor.” The crowd dispersed and Dawkins and Hitchens made a fast escape to the hotel elevators. It felt great to make even a small connection with Hitchens, who would leave our world just two months later.

Excerpted from "Hope After Faith: An Ex-Pastor's Journey From Belief to Atheism" by Jerry DeWitt with Ethan Brown. Published by Da Capo Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2013 by Jerry DeWitt. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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