Atheist Preaching

Two of the most striking of many interesting speakers at the Reason Rally and the American Atheists convention were Nate Phelps and Jerry DeWitt, who were both affiliated with the organization Recovering From Religion which, among other things tries to get recent deconverts to therapists who won’t do what most therapists apparently do and tell them they need to “get right with their religion”. I found Phelps’s speech (which you can watch here) poignant primarily for the somber way he countered, contrasted with, and repudiated his father’s and his family’s hatreds. I found DeWitt interesting for the way that he embraced his Pentecostal idioms and put them to the service of a form of rousing atheist “preaching”.

Former Pentecostal preacher Jerry DeWitt only admitted to himself he was an atheist less than a year ago. Not knowing where to turn, he googled Dan Barker since he remembered that Dan had written a book about leaving the ministry upon becoming an atheist. Dan, who DeWitt describes as the closest thing to a real life Jesus, took the time to call DeWitt and eventually DeWitt became part of the Clergy Project. The Clergy Project is a community of closeted clergy who secretly no longer believe in their faith and who provide support for each other as they contemplate the difficult life and the possible career moves involved in coming clean to the world about their loss of religious beliefs. It would not be long until DeWitt went ahead and outed himself on Facebook as an atheist in October by posting a picture of himself with Richard Dawkins. There were several things that I either liked or found fascinating about DeWitt.

Firstly, it resonated deeply with me that he framed his deconversion as “identity suicide”. Although I am long over it now, that was the most initially traumatic thing about leaving Christianity for me. I had no idea who I was or could be without Christianity and I felt a serious loss in realizing that all the Christian accomplishments in which I had placed my pride and self-satisfaction were all not only a waste but downright counter-productive to the real advancement of truth.

Secondly, I appreciated DeWitt’s implicit apology for being so wrong for so many years. He stressed the deep ways that his religious identity bound him to the faith and the ways that deep family associations warped his sense of the world so profoundly from the start. It’s good for atheists to be reminded that religious people are usually accepting the only world they’ve ever known and are not always willfully obtuse.

Thirdly, I appreciated that he stressed that there were two constants motivating him in his faith and which eventually led him to his unbelief, and they were the love of truth and the love of people. He wanted desperately to stop people from going to hell if that was the truth of what would happen to them. And he spent 25 years trying to work out the truth about who goes to hell until he first theologized away all belief in hell and then finally reasoned away all belief in such theological delusions whatsoever.

In the post that I consider definitive of this blog I explained how it was my religious commitment to truth that made me an atheist. And, so, my turn to atheism really represented my last and most decisive religious act, which culminated years of religious ardor. I think this fact about my and many other apostates’ deconversions should be much more respected by the supposed defenders of religion who want to shut up atheists for daring to criticize religious beliefs. For us apostates, our religious experience is one of disillusionment and deconversion, but it is still a religious experience in many ways. Many of us could not leave devout Christianity except as devout Christians. Anyone who wants to respect all religious beliefs and experiences, to be fair, should honor our apostate experiences and our moral rights to spread the word about them and to criticize our former communities, as much as any other religious experiences and as much as intra-faith debates.

And about a year before I deconverted, while still in college, a nihilistically doubting Christian friend talked about his feelings that if there were no God he would wake up in the morning one day and just not move as there would be no point to living. Though at the time I still believed relatively confidently and was trying through seemingly endless dialectic to persuade my friend to believe, I nonetheless speculated that even were I not to believe, that I would still clearly love what I already loved. I would still care about truth and care about people. There not being a God would make no difference to any love motivation.

So, in substance, I connected with DeWitt’s experience a whole lot. I too was a Christian because I loved truth and people and I too deconverted because of my commitment to those values. But what was, so to speak, a revelation and a puzzle was DeWitt’s style of presentation.

DeWitt essentially delivered a full-out atheistic sermon in the southern Pentecostal style.

It was a tale of being lost and found, mired in the muck and raised up. It was delivered with all the humor and emotional rhythms we have seen a million times. And it was fascinating. The crowd ate it up. The whole time, DeWitt made jokes aimed right at the irony of what he was doing in coopting such a highly specific form of speaking, one barely if ever replicated outside of a very specific kind of religious sermonizing, and using it to talk to atheists about the goodness of atheism. It was surreal and fascinating. The line between irony and seriousness was totally blurred. He got numerous huge rounds of applause for rousing lines. The room felt like it was on the verge of getting “Amens” numerous times and he even got a couple by the end, even as he joked about it the whole way. And I saw an atheist woman afterwards come up to him and express a great excitement and a warmed heart from getting a taste of this style of preaching she fondly remembered from days doing something with church music as a believer—but now fortunately without all the bogus Christianity involved.

DeWitt explained afterwards to some of us assembled that he realized that this style of speaking was simply a deep part of him. It is what he does. And he feels like to speak in some other style would actually be disingenuous to who he is. So, as he said in his “sermon”, the answer to the question about what he should do upon leaving the Christian ministry was to keep preaching, rather than to stop, and to keep doing “ministry”, rather than to stop. But now the preaching and the ministry would be on behalf of atheism.

So, what should we think about this? On one level at least, I found the experience really inspiring for the way it coopted powerful rhetorical tools forged in a religious context and satisfyingly turned it against the lies it is normally used to promulgate. It also allowed some of the parallels that deconversion narratives often share with conversion narratives to feel even more explicit in a really fascinating way.

Coincidentally, I had just that morning been explaining to Richard Wade on the train to the convention the ways that I saw recovering alcoholics’ narratives about their debauched drunken days and their eventual redemption as patterned on evangelical conversion stories. I also talked about how, in a strange way, I feel like my own deconversion from evangelicalism was similarly the fulfillment of a narrative planted in me by my evangelicalism itself. Evangelicals grow up with a strong pressure to have a good story about coming out of darkness and into the light. The idea of screwing up your youth and then having a life-altering transformation upon encountering Truth and Redemption is downright idealized. So even though a deconversion is scary and identity destroying and alienating and leaves devout believers with few forms available through which to understand their experience—nonetheless, this is also the kind of destruction of the old self and rebirth into a new self with a new beginning and a betrayal of the past that evangelicals so celebrate in conversions.

I think this at least partly explains why aesthetically, and on a certain emotional level, the entire drama of deconversion always appealed to me (after it had happened). As emotionally devastating and disorienting as it was on one level, there was a lot of romance to it all. I even have a sort of perverse love of the scene in Revenge of the Sith when Anakin converts to the “dark side” due to the Jedi’s inabilities to help him actually cultivate his emotions and powers rather than try to force him to abandon them or limit them.

So, as Richard Wade watched this former evangelical go so far as to present the narrative of his turn to atheism in the precise idiom of a Pentecostal preacher, he turned to me and said, “You were right!” It made the dynamic so clear.

So—is this a good thing? I think in most ways it is, but I have a reservation. There is nothing wrong with a narrative in which “once I was blind but now I see”. This has always been a part of secularism. The Enlightenment’s emphasis on the “light of reason” was coopted, for example, by Descartes from St. Augustine. We need to reclaim some of the emotionally resonant metaphorical terrain that is part of our linguistic and cultural means of expressing certain kinds of experiences. Just because a certain emotionally powerful form of personal narrative was cultivated in evangelical circles does not mean it cannot have genuine parallels among apostates. We are not just ripping them off or somehow remaining Christians. But sometimes we do remain evangelicals, only now atheistic kinds. The apostate’s narrative often just has some basic formal similarities that make it true to co-opt similar categories to evangelicals when conceiving of and narrating what is happening within oneself.

But what about the Pentecostal delivery? I can imagine some atheists with what I like to call “religious PTSD” rejecting it out of hand for its “triggering” connotations that remind them of the shameless charlatans who pioneered, and up through today still, exploit those techniques to manipulate people into falsehoods and religiously based moral corruption. But the vast majority of the auditorium seemed happy to play along with DeWitt and to really enjoy the experiment. He got a hearty standing ovation from a good portion of the room when he was done and was one of the day’s leaders for applause lines for sure.

But the Pentecostal style might also simply look so well practiced and formulaic and manipulative that it is the equivalent of a shameless Hallmark card or a schmaltzy movie providing cheap emotional triggers using the easiest and least respectable methods in the book for pushing people’s buttons.

I think that if the emotional button pushing is a way to make an end-run around reason, that is corrupt and despicable. But if it is to package and deliver rational truths and moral ideals of rationalism to people in a way that will properly align their emotions to what is actually true and ethical, then ultimately I am not convinced there’s anything dishonest or manipulative about that. I am open to arguments though. It may be unseemly for example to ever pitch things to the lowest common denominator like that, but if the virtues of rationalism and atheism are going to spread all throughout society there probably have to be pitches which meet the lowest common denominator where they are, emotionally and intellectually.

As I also explained to Richard the morning before seeing DeWitt, I have preachers’ rhetorical skills and yet for the most part I assiduously avoid them in my classrooms, and instead work with my students dialectically and put the stress on the development of their own reasoning skills. Occasionally, I will get on a roll about something I’m passionate about and reach back to make a rhetorically boosted little speech. But even then I hold back on going quite to preacher levels. And if I do, it’s tempered and not exploitative.

There are two reasons for my hesitation. One is purely technical. I once picked up the interesting advice that if you can do something exceptionally well you should do it only selectively, so as not to diminish its impact. In general you should only put as much rhetorical push into an idea as it needs and save your force for when it’s really needed, always calibrating force applied precisely to what is necessary at every level.

But the more morally serious and germane reason I hesitate to go into preacher mode is that it can be downright anti-dialectical and counter-productive to cultivating an atmosphere of rationalism and habits of careful reasoning. Preaching, rather than just teaching or guiding through questions, runs the risk of inherently training and reinforcing the audience’s infamous preexisting susceptibilities to falling for passions and pretty words at the expense of rational thought. Even if you convince them of your point with your bluster and poetry, you do not train them in careful critical thinking in the process, and so you have not guaranteed they have learned to think for themselves, so much as to simply think like you. And you may have just contributed to their ever ongoing habituation throughout the culture in being led by irrationalistic appeals rather than rational ones. This is not just a pitfall of the parts of our movement that dance with religious forms but also the ones which dance with dubious political rhetorical tactics too.

I’m not sure if it is the case that the preacher’s style is always mutually exclusive with training in critical thinking. Clearly a major part of why it’s so dangerous in actual religions is because it is explicitly coupled with injunctions to just have faith and with countless dubious appeals to unjustified authorities. Can a rationalism which explicitly denounces such things be compatible with some fiery preaching? Can one preach successfully against authoritarianism and faith or is their an implicit bogus appeal to faith in the ungrounded authority of the speaker that is structurally there every time a teacher takes recourse to the tactics of the preacher?

Your Thoughts?

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