Jerry DeWitt Holds His First ‘Secular Service’ in Louisiana

For those of us who weren’t in Louisiana yesterday, former pastor Jerry DeWitt hosted the state’s first-ever “Secular Service” with a theme of “Joie De Vivre: To Delight In Being Alive”:

The New York Times already has some positive coverage of the event:

Mr. DeWitt counts himself among the hard-line atheists, but he believes that something may be lost when someone leaves the church — not just the parts about God, but also a sense of community and a connection to emotion.

“There are many people that even though they come to this realization, they miss the way the church works in a way that very few other communities can duplicate,” he said in a phone interview. “The secular can learn that just because we value critical thinking and the scientific method, that doesn’t mean we suddenly become disembodied and we can no longer benefit from our emotional lives.”

To paraphrase something Daniel Dennett once said, religion has us beat when it comes to emotion — they can say, “Join us and you’ll matter.” For a long time, we’ve ignored that emotional component of atheism. It’s too touchy-feely for many of us. But Jerry shows us why we shouldn’t discard it completely. He can draw people to his service who might not otherwise come to any other atheist conference.

More power to him.

There’s rough video of the service available courtesy of sfbayou (though, given the number of video cameras you can see, I’m sure better quality footage will turn up elsewhere…)



About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

    He’s certainly free to do this and people are free to attend. I don’t want what I say to be misinterpreted to mean that I think this should be shut down. (I wouldn’t do that even if I had the power to do so, which I do not.) But I have no interest in attending any event operated in this style. It’s everything I hate about megachurches and all the swagger and bullshit that goes with it. Yes, I take issue with the message of people like Joel Osteen, but I also object to the slick, emotional style. I guess this is fine for people who miss that part of religion. It’s the part I was most eager to give up. (In fact I fled to the more sedate mainstream protestant churches before giving up on religion altogether.)

    • allein

      I have to agree with you. I can’t watch the video right now so I don’t know what it was like, but I have seen video of Jerry speaking elsewhere. If it’s at all like a mega-church feel that would make me supremely uncomfortable. I can’t say I ever missed the “community” aspect of church. By the time I started really thinking about religion and realized I’m an atheist, it had been years since I had gone to church at all for anything other than a wedding, funeral, or other special event for someone else. And before that it was several years of Christmas and Easter only. I haven’t gone to church on a regular basis since maybe my freshman year of high school (and I have my 20 year reunion coming up..!). An atheist “church service” holds no appeal for me.

      • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

        Agreed.

        And to be clear, I see the point of atheist meet-ups or discussion groups. And of course it’s good to hear someone speak on an important topic (atheist or otherwise) so I understand the point of a meeting place, an organization, and maybe even a lending library. Resources and socialization are good things. I just don’t like adopting the worst elements of modern fundamentalist Christianity.

        I am curious, however, about what we would sing as hymns in Atheist Church. Suggestions?

        • Tainda

          I agree with you on all points. If people want that, more power to them but it’s way too churchy for me.

          And I suggest Heaven Nor Hell by Volbeat. My personal favorite anyway lol

          • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

            Frank Turner has a song called “Glory
            Hallelujah”. The chorus is:

            There is no God,
            So clap your hands together,
            There is no God,
            No heaven and no hell.
            But there is no God,
            We’re all in this together,
            There is no God,
            So ring that victory bell.

            <3 Frank Turner (all his stuff) so much. I didn't even know he'd made this song until after I saw him in concert and he sang it. I was thrilled; about half of the audience (in Houston) looked a little uncomfortable.

            • Tainda

              I will have to check that out!

              Any Tool song (Opiate comes to mind)

              And of course I can’t leave out my favorite band, Godsmack with Bad Religion. May have to get a “congregation” together just to see how that would work :P

        • allein

          Tim Minchin and Tom Lehrer? :)

          I have looked into atheist meetups in my area but I didn’t see anything really close or that looked interesting enough to drive a bit for. If it’s something like just a social thing to hang out and have a drink and meet people, and/or maybe some kind of community service/volunteer to do something good sort of thing, I might be interested in that (though I have some social anxiety issues so that kind of thing is hard for me, anyway). If it’s a debate/discussion group sort of thing, I wouldn’t really be interested.

    • allein

      but I also object to the slick, emotional style

      This, too. When I did go to church, the parts I liked most were the music and the quieter moments. I don’t remember ever really praying but the peace of those moments was always nice. There’s something about churches (older ones, at least, and my childhood church was built in 1834 I think) that I find really calming (I think a lot of it has to do with the acoustics and the plush carpeting; there’s probably some physics-based reason for it ;) ). The Christmas Eve service we always went to was the 11:00 candlelight service, and that was always really pretty. Every video of mega-church services I’ve seen has made me slightly uncomfortable just watching on my computer. I think actually being there would make me want to run screaming from the room.

      • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

        Not to mention that the Evangelical churches (and some others too) have tossed out 800 years of excellent music and replaced it with the most banal, watered down faux pop music you could imagine. No thank you.

        • allein

          Ugh, I can’t stand that shit. I went to my friend’s church for her daughter’s baptism a couple weeks ago (really her mom’s church; my friend and her husband aren’t particularly religious and they were really just doing it for her mom) and they had all “contemporary Christian music.” Including rap. To the tune of “OPP” (you down with GOD?). Luckily that part was recorded because I don’t think I would have been able to keep a straight face if one of the middle-aged white guys in the choir started rapping.

    • Frank Key

      We have an atheist congregation here in Dallas area and the meetings are nothing like Mr. DeWitt’s. His was very Jerry-centric while the ones here focus more on community participation. The last thing I would want to see is an atheist group that develops into a personality cult like is seen in the mega-churches. It appears that although Jerry has left the church, the church has not left Jerry.

      Having lived in Louisiana for almost a decade I can attest that in the land of Purple, Green and Gold, no colors say “Joie de vivre” less than Black. About the only people seen wearing all black are the Jesuit priests. If DeWitt wants to bring joy of living to his attendees, I suggest a more joyously colored wardrobe makeover.

      • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

        Where in the Dallas area? I’m also there (Plano area), so if it’s close I might be interested in coming.

      • backmask

        I attended DeWitt’s second service, this time in Lake Charles. He is certainly building a cult of personality that has more to do with buying his book and financing his documentary. He referenced his autobiography several times throughout his sermon, and literally thumped it at times to emphasize his points. A few of his “followers” seemed secretive and defensive. I am definitely concerned about where this is headed, and if it is anything other than harmful.

    • AltheaLost

      I was going to say just this.

    • Zugswang

      Agreed. If it fills a perceived necessity for some atheists, then I welcome such gatherings for those who would seek them, but I am not among them.

      When I became an atheist, I never actively sought a group for external validation of my beliefs, nor did I really find significant personal value in belonging to secular groups or organizations. I never really felt a sense of community in the churches I attended growing up because I never felt as if I had a choice in the matter, and I always hated the contrast between congregants’ falsely pious values in church and what they truly valued during the rest of the week. So it was not an experience I would miss.

      However, I always held great value for those who had similar ideas about social justice, and if they happened to be atheist, then so much the better, as I’d have to spend less time addressing the list of things people think about atheists that are patently false.

  • A3Kr0n

    It’s all about Jerry, I don’t really care about Jerry, and I’m sick and tired reading about Jerry.

    • TCC

      So why did you read this article and comment on it?

  • The Other Weirdo

    So it’s a religious schtick sans the religion angle?

  • Regina Carol Moore

    I think most atheists are too intelligent to be talked down to like this. Jerry still seems to want to tell other people how they should be living, but without God.

  • Carmelita Spats

    I don’t think I could sit through a sermon unless the preacher wore a
    cape (Heaven’s Gate Cult), a helmet or a bonnet. I’m easily amused and
    easily distracted so if the orthopraxy includes helmets, bonnets or capes (or a tolerable haircut from a recent decade), they’d have my
    complete attention. I need LOTS of entertainment in the preaching. Case
    in point: I’m atheist but I attend Paul and Jan
    Crouch’s church in Texas
    because I can’t get enough of Jan’s
    pink cotton candy hair and they schedule Branson caliber entertainers
    like The-Overstuffed-Guy-Who-Sings-Christian-Songs-In-A-Baby-Voice.
    I’ve blogged about this for five years. It’s Branson entertainment at
    Chuck E. Cheese prices.

  • Matt

    I’m glad to see more skeptical comments on this article than the last. How is it not crystal clear this guy is a douche who is just trying to extend his career of manipulating people for money?

    • Quintin van Zuijlen

      Dis hw manipulate people for money this time around?

  • Quintin van Zuijlen

    To the people that want this it’s a great service. To those that don’t it’s no disservice, so what complaint could anyone have against it.

  • RTH

    I attended the Secular Service yesterday and enjoyed it. I can understand that the typical atheist meetup attendee might not go in for this sort of thing, but the typical atheist is never going to attend the typical atheist meetup. Most atheists don’t think much about their atheism. They just live their lives.

    Most Christians don’t think much about their Christianity, either. They go to church for the social network and the fun. I know that the idea of church being “fun” probably sounds laughable to atheists who live in New York or Los Angeles or Dallas or New Orleans, but getting together with a hundred or more of your neighbors in a family-friendly environment once or twice a week can be a lot of fun for the scores of millions of Americans who live in small towns.

  • http://neitherheadsnortails.blogspot.com/ Kris Thompson

    I admit, being atheist has left us struggling to find a social group that is cohesive and supportive. Sure, there’s a great ONLINE culture, but the whole “IRL” pickings are pretty slim. We’ve considered the UU route, but the local UU is awfully “woo-ish” for our tastes, and we’re not about to force our teenager to sit through religious education classes. So, hey, maybe this isn’t a bad idea. I don’t know. Since I’m not in Louisiana, I’m not likely to find out.

  • Y. A. Warren

    As if Louisiana needs more emotion. Anywhere you find a Cajun or an Italian you’ll find singing, dancing and great food. New Orleans is crawling with both on every street corner.

  • Joyfool

    Good to see some atheist options developing. I agree that for some people the appeal of the church is ‘community’ and I’ve known people admit privately to being atheist while still remaining a part of a church for this reason. Personally, I agree with those that find his style evangelical and very much about building his own fan base. I’d like to see an atheist community that gets together to discuss ethical dilemmas, how to build community and what spirituality means to atheists (as defined, for example, by A C Grayling). Having said that, if Jerry’s secular church provides the means for some people to escape the theists, then more power to him.


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