Brother Jerry DeWitt has a problem. Since he first felt called to the ministry — a call that came in his teens — he’s been trying to bring about a revival: a gathering of souls that he would lead to Christ. He’s been moving from church to church, building his ministry and trying to get his doctrine right. Nothing seems to fit, and as time passes, it becomes clear to him that the disconnect is less about his failure to find the Word, and more a failure of the Word itself, which contains a myriad of positions that Jerry can’t accept, and contradictions that he ultimately comes to see as lies.
This is the central arc of Hope After Faith: An Ex-Pastor’s Journey from Belief to Atheism (Da Capo Press, 2013). DeWitt starts by taking us back to his roots in DeRidder, Louisiana, to a church culture where religion fundamentally reorders one’s priorities, that sees spirituality as its wellspring, and accepts God as the only possible source of hope. These are people who welcome (Christian) preaching in the public schools and call their minister right after dialing 9-1-1. The first two-thirds of the book catalogue DeWitt’s struggles to balance creating a life for his family with finding his way as a young, Pentecostal preacher. The last third tells the story of his ultimate disillusionment with Christianity, his coming out as an atheist, and the fallout, as his professional and personal life disintegrate and he becomes a pariah.
Where a secular person looks inward to know their own mind, DeWitt looks to prayer and interpretation of doctrine to guide him. Watching him rationalize again and again as he tries desperately to reconcile the words of preachers, and finally the Bible, with his own deeply held humanism is at the same time sad and moving. Jerry is a good person: he wants everyone to be saved and rejects concepts like eternal punishment. As his doubts multiply, he pays for that disconnect with panic attacks, crushing guilt, and a growing sense of isolation. I sympathized with DeWitt’s struggles, but was troubled by the way his personal life mirrored the same ego masked by humility that he found so frustrating in preachers and ministries: though aware of his wife’s frustration with their lifestyle, he uprooted his small family again and again, keeping them in poverty as he followed his dreams of revival. DeWitt would be the first person to admit that he’s as flawed as anyone else, but I would have appreciated a little more self-examination.
This leads me to my primary issue with Hope After Faith. By focusing so sharply on the ups and downs of his church and professional life, DeWitt missed an opportunity to provide details that would have brought the culture and beliefs he grew up with to life for people not steeped in them. Broadening the scope of the book would also have allowed him to speak to some elements noticeably absent: how socially conservative was DeWitt, during his 25 years as a preacher? How did he feel about issues like separation of church and state, the seemingly secondary role of women in Pentecostal culture, or gay marriage? How did those stances evolve as his spiritual beliefs evolved, and how did that impact his relations with his friends and family? Addressing these questions would have bolstered the story of his evolution in ways more engaging to a secular audience than evolving perspectives on biblical doctrine and frustration with preachers and churches. Perhaps he chose to limit his subject matter to make the book more accessible to people living faith-based lifestyles, who might be intrigued by a doctrinal discussion where they would recoil from a policy-based one. Regardless, a more comprehensive narrative, with concrete scenes to ground it, would have made the story more compelling. As it stands, the first two-thirds of the book is a bit slow.
The message of Hope After Faith is one of authenticity and freedom. Jerry is looking for answers — he’s looking for authority; what he finds is his own, moral center. He becomes more fully what he was all along, by shedding the doctrine that was holding him back. This is the essence of all good narrative journeys, and in this, the book is ultimately successful.
There’s value in Hope After Faith for atheists and theists alike. For atheists, the book opens a window to a foreign world, but one where despite a deep commitment to religious belief, rationality can win out. There are many “how to argue with a religious person” texts out there, but very few that walk you through, step by step, the thoughts and feelings over time that bring about fundamental change.
For the religious, there’s a message of life after faith — a potentially better life, but one whose challenges aren’t glossed over. The path that DeWitt paves is littered with sacrifice and loss, but holds a promise of authenticity that might resonate with a segment of the religious population hungry for reason, but unable to see a light at the end of the tunnel.
The message that interested me the most, however, is one that applies to both audiences — that morality comes from within. DeWitt remains essentially himself throughout the story: a humanist who feels that a good life is one led in service. To believe that he was a good man before leaving the church is to believe that you can be a good, moral person even if the core beliefs that drive your values are wrong. To believe that he’s a good man now is to believe that you can have values that define and guide you, without God.
The book flap (and Amazon blurb) note that “atheism’s leading lights have long been intellectuals raised in the secular and academic world” and it contrasts that with DeWitt’s 25-year journey out of faith. A few months ago, I went to an Ethical Humanist Society Meetup where I heard DeWitt (along with Dan Barker) speak. At that time, DeWitt expressed his discomfort with the dismissive way that some of the people in his new, secular world talked about the people that he still loves and considers to be his family. Though I’ve been an atheist my whole life, I’ll admit to some of the same discomfort. I believe that there’s a lot of (often justified) anger and frustration in the atheist community, and it’s not always pretty to watch it play out. At the same time, we’re culturally inculcated to show deference to faith, and learning how to best give voice to an opposing viewpoint is a road that the atheist community is just beginning to travel. Jerry Dewitt — and the growing number of people like him — are an important part of the atheist community, and Hope After Faith is an important signpost along that road.