From Secret Meetings to Public Events: It’s Good to be “Out”

On Sunday, June 15th, Jerry Dewitt and I had a reunion in Washington, DC that we never foresaw back when we first met.  That auspicious and surreptitious event took place in the summer of 2011, down in Lake Charles, Louisiana when Jerry took part in the Dennett-LaScola study of non-believing clergy.  Back then, Jerry was still a part-time Pentecostal preacher who had yet to go public with his non-belief and I was about halfway through interviews with 35 people (including clergy, religion students and seminary professors) that eventually became part of the 2013 book, Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind .

When CFI (Center for Inquiry) DC asked if I could bring one of the pastors from the study along for my book discussion, I immediately thought of Jerry.  First of all, he’s one of the few pastors in the study who is “out.” Many are still in the pulpit or, if not, they left quietly (like Adam).  Secondly, Jerry has become a well-known personality in atheist/humanist circles, using his big personality and even bigger pastor’s voice to inform and entertain people all over the country.

The crowd at CFI seemed to enjoy our re-enactment of scenes from our interviews almost as much as Jerry and I did.  We realized that when we walked into the room, set up with a table and two chairs, we instinctively went in to the same position we sat in while in Lake Charles.  I told the audience how I couldn’t find anything but truck stops between the Lake Charles airport and Jerry’s hometown of DeRidder, 50 miles away, and Jerry told them how relieved he was to meet me outside of DeRidder where everyone knows him and people might wonder why he was going to the only hotel in town three days in a row to see some Yankee lady.

We laughed remembering the second interview, when Jerry arrived a few minutes late, apologizing that people “praying at the pumps” had delayed him.  He had to explain to me that people down in those parts will stop whatever they are doing to spontaneously pray, and in this case, a prayer broke out at the gas station – blocking Jerry’s way out until the prayer was over. It would have been to rude to honk in the middle of the prayer and ask them to move.   It helps to know the local customs. If I had been in that situation, I surely would have honked, not realizing what it meant when people jumped out of their truck and huddled together in front of a gas pump.

Most of our time at the CFI meeting was spent reading excerpts from of our interviews and taking questions from the audience after each excerpt.  It was especially interesting for me to see how much of what Jerry talked about in the interviews has since come to pass.   He said he “wanted everyone to know” about his change in beliefs so he could get “out from under this charade.”  His book and his many public appearances have certainly accomplished that.  The charade is over and people are full of questions about Jerry’s experience.

Jerry was sure he’d be fired if his boss in his building-inspector job found out that he no longer believed.   During the interviews, he told me,  “If all of a sudden I become the atheist, as far as they know, I’m going to forge reports and lie about inspections, and cheat people out of money.”   Sadly, he was right about that too — being fired, I mean, not lying and cheating.  Jerry’s honesty actually improved after coming out. Like so many of the pastors I’ve spoken with, he hated being disingenuous about his religious beliefs and is incredibly relieved to be out of that situation.

Unfortunately, the CFI session wasn’t videotaped, so I can’t provide a YouTube link.   You can find out more about Jerry in his book, Hope after Faith and more about my interviews with non-believing clergy here and here.

Editor’s Question:   For those of you who have come out, either quietly or with a bang, how does it feel to be on the other  side?

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About Linda LaScola

Linda LaScola is co-author, with Daniel C. Dennett, of Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind (2013) and “Preachers who are not Believers” (2010). She is an independent qualitative research consultant who works out of Washington, D.C. She holds a Master’s Degree in Social Work from the Catholic University of America and is a co-founder of the Clergy Project.

  • Maine_Skeptic

    I’ve enjoyed hearing Jerry speak on podcasts and in his audiobook, which I recommend for anyone who is curious about the journey from believer to atheist. I’m in New England now, but I have history and roots in the Deep South, and I got “saved” and “spirit-filled” in Texas. Even though I’m not an ex-preacher, Jerry’s story– and his voice– were like a visit home… awkward family moments and all.

    Jerry also sets an example for believers AND Skeptics in his approach to life. When he thought Christianity was the truth, he sacrificed a lot for the sake of his faith. For every corrupt televangelist getting rich on other people’s faith there are probably hundreds of Jerry Dewitts living on faith and little else.

    The thing is that most people who’d sacrificed so much for their faith couldn’t bring themselves to pay the high cost of leaving it. When Jerry realized Christianity wasn’t true, he still valued the truth so much that he was willing to sacrifice AGAIN. This time, he knew he might lose everything but a clean conscience.

    More admirable still: he has a generosity of spirit that eludes most people who’ve had much easier lives. His book is no list of complaints; he doesn’t spend much time assigning blame. It’s just the story of a painful journey that he wants to make easier for other people. What a guy!

  • Justas399 .

    What made Jerry think that Christianity was no longer true?

    • Maine_Skeptic

      You would do best to get his book for the answer to that. People leave Christianity for a lot of reasons, and it would be difficult to describe the nuances of another person’s reasons. The Bible’s many flaws and false statements played a major role.

    • Jerry DeWitt

      Hello Justas399,
      Thanks for asking. That’s a great question…but very, very complicated to answer here.
      But I will share this, the first issue was the doctrine of Hell. When I discovered that the idea of Hell (the way I was taught it) and the bible were often in conflict, pieces of my belief system began to fall apart. Yet it took many years for me to see that not only was the bible “man made” but all of my supernatural concepts were as well.

  • Flaricka

    Jerry DeWitt has been my hero for quite some time now. I had the honor of meeting him in person when he spoke at our local Freethought meeting. I think so many people can relate to his personal journey, even if they were never preachers. He is honest, down-to-earth, and inspiring. The big guns like Dawkins and Hitchens may have the intellectual voice of atheism, but Mr. DeWitt has the heart and soul, and can speak for Everyman in his own unique style. I would have loved to have seen this interview Thank you for sharing, Ms. LaScola!

  • http://richardzanesmith.wordpress.com/ Sohahiyoh

    to answer the editors question “how does it feel to be on the other side?”
    sometimes its incredibly wonderful and full of clarity and light. There is a peace, and also a sense of excitement in FURTHER exploration of reality. Other times the images i’ve carried with me all my life haunt me. (like the two imagined characters in “A Beautiful Mind” that ceaselessly follow)…my image of God is some times fading, sometimes walking off in disgust, or sorrow, and i then I feel a kind of frightening sense of loss or abandonment..and at times fear for my soul.

    I was raised in a bed of intellectualized Christianity , my folks were always surrounded by artists, poets, and philosophers. They laughed they partied, discussions might last the entire night, and they took up social issues and were disgusted by religious Christian fundamentalism. They taught us the gospel because for them it gave them hope and assurances of eternal life. They admired CS Lewis and read Rabbi Abraham Heschel.

    I also followed the Christian faith in that way, and certainly embraced it as truth. I remember saying to another die hard evangelical.”if i ever found out this was not true, i would go to war against it to expose it as the biggest fraud because it infuriates me that it would deceive me.” My friends response was more sobering “If i found out Christianity wasn’t true…I would commit suicide.”

    I am not an atheist… i have had too many amazing things happen in my life that i don’t choose to “rationalize” away. But I do feel that whatever “Creator” is, it is more than I could ever comprehend. I still give prayers of grateful thanks at our traditional (Native American) ceremonies in our own language, and i am sincere when i express this gratitude to the one that i have begun to understand as the greatest mystery ever. Life is an incredible sacred thing, its precious because its short and unpredictable, and its sacred because the chances of ME (not just a human being) existing are too amazing to comprehend…so i’m grateful.

    • Linda_LaScola

      Thanks for your response, Sohahiyo. What you say raises other questions. It sounds like your upbringing was in a liberal christianity and you became evangelical later in life — right? and then rejected that.

      • http://richardzanesmith.wordpress.com/ Sohahiyoh

        actually Linda, I was raised fairly strongly evangelical by both parents, though very liberal politically and in regard to social issues and the arts. My parents started a house church in the late 60s early 70s, and it was called a “hippie church” with a sit down pot-luck every Sunday. I did drift into some rather fundie directions as a teen, but my folks were patient. My dad would give me books like Zen and the Art of Archery, a story of Che Guivera, and yet they wholeheartedly believed the Bible was “God-breathed” though not all stories were necessarily to be taken literally. My dad eventually came to believe that a God of Grace could not send anyone to a place of eternal torment. But he always believed the “true Church” was the redeemed “Bride of Christ”…and obedience to the “Word” was essential for a life of joy. He has recently died, a strong believer to the end and wanted to die with a cross in his hands..which i believe he did…but also a book by Rabbi Abraham Heschel at his side. Perhaps his crisis about hell came about when he could NOT accept the teaching that someone like Heschel would be doomed to eternal damnation.

        • Linda_LaScola

          thanks – interesting — and complicated

          • http://richardzanesmith.wordpress.com/ Sohahiyoh

            Thanks for letting me share! Sometimes a coming away is not from horrific divorce-like experiences and maybe questioning ones need to understand this. Sometimes its simply a process of growth as one searches for the truth of reality as it is…one simply begins to move on

  • Debbie Robinson

    I read this book almost by accident I found it one night while looking for something to read. While the story by itself is fascinating, it was hugely helpful to me on an emotional level. I grew up in a religious tradition almost exactly like this, which while mainstream in the USA is more fringe here. It arrived in the 1970s and did a lot of damage. Reading this book helped me to let go of a lot of anger I didn’t even realise I was still holding onto about the American style preachers. It gave me insights I really need to see. Jerry is a beautiful human being – it take a lot of courage to give up social standing and tell the truth because it is the right thing to do.

  • Mick

    That business about not honking while praying at the pump is one of the reasons religion has been able to retain so much power for so long. The believers are given so much respect that they eventually assume they deserve such respect – and then they demand it. They should be honked at every time their rituals interfere with the lives of others.

  • gimpi1

    If Mr. Dewitt was fired for leaving his faith, he has an action for a suit based on religious discrimination. I’m sure he could find a lawyer to to take the case pro-bono. Losing a job because you changed your religious belief is outrageous.


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