Thursday, June 20, 2013 |
First aired on Q (17/6/13)
Jerry DeWitt was once a successful Pentecostal preacher from deep within the Bible Belt. He preached at two churches, was deeply connected with the Christian community and had visions of Jesus. Fast forward three years, and DeWitt is now one of the most active and prominent atheists in America. He gives motivational speeches across the country and works with other prominent atheists, such as Richard Dawkins. So, what happened? DeWitt hopes to explain this in his new book, Hope After Faith.
DeWitt decided to become a minister after witnessing Pentecostal pastor Jimmy Swaggart preach. He, like many teenagers, was confused about his place and purpose in the world and looking for answers. Deep in the Bible Belt, in DeRidder, Louisiana, "religion was the only game in town," it appeared that these answers lay within the church. "My desire was to try to lessen human suffering," he told Q host Jian Ghomeshi. "Life is difficult. The experiences we go through, they force our humanity to look for something larger, larger than life, larger than ourselves. And that makes religion extremely, extremely attractive."
DeWitt immediately fell in love with preaching. "I loved to perform and I loved the feedback that you get from the audience," he said. "It's seductive. its not only seductive, its addictive." And, for many years, he believed in God and in the good that he was doing by preaching. "I saw visions. I saw a vision of Christ that I believed was completely real. I felt like I heard the voice of God. I thought I had seen miracles." After preaching for over two decades, DeWitt began questioning elements of religion and began to have doubts -- doubts he kept to himself. He did this partly because he loved preaching and its power to reach people, despite his own weakening connection to the church. But it was also because DeRidder is the kind of place where everyone knows everyone else and everyone is involved in the church. "I don't think you could throw a rock without hitting a church window."
But fate had other plans for DeWitt. A photo circulated on the internet of him meeting with famous atheist Richard Dawkins, and his world crumbled around him. He lost his job. His wife left. He lost his house. His community rejected him. But then he realized he had a new cause -- and nothing left to lose. He still loved connecting with people and doing good. But instead of preaching about Christianity, he decided to preach about his new beliefs: atheism. DeWitt believes anyone, anywhere, should be allowed to change their mind about faith without fear of persecution. He explains that people are allowed to grow and change and adapt and our differences should be discussed and celebrated, not cause for scorn.
Despite his new cause and growing fame, DeWitt still lives in DeRidder, where he gets a lot of reactions to being an "out" atheist. His favourite reactions are from the few people who let him know they, too, questioned their faith. It's a new kind of confession for DeWitt, one that's whispered across grocery aisles or sent through covert emails.
"That's why I stay in DeRidder," DeWitt said. "So people know they are not alone."