Jerry Coyne directs our attention to a harrowing, but important, article from The New York Times Magazine. It is a profile of Jerry DeWitt, a former Pentecostal preacher who discovered, after more than twenty-five years in the biz, that he no longer believed any of the things he was preaching. Here’s the opening:
Late one night in early May 2011, a preacher named Jerry DeWitt was lying in bed in DeRidder, La., when his phone rang. He picked it up and heard an anguished, familiar voice. It was Natosha Davis, a friend and parishioner in a church where DeWitt had preached for more than five years. Her brother had been in a bad motorcycle accident, she said, and he might not survive.
DeWitt knew what she wanted: for him to pray for her brother. It was the kind of call he had taken many times during his 25 years in the ministry. But now he found that the words would not come. He comforted her as best he could, but he couldn’t bring himself to invoke God’s help. Sensing her disappointment, he put the phone down and found himself sobbing. He was 41 and had spent almost his entire life in or near DeRidder, a small town in the heart of the Bible Belt. All he had ever wanted was to be a comfort and a support to the people he grew up with, but now a divide stood between him and them. He could no longer hide his disbelief. He walked into the bathroom and stared at himself in the mirror. “I remember thinking, Who on this planet has any idea what I’m going through?” DeWitt told me.
I saw DeWitt speak at the American Atheists Convention in Bethesda earlier this year. It was probably the best talk I attended, full of humor but also deeply serious.
Anyway, you probably know what’s coming:
DeWitt never meant to go public with his unbelief. He figured he could “stay under the radar,” he said, and continue working as a buildings inspector in DeRidder, where, over the years, he had gained a reputation as a community champion and was talked about as a future mayor. But when he heard that Richard Dawkins would be attending a Freethinkers gathering in Houston, he couldn’t resist. He took a day off, without telling his boss where he was going. He got a picture taken of himself and his son Paul (who was then 19 and who has never been religious) with Dawkins. DeWitt posted the photograph on his Facebook page, assuming that “nobody in DeRidder knew who Dawkins was.” He also, perhaps unwisely, updated the “religious views” box on his Facebook page to read “secular humanist.”
It was his grandmother’s cousin, an 84-year-old woman he knew as Aunt Grace, who saw that page and outed him. Word spread quickly. On Dec. 1, his boss asked to meet him at a diner in town. Sitting at the table, the man took out two printouts from secular Web sites with DeWitt’s name on it. “He told me: ‘The Pentecostals who run the parish are not happy, and something’s got to be done,’” DeWitt recalled. “Half an hour later I was out of a job.” (His former boss did not respond to phone calls seeking comment.)
Almost at once, DeWitt became a pariah in DeRidder. His wife found herself ostracized in turn, and the marriage suffered. She moved out in June. He received a constant stream of hate messages — some threatening — and still does, more than seven months later. He played me a recent one he had saved on his cellphone as we ate lunch at a diner in town. “It’s just sickening to hear you try to turn people atheist,” a guttural voice intoned. It went on and on, telling DeWitt to go to hell in various ways. “I’m not going to sit around while you turn people against God,” the voice said at one point.
When people discuss the pernicious effects of religion on society, there is a tendency to focus on the big things. Crusades and inquisitions, for example, or the oppression of women in Islamic and Catholic theocracies. (To which the religious folks usually reply, lamely, with invocations of Hitler and Stalin.)
These are certainly important issues, but they also miss the point. When you want to understand why religion is deservedly the target of scorn and ridicule, you should look to the day-to-day cruelty it inflicts on the lives of actual people. DeWitt’s story is the daily reality for atheists in large swaths of this country. And not just atheists, of course, but for homosexuals, or members of minority religions, or of anyone else who lets it be known they are swimming against the current. And don’t even try to argue that religion promotes compensating goods, such as encouraging a strong sense of community. As the article makes plain it is not community religion promotes, but tribalism.
Here’s another interesting nugget:
Afterward, we met with the church’s founding pastor in an elegantly appointed office adjoining the main auditorium. He was a 79-year-old man named George Glass, with a wrinkled face and a magnificent deep voice full of warmth and gravitas. He hugged us both as we came in, chiding DeWitt for having stayed away for so long. We sat down, and over the course of an hour, he spoke movingly about his own struggles as a younger man, when he lost his first ministry and had to start from scratch. He reassured DeWitt that he understood his doubts and did not think any less of him. As we said our goodbyes at the door, Glass spoke again in his slow, Southern cadence, fixing DeWitt with his gaze. “The thing of it is,” he said, and we all waited as he allowed a weighty pause to fill the air — “you’ve just got to keep your mouth shut.”
Everyoen laughed. But I did later wonder if all the public atheism had done DeWitt more harm than good. Couldn’t he have remained a nominal Christian, as so many others have? Even the old pastor, George Glass, acknowledged that others in the church had had problems with literalist claims about the Bible, and prefer not to talk about it. It is easy to see why. Open confrontation with faith, some would say, just provokes angry gestures from the faithful. In DeWitt’s case, those gestures had taken a wrecking ball to the life he spent 42 years building. He was once seen as a potential mayor of DeRidder. He helped clean up some of the town’s uglier spots when he worked at City Hall, and he knew the insides of almost every building in town; he knew and cared about most of the residents. Now many of them, he was told, believed he was a Satanist.
But it wasn’t opening his mouth that got him into trouble. He was not prostletyzing on street corners or picketing churches or anything like that. He was photographed with Richard Dawkins and he self-described as a secular humanist. That was it. That was enough to bring down the wrath of the town. The mere fact that he privately rejected the teachings of his church was enough to destroy his life.
Tell me again about how religion is all about awe and mystery and a profound respect for the unknown.