Atheist churches are an intriguing, new phenomenon. Considering secularists' rejection of theological elements, the notion that they would borrow a church blueprint from Christians is certainly odd, but their thirst for community seemingly drives the act. TheBlaze recently interviewed Jerry DeWitt, a Pentecostal preacher-turned-atheist who is launching one of America's first atheist chapels to better understand his intentions.
Considering DeWitt's decades-long career as a Christian leader, we asked what it was that led him to eventually reject the existence of a higher power. While some can pin-point single events that led them away from their relationship with God, DeWitt isn't among them.
"There was no one particular event or one particular doctrine ... it was a course of 25 years," he told TheBlaze of his decision to leave faith in the dust.
His story is a fascinating one.
At the age of 17, DeWitt, now 43, began preaching about the "doctrine of hell and eternal punishment." Years later, the foundations of the ministry he had known and loved began to crumble. This, he contends, commenced after he started to investigate theologians' disagreements over the Bible.
"Once I started seeing that there were a lot of different ways of looking at hell ... it slowly, over the course of years, began to dawn on me that it was not as iron clad as I had been told," DeWitt, who recently wrote the book, "Hope After Faith," added.
Over the years, he had moved from fundamentalist Pentecostal to a more liberal Pentecostal church to progressive churches. Still, he couldn't find the perfect fit.
"Eventually, I saw that I was a deist. I can say that at one point at the end of my ministry, I was a deist in the pulpit," he noted.
While he can't think of any specific events that led to his atheism, he does remember when his non-belief officially took hold. In Dec. 2011, his search for the perfect spiritual fit came to a close. It was at that point that atheism no longer seemed to be a choice, as he explained, but it became an overt reality.
Here's a speech he delivered about his path to atheism:
The process of leaving ministry, though, wasn't easy. Wanting to ensure that he didn't hurt church members (he mentioned not wanting to harm their faith in God, despite losing his own), DeWitt was in a tough position. He took a secular job as a building inspector and attempted to more covertly step out of ministry. But it didn't take long for word to spread about why the former minister was distancing himself from the pulpit.
DeWitt claims he was disowned by some and faced "ugly comments" on Facebook as a result of his change-of-heart. He even lost a secular job in 2011 as a result of the community's reaction to his de-conversion.
"I became a building inspector for a friend. We worked together great for almost a year and he really became my best friend," the atheist leader proclaimed. "Once the gossip came to him, he became afraid that people would use it against him. His exact words were that the people he had contracts with told him that they were not happy."
So, DeWitt was fired.
Even his home life was thrown into chaos. Almost losing everything, he told TheBlaze that his wife also left last July, as "she felt like the pressure of being ostracized was more than she could bear." Following this loss, the husband and wife are now trying to work on their relationship; they have a son together.
Clearly, the process of leaving the faith wasn't an easy one. Neither was finding gainful employment.
After he officially became a non-believer, DeWitt said he started speaking and traveling within the secular community. People would randomly give him cash for his time, which inevitably helped keep him afloat. And it led him into his latest endeavor.
DeWitt is now getting back behind the pulpit at a new church he's created called Community Mission Chapel of Lake Charles Louisiana. But the Christian-founding house of worship, as TheBlaze previously reported, is designed mainly for non-believers.
Photo Credit: Jerry DeWitt
In describing the project, DeWitt said that it is intended to be a full-scale church — one where people who are not religious can find community with others like them. Rather than contradicting the work of faith-based houses of worship, in a previous interview with RNS that he wants to do “the same job as traditional religious institutions, only without dogma or supernaturalism.”
Interestingly, DeWitt told TheBlaze that he's not a fan of the term "atheist church," as it is too limiting. Instead, he'd rather have the chapel labeled, more simply, a "church."
"It's more like a church with atheists in it ... we're really wanting to promote secular life," he said.
Right now, the Community Mission Chapel doesn't have an official home, as DeWitt is looking to rent a location that the group can meet at once per month to start (the first sermon is scheduled for August). Already, the former faith leader has held a more general secular service in Baton Rouge -- one that tested the waters for this relatively-new concept.
The chapel he's launching will officially be in Lake Charles, Louisiana -- one of the first of its kind in the U.S.
We asked why there was a need for an atheist church and what, exactly, the difference is between an evangelical Christian congregation and his non-believing cohort. DeWitt highlighted the key disparity.
"So many of the people who leave the church, they're leaving because of the super-naturalism," he said. "It's not the people, it's not listening to people speak for 20 minutes."
DeWitt believes that this may only be the beginning of similar ministries in America (TheBlaze has already covered other atheist churches). With secularism increasing, the atheist leader believes that those who find church community "culturally significant," will seek out its elements in a non-religious setting.
As for what his title at the church will be, DeWitt isn't opposed to being called "pastor."
"We've avoided it so far. If somebody for some reason calls me 'Pastor Jerry,' I'm definitely not going to be disappointed by that at all," he told TheBlaze. "I always enjoyed that title very much. It was similar to my son calling me dad."
At the end of the interview we asked a question that atheists are more-than-familiar with: "What if you're wrong?" He responded, noting that he would simply have to say that he looked for Jesus as hard as he could and was simply unable to find him.
While he once saw a creator hand in everything, he no longer does.
"I very much saw agency... I very clearly saw agency in all of those things up until very recently -- and now what I see is the beauty that is possible given the vastness of time that evolution and natural selection has had," DeWit said. "To me, it seems like even if it were all simply an accident, it's still incredibly beautiful and majestic."
"One thing we know for sure is that we are here and we do have the opportunity to enjoy it," he concluded.
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