BETHESDA, Md. – In the span of just a few months, Jerry DeWitt went from a respected pastor with a vibrant congregation to an atheist without a job.
DeWitt, 42, is the first "graduate" of The Clergy Project, a program supported by several atheist organizations that assists pastors who have lost their faith to "come out" as atheists to family, friends, congregations and communities.
DeWitt, who lives in Southern Louisiana, went public last October when he posted a picture of himself with the prominent and polarizing atheist Richard Dawkins, snapped at a meeting of atheists and other "freethinkers" in Houston.
Speaking in March before a cheering crowd of several hundred unbelievers at the American Atheists conference here, he described posting the picture as "committing identity suicide."
The response was swift. His congregation put him out, friends cut him off and some family members will not speak to him, he said.
"It is not just finances and it is not just career," he said in the fire-and-brimstone cadences of his Pentecostal background. "It is everything that you hold dear."
But there are gains, too. "With a little help from my friends, I have learned how to do more than survive," he said.
DeWitt's transition from true believer to total skeptic took 25 years. It began, he said, with the idea of hell. How could it be, as he had been taught and preached, that a loving God would damn most people to eternal fire? "This thing called hell, it began to rock my world," he said.
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