Hope after Faith

An Ex-Pastor's Journey from Belief to Atheism


By Jerry DeWitt

With Ethan Brown

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Atheism's leading lights have long been intellectuals raised in the secular and academic worlds: Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens. By contrast, Jerry DeWitt was born and bred into the church and was in fact a Pentecostal preacher before arriving at atheism through an extraordinary dialogue with faith that spanned more than a quarter of a century. Hope After Faith is his account of that journey.

DeWitt was a pastor in the town of DeRidder, Louisiana, and was a fixture of the community. In private, however, he'd begun to question his faith. Late one night in May 2011, a member of his flock called seeking prayer for her brother who had been in a serious accident. As DeWitt searched for the right words to console her, speech failed him, and he found that the faith which once had formed the cornerstone of his life had finally crumbled to dust. When it became public knowledge that DeWitt was now an atheist, he found himself shunned by much of DeRidder's highly religious community, losing nearly everything he'd known.

DeWitt's struggle for identity and meaning mirrors the one currently facing millions of people around the world. With both agnosticism and atheism entering the mainstream—one in five Americans now claim no religious affiliation, according to a recent study—the moment has arrived for a new atheist voice, one that is respectful of faith and religious traditions yet warmly embraces a life free of religion, finding not skepticism and cold doubt but rather profound meaning and hope. Hope After Faith is the story of one man's evolution toward a committed and considered atheism, one driven by humanism, a profound moral dimension, and a happiness and self-confidence obtained through living free of fear.


Table of Contents



CHAPTER ONE:  God Loves Everyone

CHAPTER TWO:  God Saves Everyone

CHAPTER THREE:  God Is in Everyone

CHAPTER FOUR:   God Is Everyone’s  Internal Dialogue

CHAPTER FIVE:   God Is a Delusion









To my beloved late grandfather, my Paw-Paw,

Paul Gordon Williamson



Skepticism is my Nature,
Freethought is my Methodology,
Agnosticism is my Conclusion,
Atheism is my Opinion
and Humanism is my Motivation.



He that descended is the same also that ascended up far above all heavens, that he might fill all things. And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.

Ephesians 4:10–12

JUST AFTER MY FIFTEENTH BIRTHDAY, I bought my first car, a two-door 1982 Pontiac Grand Prix. It was the spring of 1984, and my paternal grandfather, John Owen DeWitt, had just passed and I used the portion of his estate that he had left me, five thousand dollars, to purchase the Grand Prix. It didn’t matter that I’d purchased the Grand Prix at a used-car dealership near my home in Rosepine, Louisiana, because that early 1980s moment represented perhaps the peak of cool for the Pontiac brand. In 1977, the Pontiac Trans Am starred along with Burt Reynolds in the action film Smokey and the Bandit. My Grand Prix seemed just as cool to me as Reynolds’s ride. From its long, narrow dashboard to its imposingly large, three-spoke steering wheel, it was saturated in blue: a monochromatic color scheme interrupted only by the wood-grain accents throughout the interior. For my inaugural drive in the Grand Prix, I decided to make the fifty-mile trip from Rosepine to Sulphur, Louisiana, where I hoped to reunite with my beloved fourth-grade teacher, Ms. Blair, at Maplewood Elementary. As I pulled into the Maplewood Subdivision I drove by my old house, one of the only places I’d ever lived as a child where I’d had so many neighbors, all of whom lived in a proximity unimaginable in pastoral Rosepine. I remembered the trouble-making neighbors across the street—two middle-school boys armed with pellet guns—who shot out the back-window glass of a station wagon owned by my next-door neighbor on a freezing winter’s morning. I recalled one glorious night of trick or treating, where all I had to do was just walk out of the house for seemingly endless opportunities for candy, a stark contrast from the country life in which I had no choice but to pile into my mom’s car to stop at even a single house.

When I arrived at Maplewood Elementary, I walked up to the door of Ms. Blair’s classroom and peered through a narrow window at the top of the door. Ms. Blair saw me at the door and, to my surprise, instantly recognized me. Seeing Ms. Blair again rekindled the appreciation I had for the tremendous energy and love that she had invested in me, a painfully shy, mildly dyslexic fourth grader. Even as I struggled with basic reading and vocabulary, Ms. Blair saw potential in me. In fact, Ms. Blair not only recognized what I could be; she saw what my strengths already were. She told me that I possessed a powerful sense of intuition and encouraged me to use that gift at every opportunity. “Go with your gut, Jerry,” she’d say. “Go with your gut.” That day, just outside Ms. Blair’s classroom, however, we simply engaged in the business of catching up: we asked about the health of each other’s families and vowed to stay in touch.

Over the next year, Ms. Blair and I continued to stay connected from afar through birthday and holiday cards; sometimes I’d even take the Grand Prix for a spin to Sulphur just to see her. Then, just before Easter Sunday in 1986, Ms. Blair offered me an exciting and completely unexpected invitation: she asked if I’d accompany her and her husband, Roger, and the youth group from their church, the Southside Assembly of God, to attend Jimmy Swaggart’s camp meeting in Baton Rouge. A camp meeting is a large-scale religious service in which worshippers travel to a specific site to hear preachers deliver the word of God. The packed roster of preachers at a camp meeting promises a nearly nonstop succession of services and speakers and, as it slowly proceeds over several days, emotions of the attendees and their praise of God reaches a fevered pitch. The camp meeting is particularly important among Pentecostals in the rural South and Southwest, as the phenomenon has its roots in the frontier Christianity of the 1800s.

I’d never been to a camp meeting before Ms. Blair’s invitation and I’d most certainly never seen Swaggart live. While Swaggart is now inextricably linked to a 1988 prostitution scandal that hastened his downfall, back then Swaggart was still a rock star among Pentecostals, particularly in his home state of Louisiana. I loved that Swaggart and his cousin Jerry Lee Lewis both came from the same black-dirt, backwoods Louisiana village, Ferriday, about 130 miles northeast of my hometown, DeRidder, in the southwest section of our state. As a young Pentecostal, I was struck by the fact that while Swaggart and Lewis represented seemingly opposite sides of a spiritual dichotomy—the sacred and the profane—both men were propelled in their careers by the power of music. Growing up in DeRidder, the TV in our living room was always tuned in to Swaggart’s Sunday-morning telecast. I loved hearing Swaggart’s honky-tonk piano playing blasting from the TV and savored his brilliance in having a full orchestra back him, which gave his down-home music a proud, majestic pomp. But it was the style with which Swaggart preached that affected me most. I would watch, awe­struck, as Swaggart prowled the stage, holding a leather-bound Bible open in one hand, with half of the great book hanging loose, its red bookmark swaying in the air. Swaggart shook his Bible with such authority and passion that when he looked directly at the camera and pointed his finger in the viewers’ direction it felt like he was preaching right there in our living room. As a withdrawn, anxiety-ridden adolescent, the confidence and certainty of Swaggart made me think, That’s the person I want to be. And as a teenager slowly finding my faith in the world of Pentecostalism, I admired Swaggart for both his roots as a traveling evangelist and for refusing to turn his back on his most hardscrabble of beginnings—even after building his megachurch in Baton Rouge and launching a groundbreaking televangelist career, which at its early 1980s peak boasted more than 250 TV stations featuring Swaggart’s telecast. Swaggart had built an empire from dirt—could I do the same?

When Ms. Blair, her husband, Roger, and I arrived at the camp meeting at Swaggart’s Family Worship Center on Bluebonnet Avenue in Baton Rouge in April of 1986, every expectation I had for the event was instantly fulfilled. The Family Worship Center had a long, sloped glass exterior that was more five-star Four Seasons Hotel than Pentecostal church. Inside, near the sanctuary, there was a mosaic of the world’s continents painted on the walls that made me feel as though I had walked into the United Nations building. Closer to the sanctuary, the words of Mark 16:15—“And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature”{1}—were inscribed on the walls. The global imagery and the words from the Gospel of Mark sent an unmistakable message: we were all at the very center of Christ’s global mission.

It was a mission that I couldn’t help but feel drawn to. The idea of changing the world for the better coincided with my youthful desires to create a utopia. I was both naïve and ambitious enough to believe that I could make the world a better place and perhaps even bring about world peace. It was not necessarily an idealistic craving: I was raised in an extraordinarily chaotic environment, so peace had always been an objective of mine. The chaos I experienced at home and the yearning I felt for a more harmonious familial life imbued in me a love for humanity and a desire to lessen its suffering. My feelings of empathy, in turn, made me captivated by the idea that the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ, could bring about peace through his present-day kings and priests: the faithful Christians who filled Swaggart’s church. That day, I felt like a Catholic walking into the Vatican for the first time. I truly believed I was at the center of the world.

When services began that Friday night, I was struck by the sheer size of the sanctuary that held nearly eight thousand faithful—it was like attending a major sporting event inside a church house—and Swaggart’s masterful, precise control of the camp meeting proceedings. It was the first time I’d ever seen a telephone on a church stage, which enabled Swaggart to deliver directions to those outside of the camera’s frame. More than once I watched Swaggart leave his command chair—carpeted in a lush, velvety red and positioned on the stage, which had a futuristic, almost otherworldly octagon shape—and sprint to a corner of the stage in order to provide forceful instructions to the gentleman running the soundboard. It was difficult to witness Swaggart’s occasional fits of cruelty to the soundboard staff whenever a problem with the sound frustrated him, yet I intuitively understood the enormous pressure Swaggart felt to have this extraordinarily large spectacle go off without a hitch.

I was awed and left breathless by the camp meeting. I’d never seen a service with so much showmanship and style. The lavish sanctuary stood in outsized contrast to my all-too-humble church at home in DeRidder, a small brown-brick building with blue carpeting, outdated wood paneling, small Sunday-school rooms and no baptistery. During Swaggart’s camp meeting, I witnessed many things that I had never seen before except in this place, during these services. Our preachers wore old worn suits—their preachers sported expensive colored-coordinated suits, right down to matching scarves in their suit-jacket pockets. Our church’s choir was comprised of everyday folks possessing average, unremarkable voices but Swaggart’s choir seemed to be populated with singers each worthy of his or her own major-label record deal. Indeed, the soloists at the camp meeting were the very faces that I had seen and heard all throughout my childhood and adolescence on TV—the “devil box” to Pentecostals—in our living room every Sunday morning. Our church had lights; their church had lighting that bathed the Family Worship Center in warm white hues that made the deep-red carpeting on the stage seem nearly bloodlike in its intensity. Our church had worn out speakers hanging on the walls with wires poking out the sides; their church had a professional sound system with speakers pointing in every direction and barely visible, thinly cabled microphones dangling from the ceiling that came to a rest right in front of the ecstatic faces of the choir members. To the best of my memory, Swaggart’s church was the only church I’d ever seen with a complete, professional drum set on the stage, much less one housed within its own Plexiglas booth in order to control the sound professionally.

But I wasn’t simply impressed by the big budgets and professionalism of Swaggart’s brand of Pentecostalism; I was completely taken with the messages delivered during the camp meeting. In one of the morning services, one guest preacher, an older man in his fifties with gray hair who sported a light-blue suit and spoke in a booming baritone voice and swung his arms and prowled the pulpit as he spoke, told a completely captivating story about a spring that could not be capped. He explained that a resort hotel development company had purchased a piece of land for a new hotel project and, unbeknownst to the developers, the property possessed a natural spring. Contractors hired by the developers made numerous efforts to cap the spring, all to no avail. When the foundation concrete slab was poured, it appeared as though the spring had finally been capped. But once the slab had settled, the spring cracked through the concrete and flowed to the surface. The contractors then brought in foundation specialists and the slab was repaired and sealed, which, the developers believed, would make the slab even stronger than before.

Satisfied that the spring had finally been capped, the resort was raised and its wide, spacious floors were carpeted. But then moisture from moved through the slab and saturated the carpeting until finally the spring flowed freely again. Experts were brought in once again to attack the problem: this time, they removed the carpeting, resealed the foundation and replaced the floor with water-resistant tile. The resort opened for business and, as time passed, guests checked in and enjoyed the facility. With the problem of the spring seemingly resolved, it was nearly forgotten by the developers. But the hidden source of the spring, the preacher explained, was far larger than even a great hotel could ever be. Supported and driven by the hidden aquifer, this “little spring that could” willed its way, inch by inch, back through the slab, the sealant and even the waterproof tile. The hotel’s foundation was eroded by the free-flowing spring, causing a foundation failure far beyond the scope of any repair. The spring, the preacher thundered, was once again fulfilling its natural destiny and the developers realized, finally, that they had been beaten by it. So instead of continuing to try to staunch the spring’s flow, they created a fountain for it in the very center of the hotel. “If we as Christians continue to allow the Holy Ghost to push us upward and onward in our lives,” the preacher concluded, “eventually our devotion will become a fountain in which the spirit of God flows freely.”

The story of the spring provided a profound lesson about the power of devotion to Christ. But the parable had another, more important meaning for me. By age sixteen, I was already aware of the obstacles that lay ahead for me and I carried with me that day both a longing for significance in my life and a profound sense of being lost. Not lost in the Christian sense, mind you, but lost as in living without direction in my life. To me, the natural spring was an “overcomer” and I wanted to be an overcomer. “Sometimes in life,” the preacher said, “life’s obstacles get steadily harder. And so, just like the spring, our progress can seem blocked and that God has forgotten about us. But these are just worldly obstacles that get in our way as we attempt to live for God. Once we allow the Holy Ghost to flow through our lives, we will surmount them.”

Later that day, as Ms. Blair and I sat together in the middle column of seats in Swaggart’s church, about two-thirds of the way back, a man in this thirties seated a full column to our right began to speak in other tongues. As he spoke, his voice became louder and louder—it was passionate, throaty, desperate, brokenhearted—and he began to get the attention of those seated around him. There is a communal phenomenon that takes place in a Pentecostal service when one person speaks in tongues loudly or uniquely enough to draw the attention of his fellow faithful. Once the congregants closest to him become quiet and begin to listen to the speaking in tongues, it draws the attention of those further and ­further away. The silence then radiates out from the person speaking in tongues, like the ripples caused by a rock thrown into a lake. At Swaggart’s, the man’s words actually hushed the ­thousands-strong crowd. “Do you know what’s going on?” Ms. Blair whispered to me. “Yes,” I said sheepishly, but I really had no idea what was happening. What I didn’t know then, and what I would later learn, is that the quieting of the crowd followed by speaking in tongues meant that a message from God was coming. It was an incredible phenomenon to behold: the sound of an almost deafening noise in praise of God and then silence as the crowd awaited the word of God—dubbed by Pentecostals as “interpretation” of tongues—coming from that man. As one section after another of Swaggart’s church quieted, it was like a wave in a football stadium: a wave of devotion spreading slowly across the soaring sanctuary. Then he spoke. “Thus sayeth the Lord,” the man intoned in an authoritative and certain voice that sounded much like that of a general addressing his troops, “I am raising up an army of young people to take the gospel to the nation.” Ms. Blair turned to me and said, “Do you want to pray?” I did. Right there, in our seats in Swaggart’s sanctuary, Ms. Blair led me through the sinner’s prayer.

After Saturday-night services, I rode with the Blairs back to Southside Assembly of God Church in Sulphur. It was just after midnight when I groggily slumped into my Pontiac Grand Prix to make the drive back to Rosepine. After turning the ignition key, I popped in my white-colored cassette tape of Swaggart’s stirring 1981 live album, One More Time . . . Live. “Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!” Swaggart cried on the opening track, “Since I’ve laid my burdens down!” Just then, I realized that I had driven to Sulphur listening to Billy Joel—and driven back listening to Jimmy Swaggart. I’d traded one piano man for another.

I arrived back at my grandparents’ home just before daybreak. I quietly slid through the backdoor, slinked down the narrow hallway that led to their bedroom and stood over my grandmother. Still under Swaggart’s spell, I shook Grandma, who was asleep in her narrow, single bed framed with thick metal side rails, awake. She was startled when I shook her but as she opened her eyes, she gave me a warm, welcoming smile. “Maw-Maw,” I said, “I got saved.” Grandma was the matriarch of our family, the religious leader of our entire clan. I should have known better than to think Grandma would consider my sudden moment of becoming saved legitimate. But back then I was young and naïve about Pentecostal doctrine, which requires that one repent, be baptized in water and baptized in the Holy Ghost with the “evidence” of speaking in other tongues. All of these requirements must be met in order to be saved, Pentecostals insist, citing John 3:5 that one “cannot enter into the kingdom of God” without them.

It was an innocence compounded by the spiritual high of the Swaggart service: I truly felt saved and born again. “Did you speak in tongues?” Grandma asked, seemingly tapped into my deepest subconscious. “No,” I softly replied. I hadn’t spoken in other tongues so, of course, my experience at Swaggart’s was illegitimate in her eyes. I walked out of Grandma’s room that morning feeling like the meaning of the camp meeting had collapsed. All I could do was wander listlessly into my bedroom to prepare for bed. That night, I started a tradition that I would carry on throughout much of my life: I knelt down by my bed and prayed until I fell asleep.


God Loves Everyone

Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind.

Bertrand Russell

THOUGH I WAS BORN AND RAISED in DeRidder, a deeply religious small town of about eight thousand residents dominated by Pentecostals that’s the parish seat of Beauregard Parish in Southwest Louisiana, my spiritual journey that began at Swaggart’s on that spring day in 1986 was far from assured. On September 17, 1969, I was born to Linda Williamson DeWitt and David Wayne DeWitt at Beauregard Memorial Hospital, a small, single-story redbrick hospital on South Pine Street in downtown DeRidder. I was one month premature but the birth itself was uneventful, excluding the unusual means of transportation for me that day: Mom brought me home on a tiny pillow because I weighed all of five pounds.

Back then, Mom was a housewife who tended to the family home, an old barn that had been transformed into an rambling residential property on rural Ikes Road on the outskirts of DeRidder. Standing at barely five foot five and with her smiling, round face, Mom was a warm, approachable presence who focused all of her energies on caring for her home and raising her new son. Dad was Mom’s physical and emotional opposite. He was a long, slender five foot ten: when he went to bed the sheets barely covered his arms and legs. And with his dark, slicked-back hair he had the look of a greaser. Indeed, that’s just who Dad was. Dad was once an airplane mechanic with the air force but, by the time I was born, worked as a plumber’s apprentice under his father, John Owen DeWitt. Dad’s somewhat lessened station in life was due in large part to his hard partying ways: his passions were riding motorcycles, hanging out in bars in nearby Leesville and drinking with friends wherever friends and family would have him. To the chagrin of all who knew him, Dad enjoyed his hobbies—drinking and riding in fast cars and on motorcycles—often at the same time. Dad’s many moments of misbehavior were legendary: he drunkenly did donuts in the mayor’s front yard, sped down Ikes Road while standing on the seat of his motorcycle and drag raced with friends on Ikes Road, a stunt that so infuriated my family that my great-grandfather angrily pumped off a shot at him from his shotgun.

Dad was a born daredevil who possessed frighteningly backward beliefs about what it meant to be a man—and to raise a man. When I was an infant, he refused to allow my mother to give me a pacifier. To Dad, a pacifier would just make his son weak. Dad insisted that he be allowed to spank me when I was just one week old. And Dad prevented my mom from rocking me to sleep. He believed that I should be left to cry myself to sleep because that would help make me a man. Dad’s rough style of parenting could be as daredevil driven as the stunts he pulled off on his motorcycle. One night, Dad came home drunk and when he stumbled into the kitchen and then fumbled through the cupboard for another drink, he shattered a glass on the kitchen floor. “It needs to be cleaned up, David,” Mom insisted. “Jerry might get at it.” Dad not only ignored Mom’s plea to clean up the shattered glass, he lifted me up and tried to stand me up in the shards. Mom stopped Dad that night but the message from Dad’s behavior was unmistakable: he was going to do whatever it took to make his baby son tough. To Dad, the process of toughening me up yielded a side benefit: it tortured my mother. He resented my mom’s tenderness as though she were his own mother and could be unfathomably cruel to her. When I was an infant, our family lived in Houston, Texas, for a brief stint and one night my dad had plowed through all the spare cash at home on beer. When Mom went to the mom-and-pop grocery store around the corner to buy milk for me, she begged the store’s owner to give her the milk on credit, which he refused to do, compounding the humiliation.


On Sale
Jun 25, 2013
Page Count
288 pages
Da Capo Press

Jerry DeWitt

About the Author

Jerry DeWitt‘s ministry began when he was seventeen. After twenty-five years of preaching, including pastorship of two fundamentalist congregations, he became an atheist. DeWitt lives in rural Louisiana.

Ethan Brown is the author of Queens Reigns Supreme, Snitch, and Shake the Devil Off. He lives in New Orleans.

Learn more about this author