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Seeing the Light

Based on my own entirely unscientific observations, it seems that there is a burgeoning market for “recovering pastor who saw the godless light” stories these days. The genre is familiar enough by now, right? Fundamentalist pastor grows up in the church, uncritically swallows the whole religious package, devotes x number of years to serving as pastor in [insert small Bible belt American town here], gradually begins to have doubts, finally has the courage to leave his (it’s almost always a “he” so far) faith behind, is persecuted, scorned and rejected by his townsfolk and former parishioners still imprisoned by the shackles of fantasy and indoctrination he has so recently (and heroically) shed, and eventually staggers into the warm and compassionate embrace of this or that atheist group devoted to helping recovering clergy. And then, for the triumphant finale, our hero embarks on a life of spreading the good news of atheist liberation on [insert motivational speaking tour here] amassing inspiring (de)conversion narratives of other clergy that he has “helped” along the way. It’s not a bad gig if you can get it.

I just listened to the latest version of this narrative above on this morning’s episode of Q with Jian Gomeshi. The recovering pastor in question was Jerry DeWitt, a former Pentecostal preacher from Deridder, LA whose story pretty much exactly matched the one above. The interview itself was predictably anticlimactic. I was expecting (or at least hoping) to hear some compelling evidence or dramatic story or event that finally tipped DeWitt over the edge. Was it the problem of evil that finally did it? Was it a tortured struggle between science and faith? Was it unanswered prayer? But the reasons never came up—at least in this interview. Gomeshi focused more on DeWitt’s experience since leaving the faith than on why he left in the first place. Perhaps it was just assumed that the trajectory away from faith was and is inevitable (it is the twenty-first century, after all, as DeWitt reminded us at one point). Eventually all smart people leave religion behind, I suppose. Eventually everyone who isn’t blinded by religious indoctrination and committed to willful ignorance sees the obvious truth—the “brutal fact,” as DeWitt mentioned in an offhand comment—that there is no God, that the Christian narrative is false, that we are on our own, etc. Well, ok, then.

What is fascinating to observe is the way in which DeWitt (and others) speak of those who are still “trapped” in religion and how the language employed often mirrors the language many religious folks use to talk about atheists. Perhaps this is to be expected from former clergy, I don’t know. But we hear about having patience for those still “trapped” and about how “we have to just be patient with them,” about only gradually seeing the light. We hear statements like, “you know, it took me a long time to have the courage, too” and “I wouldn’t judge someone who just couldn’t accept the [obvious] truth until later in life.” The language could quite seamlessly be mapped on to a religious conversation about someone still trapped in the “darkness” of unbelief. Come to think of it, I actually felt like I was listening to an eager Christian talking about their unbelieving neighbour. We all have our good news to share, our gospels to proclaim, it seems, and we are all quick to understand and describe those who don’t agree with us in condescendingly arrogant and pejorative terms.

At one point, Gomeshi asked DeWitt why he stayed in as long as he did. DeWitt responded by saying that he was addicted to the performative aspect of religion. He loved to be the “shaman,” the purveyor of spiritual experiences. He loved the “high” that came with preaching, loved being with people and the sense of community these collective experiences fostered, loved the “illusion” that he was doing some good, that he was “helping people.” “The problem,” he said, “was that for the longest time I thought religion was the only game in town for these kinds of things.” Luckily we have the recovering pastors motivational tour now, I suppose. All the delights of flattery and smug self-importance (and power!), and all the outlets for our many and varied altruistic urges without all of that odious God business to get in the way.

Are there pressures on pastors in the postmodern world where religion is far from the only game in town? Sure. Maybe even unique ones. I don’t begrudge DeWitt his story, nor do I doubt that his road has been a difficult one at times. These are certainly interesting times to be affirming and proclaiming a particular faith. But just once I would like to hear one of these interviews not slide into the well-worn grooves of darkness vs light, ignorant superstition vs enlightened rationality, dogmatic rigidity vs open tolerance, etc. Just once I would like to hear someone, whether a recovering pastor or a recovering atheist or a recovering anything, say something like this:

You know, I’ve just changed my mind. But I know that the evidence does not interpret itself and that there are well-informed, thoughtful, committed, decent people who understand and interpret the world differently. I don’t claim that everyone who thinks differently than me is “indoctrinated” or stupid. I know that a compelling case could be made for a number of options when we are talking about meta-explanations for this crazy world we live in. Every worldview has explanatory gaps. But life is about more than explanation, it is about choice; and this is the choice that I have made. This is what I have chosen to devote my life to.

Or something like that. But I guess that would be a pretty boring radio interview. And not a very inspiring or motivational (or profitable!) tour.

19 Comments Post a comment
  1. I wonder what their answer is to those who come to faith later in life, with little or no religious background (and therefore no indoctrination), researched it carefully (counted the cost) and entered into faith with their eyes wide open?

    June 18, 2013
    • Well, such hypothetical cases would be enormously inconvenient, wouldn’t they? Good thing there are no such creatures wandering about :).

      (The narrative of the rational superhighway to atheism certainly breaks down pretty quickly, doesn’t it?)

      June 18, 2013
  2. Gabe #

    This is a really fascinating article. I’ve thought a lot lately about the underlying narrative in these pastor-to-atheist stories as well as, more generally, the believer-to-atheist stories. I agree with the sentiment at the end of the article that it would be refreshing to hear one of these interviews without the strict (and generally false) dichotomy of the enlightened atheist versus the ignorant Christian. I think one of the reasons that no one says “I changed my mind” is because they like to present themselves as somehow always being an unbeliever at a deep level and simply discovering this fact later. I too would like to hear someone say that we can change as we age, that we can change our outlook based on our experiences, without treating all those who remain religious as being blinded idiots.

    June 18, 2013
    • I think you’re right, Gabe. Maybe it’s because of the magnitude of the decision… We don’t like to think that we could have been wrong—even partially—about such important matters for so long… Our previous views must have been the result of being trapped or imprisoned or indoctrinated or somehow externally compelled to believe what we now know to be so transparently false. I don’t know. Maybe something like this is what’s going on in how we tend to talk about these things, wherever we are on the religious spectrum.

      Having said that, and as I reflect upon these themes this afternoon, I want to remain open the simple fact that people do experience dramatic darkness to light conversions. From a Christian perspective, certainly, I need to be careful not to rule this out—as if the embrace of faith were alway the result of a coolly detached rational process. I would certainly seem to be at odds with none other than the Apostle Paul (and, well, Jesus) if I were to claim that dramatic and radical transferences from darkness and bondage to light and freedom were not an important part of the story :).

      June 18, 2013
      • Gabe #

        Absolutely. Very well said. It has a lot to do with a memory bias. It’s easy to look back and mistakenly assume that we’ve always had the same outlook that we do now. You made a very good point when you wrote about how the former pastor still speaks with almost religious fervour. I’ve thought often and written about how the most extreme religions breed the most extreme atheists. I myself was raised Mormon and consequently became a very outspoken atheist for a time. While I am still an unbeliever, I’m trying to find a more tolerant middle-ground. One of the reasons I loved this article so much is that I’ve been guilty of telling my own story within this same narrative myself. I think that it appeals to those of us like former Mormons, Evangelicals and other religious people who are raised seeing things in such black and white. I’ve started to see a lot more grey area in the last while. Thanks again for the article.

        June 18, 2013
      • Yes, good point Gabe. Extremes seem to breed extremes. Not always (thank God), but certainly often enough to observe a trend. I think black and white thinking obviously goes beyond those raised in conservative religious traditions. There are plenty of hardened rationalists with no history in the church who are just as uncomfortable with grey as the most fundamentalist of believers. I think it’s a human tendency. We crave certainty and we hunt it out. Sometimes, we even manufacture it :).

        Thank you very much for your kind words about the article.

        June 18, 2013
  3. Hmmm, there may be a market, but I have not heard any of these. It appears you are the market! (Sorry I am apparently only able to offer snarky comments to anything you post these days!!)

    June 18, 2013
    • I seem to come across most of these stories through the radio…. So I blame the CBC for my unbalanced perspective :).

      June 18, 2013
      • I do think it is worth reflecting on the ‘consumer’ in this instance. And CBC sounds about right for a religious perspective of being non-religious.

        June 18, 2013
      • Yes, CBC obviously selects certain stories and tells them in certain ways. But the phenomenon of “recovering pastors” is certainly becoming more prevalent (or at least the stories are being told with greater relish and frequency) since Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris et al. There’s “The Clergy Project,” there’s Daniel Dennett’s “Preachers Who Are Not Believers” Study, and plenty others, no doubt (I can think of a handful of personal examples). It’s not exactly epidemic and there could be some overstatement going on (it’s obviously a narrative that is incredibly marketable, financially or polemically), but I would still say that since the early 2000s these stories are becoming more common.

        June 18, 2013
  4. mike #

    I think the anamosity that extreme non-believers express toward christians can more aptly be described as ‘righteous indignation’. It is the NON-QUESTIONING mechanical obedience and refusal to acknowledge Truth in the face of facts that makes atheist’s and seekers like me angry
    Lets get some Bart Ehrman up in here :).

    June 18, 2013
    • Sometimes the indignation is righteous, sometimes it’s just, well, indignant :).

      I’ve frequently observed in these debates something of a correlation between the strength of one’s anger (whether atheist or “religious) and the strength of one’s conviction that their anger is righteous.

      June 19, 2013
      • mike #

        As a recovered Alcoholic I frequently become filled with righteous indignation (anger) when I see the misuse/abuse of alcohol being surreptitiously promoted and encouraged in the media (TV shows,advertising and Hollywood movies). Likewise as a former evangelical (still Christian), I’m filled with the same sense of anger when I see ‘stuck’ Christians/babes in Christ being intentionally hindered from making any meaningful personal,psychological and/or spiritual progress by those who’s primary job is to ensure the livelihood of the Institutionalized ‘church’ and that is why we will never hear a sermon sincerely and enthusiastically encouraging us to seek,search out and verify for ourselves what is being taught as Truth in the pulpit.

        June 19, 2013
      • Yes, this certainly makes me angry too, Mike.

        June 19, 2013
      • Interestingly, I came across this post only a few minutes after responding to your comment. I, too, have known and continue to know pastors like this. I am very grateful for this.

        June 19, 2013
  5. It is also interesting that there is no assumption that belief will endure but there is an assumption that non-belief will endure. It would be interesting for the church to work more intentionally and explicitly through that distinction. Can a denomination faithfully account for positions of atheism? There was an interesting case here in Manitoba in which an atheist (with strong Mennonite roots . . . and actually ‘technically’ still a member of the Mennonite church) applied for a conference funded position. This has raised some important conversations.
    The challenge and temptation to resist, I think, would also be for the church to think it can simply encompass everything. I don’t have answers for this but I since I can strongly resonant with some of these ‘testimonies’ I am invested in the questions.

    June 19, 2013
    • The trajectory is always away from faith, isn’t it. And the road only goes one way. This is certainly the assumption.

      I don’t know if denominations can faithfully account for positions of atheism. I know that in the church I am a part of there are people who would call themselves “agnostics.” They come mainly for the “community” (funny, I seem to be developing something of a measured distaste for this word) or the comfort of familiarity or because they have friends there. Or other reasons. I don’t know if our welcome and continued embrace of them would count as a “faithful accounting” but it’s where we are.

      There are certainly challenges in this context, as you say. I don’t think the church can (or should try to) encompass everything. If there are no boundaries (belief, behaviour, whatever), eventually the church will be a glorified social club with a few residual “spiritual” (NOT religious) components to add a bit of feel-good window dressing to the affair. If and when that day comes (and I am not naive—I know it has already arrived in many places), I will be the first one out the door.

      June 19, 2013

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