• In defense of Jerry DeWitt


    Jerry DeWitt. Picture from the New York Times Magazine.

    When the Clergy Project was started, thanks to the efforts of Richard Dawkins and Dan Barker, to help the clergy who had lost their faith leave the pulpit and move on with their lives, its outcome could not be predicted. It turns out that with more of them not just leaving the pulpit but speaking their minds in pulpit, the nuisance to a good many of the faithful is becoming too much to simply dismiss out of hand.

    One high profile case is that of Jerry W DeWitt, featured recently in the New York Times magazine. DeWitt, a Louisiana pastor, lost his faith after many years of preaching, and finally “unmasked himself” as a believer. He paid a very heavy price for doing so: his home, his wife, his job…but he kept his integrity. How many of us, believer or not, would be willing to go to that extent while pursuing the truth?

    Quite predictably, the response from believers has not been positive. Fundamentalist Albert Mohler of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary responded the New York Times article with an angry rant. DeWitt himself has been twitting some of the reactions. Here is one that I thought was worth responding to, as it includes some of the commonest (and most ridiculous) objections I have seen.

    Men like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens have presented strong cases for atheism. [Remember this, we’ll get back to it.]The problem with most of their writings is that I would protest the same kind of religion they decry. They don’t seem to know that there is healthy faith and unhealthy faith. [Are there also healthy and unhealthy ways of believing thunderstorms are caused by Thor?]

    The amusement has only begun.

    I am really disturbed by their billboards that seem to be cropping up everywhere. These are some of their messages:

    Are you Good without God? Millions Are. [How dare they advertise the truth?]

    Atheism, simply reasonable. [In statistics it is called the “null hypothesis.]

    (Or the billboards around the Democratic Convention—

    Christianity is sheer silliness and has no place in politics.[Too bad it is my religion, if they replaced Christianity with Islam, Hinduism, Paganism etc I would wholeheartedly agree.]

    Or the image of Jesus on burnt toast labeled:

    Sadistic God: Useless Savior…Promotes Hate, Calls it ‘Love’.[I don’t know…ever read this thing called the Book of Revelations?]

    It seems people are too thin skinned to avoid looking at billboards they don’t like. But hey, it takes learning. After all, we are all surrounded by churches and religious symbols all the time, and we are not complaining about them. It is part of respecting other peoples freedom of expression. Which, unfortunately, some believers are not good at, as we see clearly here.

    It goes on:

    Seems like these organizations are determined to try to stamp out all religion. [Religion is so insecure that it cannot withstand criticism on a few billboards?] Robert Parham, executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics says the billboard campaign crosses a line. “Unable to make a compelling case for atheism, atheists launch hateful billboards mocking faith.” [WHAT?? Weren’t we told earlier that atheist authors have presented strong cases for atheism?] He goes on to say: “Imagine the outrage in the media had a group said bigoted and hateful things about gays, or women or Hispanics or African-Americans.”[And what would be the exact equivalent of a message targeting any of those groups? Criticizing an opinion is not the equivalent of racism, misogyny or homophobia. It is like Muslims trying to silence all criticism by accusing their critics of “Islamophobia”.]

    None of the billboards accuse the believers of anything other than being wrong or advocate violence, clearly. And if Mr Perham  is unhappy about misogyny or homophobia, why won’t he ask for bibles to be removed from his church? Anyway, since they seem to be so upset at ridicule directed at their beliefs, a quote from Thomas Jefferson seems to be in order.

    “Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them; and no man ever had a distinct idea of the trinity. It is the mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus.”

    Back to the post:

    After the article came out in The New York Times Magazine there was a letter that I want to share with you. I wish I had written it:

    “If these people are really atheists, then why do they feel the need to proclaim their (non) faith? [Because we are a hated minority and it is important that we dispel common lies and myths people believe abut us.] If God doesn’t exist, why is it so important to deny his existence and to do so publicly? Do they feel the need to publicly deny the existence of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny (to say nothing of the Great Pumpkin)? [We certainly would if large numbers of adults believed in them and more importantly, if they demanded that public policy be made on the basis of those beliefs.] This seems to be a case of ‘You can take the man out of evangelicalism, but you can’t take evangelicalism out of the man. (Alternatively Jerry DeWitt could be motivated by the truth. Does failure to consider this possibility constitute an example of psychological projection?] ”(Sic) A.N.S., Alexandria, Va.

    I am aghast to see how silly this letter is, or that anyone thinks it is well written. Does the author of this letter seriously consider belief in the Easter Bunny is an even remotely valid comparison to belief in God?

    And for the final act, we get a reminder of the niceties of religion:

    Remove all the great efforts that faith has done in this country and we would be poorer indeed. Orphanages, hospitals, schools and colleges and programs for the poor and the homeless. Millions of dollars are dispensed by local congregation to those who knock on church and synagogue doors crying: Help me. I would have had a hard time getting a college education without my little church and the school that helped me along the way.

    How very nice indeed. Only that it ignores one minor thing: the bigger picture. We are the most religious nation in the industrialized world and we are also the one with the most homeless, hungry and without healthcare coverage. Will we ever recognize that band aid provided by the religious organizations is simply not a substitute for having a reliable social safety net? Or will we continue to malign countries like France and Sweden, were religiosity is much lower but they don’t have all the cries of “help me” either? It turns out, once the society starts taking care of its citizens, religion simply vanishes. Works like a charm.

    And then, we get to learn how wonderfully religion works overseas:

    We have had a few missionaries around the world who have done more damage than good but I think of all those who serve unnamed all their lives to help people in troubled places. They are in the majority and they have made an incredible difference.. I think of all the relief work that was done after Katrina and many more places. I have a hard time thinking that Habitat for Humanity has hurt more than helped thousands of families.

    Well you know who else provides a lot of medical and relief work for the needy in the world, and all of it for free? The communist regime of Cuba. Yes, good old Fidel Castro’s murderous, brutal and repressive regime.

    Of course, to those who are in need, “Castrocare” is invaluable. But that is not a justification for the existence of a dictatorship in Cuba, or proof of communist ideology. Surely the answer to the question of hunger and misery in the world is not that we need communism. The answer, among other things, is helping relief organizations that do not have an ideological agenda, such as Oxfam and Doctors Without Borders (which atheists have been doing recently).

    By bringing up good deeds that have nothing directly to do with religious ideology, the faithful show us that they do not take the truth in high regard. There are plenty of good deeds done in the name of both Islam and communism. Does that make either of these ideologies is true? Does that mean that doing good deeds requires one of these ideologies? If the answer to both questions is no, then why is this even relevant? Can’t we abandon these beliefs? And if we can then why is Christianity any different?

    And then all off this is capped with a little bit of religious inanity:

    I remind the atheists and all of us—there is a healthy faith and an unhealthy faith. [Keep repeating it as if that makes it true.] God give us the wisdom to know the difference. [No he didn’t. Go learn about the evolution of the brain.]

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