JERRY deWitt ‘‘came out’’ a few months ago. It cost him his job, and nearly his house, but he could not be happier because he feels he has regained his integrity.
DeWitt was a Christian minister who stopped believing, and could not abide the hypocrisy in the pulpit. His story emerged at the Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne yesterday through his friend and fellow former pastor, Dan Barker, founder of an online support group for clergy who have lost their faith.
The international group, including at least one Australian and a former imam, has grown to more than 200 members in its first year. Most have left their jobs, but more than 50 are still active clergy, Mr Barker says. The group, clergyproject.org, is getting up to 40 applications a month, each of which is carefully vetted by volunteer screeners to make sure it is genuine.
'’It’s a sanctuary, where they feel they can hold on to their sanity,’’ says Mr Barker. Funded by the Richard Dawkins Foundation, the support group has several forums, all of which are confined to members.
'’We have forums for liberals, Pentecostals and conservatives, on humour, philosophy and theology,’’ he says. ‘‘But the most used are practical: how did you get another job, how did you get retrained?’’ One member is a former monk, tested by his order for mental problems. ‘‘He was highly sane. He was kicked out of the monastery and lives in a homeless shelter - ‘bugs and thugs’, he calls it,’’ Mr Barker says.
Mr Barker, founder of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, left the ministry in 1984 after 19 years as a preacher. ‘‘There were two things. One was intellectual. I had no choice but to follow the facts where they led. But the other was emotional-social side, which was going in a different direction.’’ Losing the title ‘‘reverend’’ and the social esteem was like being stripped of a knighthood and no longer called ‘‘sir’’. But it was not nearly as painful as being a hypocrite, he said.
The leading philosopher Daniel Dennett - one of the ‘‘four horsemen of the anti-apocalypse’’ with Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris (who are also speaking at the convention) and the late Christopher Hitchens - said the mismatch between what the clergy believed and what their parishioners expected them to believe was a source of real anguish.
'’One told me, if you offered retraining you’d have 10,000 members tomorrow,’’ said Professor Dennett, who has led a study involving several of the clergy. ‘‘Christian leaders know it is true. Hardly anyone denies it is a phenomenon, but no one knows how big it is. They are like gays in the 1950s, but without gaydar.’’
He said these ministers were caught in ‘‘an insidious trap baited with goodness’’, but it caused most of them real suffering.
Melbourne ethicist Leslie Cannold said Prime Minister Julia Gillard, an atheist, had done enormous damage to the atheist (sic*) cause, failing to advance separation of church and state.
*Leslie actually said the “secular” cause. Her entire speech was about secularism.