Christ-haunted Atheists

Flannery O’Connor once wrote, “I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted.” Apparently her observation holds true even for Southern atheists.

Several weeks ago, The New York Times did a feature on an atheist from my hometown of DeRidder, Louisiana. His name is Jerry DeWitt, and he’s a Pentecostal preacher turned activist atheist. This is actually DeWitt’s second appearance in the paper of record, and you can read about his falling away in the Times article from last year. But this latest article covers DeWitt’s attempt to give birth to an atheist “church.” He is trying to cobble together an unbelieving congregation, and he’s bringing to bear his old preacher’s persona for the effort. The Times describes one of their Sunday morning meetings:

It would have been easy to mistake what was happening in a hotel ballroom here for a religious service. All the things that might be associated with one were present Sunday: 80 people drawn by a common conviction. Exhortations to service. Singing and light swaying. An impassioned sermon.

There was just no mention of God…

“Oh, it’s going to be so hard to not say, ‘Can I get an amen?’ ” [DeWitt] said with a smile, warning people that this was going to be more like church than they might expect. “I want you to feel comfortable singing. And I want you to feel comfortable clapping your hands. I’m going to ask you to silence your cellphones, but I’m not going to ask you to turn them off. Because I want you to post.”

As Mr. DeWitt paced back and forth, speaking with a thick Southern accent, his breathy yet powerful voice occasionally cracked with emotion. The term may be a contradiction, but he is impossible to describe as anything but an atheist preacher.

Mr. DeWitt acts so much like a clergyman because he was one…

With Sunday’s service — marking the start of Community Mission Chapel in Lake Charles, which Mr. DeWitt called a full-fledged atheist “church” — he wanted to bring some of the things that he had learned from his years as a religious leader to atheists in southern Louisiana.

Though some are rightly skeptical of DeWitt’s motives, DeWitt himself claims that his effort to form an atheist church is an attempt to regain something he lost when he left Pentecostalism. To be specific, he wants to recover a “sense of community and a connection to emotion.” It sounds as if he wants to experience transcendence but to do so without God.

All of us were made to experience something outside of ourselves. I suspect that DeWitt and his new congregation sense that even if it’s at an unconscious level. But they cannot say so. The human condition is inexorably marred by self-deception. All of us are by nature prone to “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (Rom. 1:18). When we want to go our own way and forsake the God who is transparently there, we fixate on faint evidences of His invisibility while ignoring the manifold ways that He has left His fingerprints all around us. That is what is happening in this atheist congregation, yet the yearning is still there. As St. Augustine famously prayed, “You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

The atheist is not an atheist by reason alone. He is an atheist willfully—because there are some things he wants to see and other things he does not want to see. Atheism has always been and ever more shall be an issue of the heart, not of naked reason. And so it is even among these Christ-haunted atheists. Painfully, they can’t bring themselves to believe, but neither can they shake the yearning for something more—even as they invoke the ceremonies of their forsaken faith.

I suppose it’s possible that these old forms of the faith might entice some to reconsider their unbelief. Stranger things have happened, and the Lord’s arm is not too short to save (Isaiah 59:1). There’s every reason to pray for God to surprise these sinners with the new birth.

In any case, their very existence in this new community is evidence that at some level they know themselves to be more than chemicals in motion. They are people created in the image of God—with all the yearnings and needs that are common to man—whether they realize it or not.

———-

[Here’s a six-minute video of DeWitt giving a sermonette on his atheism. Notice how he has taken a Christian form (“giving your testimony”) and filled it with atheistic content.]

41 Responses to Christ-haunted Atheists

  1. Sandra Burk August 4, 2013 at 12:23 am #

    “Atheist Church”…….definitely an oxymoron. He blasphemes the very meaning of “church.”
    How sad for man to try to create a place where he can pretend to fellowship and “worship?”
    If only he could remove himself from the throne of his being and acknowledge not only the sovereignty of God but also the spiritual substance that is present in every Christian, permeating believers fellowship when they gather. Any counterfeit of true Christian unity will leave DeWitt and his followers tragically empty. So sad that he knows and has preached Truth, and now he has willed to turn his back on the only Source of human purpose, peace, love, and joy.

    • Joey Morris. August 5, 2013 at 10:43 am #

      Most of us unbelievers came to our viewpoint because we used to believe fully. And realized over time that Christianity just cannot be true. We just happen to actually care whether our not our beliefs are in fact true. The whole arrogance of Christianity really gets to me. How religion is the only path to morality (it’s not) or how spirituality is only possible thru religion (it’s not).

      • Jason Kates August 5, 2013 at 11:30 am #

        Joey,

        I think you should say the arrogance of some Christians gets to you. Christianity itself isn’t arrogant and requires the opposite – brokenness, humility, reliance on Christ. Right?

        • Joey morris August 5, 2013 at 12:08 pm #

          It applies to nearly all of the Christians I know here in the Deep South. They have no trouble telling me they know exactly what the answers to the big questions are. They also have no trouble telling me I’m going to hell. To believe the creator of the universe loves them personally, sounds pretty arrogant to me. I would love nothing more than to believe that we have some kind of life after death. Or that we will meet our passed loved ones again. But I have not seen, heard, or read anything that suggests this is nothing more than wishful thinking.

          • Jason Kates August 5, 2013 at 1:43 pm #

            Is it really arrogant to think you know an answer to something?

            The analogy is old, but if a friend tells you he knows the way out of a burning building, are you going to accuse him of arrogance and demand evidence first?

            I certainly understand that not all Christians act humbly. Many act arrogantly. Personally, pride is my biggest struggle and most recurring sin.

            • davewarnock August 6, 2013 at 12:09 am #

              the arrogance lies in his thinking that he is the ONLY one who knows the way out of the burning building. that is the essence of evangelical Christianity

              • Scott Christensen August 6, 2013 at 11:49 am #

                Unless of course there IS only one way out of the building.

                • James Rednour August 7, 2013 at 6:46 pm #

                  Q.E.D.

                  • Luke Plymouth August 16, 2013 at 10:22 am #

                    Is it not arrognat to say that God created us in his image? Also, the term “atheist church” is coined by the papers and this reporter. I see nowhere (if so please advise) where DeWitt calls it such. It appears to be a gathering of free-thought.

  2. Scott McCauley August 4, 2013 at 7:12 am #

    This is how a hardened heart manifests itself in today’s culture. You said it well, Denny, when you said they’re trying to experience transcendence without God. Ultimately, they’re trying to put a man-shaped peg in a God-shaped hole.

    DeWitt’s characterization of faith as “pretending to believe” is an obvious *pitch* to exploit any doubts that seekers, and believers, may have in an attempt to convert them to atheism. I want to warn people hearing this pitch of his, that having doubt is NOT pretending. Seeking truth with an open mind and soft heart is NOT pretending. On the contrary, it’s the only rational approach to life – seeking objective truth with an open mind. Calling it “pretending” and turning away is a deceptive label for closing your mind to a possible truth, preventing you from ever discovering for yourself whether it is indeed THE truth.

    Keep an open mind people. If you’re feeling that human need to find truth, seek it with an open mind and heart.

  3. buddyglass August 4, 2013 at 12:11 pm #

    I experienced something like this the one time I attended a Unitarian Universalist service. A friend of mine was speaking. It felt every bit like a church service, just without God. Or, at least, without any definite reference to a specific God. People desire authentic, loving community even when they can’t bring themselves to believe the truth claims of Christianity. This sort of community must almost always be intentional; you’re not going to find it in your cycling club.

    To respond to what something Scott said in his comment, I’m not as quick to dismiss DeWitt’s call to those in the church who are “pretending to have faith”. Mainly because I think that description accurately describes many in the Church. Were they to come to a place of greater honesty with themselves concerning their faith (or lack thereof) it might be to their benefit as well as to the benefit of the Church.

  4. James Bradshaw August 4, 2013 at 2:32 pm #

    It often has nothing to do with being hard hearted. After all, one shouldn’t have to think too hard to recall a cruel or hateful act committed by a professing Christian. Rather, some just cannot see the claims of Scripture as coinciding with reality.

    Scripture tells us not to worry about tomorrow and assures us that God will provide for our basic necessities, yet thousands die of starvation every month. Prayer seems to impact the world in a negligible way (if it does at all). It’s the old problems of evil and suffering in the world for which Christianity offers hope without any real answers or resolution in the here and now.

    Then there’s the issue of Scripture (and often, I think atheism is a rejection of fundamentalism rather than God). None of the original autographs exist. We have only translations of copies, many of which contain insertions that never existed in the earliest manuscripts (such as the story of the woman taken in adultery). There are problematic contradictions (such as Matthew’s claim that Christ was born when Herod was still alive versus Luke’s claim that Christ was born after Herod died). Biblical scholars almost universally agree that Peter II wasn’t written by Peter (although the writer claims to be him … see the issue of “pseudepigrapha”).

    I’m not suggesting that one can’t be a believer and also a critical thinker (Francis Collins of the Human Genome Project is an example of a well-respected scientist who’s also a devout Christian), but it’s at least understandable that many find the challenges to their faith to be simply too overwhelming.

    To assign all of this to merely being a “bad person” is grossly oversimplifying … and kind of slanderous, don’t you think?

    • Brian Kellogg August 5, 2013 at 8:44 pm #

      Well put and thank you.

  5. Nadine Hostettler August 4, 2013 at 4:48 pm #

    **past belief**
    That video actually made me really cry…
    I agree with Sandra, this is blasphemy par excellence….

    • Geralyn Mott August 5, 2013 at 9:45 am #

      blasphemy is only for believers. to those of us who accept fact over comforting fallacy, jerry dewitt is “a sane voice in the wilderness” of xtianity

    • Joey Morris August 5, 2013 at 10:35 am #

      Blasphemy, a victimless crime.

  6. Chris Ryan August 4, 2013 at 11:02 pm #

    I was having a discussion abt this with a friend just last week. Its surprising but in many ways it shouldn’t be shocking. Atheism in many ways is a religion, it requires just as big a leap of faith as Christianity. Christians and Atheists differ only in where we make our respective leaps.

    Christians have faith that God created and reigns over the universe. Atheists have faith that science can answer the question: What caused the Big Bang? In this sense, Science is their god. But there are many things abt life that Science can’t answer, esp abt the creation of the universe. So they choose to simply have faith that Science can–one day–answer those questions. Of course good Atheists are entirely honest abt their “faith”. Many of them are as passionate abt their ‘religion’ as any fundamentalist Christian.

    • buddyglass August 5, 2013 at 12:59 am #

      “Atheists have faith that science can answer the question: What caused the Big Bang?”

      This is an overly broad generalization that is not true of all atheists. Or, I’d say, even the majority. It is not the case, in general, that atheism is founded on the belief that all questions about the physical world are discoverable through human scientific endeavor.

      For instance, before I came to belief, my position wasn’t, “Scientists will eventually figure out what caused the Big Bang,” but “Scientists will probably never figure out (definitively) what caused the Big Bang. That said, ‘Yahweh did it’ isn’t a credible explanation.”

      • Chris Ryan August 5, 2013 at 7:12 pm #

        Hi, Buddy, yes, I have atheist friends who make the same argument you just did, but my generalization is actually based on that very argument. When it comes to the creation of the universe there are only 2 possibilities. Either the Divine did it, or Nature did it. And when I’ve asked most Atheists this question they either say Science will one day explain how Nature did it (which is faith), or they say, as you did, I don’t think science is ever likely to know the definitive answer–but I still believe that Nature did it & not the Divine (which is also faith). When it comes to science the laws of science itself say we can only believe what science can prove. So to believe that science has an answer when it offers no proof, is–de facto–to have faith in Science. Ironically even the Bible says as much ( Heb 11:1 ).

        This is nothing odd. Millions of people have “faith” that Science will find a “gay gene”. Millions of people have “faith” that Scientists will figure out how to use stem cells to eliminate Alzheimers. Computer scientists have “faith” in Moore’s Law (ie, that computers will get cheaper & faster forever).

        So, my statement wasn’t meant to describe how every Atheist perceives the issue, but instead to describe the fundamental question they grapple with–even when they choose to ignore the question.

    • Geralyn Mott August 5, 2013 at 9:48 am #

      oh, you are so wrong, @chris ryan. Atheism is not a religion, it is a denial of the existence of god. science is NOT our god, science and curiosity are our gifts … Yes, there are many things that science can’t answer … today … but look at the answers science has discovered just in the last century. At least science is out there, LOOKING for answers. “god did it” or “he works in mysterious ways” is a crutch for the lazy, simpleminded or deluded.

      • Lyle Enright August 5, 2013 at 11:54 am #

        Richard Lewontin might disagree with you, as he did with his friend Carl Sagan.

      • Chris Ryan August 5, 2013 at 7:31 pm #

        Hi, Geralyn, the laws of science are that we can only believe what we can prove. So when we believe that science will have an answer even tho Science has no proof at the moment is to “step out on faith” that Science will deliver. Most computer scientists believe that computers will double in speed & halve in cost every 6 months. They fervently believe that; but if pressed they’ll concede that its a belief untethered from actual science. Moore’s Law as they call it is no more than an observation of past events.

        I usually find that the atheists most passionate that Science will have all the answers, are the ones who most emulate the faith of Christians, in fervor if not in content… Science can’t disprove the Divine, and yet they invest a great deal of emotional energy in trying to do just so.

    • Joey Morris August 5, 2013 at 12:01 pm #

      You could not be more wrong here about atheism. The only thing we assert is we fail to believe in your god, that is there is a lack of evidence for his/her existence. Now faith is only a belief in something when reasons fail. Science will eventually answer most of these questions because science has a demonstrable track record of success. It’s the opposite of faith. Most atheists have no problem with saying we do not know what caused the Big Bang. We just do not follow the god of the gaps idea. Meaning if science cannot yet answer, therefore god. Doubt on these big issues is humbling. Because mankind has a track record of getting many things dead wrong.

    • davewarnock August 6, 2013 at 12:14 am #

      Atheists don’t NEED an answer to the question, “what caused the Big Bang”? The answer- “we don’t know”, is just fine. There is no need to insert an answer (God did it) that is unproven, just because you want it to be so.

  7. Lyle Enright August 5, 2013 at 12:42 am #

    O’Connor also said, through one of her characters, “If [Jesus] didn’t raise the dead, there’s… no pleasure but in meanness.” It is a final conclusion that most all atheists do not desire to come to. Even though they believe themselves to have removed the final barrier between themselves and human freedom and flourishing, they’ve actually uncovered a direct line to their deepest selfishness. As someone who’s stared into that abyss, it is terrifying… I saw very quickly what I would become if I did not find something to believe in, and that something (some ONE) had to be capable of not only rescuing me but regenerating me – to keep me from turning inside out. As you said, the human condition is one of self-delusion… The final question is, when the illusion breaks, are we going to dive into what we find, and despair, or kneel at its edge in supplication and worship?

    • Denny Burk August 5, 2013 at 12:53 am #

      Good word, Lyle.

    • buddyglass August 5, 2013 at 1:02 am #

      That’s a good sound bite, but how does it comport with the fact that atheists (and non-Christian theists) nevertheless seem to derive pleasure from seemingly “non-mean” things like their spouse, children, and even altruistic charity work?

      • Lyle Enright August 5, 2013 at 1:39 am #

        I’ll admit that my perspective comes from my own experience, but it’s also been shaped by the experiences of others. I was one of a number of people who were in similar places in life, and had all come to the same conclusion: by considering the world around us, and the implications of what we’d known and learned, we discovered/decided that existence was absurd.

        This was difficult, because each of us affirmed for the other that our conclusions were real; there was no one amongst the half-dozen of us – all of whom were earnest seekers – to say, “Don’t be like that, guys.” Each of us had independently become an absurdist, but all for similar reasons.

        The initial result was paralysis, for each of us. Each of us realized that something had to be believed in if life was to continue. In the limbo of that decision, we were brutal people. Some of us still are. But through the process, each of us agreed that the meanness came from the fundamental fact that there was no reason for anything else. We were each massive egos, given over to a new defensiveness because we’d simultaneously realized that our egos were the only things worth protecting, but that the task was also futile – more than futile, even. When the ego must be sated, when self becomes the only thing worth living for, good deeds and works and whatever makes anyone happy with us will always take the foreground, but the moment that ego must be defended (and self is a fragile master) we will sacrifice anyone and anything to our desire to remain the center of the universe. We were a half-dozen men discovering that all at once, and inflicting it on each other.

        One of us chose Christ because he found Him to be most reasonable, and logical. One chose to remain paralyzed, and admit death even, because nothing seemed reasonable or purposeful and nothing could be proven. Another tried desperately to reconcile the absurdity of existence with what he already believed about God, and I don’t know where he finally ended up.

        Myself, I chose Christ because He was the only figure to admit that it is hard to believe Him. Where all else, materialism included, demanded my allegiance, Christ asked for my trust, and promised that if I trusted Him and claimed Him as Lord, I would find wholeness, completion, and joy.

        So, in the end, I would say that there is a world of difference between happiness and completion. The former without the latter must always be asking itself, “For what?”, and in the absence of that question or any real consideration of the answer or its implications I just have to doubt the honesty of the answer put into it. We are not caring, compassionate creatures by nature, that much is self-evident; we are fearful, and megalomaniacal, and desperate to tell each other that it is not so. I can only say that I believe happiness without holiness to be very fickle indeed.

        • Suzanne McCarthy August 5, 2013 at 11:27 am #

          Having worked all my life in a secular workplace, with other school teachers, and teachers of special needs children, I can say that among those who do not believe in God, there is a peacefulness, a love, and a tenderness, that exceeds anything I have experienced among Christians. I wish it weren’t so. But I can’t deny the atheists who adopt children, who are passionate about their commitment to caring for others, the lesbians who care for their aging parents, the very real humanity that shines through.

      • Daryl Little August 5, 2013 at 8:31 am #

        Buddy,

        I’d chalk that up to common grace. Good, in His mercy, has not left even those who will be finally damned to despair on all fronts.

        It seems to me that “He sends rain on the just and the unjust” also includes the fact that even they are given the grace of human love and joy.

        • buddyglass August 5, 2013 at 10:09 am #

          I would agree. But that conflicts with the O’Connor quote, which was my only point.

          • Lyle Enright August 5, 2013 at 11:53 am #

            I think the key point there is “IF Jesus didn’t raise the dead” … If he has, then “common grace” is certainly not in conflict with that. If it is NOT true, then there truly is no regenerating or eternal purpose to doing good… its only function becomes societal, and even that is ultimately futile if the self is truly all there is, and I’d say that without Christ that’s all you could make the case for. I’d hazard that if Jesus indeed was not raised from the dead, we’d see a lot more savagery in our society by now… not that there isn’t enough already that we’re desperate to label as something more acceptable.

            • Scott Christensen August 6, 2013 at 12:04 pm #

              From another angle we can say that the Fall shattered the image of God in humanity but did not eliminate it. Thus, as fallen creatures we still imperfectly and brokenly reflect some sense of the divine (HT: Calvin) even though some unbelievers being atheists suppress that truth in various ways. Subsequently, as a believer, I can still affirm the fact that unbelievers can produce good art, engage in good science, reflect truthfully upon many subjects, and whose conscience compels them to act in ethical ways that reflect the law of God written upon their hearts.

  8. Ralph Horque August 5, 2013 at 9:36 am #

    Sadly, most of those who are religious who attempt to psychoanalyze nonbelievers have no idea what it means to finally realize that religion simply makes no sense. Once a person realizes the logic religion makes no sense, whether the deity is Zeus, Hermes, Allah, Vishnu, or the christian god, it’s nearly impossible for it to ever make sense again. It’s incorrect to assume that people become atheists because they “want to sin” or they “hate god” or they are “angry” or “hateful” or “arrogant” or “conceited.” I know many free thinkers and they’re all the loveliest of people. You are free to assume that the author’s so-called analysis of atheists’ psyche is correct, but it is not correct. After a person realizes that religions are all modern-day mythology, that person also realizes that people who still -do- believe them, are doing so on nothing more than blind faith.

    Not so ironically, atheists know more about religion than their religious counterparts. While many religious people are confused by this, the easily understood explanation is that those who study in depth wind up realizing that it makes no sense. Many atheists say: “Want to become an atheist? Read your bible.”

    http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Society/2010/0928/In-US-atheists-know-religion-better-than-believers.-Is-that-bad

    As Mark Twain said: “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”

  9. Chrisine Deliz August 5, 2013 at 11:05 am #

    I love Jerry DeWitt! Nothing wrong with missing the “fellowship” aspect that one who has grown up in church is so used to. You don’t have to believe in any god to want to gather and fellowship with your fellow humans. There are many of us who have come out of the “God delusion”. I’m sorry that the rest of you on this site are still believing in childhood nonsense. There is no such thing as blasphemy. “Blasphemy” is a victimless crime. Go Jerry!! Love ya! I’ll go listen to him any time.

  10. Emily Dietle August 5, 2013 at 11:22 am #

    This was a great article, until the author inserted his personal & biased opinion of what is going on in the lives of the atheists in attendance at Jerry’s “services.” Yes, we all seek something transcendent, [extending or lying beyond the limits of ordinary experience], as fellowship and are are things rooted in our humanity, not any single man-made system of super-natural belief.

  11. James Rednour August 5, 2013 at 1:58 pm #

    Once you’ve made the logical leap that Christianity is untrue, why in the heck would you EVER want to go back to church?

  12. James Rednour August 5, 2013 at 2:03 pm #

    The atheist is not an atheist by reason alone. He is an atheist willfully—because there are some things he wants to see and other things he does not want to see.

    If believing this somehow comforts you, go right ahead. Absolute statements like the one above are almost alway false. The truth is that many atheists come to their position after carefully considering religion. I was an evangelical Christian for over 30 years. It took a lot of effort to overcome the conditioning of my childhood and early adulthood, but I made the leap to atheism and could not be happier.

    In fact, many atheists don’t even think about their atheism, so there is nothing willful about it. Atheism is the default position; people must to taught to accept religion via cutural and familiail pressures.

  13. Suzanne McCarthy August 7, 2013 at 1:29 am #

    The main problem here is this quote,

    “If [Jesus] didn’t raise the dead, there’s… no pleasure but in meanness.” It is a final conclusion that most all atheists do not desire to come to. Even though they believe themselves to have removed the final barrier between themselves and human freedom and flourishing, they’ve actually uncovered a direct line to their deepest selfishness.”

    Among Christians there is also an unfathomable meanness. When the most respected leader in the group is calling out another leader, a colleague, in public, by defaming the work of the other when no moral wrong has been done, I just don’t understand it.

    I observed the editor of one Bible translation, sign a statement defaming another Bible translation, and yet in private to me he claimed that he had no disrespect for the scholarship of the other man, his “esteemed” colleague. But in public he participated in a bitter and destructive battle that can only be called mean. Then he claimed that he had no sense of competition between the translations, when clearly there was a competition, and this was well-known, that one was developed in competition with the other. Why dissemble?

    Basically, I did not think at that point that Christians could be any meaner, more deceptive or less spiritual, and I wanted to find out who was publishing and reproducing this information, this meanness. Well, I did find out. May God have mercy on your soul.

  14. Ian Shaw August 7, 2013 at 2:41 pm #

    May sound weird but does anyone see the resemblance between Mr. Dewitt and flim maker Kevin Smith?

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