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.]