After twenty-five years, I left the ministry literally kicking and screaming. I did everything that I could intellectually and emotionally; I worked with my conscience in every way possible to not only stay in Christianity but to also remain in the ministry. I truly couldn’t envision my life any other way. What was so difficult about leaving the ministry was not leaving a career but a life of meaning behind.
I believe that ministers are meaning machines. That’s what ministers crank out twenty-four hours a day. That is their connection to the lives of the people whom they love so dearly. When I use the phrase “meaning machines” I’m not referring to the televangelist or the megachurch pastor. That’s not me or my experience.
My experience is the local church, those with a few hundred congregants or less. I recently read that 70 percent of the churches in the United States have less than a hundred members; that’s the church I’m talking about. I’m talking about the ministers of small churches who come to your house whenever you call them. I’m talking about the ministers who travel to emergency rooms in the middle of the night or stand by the hospital bed holding the hand of the surviving spouse as his or her loved one leaves our reality.
My contention is that these ministers are there in people’s lives to provide meaning. So I spent twenty-five years not just in a profession but engaged in a mission to help people find meaning in their lives. I wish that I could say that I love my new, global non-believing family more than I loved my church family but that’s just not the case. The truth is that I love my new friends with all of my heart, just as I loved the thousands of people to whom I ministered. I loved them through every trial and every struggle that they went through. Theirs was my trial and my struggle. Their every heartache, every heartbreak, every sickness. All of it belonged to me.
When I came to the crossroads of my faith and realized that my conscience would no longer allow me to be a minister, I believed that my life was over. I truly felt that I would do nothing more than work a secular nine-to-five job, come home every night and watch American Chopper on the DVR, wait for old age to come and then get moved into a nursing home to die.
I thought the end of my world had arrived because I had no idea how to carry on in my life without being deeply involved in the lives of other people. My entire identity—every bit of pleasure, every bit of excitement that I derived from life—was completely wrapped up in loving other people and in sharing in their experiences. And I had no idea that that kind of meaning existed outside the church.
My first impression was that there should be an epitaph somewhere engraved with the words “Religion: RIP” and that we’d all attend religion’s funeral. I was so naïve, and so fresh to the idea that there was another way of living that I didn’t know there was any other way to exist. Very often, religion provides meaning through answers. Whenever you have a question, religion has an answer.
When I was a pastor, if I didn’t have an answer then I felt forced to make one up. That’s what I was paid for: to supply meaning to my congregation. I was a meaning machine after all. But since I left the ministry I have not lost the ability to find meaning in my life.
In fact, I refuse to describe my embrace of atheism as a loss of faith. I don’t feel like I have “lost” anything. I believe that I graduated from religion after over twenty-five years of study in which I applied myself to the best of my ability and took my fellow students deeply to heart. But I don’t think that I was a uniquely curious or skeptical presence in the ministry. What I discovered in my decades in the church is that ministers are not only meaning machines but are also deep critical thinkers who are engaged in their own form of free thought. How can that be true?
For instance to be a Pentecostal minister, the guy he has probably examined the Baptist doctrine and discredited it along with every other possible religious path. He just hasn’t examined his own doctrine with such a critical eye. If there’s a Protestant minister who thinks that Protestants are the only true Christians then he has probably stepped back and used a little bit of critical thinking to make an analysis of the doctrine of other Christian sects.
So free thought actually does exist within the ministry. I’d go even further and argue that the majority of ministers who I have learned to love over the last twenty-five years of my life in the church are actually agnostic but don’t really know it. They really are—they just don’t understand what the word “agnostic” means. They’re afraid to allow their doubts to fully surface. But they have doubts. When you stand by the bedside of someone who’s leaving this world and it is your responsibility to minister to that dying man or woman—you’re ministering to a tithe payer, a husband or a wife who never failed to show up and bring something to the bake sale, a person who had your back when other people in the congregation were being critical, a person who is devoted to God, devoted to the church and devoted to you—you’re God’s representative standing right there in the valley of the shadow of death and they’re looking to you for answers.
The greatest tragedy that they can experience is happening—the doctors have done everything they can do—and the situation is completely out of their control. Now it’s all up to you to provide meaning, to provide answers. At that moment, I promise you, every minister on the planet with a heart for his congregation is agnostic.
Because deep down he doesn’t know what’s going to happen. He doesn’t know whether the sick man or woman he is praying for is going to live or die. He’s going to pray as sincerely as he can and pull every tool out of his theological toolbox. He’s going to use all of the weaponry in his arsenal against this horrifying event. He’s going to try everything he can to uplift and console.
But when that beloved member of the congregation passes and the minister walks silently down the hallway of the hospital, there are hidden tears. There is a silent breaking of the heart and that man or woman of God who stands amidst the tragedy and heartbreak is going to ask themselves, Where are you God? and Why have you forsaken me?
In that moment, with the pastor feeling the enormous weight of a life lost, the very thing he or she is taught to do—and indeed the humane thing to do—is to convey hope: a hope through faith. So that man or woman of God takes a deep breath, pushes the sadness, mourning, doubts and disappointments back down inside and walks back into the hospital room to comfort the grieving. That man or woman of God says, “We know God is a healer,” “We know God can do anything,” “We know that God loves us,” “We know that by his stripes we are healed.” That man or woman of God is not faking it or pretending. These words are meant to provide solace, peace and meaning to the lives of his congregants at the most desperate juncture in their lives. In that moment, the minister’s doubt takes a backseat to the role he or she must play: the meaning machine.
After decades of studying religion, I was awakened to the idea that because skepticism was my nature I had more questions than answers about religion. I realized that free thought had been the methodology with which I explored my theological questions and that agnosticism was the conclusion to an investigation into the question of religion that spanned twenty-five years. But what really brought me to atheism—and I believe that atheism is an opinion because the existence of something outside of our reality is neither provable or unprovable—was humanism.
In all of my endeavors, from the ministry to city hall, humanism has been my motivation.
It is humanism that gives me hope. And what I now know is that by embracing humanism as fully as I once embraced God, there is hope after faith. What I realize is that—like the minister who has doubts but cannot, either out of ignorance or fear, truly be agnostic—when I was in religion I was a humanist who didn’t know what humanism was. Once I shed myself of all the trappings of religion and freed myself from its supernatural thinking, the first thing that happened is that I began to understand humanity at its fullest. And by freeing myself from the shackles of religion and my relationship to supernaturalism, I embraced true hope: the hope that can only be enjoyed by humanists as they serve humanity. It is this true hope, ironically, that is found in religion not because it is divinely inspired but because humans instinctively know that the highest purpose is serving one another.
The reality is that the secular movement provides the only real consolation for humanity. For what I love about being free from religion, what I love about having graduated from faith, is that I still feel a sense of awe at the universe whenever I open my eyes.
But now, when I stand outside my home in DeRidder on a starry night and I take in the beauty and vastness of the Milky Way, I know it is not the divine or a supernatural being at work and that the meaning of the great universe laid out before me isn’t trapped between the leather-bound covers of a book. Yet it is not the stars or constellations that move me most when I gaze into the sky, but humanity. Humans are so special because as far as we know we are the only part of the universe that can see and appreciate ourselves. That the universe can look back at itself is the most spiritual act imaginable. It’s a oneness that provides far more meaning than the oneness doctrine of my Pentecostal days, and it provides a hope for humanity and the universe in all of its complexity that cannot be found through faith.
Jerry DeWitt is an American author, public speaker, and leader in the American atheism movement. He is a former pastor of two evangelical churches, who publicly converted to atheism in 2011 after twenty-five years of Christian ministry . He is the author of the upcoming book Hope after Faith: An Ex-Pastor’s Journey from Belief to Atheism, released June 25th.