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Former Louisiana pastor tells humanists about his conversion to nonbelief

Among 325 or so atheists, agnostics, humanists and other nonbelievers gathered here at a convention of the American Humanist Association this weekend, Jerry DeWitt of DeRidder was just a face in the crowd. He did not get an award as Humanist of the Year, like Gloria Steinem. Nor is he an author or community activist promoting tolerance for nonbelievers, like many of the association’s better-known figures.

But DeWitt, 42, is beginning to develop a national profile in the small universe of organized unbelievers, for he’s a rarity: a former preacher, an erstwhile Pentecostal pastor from small-town Louisiana who little by little lost his faith right there in the pulpit, even as he exhorted others to fervent belief.

Now DeWitt is out of the pulpit, and public about his nonbelief. He has begun to do a little speaking, telling his reverse-conversion story around the country before local humanist groups. More than that, he is the unpaid executive director of Recovering from Religion and works with The Clergy Project, a website that invites and privately counsels other doubting pastors behind a password-protected firewall.

Atheism is his new ministry. He said he does not personally proselytize for nonbelief, to adopt a term from his former world.

“I don’t consider myself an evangelist at all. But I’m still like a pastor. I pastor people who come to me and pastor them where they are,” he said. “I life-coach them. I’m pastoring more people now than I ever ministered to before in either of my congregations.”

Whatever lessons DeWitt offers as a life-coach, they are hard-won — and still developing. By DeWitt’s account, his coming out has been disastrous.

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