Growing up in Los Angeles and Paris, we both were raised secular and embraced atheism early and easily. It’s not that we didn’t ponder life’s mysteries; it’s just that after we reasoned away our religious questions, we stopped worrying about them and moved on. When we learned about the former pastor Jerry DeWitt’s struggles with being an “outed” atheist in rural Louisiana, we realized for the first time just how difficult being an atheist can be in some communities, where religion is woven deeply into the social fabric.
This Op-Doc video shares those challenges, for Mr. DeWitt as he grapples with his changing social status, and for his community as it struggles to accommodate the idea of secular morality. This difficult conversation is becoming increasingly common in this country: As one Pew Research Center study showed, the percentage of American Christians is on the decline, from 78.4 percent in 2007 to 70.6 percent in 2014, and the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans, including atheists, is steadily growing (from 16.1 percent to 22.8 percent in that same time).
In much of America, tolerance rules, but in some communities, especially in the Bible Belt, churches can still compel conformity in ways that make atheism a very costly choice. As we have followed the topic, we have met young people estranged from their families and others fired from their jobs. Perhaps most poignant for us are the people we’ve met who sit quietly in the pews every Sunday, pretending to share in a faith they do not have. The time we have spent with Mr. DeWitt has helped us to see that the freedom of religion we cherish in this country is meaningless — unless it is accompanied by an equally valid freedom from it. -Jason Cohn, Camille Servan-Schreiber