Because they started out as fervent Christians, unlike Dawkins and Hitchens and company, Phelps and DeWitt are seen as heroes within the movement. They tend to live and work in the country’s most Bible-soaked places. “I think what’s happening is that nontheists are realizing we can’t just leave this cause to Ivy Leaguers and intellectuals,” DeWitt told me. “We’ve got to convey the secular worldview in a more emotional way.”
At the same time, DeWitt is something of a reality check for many atheists, whose principles rarely cost them more than the price of “The God Delusion” in paperback. DeWitt refuses to leave DeRidder, a place where religion, politics and family pride are indivisible. Six months after he was “outed” as an atheist he lost his job and his wife — both, he says, as a direct consequence. Only a handful of his 100-plus relatives from DeRidder still speak to him. When I visited him, in late June, his house was in foreclosure, and he was contemplating moving into his 2007 Chrysler PT Cruiser. This is the kind of environment where godlessness remains a real struggle and raises questions that could ramify across the rest of the country. Is the “new atheism” part of a much broader secularizing trend, like the one that started emptying out the churches in European towns and villages a century ago? Or is it just a ticket out of town?