Look at Me, I’m Taking Atheism for a Spin!
So, this one is generating a bit of discussion online today. Apparently Ryan Bell, an American pastor (or former pastor), is going to give atheism a try for a year. He has found himself, over the last number of years, following the well-worn ecclesial trail from orthodoxy to heterodoxy and has arrived at the point where he’s just not sure he can do the whole God thing any longer. He’s not sure what he believes any more, so he’s going to play the field.
Starting with atheism:
I’m making it official and embarking on a new journey. I will “try on” atheism for a year. For the next 12 months I will live as if there is no God. I will not pray, read the Bible for inspiration, refer to God as the cause of things or hope that God might intervene and change my own or someone else’s circumstances. (I trust that if there really is a God that God will not be too flummoxed by my foolish experiment and allow others to suffer as a result).
I will read atheist “sacred texts” — from Hobbes and Spinoza to Russell and Nietzsche to the trinity of New Atheists, Hitchens, Dawkins and Dennett. I will explore the various ways of being atheist, from naturalism (Voltaire, Dewey, et al) to the new ‘religious atheists’ (Alain de Botton and Ronald Dworkin). I will also attempt to speak to as many actual atheists as possible — scholars, writers and ordinary unbelievers — to learn how they have come to their non-faith and what it means to them. I will visit atheist gatherings and try it on.
In short, I will do whatever I can to enter the world of atheism and live, for a year, as an atheist.
I’m not quite sure what to make of Bell’s experiment. My first reaction is to simply dismiss it as a gimmicky publicity stunt. AJ Jacobs had his year of living biblically, Rachel Held Evans had her year of biblical womanhood. The “year of” genre has certainly proved to be a fruitful one, guaranteed to draw attention and admiration from a number of corners. I’m sure Bell’s year of living atheistically will garner a book deal or a speaking tour or some other thing. I’m sure he will be welcomed enthusiastically by atheists eager to have a formerly lost soul to enter their midst. The internet will be happy and busy. All shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.
Having said that, I’m not entirely unsympathetic to Bell’s concerns and the trajectory his life has taken. It’s not always easy to live with God, after all. There are times—many times—when God seems utterly absent or incompetent; there are times when the church seems preoccupied mainly with majoring on minors and minoring on majors. The Bible can be a miserably difficult book to come to any kind of peace with. I think many pastors and former pastors have wrestled with precisely the concerns that have led Bell to his atheism experiment. I’m not convinced that just giving up on God for a year is the best response (actually, I’m pretty convinced it’s not the best response), but I certainly understand the impulses that have led him to it.
Speaking of sympathy for Mr. Bell, The Friendly Atheist certainly has plenty to spare. He has rather gleefully scolded Azusa Pacific University and Fuller Theological Seminary—both of whom had Bell on as an adjunct faculty member—for firing him. One more example of the blinkered, unquestioning dogmatism of Christians and their institutions, right? One more example of Christians who bristle at the thought that someone might have the temerity to express—gasp!—doubt or wrestle with difficult questions. He’s even set up a way for donating to Ryan Bell’s expenses while he licks his wounds and recovers from his encounter with those nasty Christian institutions.
This response strikes me as more than a little opportunistic and disingenuous. Azusa and Fuller are, after all, Christian institutions charged with the task of teaching Christian doctrine and training Christian leaders. Is it really that unimaginable that they would be hesitant to have on their faculty someone who is quite openly and publicly courting atheism? Would we be surprised if Amnesty International or Christian Peacemaker Teams decided to part company with a longstanding member who had openly and publicly decided to conduct a one year experiment of membership with the NRA? Would the Richard Dawkins’ foundation enthusiastically commend one of their influential employees deciding to try out Focus on the Family for a year? I wonder.
Maybe the only thing to take away from this story and the predictable responses it has generated (and will continue to generate) is yet another reminder that we, the denizens of the digital age, are very, very fond of living our lives publicly. Look at me! Look at all the difficult questions that I’m not afraid to ask! Look at me trying on atheism! Look at me criticizing all those stupid Christians who have to stifle free thought at every turn! Whatever you do, for the love of (or antipathy toward) God, just look at me!
I hope that Ryan Bell finds what he is looking for this year. I hope he thinks as critically about his atheist suitors and their ideological offerings as he has about Christianity and its institutional trappings. I hope that he learns who and what he is, whether or not anyone is watching.