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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.

21 Comments Post a comment
  1. Paul Johnston #

    I wish he would have tried on contemplative prayer and the Holy Eucharist for a time…I know, not exactly on point but what else would you expect me to say :)…Poor Mr. Bell, if he is sincere in his undertaking, he is sadly something less than fully human. I am an ass at times and the institutions I support are far from perfect and to be fair I/we sometimes ride blind but I know who I am, who I “ride” with and where I/we hope to go….

    When Christ really starts to permeate your being, the theologies, the dogmas, theism or non theism, take on less importance. It is enough to be alive. It is enough to be loving.

    Thank you for, as always, another work of inspiration. 🙂

    January 7, 2014
    • Thank you, Paul.

      Yes, I would have expected to hear such counsel from you :). I’m not sure why Bell didn’t decide on an experiment more along the one you suggest here. Perhaps he already has, I don’t know. I take your point to be a fair one, though—we tend act our way into believing rather than believing our way into acting. And during the barren periods, sometimes it is the practices that sustain us and carry us along until our believing catches up.

      I would stop well short, however, of saying that Bell’s undertaking demonstrates that “he is sadly something less than human.” Even if I think it’s a misguided quest, I understand the questions and concerns that lie behind and animate it.

      January 8, 2014
    • mike #

      Paul, as a fellow contemplative, I understand the profoundness of your words, but for the uninitiated such language is construed as disjointed and contradictory. You were speaking from a depth that can only be spiritually discerned, the carnal Christian simply has not the ears to hear it.

      January 9, 2014
      • What’s a carnal Christian?

        January 9, 2014
      • mike #

        Esoteric and Exoteric

        M.Alan Kazlev

        Esoteric means the “inner” (eso-), in the sense of the inner consciousness; the contemplative, mystical or meditative transpersonal perspective. This is something different from the ordinary everyday understanding of things, and can only be understood by intuition or higher mental or spiritual faculties.

        The opposite of Esoteric is Exoteric, which means the “outer” (exo-), i.e. the outer or surface or everyday consciousness. This includes both the scientific-materialistic and the conventional (or literal) religious perspective. As it is based on the everyday understanding of things, and does not require any transformation of consciousness (and indeed considers any such transformation to be harmful), it assumes that the everyday mind alone can understand Reality. (Things are not always that simple though, because in order to do, say, quantum physics one requires a mathematical intuition not shared by many).

        Central to the distinction between Esoteric and Exoteric is that of states of consciousness. An Exoteric philosophy or religion as one which is based on the normal waking state of consciousness, or a modified state of consciousness which is still pretty close to the normal waking state. Any aspiration beyond the ordinary state of existence is discouraged. For example, according to the religious person, “God created/loves you just as you are”, so who are you to question what God has ordained for you by striving for some higher state of consciousness? While according to the sceptical Materialist, there is no higher state beyond the rational mind anyway (all non-rational states of consciousness being delusionary).

        In contrast, all true Esotericism is Gnostic. That is, it is based on Higher Knowledge, or Gnosis, to use the Greek term. Gnosis is a much superior way of understanding than Reason. Reason stumbles around with premises and logical arguments, and uses these in its own way, without regard for higher truth. With reason alone, you can equally prove or disprove any statement. Certainly, used properly, reason is an invaluable aid to understanding and approaching the Truth. But used improperly, it can cunningly justify any statement or argument, no matter how patently false. It is through this negative use of reason that the inferior religious and sceptical materialistic philosophies are able to flourish.

        Thus we have (putting it of course simplistically) two fundamental positions; the Exoteric literal religious-and-scientific position, which requires no transformation of consciousness, and is therefore accessible to the “average joe”; and the Esoteric “mystical” and philosophically sophisticated position, which is based on the transformation of the self and the understanding of the nature of reality. Of course, I need to emphasise here once again that this is an oversimplification of what is not really a clear cut few and many dichotomy at all. For example the understanding of an “exoteric” (no need to attain a mystical/transpersonal state) science such as physics is accessible to only a small percentile of the population (which is why there are so few talented physicists), whereas the average person (if spiritually inclined) is much more easily able to understand and assimilate mystical or at least New Age topics, such as homeopathy, “geopathogenic zones”, eastern teachings (especially as presented by a guru), and so on.

        January 9, 2014
      • mike #

        Within the Christian experience there exists an added or extra dimension available to us, wherein is a fullness,richness and depth above and beyond the ordinary, not carnal but spiritual, even mystical. The annals of Church history is rich with those who dared venture deeper into what has become known as Christian mysticism.

        January 9, 2014
      • I’m familiar with the Christian mystical tradition. It’s just not entirely clear to me why or how or even if it’s been used as something like a trump card in this conversation. Is the argument that if Mr. Bell had been a mystic he wouldn’t have had doubts or wandered from faith in God?

        January 9, 2014
  2. Wait, Paul, doesn’t your second paragraph undermine your first?

    January 7, 2014
  3. mike #

    I sympathize with him and at the same time I congratulate him as well, this necessary (albeit dramatic) soul searching crisis of faith will ultimately lead him to the Kingdom of God within, minus the outward baggage of organized institutional religion. …..God have mercy on us all

    January 7, 2014
    • I hope the kingdom of God is the terminus of this experiment. I don’t think it’s inevitable. I think the choices we make form us as people—they harden us toward some things and open us toward others. I hope this decision leads Mr. Bell to the latter.

      As you know, I don’t take quite as dim a view of institutional Christianity as you do. There is plenty to criticize, to be sure, but in my experience, the institutional church also functions as a very easy, convenient, and enjoyable whipping post/scapegoat in our culture for those unable or unwilling to commit to anything or who need a foil against which to celebrate their open-mindedness. As I said in the post, on this story, I don’t think the “institution” (at least as represented by the two schools where he was teaching) were doing anything malicious. They were simply acting as any other organization would (or should) when people freely and deliberately decide to pursue a different set of values and behaviours than the ones the organization exists to promote.

      January 8, 2014
  4. Paul Johnston #

    How so, David?

    Hazarding a guess I will only say this, I have encountered and do encounter the living Christ through contemplative prayer and the Holy Eucharist. Where I find Christ I should show others. In spite of my sins and the sins of those with whom I worship our path is true, it leads to Christ. But in the end our institution is only a “means”. Christ is the end.

    January 8, 2014
  5. Your first paragraph implies a particular dogmatic/theological account of Christ while your second undermines that as significant.

    January 8, 2014
  6. mike #

    Come on you all, this gimmick is a very cleverly thought-out money making scheme capitalizing on the perennial love/hate relationship between Christians and atheists and the ensuing endless arguments which, in a twisted way, aren’t meant to convince anyone other than ourselves. It’s the same “us versus them” con used in the political arena to manipulate the mass’s. Yep, good ole God sanctioned capitalism at work here……

    January 8, 2014
  7. Paul Johnston #

    Is it wrong to say that to live a life apart from Christ, is to live a life that is “less than human”?Less than your potential, for being. Less compassion, less charity, less humour, less forgiveness, less love? How is the full potential of human expression ever realized apart from Christ?

    Mr. Bell can leave an institution behind. Human frailty being what it is, people and communities who should get along, sometimes don’t. But how does one know Christ and abandon HIm? How does one walk away from their own children and consign them to poverty? How does one abandon an addled parent to a street corner?

    I have never met a person yet, convicted by the reality of Christ in their lives, who could simply walk away. No one, after feeling the depth and enormity of true love, leaves.

    January 9, 2014
    • If you can’t see it in your last paragraph here Paul, I’m not going to point it out.

      January 9, 2014
    • I see what you meant by the “less than human” language, Paul. I appreciate the clarification. I agree—Christ shows us what a fully human life looks like and makes the fulfillment of what we were made for possible.

      Re: not being able to walk away, I’m not sure. I can think of a number of parents who would say that their children experienced the fullness of their love and still chose to reject them at some point in their lives. Could the same not be true of Christ?

      January 9, 2014
  8. mike #

    I apologize to all for my incessant tendency to drift off topic, and I’m sorry for my intentionally abrasive comment concerning carnal Christians. It was wrong of me and I’m sorry.

    January 10, 2014
    • No need to apologize, Mike. I have no problem with drifting off topic—sometimes that’s when the most interesting conversations happen. I was just trying to make the connections.

      January 10, 2014
  9. Tyler #

    I have a suspicion that his year as an atheist will be strikingly similar to his years as a Christian. Except maybe he will experience the joy of taking Sunday mornings off

    January 29, 2014
    • Perhaps it will, perhaps it won’t.

      Out of curiosity, what do you base your suspicion on?

      January 29, 2014

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