Hi there. Thanks to all of you who took the time to read and comment on my previous post. Sharing our stories, no matter how bitter or miserable, no matter how positively or negatively they paint our friends or families or the ones we have lost, does better to honor their memories than any tepid religious service ever could.
Back to what’s going on in this secular world – have you guys and gals heard about Ryan Bell? The Californian ordained minister, Christian teacher, and former pastor “trying” atheism for a year?
Here he is now, “trying on” some facial hair.
Of course you have, but just in case: a former Seventh-Day Adventist pastor, Bell found he couldn’t teach some of the church’s more hard-edged doctrines sincerely. Bell had, until the start of the year, been adrift, not really attending church, praying, or studying the Bible. And at the start of the new year, Bell had begun living as an atheist. In his own words, for one year,
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.
He then had some trouble finding work – makes sense if your job for the previous … lifetime had, as a line item in its classified ad, “Belief in the Judeo-Christian God a plus!” Then he got a bunch of surprise money from some atheists. Since then things have died down, but he’s still plugging away at trying on atheism like it’s a pair of fashionable-yet-stubbornly-ill-fitting pants.
Ever since hearing about this story, and its subsequent fallout, I’ve struggled to put into words just how I feel about it (obviously – it’s been just about four months and this article is just now being written?) At face value, I’m more than a little miffed. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I and other nonbelievers should be insulted, but it’s easy to be cynical when I hear about a pastor “trying atheism.” If atheism were simply “not going to church,” or “not reading the Bible,” or “not living like Christ,” then guess what – 95% of all Christians are functionally atheist. I mean, they already mostly are, to all other deities, but that right there proves my point – going through the motions, or, more accurately, NOT going through them, isn’t atheism. I would say that for most nonbelievers, the journey is a difficult and often times painful one, unless you happen to be raised in a non-religious household. Breaking free from indoctrination is ROUGH, and can have lifelong consequences. When I see Bell write that he’s going to “read the atheist ‘sacred texts,'” or “speak with as many atheists as possible,” I respond that A) shouldn’t leaders of faith be doing that ALREADY, ready to put their One True Word up against some misguided atheists, especially if our eternal souls hang in the balance? and B) none of these actions are atheism – none of them tell me that your belief, your core, formerly-unwavering faith in a supernatural creator, is gone. To suggest otherwise for a year-long experiment would be ludicrous – what, will his faith be reactivated on December 31st?
PLEASE DO NOT PULL THIS MASSIVE SWITCH
I’ve argued quite a few times in this blogspace that atheism goes hand-in-hand with a lot of other ideologies, or that it can lead to what I feel are very similar philosophies. But at its base, atheism is the lack of belief in a god or gods. The end. Secularism, humanism, all those goodies come later, and it’s unclear as to whether or not Ryan Bell will reach that part on his journey, because I can’t help but think that, underneath the blog posts and the discussions and the not-doing-this-anymore and not-doing-that-anymore, there will be a remnant of faith. It takes time to change what was a life-long, firmly held truism about the world and the nature of life itself – to turn on a dime betrays that the turn may be surface level only. Deep down, Bell most likely still believes in a God that is looking out for him and hearing his prayers, even if he’s not actively sending any for the next 12 months. Hell, I frequently slip into frustrated requests to God to fix things when shit hits the fan, and I consider myself an antitheist – how likely is Bell to do the same?
But like I said, it’s easy to be cynical. Really easy. Like, I-just-did-so-for-the-last-several-paragraphs easy. Perhaps this choice of Bell’s should be viewed with admiration.
Doubt is often painted as a less-than-desirable trait. The heroes in action movies don’t deliberate, don’t postulate and consider their actions and their motivations, they just go. Luke Skywalker turns off his targeting computer. A computer specifically built for targeting.
Garven Dreis payed dearly for his blind trust of science. (Look it up, nerds.)
But you and I know full well that doubt is an incredibly admirable trait – it shows intelligence, skepticism, and self-preservation. And allowing doubt into your mind, allowing it to stand up to our most firmly-held ideas and beliefs, and allowing those thoughts to go toe-to-toe with doubt is the mark of a well-rounded, questioning intellect. While Bell’s experiment may not be as deep-diving or hard-hitting as any real atheist might like, shouldn’t he be just a little bit celebrated for even entertaining the idea? By even opening himself, a pastor of over 20 years, to the notion of “trying on” atheism for a calendar year, isn’t he subjecting his most firmly-held tenets to self-reflection, introspection, and doubt?
By going through this publicly (you can follow his journey on his blog, Year Without God), he’s also opening himself to the scrutiny of picky atheists like myself and the worrying cries of his religious brethren and sistren. Unless, as I mentioned above, you happen to have been raised in a predominantly religion-free household or environment, you, like I, probably have family or friends frequently telling you that they’re praying for you to change your mind, to re-accept Jesus into your heart or whatever the “act” would be to get them off your case. At least we have the strength of our convictions and the tenacity of our pursuit of evidence to write these pleas off. Imagine that you had announced to your colleagues or family that you were, instead of “an atheist,” “trying atheism for a year.” Bell claims he’s already had people openly worry about his eternal soul, I guess in case he passes away before the big ball drops at the end of the year. Living ritual free may open Bell up to, if not a deep personal awakening into the true nature of the universe, exactly what public life is like for those who have embraced a life without a controlling deity at the helm. Perhaps his exploration of a world free of prayer and tithes and reverence to a mystic creator will open his eyes to what life really is like for atheists – what it’s like to be the most despised minority in the country, to be woefully underrepresented in the political sphere, to be portrayed so odiously by Hercules. The less-than-desirable practices of his own particular denomination are what led him to this journey in the first place – Bell could very well become a poster boy for recognizing the repellant behavior of faith institutions, leading massive walk-outs nationwide! Gotta start somewhere, right?
So, it seems that after months of hemming and hawing, I’m on the bloody fence about the whole thing. Sure, like a die-hard Bowie fan, I know there’s more to being a member than slapping on some androgynous makeup and claiming a love of Changesone. But I also want to embrace the slightest act to try. What do you folks think? Is Ryan Bell to be commended for opening up his mind, not a differing religion, but the very antithesis of his entire life’s work? Or should he be chided and derided for assuming atheism is something one can test drive? I’d love to hear your thoughts as always!
Kyle Van Son