To the Pastor Giving Atheism a Shot for a Year: You’re Doing It Wrong

Ryan J. Bell is a professor and former pastor of a Seventh-day Adventist church, and after a lot of frustration within the faith, he’s decided to go a year without God:

… the day came when I really didn’t fit within the church anymore. I had been an outspoken critic of the church’s approach to our gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered members — that approach being exclusion or, at best, second class membership (“we won’t kick you out but you can’t participate in leadership”). Through the years, I had also been a critic of the church’s treatment of women, their approach to evangelism and their tunnel-vision approach to church growth… All of these things — things I was most proud of in my ministry — earned me rebuke and alienation from church administrators. I tried to maintain that I was a faithful critic — a critic from within — someone committed to the church and its future success but unwilling to go blindly along with things I felt were questionable, or even wrong.

So, 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. It’s important to make the distinction that I am not an atheist. At least not yet. I am not sure what I am. That’s part of what this year is about.

As much as I appreciate what he’s trying to do, this is a badly-designed experiment.

As someone who once visited a hell of a lot of churches in the span of a year, I feel like I can talk about what it’s like to cross over to the “other side.” At no point did I ever pretend I was “trying on” Christianity. I was merely an atheist visiting church and no one assumed otherwise.

Make no mistake: Bell is not “trying on atheism.” He’s just a Christian doing what all people should do and exposing himself to an alternative perspective. That’s a very good thing, no doubt, but scrutinizing your own beliefs isn’t a substitute for being godless. Just as celebrating Hanukkah doesn’t make someone Jewish and fasting during Ramadan doesn’t make you a Muslim, not going through typical Christian rituals doesn’t make you an atheist.

Ultimately, Bell still believes in God, at least for now. Until he changes his mind about that, he’s not really living as an atheist. He says, for example, that he won’t read the Bible over the next year… but neither do a lot of Christians and it’s not like they’re giving atheism a try. Bell also says he’ll read books written by atheists and attend atheist gatherings… but let’s be honest: it’s not like a lot of atheists do those things either.

Again: It’s all about what’s going on in your head. I’m all for religious people (or those like Bell who still have a foot on the religious side) reading things that might change their mind or talking to people who might point out the holes in their logic, but none of that makes you an atheist until you realize that God is a myth.

I love that Bell’s exploring atheism. I appreciate that he’s trying to learn more about a perspective a lot of Christians assume is just immoral or wicked. But no one can “live as if there is no God” while still believing God’s out there.

All that said, here’s some advice for Bell: If you really want to give atheism a try, then look for rational explanations when you might have previously assumed God had something to do with it. You’ll soon realize that the rational explanation is there if you look for it — and if you can’t find it, then you just need to look harder or assume it’s a mystery to everyone.

If you’re interested in following Bell’s journey, he’ll be writing about the experience here.

(Thanks to Joel for the link)

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