“Trying on” atheism

trying on bootsThere has been a great deal of discussion about the question of whether I can “try on” atheism for a year, or any length of time. This question—the methodological question—seems to be the main concern about my exploration (aside, of course, from whether I engineered this as a huge media stunt). Over the next several weeks I will write more about my methodology, but today I want to begin by sharing what I understand to be the relationship between thinking/knowing and acting/behaving as best I can in a short blog post.

The nature of knowledge

I understand my basic knowledge or beliefs about the world to be deeply embedded in a narrative about that world. Beliefs are not, as we sometimes think, free floating ideas that we can take or leave at will and combine in any number or ways to create our own personal identities. Postmodernity presses us into this possibility, it seems, but I still think we live in a deeply narrated world where our beliefs and ideas are networked into a larger cultural tapestry. That being said, our most deeply held beliefs (for example, that people are essential good or evil, that freedom and hard work are unqualified goods and that love and justice will—or won’t—overcome hatred and inequality) can and do change over time. We have new experiences, encounter new people, learn new facts. All these things have a bearing upon our understanding of how the world actually is—what I’m calling belief.

Relationship of knowledge and action

The most common way people think about this relationship is a linear progression from  belief/knowledge to action/behavior. We first get our ideas straight and then we live out of those ideas. If we want to act differently, we suppose we should change our minds first. Think different thoughts and your actions will follow. If I am convinced that those  plastic bags that grocery stores use are terrible for the environment I will then start carrying recycled, reusable grocery bags.

As a Christian this is exactly the way I learned to share my faith with others. The goal was to get people to believe certain things about God and Jesus (God is holy, just, good, forgiving; Jesus is compassionate) and then Christian behaviors would follow (worship, prayer, giving, serving). As a pastor, this was a frustrating process because more often than not, it did not work. People would assent to the basic Christian beliefs and carry on living their lives as before. In spite of my disdain for those damn plastic bags, I still forget my reusable ones at home. It wasn’t until later that I discovered a more dynamic, dialectical relationship between thought/belief and action/behavior.

Laura Turner, who wrote a Christianity Today piece about my Year Without God, quotes Dallas Willard to this effect, “Indeed, no one can actually believe the truth about [Jesus] without trusting him by intending to obey him. It is a mental impossibility.” I’ve spent a great deal of time with Dallas Willard’s writing, which is likely one source of my beliefs about the relationship between thinking and acting. Our behaviors are predicated upon and indicate certain beliefs and knowledge about the world.

If this is true then change is not only achieved by believing our way into new ways of acting but also by acting our way into new ways of believing. Belief and practice, knowledge and action, are in a dynamic, dialectical, mutually reinforcing relationship. Which is why it is surprising and a little confusing when Turner goes on to say, “Were Bell to frame this simply as a thought experiment with no repercussions for his spiritual life, we could send him on his merry way, stacks of Dawkins and Darwin in hand. But he argues the Seventh-day Adventist teachings and conservative worldview of his church drove him to consider atheism in both thought and practice.” Right. Because, as the Willard quote she refers to above makes clear, thought experiments alone are insufficient. Our thoughts and our practices are intimately connected.

I know what you’re thinking: atheism isn’t a set of behaviors. Nor is it a belief system. It’s simply the non-belief in deities. I agree, to a point. While I understand what people mean when they say this (ie. there’s no atheist creed, no atheist sacred text—I said this tongue in cheek in my first post), atheism is, in fact, one single belief (or, atheists would say, fact): that no god exists.

So how does one come to such a (non)belief? Can it be “tried on” or “flirted with,” as Kimberly Winston put it? Can one simply take off their “God glasses” or “wriggle into” atheism like a pair of jeans, as Turner says? Beliefs are not something one takes on and off, like clothing, and it would be nearly impossible to make a large leap, authentically, from an intact, evangelical belief system to atheism overnight. If I were beginning this journey having been, up until December 31, 2013, an ardent fundamentalist Christian, I would say there is no way to suddenly disregard God. But that is not my story. Mine has been a slow erosion of the beliefs I was raised with. Unanswered and, indeed, off limits questions, knocking at the door of my mind, refusing, finally, to be ignored. Indeed, anyone who once believed in God, and is now an atheist, has walked this road. To finally take the God glasses off is not a heroic act or a herculean feat, but the logical next step in my exploration of faith. What if it were true that there is no god, as I have suspected for a very long time? My “trying on” atheism is more like taking the next step and allowing myself to embrace my serious doubts about God’s existence. By removing my “God glasses” (both beliefs and actions) I am freed to see the world in a different way.

But what of atheist behaviors? Certainly there are no unified atheist practices. I agree. No set of actions and behaviors unify people who simply, based upon the evidence, don’t believe in a god or gods. Still, in my case, stepping across a line and viewing the world from another perspective (inasmuch as this is possible, and I freely admit that it is no more possible than perfectly assimilating into another culture) involves forgoing the Christian practices and frames of mind that gave shape to my life as a theist and a Christian. This is why I have said I am not praying, worshiping God, attributing circumstances to God’s providence or asking God to intervene in the world. My acting is more a matter of not acting in particular ways; of ceasing or abstaining from certain behaviors.

This type of action is what we typically think of when we talk about formation or acculturation. Acculturation happens when a person takes on, to a sufficient degree, the practices of a culture such that they begin to feel at home in that culture, perhaps even thinking the way people in that culture think; seeing the world from the perspective of a very different group of people.

And so, I agree that I cannot “try on” atheism exactly. What I am attempting is to see the world from without the interpretive framework that I have had and which has slowly changed and proved insufficient over time. My exploration is more confessional, perhaps, but at the end of the day, I am still crossing a line to see the world from a different point.

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About Ryan Bell

For 19 years Ryan Bell was a pastor, most recently the senior pastor of the Hollywood Seventh-day Adventist Church. In March 2013 he resigned his position due to theological and practical differences. As an adjunct professor he has taught subjects ranging from intercultural communication to bioethics.
Currently he is a researcher, writer and speaker on the topic of religion and irreligion in America. In January 2014, Ryan began a yearlong journey exploring the limits of theism and the atheist landscape in the United States and blogs about that experience here at Year Without God.


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