An End, and a New Beginning

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“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time”

—T. S. Eliot—

 

A year without God.

More pixels have been spilled over the meaning of that expression than any other aspect of this experience. Now that the year is down to its final hours, it makes sense to once again start at the beginning.

A year ago I had come to the end of my existential rope. The narratives that had given shape to my life and to which I had committed my time and energy had never felt so inadequate. My life had run out of gas. I was no longer a pastor, and nine months after leaving my congregation I had arrived at the point of questioning everything. I knew that I was on the doorstep of atheism—a place I never thought I would be. It was time for me to explore the limits of my former worldview and step into a new possibility.

I began that journey with the question—what difference does God make? The question seems like the wrong question now. It assumes there is a God. But that’s where I was. I believed there was likely a God. Assuming for the moment that God exists, what difference does God make? Does faith in God provide something that cannot be achieved in any other way?

As I attempted to integrate my understanding of the Bible with my experience of the world and the wonderful people in my congregation and city, the God I knew faded into the distance. The God of deism, for example, makes no difference beyond an intellectual exercise. That God does not answer prayer, intervene in human affairs or have a personal relationship with us. The God of contemporary American Christianity is supposed to make a difference. But I could not discern this difference. I had stopped believing that prayer was for changing anything besides me. I had stopped believing that heaven was a place we were going or that God was really going to step into our world, stop the pain and bloodshed, and usher in a new age of peace. It seemed to me then, as it does now, that the belief in paradise after death is the very thing that disempowers people from doing the things that will save us from premature destruction. Everywhere I turned people were claiming that my efforts to make the world a more peaceful and equitable place were doomed to fail because that is what was prophesied just before Jesus returns to make it all better.

So I stepped away to consider whether I had spent my entire life pursuing something—or someone—that didn’t exist.

Now, at the end of this year, I have discovered no evidence that a God exists. For me, theism fails for a number of reasons.

ManLookingAtStars

While science has yet to answer every question about our existence and our place in the universe, it has gone a remarkable way toward that end. I expect there will always be mysteries waiting to be investigated, but the scientific method has served us well. Coming as I have from a Christian tradition that flatly refuses to acknowledge the discoveries of science, my faith has limited my understanding of the world and my pursuit of truth. I cannot live in this way any longer. I feel much more confident leaving questions of our physical world and the cosmos to science. I understand that some Christians can reconcile their faith with the scientific account of our origins, but I see no reason for this approach at this time.

While biological evolution accounts for our present physical existence, the history of human social evolution is a much better way of understanding religion. The multitude of religious and spiritual beliefs that have occupied the minds of human beings through the millennia and the way those ideas have changed over time convinces me that God has not created humanity. Humanity has created God. Ludwig Feuerbach proposed, correctly I think, that God is the projection of humanities best, and sometimes worst, impulses. God is human nature writ large. We can see that clearly when considering the Greek and Roman gods. Why would it not be true of all other gods, as well? Religion has served a vital evolutionary purpose, uniting people around the common good. Those days, however, are waning, as we discover better ways of coping with the challenges facing our planet.

The multiplicity of religions is also an argument against theism. With all the competing claims, which God is the right one? My Christianity was the product of being born in the United States during the 20th century. If I had been born in Saudi Arabia I would no doubt be a Muslim. If I were born in the Indian subcontinent I would be a Hindu, or perhaps a Sikh. If I were born in Thailand, I would undoubtedly be a Buddhist. The more I engaged in interfaith dialogue the more I realized that we can’t all be right. Furthermore, all paths can’t possibly lead the same place, even if the original impulse of religion, connection with the divine, is the same. The paths are in some cases wildly divergent.

Finally, for me the most convincing explanation for the persistence of religion is from the field of psychology. We fear nothing more than our own mortality. But what if we could live forever? We have a metaphorical sense of living on in the lives of our children and cultural institutions to which we contribute. But what if we could actually live forever? What if the reward for a life well lived is eternal life in paradise? Such a reward could be used to keep the masses in line and consolidate power in the hands of those that hold the secrets to immortality. Because we fear death we create stories about how we will not really die. The Biblcal book of Genesis is aobut how we lost our innate immortality and the remainder of the writings that make up the Bible are about our search to regain what we lost. Revelation ends with the faithful being reunited in a perfect world without end.

Much more could be said about each of these subjects. I have also said nothing about morality and the problem of evil. Volumes have been written about each of these subjects, but in this short space, these are a few of the reasons I find God to be an entirely human creation.

What Am I?

Today I continue my life as a humanist and an atheist. Though I wouldn’t have used the label at the time, I have been a Christian Humanist for the past decade or more. Humanism feels to me like something I’m keeping as I make some rather significant changes in my worldview. I’ll have more to say about humanism in the near future but I am very at home with its tenants.

My atheism is of the agnostic variety, admitting along with the vast majority of all other atheists I’ve spoken to, that we cannot know for a fact that there is no God. Perhaps there is an intelligence that had a hand in creating our universe. As yet we have no evidence of that and, as Michael Shermer points out in his “Last Law,” any sufficiently advanced extraterrestrial intelligence would be indistinguishable from God. While I had sincerely hoped that I could reconcile God with everything else I know about the world, and I am open to changing my mind in the future, for now it makes more sense that there is no God.

As I mention in the video above, I’m not taking a victory lap or celebrating my provisional conclusion. It feels like a loss, but I would rather live with a painful truth than a comforting lie. Here I stand with the somewhat uncomfortable, but oddly liberating, conviction that there is no God.

Life After God

I will continue to blog at Patheos under the title Year Without God and I will be launching a new project called Life After God, which will be a way to connect with people who are navigating the choppy waters of post-theist life. I’ve discovered this year that there are thousands upon thousands of people who are stuck betwixt and between their old belief system that gave their lives meaning and new understandings of the world that render that old belief system obsolete and sometimes harmful. I will be working with existing efforts to create post-Christian, post-theist, atheist community and creating new venues for these vitally important conversations to take place.

When I started this year I thought this journey was going to be about me, my questions, and my doubts. Very quickly it captured the imagination of thousands of people and become a much larger conversation. Skeptics and atheists welcomed me into their communities, people of faith encouraged, supported and challenged me. Individuals around the world shared their stories with me, by email, comments on my blog, or Facebook pages. Each of these stories has impacted my life in untold ways. This year has been about all of us. The consciousness of our world is changing rapidly and together we have the privilege of shining our light in dark places. Your contribution to this journey is recorded and will impact the book I’m writing and the documentary that will be released in the later part of 2015. Thank you to each and every one of you who were a part of my Year Without God—from the harshest critic to the most sympathetic—you each made this year unforgettable.

Happy New Year!

The Parable of the Undercover Boss
The End of Atheism: a review of Everybody is Wrong About God
A Human(ist) Revolution
Two Years Without God
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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