This fall I am offering a Philosophy of Religion class twice a week. One will be Tuesdays 7pm-9:30pm Eastern Time and the other Saturdays 2pm-4:30pm Eastern Time. I’m very excited to announce that we will be joined for the Saturday class by Ryan Bell, the former minister and seminary instructor who is taking a year putting aside Christian practices and exploring atheism on its own terms.
Ryan made a huge, surprising, media attention grabbing splash into the atheist community last New Year’s Eve when he announced his plan to do this. The Year Without God blog started in order to chronicle his journey became an overnight success (one picked up by Patheos Atheism in a hurry).
Here’s part of what he wrote in that fateful blog post:
As it turns out, 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. I was deeply committed to my community and its betterment — something that won me the praise of some (and even an Innovative Church of the Year award from the North American Division) and the vitriol of others. I engaged in and sponsored interfaith relationships within my churches and in the community. I struggled alongside our neighbors for justice and peace. 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.
This was on top of my theological concerns. I couldn’t affirm the teaching that the Seventh-day Adventist Church was the “remnant church” — God’s chosen people to prepare the world for the last days. If fact, there was a lot about the church’s beliefs concerning the last days (and the more proximate days) that troubled me.
In March, I stood my ground on these issues and was asked to resign. I didn’t want to resign but I finally agreed. My family and my health had suffered over the past several years but my faith had suffered most of all. Since that time I have been a religious nomad. I have struggled to relate to the church and, if I’m honest, God. I haven’t attended church consistently; I struggle to relate to church people, preferring the company of skeptics and non-church-goers. I haven’t prayed much and, without sermons to write on a regular basis, I haven’t studied, or even really read, the Bible.
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.
For this life-long Christian, and a pastor for nearly 20 years, this feels abnormal. Risky, even. It is as uncomfortable as a lifelong atheist trying on Christianity for a year. Many of my colleagues will fear for my eternal security (what if I somehow die during the year?), others will question my mental health, reasoning that the recent trauma in my life has sent me over the edge. Perhaps they are right. There has been some religious trauma in my life in the last year and it has shaken the foundation of my faith, but honestly, it was getting pretty shaky anyway.
Of course, not all Christians or atheists (including I) immediately knew what to make of Ryan and what he was doing. But I had the pleasure of meeting him last spring at the American Atheists 2014 convention and instantly hit it off with him. We were quickly very simpatico. He’s a really thoughtful and friendly guy. We’ve had some private discussions about philosophy and theology since and an outgrowth of that has been our mutual desire that he make my Philosophy of Religion class a part of his “Year Without God”. And we’re hoping you will join us. Whether you’re one of the many doubting believers who has been inspired and empowered by Ryan’s public exploration of doubt or a confident atheist or firm Christian, we want this class to be a genuinely illuminating exploration of what a philosophical approach to the nature of religion and to religious claims can yield us. Here’s how I describe the content and theory behind the class on my DanielFincke.com website:
My Philosophy of Religion class addresses the philosophical issues that religions raise. My widely read atheistic blog Camels With Hammers is hosted on the major multi-faith website Patheos and it addresses the philosophy of religion often. My dissertation on the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche also dealt significantly with his philosophical and historical understanding of religion.
Sometimes people think it sounds oxymoronic to have an atheistic philosophy of religion. But there are a number of reasons why I think it is vital and integral that atheists have one. For one thing, if atheists are going to reject theism for rational reasons, it is crucial that they familiarize themselves with the best arguments for theism and develop equally sophisticated responses. Even if all supernatural beliefs are false, it’s important to understand why and to refute them as fairly as possible. Secondly, religion is a worldwide phenomena that transcends theism and shapes billions of people’s psychologies and cultures. It is necessary for atheists to think deeply about how all this works if we are to make sure that atheists’ needs are to be better met (or at least equally) met as theists’ needs. Questions as to whether there should be alternative rationalistic atheistic religions developed to replace religions are important to consider rigorously. Thirdly, religious traditions have historically been sources of some philosophical insights about metaphysics and ethics that we can still learn from even where we reject supernaturalistic belief claims and justify them for ourselves on different grounds instead. Fourthly, many atheists are confronted, sometimes in very intimate relationships, or in very intellectually challenging contexts, by religious people who demand reasons for their disbelief and so such atheists often want to be equipped to do “counter-apologetics”. Fifthly, in discussion of philosophy of religion, theists and atheists can find many points of common ground for healthy debate, mutual understanding, and mutual influence that can improve both theism and atheism.
So this course is designed to give both believers and non-believers a detailed and nuanced understanding of the best and most current arguments for and against the existence of God. This involves exploring a range of cosmological, teleological, ontological, epistemological, and moral arguments for and against the existence of God. We also explicate and assess a wide range of competing conceptualizations of what God is or would be. We consider the difficult question of the meaning of religious language. We examine the relationship between faith and reason and the relative epistemic warrant of believing things by faith. We critically analyze various strategies for reconciling faith and science, and for modernizing religions generally. We investigate the ideal relationship between church and state. We apply philosophical tools to religious claims to see how they might be most coherently and plausibly conceived, and how they might be judged to be true or false. We look at atheistic arguments from the Problem of Evil, alternative atheistic possibilities for metaphysics and ethics to theistic ones, and consider the possibility of atheistic religions. And we delve into the nature of religion itself–what it is, what values it serves or might come to serve, how it relates to other spheres of human endeavor, and what religions might have to learn from philosophy. Along the way, we will discuss numerous historical philosophers’ arguments and their influences on the development of religious concepts as we know them. And at one point or another we will inevitably address intersecting topics in ethics, metaphysics, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, epistemology, biblical studies, psychology, history, anthropology, and political philosophy, all as they have bearing on specific issues in philosophy of religion. There is no university credit for taking this course.
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