Seventh Day Adventist pastor Ryan Bell spent a year intentionally living as an atheist and came out on the other side (surprise!) as a nonbeliever. But on further inspection, is he really a tried and true atheist?
What Bell says he has let go of is the certainty required by his previous religious affiliation, and thus far in my reading about him, he has not said anywhere that he is an atheist. In fact – at least as I understand it – atheism is founded upon the certainty that God does not exist. And for Bell, he says that even to suggest that he has arrived at the conclusion that God doesn’t exist is “too strong a word for the provisional place I now stand and work from,” based on his recent Huffington Post interview.
To me, this is more the result of the rigid requirements delineated by fundamentalist Christian belief, rather than any lack of clarity on Bell’s part. After all, there are many Christians (especially in my reality) who claim to have abandoned all sense of certainty about the existence or no-existence of God. I argue in my book, postChristian, that it is this certainty that has led to so much pain and violence in the name of God in the first place, and that embracing such uncertainty is actually the most intellectually and spiritually honest space within which to explore their faith.As Bell notes in his NPR radio interview, after spending time away from his spiritual practices, and after delving into atheist literature, he no longer finds a compelling case for the existence of the supernatural. This is understandable, actually, as the constructs we build to contain and define God for ourselves are, after all, false. As Peter Rollins writes, it is only once we recognize these false constructs for what they are, and engage in dismantling them, that we have any hope of truly experiencing anything transcendent or any sense of psychic liberation.
A sense of the existence of God is just that: a sense. It is not to be reasoned, defended or rhetorically reduced. It is akin to one’s sense of the existence of love, though love can never be proven. Yes, expressions of it can be pointed to, though others may argue that love is not the source of those expressions. The same can be said about someone who senses the expression of God in other ways, be they physical, emotional or otherwise ineffable. Others may have different attributions for such phenomena, but one’s sense of the Source of such experiences is entirely one’s own.
Which leads us to the important point that faith, in itself (regardless of what we have faith in) is a choice, not a material, logical fact. Faith in the existence of God is a choice, as is faith in the nonexistence of God. Both require faith, though. And neither is made any stronger with certainty.
So, Mr. Bell, welcome to postmodernism. We join you gladly in your uncertain quest for meaning, love and justice in the world, whether you name the Source of such things God or not.