A Response to the Response to Ryan Bell

A Response to the Response to Ryan Bell January 4, 2015

We’re coming back to the Handbook for the Recently Deconverted shortly, but I saw this today and it just cried out for examination.

Ryan Bell is a Seventh-Day Adventist minister who decided to go one year as a functional atheist. For one year, he’d abstain from prayer and all outward shows of Christianity; he’d read atheist books and talk to atheist people; he’d refrain from expressing opinions that sounded Christian (like expressing hope for a god to help people or saying that something is divine in nature). He’d been having trouble already with the religion’s party line about LGBTQ people, and in the middle of that squabble with his elders he was confronted with a niggling question: “What difference does God make?” I’ve just written a blog entry about that exact question, “The Scary Superfluity of it All,” over at Ex-Communications, but there was a response post I turned up in my research that bothered me quite a bit that seemed more appropriate to dissect here.

I’m not sure why this one response bothered me quite as much as it did, but it definitely displays a nice reduction of all the absurd arguments, persecution-fantasizing, inappropriate aggression, and bizarre reactions to Mr. Bell’s deconversion across the Christ-o-sphere.

You probably didn’t need me to tell you that Christians are freaking the fuck out about this guy’s deconversion. Like Terry Firma discovered in his own research, I’ve seen not a single supportive or even kindhearted comment from Christians anywhere about Mr. Bell’s move. They were never really happy with his experiment in the first place–I heard a lot of rumbling even last year when it began–but when he revealed that he’d come to a conclusion after the year was up that the Christian god simply doesn’t exist, they hit a level of fury that you could have seen from upper orbit. As our friend The Physeter points out to a Christian openly questioning Mr. Bell’s sincerity, quite a few atheists, including Hemant Mehta himself, thought it was a stunt and that the fellow had no intention of leaving Christianity. And by the way, here  was my actual response from a year ago to someone thinking that the experiment was just him covering his ass while he searched for answers, so he could easily slide back into the religion if he decided it was true:

I got that vibe too. It’s weird he’s acting like it’s some “experiment,” but it’s his life and he gets to handle it the way he thinks best, I reckon.

I wasn’t sure at all when I first heard about it that the end of the year wouldn’t obviously result in him returning to Christianity, though I have to say it is a neat idea that I wish more Christians would consider. For a while now non-Christians have been telling Christians that if they really want to see persecution, they should act not like even-more-hardcore versions of themselves, but rather like atheists. I think it’d be an eye-opening experience for a Christian to even wear an atheist t-shirt for a week. But Christians never seem interested in doing anything like that.

But Ryan Bell did, and leave the religion he did. And comments on Christian sites like this one discussing Mr. Bell’s deconversion have been uniformly negative; these ambassadors of the Prince of Peace and God of Love hurl denunciations that range from giddy veiled threats of his future in Hell to the insistence that he wasn’t Christian at all anyway in the first place (and a few strange suggestions that his real motivation was wanting to sin sexually, which makes no sense at all–if someone really thought this god was real and that Hell awaited the noncompliant, the really smart thing to do would be convert to it and get insta-forgiveness for sins every time–which is what a great many Christians appear to be doing!).

I know that part of the problem here is that Christians aren’t really very honest about doubt or rational inquiry into their religion. I noticed it quite some time ago even as a Christian. It was okay to feel doubts, but in the end, the only conclusion that was allowed was a stronger faith in Jesus. It was okay to investigate the claims of Christianity, but the only conclusion allowed there was that the claims were true. Nobody said it out loud, of course, but they’d talk about teetering on the brink of an abyss or describe doubts as inherently dangerous–as if doubts could, in and of themselves, destroy someone’s faith, like they were physical people or things that could, in and of themselves, drag a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ away, kicking and screaming, from the One True God. Indeed, a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ might briefly experience flickers of doubt, but didn’t dwell there. And a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ of course investigated all aspects of the religion’s claims to one extent or another and prayed extra-dextra hard to resolve any lingering doubt, but always ended up with knowing it was all true. (We’ve just about all run into Christians like that, I bet–who say up and down that they’ve done all their homework and know for 100% sure that their supernatural claims are factual. And we’ll be talking about that, too, in the Handbook soon.)

So I see in these outraged responses to Ryan Bell a certain amount of fury and disappointment that he didn’t come to the correct conclusions. Some of them might well have been okay with the experiment, but they were likely expecting it to turn out with him becoming a stronger Christian in the end. Now that he’s shown that his honest inquiry and doubts led him to apostasy, they are doing everything they can to distance him from the tribe and pretend he was never one of them to begin with. It’s not hard to think why Christians’ usual response to a deconversion is a mass stampede to this particular disavowing of someone they once cherished and held dear. As Dani Kelley’s written of her own deconversion,

I’ll never forget talking to a supervisor at one of my first jobs. Conversation had turned to our personal lives and I mentioned my faith. The immediate response was, “Oh, I know you’re a Christian. It’s not hard to tell.” I remember the profound relief I felt that my relationship with Christ was so easily detectable. Ironically, in the immediate aftermath of the publicizing of my deconversion, I was equally relieved to hear a dear friend tell me that her first thought was, “If Dani can leave, anyone can.”

It’s got to be scary for a Christian to see someone once thought very strong in the faith leave like that. The whole religion is built on a series of false programming and one of the most powerful of these is the argument from authority, wherein someone tries to persuade not based on an argument itself, but rather on whose authority the argument is made.

Well, in this case, Ryan Bell was a pastor and distinctly One of The Tribe. And now he’s decided that based on his own investigations that the religion cannot possibly be true. It should not shock anybody that the hounds have been released on him.

This brings us to a particularly scurrilous piece over at Charisma News, which seems about as reputable a source of journalistic integrity as the old Weekly World News. Written by Jennifer LeClaire, a senior editor there who really likes spiritual warfare and really doesn’t like witchcraft or Jezebel, the post is entitled “Why Are So Many Christians Turning Into Atheists?” and it’s got some opinions on that topic. Too bad they’re all bullshit. I saw the post linked around social media, and I figured it’d be bullshit, but I didn’t realize just how bullshitty it’d be.

From the first sentence, it’s pure ignorance and hatemongering:

Pastor Ryan Bell made a strange New Year’s resolution in 2014—he aimed to live a godless year.

The problem is, he doesn’t present the decision as a New Year’s resolution, and I think this characterization is dishonest and manipulative. Typically, New Year’s resolutions are shallow things that nobody really expects to last very long, done without discipline or intent to really make the resolution stick. We joke about it, especially about changes to our diets and exercise levels, and everybody around us knows that we’re not really serious. Psychologists tell us that these resolutions fail because of a lack of self-awareness, unrealistic expectations, and ignorance of how much work is really involved in making big changes to our lives. Advice abounds about how to make resolutions that actually produce results. It’s notable that Mr. Bell does not actually phrase his decision anywhere that I could find as a “New Year’s resolution.” He decided to do it in the last week of December, not on New Year’s Day, and that appears to be all Ms. LeClaire needs to know to term it a “New Year’s resolution.” I suppose she also calls a car accident that occurs a week before her birthday as “a birthday present.”

Nor is Mr. Bell actually phrasing it as “a godless year.” Here’s how he actually phrases it:

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 will read atheist “sacred texts”. . . 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 . . . 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.

Does that actually sound like he’s resolving to live “a godless year”? Because he goes on to stress that he isn’t an atheist at all and that the year is not about becoming an atheist but rather figuring out what is really true. What it really sounds like is that he decided to try living one year without outward shows of Christian religiosity and expose himself to the stuff atheists think and do without preconceptions that it’s automatically wrong and kneejerk denunciations of anything outside his worldview (like most Christians do on those rare occasions they dip a toe into the water of atheism). So this phrasing, too, is not only a warping of his actual intentions but also one that skews his words to make the idea of what he’s doing sound as negative as possible to her audience.

Continuing onward, I must confess that despite having seen for years how Christians demonize and are nasty to non-compliant people, I still didn’t quite expect Ms. LeClaire to go on to compare Mr. Bell–who by all accounts sounds like a very moral and deeply conscientious person even on the most cursory inspections of his written works and interviews–to Tim Lambesis, the Christian-turned-atheist musician from As I Lay Dying who tried to have a hitman assassinate his soon-to-be-ex-wife. I admit, that really came out of left field, but given what she thinks of atheists, I should not be surprised by this comparison. She genuinely thinks that as her religion loses cultural dominance that “iniquity will abound,” and even cites a Bible verse (Matthew 24:12) she thinks props up her assertion that Christians today are living in the “Endtimes,” that mystical apocalyptic ending of the world that will involve the Rapture, then (or before or during the Rapture, depending on exactly what Christian you’re talking to) a period of great persecution called the Tribulation, and then the Battle of Armageddon and the final destruction of the planet Earth, which in the minds of many Christians like her will start when her religion experiences a great “falling away.”

The problem is that religiosity is directly tied to dysfunction in societies. The more religious a society is, in other words, the more dysfunctional it is. And the more functional it is, the less religious it tends to be. It doesn’t matter what end of the equation you come at it from; secularity is directly and consistently associated with better societal functionality. One does not need to go far to discover cultures that have rejected religion–especially Christianity–and come out the other side with improved markers of functionality, such as lower crime rates, improved freedom for their citizens, higher education rates, lower rates of violence and abuse, even better health and improved social safety nets. We just don’t know exactly which one starts the process; does lowering religiosity lead to better societal functionality as people move away from oppressive religious-inspired social, economic, and diplomatic policies? Or does moving away from those policies lead to lower religiosity as people realize how harmful religion is at worst, and how useless and irrelevant it is at best?

Most of the Scandinavian countries, Japan, quite a few European countries, and even those American states that are secular in nature are markedly more functional than very religious countries and states, while cultures that are markedly more religious tend to be oppressive hellholes rather than the bastions of health, safety, freedom, education, and equality we see in the lists of secular cultures. So if a “falling away” is going to result in some kind of great apocalyptic clusterfuck, it’s really on Christian prophets like Ms. LeClaire to demonstrate how exactly “education, freedom, health, and safety” translate to rounding up Christians and beheading them in the streets, imprisoning them for the mere fact of believing in religious nonsense, and, as she clearly believes by claiming that Christians are in “the last days,” creating the conditions most ripe for a worldwide war. It hasn’t happened yet in any other countries that have moved away from Christianity, and I really don’t see how it’ll start happening as America does. But then, magical thinking, thy name is Christianity.

I also wonder what she’d say if Christianity was experiencing a resurgence in power and dominance and gaining converts. Would we also be in the Last Days then? I mean, I’ve heard that exact Bible verse parroted about for decades. It was popular when I was a Christian, 25+ years ago now. I’m sure that Christians have been talking like this for way longer than that even; the Seventh-Day Adventists and other denominations were built upon the assumption that the world was about to end (a prophecy repeatedly made that obviously never came true at any point. Indeed the list of Christian predictions in general about the end of the world is not only long but laughably so, and despite having been humiliated repeatedly, prominent Christians are still making them because they know they can count on their flocks’ near-total ignorance about actual science and their propensity toward gullible acceptance of whatever they’re told by someone they mistakenly trust.

But then after claiming (without evidence at all) that a lessening of Christian power in America will lead to the end of the world, Ms. LeClaire tops herself by declaring that “When a God-fearing pastor becomes a godless champion for faithlessness, love has grown cold.” She doesn’t have any real backing for this statement either, but it’s a very common trope among Christians that non-Christians have no idea what love really is, and she doesn’t define what she means by the term–probably because she doesn’t need to, for her audience. She uses the appropriate dog-whistle terms that will get her readers appropriately shocked and alarmed (“God-fearing,” “godless champion for faithlessness”) and reinforces their misconceptions about atheists. So what if she’s totally wrong and atheists are quite capable of love? So what if she’s encouraging prejudice and judgmentalism among her readers? So what if she is nakedly capitalizing on hatred and ignorance to sell her point? It’s the end of the world, here, people, and that Armageddon ain’t gonna sell itself.

Not that Ryan Bell even once, even obliquely, claims that he’s a “champion for faithlessness.” It doesn’t sound like he’s even trying to deconvert anybody. He’s sharing what he experienced on his own journey. It’s Ms. LeClaire’s problem if she views the simple act of communication about something antithetical to her own religious ideas as becoming a “champion for faithlessness.” I’ve read quite a bit of what Mr. Bell has to say and I don’t think of myself as an atheist, so maybe I’ve got a perspective here that is maybe safer from bias–and I just don’t get that impression from anything he’s ever written or said. But then again, I’ve seen Christians react with disgust over anything that even vaguely suggests that atheists even exist, and they view resistance as “pushing (insert viewpoint here) down our throats.” A serious hard-on for the idea of persecution exists in Christianity nowadays, with every single inch of pushback lovingly reinterpreted as religious persecution and religious discrimination. Some of them even celebrate the idea with themed “study cruises” featuring speakers and events meant to stoke these imaginary flames, while non-believers have a decidedly more prosaic–not to mention reality-based–view of the matter, like Betty Bowers’ awesome take on persecution, complete with a handy pie chart I’ve clipped from the video:

Bowers_Oppressed

Let me explain how religious freedom works. If Christians discriminate or criticize you, that’s religious freedom. If you return the favor, that’s persecution. So much persecution in 2014! See that purple area [in the pie chart above]? That’s us, the Christians. See all the loud colors dominating the circle? That’s the unsaved trash. “Heeeelp! We’re being oppressed!”

It does seem quite clear to me that in the total absence of anything that actually looks like persecution in anything Mr. Bell has ever written, or indeed that a civilized country has ever offered a religious zealot, Christians like Ms. LeClaire will happily make up whatever they like to reinforce their self-perception as some kind of persecuted minority.

No, Christians of America. Very, very few atheists, as Ms. LeClaire insists (again, without evidence) are “campaigning hard for their godless view.” What sane people (including atheists, non-Christians, and even Christians) are actually doing is trying to put an end to Christianist political and cultural overreach and to stop toxic Christians from forcing the rest of the country–and world–to follow antiquated, immoral, unjust rules and regulations that even they can’t follow themselves. Nowhere at all that I have ever seen does Mr. Bell campaign in any way whatsoever for a godless view, and with very few exceptions I can’t think of many non-Christians trying to concertedly deconvert Christians at all. We’re usually quite happy to live and let live, and if Christians weren’t abusing us, illegally pushing their religion into government, and trying to grab control of others people’s private lives and educations and access to information, nobody would care what the heck Christians do.

But that’s kind of the problem, isn’t it? They really need the rest of us to care what they think and believe and want. And they really do view pushing their religion onto others and enshrining their privilege into law as a requirement for them to be able to freely exercise their faith. Their worldview depends utterly on everybody else playing their pretendy fun time game with them or at least humoring them while they play at it. If enough people refuse to play along, then the sky will fall. Maybe it’ll start becoming too obvious that it’s all a pious fraud and ruse meant to cloak a downright obscene grab for power, who knows. Whatever the reason behind it, it seems quite clear that Ms. LeClaire is incapable of seeing Mr. Bell’s simple assertions and gentle inquiries as anything but some kind of evil-minded plot.

And the really funny part is that sanctimonious, overdramatic “but there is hope” she slips in there. Did you notice the error in thinking demonstrated by that bit?

If this “falling away” really is the end of the world, as she asserts, then why would she hope that it changes? What is this bizarre obsession Christians like her have with somehow stopping the end of the world? Is it her god’s will or not that this huge kerfluffle happen? If it’s her god’s will and truly the end of the world as predicted by what she is very sure is a Bible verse’s prophecy (which has been used many times in the past as a prop for other failed predictions, but this time for sure), then why isn’t she doing everything she can to hasten her Lord’s return? If the “falling away” doesn’t happen, then the end of the world can’t happen–in her own words. But she acts like Christians are responsible for stopping the end of the world like they’re the heroes in their own personal action movie. I don’t remember that anywhere in the Bible, but she just takes it for granted that this delusional, narcissistic, arrogant, overly self-important idea is the case, and clearly believes that this huge responsibility justifies her hatemongering and willful ignorance.

I should also mention that the Christian she uses to prop up her hope, Mike McHargue, who was a Southern Baptist before becoming an atheist for a brief while and then reconverting to Christianity, doesn’t sound at all like the kind of Christian she’d normally consider a TRUE CHRISTIAN™. He specifically writes that he’s no longer stressed about doctrines or denominations, and is comfortable with uncertainty. He doesn’t stress about the afterlife and is far more concerned with the poor and marginalized than he was before his time as an atheist. It’s hard to imagine someone like Ms. LeClaire cozying up to a guy who specifically rejects most of the mindset she’s peddling here. But I guess she has to take what she can get; when it comes to atheists converting to Christianity, the pickings are mighty slim and most of them don’t normally seem like they go into the brand of Endtimes-obsessed, persecution-fantasizing religion she favors. I’ve compared Christians’ treatment of converted ex-atheists to Annie Potts slamming her hand down on the bell in Ghostbusters, and it’s hard not to think about that exultant shout of “We’ve GOT one!” when I read about Ms. LeClaire’s reaction to Mr. McHargue’s reconversion:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k4SUl69RFJ8

I’m not sure how much of a “win” it is for her side to gain a re-convert who seems nuanced and compassionate in his understanding of non-believers. She needs Christians like herself, because only Christians who think like she does would ever lie about non-believers or try to emotionally manipulate an audience into demonizing and judging outsiders, or lick their lips over her constant stream of unverified, unsupported, often-erroneous claims about, well, everything.

She ends by saying, as a response to Mr. McHargue’s assertion that he has simple trust now in his faith:

I pray that every Christian-turned-atheist—and every atheist for that matter—would come to this same revelation. God is waiting to embrace you.

And I just find myself thinking that it would be so totally neat if she could actually prove the truth of a single one of her claims. If her god is waiting to embrace anybody, he’s got a weird way of showing it–and Ryan Bell has discovered, as a great many of us ex-Christians have, that this claim simply doesn’t translate to reality.

Even worse, I find myself wondering why on earth a non-believer would ever want to join a religion that encourages this sort of shoddy, irrational, ignorant, hateful thinking. The last thing I’d ever want to do is risk going to afterlife populated with people like Jennifer McLaire, and even if she could ever manage to prove a single one of her assertions and claims about the supernatural, I’d never love or worship a god who encourages the kind of behavior she exhibits toward anybody. So my hope for her, in turn, is that she figures out where she’s gone wrong and adjusts course while she’s got time to repair the damage she’s done to her religion’s witness.

Hey, maybe she needs to spend a year away from her religion or something.


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