At the end of last year, Ryan J. Bell, an adjunct professor at Azusa Pacific University and Fuller Theological Seminary and a former pastor of a Seventh-day Adventist church, decided to “try on atheism” for a year.
According to his piece in the Huffington Post, Bell had a falling out with the Seventh-day Adventist church, a church he’d been a part of his entire life. He had theological concerns, as well as concerns about how his church chose to treat others:
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.
Bell was asked to resign last March, and since then had stopped going to church regularly and — gasp! — started to prefer the company of skeptics. So Bell decided to just run with it and be an atheist for a year.
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 the record, I do not like the way this experiment is constructed. There is a sense of frivolity to it. There are places in the world where people can be killed for their atheism. (While this is unlikely to happen in the U.S., it still feels flip.) Furthermore, as an atheist, I take issue with his definition of living like an atheist. Do you know what has changed for me since leaving organized religion? On Sunday morning, instead of going to church I walk to the store for a fresh bagel and walk home again so I can watch the Sunday morning talk shows. Also, I have read neither Hitchens, Dawkins, nor Dennett. But I live a regular life with a family and I’m confronted with the same moral choices that most people have to make, I just make those choices without reference to an outside arbiter. (Which I think is something most of us do, it’s just some people’s moral compass is more aligned with what they think their religion teaches.) When you have your belief in God nestled in the back of your head, I have a hard time believing that the implications of atheism will be truly felt.
To be fair, I was never one who found a lot of comfort in religion even when I was in it, and I certainly didn’t read the Bible to find that comfort. However, I do appreciate the effort Bell is putting in. A lot of Christians won’t. And he certainly didn’t deserve what happened to him next. It looks like, just for trying to understand atheism, Bell has lost his job teaching.
According to his blog, Bell lost two teaching gigs and a position consulting with a Seventh-day Adventist church in California. All of this happened a mere four days into the project. I feel for the guy, I really do. But this turn of events has actually taught Bell an important lesson:
Those who “come out” as atheist face serious consequences in our society. They are among the marginalized groups that get the least attention. I know this now from personal experience. Many people who have commented here or sent me private messages have told me heartbreaking stories of the suffering and estragement they have endured. Others have said they are still closeted because their family, friends and employers could not bear the news.
Ding ding ding! That is a paragraph written by someone who has just recognized the privilege of being Christian in a country where being anything else is considered deviant. That’s probably the most important lesson anyone can take from this. To be honest, I don’t even care if Bell actually becomes an out and proud atheist. I’d very much rather have a world populated with people who fight for the rights of women, the LGBT community and recognize their own social privilege than an atheist who does none of those things. (Of course, in an ideal world, everyone would be all of those things and more.)
Photo Credit: Waiting for the Word via Flickr