About a week ago, former pastor Ryan J Bell wrote a piece giving a brief history of his religious experience and announcing his plans to "try on" atheism for the year of 2014. (You can read that post on his just-for-the-project blog HERE and see a catalogue of his contributions to The Huffington Post, where the article was published, HERE.) He says, "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." Unsurprisingly, the reactions have been varied. Some are supporting his experiment in living without God as an undertaking of intellectual virtue, moving beyond the answers of faith to seriously consider the atheistic alternative. Others are doubtful that one can play atheist and not let one's religious convictions, however troubled, get in the way. Many are endorsing Bell's efforts as a laudable act of refreshing honesty, finally admitting the doubts that many religious people keep hidden.
Some Christians are of the mind that his experiment in atheism is "courageous," "brave." They see this "journey into atheism" as a bold authenticity demonstrated in the face of the inevitable backlash (which has manifested itself, in part, in losing his adjunct teaching positions at Azusa Pacific University and Fuller Seminary; read Bell's own summary HERE). In this telling, Ryan Bell is the unpopular man standing for his convictions as an act of heroism, spiritual authenticity, and intellectual honesty. The cheers go up: "Courageous! Way to stand out on your own, Ryan! Way to do the unpopular thing!"
It's easy to start nodding along to this cheerleading. After all, many of us still consider Ryan Bell a part of our religious community. Present circumstances and choices notwithstanding, he lived as a Seventh-day Adventist believer and pastor for decades and many of us were blessed by his words and example. At least on the emotional level, he's still one of "us." And for people both within and without the Adventist community, there's a righteous urge to stand with the guy catching trouble for being "true to himself" and to protect him from bad things that might look like persecution (usually labeled as "hate" by the fifth post in a comments section). Further, many of us religious people DO have unanswered questions about a lot of things and if we've ever felt that the church was an unsafe place to share our sincere questions, there's something about Ryan's experiment that sounds so . . . exhilarating.
But, having no ill will toward Ryan Bell or any of his supporters, I submit that
people who believe the gospel of Jesus Christ should not be applauding this experiment in atheism and should instead see it for what it is: an abandonment of Jesus and His gospel.
So let's talk a little bit about courage.
Having questions about the reality of God's existence is not inherently courageous nor inherently cowardly. Sometimes atheists wonder if maybe there is a god out there after all. Sometimes theists wonder if "God" is just a figment of the collective human imagination. Also, sometimes I wonder if there are mice in my apartment or if I'm just imagining those sounds. Wondering isn't necessarily brave or courageous; it is a reflex, sometimes nurtured into a habit, of the mind.
Yet what one does with those questions, those wonderings, those doubts may be cowardly or courageous. And the evaluation one makes on this point––commendably courageous or unforgivably cowardly?––is a moral one, it rests on a certain construal of reality and so of morality. Those with a Christian construal of reality have no grounds to consider this experiment an act of moral virtue.
Perhaps observers from all sides could agree that an experiment like Ryan Bell's is "dangerous," in that it is endangering the convictions and lifestyle that he has maintained up till now. Depending on your philosophical leanings, this danger could be the worst thing in the world or the best––is he moving closer to or farther away from truth? Is he moving closer toward or farther away from actual reality? Your answer depends on what you think is true and what you think is right.
A citizen who gives intelligence to an enemy power is doing something really quite dangerous: he is in danger of being discovered and convicted and executed for treason. High-risk! Most of his fellow citizens will condemn his dangerous behavior as treacherous still, helping the "wrong" people; most with interests in the foreign power will commend his dangerous behavior as courageous, displaying a self-sacrificial willingness to aid the "right" cause.
Shall we call Ryan Bell's experiment courageous? I speak here to my fellow Christian believers, the saints who are in Christ Jesus. Shall we commend Ryan Bell for bravery, applaud his gumption, shield him from any Christian critique? Though some have, none of us should.
It is not because I wish to uncritically silence every doubt knocking about in the heads of thoughtful people.
It is not because I think doubting God's existence is a sin.
It is not because I'd like to see atheists (or doubters) dehumanized or treated without respect.
It is because my commitment to the person of Jesus Christ will not allow me to applaud the move of someone who is, in his own words, living "as if" God doesn't exist. It doesn't allow me to think that "God is big enough to handle my questions" means "It's acceptable to turn my back to Him and look to profit from writing about it."
I know a little something about Christian faith and Christian doubt. Several years after my spiritual conversion I spent quite a while in the land of This Might All Be A Weird And Time-Consuming Sham. And what my sojourn there taught me was that a Christian can have legitimate doubts and explore their real possibility from a place of faith. To atheists, this may sound like hopeless intellectual hypocrisy, but everybody has questions and everybody has got to explore those questions from some place. In consideration of all He has done on my behalf, I'd like to literally give Jesus the benefit of the doubt.
––Which is what I wish Ryan Bell would do. He has his reasons, perhaps not all shared publicly. He has a personal history unique to him and a relationship with God that I can't pretend to give a reliable judgment about. I'm not looking to offer any judgment on issues of his salvation or conscience or motivations.
I wish rather to speak to the well-meaning Christian faithful in my Facebook feed, my Twitter timeline, and my RSS feed: side with faith, side with Jesus. If you're a person who has embraced the "Jesus. All." ethic, recognize that what Ryan's doing isn't that. It's anti-Jesus, taking off his personal faith to live in skepticism. Wish Ryan well, greet him warmly if you meet him, pray for him, but don't offer applause for his 365-day renunciation of the gospel and of God.
Maybe at the end of 2014 he'll find theism is an intellectually and experientially viable option, maybe he'll even return to Christian faith and to the Church. That's what I'm rooting for, but in the meantime, I'll hold my applause.