The Problem With Trying On Atheism
Ever since A.J. Jacobs's The Year of Living Biblically, we've watched people take on—and write about—their annual religious challenges, both the spiritually significant and the gimmicky.
I enjoyed following Rachel Held Evans' Year of Biblical Womanhood and Ed Dobson's Living Like Jesus. Now, though, comes Ryan Bell's year of atheism. Bell, a former adjunct professor at Azusa Pacific University and Fuller Seminary, announced that 2014 would be the year he tried atheism.
A Seventh-day Adventist, Bell resigned from a pastoral position months ago following outspoken criticism of a number of the church's stances, including its treatment of women. His work for peace and justice and interfaith dialogue "earned me rebuke and alienation from church administrators," he writes for the Huffington Post. Bell's theological concerns led him to undertake a "year without God." For 12 months, he writes:
I will live as if there is no God. I will not pray, read the Bible for inspiration… 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.
Bell's year without God raises plenty of questions. How does one try atheism on, as if it were no more than a pair of jeans to wriggle into? I applaud Bell's pursuit of truth here, though not his methodology. Every person should have the freedom and ability to seek out truth, so Bell's curiosity and honesty are commendable. But this notion that he can turn his faith off for one calendar year, then flip the switch back should he so desire strikes me as strange.
I love what Dallas Willard had to say about finding truth in the person of Jesus: "Indeed, no one can actually believe the truth about him without trusting him by intending to obey him. It is a mental impossibility." Belief, in this case, is more than mere mental assent. So I wonder why Bell chose to turn to atheism rather than, say, a more progressive version of Christianity—especially when he is employed by so many Christian organizations.
The issues Bell has with the church, and even his interest in atheist thought, doesn't require a turn to atheism. There must be room for doubters in the church, and this is certainly a good reminder to those of us who fill the pews on Sunday to make a place for them.
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