A year without God

imagesYesterday, I was alerted to a peculiar piece on the Huffington Post that describes an ex-pastor’s plan to live as an atheist for a year. I say “peculiar” (and my Tweet yesterday said “bizarre”) because atheism is an ontological position, not a lifestyle. An ontological position, in short, is what you hold to be true. Leaving aside perennial (and sometimes technical) debates about whether atheists are all agnostics, or should call themselves agnostic, a crude summary of things is that atheists have the ontological view that god(s) do not exist, and religious believers have the view that god(s) do in fact exist.

Neither of these positions seem to be something you can “try on”, like you might try on a pair of trousers to see if they fit, or if you like their style. In fact, the whole project reminds me of a sort of Pascal’s Wager in reverse, and therefore open to at least one similar criticism, namely that it’s pretty difficult to “fake” belief or disbelief. Pascal responded to this by arguing that if you apply yourself to religious study, and immerse yourself in religious community, the belief or faith will arrive in time, and your feigned position will become a sincere one.

I don’t want to be snide about Ryan Bell’s (the ex-pastor in question) project here, partly because there’s no reason to be – he certainly seems well-meaning and sincere – and partly because his open-minded approach, and the engagement he’s been trying to have inside the church till now reminds me of Chris Stedman (someone who I think worth taking seriously). Also, I have no doubt that some of the more intemperate atheist bloggers will soon unload their scorn upon him, and perhaps a corrective to that is a useful thing for its own sake. But the model Bell is following seems flawed, in that it confuses lifestyle with ontology, and furthermore, I fear that it obscures two important details.

First, Bell is arguably already an atheist. The lack of conviction he describes, and the lack of closeness to the church, its teachings and its god, offers quite a clear indication that he’s already “lost his faith”. So, one way of putting his resolution would be to say something prosaic like “former pastor decides to leave the church”, and that’s hardly a story.

Dennett and LaScola’s new book, “Caught in The Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind, offers numerous examples of religious leaders who have lost their faith (you can also read a paper of theirs on this topic for free). Most of these people continue simply going through the motions, but when they stop doing so, it seems a bit dramatic to describe it as a switch to atheism – they are returning to a default state, without the add-on of strange metaphysical beliefs. So framing it as “trying on atheism” feeds, I fear, into the canard about atheism being just like a religion, with its own rites and texts and so forth.

I’d rather suggest that Bell is leaving the church, and proceeding with living a regular secular life. And that makes him just like many people who profess religious belief, in that for both the UK and the USA, it seems to be increasingly common for self-identified religious people to not go to church, not read the Bible (or other text), and not pray. In the UK, the RDFS survey and YouGov data showed evidence of this trend, and each new Pew “Religion and Public Life” report for the USA reveals decreasing consensus as to what it means to be “Protestant” (etc.) in terms of how you live and what you believe.

As you’ve no doubt heard, the fastest-growing “religious” group is the nones, i.e. those who claim to have no religion. One-fifth of the USA public (and a full third of adults under 30) say that they have no religion. Bell, in other words, can be described as shrugging off a needless accessory, rather than “trying out” some other belief system. He’ll be living a secular life, and nothing need change beyond that. At some point – and as I say above, perhaps that point has been reached, and he just hasn’t acknowledged that – he’ll stop believing in God. And it’s then that he will be an atheist, rather than simply “someone who doesn’t pray or go to church”.

The second important issue that I think Bell’s experiment runs the risk of obscuring is highlighted in this quotation:

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.

To speak of learning “how they have come to their non-faith” is an interesting way of putting it, in that it seems to presume that faith is the default. I’m reasonably confident that it’s not, and that if we could wave a magic wand and eliminate all religion today, it would never gain the traction that it currently has ever again – there simply wouldn’t be sufficient numbers of people who would find religious claims plausible for that to happen.

But this isn’t the detail I wanted to highlight. Instead, notice how something which you could also describe as simply “educating yourself” gets framed here as a noteworthy or exceptional task. In highlighting this, I certainly don’t mean to pick on Bell – in this, he’s simply an example of what I think is very common, namely that too few of us (whether religious or not) bother to do the work of properly understanding what the “opposition” is saying, or even what our own intellectual traditions’ arguments are.

I doubt it’s an exaggeration to say that after reading those books, Bell will be more informed regarding atheist arguments than the vast majority of atheists. Given that he’s already (I presume) well-versed in religious arguments, I look forward to following his thoughts during this “year without God”. But the second detail I wanted to highlight is that educating oneself, and reading what your strongest critics say about what you believe – is something religious folk should do in any case, not only when they’re “trying on” atheism, to see if it fits.

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  • http://www.deadlinejunkies.com/ adam strange

    “…I was alerted…”

  • woodling.org

    Dude, please get the atheist position correct if you’re going to claim to represent us. Atheists, mostly, hold the view that there’s no reason to believe that any gods exist, so we don’t believe. That’s very different from “atheists have the ontological view that god(s) do not exist”. Now, to be honest, I don’t think that any gods exist, and that gods probably don’t exist. But lots of atheists don’t hold the view that “gods don’t exist”.

    • Michi333

      Actually, an atheist does believe that gods don’t exist. If you think gods probably don’t exist then you are agnostic in your beliefs.

      • Psycho Gecko

        No, atheism is the lack of belief in a deity or deities. Agnosticism is the lack of knowledge about the existence of a deity or deities. There tends to be frequent overlap because many people wouldn’t believe in something they aren’t sure exists and because one is about belief while the other is about knowledge.

        Unfortunately, most people who claim to only be agnostic and not atheist don’t know these definitions, and tend to be especially smug when they claim they hold a better belief than atheists or the religious.

        Most atheists wouldn’t say that they believe no gods exist, because that is a claim that can’t really be proven. We really can’t discount the possibility of a deity that exists but has no hand at all in the running of the universe. They may instead say that the god of Judaism/Christianity/Islam doesn’t exist, or that the gods of Hinduism don’t exist, or whatever, because those religions make specific claims about the universe and their deities that we can prove are incorrect. With those books proven to be fiction, it’d be about like saying that Voldemort doesn’t exist.

      • scourge99

        Are you an a-unicornist or agnostic about unicorns?

    • http://www.synapses.co.za/ Jacques Rousseau

      Hey, you’re being a complete pedant, and for no good reason. The bit you are cherry-picking from says “a crude summary” and “leaving aside exactly the sorts of issues woodling.org gets het up about”. As a crude summary, what I said works just fine. And this post didn’t need more than that crude summary. I’ve written many others on only the point you raise (in which completely agree with you that certainty is not attainable).

    • David Wilkinson

      I think the traditional definition of “atheist” is the the belief that there are no gods. I looked the definition up and “a person who disbelieves or lacks belief in the existence of God or gods”. I think your version is a more modern definition. I know a few atheists each hold to one of the other version.

  • woodling.org

    It’s a question of certainty, and many atheists like me hold the view that there isn’t anything that can be known with absolute certainty. Certainty is for those who wish to suspend investigation and learning.

  • woodling.org

    Apart from my objections above, I think your criticism and assessment of Bell’s proposed experiment is spot-on.

  • Eric B. Hare

    Why does Ryan have to be an ex-pastor? He is currently an activist, community builder, and much more. I don’t think his approach is without flaw either, but your outright condemnation does not reflect well upon your views either.

    I’m sad that you equate having a lack of conviction, closeness to the church, its teachings, and god, with automatically being an atheist. Jesus addressed this once “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.” So I wonder which “church” you speak of? The Body of Christ, Kingdom of Heaven, living in the hearts of people and not in walls one or something more specific?

    • http://www.synapses.co.za/ Jacques Rousseau

      “Outright condemnation”? Ryan Bell called it a “gentle critique”, and that seems a far more reasonable description. As for the equation you cite, I don’t make it.

      • Eric B. Hare

        Very true, you did only call it peculiar, “outright” is a bit harsh. I’m still a little confused, however, about the equation part. Bell says he’s not an Atheist, yet you say by the criteria I mentioned, he already is one and has lost his faith. So if you’re making the conclusion for him, is that not an equation? Albeit perhaps not a universal one, yet it’s hard to see it otherwise.

        I am still curious about the ex-pastor labelling? It’s not like you are saying something incorrect, I simple question the negative slant. Yet this is a critique post, so I shouldn’t be overly surprised. What if a teacher becomes a mechanic, is that person an ex-teacher the rest of their life? You may be gently correcting, but does that necessitate, what appears to be the desire to create a negative bias, based on someone’s past history? I try to evaluate someone’s words and actions based on the merit of the words and actions, not who they may have a reputation to be.

        Appreciate the dialogue! Technology can be a useful tool it seems!

        • http://www.synapses.co.za/ Jacques Rousseau

          Perhaps try being a little less literal? “Peculiar” is one word in a 1000 word post, and a judgement as to whether something is condemned or not should be made from the overall context, not a couple of words extracted from it.

          Second, you said:
          “I’m sad that you equate having a lack of conviction, closeness to the church, its teachings, and god, with automatically being an atheist.”

          I said: “he’s arguably already an atheist”, and then gave the skeleton of what such an argument could look like (drawing on having read the author’s own statements about not feeling the presence of God anymore, and so forth). That’s not “equating” anything.

          Third, how is calling someone an ex-pastor a negative slant? Your analogies are silly – being an ex-pastor is relevant here because he’s trying out something which is on the other end of a spectrum (namely, disbelief). He’s leaving a job which involves professing one belief, and devoting a year to the “opposite” belief.

          If a teacher becomes someone who (somehow) devotes their lives to making people stupid, or a mechanic becomes someone who foreswears all technology, then yes, it would make sense to mention it. It’s a relevant detail, which speaks to how interesting (and difficult) Bell’s job might be.

          Your thinking that this is an attempt to create a negative bias – as well as your misreading of my post as an outright condemnation – seem to me to be the more troubling things.

          • Eric B. Hare

            I know it’s hard to believe in this age of disagreement and hear from the written word, as tone of voice and such is not involved, but I was agreeing with you, my use of “outright condemnation” was too harsh. Your critique is simply questioning someone else’s methods, certainly we need that in our world today. I guess I could have just said that the first time eh! I try to make it a goal when discussing something to always keep in the back of my mind “I could be wrong.” Keeps me humble and engaged. I am not saying you believe you are right without question, just sharing with you something that has helped me in the online world.

          • Eric B. Hare

            Something else that has helped me greatly in online discussion is to disagree without declaring the opposing view as illegitimate. Consider how difficult it is to discuss with someone, how our negative labels of others (ie ex-pastor classification) create harmful divisions among the human family and taint quite well prepared articles when they call your view silly. I suppose that me calling the label a negative slant, could be viewed in the same way, that is making your view illegitimate. I propose that I was commenting on a use of label and not necessarily insulting your entire argument. In a way I would be disappointed if you didn’t disagree with, keeps the discussion interesting, however it is we way we disagree that makes a difference. Brushing aside someone else’s analogies, to me, is counter productive.

            Well semantics aside, I will add a thought on what mentioned about Bell “leaving a job.” As I understand after reading his website, he had struggles within his denomination and attempted to be viewed as a critic from within, this did not work well. Eventually his employers asked him to resign to which he somewhat begrudgingly conceded. Then he pursued role as community builder, activist, etc. for a time before making deciding upon this current. Though possibly he still may decide to continue much of his previous community involvement as that is something that both Atheists and Theists regularly engage in (community service, humanitarian efforts, development initiatives, etc.). Hence, though you have not said something false, the way you phrased it, however I feel, is misrepresentation. Can Bell be simply considered as a fellow human being, trying something he feels is worth while? And maybe after a year he’ll agree with some of your critiques, who knows!

            • OooShiny

              Bell did NOT pursue a role as community builder/activist AFTER he was fired.

              He wrote of having done that all along for many years before this current project, partly because it’s right and good to do so, and partly because the rigid cruelty, shunning, shaming and exclusion of his church’s doctrine made the need for such activism screamingly obvious.

            • Eric B. Hare

              Thanks Oooshiny for the insight. I suppose we’ll have to settle this when Ryan’s authoritative biography comes out. Do you have any thoughts on the ex-pastor label? Is it overly negative? Necessary or simply bad taste?

          • Eric B. Hare

            Mr. Rousseau, any thoughts on what I shared below?

            • http://www.synapses.co.za/ Jacques Rousseau

              I’ve responded to your thoughts. You added nothing substantively new in the comment I didn’t respond to, besides a misreading of mine (for example, I never call your view silly, but your analogies), and issues that are entirely tangential to my post (your entire second paragraph, which only makes sense on assuming the “negative slant” that I reject, yet that you keep asserting as the effect of my words).

              What’s helped me greatly in online discussion is to ration my energies to where they might be expended fruitfully. There’s no point – besides mere entertainment – in debate or discussion in which one can’t declare views as illegitimate when they are poorly justified, or brush aside silly analogies. That’s how we learn, and change our minds. Seeing as we clearly disagree on that very important point, I trust you’ll agree that dialogue is fairly pointless in this case.

            • Eric B. Hare

              No I would not have asked a follow up question if I thought the discussion was pointless. I do appreciate you taking the time to respond and clarify your thoughts though. It’s been a pleasure dialoguing with you.

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  • http://anselm-ministries.us/ Chuck Sigler

    Think of what Ryan Bell is doing in terms of exploring a different social role: that of living his life for a year without God. His self identity and master social role had been as a pastor and believing Christian. He’s now planning to live for a year without the activities that support that social role and identity. The end result of this could be that he develops a new (master) role, a new social identity as an “atheist” or some other label.

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