Home > Uncategorized > The Road to Atheism XXI: Someone Else’s Journey

The Road to Atheism XXI: Someone Else’s Journey

Ryan Bell was a seminary trained minister in the Seventh Day Adventist Church, I use the term “was” because he was forced to resign due to his questioning of certain doctrines of that particular church. In particular he opposed their stance regarding gay marriage, and then he began to question the religion in total. He is moderately famous for the focus of today’s post: he is giving one year 2014, to “try on atheism.”

Having heard about him several times, and hearing him for the first time recently I felt the need to comment on what he is doing. To be upfront about it, I think this is a great idea and not, like other atheists, a stunt. Nor do I think that he is “going undercover” for the simple reason that there is no place to go undercover to. Despite what American right wing extremists think there is not some vast atheist network that is trying to destroy Christianity, while the reverse is true although not in the same scope. Having listened to him being interviewed, I also understand that the reports of his atheism are greatly exaggerated.

He’s not trying on atheism, he is focusing on his doubt. That horrible horrible doubt that infects the mind and slowly erodes the stable worldview that we have learned from birth. The doubt is important because it either has the consequence of eradicating his faith or strengthening it (I should also be clear that it would appear that his ties with the Seventh Day Adventists are permanently severed but not his belief in the divine). The question of why we believe seems complicated to other people, but for me it is always simple: we believe because we are taught to believe and then we merely accept that belief as a matter of fact. There is no reason to believe, there is only the reason to trust that what we were taught as children was true. For Mr. Bell the question is whether or not those early teachings are enough to sustain one year of no god.

Recently I was told that religion is important because it gives children structure and that is why they need it. Well this seems like one of those challenges that would be hard for the average atheist to answer it really is not. Because it is a strawman, it assumes that a structure is needed, and that religion provides that structure. The correct response is, other than going to a building once a week (SDAs go on Saturday), what is the structure that religion provides? Is this what Mr. Bell is going to realize, that other than the weekly service and his choice of reading materials, that there isn’t going to be a noticeable difference in his life?

The most interesting thing about his experiment is how he will be exposed to atheists. As one, I understand the religious mindset since I used to be one; but I also know this: the religious do not understand atheists. We don’t have sacred texts. There isn’t a book in any one person’s home that could identify them as an atheist. I do not own a single copy of Hitchens, Dennet, or Dawkins. Any accusation that I hate religious people is a lie. There is no organization that we are all beholden to and no systematic network that tells us what to believe, how to vote, and how we are supposed to think. The reverse is, unfortunately, the case only it is not underground and in fact, counts as members a far majority of the population.

I have no idea why anyone would oppose Bell’s experience, unless they believed that he was being insincere. The atheists that oppose him seem to do so on the claim that he is some sort of poser. That he’s just faking it. To them I would ask: what do they think he is doing? Is he going to secretly pray or put on a fake mustache to sneak into a church service. Being non-religious isn’t a matter of making some mark of authenticity, all it is is a matter of recognizing that the same thing you were taught at 5 doesn’t hold up to the same intellectual scrutiny that you have at 20, 30, or 40. If his claim is sincere, and he reads the arguments against, what more can he do? I think he’s made it.

To the actual religious, I ask the question: what are you afraid of? The fact that he’s being honest about the questions that everyone ought to have shouldn’t be scary. It should be refreshing, unless of course this is the reason that religions would rather their believers not read whatever books or arguments they want because they would rather not chance that exposure which challenges their authority. Why do they not make it part of the doctrine to spend a significant period of time with this period of doubt? If these religions have all of the answers then there ought to be no harm in letting their followers see how wrong the rest of the world’s ideas are. The only answer, and the one that I think Mr. Bell has forced his former church to realize is that of insecurity.

They are afraid that if everyone realized that you can be good without god, that you can love life without some other person telling you how to do so, and that appreciating this world, this life for being the only thing that we know; that no one would willingly come back. I think that the only thing that would drive them back would be fear of divine punishment, making them hostages and not willing followers.

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  1. February 4, 2014 at 5:39 am

    When someone says they are a believer, I take them at their word. He says he’s trying a year without all the god-accessories to see what that is like. I like what he’s written so far and to the point, I have no reason to think it’s a stunt. Being opened minded has to work in all directions.

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