Lent Post #26: A Year Without God? Is it Possible to Experiment in Atheism (A comment on Ryan J Bell’s Project)

Just after the New Year, social media became all a flurry with news of a Seventh Day Adventist pastor and Azusa Pacific University (an evangelical university) Professor who decided that he would be trying out Atheism for a year. Now, this is a gross overgeneralization of his project, I recognize – in March of 2013 he resigned from his position due to what he calls “theological and practical differences.” At APU, he has taught intercultural communication (whatever that means?) and bioethics as an adjunct professor. Sometime between March and January of this year, he came to the conclusion that he desired to dabble in “the limits of theism” and atheism, and made the declaration via twitter that he would be joining the atheist community for a year, leaving his belief in God behind entirely…but only for a year. During this time, he would be blogging his journey, but not praying, not reading scripture for any devotional purpose, and certainly not going to church. This announcement outraged APU, who summarily dismissed him from his adjunct professorship – and rightfully so, according to their commitment to strict Christian values, morals and teachings.

But this isn’t a blog about APU, nor is it necessarily about Ryan J. Bell, although it sort of is in theory. The real and true issue at hand is whether one, anyone, can “do a year” without God, especially having spent such a lengthy period of time so deeply immersed in theology, the study of God, the ministry to God’s people. Can someone just up and dump God at the drop of a hat like He is just that insignificant, and then pick Him back up again at the end of a year without any cause or repercussion? There are several aspects of Bell’s project that are particularly bothersome or troubling to me on numerous levels – to me as a future pastor, to me as a Christian, to me as a human being. I recognize that his project does not impact me personally, nor does it hurt me personally, but the way in which he undergoes the venture feels off. And here’s why…

People of faith (pastors, laity, average Joe/Joanna, Joe the Plummer, whoever you are…) are no strangers to questions of faith, to doubt, to the desire to give up and fall out of faith. These are perfectly natural aspects of falling somewhat blindly into a relationship with the unseen divine creator. Yet the vast majority of us don’t go running to Twitter, Facebook, the Huffington Post, NPR to announce that we are leaving our congregations to become atheists at the slightest hint of doubt. We don’t write books about it, speak on Jay Leno, the nightly news, and get movie deals about our yearlong journey without faith. Generally also, we don’t embark upon “a journey without faith,” as doubts don’t come with time constraints of a week, month, or year. Seeking, discerning, struggling and waring with faith works on a drastically personal timeline. 

Can a person give up God for a year? Sure, anything is possible. I don’t want to make the claim that it isn’t possible to fall out of faith, because C.S. Lewis and Newbigin did, I did for a short period of time in college before God and I reconciled (or, to be theologically correct, I came to my senses and discerned God’s call on my life and felt that God had never truly left, I was the one who had…). But can you willingly leave and “try atheism” for the sake of a project such as this? I’m not sure that Ryan J. Bell can. I am tremendously doubtful of the intentions, theological validity, and integrity; faith is a tremendously personal journey, and the rhetoric used by Bell from the beginning has been rather mocking – a “f*ck it” attitude toward faith of sorts – toward both communities. (I am frankly doubtful regarding the existence of “atheists, as the definition of atheism is the lack of a belief in a higher being, and yet, there must be a belief in something to replace that; values? morals? where do those morals and values come from? Yet many so-called, self-proclaimed Atheists will claim that they still believe in something, hence are they agnostic and not atheists? Such a quagmire indeed…) 

A life lived in faith is about some part doubt, not about giving up completely for the sake of a publicity project. I would wonder whether if Bell came from a less extreme tradition (i.e. a mainline Protestant denomination) over the Seventh Day Adventists, he might have been less quick to jump from one end of the spectrum to the other – from belief to unbelief. It seems that this product has been nothing but extremes: a blog, a film documenting his project, media interviews, twitter feeds, Facebook pages, and newspaper articles. My doubt doesn’t involve all that – usually it involves a prayer between myself and God, and at most, it becomes the topic or anecdote in a sermon, but it doesn’t appear in a crawl on CNN. 


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