There’s this restaurant in Toronto I made reservations for a few weeks back called O.Noir. The entire wait staff of the restaurant is blind, and the goal of the restaurant is for you to experience what it’s like to be them. The effect is an eating experience in complete darkness. They don’t even allow watches that glow in the dark. THAT is a dining experiment/experience. Hopefully, it builds empathy in people. People need more empathy.
With Ryan Bell’s experiment in living an entire year without God, I’m less impressed. From what I know of him on Facebook, he’s an extremely thoughtful, compassionate guy - the sort who would LOVE O.Noir and what it aims to do. He has advocated for community responsibility, sometimes going further than I’m comfortable with, but nevertheless viewing his Christianity as something that informs every area of his life in a way most Christians don’t. And let’s be honest and admit that there are many pastors that are spiritually exhausted and need a break. There are many Christians who secretly harbor gnawing doubts about God. It’s okay to stop and address that. It’s not a sign of weakness.
The problems for me are illustrated in a recent list of “observations” he made about his journey thus far. The first begins as a result of being let go from teaching positions as Azusa-Pacific and Fuller Seminary:
1. Religions institutions (Christian, in my case) are not able to endure these probing questions from their public leaders. My process for the next year does not square with official faith statements and creates untenable discomfort among members. Donors, it is feared, will pull back their donations. My inquiry is the beginning of a slippery slope and they simply can’t risk it.
I think it’s natural for a seminary to let go of a guy who intends to at least temporarily live as if God doesn’t exist. You cannot expect them to support a path that runs in the opposite direction as their own anymore than a wife could be expected to support her husband’s year-long experiment with living like a bachelor again. I mean, can any institution endure “probing” questions from their public leaders? Imagine if Harry Reid started publicly musing that maybe we shouldn’t have medicare, social security, or ObamaCare. Would it be unjust for his fellow Democrats to marginalize his influence? Or imagine if a football player suddenly decided in the middle of a game that he wanted to see if playing for the other team was better, and promptly ran backwards towards his own end zone. Would the coach be wrong to take him out of the game? To say “they can’t handle the depth of my honesty” seems a bit self-important. Undoubtedly, many of the reactions to his journey are riddled with insecurities about asking any sort of question. But you cannot pigeonhole every religious institution. By definition, atheism doesn’t square with any official faith statements. Atheism is a lack of faith in God. It’s not about money, as Ryan seems to suggest, but principle.
2. Christian educational institutions are not serving their students by eliminating professors that are on an honest intellectual and spiritual journey, just because it doesn’t line up with the official statement of faith. My guess is that many professors at APU, Fuller Seminary and other Christian universities, have a wide range of opinions about the official faith statement. The difference with me is that I publicly declared my disagreement, or at least uncertainty.
Mr. Bell is correct that there is probably a wide variety of beliefs on certain doctrines at any religious school. But you cannot confuse two people who disagree about the nature of Hell with someone who doesn’t believe God exists at all. That is, the first two people are disagreeing within the Christian framework. The other has chosen to dismiss the Christian framework altogether. We may have different ideas as to where the best place to sit in the car is, but anyone in the car is infinitely better positioned to get somewhere together than the one left questioning outside of the car. Ryan would paint the problem as a group of narrow-minded Christian institutions who are not big enough to incorporate him, but this is a little too self-charitable. Christianity is broad and has much room for different beliefs, but it cannot be self-destructive.
3. Those who “come out” as atheist face serious consequences in our society. They are among the marginalized groups that get the least attention. I know this now from personal experience. Many people who have commented here or sent me private messages have told me heartbreaking stories of the suffering and estragement [sic] they have endured. Others have said they are still closeted because their family, friends and employers could not bear the news.
I wonder about these consequences atheists purportedly suffer. It is true that no overt atheist has been elected president, and at least going through the motions of Christianity seems to be required for high public office. But these are the expectations of a nation which has for most of its history been filled with a majority self-professed Christians. “Come out” as a conservative Christian in some parts of the country and you can face the same consequences Bell describes. For that reason I’m not inclined to think atheists as victims. How is it that atheists get the least attention? Americans who claimed to be religious dropped 13% from 2005-2012. What is at issue here is not the repercussions of considering oneself atheist, but doing so when employed by Christian organizations. Hopefully, they have treated Mr. Bell with respect and kindness. But did they have any other choice?
In conclusion, I think it’s important to deal with one’s doubts in faith. No one should judge Ryan Bell for that. We should not repress our questions, but engage them with frightening honesty. I can’t help but admire Bell for throwing out his economic security and positions of influence to follow his conscience. But I also think that you should be able to deal with your questions within the framework of faith. One doesn’t need to give up on God in order to study atheism. I feel the experiment is done honestly and I support him personally. But I question whether this is the best way. I feel you can do the best work on your marriage from the inside, not the outside.
I close with the words of Mircea Eliade:
It must be asked at once that such a profane existence [defined earlier as “divested of all religious presuppositions”] is never found in the pure state. To whatever degree he may have desacralized the world, the man who has made his choice in favor of a profane life never succeeds in completely doing away with religious behavior…even the most desacralized existence still preserves traces of a religious valorization of the world.