Musing on a Year Without God

I keep seeing a story popping up on my Facebook feed, generally from liberal friends and pages who specialize in religion-bashing. Have you seen it? It’s the story of the pastor who decided to live like an atheist for a year, and on the other side, he has decided to be an atheist indefinitely. Two types of responses pop up: from my atheist friends, it’s a confirmation that God is a bunch of baloney, and if everyone would just step away from the pew for a minute, they’d see that; from my religious friends, it’s that this proves the insidiousness of the devil and the magic he works on those who stray from the straight-and-narrow, and so we all must buckle down and quit allowing so much questioning of dogma.

I’ve been habitually annoyed by the presence of this in my newsfeed, and so have consequently avoided it like the plague. So, when it appeared in my RSS feed yesterday, yet another inward groan appeared. I have a hard and fast policy of refusing the skip over any articles that come through the feed, so I knew at last I was going to have to confront this story.

It turned out to be different from what I imagined, and from what the hype made it to be. If I had to caption it for Facebook, I would say “Pastor lives as atheist for a year, then decides to be a seeker.” I know, not as catchy or click-bait-worthy. But much more in line with what Ryan Bell, the former Seventh Day Adventist who the story is about, experienced. As the article noted, even before this project, Bell was already wrestling with doubt, something perfectly healthy and normal for a Christian. His church, however, didn’t agree, forcing him to resign as a punishment for his public struggle with God (a struggle, I’m sure, that resonated much too closely with his parishioners, hence their hurry to chase him from town.)

So as I began to read this article, I also began to plan the blog post I was going to write in response: “Conservative Christian gives up fundamentalist God for a year, realizes how freeing it is to leave that stifling atmosphere.” I would go on: “Ryan Bell’s experience with atheism, contrasted with the hateful, confusing, unrelenting God of Fundamentalism he had lived his entire life with, showed him a contrast that made that God unappealing, even compared to atheism. This goes to show the problem with fundamentalism, namely, it’s not a very appealing or happy form of faith.”

But then I read this passage from the article at Religion Dispatches:

Generally speaking, the response to this decline takes the form of some sort of repackaging. That is, it is assumed that the problem is not with the substance of Christianity. At its core, the thinking goes, the gospel or “good news”—that we are “sinners” who can find “salvation” through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, the Son of God—remains a vital truth, one which all need and ultimately seek, whether we consciously know it or not. That basic assumption remains the case even in more liberal Christian circles, I would suggest, although it often takes the form of respect for other religions and/or an emphasis on the importance of spirituality, broadly defined.

In this way of thinking, people are not leaving the church because of its central message but because of the way that message is or is not presented. Hence the calls among some in more evangelical circles, for instance, for the abandonment of the skin-deep flashiness and alienating culture war rhetoric for a kinder, more authentic—and ultimately more attractive—faith.

There is something to that line of thinking. More than a few have left churches from a lack of authenticity—and feel a great sense of loss in doing so. Such emigrants would, perhaps, gladly return if offered something better. But that way of understanding the situation can not account for what Ryan Bell experienced.

What’s striking to me is the matter-of-fact way in which Bell describes that experience. In the interviews he’s given, there’s hardly any pathos, any handwringing over the faith he can no longer identify with. Rather than rehearsing a litany of loss and pining over something more authentic, he sees his shift away from religion as an opportunity, a window into what, for him, really matters.

Christianity is something that, ultimately, he no longer needs.

Can you say, “convicted?”

So, yeah, so much for that blog post. But, this raises another interesting thought experiment. How does the faith address those who no longer need it? How do we, as Christians, come to grips with what I believe is a very real mindset, that of the person who comes to a place where they do not find a connection to the Divine through religion and thus has no use for us, even if they sympathize? How do we continue to connect to these people, our brothers and sisters?

Bell is quoted with this answer:

“I think what is far more important to know about me is the way I choose to live my life. Once people have come to terms with the weaknesses or falsehoods in their belief system, the work has just begun. How we reshape or build the narratives by which to live our lives is the most interesting part of our work as human beings. My work to end homelessness, my interest in the crises facing our democracy and our ecosystem—these are the interesting aspects of my life and work. At least, I’d like to think so.”

Did you catch that second sentence? “Once people have come to terms with the weakness or falsehoods in their belief system, the work has just begun.” For so many people, the weakness and falsehoods they find in faith are what shake the foundations they operate on. To discover that this belief system, this relationship one has invested so much into has some gaps of reasoning or logic is quite devastating many, many people.

And the church just doesn’t help. Instead of facilitating this journey of discovery and questioning, so many faith communities shun question-asking and doubt. They instead demand certainty and adherence to the absolute beliefs they claim to represent, and anything outside of that is not permitted. And so these questioning and doubting people feel repelled and pushed away by this faith they grew up in, and find no purpose in it going forward.

This all-to-common occurrence has facilitated the much-heralded rise of the “Nones,” that group of spiritual-but-not-religious people who no longer find the big answers they crave in organized Christianity. For Ryan Bell, and many others, the church doesn’t have any answers. Nor does it even have a space to try to find answers. Instead, it is standing in the way of answering them, telling them their questions are unimportant, and they are wrong for asking in the first place.

If the church wants to be a relevant institution going forward, we have got to figure out how to talk to the doubters and the questioners. Instead of acting like Ryan Bell’s church and forcing them out because their questions make us uneasy, we have to grapple with the questions as a community, find answers grounded in Scripture and reason and tradition, and allow our faith to grow and evolve. Not one of us has a fully worked-out faith. Not one of us is done growing. Whether it be questions about the acceptance of LGBT people, or the divinity of Christ, or any number of the countless things we can debate, we have to be willing to listen and cultivate questions and be okay with not having all the answers. Otherwise, we will have many, many more Ryan Bell’s on our hands, and a lot more empty pews.

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