Is This Life as an Atheist?


There is a post from a former pastor at Huffington Post that’s making the rounds. Ryan Bell was recently asked to resign his position as a Seventh-Day Adventist pastor after being unable to affirm some of the articles of faith of that tradition and for being a generally decent human being.

The commentary I’ve seen has been interesting, particularly the suggestions that he won’t really be living as an atheist. The reasons for this vary. There’s one commenter who says Bell can’t live like an atheist until he tells people he’s an atheist so he can experience anti-atheist prejudice. Of course, not all of us who are openly atheist experience much in the way of prejudice.

More importantly, however, in being removed from his church, Bell has already experienced the kind of dislocating rejection that’s common to preachers turned atheist. The Seventh-Day Adventists are not notoriously one of the liberal, live-and-let-live denominations. Bell may maintain some connections within his old congregation, but he will have lost many more, along with the respect and authority that goes with being a preacher. In many ways, Bell has done the hardest part of this already. Listening to other preachers-turned-atheists can tell him that.


Teresa MacBain talks about her transition out of the ministry.

Yes, he still has to decide whether or not he still believes. Maybe. Plenty of people live as perfectly happy agnostics, deciding that the question of belief is irrelevant in their lives. A former pastor who teaches at a seminary may not be the most likely candidate for that lifestyle, but it’s a more accurate name for how Bell plans to spend his year, as described in his post. He’ll be removing his theist practices, just as the church removed much of his social support, without knowing yet what he believes. According to those who’ve been there, these habits are hard to break, but who knows. Life without the trappings of belief may turn out to suit him once he gets past the upheaval.

Or he may find that continuing to look for answers is the final step toward becoming an atheist. He’d hardly be the first atheist ex-pastor to follow that path if he did. Though some people have noted that living as an atheist doesn’t typically entail reading the atheist “canon”, that doesn’t seem to be true for ex-clergy or those on their way to becoming ex-clergy. Habits of study ingrained in seminary perhaps, or just a need to test any new system of thought as hard as the old was tested before being given up.


Ex-ministers Jerry DeWitt and Dan Barker tell their stories.

I do hope, though, that Bell doesn’t stop with reading the philosophers and the scientists trying to write as philosophers, that he gets more into the topics and writers who cover living as atheists. It may seem a bit self-serving of me to recommend reading atheist blogs, but that’s where much of the basics of life as an atheist are covered. Or he could spend some time on Facebook groups where atheists are talking about issues relevant to his daily life, because that’s most of atheists do–live their daily lives, frequently without talking about religion at all.

Mostly, though, I’m encouraged that he intends to get out and meet atheists, though it would be best for his purposes if he doesn’t stick to lectures, discussions of atheist books, atheist group meetings, and interviewing non-believers. I hope he uses Meetup.com to find atheists who are getting together to do things that have nothing to do with atheism–atheist game nights or movies or karaoke, whatever he might enjoy that isn’t focused on being atheist out loud. At least volunteer events and social dinners, where atheism is often incidental to other things people have in common.

In short, I hope Bell spends at least as much of the year on being an atheist the way most of us are atheists, rather than on just interviewing atheism for a role in his life the way other ex-clergy and others losing faith tend to do during that time when their beliefs slip away from them. He ought to come away from his year understanding that living as an atheist isn’t about living as a seeker for most of us, even those whose lives have revolved around religion. Whether he ends up a believer in a more liberal faith that matches his values, a deist, an agnostic with or without a role for religious traditions in his life, or an atheist (all things he likely has little control over), the same will probably be true for him.

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