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Guest post by Simon Davis: Why the Ryan J. Bell narrative is flawed

The facts

The story of Ryan J. Bell has created quite a bit of buzz these past few days. For those that aren’t familiar, on December 31, Bell -the former senior pastor at the Hollywood Seventh-Day Adventist Church- announced he would be “trying on” atheism for a year. As he said in a blog post announcing this:

So, I’m making it official and embarking on a new journey. I will “try on” atheism for a year. For the next 12 months I will live as if there is no God. I will not pray, read the Bible for inspiration, refer to God as the cause of things or hope that God might intervene and change my own or someone else’s circumstances.

Per Dan Burke at the CNN Religion Blog:

The seeds of Bell’s journey were planted last March, when he was asked to resign as pastor of a Seventh-day Adventist congregation in Hollywood.

He had advocated for the church to allow gay and lesbian leaders, campaigned against California’s same-sex marriage ban and disputed deeply held church doctrines about the End Times.

Eventually, his theological and political liberalism became more than leaders in the denomination could bear, and he lost his career of 19 years. His faith was shaken, and for a while Bell became a “religious nomad.”

By January 3, Bell had been let go from his adjunct teaching positions at Christian at Azusa Pacific University (APU) and Fuller Theological Seminary as well as his consulting agreement with the Glendale City Seventh-day Adventist Church, leaving him with no sources of income.

On January 6, Hemant Mehta of the “Friendly Atheist” blog started an online fundraiser for Bell which has to date raised over $26,000 from an initial goal of $5,000. Mehta had originally been critical of Bell’s year long experiment.

The Narrative

On the blog post announcing the fundraiser, Mehta wrote:

I think it’s important to show that, unlike the Christian organizations, we support someone who’s willing to put his own beliefs under the microscope. Furthermore, we’ll support his experiment even if he doesn’t end up becoming an atheist.

What a disappointing response from the Christian schools and church.

Not unexpected, just disappointing.

One thing’s for sure: Bell just got a dose of reality from his experiment. A lot of atheists remain in the closet precisely because they’re afraid of the ramifications of coming out. They’re afraid of losing their families, friends, or jobs. Bell lost some of those, just for saying he was exploring life without God.

Speaking to Burke, Mehta elaborated:

“He learned what it’s like to be an atheist real fast,” said Hemant Mehta, a prominent atheist blogger and schoolteacher in Illinois.

Mehta said he knows many atheists who fear that “coming out of the closet” will jeopardize their jobs and relationships, just as in Bell’s experience.

“I think more than anything else, people appreciate that this guy is giving atheism a shot,” Mehta said. “I mean, he lost three jobs in the span of a week just for saying he was exploring it.”

Why I think this narrative is flawed

Let me start by saying I think Bell’s story has a lot going for it on the “Atheism vs Christianity” front. For one thing, he’s a charismatic former evangelical pastor who has decided to oppose church positions on key progressive issues. For another, he’s willing to potentially leave behind entirely the religious beliefs and practices he’s espoused for most of his adult life. All this in full public view. In addition, it’s hard not to sympathize with the plight of a father with two children who’s life is rapidly changing and has just lost his livelihood-all for seemingly just dabbling in atheism, much less being a outspoken anti-theist.

However, there are two aspects of Mehta’s narrative where I believe he is missing the mark:1) That Bell’s experience of losing his employment has somehow taught him “what it’s like to be an atheist” and 2) That the response from the schools and church that he was working for was somehow unwarranted.

It is true that many atheists keep their convictions to themselves to protect themselves from employment discrimination or harassment, or even just to avoid rocking the boat with their religious co-workers. It is also true that there are employers who would take punitive action against an employee due to a difference in religious convictions or indeed a lack of same. The reason that such retaliation is so insidious however, is that the difference in religious convictions is unrelated to the task at hand. For the vast majority of jobs in secular workplaces, a worker’s atheism is no more a help nor a hindrance then her colleague’s belief in Christianity, Islam, or any other religion.

Some atheists might nonetheless argue that Bell’s non-committal decision to simply give atheism a try ought to be a mitigating factor. To those people, I would request that they ask themselves how they would react if the situation were reversed (while recognizing that such comparisons are rarely precisely equivalent). Would they support with equal enthusiasm an atheist organization that continues to pay for the services of one of their public representatives while that representative goes on their year-long journey of spiritual discovery to blog on a website called for instance “myyearwithjesus.com”? And most importantly, would the cancellation of said employee’s contract be an example of the “jeopardy” Christians face when coming out in the workplace? I would imagine that such an argument would be met with very little sympathy if not outright laughter among even the most tolerant of atheists.

But let’s come even closer to people with Bell’s circumstances and examine members of the clergy who have become atheists with the passage of time and who face many challenges as a result. The Clergy Project is an especially valuable initiative for them. My understanding of what these clergy members typically seek for their next career stop is to transition away from being paid to serve their faith communities. I would be very surprised if many of these clergy members have the reasonable expectation of remaining employed as religious leaders or as seminary teachers after coming out as atheists.

Atheists are right to be outraged when their atheism precludes them from performing secular functions. But how many atheists feel that their opportunities in life are somehow limited by being shut out of teaching positions at Christian seminaries?

This brings me to my second objection. The flip side of atheists not having the reasonable expectation that they ought to have equal opportunities to teach at Bell’s former employers APU and Fuller is that these employers are under no obligation – legal or moral – to entertain Bell’s recent experimentation with atheism. The fact that he’s simply giving it a shot doesn’t change the fact that he is publicly stating his intention to not follow the tenets that they require him to uphold. Regardless of his admirable sincerity and pleasant demeanor, make no mistake that Bell is creating a confrontation, albeit under the guise of “just asking questions”. I have no way of knowing for sure, but I would imagine that the fact that this confrontation comes just a few months after another public falling out with the same church’s leadership also played a role in their decision.

Conclusion

Sympathizing with Bell as a person is quite understandable. He’s in a tough spot for all the reasons outlined above, and these no doubt hit home with many atheists. However, animus against his employers by atheists seems misplaced.

The challenges Bell is facing only bear a superficial similarity to those that atheists face in secular workplaces dominated by Christians in the US. If we are trying to tell powerful stories that exemplify these challenges, my recommendation is that we look elsewhere.

Simon Davis is online marketing director at a health care publications company. His writing has appeared in Free Inquiry and Skeptical Inquirer magazines. You can follow him on twitter at @SimonKnowz

Comments

  1. Al Dente says

    Bell made himself unemployable as a Seventh Day Adventist pastor or seminary teacher by publicly breaking with the church. It seems reasonable to me that the church would not want Bell as an employee if he isn’t a professing Seventh Day Adventist.

    I have problems with Bell’s scheme of living an atheistic life for a year. It smacks of Pascal’s Wager only in reverse: I won’t believe in gods even if I have to fake not believing in gods. That doesn’t seem honest to me.

  2. Blanche Quizno says

    Clergy are typically more liberal and progressive than church members, who tend to be more conservative than the public at large. Clergy who took action to support the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s more often than not saw themselves fired from their churches at some point within the 12 months following their activism. What we increasingly see is clergy modifying their observable positions on a variety of issues to fit their congregations’ preferences, even if those preferences are bigoted, prejudiced, or downright hateful. The clergyperson is in a difficult position – stand up for his principles with integrity and face being fired and unemployed in a time when jobs are scarce; preach what the congregation wants to hear, knowing full well that the young people of the Millennial Generation – the largest generation ever, 77+ million compared to the Baby Boom’s 75+ million – find this kind of preaching off-putting and even offensive; or preach according to the progressive leaning of younger people in hopes of attracting them, realizing that such an approach risks alienating and driving away what congregation is actually attending the church, with no guarantee that such “enlightened” preaching will reliably draw a new, younger demographic to the church. It’s a lose-lose scenario, but it’s hard to feel too much pity, as this is the hole that Christianity has dug for itself and, now that society protects the rights of people to NOT attend churches, Christians are seeing the fruits of their execrable behavior from over the years and centuries. The chickens have come home to roost. Bye-bye, Christianity.

  3. Shatterface says

    Yes, I don’t get the whole ”trying on atheism” bit.

    Atheism isn’t a lifestyle, it is an epistemic commitment to a world which excludes the supernatural.

    I define my atheism by not believing in gods, not by not praying or not going to church: most Christians in Britain don’t pray or go near churches either.

    And if his ”atheism” is a barrier to doing a job which is essentially theist it’s no more unreasonable to ask him to leave than if a member of the Democrat Party wanted to be a Republican for a year or a Republican wanted to be a Democrat.

  4. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    Is it even possible for Ryan Bell to “live as an atheist” unless he is an atheist? Much behaviour is unplanned, the product of our previous behaviour, and Bell will presumably have “carry-overs” from his actual beliefs. No matter how he tries, can he not pray, not refer to God as the cause of things or not hope that God might intervene and change his own or someone else’s circumstances? If the bible has been a “source of inspiration” in the past, will it stop being one now? In fact, as an atheist, I often find the bible a source of inspiration- just not the sort of inspiration Christians would like.

  5. A. Noyd says

    Shatterface (#3)

    Atheism isn’t a lifestyle, it is an epistemic commitment to a world which excludes the supernatural.

    Or, at the very least, it holds the supernatural* to the same epistemic standards as everything else. If this dude wants to try out atheism, he must, at a minimum, demand a reasonable level of evidence for the claims of religion and reject all the ones that aren’t supported. If atheism is a lifestyle at all, it’s one defined by giving up special pleading for the sake of belief in a deity.

    ……..
    *Whatever is claimed to be the supernatural, that is. Because no matter the category people want to stick it in, there has to be an observable effect of some sort. And that can be tested.

  6. K says

    Either Bell is actually an atheist without realising it, and in this case he indeed doesn’t qualify for his jobs (and his employers know him actually better than he himself), or he is a believer who is trying to live the lifestyle of an atheist (which has not much to do with the way atheists live – it’s actually more the idea that “atheism is just another religion”, where the Bible is replaced by atheist literature and going to church by atheist meetings), and in this case his employers are wrong to dismiss him (as he is still a believer).

    I think both the “experiment” and the employers’ reaction is intellectually wrong: both Bell and his employers seem to believe that “atheism” is something you can just try on like new clothes. It is, as Shatterface wrote, an epistemic stance. Bell’s employers, however, seem to believe in some modification of Pascal’s wager and think it’s the acting that makes the believer…

    Still, while I agree that religious institutions are allowed to require faith for employees working in teaching faith, I think his employers should not yet have dismissed him _at this point_, since Bell states he is a Christian playing at atheism but seems consider himself a believer. Just exploring an epistemology while fulfilling teaching duties according to his contract should mean you are fired.

    Of course the problem is that religious universities and their students are established in order to set limits to rational inquiry… which is why I think that a “faith university” is not a place where higher education takes place.

  7. Omar Puhleez says

    If we take atheism to mean ‘without God’, then I find it difficult to see how Bell can manage to shed all his theism for whatever time. It is not just a matter of not praying, attending church, reading the Bible and all those activities. After all, many professing Christians of the dusty Bible, church-at-Christmas variety manage that quite well.

    To do this experimental ‘trial’ properly, Bell has to actually stop BELIEVING for a year, and then perhaps, start his belief up again. A bit hard when you see the hand of God in everything. I would imagine that for me, it would be like ceasing to believe in gravity for a year, and then believing again.

    But good luck to him in any case. Can’t help seeing the similarity with the loss of faith experience of (the formerly Reverend) Alan Watts.

    http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/a/alan_watts.html

  8. Pierce R. Butler says

    Shatterface @ # 3: Atheism isn’t a lifestyle…

    Oh yeah? Then what do you call the gay orgiez, the baby barbecues, and the long weekends of stick-picking-up?

  9. rnilsson says

    @3 Shatterface:

    And if his ”atheism” is a barrier to doing a job which is essentially theist it’s no more unreasonable to ask him to leave than if a member of the Democrat Party wanted to be a Republican for a year or a Republican wanted to be a Democrat.

    This is vaguely reminiscent of an American atheist or rationalist organisation hiring a new PR person direct from the Republican party, who immediately set to work torpedoing the organisation’s foundations by re-using her old tricks from her previous employment. About a year ago? I don’t exactly recall the details, only my sentiment.

    Except in politics this is far more possible, at least in countries with more than two parties (or even one) ;-) Case in point: the Swedish lawyer who previously “defended” that “serial killer” that I moaned about a few days ago is apparently no longer a Social Democrat, since he was seen in the mingle at the Leftist Party Congress this weekend. Still enjoys his limelight though.

  10. Dave Ricks says

    Bell’s experiment makes sense to me when I see what he’s really doing.

    Bell’s experiment is how freethought started as a movement. Once Europe had enough exposure to contradictions between revealed religions, some philosophers decided revealed religion was unreliable, and wanted to explore how much they could know without it.  I see Bell doing the same thing:

    • His blog is titled “A Year Without God” as a response to “What difference does God make?”  Both phrases are powerful rhetorically because they mean more than they say in a few words.  I read “God” capitalized as a proper name for the Abrahamic god; Bell sets aside the claims about that god, and explores what remains.

    • His blog is subtitled “a former pastor’s journey into atheism”, and the original freethinkers were called atheists for holding the same position.

    I support Bell’s experiment as freethought. Some atheists might call it a year without theism, but his rhetoric and definitions also make sense to me when I read his blog.

  11. Pierce R. Butler says

    rnilsson @ # 9: … an American atheist or rationalist organisation hiring a new PR person direct from the Republican party, who immediately set to work torpedoing the organisation’s foundations …

    We have heard very little from the Secular Coalition of America since they hired Edwina Rogers. May they disintegrate into their well-earned obscurity asymptotically.

  12. Gordon Willis says

    An atheist is someone who doesn’t believe in God (OK, I can do that: I’ll not believe in God for a year);

    or, an atheist is someone who doesn’t believe in supernatural entities like souls (OK, I can do that: I’ll not believe I have a soul for the next twelve months);

    or, an atheist is someone who has no moral guide and just makes things up (OK, I can do that: for the next 52 weeks I’ll be convinced that I can treat people badly and not feel bad about what happens to them as a result);

    or, an atheist is someone whom my community defines as subject to all the temptations of Satan and not protected by any godly force (OK, I can do that: I can let Satan control my life and forgo all protection from everlasting torture, just for the next 365.25 days — no, wait, I don’t believe in Satan, do I?…bugger, this is harder than I thought…).

    I think that what he really means is that God, as he understands it, is not an ancient rationalisation of unaccountable natural forces but is in fact something who (or which) wants (or is in accord with) the sort of things that rational people (like some atheists) insist upon. His mistake is that he should have joined the Church of England before coming out.

  13. brucegorton says

    Would they support with equal enthusiasm an atheist organization that continues to pay for the services of one of their public representatives while that representative goes on their year-long journey of spiritual discovery to blog on a website called for instance “myyearwithjesus.com”?

    Didn’t Hemant already do that when he wrote I sold my soul to eBay?

    I see what he is doing as pretty much the same thing, and as much as we may view his experiment with justified suspicion, we can also turn it to our advantage by showing a welcoming face.

    That he is not sincere in his year of atheism doesn’t mean we can’t show people, through his blog, that the atheist community can be a highly welcoming place to be.

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