Ex-pastor Ryan Bell experimented lately with living without God, blogging about it at YearWithoutGod.com, and more recently he penned a column for CNN.com in which he details some of the reasons behind his de-conversion. Conversion and de-conversion are always fascinating to me. They give brief glimpses into not only ‘reasons for’ and ‘reasons against’ their beliefs, but glimpses into the conditions that led to a person’s decision. Bell writes straightforwardly and honestly about several of his conclusions, and it has given me reason to process what he said.
Having skimmed through some of his blog, I see that he writes with an irenic tone and I appreciate that. Additionally, I have no pretense of trying to answer his questions and attempt a re-conversion. But I am moved to reflect, for a few reasons, on what he said and I think a few reflections are in order on this kind of disbelief.
First, if circles of Christians are as shallow and simplistic as he makes his upbringing out to be, they need to repent and reclaim the depths of their faith. Bell portrays a faith, either purposefully or tangentially, that simply was not able to deal with some very straightforward issues. The problem of evil is ever present in de-conversion stories and his is no different. He is attracted to current cultural morays and considers Christian doctrine to be out of step. He actually believes that the Christian faith degrades the value of this world and this life. All of these issues are easily dealt with by Christian doctrine and life, but he was not apparently around people who thought so. And if so, that is a crying shame. There are plenty of pockets of anti-intellectualism within the Christian world, and it need not be.
That being said, all of us are intellectually responsible for these kinds of decisions, and to caricature the faith in such simplistic terms, leave it there, and come to unreasonable conclusions as a result, partakes in a rising form of anti-intellectualism. It is the rational sloppiness at the very core of New Atheism that labels faith as irrational and simplistic, and thus dismisses it by definition and not by argumentation.
Secondly – and this is true of every atheist I have ever personally interacted with or watched online – I simply do not recognize the faith they left. When they describe what ‘Christians believe’ I have no idea where they got their ideas. When they ‘argue’ against Christian doctrine, I see straw-men made of flash paper. I am not moved by their reasons because they make no sense to me. I am not startled by their arguments because they were answered centuries ago. To paraphrase Inigo Montoya, I do not think Christianity means what they think it means.
For example, Bell goes on about how the Christian faith degrades the value of this world and this life, and that he feels he has found a much more meaningful life without God. He writes:
As I come to terms with the fact that this life is the only one I get, I am more motivated than ever to make it count.
I want to experience as much happiness and pleasure as I can while helping others to attain their happiness. I construct meaning in my life from many sources, including love, family, friendships, service, learning and so on.
Popular Christian theology, on the other hand, renders this life less meaningful by anchoring all notions of value and purpose to a paradise somewhere in the future, in a place other than where we are right now. Ironically, my Christian upbringing taught me that ultimately this life doesn't matter, which tends to make believers apathetic about suffering and think that things will only get worse before God suddenly solves everything on the last day.
Bell has rejected a bad Sunday school version of the Christian faith, a faith that has raised the lives of untold millions of people in systems that would have otherwise destroyed them like so many sick dogs. A simple review of Christian history (as it actually happened, not as the NAs tell it) contradicts his conclusion. In addition, one of the core tenants of the Christian faith sanctifies this life in this flesh – the Incarnation of God himself. Yet, Bell is hardly alone. It is common fare to accuse the Christian faith of looking too much to the other side and stripping this life of meaning. But here is where an ex-pastor has the intellectual responsibility to dig a little deeper than a bad Sunday school teacher and spend a little time with Augustine or Aquinas. How about St. Patrick? Why not learn about the theologically rooted and radical hospitality and generosity of Oswald Chambers?
In another place he makes an obviously false observation when he writes:
It struck me this year that nihilism is a disease born of theism. Some people have been taught to expect meaning outside of this world beyond our earthly experiences. When they come upon the many absurdities of life and see that it's "not as advertised," an existential despair can take hold.
The problem is not solved by inventing a God in which to place all our hopes, but rather, to face life honestly and create beauty from the absurd.
The critical error here is equating finding meaning ‘outside this world’ with the idea that therefore, this world has little to no meaning. Christians root existence itself in the being and loving creative activity of God, but that has literally everything to do with this life and this physical world. The contradiction follows necessarily from the error in the premise: the belief that all is meaningless comes from a belief that infuses the universe with meaning. And then the silly conclusion follows: so we strive against the darkness and make our own meaning. Well, so did Pol Pot and the Nazis.
I literally do not recognize the faith he, and countless others, claim to have rejected.
A new reality is creeping up on us from the corners. There is a new fundamentalism among us. There is a new conventional wisdom and popular consensus that refuses to countenance rival ideas, and it has everything to do with belief in God but not in the way you have been told.