Last year, Ryan Bell, former pastor of a California Seventh-Day Adventist congregation, announced that he planned to give up all practical signs of his belief in God for a year, living as if he were an atheist in order to better understand what makes atheists tick. Last week, he made his “big reveal,” announcing to the world whether he intends to return to faith or remain an atheist. The verdict?
Bell says he’s “good without God,” as the well-known atheist ad campaign in the U.K. put it.
The ex-pastor, who now serves at a local homeless shelter, told Religion News Service that he’s not kidding. He really doesn’t believe in God anymore, making his 12-month ostensible charade anything but. Asked why he chose to give up his former Christianity, Bell explained that atheism is just simpler, adding that religion unnecessarily complicates life and morality.
“I think the best way I can explain the conclusion I’ve come to,” he told The Huffington Post “… is that the intellectual and emotional energy it takes to figure out how God fits into everything is far greater than dealing with reality as it presents itself to us.”
“I’d just say,” he continues, “that the existence of God seems like an extra layer of complexity that isn’t necessary. The world makes more sense to me as it is, without postulating a divine being who is somehow in charge of things.”
Not that he’s become a militant atheist a la Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris. In fact, Bell says he still recoils from the tactics many of these best-selling prophets of unbelief have made their stock-in-trade:
“There is … a kind of smug condescension that is hard for me,” he explains. “I still have scores of Christian friends who are not dumb. Their faith is not like believing in Santa Claus. The more the atheist movement behaves like the traveling evangelists I encountered as a conservative Christian, the more I cringe—and for the same reasons.”
And while many have questioned his de-conversion, suggesting that he gave up belief before even considering his “year without God,” Bell insists he was straight with friends, family, and the members of both camps who patiently waited for the conclusion of his experiment. Far from a publicity stunt to secure a book deal, he maintains that his “year without God” only cost him personally.
“I don’t feel like I need to defend myself. I’ve only lost money and earning potential this year, but I wouldn’t change a thing.”
And asked to give Christians a parting word of advice about atheists, he gladly offered up something he thinks believers frequently overlook:
“I wish more Christians knew that atheists are not nihilists who have no meaning to their lives or people with no moral compass. They’re not stubbornly rejecting God. All the atheists I have met have seriously hit a brick wall while trying to know God.”
Of course, both of these assurances collide head-on with what Scripture teaches Christians about those who deny God’s existence. Paul writes in Romans 1-2 that God’s existence is “evident to all” (Rom. 1:19-20) because of the creation, and that only those who “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (Rom. 1:18-19) can ignore the general revelation of a Creator.
But more importantly, Bell’s claim that living a moral life without God is easier doesn’t hold up under inspection. As another pastor wrote in an explosive article at Huffinton Post just before Christmas, there’s no such thing as a “good atheist.”
Following C.S. Lewis’ familiar argument from morality, Pastor Rick Henderson raised a lot of hackles by pointing out that the very claim of moral atheism clashes with the fundamental tenets of unbelief. Since a purely material, impersonal universe accessible only to science permits no claims of “ought,” but only “is,” consistent atheism must view morality as a fiction on par with God himself.
“There is no morally good atheist,” Henderson writes, “because [in atheism] there really is no objective morality. At best, morality is the mass delusion shared by humanity, protecting us from the cold sting of despair.”
As Bell noted, atheism is simpler than Christianity. But the problem, as Lewis points out in Mere Christianity, is that it’s “too simple.” Without reference to a personal, transcendent God, it’s simply impossible to make moral claims — precisely those realities which all people know the best and are least willing to relinquish: “Thou shalt not murder,” “thou shalt not steal,” “thou shalt not bear false witness,” etc.
It turns out banishing God also means banishing good. And having adopted a worldview in which objective morality is an oxymoron, Bell may soon discover that navigating the “simple” world of atheism is more complicated than he imagined.