I’m usually not a fan of the ever-breakable New Year’s resolution. But when former Seventh-day Adventist pastor Ryan Bell resolved to take a year off from his beliefs in order to explore atheism, I was intrigued. Back on New Year’s Eve, the ordained minister explained on the Huffington Post that, following the church’s request for his resignation in 2013 and in order to explore his personal religious doubt, he’d be blogging his year without God.
To be clear, while he’s abandoning the church he’s spent almost his entire life a part of, and with which he’s recently disagreed about marriage equality (among other issues), he’s not yet fully committed to a world without God and is going to “try on” atheism.
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. (I trust that if there really is a God that God will not be too flummoxed by my foolish experiment and allow others to suffer as a result.)
At first, Bell’s endeavor did sound rather foolish. And it has been critiqued on all sides. People are tired of “year of” stunts, some Christians take issue with the idea that Christianity is something you can just arbitrarily turn on and off, and atheists say that Bell is not really being an atheist. I was inclined to agree. His blog post seemed like a stunt, one that displayed a deep misunderstanding of atheism. He seemed to be using the term to refer to doubt about his Christian beliefs, whereas atheism isn’t really about doubting God—it’s about believing that there is no God.
But really this is a problem of presentation. What Bell is actually doing—taking a year to focus on his doubt—is a great idea.
Think of it like a belated and more purely intellectual rumspringa, the Amish tradition of letting 16-year-olds take a year or two off from the constraints of their religion to explore and experiment outside the bounds of their upbringing. As Tom Shachtman explains in his book Rumspringa: To Be or Not to Be Amish, Amish elders insist that the purpose of rumspringa is to give teenagers a chance to find a mate, with the hope that they will both come back to the church and get married, living a fully Amish life. But it’s a bit more complicated that that. “The Amish count on the rumspringa process to inoculate youth against the strong pull of the forbidden by dosing them with the vaccine of a little worldly experience,” Shachtman explains. “Their gamble is also based on the notion that there is no firmer adhesive bond to a faith and way of life than a bond freely chosen, in this case chosen after rumspringa and having sampled some of the available alternative ways of living.” Those who explore and come back know that it was their decision.
Bell’s version of rumspringa attempts to be more nuanced than this. It’s not about wild parties or even about tasting freedom. More importantly, it’s not an all-or-nothing scenario. With rumspringa, you either end up Amish or not; Bell is searching for what he believes. Which is another way of saying he’s not trapped. He can decide to convert to another religion or not be religious at all.
So far, disappointingly, Bell has not expressed much interest in either of those things—his project seems better in concept than in execution at this point. While his New Year’s Eve post attempted to delve into his reasoning, there has been little, if any, insightful commentary on his blog in the three weeks since he’s begun his quest. A handful of posts have delved into theology, but they all seem stuck in the beliefs that he claims to have temporarily put on hold. The first two weeks mostly consisted of links and inspirational quotes, but more recently he admitted that his project consists more of “forgoing the Christian practices” than “trying on atheism.” One of the more insightful posts, from Jan. 15, asks “So really, what difference does God make?” and is probably the first real glimpse into his thoughts as he struggles with belief and doubt.
And that’s what the project should be about—doubt. Growing up in a Modern Orthodox Jewish community, my friends and I idealized the rumspringa. Of course we had our doubts, and we dealt with them the best way we knew how: Three of my classmates convinced a rabbi in our New York high school to start an after school “Why Club” where they literally sat around asking questions for 90 minutes. But what we really craved, even if we didn’t realize it at the time, was a chance to explore outside of our own heads—even though we had no desire to leave a way of life that we knew and loved.
As Bell told Religion News Service, of the more than 20,000 people who visited his blog in its first few days, many have expressed sympathy with his project. Some have even written in to say that while they also have doubts, they are afraid to express them because of the cost.
In a way, it is like being gay and not being able to come out to your family. There have just been so many people who said they have wanted to ask questions too and didn’t feel that they could. So they are living vicariously through my spiritual journey.
For Bell, it’s not really a question of no longer believing. It’s more that he wants to explore a lack of belief without breaking ties. And making it possible to do so is the best thing religions can do. “Atheism” may not be the right label here; it’s more like organized doubt. And that’s a healthy practice, regardless of your beliefs.
Update, Jan. 24, 2014: This post has been updated to clarify that Ryan Bell has abandoned the Seventh day Adventist church, but not the possibility of God.