There has been a lot of commentary on Pastor Ryan Bell, the minister whose full journey from Christian Pastor to Atheist (apparently – I’d put him in the pledge phase), was chronicled in his year-long decision to live as an atheist. At the end of this year, he has left Christianity and has come to think that atheism is probably the more proper stance. This story isn’t really remarkable, in and of itself, people trade “sides” in both directions all the time. Even life-long atheist Antony Flew remarkably went theist at the end of his life/career and conversions/de-conversions have been used as a cudgel from both sides. So Ryan Bell’s story isn’t remarkable in that respect and as an atheist I don’t take stories like this to hold them up as any sort of proof of atheism, or even support of it. I think the facts stand for themselves. But when stories like this reach the main stream culture, it’s interesting to watch them for the purpose of gauging where the culture’s response lies.
It could be wishful thinking on my part, but I feel like Christianity in the U.S. is on their heels somewhat in the battle to retain their dominance in American culture. I think the internet has a lot to do with it. And I also believe that — much to the chagrin of their Christian enemies and accommodationist critics — people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens put a large dent in Christian cultural impact in the last decade.
I personally left Christianity simply because I believe that Christianity in no sense of the word is “true”. But Christians who see guys like Ryan Bell leaving Christianity, cannot accept the answer that he simply thinks it’s wrong without entertaining the premise. So instead of taking guys like me and other ex-Christians at their word, they spend many hand-wringing hours trying to explain this exodus for different reasons.
Don’t get me wrong, there are many Christians out there honestly looking inward at Christianity to try and see what they can do better to retain Christians. But they miss the point also: it doesn’t matter how much you try and get hip, or re-interpret scripture, or reduce Christian hypocrisy, or soften doctrine to accommodate modern sensibilities, you cannot keep Christians who simply don’t believe it’s true. Truth is and always will be the Achilles heel to religion. There are atheists that have admitted they want Christianity to be true (I am certainly not one of those), but in the end, Christianity has nothing if people aren’t buying the premises in which the religion was built on. The only move – which many modern apologists and theologians are doing – is to change what Christianity means, and give would-be apostates a life line built on mythology. But liberal theology that mythologizes the core of the Christian message is just the last stop on the fast train to non-belief. Sure, people can get off on that last stop, but I highly doubt they can build a city there.
People want truth and whether it comes in the big “T” religious version of the little “t” agnostic/atheist version that’s where they are going to build their lives, so building a culture around apologetics and theology is a non-starter as far as I’m concerned. Theology and apologetics are inherently reactive to the internal and external criticisms of religious doctrine. I think Christianity has been effectively adaptive to date about indoctrinating the sheep and mollifying the would-be intellectual heretics. But critical mass of science, reason, technology, and information age is here and if Christianity continues to fight from their heels, they will lose the privilege of influence they have comfortably held in this country since its inception.
The reaction to Ryan Bell’s exit from Christianity has been interesting to watch. Christians are being downright fierce about his apostasy. The more thoughtful Christians will read about Ryan Bell and look to change the church from within. But at the end of the day Christianity isn’t true and that’s a tough fort to defend. But humans love their narrative and something Ryan Bell said in an interview struck me as a sliver of light for Christianity:
I’d just say 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.
Ah, good ol’ Occam’s Razor. Bell also said it was “provisional” where he is at in his thought, so that tells me if he is able to come up with a better Christian narrative than the one he has now then he can be got. More likely though, the word “provisional” is just a responsible word that I think everyone should ultimately be using about their current thought. I hope tomorrow, some belief I hold today is absolutely demolished. That means I’ve grown. Hopefully this hypothetical new belief also is more closely aligned with truth, but even if it isn’t, the value I hold to be open to new ideas means we as individuals have growth potential.
So, on and on we go, a little push here, a little tug there. But the needle has been moving slowly and steadily in America in the recent past away from Christianity and toward non-belief. The reason why is there’s “no there-there” when it comes to Christianity, but it will continue to be interesting the tactics which are used by the believers to try and keep their flock together. Those Christians who think they will be successful because they have Truth on their side are sadly mistaken. I used to think like that. I thought that Christianity was self-evidently true and something that was true could easily withstand any scrutiny. Truth accepted my challenge and Christianity folded without a fight. If we change the value of the Christian culture to believe in the pursuit of truth and knowledge, then Christianity as a major influence in this country will similarly fold. I believe the information age is pushing critical mass in that direction faster than could be hoped for in past generations. I look forward to the day when faith is no longer a virtue and social, cultural, political, and governmental policy is completely discussed, written, and enacted purely by good reasoning.