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.
I love it when I find agreement with Christians, even if it is for completely different reasons and from polar opposite viewpoints.
Here’s an article by a Christian, properly placing blame on Christians for not keeping “Christ” in Christmas. It’s pretty typical “reason for the season” drivel and admonishing Christians for allowing so much commercialization of the holiday, blah, blah. There is a lot about the article that isn’t relevant to me as a non-believer, but in the spirit of the season, I’ll point out an area of major common ground: Christians’ “war” with non-believers during this time of year is small potatoes compared to the worldview-war they should be having in their own community concerning the “true” meaning of Christmas.
For whatever reason, the Bill O’Reillys of the world think they are in a battle with secularists over the holiday. To some small degree that is true, but not in the way they think. Bill’s culture war should be with his fellow Christians, because the war with non-believers is mostly on constitutional grounds — and much less so about the culture (although I certainly wouldn’t mind convincing the culture not to be Christians).
The culture war surrounding the holidays is a much bigger “war” in scope, but that’s a battle that Christians need to have with themselves, not with secularists. It’s really easy for a non-believing 1st Amendment-lover like me: I don’t believe any tenets of the Christian faith, the Bible holds no value for me, and I certainly don’t think that religion of any sort should be anywhere near the state, the government, nor any public policy. Christmas, or any celebration around the solstice, is simply a celebration of humanity and a recognition of the good things in life. The line for those who are religious gets a lot fuzzier. Christians are confused and disjointed as a group as to where religious/secular line lies, and how it should be toed.
Christians lament the fact that Christ is a minority role player in the theater and pageantry of Christmas. I agree, Christ has almost nothing to do with the modern celebration of Christmas. Christmas is better for it. So, in this very narrow way, I absolutely agree with the author of this article: Christians should whine to each other and try to keep each other in line about “keeping Christ in Christmas”–just keep it off my lawn, away from the courthouse, and leave me out of it — you’ll find much greater disagreement amongst yourselves than you will with me as to what Christmas means to Christians.
Half the time when you meet people who say they are churchgoing Christians, they don’t know what they’re supposed to believe, they don’t believe all of it, they have a lot of doubt, and they go to church largely for social reasons.
~ Christopher Hitchens “Christmas with Christopher Hitchens,” A.V. Club 12/20/07
Since I have ceded the War on Christmas to Bill O’Reilly, and since I have confessed my allegiance to Christopher Hitchens as the closest thing to a deity that I’ll likely admit, and since I feel like celebrating this holiday season, and since I’m a person of the 90’s and a heartfelt Seinfeldian, I’m going to combine my interests and make up my own holiday (see Festivus). My holiday will be Hitchmas, and to celebrate, I will spare you my thoughts on topical matters and view them through the Atheist Prophet’s eyes since he could say it more eloquently from the grave than I could hope to while alive and kicking. It works out nicely in this case, because Christians are often so predictable that their miserable history just keeps repeating itself.
“Nothing optional — from homosexuality to adultery — is ever made punishable unless those who do the prohibiting (and exact the fierce punishment) have a repressed desire to participate.”
~ Christopher Hitchens (God is Not Great)
The general topic at hand is Christian hypocrisy and the specific event is that of the pastor, Gaylard Williams, of Praise Cathedral Church of God in Seymour, IN, and his alleged gay-sex proposition. I do not mention, as most articles do, that this pastor and his church are “anti-gay”. This, to me, is just superfluous language. Any decent church-folk who profess to following the “Good Book” know from Leviticus 20:13 that homosexuals should be killed. Anti-gay is inherent in Christianity and if you don’t believe that as a Christian, then you are doing it wrong. I know, that’s the militant, fundamentalist, atheist in me caricaturing Christianity. I simply can’t bring myself to ignore the actual words that are contained in the book Christians hold in such reverence. You call it theology, I call it hypocrisy: Tomato/Tomahto.
Anyway, back to Hitchmas. In this wonderful time of year, I invite the Reverend Williams into the fold, invite him to drop that nasty book that tells him he can’t be gay, and wade in the warm waters of Freethinking. He will have much less cognitive dissonance and much more gay sex. I will leave the good Reverend Williams with true prophecy from someone with actual predictive ability:
Bishop Eddie Long of the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Georgia preaches that Bayard Rustin was a vile sinner who suffered from the curable ‘disease’ of homosexuality. I have a rule of thumb for such clerics and have never known it to fail: Set your watch and sit back, and pretty soon they will be found sprawling lustily on the floor of the men’s room.”
~ Christopher Hitchens [“God’s Bigmouths,” Slate 9/27/10]