I am presently following a blog entitled Year Without God: A Former Pastor's Journey into Atheism. Ryan Bell, a forty-two year old ordained minister, recent church pastor, Christian university adjunct professor and church consultant, is practicing atheism for a year.
He is not just studying it, but living it – no praying, no devotional Bible reading, no worship, no God. He is seriously considering becoming an atheist.
His unusual New Year’s resolution is interesting to me because I also seriously reexamined atheism not long ago. As a young man in my teens and early twenties I was an atheist. Then I became a Christian and later a pastor. I have been a fulltime pastor for over 35 years.
A few years ago I reexamined my Christian faith and revisited my former atheism in the process. I reread books by the old atheists and every book I could find by the New Atheists. I watched atheists debate with theists on YouTube. I studied their arguments against theism and the Christian apologetic responses. I took the arguments to heart, looking for the weaknesses and errors in my religious faith.
I came through my year-long reevaluation of religion spiritually stronger. In fact I found that atheism was very helpful to my faith. It helped rid my life of idols. Now I often say, “I don’t believe in the God that atheists don’t believe in.”
In other words a serious study of atheism made me a better Christian. It acted as a refiner’s fire, burning away the chaff from the unexamined areas of my faith. Looking back on it, I realize it didn’t have to turn out that way. If my religious faith had been nothing but chaff, I would have ended up as an atheist. As it is, my faith was purified in the furnace of unbelief.
So I thank God for atheism and atheists. They have been my dialogue partners and companions in my spiritual journey. Atheists ruthlessly expose the sins of Christianity and the weaknesses of religion. Atheism reveals the faulty logic at the heart of much of the evidence for, and “proofs” for, God’s existence.
Because of atheism, the God I know is not the God I used to believe in. The God I know is not the rigid God of old-time religion or popular Evangelicalism. Not the adaptable Deity of mainline Protestantism and theological liberalism. Neither the mega-church Culture Clone, nor the Culture Warrior of the Religious Right and Progressive Left.
Beneath the layers of religious tradition, biblical misinterpretation and theological misinformation, I came face to face with the One whom 14th century theologian Meister Eckhart calls “God beyond God.” I discovered that God was not who I thought God was, and I was not who I thought I was.
I have atheists, in part, to thank for my religious renaissance. I hope that Ryan Bell, the trial atheist, has a similar journey. I will be following his experiment in Godlessness with interest.