Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Atheist Purification and the Case of Ryan Bell

I’ve been following with some interest the year-long journey of former Seventh-Day Adventist preacher Ryan Bell, who made the decision a little over a year ago--in the midst of a crisis of faith--to try on atheism for a year. His Year Without God has generated some strong reactions and is nicely chronicled not only in various media pieces but on his own blog.

Bell, at the conclusion of his year-long journey, has announced that he isn’t going back. "I don't think God exists,” he told NPR's Arun Rath. His year without God will be, it seems, longer than a year.

So what do I think of this? Do I share William Lane Craig's catastrophizing view that Bell's journey is "spiritually disastrous" and that "If this man really does consistently live out an atheistic lifestyle, it could do irreparable harm to the Christian church"? 

No. In fact, it may do the church some good. Much hinges, I think, on whether Bell's journey towards atheism reflects more of the spirit of Simone Weil, or more of the spirit of Blaise Pascal. Let me explain. 

When I first heard of Bell's existential experiment, one thing that immediately came to mind was Simone Weil’s notion that atheism can be a “purification.” This idea may seem strange coming from a religious mystic committed to relinquishing herself to God. But it makes more sense once we pay attention to the terrifying danger she saw in gods of the imagination

As Weil puts it, “The imagination is continually at work filling up all the fissures through which grace might pass.” Put another way, our imaginations are very good at constructing false gods that block the pathway through which the genuinely divine might enter our souls. (I would add that cultures are good at it, too, so if we simply adopt our notion of God from cultural institutions rather than our own imaginations, we aren't any better off.)

The divine, as Weil sees it, defies conceptualization. At one point Weil says, “I am quite sure that there is not a God in the sense that I am quite sure nothing real can be anything like what I am able to conceive when I pronounce this word.” But she pairs this atheistic assertion with a contrasting claim that is more suggestive than clear: “I am quite sure there is a God in the sense that I am quite sure my love is not illusory.”  And as she puts it, “that which I cannot conceive is not an illusion.”

Weil’s theistic counter-claim becomes clearer when we recall key features of her spiritual journey. Her love of God was sparked by unexpected mystical experiences that shattered her understanding of what was possible—mystical encounters with a love “like that which one can read in the smile on a beloved face.” But she still “half refused” to accept what she had experienced. As she put it in a letter to her friend and confidante, Father Perrin, 
For it seemed to me certain, and I still think so today, that one can never wrestle enough with God if one does so out of pure regard for the truth. Christ likes us to prefer truth to him because, before being Christ, he is truth. If one turns aside from him to go towards the truth, one will not go far before falling into his arms.
Weil made it clear to Father Perrin that it was her intellect, not her love, that resisted the urgings of her mystical experiences. I get the sense that her intellectual resistance was in service to her love. She did not want her love to fall on a false object. She wanted her love to be true. And to keep it true, she had to be rigorously critical of any particular conceptualization of the divine. 

On Weil's view of things, all false images of God must fall before the critical scrutiny of the intellect. Only then will the true God—who transcends our concepts but comes to us in profound experiential encounters—be the object of our love. This isn’t to say that nothing can be said about that to which mystical experience points. After all, Weil herself had things to say. But to treat what one has to say as adequate, and to place one’s hope and devotion in the image one has constructed through one’s words and thoughts—that is, for Weil, the real spiritual disaster.

Weil reminds me here of Socrates. Socrates famously held that one of the greatest impediments to knowledge was false certainty. To dislodge someone’s certainty, to cast them into a place of doubt, was for him a necessary first step in the journey towards truth. Paradoxically, this is so even if the belief happens to be true. If we have a true belief but our certainty exceeds what is warranted, then we are further from the truth than the doubter. We aren’t connected to the truth as the truth, because we cling to it in a manner that's indifferent to truth.

This is essentially the point Simone Weil is making about belief in God. It is what she means when she says, “Of two men who have no experience of God, he who denies him is perhaps nearer to him than the other. The false God who is like the true one in everything, except that we cannot touch him, prevents us from ever coming to the true one.”

Ryan Bell’s journey towards atheism might be just the kind of purification that Weil is talking about: a step in a journey towards truth, whatever that in the end may prove to be. If we are lovers of the truth about the divine, as opposed to lovers of our particular conception of God, then we have nothing to fear from such journeys and everything to gain.

Of course, Bell's atheism might be something else. It is possible that Bell’s shift towards atheism is a product of the kind of self-indoctrination that Blaise Pascal recommends at the conclusion of his famed “wager.” After arguing that we should bet on God’s existence because the costs of doing so are trivial and the potential payoff infinite, Pascal confronts the reality that beliefs aren’t so easily controlled by our decisions. It’s one thing to tell skeptics, “It’s a good pragmatic bet to believe in God”; something else for them to actually shake off their skepticism and believe. 

And so Pascal offers a strategy for attaining faith. And how do skeptics attain faith? “(B)y acting as if they believed, taking the holy water, having masses said, etc.” In other words, by immersing themselves in the life of the believer, surrounding themselves with believers and doing as they do. Simone Weil despised this method, by the way, precisely because it could instill belief in anything.

The same method, of course, can be pursued to promote unbelief. As Kurt Vonnegut said in Mother Night, if you pretend to be something long enough, you become what you pretend to be—whether it be a Nazi (as in Vonnegut’s novel), or a Christian…or an atheist. Is that what’s going on in Bell’s case? After a year of operating as if he were an atheist, did atheism sink in like an Aristotelian habit?

Only Bell can answer that for sure. But I doubt it. I doubt it in part because of the trajectory of his spiritual journey. According to one article, Bell was once so religiously conservative, so steeped in the anti-intellectual warnings of fundamentalist Christian culture, that in college he refused to read Voltaire because “writing such as Voltaire’s defiles the soul.”

There is a difference between immersing oneself in a particular worldview to the exclusion of rivals, with the aim of becoming a believer, and exploring an alternative worldview with an openness to being moved and transformed by it. The former treats the worldview in question as a final destination. The latter treats it as part of a journey whose final goal is not entrenchment into the worldview in question, but a deeper insight into the world. 

Pascal is recommending something more like the former—and it is something more like the former which motivated the young Ryan Bell to resist “defiling” his mind with ideas at odds with the worldview he’d chosen as his final destination. But at some point Bell broke away from that Pascalian pattern of belief-reinforcement. He left the rigid domain of false certainty for the realm of doubt and questioning. It seems to me unlikely that, in exploring atheism during his Year Without God, Bell would do so in the spirit of the very self-indoctrination he’d left behind. More likely, I think, is that his existential experiment and its outcome represent an ongoing journey.

In other words, I see Bell’s shift towards atheism as reflecting more of Simone Weil’s spirit than Pascal’s--more an exercise in spiritual purification than atheist indoctrination. Whether this is true or not will be seen in where his journey takes him next—whether he continues his exploration in the spirit that motivated his Year Without God, or whether he takes someone like Richard Dawkins as his model, and sets his heels into atheist ground as trenchantly as he once did into conservative Christian soil. 

But much of what Bell is saying these days reflects more of Simone Weil than Pascal. In one interview, he resists calling his expression of atheism a conclusion, because "conclusion is too strong a word for the provisional place I now stand and work from." This sounds as if atheism is not so much a final destination into which he intends to dig his heels, as it is a place he has come to on his journey. 

And finally, there is this sentiment from his NPR interview: "I think before, I wanted a closer relationship to God, and today I just want a closer relationship with reality." Again I cannot help but think of Weil's words: "If one turns aside from him to go towards the truth, one will not go far before falling into his arms."

If there is a God who transcends our understanding, Bell may be closer to that God now than he was a year ago. 


  1. Thanks, a provocative blog as always. Now I need to go read some Simone Weil!

  2. excellent sentiments. Thank you very much.