What Ryan Bell’s atheism experiment should really be about

The atheist world has been buzzing about the “experiment” being conducted by (former?) Pastor Ryan J. Bell, to – as he puts it – “try on” atheism for a year. Some have been positive about the idea, others not so much.

A lot of the responses have been hung up on the fact that atheism is a belief – or, more technically, the lack of a belief – so if you don’t really have that belief – or, more technically, if you still have the belief that disqualifies you from being atheist – then you can’t really be “trying on atheism”. And that’s absolutely correct. In a way, what Bell is doing is simply slapping on flippers and going for a swim… it ain’t going to help him understand how a fish thinks.

And, honestly, Bell’s idea that he can just “try on” our metaphysical view of the world is really kind of insulting – it cheapens atheism to a mere “preference”, when I think most atheists would agree that if you’re really an atheist, you couldn’t possibly choose to be otherwise. (Go ahead, choose to believe the world is flat. See how that works out for you.) If he were really interested in being an atheist, he would approach the idea with humility – the way all students should approach a new subject – not with the arrogant desire to stubbornly hold on to his Christianity secretly for as long as possible.

But while Bell’s experiment may be misguided in the metaphysical sense, it isn’t “wrong”, as Mehta calls it.

It just seems that Bell can’t see the trees for the forest.

You see, he’s not “trying on atheism”, but what he is doing is trying to understand atheists. By reading what we read, listening to the people we listen to, and – most importantly – talking with us, he’s doing something atheists have so badly wanted, and needed, for a long time: seeing us as fellow human beings who just have a different point of view.

How often have we complained about the fact that most religious writers, bloggers, and so on, don’t even bother to read or understand the “atheist ideas” they’re criticizing? It’s like every time a religious person talks about atheists, they’re using absurd characterizations that have absolutely no connection to what real atheists are like. If you were to read what religious authors write, Richard Dawkins is a wild-eyed, frothing, hate-spewing monster who – were he not restrained by the laws of civil society – would drag religious people out into the streets and have them whipped. If you were to read what Richard Dawkins writes – what a crazy idea! – you would realize that while he is firm in his conclusions, they are not even close to hateful or aggressive, and he is meticulous about justifying every one with a reasonable argument.

Or how about the fact that every time a religious person opens their mouth in public about atheists, they’re almost certainly going to barf up the same specious bullshit about how we all think there is no purpose to life, or that humanity has no value, or that morality is simply a matter of opinion that we can ignore if we’re hungry, hassled, or horny?

After all, atheist writers take great care to precisely quote what religious people say, and to document in excruciating detail what they do. We do our damnedest to ensure that when we level a criticism against them, it is a well-justified criticism, soundly based on their own statements, opinions, and behaviour. We don’t don’t get the same treatment in return. When a religious person speaks about us, it’s all strawmen and nonsense that doesn’t even make sense if you give it a moment’s thought.

Religious people do not listen to us. They do not respect us. They do not even think about us unless we annoy them in some way. All this is made painfully evident every time a religious person opens their mouth to speak about us, even if it weren’t already abundantly clear from the many surveys we’ve seen about opinions of atheists, and the way society and culture actually treat us every day. What Bell is doing is exactly what we need religious people to do: stop treating us like fucking lepers and see us as people you can live with.

I don’t really care whether he gives up his Christianity and “converts” to atheism. I’m just happy he cares enough to actually listen to me.

And I hope he really does – I hope he’s serious about his experiment. I hope he tries hard to shed his preconceptions and forget all the hateful shit his Christian friends say about us, and sees us for what we really are – warts and all. He’s already discovered how cantankerous some of us can be. And he’s already discovered how generous some of us can be. He’s already seen that some of us are distrustful and even hostile to religion. And he’s already seen why.

Ultimately, I don’t think this is the experiment about belief Bell thinks it is, and I hope he realizes that soon. However, it is a worthwhile social experiment. Let him study us, ape us, and try to understand us. Whether the experiment ends with him changing his mind or not, I fail to see how it could do any harm. Let us guide him, correct him when necessary (“atheist sacred texts”? really?), and open ourselves to him, showing him honestly who and what atheists are. I think we’re great people, so we have nothing to be ashamed of or worried about.

So, Ryan Bell, I say welcome to the party. Don’t be shy, dive in and say hi on a few atheist blogs and forums. We’re a mixed-up bunch, in the process of change ourselves, with lots of smart people with strong opinions. Oh, you’ll get a few burns, but it’s kind of a rite of passage. Ah, I see you’ve met PZ already – don’t sweat it: he can be a little grouchy at times, but he’s a really good person, and a bit of a teddy bear – a sweet, huggable, tentacly teddy bear. I recommend also looking in on Heina Dadabhoy, or for a more philosophical bent Massimo Pigliucci – and there are way too many others to even try listing here so you’ll have to dig around on your own. There are idiots among us, of course, but you should already know how that goes. We do have our own work to attend to – whether that be fighting sexism and racism, standing up for gay rights, ending economic oppression, or even building schools – so we may be a little distracted at times, but why don’t you join in? I think you’ll find that most of the things we stand for are the same as the things you stand for.

And perhaps finding that out is what this experiment of yours should really be about.

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What Ryan Bell’s atheism experiment should really be about by Indi in the Wired is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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