A Year of Atheism: “Lord, I believe, but I’ll give up my belief”

Following a tried-and-true marketing formula, one former professor and pastor is attempting a year of atheism. He’s going to give up praying, reading the Bible for wisdom and encouragement, hoping that God will intervene in his life, and giving credit to God for day-to-day events.

Ryan Bell (no relation to Rob Bell, as far as I know) makes a few claims in his “coming out” post. Among many things, he says:

Christian educational institutions are not serving their students by eliminating professors that are on an honest intellectual and spiritual journey, just because it doesn’t line up with the official statement of faith.

The category of those who are on an “honest intellectual and spiritual journey” is a little larger than just those who are seeking atheism for a year. The push lately for those who are living “honest” journeys is a bit bewildering in its implications: if “living honestly” means that we abandon Christianity, does that mean Christianity is dishonest? If the educational institutions that Bell is referring to fire those who are living “honest…journey[s]”, what does that say for the professors who are still employed? While he “guess[es]” that many professors are in the same place that he is spiritually, he suggests that they live dishonestly in fear of termination.

If you are doubting and want to be honest about it, great. I’m absolutely okay with people who profess their struggles, even from the pulpit. It’s okay to say something is hard, it’s okay to say something is difficult to understand.

But if you’re teaching students or shepherding a flock and you’re to the point where you’re closer to atheism than Christianity, perhaps it is time you step back from leadership. Don’t be surprised when employers agree with the sentiment.

Christianity as a worldview is hardly filled with absolute certainty; sometimes faith is extremely challenging. That’s the reality we live in. We groan for a better understanding of the mysterious ways of God, we cry out in despair, and sometimes we get angry with our Creator. That’s acceptable. Even Jesus begs that the Father take the cup from him, before ultimately submitting himself.

If we don’t want to compare ourselves to Jesus, lest we be accused of arrogance, perhaps we can compare ourselves to the father of the spirit-possessed boy who confesses “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.” Or David when he cries out in the Psalms, often in ways that make us uncomfortable. Or even Job, who lived righteously and asked God some brutal questions.

The assumption that the Church cannot handle doubt is misplaced, but somewhat understandable. We’ve all experienced the ridicule of doubters, even if the mockery was subtle. Whether that was from the slam-dunk answers youth pastors gave honestly struggling kids or senior pastors who just didn’t take us seriously, it’s hard not to empathize with Bell’s frustrations.

But most of us also have experiences on the other end of the spectrum, where we sit with pastors or mentors, pour out our struggles and our frustrations, and are met with empathy and grace. We’ve all felt like Peter, ready to give up on Christ because the pressures are great. And to suggest that Christian institutions have, by and large, missed the grace offered to Peter is dishonest. At the very least, it’s incredibly sad.

There’s a difference between those whom God calls to lead and those we might term “laymen.” While it is appropriate for doubts to be a part of the Christian life at times, they ought not to characterize our leaders. Sure, frustration and doubt can creep up. We expect that, even in church leadership. But living a public year of atheism is a few steps beyond that. Doubt has manifested itself in a far more public and declarative way.

Jesus is willing and eager to save us from our doubts. He kept Peter from drowning when he walked on water. Our doubts do not damn us.

But our doubts are distinct from those who hear the teachings of God and proclaim them too difficult. Those who cannot even fathom following are distinct from those who follow and doubt.

May God grant us the strength to believe, even in our unbelief.