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"My desire is, as always, to pursue the truth."
January 15, 2014 9:30 PM   Subscribe

"I'm making it official and embarking on a new journey. I will "try on" atheism for a year. For the next 12 months I will live as if there is no God. I will not pray, read the Bible for inspiration, refer to God as the cause of things or hope that God might intervene and change my own or someone else's circumstances. (I trust that if there really is a God that God will not be too flummoxed by my foolish experiment and allow others to suffer as a result)."
posted by paleyellowwithorange (130 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite

 
The time I save by not praying and not going to church, I will spend working on my book, A Year Without God.
posted by betweenthebars at 9:34 PM on January 15 [102 favorites]


I will "try on" atheism for a year. For the next 12 months I will live as if there is no God. I will not pray, read the Bible for inspiration, refer to God as the cause of things or hope that God might intervene and change my own or someone else's circumstances.

I think we need to define our terms, then. I don't do any of those things, and I'm far from an atheist. (I'm not a functional atheist, either, whatever that might mean.)
posted by naju at 9:37 PM on January 15 [9 favorites]


the bible is chock-full of instances where its god allowed others to suffer as a result.
posted by bruce at 9:39 PM on January 15 [10 favorites]


I don't want to be unkind, and I hope I'm not, but if by day 15 he's writing posts about how he was already a functional atheist then I suspect this is less about an experiment and more about finding a way he could process something that was already there. Either way I wish him well, and hope that a year of introspection on his faith or lack thereof is valuable to him.
posted by Grimgrin at 9:42 PM on January 15 [12 favorites]


I linked to this person's blog, but a good place to start (and the source of the quote, above) is A Year Without God: A Former Pastor's Journey Into Atheism.
posted by paleyellowwithorange at 9:43 PM on January 15 [2 favorites]


I recall how nervous I was the day I decided I was going to church anymore. I don't know what I was so afraid of like, if there's no God I wasn't going to get struck by lightning - but all the same there was I was terrified.

It took about a year or so before I was fully comfortable with the fact that I wasn't going to church and nothing bad was happening. Well, except for the fact that my grandmother was very upset with me.

But she got over it.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 9:43 PM on January 15 [9 favorites]


I wonder what would happen if I spent a year pretending my wife doesn't exist?
posted by straight at 9:50 PM on January 15 [14 favorites]


This whole thing seems to confuse the concepts of praxis and faith.
posted by yellowcandy at 9:58 PM on January 15 [22 favorites]


You can't "try on" atheism. A religious man not going to church is no different from an atheist who goes to church
posted by Hoopo at 10:03 PM on January 15 [41 favorites]


oh this is such bullshit. the question isn't: "is there a god?". But rather: "what do you say when someone asks you if you're a god?"
posted by IvoShandor at 10:03 PM on January 15 [27 favorites]


Yes?
posted by Chrysostom at 10:05 PM on January 15 [26 favorites]


"what do you say when someone asks you if you're a god?"

there's a song about this.
posted by raihan_ at 10:05 PM on January 15 [2 favorites]


oh this is such bullshit. the question isn't: "is there a god?". But rather: "what do you say when someone asks you if you're a god?"

Answer carefully.
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:08 PM on January 15 [15 favorites]


Is this the same guy that got fired from his religious job right away for doing this? Or is someone else doing basically the same thing?
posted by Mitrovarr at 10:11 PM on January 15


the bible is chock-full of instances where its god allowed others to suffer as a result.

If you are saying that the Bible is full of instances where God caused people to suffer because someone else stopped praying and worshipping, I'm going to have to respectfully disagree.

As for this guy; he's already an atheist, is admitting it to himself and others slowly, and trying to cash in in a trendy way. A little tedious, but there are worse things.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 10:13 PM on January 15 [8 favorites]


I have a relative in Japan who is a born-again Christian. There are not one hell of a lot of Christians in Japan, so I once asked him why he chose Christianity.

He said, "Christ chose me."

Unless you are questioning your faith (maybe you were brought up to believe a certain thing) I don't think you can "experiment" with being an atheist or not.

Either you are or you are not.

I guess you could say this way of thinking is insulting to atheists (I am not an atheist).
posted by KokuRyu at 10:14 PM on January 15 [5 favorites]


So, living without cod? What's the big deal?
posted by doctor_negative at 10:14 PM on January 15 [12 favorites]


at this moment I am not experiencing any major practical changes in my life as a result of leaving God behind. At an emotional level there are some consequences—a sense of loss and aloneness that are not entirely new to me. Also a sense of freedom which I did not exactly anticipate. I will write more about these experiences in the coming days. For now I suspect that these feelings are mostly a consequence of the loss that comes from imagining that God, who was the ground of my being and the horizon of my hope, is perhaps just a projection of our human desires and hopes and not an actual being at all.

There is a deep moment of realization here which I hope can be internalized by the author of this blog.

God is not required to have a sense of justice, kindness, justice... God is not required to believe that mankind is inessence good and wants to see the best for all those who live... God is not required to work toward social equality and acceptance.

People are, at their hearts, people. They favor populism. They want others like them to succeed, and are willing to have those they feel are similar to them succeed. When politics fails, it is when it fails to depict all who live as somehow similar to those appealed to. But we are all similar, all the time, in whatever circumstance.

It is that similarity which should unite us, not the lines of difference. Sadly, those lines are exactly which grow wider these days and lead politics. But any practitioner of faith-based (or non-faith-based) anything should realize... we are all truly exactly the same, and we all deserve the exact same changes, despite our circumstances or nationalities or whatever.

This is greatly lost in today's politics and today's daily life.

That it is lost is a major failing of our daily existence.

That it is not recognized as lost is a major source of negativity in our daily political landscape.
posted by hippybear at 10:19 PM on January 15 [23 favorites]


This is totally just a rip-off of when Stephen Colbert gave up Catholicism for Lent.
posted by XMLicious at 10:21 PM on January 15 [9 favorites]


Strangely I'm heading back to church; as an atheist I've realised the value of religion can exist regardless. Also I haven't actually RTFA.
posted by Samuel Farrow at 10:21 PM on January 15 [5 favorites]


I guess you could say this way of thinking is insulting to atheists

How so? Seems true enough to me: you believe, you don't, or you're not really sure. Those seem to be the options as far as I can tell.
posted by Hoopo at 10:26 PM on January 15


If God believes there is no greater power over Him, does that make Him an atheist? What if God sometimes has self-doubt in His faith, like He begins to wonder if maybe Marduk, Ashur, or Shiva might be real too, if maybe He's not the First Cause, or if maybe He's just in The Matrix, and that's the reason He has us little guys chanting affirmations at Him all the time.

Goddamn, I think I just won theology.
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth at 10:38 PM on January 15 [6 favorites]


Mr. Bell strikes me as just another self-important, self-promoting, self-righteous religious profiteer. He's only remarkable in that he's found a new angle to get his message across. His blog post of Jan. 12, with all the glorious media links, kinda belies the confection that this is a deeply personal spiritual quest, despite his protests to the contrary.
posted by islander at 10:38 PM on January 15 [13 favorites]


Unless you are questioning your faith (maybe you were brought up to believe a certain thing) I don't think you can "experiment" with being an atheist or not.

This is quite true, and it goes both ways. It's not really possible to convince yourself of something that you don't believe, unless subjected to some kind of mind-bending psychological pressure. Could you convince yourself that unicorns are real? I don't know how I'd even go about trying to do that.

I guess you could say this way of thinking is insulting to atheists (I am not an atheist).

I'm an atheist, although not part of any atheist community or otherwise representative of atheists. It doesn't insult me at all. It suggests to me that he doesn't understand the architecture of belief itself, which is probably common for people on both sides of the fence. That just means there's even more opportunity for him to learn something of value from his experiment.
posted by Edgewise at 10:40 PM on January 15 [2 favorites]


Belief doesn't strike me as something you choose to do. Willfully deluding yourself, sure, that's a choice. Choosing to ignore something you believe, sure, choice. A chosen belief just sounds like you've found a pretty lie, and you're going to stick with it.

You can certainly stop believing something. You can most definitely lose or gain faith in something, but belief, that's just something you've got (or not).
posted by Ghidorah at 10:41 PM on January 15 [5 favorites]


This is simply a ploy to sleep in on Sundays.
posted by Brocktoon at 10:42 PM on January 15 [27 favorites]


 we are all truly exactly the same, and we all deserve the exact same changes, despite our circumstances or nationalities or whatever.

I don't think I really believe this, anymore. I don't think all people necessarily want or need the same things, and I don't think everyone wishes each other well, even if the others are like them. I do think that more people are essentially alike than the haters understand. But not quite enough to get the world where it needs to be.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 10:50 PM on January 15 [11 favorites]


oh this is such bullshit. the question isn't: "is there a god?". But rather: "what do you say when someone asks you if you're a god?"
posted by IvoShandor at 10:03 PM on January 15 [3 favorites +] [!]


Yes?
posted by Chrysostom at 10:05 PM on January 15 [5 favorites +] [!]


"No no. No no no. Sorreee."

and in response to "Do you believe in God?"*

I do. I am a god. Anyone who has control over their destiny is god. cue song
posted by porpoise at 10:51 PM on January 15


If your only idea of God is within a book you were taught and no longer believe in, well, then your non-belief is going to be just as shallow as a belief in something you never examined. The whole "man in the sky" thing only holds true for a few believers I know and most just see it as a symbol of something else. Plenty of people believe and don't believe in their own way and we all pretty much get along. I'm sort of torn about this. Its great that someone is expressing their opinions on the whole question, but somehow this just seems like a way to reinforce their own beliefs and not actually look further.
posted by fishmasta at 11:02 PM on January 15 [5 favorites]


If you are saying that the Bible is full of instances where God caused people to suffer because someone else stopped praying and worshipping, I'm going to have to respectfully disagree.

The Old Testament is full of prophets saying that Bad Things Have Happened/ Are Happening/ Will Happen because Israel has eschewed God and married heathen women or still keep worshipping asherah poles or don't give proper respect to prophets or whatever.
posted by sukeban at 11:17 PM on January 15 [6 favorites]


One word: Job.
posted by MikeKD at 11:18 PM on January 15 [3 favorites]


Unless you are questioning your faith (maybe you were brought up to believe a certain thing) I don't think you can "experiment" with being an atheist or not.

It seems like he doesn't plan to be an atheist so much as he plans to live like one. In the same way that any of us could join a monastery, wear a robe, perform the daily office and take care of the garden he intends to live as he imagines that atheists do.

And get a book out of it apparently. Sure, why not?
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 11:19 PM on January 15 [3 favorites]


From reading Karen Armstrong, shit gets weird in the 3 most popular monotheistic religions.

(from my interpretation of the ideas she puts forth) I think the idea that religion is the language in which you ask the unanswerable questions (there's no one to really answer them: "God" doesn't do that) is actually kind of nice.

The corruption of that idea is what is not nice.

Metaphor is not the word to use, but there's a language involved. It's like saying a programming language isn't English and Math, but it is, in the same sense - it's built upon concepts, in an attempt to be interpreted in a completely different way.

I don't quite understand the idea that God does this, or God does that, and God thinks this or God thinks that. God and thinking isn't a thing.
posted by alex_skazat at 11:20 PM on January 15 [14 favorites]


If you are saying that the Bible is full of instances where God caused people to suffer because someone else stopped praying and worshipping, I'm going to have to respectfully disagree.

I Noah what you mean!

yuk yuk yuk yuk yuk.
posted by alex_skazat at 11:23 PM on January 15 [16 favorites]


I Noah what you mean!

I'll bet that he gets that a Lot.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 11:37 PM on January 15 [22 favorites]


It seems like he doesn't plan to be an atheist so much as he plans to live like one.

An atheist doesn't live differently than a non-practising Christian though, and they are not the same thing. The distinction is the belief, not the lifestyle. He is a non-practising Christian until he decides he does not believe in a god.
posted by Hoopo at 11:44 PM on January 15 [2 favorites]


I feel bad for him. I suspect it's a lot easier to lose faith than it is to get it back. I've never been a believer, myself. Tried once, didn't work out. I kind of envy people who can believe in something. Just doesn't work with my nature, I guess.
posted by evil otto at 11:59 PM on January 15 [3 favorites]


I'm an atheist who's spending a year living as a neoplatonist theurgist. can I get a blog to book deal out of it?
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 12:09 AM on January 16 [10 favorites]


For my theological gap year I've chosen Raytheism, which consists of worshipping defense contractors.
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:25 AM on January 16 [12 favorites]


I think I could put together an argument that the worship of defense contractors implicitly involves a particularly grim form of theurgy.

nobody register yearwithiamblichus.com out from under me, okay?
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 12:30 AM on January 16 [2 favorites]


As for this guy; he's already an atheist

Maybe he is some type of atheist, but his experience of atheism has not been and will not be anything like the experience of most atheists. For starters, in the two weeks he's been at it he's thought about God more than twenty typical atheists will all year.
posted by Killick at 12:31 AM on January 16 [9 favorites]


I think I could put together an argument that the worship of defense contractors implicitly involves a particularly grim form of theurgy.

Well, I just think it's a short step from corporate personhood to corporate godhood, and we're pretty much well on our way. One of them is going to be ascendant as our God of War so place your bets now. Bacchanalists, on the other hand, might want to go with Diageo. Like Raytheon it kinda already sounds like the name of a God.
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:37 AM on January 16 [2 favorites]


As a temporary Neoplatonist theurgist, I find your casual, hateful dismissal of magical incantations both misguided and offensive.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 12:57 AM on January 16 [10 favorites]


For starters, in the two weeks he's been at it he's thought about God more than twenty typical atheists will all year.

Atheists probably think about God more than you'd think. Especially if they left a religion to get there, or if they have religious friends and family.
posted by empath at 12:59 AM on January 16 [4 favorites]


The only thing surprising about this is that the comments section hasn't been flooded with spiteful extremists. It's a pleasant surprise.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 1:00 AM on January 16


Okay but seriously, what if the essence of a religion isn't found in the abstract metaphysical statements associated with that religion, but instead in the day-to-day ritual practice? What if going to church or physically getting down on your knees in a particular way with your hands in front of you every night or whatever is what Christianity is actually about? In this case, giving up those rituals for a year is a meaningful renunciation, and maybe a more meaningful renunciation than deciding not to "believe," whatever that means, in a certain set of metaphysical statements about the Trinity and stuff.

The thing is, I strongly, strongly doubt from this stunty blogtobook that this guy is smart enough to think of his religion/lack of religion as practice and ritual and routine rather than as a set of metaphysical statements — in fact, I'm pretty sure he couldn't theologize his way out of a wet paper sack.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 1:05 AM on January 16 [3 favorites]


[One comment deleted. We're not going to repeat the Sky God or Magic Incantations thing here again. Comment on the link if you'd like, but please don't just drop in to make the same old "lulz Xtians!" snarks.]
posted by taz at 1:12 AM on January 16 [3 favorites]


something that I have suspected about myself and other Christians I know—many of us have for a long time been functional atheists

At first I thought this was the nub of it, but on reflection I think it's more accurate to say that such people are not really atheists either: they have no real convictions either way. For them the choice is almost a matter of lifestyle; what works out in a healthy way 'spiritually' or mentally for me?

For others on both sides it's simply a matter of truth or falsity, and the idea of choosing one's beliefs acording to their utility makes no sense.

In some ways I suspect the hidden distinction between these two groups is as important as the difference between theism/atheism.
posted by Segundus at 1:13 AM on January 16 [2 favorites]


I'm not even sure if this counts as apostasy.
posted by jaduncan at 1:15 AM on January 16


One interesting feature of his blog is that, although he has a lot to say about 'Christianity', the words 'Jesus' and 'Christ' hardly feature at all. This may have something to do with his Seventh Day Adventist background, as SDA has always had a problematic relationship to orthodox trinitarianism. But a lot of conservative Protestants, in my experience, do seem to regard the touchstone of their faith as 'believing in God' rather than living in Christ. And when that faith goes, it just vanishes in a puff of logic leaving nothing behind it.

Anyway, I applaud him for doing what Dietrich Bonhoeffer said all honest Christians ought to do: live in the world as if God did not exist:
We cannot be honest unless we recognize that we have to live in the world etsi deus non daretur. And this is just what we do recognize - before God! God himself compels us to recognize it. So our coming of age leads us to a true recognition of our situation before God. God would have us know that we must live as men who manage our lives without him. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us. The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us.
Perhaps it will lead him not to atheism (how boring that would be) but to a more grown-up form of faith.
posted by verstegan at 1:25 AM on January 16 [11 favorites]


Phew, tough crowd.

It's hard becoming an atheist. For starters you have to spend a lot of time shaving your palms, fighting degenerate urges and not breaking the very fabric of society just by being.
posted by MuffinMan at 1:41 AM on January 16


I wonder what would happen if I spent a year pretending my wife doesn't exist?

The pool boy and maid become very happy.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 1:43 AM on January 16 [1 favorite]


Everyone is already atheistic; they just one step backwards.

I'm pretty sure this pastor never believed in Odin or Freyr or Quetzalcoatl: does he feel that his life was less because of that lack of belief? And if he could disregard the thousands of deities of human history without a sense of loss, what's one more God?
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul at 2:00 AM on January 16 [2 favorites]


what's one more God?" the party planner had asked. Oh, how they regretted that now. One more fluffy happy god would have been fine, but no, they had to extend an invitation to an angry god, one who demanded blood sacrifice and burnt offerings.

Some stains just never come out of the office carpet.
posted by Ghidorah at 2:11 AM on January 16 [10 favorites]


"When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men....."

This feels less like an experiment of faith and more like a marketing campaign.
posted by HuronBob at 2:20 AM on January 16 [5 favorites]


if he could disregard the thousands of deities of human history without a sense of loss, what's one more God?

After just skimming TFA, off the top of my head: given that this God was a core part of his upbringing and worldview up to this point, as well as a possibly foundational element in his relations to his family, friends and community, I'd say this "one more" is a hell of a big deal.

I'm an atheist, and as clever as the "atheist about just one more god than you" bit may superficially be, it really does no justice to the profound role religion plays in the lives of religious people. You don't just trivially discard it. In the relatively secular Finland, full of functional atheists, my loss of faith was a rather inconsequential process to everyone but myself, but for a former pastor living in the much more religious USA?

Yeah, I wouldn't be too facetious about it.
posted by jklaiho at 3:16 AM on January 16 [12 favorites]


Kind of feel God might be a bit pissed at him for having the audacity to try such an experiment and then think he can just waltz on back after a year. But then, look at what that bastard did to Job as an "experiment". I hope He can take as good as He gives.
posted by Jimbob at 3:22 AM on January 16 [3 favorites]


From the blogpost on Dec 31 (as linked by paleyellowwithorange above):

"In short, I will do whatever I can to enter the world of atheism and live, for a year, as an atheist. It’s important to make the distinction that I am not an atheist. At least not yet. I am not sure what I am. That’s part of what this year is about."

He knows he's not an atheist.


I find this interesting. He was a pastor/student for over 20 years and has lived and breathed Christianity and its texts. Giving another side a chance in this way is entirely reasonable and internally consistent.

When I stopped believing I did much the same thing; I wasn't a pastor but I was used to being steeped in this stuff and spending a lot of time and thought on it so it made sense to transfer that to writings and thinkers and communities I neglected due to my upbringing/allegiances. Hume and Russell but also sacred texts and commentaries from other traditions. After a few years that mostly petered out.

Also I agree that in my first few years as an atheist I thought a lot/maybe more than I had the year or two before about gods/the concept of gods/religion/theology in a conscious way, as I was working to understand how my life and belief had changed.

I sometimes wish I had a record of my thoughts and reactions to encountering foreign (to me) ideas and concepts so, again, I find this interesting.

(But what I'd really like to have is a record of my thoughts and ideas and questions from my teenage years as I was trying to make sense of God and Christianity).
posted by mountmccabe at 5:18 AM on January 16 [3 favorites]


living without cod? What's the big deal?

No crates to dispose of.
posted by tigrrrlily at 5:18 AM on January 16 [2 favorites]


To me, this seems easy because I haven't believed in a god in over a decade. To a person who predicates their public and self image as a theist, and has done so for quite some time as an adult, the journey is not the same. I hope he learns some things about himself in the process of doing this (insha'Allah).
posted by oceanjesse at 5:31 AM on January 16


I was going to make a quip like "Yeah, and I'll live a year as if ghosts don't exist! I will not look for ghosts, read books about ghosts or watch Ghost Hunters on TV! When I can't find my keys, I will no longer assume it was the work of ghosts..."

But this guy has pretty publicly just lost all sources of income, probably is losing lots of family, friend and professional colleague interactions. He's also alluding to some kind of "spiritual trauma" that happened before the new year. I'm guessing divorce. All in all, this guy is in for a shitty year. If having this blog, new people to interact with, and maybe the hope of a book deal is what he's got going for him, I won't begrudge him.

I generally find blogs about former believers pretty interesting, and I'm more and more thankful my parents didn't raise me with that kind of baggage. It's got to be a burden if you need to spend so much of your time processing and writing about things that happened 10 or 20 years ago.
posted by fontophilic at 5:33 AM on January 16 [8 favorites]


I wonder what would happen if I spent a year pretending my wife doesn't exist?

Half of your assets would cease to exist.
posted by MikeMc at 5:43 AM on January 16


So, living without cod? What's the big deal?

A serious deficit of Omega 3 fatty acids?
posted by MikeMc at 5:45 AM on January 16 [1 favorite]


Strangely I'm heading back to church; as an atheist I've realised the value of religion can exist regardless. Also I haven't actually RTFA.

I've been flirting with the idea off and on as well. I'm pretty firmly convinced that religion is purely about performatives and it's the act of participating in religion that makes people believe in it (anyone want to guess what I read as a teenager?), so this idea of consciously taking up religion again is not ludicrous. But then it seems deeply rude to wander in and borrow other people's religious belief for a while to see if it works for me. Catholicism and I have been at a stand-off for nearly 15 years at this point, so while it's the one place I can wander back into and not feel icky about doing so, I don't really want to go there either.*

*New pope or no (though he's been on about abortion lately, as he pissed off too many conservative forces within the Church), the Archdiocese of St Paul is seriously bad news, so any reconciliation with Catholicism would definitely have to wait until I'm out of here.
posted by hoyland at 5:54 AM on January 16 [1 favorite]


This thread is making me appreciate how different MetaFilter is from r/atheism in terms of general style. I mean, of course it would be, but I'm glad I'm reading this thread here & not there.
posted by Going To Maine at 5:56 AM on January 16 [2 favorites]


I Noah what you mean!

I'll bet that he gets that a Lot.


Hey, you two need to get a Job.
posted by Strange Interlude at 6:15 AM on January 16 [6 favorites]


I wasn't raised an atheist, but where we went to church (at Christmas and Easter) was determined more by who had the best music (and pleasing architecture) than by theology. I understand community, and the value people place on it, but I don't understand, at a very fundamental level, what it means to have faith in God. To believe in God. Any praying I've ever done has felt like self-talk or talking to the universe at large, and not to any one being. The one time I really felt profoundly Alone in the Universe was after my mom died, and my dad had died some months before, and with them gone there was no one left who had known me from my earliest minutes of life.

I like ritual, and I like community. I get both of those in a lot of other ways. I suspect that he will discover something similar, if he hasn't already.
posted by rtha at 6:17 AM on January 16 [2 favorites]


...enter the world of atheism...

Where would this be? A lab? Does he get a GPS mapping app that finds a route that does not go past any church/synagogue/mosque/temple? Only read science books? Lock out the Catholic show at 7am on sundays on his cable box? Refuse to kill and torture members of an opposing sect to get them to convert?

But he says the first two weeks were not very different, surprise.

but I rarely read the Bible devotionally and for my own inspiration, in part because so much of it isn’t inspiring at all.

Sounds more like he's trying to do a ten years in the wilderness gig to wrestle with the devil to try to find some kinds of meaning in life. Or get a book deal.
posted by sammyo at 6:18 AM on January 16


Having skimmed his blog (all two weeks of it), it strikes me that the ship probably already sailed on his belief in god and he's in denial, which makes for kind of uncomfortable reading because I was to shout "Dude, get over it! It's okay!" But he seems like a reasonably thoughtful bloke, whose blog I might want to read otherwise.
posted by hoyland at 6:21 AM on January 16


Well, I just think it's a short step from corporate personhood to corporate godhood, and we're pretty much well on our way.

I thought Google was already God?
posted by Foosnark at 6:23 AM on January 16


The Lord's Prayer of Raytheism:

Our Father who art in Waltham,
Hallowed be thy name.
thy contract come.
thy campaign contributions be done,
on targets earthbound or in the heavens.
Give us this day our daily PAVE PAWS,
Forgive us our AN/TPQ-53 Quick Reaction Capability Radar,
as we destroy those who trespass against us,
Guide our GBU-53/B (Small Diameter Bomb II),
but deliver our Paveway IV Precision Guided Munition.

For thine is the AN/MPQ-64 Sentinel,
and the Phalanx Close-In Weapons System,
And RIM-116 Rolling Airframe Missile,
For ever and ever,
Amen
posted by bzbb at 6:29 AM on January 16 [16 favorites]


A person who believes in God can't pretend not to. A person who doesn't can't pretend to. Belief is a statement of fact, not a choice. That's why, as an atheist, it baffles me when I encounter Pascal's Wager. Regardless of what the "best outcome" may be, I can't pretend I believe in God, and I wouldn't want to have much truck with a God who can be fooled in such a way.
posted by Legomancer at 6:29 AM on January 16 [1 favorite]


God bless Robbie Fulks.
posted by wmoskowi at 6:32 AM on January 16 [1 favorite]


....A person who doesn't can't pretend to.

Of course we can. It has been and is a very important key to survival.
posted by Renoroc at 6:38 AM on January 16 [5 favorites]


I canaanite believe sodom few puns have been offered.
posted by five fresh fish at 6:54 AM on January 16 [9 favorites]


I will "try on" atheism for a year.

I tried on atheism but it makes my ass look fat.
posted by octobersurprise at 6:56 AM on January 16 [2 favorites]


A person who believes in God can't pretend not to. A person who doesn't can't pretend to. Belief is a statement of fact, not a choice.

The Greek word in the New Testament (pisteuo) can be translated as "believe," "trust," or "have faith." I can't arbitrarily choose whether to believe that you exist, but I can sometimes choose whether or not to trust you (depending on how overwhelming the evidence seems of your trustworthiness or lack thereof).
posted by straight at 7:07 AM on January 16


I'm pretty firmly convinced that religion is purely about performatives and it's the act of participating in religion that makes people believe in it...

I would say there's an aspect of that for sure, but not "purely." It's storytime!

I was a Christian kid by default. I had a "hooray, I'm saved!" moment at about age 12, and not long after, started seriously questioning the things people claimed about God -- and decided I didn't actually like much of Christianity. I decided that any deity who makes us little humans imperfect, and then punishes us for being imperfect unless we bend the knee to him, was basically an evil, petty tyrant as far as I could figure. Why would people worship that? I discarded original sin, the idea of sin itself, and hell. And without that there was nothing to be saved from, and no point to the Jesus myth except for the radical politics and compassion for the poor and unfortunate and undesirable that he was trying to teach, which is the first thing most American Christians seem to discard.

But I still felt like there was some kind of deity, or more than one, and that the popular view of it was twisted and wrong. That deity might be plural, might be abstract, might an idea rather than a thing, but that didn't remove its importance to me. (Example 1 of stopping the performative aspects yet maintaining some kind of belief, though not the same belief.)

I bet I'd have made a fine Gnostic, but I didn't really know about them at the time and I went through various kinds of paganism and New Age stuff without really finding anything satisfying for years.

And then I came across Kemetic Orthodoxy, and it was a better match than anything else I had looked into. I was in it for over 15 years, went into priesthood, spent 30-60 minutes in ritual more days than not, and had all kinds of deeply intense and personal experiences with deities that left their imprint on me.

But eventually I felt like I wasn't growing in it anymore. I was mostly caught up in administrivia and peoples' drama, and eventually the drama got cranked up to 11. Shortly after, there was a turning point in the temple that I chose to take as a personal turning point as well, and left to do my own thing.

While I can't say that leaving it means I don't believe anymore, there is a lot that is just not relevant to me. I simply feel like that was a part of my life and this is a different part of my life. The ritual and some of the beliefs of the religion are unimportant to me now, but I return to that feeling like there is something special beyond the physical, something outside the realm of science and reason, best approached and appreciated through arts and art-like living. So that's example 2.

I'm a little adrift, believing in deity of some kind but can't even settle for myself how best to symbolically represent and approach it/them/us/whatever. Sometimes I think this is a good thing, other times I miss the ritual. I can pick arbitrary symbols and make my own myths, yet somehow that's not as satisfying and convincing as using old ones that thousands of other humans have already used successfully. (I suck as a chaos magician.) I miss the better aspects of the community, and wish there was a way to have that without the ugly side too. But people are what they are.
posted by Foosnark at 7:13 AM on January 16 [4 favorites]


CNN has a roundup of quotes from atheists reacting to Bell's experiment, though in fine (i.e. terrible) CNN fashion the article's framed to play up the conflict narrative.

His initiating question, "What difference does God make?" isn't one that is meaningful to myself as an atheist. I'm much more interested in questions like, "since there are both believers and nonbelievers in society and will be for the foreseeable future, how can we act toward each other to respect human rights?" So while I'm not terribly interested in the personal outcome of his story, I will be interested to hear his comments on social ramifications as he does in this post:
Those who “come out” as atheist face serious consequences in our society. They are among the marginalized groups that get the least attention. I know this now from personal experience. Many people who have commented here or sent me private messages have told me heartbreaking stories of the suffering and estragement they have endured. Others have said they are still closeted because their family, friends and employers could not bear the news.
posted by audi alteram partem at 7:16 AM on January 16


And practices and habits shape our beliefs. Acting as if you believe something definitely can result in actually believing it.

There was a bishop whose parishioner said there were parts of the Nicene Creed he didn't feel comfortable saying. The bishop said, "Just keep saying it. You'll get it."

He didn't mean "be a hypocrite." The Nicene Creed says, "We believe..." it's a statement about what the beliefs of the Church, not the opinions of the individual members. The bishop was saying, "Keep worshiping with us and you may come to understand why we believe those things."
posted by straight at 7:19 AM on January 16 [1 favorite]


....A person who doesn't can't pretend to.

Of course we can. It has been and is a very important key to survival.


And at least there's nobody but ourselves (and potentially society at large, by allowing others to think we're religious) that we're failing by doing so.

Last week, I publicly swore by "the ever-living God," because I'd have had to interrupt a lot of people whose reactions I was uncertain of to ask, "uh, actually, can I just do an affirmation instead?" Survival's not really an issue there, but it could have been very unpleasant, and I just didn't feel up to it.

At least I'm only ashamed of myself and don't believe that there's a god who's ashamed of me, too.
posted by asperity at 8:22 AM on January 16 [4 favorites]


I don't think you can "experiment" with being an atheist or not.

You don't think there's such a thing as a thought experiment? What is "belief" if it does not involve thinking?

It seems to me that many people who have become athiests or changed from one religious denomination to another or moved in the opposite direction all got there through just such a path: asking themselves "what if XYZ was true/not true: how would this change my behavior or ethics or convictions?" I think this looks like a (very public) thought experiment, and also an attempt to explore resources and communities that many contemporary Christians will never even take a look at.

In these conversations, I often reflect that many disagreements revolve around the world "belief" and also the participants' understandings of what role "belief," as they conceive it, plays in a religious practice. I think those are worth looking into. Not everyone imagines a "belief" as the same thing having the same moral or intellectual weight. And not everyone finds that a narrow definition of "belief," like something on the order "truth-claim which I am convinced is factually true" is of central importance to their religious practice.
posted by Miko at 9:10 AM on January 16 [2 favorites]


You'll never live like godless people
You'll never do what ever godless people do
You'll never think like godless people
and do these other things yknow the stuff they do
to pass the time being godless
and read some Nietzsche. Totes Hardcore.
posted by vicx at 9:10 AM on January 16 [8 favorites]


>It seems like he doesn't plan to be an atheist so much as he plans to live like one.

An atheist doesn't live differently than a non-practising Christian though


Perhaps he'll discover that. Or perhaps after walking around for a year thinking What Would Athiests Do he'll reach a different conclusion.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:11 AM on January 16


I don't think you can "experiment" with being an atheist or not.

You don't think there's such a thing as a thought experiment? What is "belief" if it does not involve thinking?


Beliefs are way more pernicious than thought though. I have a friend who was raised (non-practicing) Christian, and is now an atheist. I was raised a practicing Christian and am still one. Through many, many philosophical and intellectual discussions with him, I have realized:

- that he believes that this world is at its core fair and just
- that if you work hard enough you will succeed
- that things work out for the best
- that there is some cosmic balance in the universe
- that the idea that there is no judgement after death is very sad
- that he is terrified to die because he doesn't want to stop existing.

NONE of these are things that I believe, and yet that collection of worldviews is ripped STRAIGHT out of the Bible. Me personally, I know that the world is not fair, that bad things happen to good people, that no One is going to swoop in and correct a bad situation, and that if I'm wrong and we stop existing after death, oh well. I won't be around to know about it.

He's been an atheist for his entire adult life and I still go to church and read the Bible.
posted by chainsofreedom at 9:29 AM on January 16 [2 favorites]


You'll never live like godless people
You'll never do what ever godless people do


The "Common People" reference is interesting because one of the atheist critiques of Bell and some of his atheist supporters is how he plays into a kind of "secular tourism" wherein atheists welcome and support white believers-in-transition but don't support or pay as much attention to needs among nonbelievers of color. Sikivu Hutchinson writes about this on the Black Skeptics blog.

Unlike the working class tourist in the song, I do think Bell might come out of this experience with new perspectives (whether or not he still believes), but Hutchinson raises an important point and one that gets lost in the media coverage: there isn't an atheism that Bell can try on. Rather, atheist is just one element in a person's identity, and the experience one person has as an atheist can differ considerably from another.
posted by audi alteram partem at 9:36 AM on January 16


Empath: Atheists probably think about God more than you'd think. Especially if they left a religion to get there, or if they have religious friends and family.

I read that and thought no way. I'm an atheist and I don't think about god much at all. Organized religion and how much I loathe it, maybe. (Why yes, former Catholic here; how did you guess?)

But as I found myself engrossed in the blog and its many thoughtful comments and links, well, perhaps I do think about god a lot after all. There are so few places I feel comfortable that I won't be subtly outsider-ed for expressing my atheism. But not here, and not on that blog.

Food for thought, as I bookmark this thread for future reference.
posted by Measured Out my Life in Coffeespoons at 9:37 AM on January 16 [1 favorite]


Beliefs are way more pernicious than thought though

I experience beliefs to be thoughts.

hat collection of worldviews is ripped STRAIGHT out of the Bible

I think there are other world thought systems that also traffic in those beliefs. He may have built his worldviews on understandings he drew from his training with the Bible, but the Bible isn't necessary for their existence. Just because he has not rejected some premises, and you have, doesn't mean there is not a thinking engagement with worldview that he has been doing.
posted by Miko at 9:44 AM on January 16


A being goes to heaven. After admission, the first thing they see is god crying buckets of tears on a cloud. They ask god what's the matter and god says "I've fallen in love with an atheist but he doesn't even know I exist."
posted by Xurando at 10:23 AM on January 16 [4 favorites]


Alternatively, he is living as if God is not a micro-manager
posted by thelonius at 10:38 AM on January 16 [2 favorites]


"I will not pray, read the Bible for inspiration, refer to God as the cause of things or hope that God might intervene and change my own or someone else's circumstances."

Millions of people praying, hoping, ascribing cause provides no insight at all about whether or not there's a god. Nor does millions of people not doing these things.

Have fun.
posted by LonnieK at 11:06 AM on January 16


Millions of people praying, hoping, ascribing cause provides no insight at all

It doesn't seem like he's doing it to get insight into God (because that would be a weird reason to live as an atheist) but to understand how someone who doesn't make an internal reference to God would handle events such as a deeply held wish for something to happen, a terribly fearful event, a desire to connect with something more meaningful than oneself, etc.
posted by Miko at 11:16 AM on January 16 [1 favorite]


Also I wish him luck when he tries to run for public office, even at a local level.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 11:30 AM on January 16 [2 favorites]


...if I'm wrong and we stop existing after death, oh well. I won't be around to know about it.

He's been an atheist for his entire adult life and I still go to church and read the Bible.
posted by chainsofreedom


Epony-taining, at least. (I don't mean to be snarky - there's an interesting point in there.)

This is another one of those discussions where we should take up a collection and buy the object a Metafilter membership. I'd really like to hear Ryan Bell's thoughts on some of these questions. (And I'm too lazy to read his blog...)
posted by sneebler at 11:38 AM on January 16 [1 favorite]


Yeah, as others have said, you can't choose to believe or not believe. You either do or you don't. This is the main reason Pascal's wager is such bullshit.
posted by Decani at 11:50 AM on January 16


Hmm, well this is pretty close to how I "escaped" my very religious upbringing -- non-denominational "born-again Christian", but Southern Baptist for all intents/purposes. I kinda said to myself, "I'm pretty sure this God stuff is all bullshit; lemme just go with that premise for a few weeks and see how that works or whether I get cancer suddenly." ... and with just that much emotional distance, it started falling into place how silly the belief system is, how dumb the stories were, how ridiculous it is for an omnipotent entity to become angry or sad, how it dampens a person's life when they live for the afterlife... (But I won't lie: I was scared shitless for the first couple days!) So yeah, I kinda chose not to believe, but now that I "get it", it would be very difficult for me to choose to believe again.

It's one of those can't see the forrest for the trees kinda things -- you can't see how crazy the whole setup is until you step outside of it for a time. For reference, I used to go to church every Sunday, Mom read the Bible every night, we prayed at meals, memorized Bible verses, etc... now I'm genuinely creeped out by a room full of adults closing their eyes and "talking" to their collective invisible friend. This is not LOLXTIANs, because that used to be me. I genuinely fear for their mental health; this is a form of schizophrenia and group mind control. And my entire family is still in its grips.

But they're probably happier that way.
posted by NiceKitty at 12:29 PM on January 16


I can remember my first true moment of critical thinking about the religion I was born and raised in. I *believe* we were in elementary school, but I cannot be certain, it could have been middle school.

I was taken (against my will) as a child to Church every Sunday and Wednesday (Southern Baptist for whats it's worth).

One weekend I got the idea to convince my parents to let my best friend come with me. I figured I would be less bored with a compatriot along. After not very much cajoling I succeeded with my plan (it helped that we spent every weekend at each others house anyway)

The youth sermon for that day involved Baptism and that you have to let Jesus into your heart to be saved, or you go to hell (lovely Youth service no?) Now my friend came from a much less strict branch of Christianity (Methodist I think) and was also not taken regularly to church (much to my childhood jealousy) so he had probably not even heard that baptism was a thing. I can VIVIDLY recall the look of fear as we were leaving and he asked the pastor if he was going to hell because he hadn't (by their definition) been saved.

This family was (and still is) one of the most loving and kind as I've ever seen. If there is a heaven(and I'm no longer Christian) this family would be going first class. So to see such a kind hearted individual truly fear for their "eternal soul" all because they hadn't let some random adult attempt to drown them for a few seconds shook the foundations of my faith.

I could not reconcile an awesome and loving God with the kind that condemns someone to ALL THE SUFFERING all because they missed this very specific part of the ritual. It just seemed so extreme.

That would be the first of many revelations about things I took for granted, but I can specifically pin point it as the first. (and I typically have very bad memory)

How this relates to the FFP I don't know, but I've never really told that story before and it just felt right.
posted by Twain Device at 1:12 PM on January 16


Yeah, as others have said, you can't choose to believe or not believe.

There was a specific point in time where I thought "there's no reason to believe in God, so I'm not going to any more" and bam! I was an atheist. I've had people tell me that I wasn't really a believer before that, and I was just admitting it to myself, or what have you, but quite frankly telling me what I did or didn't believe is just plain insulting. I know my own thoughts, and I think we should trust this blogger to know his.

I used to think that religious belief wasn't a matter choice, and it's pretty well built into our culture and the way we talk about this kind of idea. The thing is, I'm pretty sure that you only need to accept that if you assign a greater importance to spiritual beliefs than other kinds. When my kids disagree about who said what, I make a decision on who I believe. I do the same thing when listening to people making any number of claims. I've started off skeptical on advice, but after researching it, choose to change my mind. I'm pretty sure I'm not alone on this. So if I can make that choice for those things, what's to say I can't for religious decisions? Well, unless you put religion as something apart from the rest of human existence, nothing.

Which isn't to say that decision was an easy thing for me to process and work my way through. Just that it was a decision. I'm sure people tie themselves in all sorts of unnecessary knots to convince themselves they need to keep believing, and this experiment may be Ryan Bell's way of giving himself permission to stop that (or admit to others that he stopped) and start working his way through that decision. If it is, I truly hope he comes to terms and finds happiness with whatever his choice may be.
posted by Gygesringtone at 1:15 PM on January 16 [3 favorites]


I was never a world-class pray-er. I was never successful at having an hour long “quiet time” as I was taught to do. I did read my Bible and pray, sporadically, but I was never a consistent pray-er. For years I have struggled to understand the purpose of prayer. I am not ignorant of the various explanations of prayer’s purpose. It’s just that none of them ever made much sense to me.

As a pastor I read and studied my Bible as a professional commitment, to prepare sermons and Bible studies, but I rarely read the Bible devotionally and for my own inspiration, in part because so much of it isn’t inspiring at all. I haven’t attended a church consistently since March so not much changed in that department in the past month either. In short, my life has more or less continued as it has in the recent past. This is revealing for a couple of reasons.

First, it demonstrates something that I have suspected about myself and other Christians I know—many of us have for a long time been functional atheists. We may confess an intellectual assent to belief in a divine being and have a well thought out theology but very few of us live as though this God exists and is an active agent in the world.


Sounds to me more like "I decided to spend a year being honest" or perhaps "I decided to take a year long transition period to convert my practical atheism into my public persona". And hopefully get a book deal out of it. Might have been more interesting if he'd tried living for a year as if he actually believed God existed.

Secondly, it demonstrates, at least to me, that the difference God makes is to a great degree, a kind of life insurance policy…a modern day form of Pascal’s wager in which believers hedge their bets against the possibility that there is a God who may send them to hell if they don’t believe.

How dismal. I would want to eject this sort of belief system post haste myself.
posted by nanojath at 1:29 PM on January 16


Yeah, as others have said, you can't choose to believe or not believe.

Maybe you can't.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 2:28 PM on January 16 [2 favorites]


Strangely I'm heading back to church; as an atheist I've realised the value of religion can exist regardless.

I occasionally, despite being very very very much an atheist, find myself visiting the (very ecumenical Anglican, inclusive, first Anglican group in Canada to march in a Pride parade) church of my childhood for the community aspect of it all.

I've had this weird idea for a while of a 'humanist religion' that doesn't appeal to outside authority, while providing the same kind of community and moral framework that traditional God(s)(ess) based religions have.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 5:24 PM on January 16


Yeah, as others have said, you can't choose to believe or not believe.

Maybe you can't.
posted by DevilsAdvocate


eponysomething
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 5:30 PM on January 16 [2 favorites]


For years I have struggled to understand the purpose of prayer. I am not ignorant of the various explanations of prayer’s purpose. It’s just that none of them ever made much sense to me.

My inability to pray is one of the major reasons I'm pretty much an atheist now. (I say pretty much because I don't feel particularly strongly about it, and still have an interest in the construct of gods.) I've tried the kind of praying where you entreat god or seek an answer. It mostly felt like calling out into the void, and I didn't feel listened to or particularly unburdened. I've tried salat (the official, 5 times a day Muslim prayer), and find it soothing and meditative in the way any repetitive ritual is, but I don't feel like I'm, y'know, praying.

The closest I get, the thing that gives me comfort and makes me feel connected to something bigger, is appreciation of the natural world and universe. Looking up at the night sky, admiring a garden, looking at photos Hubble has taken, etc. When I realized this, I thought, "well, shit, what's the point of believing in god then? You like the universe just fine as it is, find wonder and beauty and joy and love in it even without recourse to a specific god, so why not just--not believe?"

This was easy enough for me to do, given that I wasn't deeply involved in a religious community. I have some sympathy for this guy, because trying atheism on for him isn't a matter of an easy slide from lukewarm belief to lukewarm nonbelief. It's a whole community and set of rituals and lifestyle that he has to let go or reconfigure.
posted by yasaman at 6:01 PM on January 16


My inability to pray is one of the major reasons I'm pretty much an atheist now

pTerry once said that prayer is hope with a beat.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 6:34 PM on January 16


For years I have struggled to understand the purpose of prayer. I am not ignorant of the various explanations of prayer’s purpose. It’s just that none of them ever made much sense to me.

I've prayed exactly twice in my life, both times spontaneously while communing with nature. Both times were me expressing a heartfelt sense of gratitude and both times I had no sense that I was praying to any particular something, just that a prayer of gratitude was appropriate.

I'm hoping to experience more moments like that in my life but I'm pretty sure that organized religion won't lead me to them.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 6:37 PM on January 16


My definition of "hope with a beat" is a good night out dancing.
posted by hippybear at 6:37 PM on January 16 [1 favorite]


My definition of "hope with a beat" is a good night out dancing.

I wish my abused body and social anxiety could still do that,
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 6:40 PM on January 16


You can't choose to believe or not to believe

I have seen a few people toss this out there, but I believe it is a hugely problematic statement epistemologically. First of all, most Western religions rest on the idea of a choice (Gethsemane, accepting a Savior, renouncing evil). But even beyond that,it seems a hugely unsupported statement about what belief is. Can you have any beliefs if you are intellectually inert? I'd say no. If unconscious, you have no beliefs. Therefore, belief requires a self-aware mind to do the believing. If the mind is self-aware, the mind can then create the beliefs, examine the beliefs, accept or reject the beliefs. The mind can exist in some orientation to the beliefs; the beliefs are a thing the mind is doing. I understand that beliefs can be experiences as more or less consciously held; but it seems radically extreme to me that one cannot choose to be in control of one's beliefs; and that refusing to control one's belief is in itself an act of will.

If this were not true, we would all believe exactly as we were taught, word for word, whatever we were taught as soon as we were able to comprehend language. There would be no further moral thought. There would be no further learning. There would be no questioning, no exploration, in fact no epiphanies. We would be automata.
posted by Miko at 8:32 PM on January 16 [4 favorites]


*experienced as, not experiences as
posted by Miko at 8:39 PM on January 16


This thread is fascinating! I feel like I have swung back and forth between "no, you can't change a belief" to "yes, everything is mutable" and back again. I guess I'm somewhere in the middle now. But this gets right to the heart of the idea - that practice reinforces belief. So interesting!

I've tried the kind of praying where you entreat god or seek an answer. It mostly felt like calling out into the void, and I didn't feel listened to or particularly unburdened.

I had that problem too until I started praying IN rather than UP. For some reason that works better for me.
posted by chainsofreedom at 5:24 AM on January 17


In this thread most of the discussion of choosing belief or unbelief (which is different) is a derail from folks who did not read/believe the linked blog entries. He's not choosing to be an atheist, he's choosing to act as one, practically and explore what it means to live and think from that standpoint.

Though this is using my understanding of belief, as more of a subconscious/gut feeling than an intellectual assent.

There have been plenty of times where I have been presented with reasonable evidence for a new explanation/idea but it has taken time to sink in, for me to actually accept the repercussions. "That doesn't sound right" or "Give me time to think".

Vader: No, I am your father.
Skywalker: [shocked] No. No! That's not true! That's impossible!
Vader: Search your feelings; you know it to be true!
Skywalker: NOOOOOOO! NOOOOOOOO!!!


Later, of course, Skywalker accepts this. It takes time and wrestling. He has to take a metaphorical Year With Vader As My Father to come to terms with it.

I cannot choose to believe in a thing any more than I can choose to love someone. But I can choose how/if I act on those beliefs; I am no automaton. I can reason with myself but the choice is on a subconscious level.

And that's what I see what this ex-pastor is doing, trying new beliefs out, working through them, exploring the external trappings. He is reasoning with his gut objections.
posted by mountmccabe at 5:27 AM on January 17 [2 favorites]


When I've encountered the "can't choose belief" argument in atheist discourse communities, it doesn't mean that people can't choose to critically examine their beliefs and thought processes and expose themselves to ideas that conflict with what they believe. Rather, it is used to convey the argument that people can't flip a switch, as it were, to arbitrarily change their worldview to one at odds with what they currently believe. A worldview develops over time, influenced by self-motivated thinking and outside influences and it takes time to change. I can initiate and/or be influenced to initiate a process of self-reflection but I can't pre-select the positions I will believe at the end of that process.
posted by audi alteram partem at 7:30 AM on January 17 [4 favorites]


In this thread most of the discussion of choosing belief or unbelief (which is different) is a derail from folks who did not read/believe the linked blog entries.

I did read many of the blog entries. Now I'm participating in a conversation about his premise. I don't see that as a derail.

Rather, it is used to convey the argument that people can't flip a switch, as it were, to arbitrarily change their worldview to one at odds with what they currently believe.

I've been thinking a lot about the arguments for what has been called doxastic involuntarism (the idea that you can't choose your beliefs). There is a tremendous amount to say about it and certainly no ultimate agreement in this area (so, I guess you choose what you want to believe about it? *ducks*). For me, I reject the argument because I can't see how it doesn't render all moral thought meaningless. If we can't choose what we believe, our behaviors are in response to physical sensations and preconscious processes. We would be unable to do anything about our behaviors because we would first have to make the choice between behaving as if XYZ principle was important, and behaving in response to unconscious processes. I believe unconscious processes, the emotions, biases, what we call the "gut" are certainly vitally important in decisionmaking and belief formation. I don't believe, though, that we can't challenge, change, and redirect our own beliefs using conscious processes; not for a minute. If it weren't possible to do that, not only would no one ever change their religious status, practice, or denomination, no one would benefit from CBT, no one would shift on a political issue such as abortion or eminent domain, a lot of grown people would believe in unmodified versions of Santa and the Tooth Fairy, etc.

I don't think the process of choosing or changing beliefs is necessarily easy (though, depending on the belief, sometimes it is). We sometimes undertake the process of change through a conscious, intentional direction of our own behavior. For example, "I took up running because I have a lot of anxiety since I quit smoking. I hate running but a friend told me it's great for reducing anxiety, so I tried it. I thought it was pretty much health-nut BS, but I was desperate. The first few weeks were miserable. During the first year, though, I started to enjoy it and ran my first race ever. Now, running is such a part of my life I can't believe I ever made it through a week without it. I believe that my running practice keeps my anxiety under control and is thus responsible for keeping me off cigarettes for 10 years."

That - or maybe a yoga, meditation, diet, gratitude, creative/artistic kind of practice - is an example of a belief tentatively accepted, tried, and practiced and examined for its results. It can be continued or discontinued based on the experience of the person choosing that path of behavior. Moving along that path without discontinuing can further convince the person of the value and utility of a belief like "running reduces my anxiety." The more evidence mounts, the more convinced that person may become. But they chose to embark upon that path, and that path led to a changed belief.

I think audi alteram partem is right that we can't always know what our end point will be. We surprise ourselves often enough, even when a certain belief feels sure and deeply held ("I thought I would love pottery, but it turned out I don't have the patience....I believed God would never give me more than I can handle, but then I had a nervous breakdown and lost my faith...I used to think that nature was more important than nurture, but my work with childhood trauma victims changed my perspective"). But that is why framing this as an experiment, as practice, is a sensible way to go about it. This person can't convince himself overnight that there is no deity. But, by changing his behaviors to more closely match those of people who live as though that belief is true, he may encounter information or experience that causes him to continue in that practice and gradually become more convinced of its truth. Or untruth.

This is where I find language to be a big problem when I talk with people about my own orientation to religion. "But how can you believe...?!" I don't. I don't traffic much in belief. All my beliefs are tentative (even those about the nature of reality and my own experience; as I suspect all beliefs really are underneath - some more strongly rooted than others, but most unseatable when presented with certain kinds of experience). Religion, to me, is about practice.
posted by Miko at 8:00 AM on January 17 [1 favorite]


the arguments for what has been called doxastic involuntarism (the idea that you can't choose your beliefs). There is a tremendous amount to say about it and certainly no ultimate agreement in this area (so, I guess you choose what you want to believe about it? *ducks*)

Yes, I think there is disagreement on some fundamental assumptions here, so we may just end up disagreeing.

To reiterate, though, when I have used "can't choose" and often when I see other atheists use it, it doesn't for us "render all moral thought meaningless." The viewpoint I outlined above agrees your claim: "I don't believe, though, that we can't challenge, change, and redirect our own beliefs using conscious processes." When I said a worldview is influenced in part by "self-motivated thinking" that would include challenging and changing through conscious thought.

But that conscious thought has limits set by other influences. I don't believe as I do through conscious choice alone. My choices are influenced by my family, my culture and my experiences, and this is what I mean when I say we can't simply choose to believe otherwise. I can see how we can choose to set down a path that opens us to new experiences, and those experiences might change our minds, but our experiences may change our minds in ways contrary to what we may have wanted.

The operation of influence on our choices is why I resist saying we can choose our beliefs, but I would certainly agree with the idea that we can choose to critically analyze our beliefs with the possible outcome of changing them.
posted by audi alteram partem at 11:07 AM on January 17 [2 favorites]


I think conscious thought is, pretty much, an emergent property of other processes, but in fact can influence those other processes. So though it "has limits," so do other kinds of thought. I also feel sure that conscious thought can counter the weight of most influences. I resist saying that we can't simply choose to believe something; in my experience, I can do this. I have also known other people who sometimes took on an irrational or even knowingly ridiculous and counter-reality belief as a choice meant to assist with something like addiction recovery, for example.

We are influenced by family, culture, etc., but we are not the sum of those influences, if we were, no culture, for instance, would ever change. No one would ever be able to learn a new language. And so on. Both points of view fail at the extremes, and so I suspect that the interaction between the conscious mind and unconscious processes is what produces ideas we call "beliefs," and that therefore beliefs can be, and are, influenced by both things.
posted by Miko at 1:12 PM on January 17


But that conscious thought has limits set by other influences. I don't believe as I do through conscious choice alone.

Speaking as someone who takes umbrage at the phrase "you can't choose to believe or not," I agree 100% with this, and I do think that it's important to remember that. Not just for religion, but all sorts of things. I'm still, almost 10 years after becoming an atheist, with another several of being only vaguely Christian, have occasional moments where I stop and realize I only believe that because of growing up in a Evangelical church. I agree that someone can't choose to change their World View in one go, because I don't know anyone who knows the entirety of their World View.

I think the root of our disagreement is that I'm thinking of beliefs as granular things, and your World View as an aggregate, because that's how I experienced them. I mean, at one point I believed the sun really had stopped in the sky for a battle, but that the creation story was a metaphor, because I had examined one belief and not the other. When I say people can choose to believe or not, I'm talking about those singular units, and I'm using choose as short hand for "take a course of action based on current conditions, beliefs, reflexes, ingrained behavior patterns, and other stuff that is lurking beneath the surface of conscious thought." I think in the long run, this guy examining his beliefs and seeing how they change if changes another belief is as valid of a process for doing that as my "wait, I don't believe that thing that led me to this conclusion anymore, is that conclusion still valid?"

Look at this bit from yesterday's blog post, "Still, in my case, stepping across a line and viewing the world from another perspective (inasmuch as this is possible, and I freely admit that it is no more possible than perfectly assimilating into another culture) involves forgoing the Christian practices and frames of mind that gave shape to my life as a theist and a Christian." He's consciously trying to act in a way that he would if he believed something different. To do that, he's going to examine his thoughts and actions to see where their roots lie. I can't help but see that as functionally identical as my haphazard fumbling about with the implications of individual changes in my beliefs.

Which leads me to another big problem (my primary one is that the phrase boils down to "I know what you think better than you do") I have with the phrase "you can't choose to believe or not to believe." As I've always heard it applied (and I don't have much experience in atheist communities), it's always been a denial of how we all live and experience our lives. In this context, Ryan Bell can't think through and act based on the consequences of a belief as a thought experiment, instead he reaches these conclusions based on X, Y, and Z variables plugged into the equation for atheist attitudes. I mean, let's say we all agree that our consciousness is less in charge of our behavior than other factors. I experience my life as if "I" an in charge of what I do, rather than my actions being a result of interactions of countless variables to complex and unique to ever predict the results. To me, that's the way it makes sense to talk about those experiences.

Completely shifting gears, Bell's blog post today of how he's entering into an already long running conversation convinced me of his sincerity. It's incredibly humble and self aware. I mean, so many people think that areas of human behavior began when they discover them, it's really refreshing to read someone who knows how little they know. Especially when they admit it.
posted by Gygesringtone at 1:39 PM on January 17 [2 favorites]


influenced by both things.

Agreed.

but we are not the sum of those influences, if we were, no culture, for instance, would ever change.

This too seems to be an area where we agree. The flip side of your example is that while cultures change they are also stable and persist through time. They influence the people born in them to believe certain ways, and people can choose to challenge those beliefs but their challenges are not without limit.

I also feel sure that conscious thought can counter the weight of most influences.

And I suspect that the weight of cultural influence can, sadly, crush even those motivated to change, though of course, and I want to stress this point, as you say, people and cultures do change. But I see the scale tipping at the cultural end, not the individual will to change. For example, a person raised in a community where atheism is not discussed save for condemning it will have little motivation to choose to be an atheist. It might happen, but it is unlikely. And if it occurs, it is also unlikely that they will live as an out atheist if they face social costs for doing so (unemployment, ostracism, etc.).

Which leads me to another big problem (my primary one is that the phrase boils down to "I know what you think better than you do") I have with the phrase "you can't choose to believe or not to believe." As I've always heard it applied (and I don't have much experience in atheist communities), it's always been a denial of how we all live and experience our lives.

This is an incredibly important point because the phrase does seem to be a shorthand for more complex arguments that differ between different communities. I've definitely seen the argument used as Gygesringtone says, and I agree it is incredibly dismissive.

But I've also seen the argument used in another way, and perhaps the phrasing would more accurately be something like "people usually don't easily change quickly those beliefs that they were raised with/have held for a long time." And part of that argument is that none of us necessarily know everything we believe. I don't know better than Bell what he believes, but I know that for both Bell and myself we have attitudes etc. that we take up as we move through life that we don't think about consciously, at least not often and with a mind to change them. The beliefs I have are, to my mind, right and valuable, so I will need to encounter some sort of considerable external exigency to get me to rethink them and then a lot of convincing experience to actually change them. I won't simply decide to change my mind and have it happen, which is what I would mean when saying "choose to believe differently," though as evident in our discussion different people understand that phrase to mean different things.
posted by audi alteram partem at 2:07 PM on January 17 [1 favorite]


One can't choose believe something which one doesn't believe is true. It has to be motivated by new information or insight.

For example, one could encounter a new argument about the existence of god, and decide to believe it. Or think about an old one in a new way and change ones mind, but one can't simply decide to believe the opposite of what one had previously believed on a whim. It's a self-negating concept.
posted by empath at 2:43 PM on January 17 [3 favorites]


The flip side of your example is that while cultures change they are also stable and persist through time.

I would not agree that cultures are stable. They do persist through time as a kind of continuous narrative and behavioral complex, up to a point, but change moment by moment, and constantly, in lots of ways.

They influence the people born in them to believe certain ways, and people can choose to challenge those beliefs but their challenges are not without limit.

I don't agree that their challenges are bounded. I think anything that is capable of being recognized as a conscious belief is capable of being challenged.

For example, a person raised in a community where atheism is not discussed save for condemning it will have little motivation to choose to be an atheist. It might happen, but it is unlikely

But it happens all the time.

One can't choose believe something which one doesn't believe is true.

My life experience reveals that someone can do this - as in my recovery example, above. One can believe something on a tentative basis, test it with experience, find the belief utilitarian and thus self-reinforcing, and continue to strengthen in that belief. There's also the intellectual tradition of doubt, in which the truth of a belief is questioned or even rejected but, at least some of the time, the belief is maintained. I'm not entirely sure a truth value, in the sense of empirical evidentiary truth, even needs to enter into the process of belief. I find it really important to make a distinction between "belief" and "truth claim."

What I see people saying in their support for the "can't choose what to believe" statement is that we have a lot of cognitive biases, and that it can be very hard to leave behind an old belief. I don't contest any of that; I just see a much more powerful influence available 24/7 in the human will and conscious mind, and in the processing and interpretation of individual experience. I feel as though this is relatively self-evident, as my life has been steeped in examples of self-directed change or change triggered by experience and its interpretation throughout human history.

This understanding, again, is really essential to me as the foundation of moral reasoning. If we can't rethink a belief, we can't meaningfully make choices, and so there would be no real responsibility for our actions. We'd just do as we were taught, whether it were spitting on adulterers, adhering to racial segregations, disenfranchising people for their sexuality, etc. And we could hardly be blamed for just doing as we were taught, since we would be unable to act upon those beliefs with our own will and intellect -- if they were stronger, they would win every time. Yet, in my family and probably in yours, I know of people who started with one set of beliefs on all these topics, and ended up with a different set of beliefs on them, because their intellectual processes and life experiences called the beliefs in for question and revision. I find a lot more power in the breadth of that possibility and the ongoing processes that produce it than in the conditions of belief at any one single point in a person's life. I think that ideas that beliefs can't change are also counter to understandings of brain plasticity and the constant reconstruction of identity as a narrative that neuroscience is revealing.
posted by Miko at 3:05 PM on January 17 [1 favorite]


Also, there are different kinds of beliefs. My belief that my daughter exists is based on such basic undeniable experience, that I can't imagine choosing to believe otherwise. Belief in my daughter's existence is utterly compelling and involuntary.

But my belief that my daughter was telling the truth at a particular time might be based on (relatively) less compelling evidence. It might feel more like a choice than an involuntary compulsion created by the weight of the evidence. It's possible I could entertain and even choose the opposite belief, maybe even just thinking about the existing evidence without any new data.

For me, belief in God is more like the second example than the first. Although I'm aware that there are some people for whom atheism or belief feels as basic and undeniable as the first example.
posted by straight at 3:31 PM on January 17 [1 favorite]


it happens all the time.

There are many cultures in many historical eras where atheists did not crop up "all the time." See History of atheism.

I've said all I'll say at this point in describing what I and other atheists mean by the choice argument.

Gygesringtone's comment, though, did make me think of one relevant aspect of the choice argument that I want to note especially for those unfamiliar with intra-atheist community discussions. I recalled that the first time I encountered the "people don't choose belief" was in an argument where atheists were applying "don't choose" to atheists themselves in defense against dismissive attacks from theists.

Those challenging the atheist position would say something like "Well, deep down in your heart you actually believe, but you've chosen to turn your back." The atheist, trying to make clear the authenticity of their disbelief, says something like "I can't choose to believe." In this instance, the argument isn't "we atheists know better than you theists" but "we atheists know our own mind. Please take our word that we lack belief and that this lack of belief came about through our reflecting on our experience and that experience leading us to disbelieve. We didn't just decide to be atheists and we can't decide to become theists."
posted by audi alteram partem at 3:32 PM on January 17 [1 favorite]


There are many cultures in many historical eras where atheists did not crop up "all the time." See

Perhaps not openly and certainly not in a modern sense. But that article itself talks about cultures a milennium ago that had no discernible supernatural beliefs (so they wouldn't be anti-theists, just a-theists). There have always been dissenters and opter-outers. To say otherwise seems to me to be equivalent to implying that supernatural belief is the default state of human beings, in all places and times. That doesn't seem to be correct. I believe that as long as humans have had conscious thought, they've had the ability to take on an orientation to their cultural material. Thus there are heretics, dissenters, formers of new sects, hermits/ascetics, rebels, people believed to be semidivine, rivals of those people, etc. Cultural history seems to point to a general kind of continually complexifying chaos around religous beliefs that includes behaviors that were essentially atheistic - nonparticipation in the institutionalized religious mores of their times or any other set of supernatural beliefs.

I've seen the argument applied on both sides as well, which is why it's interesting and, I think, not helpful to any cause of argument. If you can't choose to believe, you can't choose not to believe. Some atheists have argued that the default state of humans is unbelief, and only by exposure to religious training do people come to develop beliefs; they would say "you theists chose to believe, ignoring the fact that there's no evidence there to believe in; I never made that choice."
posted by Miko at 3:45 PM on January 17 [2 favorites]


There have always been dissenters and opter-outers. To say otherwise

I'm not saying otherwise, and while I hoped that was clear in what I've said so far, perhaps it has not been and for any ambiguity I apologize. As an atheist, as an atheist who talks with other atheists, who lives as an atheist in America, I am skeptical about the power of individual agency in the face of cultural forces. This is not a complete skepticism, but it is skepticism.

I have, throughout this conversation, seen our disagreement as quantitative not qualitative in terms of how much ability individual conscious thought has to oppose cultural forces. I don't see much to disagree with here: "in my family and probably in yours, I know of people who started with one set of beliefs on all these topics, and ended up with a different set of beliefs on them, because their intellectual processes and life experiences called the beliefs in for question and revision." Life experiences is what I meant by an external exigency as contrasted with internal, personal choice.

My choice to use a pseudonym here on Metafilter is influenced largely because I want to be able to talk frankly about my experiences as an atheist in relevant threads but I know that if I were to do so under my real name I would face unacceptable repercussions in terms of employment and family relations. My choice, as I see it, is constrained by cultural forces.

I don't see "a much more powerful influence available 24/7 in the human will and conscious mind, and in the processing and interpretation of individual experience." I know that there is hope for change in the face of cultural forces, but my hope is not as great as yours.
posted by audi alteram partem at 6:01 PM on January 17


Life experiences is what I meant by an external exigency as contrasted with internal, personal choice.

I don't see that as a big distinction. A life experience, if it has no impact on you and you don't engage in any interpretation of it, has little power to change you. It is the engagement we have with our experiences - an engagement we know to ourselves through thought - that I refer to as the interpretation that results from choice: the choice to consider, to dwell, to reevaluate, to think.

I'm sorry you feel very constrained in your own context. As far as our discussion, though, that too is a choice: you most likely have the freedom to live differently, but it sounds as though you have decided the consequences for you due to your personal ties would be to great to make it worth it to you. I think the voluntary dimension remains important there.
posted by Miko at 6:40 PM on January 17


To say otherwise seems to me to be equivalent to implying that supernatural belief is the default state of human beings, in all places and times.

I believe that to be correct. The connection between drugs and supernatural/mystical experiences has long been documented, and just lately we've figured out which part of the brain to poke to get the same response. The fact that this stuff is wired right into our bodies leads me to believe that it is in fact an aberrant human who never experiences either.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:28 PM on January 18


There are a great many things wired into our bodies in that way which lots of people never experience. Poke one part of the brain and you feel like your leg is someone else's and does not belong and you will do anything to have it cut off, including cutting it off yourself. Poke another and you can't recognize faces, even of those dearest to you. Poke a third and you truly believe you are a walking corpse.

All of those things are wired into our brains. It doesn't mean anything except that our brains are a jumbled ad-hoc collection of neurons.
posted by Justinian at 11:20 PM on January 18 [3 favorites]


But all of those things are directly related to basic emotions and cognitive processes we do have, just expressed in inappropriate isolation. No one has found the button to press that makes you feel exactly like an automobile who is about to throw a rod or a Jupiter class gas giant forming around a distant star. The ad-hoc collection of neurons has a definite set of limitations relating to our body and our mental states.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 10:13 AM on January 19


Okay, then I think I disagree that there is any importance to the distinction you're making. Which doesn't seem like something we're going to be able to hash out here.
posted by Justinian at 12:43 PM on January 19 [2 favorites]


"Trying on" atheism: There has been a great deal of discussion about the question of whether I can "try on" atheism for a year, or any length of time. This question - the methodological question - seems to be the main concern about my exploration (aside, of course, from whether I engineered this as a huge media stunt). Over the next several weeks I will write more about my methodology, but today I want to begin by sharing what I understand to be the relationship between thinking/knowing and acting/behaving as best I can in a short blog post.
posted by paleyellowwithorange at 10:53 PM on January 20 [1 favorite]


Interview with Bell at Religion Dispatches
A few fundamentalist types have told me I'm stupid, which is to be expected. Some who know me well have indicated they feel I might be self-destructing. But most people are supporting me in my journey even though this isn't a path most of them will take. They've known me as being an authentic pastor so there's no reason for them to question my authenticity until I demonstrate otherwise.

What's amazing is how people have privately really poured their hearts out to me telling me they're in the closet as an atheist, adding that what I'm doing is helping them in their journey.
posted by audi alteram partem at 7:26 AM on January 27


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