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Former pastor's experiment with atheism examined as sincere or a stunt

Posted: January 18, 2014 6:13 p.m.
Updated: January 18, 2014 6:13 p.m.
 

A former pastor's attempt to "try on atheism" for a year has generated a lot of scorn, and some backhanded praise, among believers and nonbelievers.

While he announced his experiment through his Huffington Post blog, Ryan Bell told CNN that he didn't expect he would get so much attention.

"This wasn't intended to be an international journey that was done in public," he told CNN's Brooke Baldwin.
Bell could have been starving for some attention. In his blog, he tells readers of his faith crisis and losing his job as pastor of a Southern California Seventh-day Adventist congregation. That was followed by dismissals as adjunct professor at Azusa Pacific University and Fuller Theological Seminary.

"They simply feel they cannot have me as a part of the faculty while I am in this year long process," Bell wrote on his personal blog, yearwithoutgod.com. "Both APU and Fuller welcomed a conversation with me at the end of the year to see about my future work with their institutions."

Bell's experiment could prove to be a dangerous bet, warns Linn Marie Tonstad. Writing in Religion Dispatches, she compares Bell's venture with "one of the most famous experiments in living with God: the 17th-century philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal’s wager."

Tonstad explained that Pascal, who excelled in probability theory, weighed the pros and cons of belief and found significant downsides to not believing in God, such as eternal damnation.

"If I believe in God, and turn out to be right, salvation and eternal bliss are mine. But if my belief turns out to be wrong — God doesn’t exist — what will I have lost? Not much, in comparison to the risks of not believing in a God who is real," she writes of Pascal's thinking.

She says Pascal held that if he lived like a believer he would become one.

Several nonbelievers say that embracing atheism is not that simple, and many dismissed Bell's notion that he was going to try it on.

"It’s all about what’s going on in your head," wrote atheist blogger Hemant Metah. "I’m all for religious people (or those like Bell who still have a foot on the religious side) reading things that might change their mind or talking to people who might point out the holes in their logic, but none of that makes you an atheist until you realize that God is a myth."

David Gibson, with Religion News Service, wrote that Bell is "just the latest 'stunt pastor' to use unorthodox means to draw attention to his message."

This kind of reality-show piety has a history, of sorts, especially in Christianity: A fifth-century ascetic, Simeon Stylites, achieved great fame by living — subsisting, really — atop a pillar for some 37 years," Gibson wrote. "But the rise of the entertainment industry, combined with a focus on marketing techniques to preach the faith or build up a church, have sparked a penchant for ministry gimmicks that go well beyond the old dunk tank."

Copyright 2014 Deseret Digital Media Inc.

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