Monday, March 03, 2014

On "A Year Without God"

In our reality TV generation there is class of writers who set out to experience for you that which you can or will not for yourself. Tim Ferriss tries out life hacks, so you won't have to do self-improvement the hard way. A. J. Jacobs, the self-declared human guinea pig, does that which you're either to conventional or lazy to do—like cheating at poker with Google Glass or reading the entire Enclyclopedia Britanica, respectively. For his bestseller, The Year of Living Biblically, Jacobs tried to carry out surface meaning of all the rules in the Old Testament. Blogger Rachel Held Evans rode his coat-tails into The Year of Biblical Womanhood, because it wasn’t fair that women should be excluded from test-driving Ancient Near Eastern customs in a 21st century world.

So in some ways it was not a surprise when a recently resigned Seventh-day Adventist pastor, Ryan Bell, came up on my Facebook feed, just as 2014 rolled in, announcing that his new project would be A Year Without God (with book at the end). What was surprising to me was the way Ryan's year-long experiment with atheism was picked up by US and international media, including an interview on CBC's “Q.”

What's uniquely fascinating about Ryan's project can be best seen in opposition to what came before. Ferriss, Jacobs, and Evans become your human guinea pig in order to convert you to their value system. Whether persuading you to always take the quickest shortcut to accomplishment or that the Bible is a culturally-conditioned artifact that needs to be interpreted through the lens of enlightenment humanism to have modern moral relevance, their experimentation is grounded in fundamental presuppositions about reality.

By trying on atheism for a year, Ryan is throwing presuppositions out the window. He avoids the question of ultimate reality—God—by rejecting identification as athiest, theist, or agnostic. So if you ever wondered where you'd end up were you to rid of all your preloaded beliefs and approach reality as a blank slate, Ryan Bell is your guinea pig. He doesn't want to persuade you about anything. He only wants to live as if God doesn't exist for a year and see if there's any difference between that and the way he was living before.

Except it's not really possible to remove oneself completely from fundamental assumptions. Ryan's assumption is that God, if God exists, is like an exercise program, in that you can go off and on and evaluate effectiveness by noting relative differences. But what if instead God is more like a person, a person like Ryan Bell. If I were to remove myself from Ryan's influence for a year to see if that makes a difference in my life, I would likely conclude that he's good to have on my feeds but not essential and easily replaced with others. And I suspect that the assumptions and methodology behind Ryan's Year Without God are leading him toward an inevitable conclusion: God's nice if you want God, but you can do just fine without.

A personal God wouldn't be like Ryan or any other person in one critical respect: If God is real, you can't take a year without God, because God is what sustains you. You can only end-up choosing to ignore God, and thus reality. So if you want to know whether a personal God exists, you need to reach out for the purpose of getting to know to God, and let God show you if God is real.
This article was originally submitted for the Clergy Comments column of the Fort McMurray Today (February 28, 2013).

1 comment:

  1. Although Christians assert that a Yahweh revealed herself, since Muslims, Christians, and Jews also assert contradictory revelations in this supposed revelation, it is reasonable to doubt that any divine revelation occurred. Furthermore, one could reasonably expect a omnipotent God to communicate currently and provide an unambiguous answer to this extremely obscure, contradictory, and mysterious "revelation." Perhaps a deist's god exists. Whether one believes she exists or not does not determine whether she does exist. For all practical purposes no god appears to exist. In other words, the causal flow of everyone's life, whether atheist or theist, continues as determined by natural laws without any objective difference that anyone can detect (apart from Muslims subjective belief that Allah is acting, a Jew's that Yahweh is acting, etc). These subjective appreciations are solely based on accidents of birth and geography: ie the Arabian pennisula produces Muslims who believe in the Koran; Ireland produces folks who believe in the Virgin Mary's immaculate conception, immaculate heavenly assumption, etc.) In sum, only contradictory "revelations"-communications exist for which non-believers have excellent natural explanations. For example, I conclude that the "prophet" Mohamed was either self-deluded or a charlatan; just like I conclude that the Virgin Mary's apparitions at Lourdes are phony--just like all the "miraculous" healings produced there.
    The idea that "you need to reach out for the purpose of getting to know to God" is an old cliche devoid of meaning. If God wants to communicate with me, or, reach out to me, she certainly could. However, I've received no communication from either Zeus, Allah, the Virgin Mary, Krishna, Ganesh, Thor, or any other divinity; no believer that I ever met even claimed to have received a communication from a competing religion's divinity. Atheists are unique only in that they are consistent in noting no revelation-communication from any of the myriad Baals, Shivas, or etc.