A Note on Methodology

I’ve already written once about Ryan J. Bell’s Year Without God, but I couldn’t resist posting about it one more time. This time I’m not as concerned with the effects of his experiment, as I am with his methodology.

Bell outlined his experiment with these words:

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…I will read atheist [authors]…I will also attempt to speak to as many actual atheists as possible…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.

Some have criticized Bell’s methodology as being fundamentally flawed. After all, simply refraining from church and reading atheist literature does not make one an atheist any more than reading The Communist Manifesto transforms one into a Marxist. (If that were the case, over twenty new Marxists were minted in my sophomore undergrad philosophy class.) One does not become an atheist, or anything else, by adopting the culture and practices. Perhaps the notion of adopting atheist culture is a bit naive anyway, since “atheism” has no establishment—such as a central church, government, or singularly recognized model—but is simply a state of lacking. Grammatically speaking, one is not “an atheist”—a member of a unified group or movement—but is atheist, literally, “without god” in the same way one is apolitical (although I personally break this rule all the time). All this said, it seems obvious that as a “religious nomad,” throwing off old customs, reading atheist authors, and spending time with atheists is the the best he can do.

If I want to know what it’s like to be Episcopalian (perhaps I’m deciding whether to leave my former affiliation for the Episcopal church) I can’t will myself into accepting the doctrines. All I can do is go to mass, immerse myself in the culture, and see what sticks. What we believe or don’t believe isn’t a choice, it is a response to new information, and a reflection of how we prefer to evaluate it. If my value metric is a desire for comforting meta-narratives spanning human history, and I proceed to take a class in biblical prophesy, I may find “historically based” evangelical apocalypticism appealing in light of said class, and thus come to believe it. However, if my value metric is alignment with empirical evidence, and I do not believe in meta-narratives, new knowledge of biblical prophesy may only further serve my belief that evangelical apocalypticism is hogwash. In both cases my belief or disbelief [in evangelical apocalypticism] is not a decision, but an outgrowth of my value metric’s relationship with data. If Bell becomes atheist, it will be because he has determined through his own value metric that it is the most appealing ideology (‘appealing’ being defined by his value metric).

What many critics of Bell’s methodology fail to recognize is that Bell cannot make himself atheist for a year, and furthermore, has not claimed he would. In fact, he explicitly says that he is not an atheist, but simply trying to live in the world the atheist inhabits, complete with new cultural markers, new books and media influences, new social connections, and without ties to religion. Bell claimed that he would “try it on” suggesting Atheism is an ideological and cultural covering that is not his own, but rather still belongs to the store. This next year will be about deciding if he wants to buy it. ♦

PS– I keep checking some of the major Adventist online magazines (Spectrum, Adventist Review, Adventist Today) and have found the Adventist leadership to be strangely silent on Bell’s experiment. I wonder how long this silence will continue and just how, if ever, it will be broken. 

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