Gambling with God: Ryan Bell’s Atheist Bet

Christian pastor Ryan Bell was all over the media this week for a project he has just undertaken: spending a year without God. Without having lost his belief in God, Bell wants to explore atheism as an alternative faith system in order to see what conclusions he comes to at the end. Will he return to faith? Will he become an atheist? Or will he remain what he clearly now is: an agnostic (although he doesn’t use that language).

Bell’s project reveals a fascinating set of assumptions about faith, religion, and doubt. It is reminiscent of one of the most famous experiments in living with God: the 17th-century philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal’s wager.

Pascal, whose mathematical work was in probability theory, considered the pros and cons of faith in God whose existence by its very nature cannot be proven. So there are no final rational reasons for believing or not believing in God. Instead, I have to bet—with my life—on whether God exists or not. If God exists, and I fail to believe in God, I will experience eternal damnation—about the most significant downside imaginable. 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.

Therefore, Pascal concluded, one should live “as if”—as if God is real, which does not mean intellectual assent to the proposition “God exists” but rather participation in all the practices of Christianity: going to church, praying, and especially speaking with and trusting those who have found faith. One must act as if one believed, and one will—Pascal says—come to belief and so gain everything.

Bell’s project is almost the exact inverse of Pascal’s. Bell, an at least sometime believer, seeks to act as if he did not believe. Yet his understanding of the relationship between belief and practice suggests something about how we have come to think of religion in the marketplace approach of contemporary spirituality. Bell treats atheism as a religious practice in which one attends services and reads devotional literature, the “sacred texts” of atheism, as he calls them. The conclusion he hopes for is just what Pascal thought was impossible, a decision for or against God that is based on evidence. And belief—rational consideration of the proposition “God exists” —is crucial.

For Pascal, Christianity was a way of life that, when pursued, would engender belief in the practitioner. For Bell, atheism, like faith, is a way of life that can be adopted or abandoned at will. While Pascal’s wager suggests that doubt is not only part and parcel of faith, but even a possible precondition for it, Bell’s experiment suggests that doubt is a threat to faith, and that the responsible reaction to doubt is to see whether it can become as all-embracing—a way of life—just like faith.

Pascal’s wager suggests that faith has long been part of a marketplace: in effect, Pascal shorted atheism. Bell’s marketplace looks very different. We might invest in Christianity, or in atheism, or in Buddhism. The choice is ours; we decide one way or another.

Bell was an adjunct teacher at Azuza Pacific University and Fuller Seminary. His contract was not renewed this semester after the project started, and along with the suspension of a project he had undertaken with another church, this caused him to conclude on his blog that “Those who “come out” as atheist face serious consequences in our society.” Of course, most of those people aren’t working for institutions that use Christian faith as an explicit, contractual condition of employment.

Using the language of the closet makes atheism into one of the factors that we treat as identity —like race and sexuality. Unlike atheism, though, we assume that race and sexuality are not a matter of choice or conscious conviction. Bell’s marketplace uses language of social justice to protect the consumer in the choice—equally valid—between faith in God and faith in unfaith. His gamble might be risky in relation to God, but it is a sure thing in the marketplace.