Nathan Brown Confronting Atheism

Nathan Brown and Ryan Bell are good friends. Brown is book editor at Signs Publishing Company in Australia and Bell, the former pastor of the Hollywood Seventh-day Adventist Church, has come off a year-long experiment with atheism.

Bell now says that he doesn’t think God “exists.” The world, he explains, “makes more sense to me as it is, without postulating a divine being who is somehow in charge of things.” Brown has published a book that is, in substantial part, a response to his friend’s experience. It’s called Why I Try to Believe: An Experiment in Faith, Life and Stubborn Hope, and his friend is author of the foreword. Ryan Bell says Brown’s book is “likely among the most honest efforts to grapple with faith in the midst of doubt that you will find.”

His book is a memoir as well as a theological reflection, a record of why he persists in Christian conviction “despite challenges and disappointments” such as come, he suggests, to any thoughtful person of faith. The word “trying” in the book’s title expresses “healthy honesty,” what he also calls “humility.” It’s an acknowledgement, too, that many of his questions remain “unanswered.”

Titles for the book’s ten chapters aptly summarize the author’s themes. After “Trying to Believe” comes “Hoping to Believe,” where Brown quotes Jim Wallis’s remark that two groups may be the best at viewing the world “realistically.” They are “the cynics and the saints,” and they differ in this crucial regard: the saints, but not the cynics, enjoy “the presence, power and possibility of hope.” Hoping that life is “more than molecules and mathematics” changes us for the good, he says, and “reconnects us to the present.”

Brown has published a novel, and so it should be no surprise that one chapter is called “Believing the Stories.” He describes a visit with his wife to the Holy Land where the commercial uses of the scriptural record seem off-putting, but helped him realize that seeing “holy places” is not so much the point as rediscovering “holy stories.” The following chapter, “Clinging to Belief,” recounts stories about C. S. Lewis and the biblical character of Job as a means of dealing with inexplicable sorrows and griefs. “Believing Jesus” suggests that theories about “how salvation works” may distract from the deeper point of the story. Quoting from one of Ryan Bell’s sermons, he emphasizes that Jesus “knows something more about life than we do,” and then shares his favorite “picture” of Jesus, one that is often “skipped over.” Found in Matthew 12, it shows Jesus defining his mission in terms of Isaiah 42: he proclaims “justice to the nations,” and refuses all the while to “crush the weakest reed or put out a flickering candle.”

The book is thus not only a defense of faith but also a critique of faith gone wrong. True faith is not escape from responsibility but alignment with the divine initiative for justice on earth. To be, with Abraham as well as with Jesus, a “‘blessing to others’” means taking up a kind of holy “activism.” You “try to believe”—chapter 7 is calling “Wanting to Believe”—in order to be “good for our world.”

Not that Christ’s victory over death is shunted aside. From the perspective of faith the grave cannot, Brown thinks, be the end. But he does resist unbiblical borrowings from Platonic philosophy that devalue the physical life God has given us. “If belief makes us less engaged with the life and world we are given, we have something askew,” he declares.

The theme of humility returns in chapter 9, where he addresses his own struggle with hypocrisy. He goes on to suggest that critics of religion may be less offended by “inconsistency of living” than by “pretending” to have somehow risen above it. He offers a possible summary of Jesus message, “Let’s go for a walk together,” and then says, “No matter how hypocritical and faltering I might be, grace invites me still.”

The book is short—about 120 pages in all—and ends with another reference to Ryan Bell. Precisely in the context of his friend’s “experiment with atheism,” Brown says, “I have chosen again to try to believe.”

In the context of Adventist life today, the book is encouraging not just for its evocation of faith in the midst of secularity but also, and perhaps especially, for it candor and humility. This helps to make it a good read, at once deeply relevant and fully comprehensible. The Gospel of Matthew can speak of “doubt” even among the disciples (Matthew 28:16-20) and then proceed immediately, without handwringing or raising of eyebrows, to its final call to participation in the mission. The book is thus an expression, despite potential huffing-and-puffing from naysayers, of—precisely—the Matthean vision.

Here now is further perspective from the author:

Question: You’re a book man—a reader, writer and editor of books, a self-described “word nerd.” And you invest so much of yourself in Adventist publishing, in other people’s words. Why do you think all this makes a difference? Why, to the church, should words matter so much?

Answer: Despite all the other forms of communication and media, books remain important cultural artefacts. They still matter to both readers and writers because they offer the most considered and developed setting for ideas, stories, conversations and arguments. A book is a serious undertaking for a writer, a publisher and a reader, so should demand the best from all three. Compared to a comment on a blog or social media post, we expect that a book is more than mere reaction, has been through a significant process of mediation and refinement, and has a life expectancy beyond tomorrow afternoon. In the church, some argue that our message and our beliefs are so important that we should use any and every means available. By contrast, I would argue that our message and our beliefs are so important that we should use the best means available, in both format and creative development.

· Question: In Why I Try to Believe you acknowledge, even apologize for, the evils done in the name of religion. Still, you take faith and hope to be good for the world, and one reason you try to believe is so that you can be good for the world. Your reason seems to be related to the theme of Do Justice, but can you say more?

Answer: We can’t talk about faith in the world today without this kind of acknowledgment. I read some years ago the suggestion that apologetics today needs a lot more plain apology. But where we go after that is an important question. It seems to me that the better response to bad religion is not no religion but better religion. In much of my writing and editing work—of which both these book are good examples (I hope)—I try to share my hopes for what faith can be, even what it ought to be. And as I read the Bible, its description of faith includes a real, active and practical passion for justice—and that must be good for the world. Among other motivations, we believe and act for the benefit of those outside the narrower definitions of our faith.

Question: Your book is a wrestling with doubt, and with questions life throws us “in the form of our sorrows and joys, grief and triumphs, disappointments and hopes.” But two other themes, honesty on the one hand and humility on the other, are also prominent. So if doubt is a problem, might it also be, in some sense, a virtue?

Answer: In doubt are the seeds of both change and growth. Questions are often more useful than rote answers. But we need to find healthy ways to be honest about our doubts, at the same time as keeping these doubts in perspective and recognizing that living in tension does not mean we are unable to believe. Let’s be honest about our doubts and humble with our questions, which means we are also prepared to doubt our doubts and question our questions.

Question: Ellen White said famously that God has never removed the possibility of doubt. She said we have “evidence enough,” but added that our beliefs about God “must ever remain clothed in mystery”….

Answer: Faith is a complicated question, particularly when we recognise we are dealing in what we cannot prove. After all, the incomprehensibility of God is among the attributes that make God worthy of being called God. But mystery does not mean we can’t know—although perhaps only “through a glass darkly”—or choose to trust.

Question: You quote Jim Wallis to the effect that only “cynics and saints” see the world realistically. What do you mean by that?

Answer: The quote talks about the choices we make when we look at our lives and look at the world around us. The first choice is to whether we ignore the reality of our various situations, then we choose how we respond to those realities. Wallis’ suggestion is that we choose either despair or cynicism—as a kind of coping mechanism—or hope. Ultimately, I believe we can choose to hope in ways that are both realistic and transformative.

· Question: On a trip to the Holy Land with your wife, you realized that the point was not so much to visit “holy places” and to rediscover “holy stories.” Say more. Why do stories figure so importantly in your understanding of faith?

Answer: Probably because that is my way of understanding life. With degrees in English, writing and literature, I am well trained in thinking about—and thinking in stories. But stories are significant in what it means to be human, giving shape and meaning to our experiences and ideas. Unsurprisingly, this is also the way that the Bible presents faith to us. At its core is the story of Jesus—and the stories He told. But I also wonder if the books that are “opened” in the Bible’s judgment scenes (see, for example, Revelation 20:12) might not be, as I seem to have assumed growing up, some kind of accountant’s ledger tallying all the rights and wrongs but instead might be the recorded stories of each of our lives, reminding us that our lives do matter and allowing for much greater nuance than the bare statistics of our lives. Sorry, distracted there with an idea I have been thinking on recently—but, yes, stories matter.

Question: Alluding to Moses’ great sermon in Deuteronomy, you suggest at the end of the book that choosing to believe is the “key to your life.” Your whole book is about why this is so, but I still wonder what single thing you might say in defense of the claim if your friend Ryan Bell were listening in just now?

Answer: From the conversations I have had with Ryan around this book, we have found common ground in the idea of choice as a key part of the questions of belief, not blind choice but nonetheless a choice or choices we each make. When he and I make different choices in relation to faith, that questions each other’s choice, which can strain friendship but should not be the end of the conversation. So I would say to Ryan, “Thank you for listening to and contributing to my attempt to explain why I choose to believe. And, as mentioned in the book, I pray for you still—in what I hope is a friendly, non-combative, non-condescending way.”

Read an earlier interview with Nathan Brown about his previous book Do Justice.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

From my own life experience I can truly say that my belief in God has never been a question. I am a stronger believe today as a result of it. My God concept is is of a Jesus who longs to save as many people as He can. But we must choose Him. He does not force the will. He weeps over those who no longer believe in Him because of injustuce done to them in His name.


Jesus is quoted as saying, “consider the lily” As a student of biology, from the chick embryo to man, I say design. just take for an example DNA. These are well beyond the realm of chance or any mathematical probability. Then there is History, the world’s and my own. Belief is not blind trust. Yes we see through a glass darkly, both there is more than enough for faith, hope, and love. Love without faith and hope is empty. We love, because, He first loved us. Imagine the emptiness of life built upon, Yes But! Tom Z


Atheists don’t usually proselytize. For believers, it is imperative.

Agnostics are NOT atheists. The latter deny there is a god; agnostics confess they do not know.


Not sure this is true any longer. There are the Dawkins with a strong missionary zeal (including their societies which try to make any believer look like an idiot), there are the atheist churches with their weekly gatherings playing church without god etc. The obsession with God among atheists is somewhat strange.

Far more convincing to me are agnostics - those who do not claim to “know”. However, there might be a lazy agnosticism (“I don’t know and I don’t care”) and an intellectually more truthful one: “I would like to know”. While I haven’t read Brown’s book (yet), it seems to me that Brown and Bell are friends and can remain friends, because they both continue in their quest, rather than believing in having all the answers. This dialogue is what moves forward. It is rare, and yet it is intriguingly hopeful.


I have two points of disagreement with this helpful and interesting interview.

First, I disagree that we choose to believe or not believe. I have read the stories of many people who used to believe and no longer do, and I have gone through the experience myself. Over and over the stories share a similar thread - that believe becomes harder and harder to maintain until finally the person accepts that they no longer believe. Almost everyone talks about trying to hang onto belief but ultimately failing. I don’t want to get into a treatise on free will, but if I did have a choice about my faith-losing experience, it was choosing to finally walk away from the exhausting efforts to hold onto something that was already gone.

We can decide to stop pretending to believe, but I don’t think anyone can force themselves to believe something they don’t. Belief doesn’t work that way. And yes, I understand that many think that is where God comes in, but what they can’t seem to hear is that sometimes God doesn’t come in, even when asked to repeatedly, and belief dies anyway.

Second, I see at least the glimmer of a popular but, IMO, false dichotomy; hope and faith belong together while cynicism and non-belief belong together. There are many reasons why I disagree with that view, though I understand why religious people might believe it. If Nathan’s point was more nuanced than that, then I apologize for reading more into it than I should.


It is true that there are a few very vocal proponents of atheism but hardly to be compared with the army of believers whose duty they have been told is to convince others that their belief is the only option.

As an agnostic like some here, “trying” to believe is worthless. Like love, if you continue trying to love someone because you should, of what use is it? We are not born with belief or agnosticism but when there are far more doubts and uncertainties, to profess becomes a charade.

The story was told of a highly educated Brahman walking along the Ganges with a friend watching the multitude immerse themselves in the water for faith to be made whole. “How wonderful to have a faith like that but no matter how hard I try, it is impossible.”

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Faith and doubt are, to me, the flip side of the same coin. There is an important distinction between ontological and lived doubt. Faith and doubt, should not be understood exclusively in relation to epistemic referents; Kant’s question of “what is”, and Christianity’s translation of Kant: “what is true”.

Lived doubt (and faith); questions of the meaning of lived experience of beings-in-the-world, has more to do with the ethical question of “what to do”, than the epistemic category of “what is”. Lived experience often distorts ontological categories.

Doubt, often seen as a negative attitude, is an undervalued quality! Faith is always in tension; a Kierkegaardian “leap of faith”, in contrast to Cartesian mathematical certainty.


There can be no faith where doubt does not first exist.

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It is the religious right with their strident voices against science and desire to return to an earlier time when the social order was expected that has caused the rise of atheism. The law of unintended consequences.


I have made reference before to Norwegian author Arne Garborg (d. 1923) who spoke of “the lost Father.” In his case, the prodigal son returns, but the father is gone, nowhere to be found. And that is the reality that so many of us have faced. We who left religion for reasons of conscience did so because we wanted to be true to ourselves and our perception of the world. I’m glad to see that Nathan Brown is willing to accept that premise and not resort to psychoanalysis and demonization to explain why faith no longer is option for some people.

To me, it’s been far more important to retain a sense of mystery than faith. At times, people like me, are challenged on this blog as to why we are here, what our agenda is. The simple answer is that the mystery of life does not belong to any one group, and for us who were once believers, it’s natural to want to explore this mystery with those who are willing to do so. I feel no affinity with the world of organized atheism. I’m tired of people who wield answers like clubs and who celebrate antithesis as insight.


This is the point that I have seen no theistic answers to.

The theist just cannot deal with agnosticism. They don’t understand it, because (I believe) they can’t understand it. When they try to engage, they (perhaps unwittingly ) change the framework, to try to position the agnostic into a category they can understand (‘sitting on the fence’, lazy, not trying hard enough, mistaking them for atheists etc) , so they can prescribe resolutions.

These ‘category’ mistakes create an illusion of succor for the theist, but incongruity for the agnostic

You may not want to get into the issue of freewill, but it seems clear to me that rational belief is contingent on our underlying intuitions and emotional makeup. This makeup is determined via nature and nurture and constrains our freewill (in this case, why do we believe the things we believe). Like you say, the theist will add that God is an external agent who can add his influence to our nurture, and/or, change our nature.

But what God 'can" do is academic. It is what God actually does or does not do that is important or valid. And you have clearly demonstrated what God does not do (on your case and mine). Therefore, for a theist to add what God ‘can’ do into the equation is equally as incongruent as mis-categorisation.

@aage_rendalen @ageis7 @andreas @oleutaker @peckas @kennlutz @Victor


I think we can all agree that religious convictions can have powerful effects, for good and bad. At the same time, their claimed epistemic foundations are often surprisingly fragile. Very often the stronger the claims, the weaker their basis is. To be able to live with shaky epistemic foundations, ideological movements therefore have a tendency to deny ambiguity, and sideline doubt.

This is true of denominational Christianity, Adventism included. They have made a “business” out of “selling” a propositionalized version of the gospel: an encyclopedic system of theological interpretations of biblical events, dates, and meanings, where knowledge, i.e. “Truth”, is reduced to a coherent and rational system of biblical information, backed by rules of interpretation, lists of proof-texts, “plain readings”, and so-called “self-evident biblical facts”. The survival of this kind of “system”, presupposes a suspension of lingering doubt and active denial of ambiguity.

Faced with the reality of lived experience of, say, suffering, and the world of science, its denial of ambiguity leads into a tyrannical “logic” of conformity – a Constantinian strategy - and exposes the extreme vulnerability of such a foundation. It doesn’t conform to the lived experience of being-in-the-world, and offers no reconciliation with reality. A gap emerges between reality and our propositions about it. What happens for many when this reconciliation fails is the “death of God”.

To me, one of the challenges for denominations like Adventism, is to fully admit epistemic-experiential ambiguity and tension. It would require a rehabilitation of doubt as a positive resource, a sidelining of the claim to absolute epistemic certainty, and an “incarnational” approach to the question of truth in contrast to a “propositional” one.

Is it not a basic truth that God’s primary vehicle for revelation is “incarnational” – becoming a human being – and not a vast collection of propositions and facts?


Andrew, I think there are at least two theistic answers to unchosen agnosticism.

One is offered by the Calvinists. We simply weren’t chosen. Though I don’t like the thought of burning forever in hell, I am proud not to be chosen by such a monsterous deity, and I can’t imagine worshipping something like that. However, that view is at least consistent with how I see the world working.

The other is offered by the universalists who would say that all are saved and belief is not necessary. This holds some appeal for me because I see it as consistent with both ethics and reality. I would be quite happy spending eternity with a deity like that - who understands my reasons for thinking it didn’t exist and shrugging them off. However, I also think it is sort of the ultimate “make up your own God based on what you think is good” example, and while I like that made up deity better than others, ultimately I no longer feel the need to make up deities.

I agree with you that we believe or don’t believe based on a complex mix of biology and experience. I used to think more highly of the concept of free will. The older I get, the less that is so, though I acknowledge that it is useful for certain theological quandaries.


That is an interesting point, and I can see it as part of my own experience. When the God I thought I knew existed no longer existed for me, I spent time trying to find another God that better fit reality to me. I think many go through a smaller but similar process as they mature, but many still remain theists and Christian.

I went through quite a few God models, becoming more and more abstract and encompassing until finally I accepted that trying to do so was costing me a lot of mental energy and offering little in return. A world in which a very abstract deity exists is indistinguishable from one in which it doesn’t, so ultimately it didn’t matter.

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That is my experience too. It lead me to give up on strong, metaphysical theological mastery of existence. In the spirit of Hannah Arendt - “only if we think and reconcile ourselves to the reality of our irreconcilable world, can we hope to resist the ever-present possibility of totalitarianism”.

For an excellent look the role of doubt in the Christian experience, check out Greg Boyd’s, “The Benefit of Doubt”.


Good job Charles Scriven! Just bought the book…

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Maybe this conversation can be illumined by the important distinction between “tacit” beliefs and “overt” beliefs. Living without belief is impossible, as every waking moment and action is accompanied by, motivated by, or reflective of, our personal beliefs. These can be sometimes overheard in the constant mind chatter and streams of consciousness we swim in. For many of us, the existence or non-existence of God lives there as a frequently recurring assumption or expression: “I wonder what God would think…” “God did not make the world only 6,000 years ago” “Could God heal my child?” These statements fly across the screen of the mind, pausing only for seconds, and then pass back to where they came from. Overt beliefs, on the other hand, are ones we rely upon when creating new beliefs (implications), when choosing actions with probably consequences, or when defending our viewpoint to others.

I am interested in the first, and rarely the second. It is there we discover how we believe, why we believe, and what we believe. The second kind of belief is usually compromised by self-justification and flies off into the non-personal realm of theoreticals and speculation.

Which domain do you think Ryan Bell and Nathan Brown are mostly discussing?

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do you think one’s tacit and one’s overt beliefs could be contradictory?