Ryan Bell Begins Life After God

On an uncomfortably cold, rainy December afternoon, a rarity in Los Angeles, I stopped by a large, colorfully-painted concrete complex butted up against the 101 Freeway, about two-and-a-half miles from the Hollywood Seventh-day Adventist Church.

I parked on a side street beside a chain link fence with coils of razor wire on top.

Unsure where to go, I walked around the building a moment before finding an entrance next to a large banner that read “PATH.” The glass door was locked, but a security guard ran to open it. “I’m here to see Ryan Bell,” I told a friendly lady at the desk. She placed a call and told me it would be just a moment.

A cold, rainy evening at PATH, Los Angeles.

The last time I saw Ryan had been at a meeting for adjunct religion teachers at Loma Linda University. He’d been teaching online courses, and I had been invited to teach a course as well. I ended up declining the offer ahead of my move to Spectrum, and Ryan, who had recently left pastoral ministry in the Southern California Conference, would soon embark on a Year Without God.

Now the year is up, and things are different. Ryan is the director of community engagement at PATH, a group of agencies working to end homelessness in Los Angeles. Ryan met me in the PATH Mall, a hallway leading to offices providing social services ranging from free medical aid to housing assistance and educational assistance.

We drove to a cafe nearby to discuss Ryan’s Year Without God and how things have changed because of it.

“If you just read those three words, ‘Year Without God,’ you could say, ‘How could a Christian just up and become an atheist?’” Ryan said after we sat down. “I’ve explained that all year long. And I think people that haven’t followed the blog want to know, ‘How did you come to this point?’ Oh Lord, that is a long story.”

It’s a story he’s told countless times to NPR, the BBC, CNN, and God only knows how many other websites and individuals. The story fascinates people and draws equally strong reactions from the faith community and the skeptic community.

Many who have written about the Year Without God have seemed amused by Ryan’s new relationship with Becca Pratt, who is a Christian. “Is that amusing to you?” I asked. He shrugged.

“It wasn’t really that big of a deal. We originally met for coffee. We shared an office at Azusa Pacific University, but we never got past ‘Hi, how are you?’”

The two had talked briefly, but nothing more until he started his godless year.

“When I started Year Without God she wrote to me and said, ‘I’m really impressed with what you’re doing. I approve,’ kind of thing. And I said ‘Cool, we should get that coffee we’d talked about.’”

Pratt serves as the director for community engagement for Oasis, a Christian nonprofit headquartered in Belgium that works with street children, those with HIV/AIDS, gang members, trafficking victims and schools in disadvantaged areas.

Ryan said that their contrasting faith stances are not a source of grief except when he gets a little snarky.

“There are so many different kinds of Christians. So it’s hard to be too broad-brushed about how all Christians are. But when you read the wider stories in the news about Christians in America, I would say that it’s probably a majority of Christians in America that are really problematic for our democracy, for our freedom and equality, and so it is tempting to get a little snarky and say, ‘Christians are like this…’ And she’s quick to remind me, not all Christians.”

The two serve in similar positions in similar organizations, but ostensibly with different motivations. I wanted to know how Ryan views his colleagues doing the kind of justice work and activism he does, but who draw on the resources of their faith traditions to do it.

“I think we need all kinds of motivations--any motivation, really--to work for the common good,” he said. “I think I would be sensitive to an ulterior motive for people to say, ‘we’re helping you get out of a bad situation, and we want you to come to our Bible study.’”

I pushed a little: “So you feel as though religion in general has a hard time doing that sort of philanthropic work without…”

“...A motivation of...proselytization. Yeah. It’s tough. Phil (Becca’s boss in Belgium) is not like that. They are focused on the work for its own sake, and they have their own religious, spiritual--or not--motivations for doing that work and they partner with people of all sorts of backgrounds and motivations, but its not confused by cross-over. I think that’s great.”

During Ryan’s eight years at the Hollywood Church, he helped to create a culture of advocacy and justice work unparalleled among Adventist congregations. And there never seemed to be an accompanying motivation to “win souls for Christ.”

Ryan Bell in front of PATH, where he serves as director of community engagement.

In a 2008 documentary series produced by the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists called “Stained Glass” early footage of Ryan at the Hollywood Church portrays a congregation struggling to find a sense of community and purpose. During the course of the film, Ryan creates missional action teams--groups of leaders tasked with identifying and implementing strategic mission for the church. This becomes the basis for the work that defines Ryan’s tenure at Hollywood.

According to a longtime member of the Hollywood Church who asked not to be named for this story, it remains to be seen what portion of that legacy will survive Ryan’s departure.

“The church was Ryan’s laboratory while completing his doctoral studies in missional leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary. I would like to think much of that ‘missional DNA’ are still alive and deeply embedded in congregational life, but the longer-term legacy will depend on those leaders who were trained under Ryan, their ability, willingness and effectiveness in passing on the missional DNA to the next generation of leaders, and the continued reinforcement of this expression of Adventism from the pulpit, from pastoral leadership and staff, and from the denominational hierarchy.”

After a lengthy search process for a new pastor, the Hollywood Church found one, a recent Andrews University seminary grad, Branden Stoltz. In some ways he is the anti-Ryan Bell. While Ryan has spent his last year publicly pursuing a life apart from God, his successor lists books by Ellen White, Arthur Maxwell and C. S. Lewis on his Facebook favorites page. In his profile picture, Stoltz has on a shirt that says “100% Genuine” with a Bible text reference below. The picture is tagged with a link to “SDAshirts.com (Custom Shirt Ministry).”

With a new pastor in place, Hollywood’s worship coordinator, Dannon Rampton, feels as though the church is as healthy now as it has been in recent years. The congregation has moved on from Ryan Bell, Rampton says, but he notes that lot of Ryan’s contributions have stuck.

“[Ryan] encouraged an attitude of openness to experimentation, and helped create a space where questions are welcomed. With his leadership we developed a strongly missional sense of purpose, seeking to be unique and relevant in the context of Hollywood. And he pushed us to get more involved in social justice. I think Ryan left a good legacy. These things are definitely still ingrained in our psyche.”

Rampton points out that in some respects, Hollywood has gone further down the path of justice in the post Ryan Bell era.

“Since he resigned, our church has ‘come out,’ going public with a statement of inclusivity towards all, regardless of age, race, class, or sexual identity. We've begun providing services for the homeless youth living on our street corners, and have taken a leading role in neighborhood-wide conversations on homelessness. We continue to push for equal opportunities for women in pastoral service.

And people at the Hollywood Church, for the most part, Rampton says, have moved on.

For his part, Ryan has moved on as well, not only from employment in the Adventist denomination, but also from Christianity and from God.

It became clear in his Year Without God blog posts that Ryan felt increasingly at home away from faith. It didn’t come as surprise to most of his online followers that when the year ended on New Year’s Day, Ryan announced he wasn’t going back.

In his year-ending blog post, Ryan wrote, “Now, at the end of this year, I have discovered no evidence that a God exists.” He explained the reasons from science, history, religion and psychology that countered belief, and announced a new project: “Life After God.”

Ironically, Ryan credits his former employer, the Southern California Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, with his departure from the faith.

“In a way, I think the conference did me a favor. I don’t think on my own I would have stepped down. I thought about many times.”

“Do you have regrets about how it went down,” I asked him.

He hesitated, thinking for a moment.

“I mean, I think I conducted myself pretty well. I don’t have personal regrets. I have sort of generic regrets...well, I don’t know.”

Tension simply reached a breaking point, he told me. The tension was a result of long-standing differences over doctrine and practice, and the elastic finally snapped.

Cheri Wild Blue was a member of the Hollywood Church at the time, and Ryan’s departure caused her to question her own place in the Adventist Church.

The Hollywood Seventh-day Adventist Church at the corner of Hollywood and Van Ness in L.A.

“We were members at Hollywood for not quite two years when Ryan left, and we really started wondering if there was room for us in a church that rejected Ryan. I think our congregation collectively felt orphaned by the denomination at large. They had asked Ryan to resign, and no one would give us a straight answer of the precise reasons, but we knew at least a large part of it was over theological differences, differences we presumed we probably had too. When our conference rejected Ryan, we felt rejected too.”

It is a sentiment Syd Shook echoes. Syd and her husband left Hollywood about six months after Ryan’s departure. For her, Ryan’s resignation felt like a personal affront.

“To attack Ryan was to attack all of us who had found refuge within the purple walls of Hollywood Adventist--the denominational cast offs, the seekers, the doubters, those from other denominations--like me and my husband David--who had searched far and wide for a church home for many years.”

She points out that the situation was complicated.

“There were years worth of tension between Ryan and the conference--so there were some interpersonal issues to consider. Ryan was exhausted from constantly pushing against the grain and trying to hold his family together at the same time.”

Both Cheri and Syd said that the Year Without God announcement caught them by surprise with its abruptness. For Cheri, the announcement stung.

“When I saw the ‘Year Without God’ project published and going viral, I personally felt betrayed,” she said. “I felt twice orphaned--my church had rejected me, and one of my most-trusted spiritual mentors had bailed too. I felt a bit embarrassed and angry because I had publicly defended and advocated for Ryan among my friends and family in the larger Seventh-Day Adventist community.”

She said that her husband Nate spent a long time talking with Ryan after the announcement, and over time, they moved from a relationship characterized by spiritual mentorship to friendship.

“It’s interesting who you meet on the other side,” Ryan told me. “I went to Sunday Assembly [a church-like meeting for skeptics and non-believers] and met some people I knew, and it was like, ‘Oh hey, you too! I didn’t realize…’ It’s like going to AA and seeing someone you know.”

There has mostly been a warm reception from people “on the other side” of faith, people like Peter Veitch, a nurse at Royal Melbourne Hospital in Australia and moderator of the 980-member “X-SDA’s” Facebook group. Veitch said in a Facebook message, “My five years without God has me at a place where I am more concerned that people are ok. I wanted to cheer Ryan on for team atheism but I was more interested that he make an honest conclusion himself. I wanted him to be...OK.”

Handling the Ryan Bell story has been more difficult for the Adventist denomination, both on the local and global levels. The longtime Hollywood Church member referenced above noted the difficult spot into which Ryan’s story places the congregation:

“From a leadership transition perspective, Ryan’s experiment has understandably been a huge challenge. How does the leadership of the congregation Ryan left convey to its members and others looking in from the outside that the church’s vision, identity, ministry and values haven’t changed? How does it deal with the potential (and in some cases actual) criticism that its previous eight years’ experience was all an illusion, a lie, or a devil-inspired conspiracy? How does it reassure the denominational leadership that its present direction will not lead others (members or future pastors) into atheism?”

For the broader Adventist denomination the most honest response came from the satirical website “Barely Adventist,” who wrote “Adventists cancel Welcome Back party for Year Without God Ex-Pastor, Ryan Bell.”

Adventism’s flagship journal, the Adventist Review, outsourced its response to Don Mackintosh, a spiritual counselor for the Nedley Depression Program and director of Weimar College’s NEWSTART Global. Ironically, Ryan started his Adventist education at Weimar over twenty years ago. Mackintosh wrote a painful Op-Ed suggesting Ryan Bell might be clinically depressed, talking about a “give me” attitude, and expressing concern for all those who, “like Bell, become confused when they attempt to intellectually grapple with ‘reality’ through the reading uninspired notions of truth and worldview.”

“I feel so cared for,” Ryan wrote in a Facebook post linking to the Review article.

For Matthew Burdette, a doctoral candidate at the University of Aberdeen who attended services at the Hollywood Church while an undergrad at La Sierra University, the “crisis” of Ryan Bell’s deconversion should serve as a wakeup call to the Adventist Church.

“The Adventist church needs a more careful process for the selection of its ministers. This isn’t just about avoiding another Ryan Bell. It’s about naming the fact that there’s hardly a coherent theology of ministry (just look at the ordination debate) or a common vision of mission and ministry.”

Burdette feels it would be a mistake for the church to focus on Ryan Bell. “If the church does that, it excuses itself from critical self-examination; and it should be emphasized that critical self-examination does not amount to blaming the community or culture or whatever for Ryan’s atheism. It must also ask itself how it can be more careful about not hiring or ordaining people whose faith is not secure. This is no insult to Ryan, but simply a matter of churchly faithfulness.”

In an email message, Matthew Burdette talked about an intellectual crisis in the Adventist Church that he felt paved the way for Ryan Bell’s ultimate departure. Paradoxically, many conservative Adventists with whom I’ve spoken feel that it is too much “intellectualism” that makes liberal Adventists leave. A stark dividing line between liberal and conservative Adventists is willingness to seriously entertain the idea that God may not exist. For conservatives, even asking the question is anathema because of where it might lead. “Look at Ryan Bell,” I can almost hear someone say.

“Do you think atheism is inevitable,” Ryan asked me. We huddled in the carport beneath the sign reading, “PATH” in large letters on that rainy December evening in L.A. I thought about the skeptical former Adventists who left the faith long before Ryan’s Year Without God. I also thought about my many Adventist colleagues and friends who live the socratic, examined life, willing to consider the possibility that God does not exist, but who have followed a different path.

It’s an interesting question.

___________________________________

You may also be interested in:

At The End of his Year Without God, Ryan Bell Speaks Out, an exclusive, in-depth conversation with Ryan Bell.

Former Adventists Speak About Ryan Bell's Year Without God, statements from others who have left the Adventist Church.

Current and Former Hollywood Church Attendees Speak About Ryan Bell, extended comments from Ryan Bell's former parishioners.

Jared Wright is managing editor for SpectrumMagazine.org.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6542

God is not dead, the church may well be. To find Adventism wanting is not difficult. In fact denominationalism is a bane to the Gospel of Grace.My study of embryology has strengthened my faith. The Gospel according to John and the Psalms. Carried me thought three years of WWII. Post war I renewed my friendship with Edward Heppenstsll. Glacier View forced me to choose between denominationalism and Christianity. The Pauline letters came alive. I found Gospel writers abound, John Stott is a favorite as is F. f. Bruce and a shelf full of others. I feel sorry for Ryan. he has chosen a humanistic approach to life and service, filling as it may be, To reject the author of charity leaves a lonesome place in the soul. I strongly suggest that Ryan study the life experience of Elijah. Tom Z

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The church needs to face up and be completely honest with its members when a pastor leaves. The leaders are voiceless when explaining to a congregation why the pastor was not going in the “right direction” that the conference intended. This position of the conference is as debilitating as the pastor who leaves.

There is a special need in large cities to be known as the place where troubled people may come for help; whether physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual that is NOT a “hook” to get them in the baptismal tank–a surefire way to discourage the needy.

Having been a member of a large church that lost its pastors when the conference disagreed with the church which was preaching the Gospel and felt the SdA doctrines were not being taught, it is very traumatic to the congregation.

How many pastors and members have the courage of their convictions to take such a stand? In truth, there can be no definitive evidence of God; if there were, it would not be called “faith” or “belief.”

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It’s probably worth pointing out, even if it’s a bit nit-picky, that Ryan has invariably refused to engage with the most serious intellectual theistic traditions, such as those of so-called classical Christian theism. For most Christian thought, the very question, “Does God exist?” is a bit silly, since it presupposes that God would just be one being among other beings, and therefore may or may not instantiate existence; however, most of the Christian intellectual tradition says that God simply is existence, is Being as such. Knowing what God is, therefore, already necessitates that God is. The real question, then, is not whether God is, but who God is.

By this logic, Ryan most certainly believes in a deity, since he certainly believes that there is existence. However, what is now different is that Ryan believes the truth of existence is its utter lifelessness, that the truth about reality is Death. This should raise serious questions about the reasonability of his commitment to justice; we should be asking what it would be most consistent for Ryan to do socially and politically now that he doesn’t believe that all human beings are created equal in the image of their Creator. We should be asking Ryan why we should care about PATH. And so on.

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all in all, i think ryan did the right thing to leave the church…it takes courage to take stock of and follow inner reality, which in ryan’s case would have been doubly difficult, given his very public position…i’m not clear on whether he had anything lined up, income wise, to replace what he was leaving…my understanding is he had only the shirt on his back and the courage of his convictions…

but however long it took him to formulate the decision to leave, it’s really only been a year since ryan left, and he isn’t old, by any means…so much can happen during the next few years…what i feel certain of, from my own experience, is that god hasn’t given up on ryan, even if others have…he will have to purposefully set aside conviction after conviction to really and truly be rid of god…i don’t think he’ll do that…

Elaine
I support your call for more transparency in the organization when dealing with the removal of a pastor in support his congregation,even as I am sure you can tell it must be a very complex issue to workout - but in this specific case, this specific pastor, has made the case quite obvious all on his own.

Moving to a different part of your comment I remember a couple of years ago your first question ever to one of my comments here at Spectrum was on the subject of faith and evidence. It is my turn to ask you: (1) If there can be no “definitive evidence” of God is there a God? and (2) if faith is not the answer what do you hope for?

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There has always been belief in a transcendent, superior being; sometimes given a name, sometimes not. “God” has many names in many cultures, and long before either Judaism or Christianity. It is an innate human condition that desires an “other” who is superior to humans; often worshiped, feared, offered sacrifices and offerings. God has many faces even in the Bible. Perhaps it’s a DIY belief system developed throughout millennia.

My only hope is that my family, friends, and those I have known through the years will remember me kindly. Of my family, I’m assured of their love. Whatever is on “the other side” is not a worry. At my age, past life expectancy, there are no fears and I will simply go to sleep, ready. My will and directive on health care has all be taken care of and I can go in peace in the loving care of my family.

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I agree with you Matt. To be quite frank what would be the point at all of trying to reduce suffering if all morality is ultimately meaningless?

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Though I have no issue with your suggestion in asking Ryan why, but there are many secular humanists that are deeply involved in non-profits, etc., which doesn’t necessitate a belief in God.

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I guess my real question remains, how much of an atheist is Ryan? I thought I saw some sort of statement from him in another interview that he saw himself as a “soft” atheist. I wonder, because atheism has one very difficult problem with no forthcoming solution, i.e. where did life come from. There is currently no reasonable hypothesis for the origin of life by purely naturalistic processes. So, does Ryan simply not believe in the God of Christianity and Judaism, or in no God at all (a much more difficult proposition)? Maybe he used the term "soft"atheism because he at least is a deist or has deist leanings.

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Why is all morality ultimately meaningless if there is no God? Just because there is no meaning imposed from the outside doesn’t mean there is no meaning. Like Ryan, I too lost my faith, but I find purpose and meaning for my life all the time. There are very good reasons to work to reduce suffering even if there is no God, starting with the obvious - we feel empathy for those who suffer and reducing suffering makes a better world for us and our children.

I could just as easily ask why work to reduce suffering when this life on earth is just a warm up for eternity? Why should believers try very hard when it’s all going to just get worse anyway (according to many theologies)? Besides, God is ultimately going to fix it, not us. That starving child might die, but she’ll get to go to heaven and that will more than make up for it, not to mention that soon God is going to make sure no more children starve.

I mean obviously Christians should be nice and all, and should do good deeds, but why focus so much on reducing suffering when the real important thing is making sure you and as many others as possible get to heaven? Helping starving kids is nice, but until God makes it right, there will always be starving kids, right? Starving is bad, but being lost is much worse, so soul-winning has to take priority over the reduction of suffering.

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Matt, I don’t think any atheist is going to quibble with a definition of God that is so vague and broad as to be meaningless. Saying God is existence is fine. Semantics. No believer can leave it at that though, because they know that this “existence” has to actually do something in order to be meaningful. It can’t just exist, it has to interact and want things from us. Otherwise, it doesn’t matter whether we believe in it or not. The problems immediately start coming though, when one starts trying to define this “existence” beyond just existing.

I call it The Dance of the Veiled Deity as performed by some Christians. On one hand God, as defined by them, is The Ground of All Being (capital letters are important here) when you are trying to understand what sort of God they believe in and how they know God is like that. God can’t be defined. God is beyond definitions. Don’t be so limiting as to actually think God can be captured in terms.

Then a swish of the veil and God is a benevolent being who answers prayer, approves of gay marriage (or doesn’t), favors social justice (or doesn’t think it’s all that important), and wants us to be loving towards each other. Ask them on what basis they know this and swish, talking about God like he’s a being is missing the point altogether don’t you know.

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Hurt, superficiality, worldly wisdom, relationship problems, pride, deception, and self - deception are very apparent in this story line of Ryan Bell. He is definitely getting tossed around on a culturally subjective, relative, and post-modern foundation. The naturalistic, materialistic, physical, evolutionary foundation and worldview will leave him more confused and without hope and coherence. In his storms of life, it cannot stand and he will continually borrow from the worldview he left. We must pray he seeks repentance and joy in his Creator!

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In his six-month report, Ryan reported that he considered himself a “weak atheist” a categorization based on a modified version of Richard Dawkins’ spectrum of theistic probability. A weak atheist, according to that rating, is unsure if God exists, but is skeptical of positive claims.

Ryan made his own chart in a post called sorting through the categories.

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Ryan is an agnostic.

Beth, this is perhaps one of the hardest things for a theist to understand of an atheist… how such a position doesn’t necessarily lead intellectually to nihilism and so undermine any expression of empathy or morality. I know that many atheists get very offended by suggestions that they inevitably should be or are amoral. But is there anything more than utility involved in responding to others’ suffering for an atheist… making the best of a bad lot or situation? I ask these questions from a position of honesty enquiry, admittedly with theist-tinted glasses on.

On the question of why Christians should reduce suffering? Cannot we have the same utilitarian view? Further, is there perhaps, a more nuanced understanding of what God’s mission is all about… it is not just about escape from a world of pain.

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I am not saying that one must believe in God to be moral or to do justice. What I am saying can mean two things:

  1. People who claim to be atheists but have deep moral convictions are still implicitly theists. Or,

  2. People who are atheists who are doing justice are living in contradiction to their atheism.

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@adrian @ajshep @Beth @ageis7 and others.

“Fifty years without God” might be the title of an interview with me. As I’ve mentioned before, I am agnostic about God and gods, in the sense that I see no factual basis for belief in God. I am skeptical of the claims of those who claim to “know” that God does not exist; at the same time, I find the claims utterly absurd of those who not only believe that God exists, but are certain of what He thinks and what he wants them to do.

While I sincerely doubt that any such being as God exists at all, I am quite confident that the concept of God with which I was raised as an SDA is nothing more than an invention of the human imagination.

That said, I do not feel any rebelliousness toward “God.” I am not pushing people to convert to atheism, or even agnosticism. I cannot prove that God exists or doesn’t and I feel no responsibility to try to do so. There are better ways to spend one’s time. People pretty much believe what they want to, or what they can. Many people have no difficulty trusting the traditions within which they have been raised. Their traditions matter more to them than substantial facts. There is a sort of “lying for truth” character to this perpetual denial of the natural and material world.

For me, staying in the church seemed dishonest. I was more devoted to honesty than to the church. By the early 1960s I already felt that being a Christian and claiming the gift of God’s grace had very little to do with “belonging” to a church. Denominationalism (of the kind adventism seems to be an example) seems to be a tragically warped version of Christianity. There may be no greater argument against adventism’s authentic validity than its cult-like separatism.

Denominationalism resembles a sort of tribalism, though, and in that sense, it may merely reflect human nature at work. This is, BTW, also reflected in the non-profit “do-gooder” sector. WWF has fragmented into many national efforts, and environmental and conservation organizations compete for donations and attention. While some claim to be commissioned by God, many are simply natural, with a focus on some specified niche–quite natural. They are inspired by problems that need solving, not by obedience to the demands of a deity who ostensibly could solve all problems by devine fiat, if He really wanted to do so.

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Matt, I think your #2 is just that, “Number Two.” No profanity allowed, right?

Such a statement seems to be based on a profoundly flawed understanding of atheism (and probably, is based on a profoundly flawed view of “evolution”).

Your proposition #1 also seems baseless, perhaps for the same reason.

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This has nothing whatsoever to do with evolution.

I have spent the better part of my academic career dealing with the most basic philosophical and ethical concerns of theology, atheism among them. Your defensive, ad hominem response is treating the issue with triviality.

My comment suggested that atheism collapses into nihilism, and that nihilism renders morality meaningless and arbitrary (at best). You are free to disagree and to explain why you disagree.

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