What Happens When an Agnostic Follows the Bible Literally for One Year?

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The prophetic AJ Jacobs, who wrote the inspiring “My Outsourced Life” for Esquire back in 2005, has gone prophetic.

A huge fan of radical lifestyle experiments, he has already read all 33,000 pages of the Encyclopedia Britannica, experimented with Radical Honesty for an article called “I Think You’re Fat”… even pretended to be his nanny online to try to find her a boyfriend.

Now he’s done the ultimate.

As an agnostic New Yorker, he attempted to follow every rule of the Bible literally for an entire year.

I read an advanced copy of his new book, The Year of Living Biblically, this past July, and it blew my mind. It is AMAZING. Now it’s finally out, and I’m allowed to talk about it. I learned more about religion in this book than in all previous books combined, and I laughed so hard I almost got kicked out of two airports. Here’s a Q&A with my friend AJ on his incredible experience:

You call yourself an “agnostic Jew” in the book. Why did you even decide to do this? What could the possible benefit be?

This was my most radical experiment yet. It affected everything I did: the way I ate, talked, dressed, thought, and touched my wife.

I did it because I wanted to see if I was missing anything. And I have to say, the benefits were huge. I’ve carried over a lot of thinking and behavior from my Year of Living Biblically. Even if you aren’t particularly religious (in fact, even if you’re a diehard atheist), I believe there are lessons to be learned from the Bible and a biblical lifestyle.

What was hardest for you?

Two types of rules were hardest for me. First, there was avoiding the sins we commit every day: no lying, no gossiping, no coveting. I’m a journalist in New York. That’s like 70 percent of my day.

The second type of difficult rules were those that will get you into trouble if you follow them in modern-day America. For instance, the Old Testament rule that you should stone adulterers. Luckily, I was able to stone one adulterer. I was in the park dressed in my biblical garb (white clothes, a beard, sandals, walking stick) and a man came up to me and asked why I was dressed so strangely. He seemed hostile right from the start. I explained to him my project. And he said “I’m an adulterer. Are you going to stone me?” I said, “That would be great.”

I took out a handful of pebbles, because the Bible never specifies the size of the stones. This man actually grabbed the stones from my hand and chucked them at my face. I felt I had the right to retaliate, so I tossed a pebble at him. And in that way I stoned.

Do you think many people are misguided in their “creed over deed” mentality?

[Note from Tim: “Creed over deed” refers to people who value religious belief more than moral behavior. “Deed over creed” would be the opposite.]

I wouldn’t say misguided. But I’d say most of us do underestimate the power that behavior has to shape thought.

It’s astounding. I watched it happen to myself. For instance, I forced myself to stop gossiping, and eventually I started to have fewer petty thoughts to gossip about. I forced myself to help the needy, and found myself becoming less self-absorbed. I never became Ghandi or Angelina Jolie, but I made some strides.

I even watched it happen with prayer. After a year of praying, I started to believe there’s something to the idea of sacredness. It was remarkable. So if you want to become someone different, just start acting like the person you want to be. It’s like that business motto “fake it till you make it,” but it works on a spiritual and ethical level as well.

Even with my wardrobe, I saw how the outer affects the inner. There’s a line in the Bible that says “your garments should always be white.” I decided to take that literally, and walked around in white clothes. It affected my mood. I felt happier, lighter. Clothes make the man. I felt I couldn’t be in a bad mood if I looked like I was about to play the semi-finals at Wimbledon.


What were some of the greatest benefits of following rules to the letter, and what are the things that have stuck with you since ending the experiment?

It was fascinating. I’d always loved freedom of choice. It’s why I went to a loosey-goosey liberal arts college with no core requirements. But this experiment was all about freedom FROM choice. Or at least a minimal-choice lifestyle. I had a set structure: Should I read the gossip magazine about Cameron Diaz’s latest sex romp? No. Should I give 10 percent of my money to the needy? Yes. Should I turn off my email on the Sabbath (as both the Bible and Tim Ferriss recommend)? Yes.

In fact, there was something Ferriss-esque about the entire way of living. It reminded me of your low-information diet, for instance. In some ways, it was a huge time-saver.


What would you call yourself now?

I’d call myself a “reverent agnostic.” Whether or not there is a God, I believe there’s something to the idea of sacredness. Rituals can be sacred. The Sabbath can be sacred. And there’s an importance to that.

I’d also say that I’m a fan of cafeteria spirituality. During my experiment, I learned that you cannot follow the entire Bible. It’s impossible. You must pick and choose. Everyone does it, whether they admit it or not. Otherwise, we’d end up stoning adulterers on the street.

Some call this “cafeteria religion,” and it’s meant as a disparaging phrase. But I say: There is nothing wrong with cafeterias! I’ve had some great meals at cafeterias. I’ve also had some turkey tetrazzini that made me dry heave. The key is to chose the right dishes, the ones about compassion and tolerance, and leave the ones about hatred and intolerance on the side. So in my year, there was this amazing balance between choosing your religion, which then leads to fewer decisions on a daily basis.

And finally, I’d call myself a reformed individualist. I still see the value of individualism, but I’ve taken it down a few notches. As one of my spiritual advisers told me, you can look at life in one of two ways: As a series of rights and entitlements, or as a series of responsibilities. The biblical way is to look at it as a series of responsibilities, to your family and to your society. It’s like the JFK quote, ask not what your country (or world) can do for you, ask what you can do for your country (or world).

What was the hardest for your wife to put up with?

Well, my wife’s a saint. At one point, I built a biblical hut in our living room, and she didn’t appreciate the construction project in our apartment. Also, the Bible says not to touch women during that time of the month. Even more strictly, though, it says you shouldn’t sit in a seat where an “impure” woman has sat. My wife didn’t like that, so in retaliation, she sat on every seat in our apartment. I was forced to do a lot of standing that year.

Do yourself a favor, whether you’re a bible beater or a beret-wearing atheist, and go get AJ’s book. I put more notes in this book than any book in recent memory.

IMPORTANT:

And remember, you don’t need to be religious to “tithe” like AJ. In fact, you can change the world from your keyboard right now and help me build this school in Nepal for hundreds of children. The top 10 donors (you can donate more than once) get the school dedicated to them on a plaque at the door, and we can all go visit it within a year. Everest base camp, anyone? Here is a glimpse of the wonder that is Nepal if you need a few reasons or want to start planning.

For those of you keeping track, this blog has already successfully funded a school in Vietnam this month, and I’m planning on visiting it in 2008. Life is short and you are fortunate — give hard!

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ODDS AND ENDS:

-Exclusive 90-Minute Marketing and PR Teleconference with Tim Ferriss:

I will be offering an exclusive 90-minute teleconference (date to be mid- or end of November) to discuss marketing and PR in the web 2.0 and social media era. This will be a one-time event and the cost is $125, with all registration money going to LitLiberation and helping US public school students. Line space is very limited, as we will be taking questions at the end, so I encourage you to sign up now before we cut off registration. To sign up for this one-time event, please go to PayPal.com (you can use your credit cards to pay) and send $125 to timothy-at-brainquicken.com. We might increase the price as space gets limited. Call-in info will come via e-mail in the first week of November, and we’ll post a “FULL” notice on this post when we cut off registration. I cannot tell you the exact date of the call, but if you pay and then cannot attend, I will simply refund you in full — no worries.

Posted on: October 10, 2007.

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137 comments on “What Happens When an Agnostic Follows the Bible Literally for One Year?

  1. Fascinating concept, I think we should put this guy in charge of the prison system, professional sports, and the FCC.
    I’d also be willing to bet that he voted Republican during that year….;)

    Like

  2. It might be an amazing experience to do what AJ did. And in fact I agree with the cafeteria religion, you must pick up what do you think it’s right for you and reject all the other stuffs. But I don’t think that this is a religion type or way of living, it’s just some nice things eu have to do to live in society.

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  3. This guy has used the “Gandhi or Angelina Jolie” line in EVERY ONE of the five or six interviews I’ve see him do. It’s only funny once, AJ, new material!

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  4. I’ve recently been thinking about the idea of secular monasticism (for lack of a better term). Perhaps this already exists and I’m just not aware of it. I’d like to be able to spend some time as a monk, living a monastic lifestyle without any notion of “spirituality” involved… Perhaps as a battery-recharger or even just a perspective modifier.

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  5. I may have to brush up on my study, but I thought Jewish law (Exodus, Levt., Duet.) went even further as to bannish women from all events during that time of the month.

    Mr. Jacobs has a truly tolerant wife!
    Great experiment.

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  6. I saw Jesus on a Piece o Toast this Morning which I immediately Dunked in my Coffee to ferget how the Christian Fundamentalists led by BUSH have managed to takeover American Politics Culture Society Basic Rights to Abortion Scientific Embryonic Stem Cell Research (Thank God those 2 American a British Scientist won the Nobel Prize!!) Deciding if I might like to Die say Sayanara without BUSH flying back from his Hobby Ranch in Texas to shove a Feeding Tube back thru my Throat even tho I’ve been Brain Dead a Vegetable fer 10 Years!! Thanks fer Playing God U Brainwashed Idiots but I will make my own Free Choices!

    ;))

    Ya gotta read god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens – an Excellent Read thank Heavens that The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins have been atop the BestSeller Lists along with the Brilliant 4 Hour WorkWeek by I fergot the Author’s name!!

    ;))

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  7. Sounds like a great book and a wonderfully novel concept! Life is much the richer for life experiments. Thanks for bringing it to our attention Tim and keep up the fantastic work overseas.

    Andrew

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  8. i know this is off topic from your blog but i just want to let you know Timothy Ferriss that i just finished reading your book and its amazing! the best damn book i ever read and it will change my life…thanks!

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  9. To say that Jacobs followed the Bible for a year does not seem to be true. A more accurate title would be “The year of living by the Torah” or “The year of living by the Old Testament.”

    He took the laws in the Old Testament very legalistically (following the laws because I said so). If he included the New Testament, then he would understand the intent. Jesus didn’t stone the woman, but forgave her. I bet there are more points like this.

    Good concept, just mistitled.
    Sam

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  10. This is a very interesting concept. I can say that in the past religion was used to create law for the society to follow. Challenge is when you live in a secular society how do you now follow the secular law and also your religious law if you chose to do that. One simplifies things, the other one complicates them. I can imagine that AJ had to experience some of that.

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  11. Tim,

    The “tithe” means tenth, specifically the first and best tenth that is earmarked for serving God by financing the temple, and is meant to remind people of the original source of any wealth they receive (J.D. Rockefeller tithed, and regularly told critics “God gave me my wealth”).

    There is a subsequent rule in the bible that earmarks the next two or three tenths of one’s income for charity – so if you’re looking for a divine rule to help you out, this is the one!

    Anne

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