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January 8th, 2014
08:39 AM ET

Pastor tries atheism, loses jobs, gains $19,000

By Daniel Burke, Belief Blog Co-editor

(CNN) - In the past, at times like these, when his life foundered and frayed around the edges, Ryan Bell often prayed for help. But this year, at least, the pastor has resolved not to.

For the next 12 months, Bell says he will live as if there is no God.

He will not pray, go to church, read the Bible for inspiration, trust in divine providence or hope in things unseen. He’s taking the opposite of a leap of faith: a free fall into the depths of religious doubt.

Bell’s “intellectual experiment,” which began January 1, has already borne dramatic consequences.

In less than a week, he lost two jobs teaching at Christian schools near his home in Los Angeles. He’s 42 and has been a pastor or in seminary for most of his adult life. Now he faces the prospect of poverty and taking odd jobs to feed his two daughters, 10 and 13.

“There have been times, usually late at night and early in the morning, when I think: What have I done? It really undermines the whole structure of your life, your career, your family,” Bell said.

But just as the man of God began to despair, he found help from an unlikely source: atheists.

'Suspending belief '

The seeds of Bell’s journey were planted last March, when he was asked to resign as pastor of a Seventh-day Adventist congregation in Hollywood.

He had advocated for the church to allow gay and lesbian leaders, campaigned against California’s same-sex marriage ban and disputed deeply held church doctrines about the End Times.

Eventually, his theological and political liberalism became more than leaders in the denomination could bear, and he lost his career of 19 years. His faith was shaken, and for a while Bell became a “religious nomad.”

On the positive side, losing his church job gave him the freedom to question the foundations of his religious belief without fear of troubling his congregation.

“I could finally pursue those questions that had been bouncing around my head,” he said, while earning money from teaching, speaking and consulting jobs.

MORE ON CNN: Behold, the six types of atheists

Then, after lunch with a friend last year, he thought: What if he tried out atheism, and lived with no religion at all for a year?

“It’s like when you go to a movie and you suspend disbelief for three hours to get inside the story,” Bell said. “I’m suspending my belief in God to see what atheism is all about.”

Bell, who still holds ministerial credentials in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, thought it would be a neat little intellectual experiment.

He would interview atheists, attend gatherings of nonbelievers and read through the canon of skeptics: Friedrich Nietzsche, Baruch Spinoza, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, among others.

When friends got sick, instead of praying, as was once his immediate response, Bell said, he would “do something tangible and practical and supportive for them.”

He would start a blog, “Year Without God,” and write about his faithless journey. Bell thought maybe a few people would read his posts, follow along and offer advice or criticism.

“I didn’t realize, even four days ago, how difficult it would be for some people to embrace me while I was embracing this journey of open inquiry into the question of God’s existence,” Bell wrote on Saturday.

‘We need to talk’

The first signs of trouble came around the turn of the new year, just days after Bell announced his experiment online.

Texts and e-mails arrived from friends, family and colleagues with the ominous phrase, “We need to talk.”

Kurt Fredrickson, a friend of Bell’s and associate dean of ministry at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, sent one of those messages.

Bell, a graduate of Fuller, had taught in the school’s doctorate development program for the past year. But Fredrickson told his friend that his sabbatical from faith meant a sabbatical from the seminary as well.

“From an academic standpoint, and even as a personal journey, I’m really excited about what Ryan is doing,” Fredrickson said.

"There is no honest person of faith who doesn’t have doubts, and Ryan is being courageous enough to take a step back and assess his life. This is bold stuff.”

But Bell’s job at Fuller was to help students through their doctoral dissertations, a particularly stressful time, Fredrickson said, when seminarians need to lean on a person with strong faith.

“They are flying solo for the first time, and we want to not only teach, but to nurture souls as well,” Fredrickson said. “Ryan saying he’s going to be an atheist for a year is a little contradictory to that.”

Fuller would be happy to talk to Bell when his experiment is over, the dean added.

MORE ON CNN: What Oprah gets wrong about atheism

Azusa Pacific University, where Bell had taught intercultural communication since 2011, also declined to renew his contract.

Rachel White, a spokeswoman for the school, wouldn’t comment, saying it was an internal personnel matter. But she said all school and faculty are expected to sign a statement of faith outlining their belief in Christianity.

Also this year, Bell lost a consulting job with a Seventh-day Adventist Church in Glendale, California.

Bell said he bears no ill will toward the church or the schools that let him go, though he wishes they would tolerate, if not support, his atheism experiment. The loss of income has led to some family stress, he said.

“I have kids to support and utilities to pay and the rent is due,” Bell said. “At this point I’m willing to do almost anything.” Bell said he and his wife are divorcing, though not because of his atheist experiment.

Meanwhile, the phone calls, e-mails and texts from friends and family worried about the fate of his soul continue to pour in.

‘A beautiful gesture’

“He learned what it’s like to be an atheist real fast,” said Hemant Mehta, a prominent atheist blogger and schoolteacher in Illinois.

Mehta said he knows many atheists who fear that “coming out of the closet” will jeopardize their jobs and relationships, just as in Bell’s experience.

Mehta said he doesn’t exactly agree with the premise of Bell’s experiment. How does someone pretend to be an atheist? It’s not like a hat you wear to see if it fits. Faith taps into deeply held beliefs and emotions. Even during his experiment with atheism, won't there still be a nagging suspicion in the back of Bell’s mind that God exists?

(For the record, Bell describes his current theological views as agnostic - somewhere between belief and atheism. But he's trying to put that aside for the year to live and think like an atheist.)

Mehta said he admired Bell’s pluck and sympathized with his plight. Though he had never spoken with the pastor, Mehta set up an online fundraiser for Bell on Tuesday. In just one day, nearly 900 people donated more than $19,000 to help “the pastor giving atheism a try.”

“I think more than anything else, people appreciate that this guy is giving atheism a shot,” Mehta said. “I mean, he lost three jobs in the span of a week just for saying he was exploring it.”

Bell said he knows Christians and agnostics who have contributed to his fundraiser as well, so it’s not an all-atheist effort.

Still, he’s impressed that nonbelievers have flocked to help fund his experiment

“It really validates that the (atheist) community is really all about the search for truth,” Bell said. “They know that I might not even end up as an atheist at the end of my search, but it doesn’t matter to them. It’s such a beautiful gesture.”

Will the support tip Bell toward atheism? The pastor is agnostic about that, too – for now.

MORE ON CNN: Can atheist churches last?

- CNN Belief Blog Editor

Filed under: Atheism • Belief • Christianity • evangelicals • Faith • Lost faith

soundoff (6,251 Responses)
  1. obarryon

    "When friends got sick, instead of praying, as was once his immediate response, Bell said, he would “do something tangible and practical and supportive for them.”" Certainly a step in the right direction. Prayer: how to do nothing and still think that you're helping.

    May 27, 2014 at 10:32 am |
  2. 19covenant19

    GREAT MIRACLES have been discovered in BIBLE.
    You can see it with your own eyes
    now here:

    http://www.holy-19-harvest.com
    BIBLICAL EXCELLENT MIRACLES!

    May 4, 2014 at 6:50 am |
  3. Andrew Tatusko

    When you have children and a family to support with a marriage that is on the rocks, this is the most self-centered and irresponsible thing you can do. Intellectual experiments are better served when you are not harming those closest to you. But his book will sell a few copies. Just tired of these "Black Like Me" knockoffs. Don't become someone you're not. Accept who and what you are and then be willing to enter into dialogue with those not like you or even adamantly opposed to you. Both will gain from that conversation. This looks like an exercise in mutual disrespect for the sake of getting more popularity.

    May 1, 2014 at 9:18 am |
  4. mertonmonk

    So faith is just an intellectual experiment? Let's see – I'll try this belief system for a year and see if my life is better/worse, then try the next. Whee! What intellectual bankruptcy! It demonstrates a complete lack of any faith, because only in that state could someone decide to 'try' something new. Sad.

    April 29, 2014 at 4:11 pm |
  5. edwardicus

    This article has no journalistic integrity whatsoever. First, this guy was breaking from Church doctrine well before his experiment. It's apparent he had little faith to begin with. Just because he went to school and knew a lot about religion doesn't mean he understood faith (apparent by his supposed experiment). Second, while I hate to agree with an atheist, this Mehta guy makes a great point; it's hard to experiment with atheism when it requires a decided belief. To be agnostic is neither atheist nor Christian, and only a subjective result could be achieved which nullifies the idea of an experiment. Finally I will say that the outpouring of support is a ridiculous notion. Of course atheists will give money to a guy sticking it to the Christian faith. That's a no-brainer. Conclusion: this article had one intention and that was to make it look like the Christian faith isn't so great and atheism ain't so bad. Unfortunately the majority of this country with their Dept of Education schooling won't be able to see between the lines on this piece of fraudulent journalism.

    April 26, 2014 at 2:37 pm |
    • TruthPrevails1

      " To be agnostic is neither atheist nor Christian, and only a subjective result could be achieved which nullifies the idea of an experiment"

      No to be agnostic means simply not to having the knowledge, nothing more. Atheism is strictly the disbelief in a god or gods. Theism is belief in a god, thus Christianity does not stand alone.
      You reside in a Secular country, not a Christian one, therefore secular law supersedes and all education must be taught from a secular standpoint in order to respect all belief/disbelief.
      This man is not alone in his journey, there are many more like him in the congregations and seminaries.
      The only thing hurting Christianity are the Christians within. If they'd learn to keep it in their homes and churches, there wouldn't be such a huge issue but when they think they are beyond special and start to thump their bibles in the faces of others, then they deserve to be called on it. We can easily show the bible is bunk and not really worthy of the respect so many Christians give it. Education and the internet are killing religion in general. Just because a country has a majority doesn't make the belief system for that majority any more true, it simply means that enough fools have been fooled.
      Sorry, no evidence to support heaven, hell, god or so many other things in the bible, thus no reason to accept any of it.

      April 26, 2014 at 3:03 pm |
      • thatinthebible

        I'm so sorry that you feel this way, and I beg you to please, please, please reconsider your point of view.

        "Belief is a wise wager. Granted that faith cannot be proved, what harm will come to you if you gamble on its truth and it proves false? If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation, that He exists."
        -Blaise Pascal

        I blog at http://isthatinthebible.com

        April 26, 2014 at 8:46 pm |
        • observer

          thatinthebible

          "if you lose, you lose nothing."

          If you lose, you might be one of the many Christians who have made other peoples lives worse by using the Bible as an EXCUSE for hypocritically denying them rights or falsely calling them "murderers" or telling them they deserve to spend eternity in hell.

          April 26, 2014 at 9:24 pm |
        • TruthPrevails1

          Look up Pascals Wager since you want to quote the man.

          April 27, 2014 at 6:04 am |
        • sam stone

          do you think that your god is not wise enough to see through those who are treating it as a wager?

          April 27, 2014 at 5:11 pm |
      • thatinthebible

        TruthPrevails1,

        I have absolutely no beef with you, and meant in no shape or form to upset or harm you... I apologize if I did. I mean for my words to express compassion. If they didn't, I take full responsibility.

        I have read Pascal's Pensées. I had a class a few semesters ago that quoted him on something else, and I did my own investigation of his life just out my own curiosity, and discovered some of the things he wrote.

        Contrary to popular belief, it is possible for a person to believe in God/Jesus and still be considered an intellectual or scientist.

        I wish you all the best...

        April 27, 2014 at 11:36 am |
    • thatinthebible

      Great points Edwardicus!

      However, my heart sank a little when you threw the "Dept. of Ed" bit in there.

      Salvation is the work of the Holy Spirit. It can't be taught in public, private, or so-called Christian based schools.

      Let's stick to apologetics when non-believers are listening to or reading our conversations brother.

      Don't forget that while he was on the earth Christ's biggest issue was not with the Roman government or with non-believers, but with the religious establishment.

      I definitely feel your frustration with outspoken Atheists like some of the ones on blogs such as this, but they are the ones we have to reach for Christ. They can tick me off as well. But when I stop to think of all the human beings headed toward an eternity apart from Christ, in a place that originally was prepared for Satan and his demonic forces... Wow... my heart breaks!

      Good points though. Good points.

      I blog at http://isthatinthebible.com

      April 26, 2014 at 9:17 pm |
  6. ghostdarlin

    Reblogged this on Jody Provost and commented:
    I have a lot of respect for this guy to even take an unpopular approach to be able to prove something so important to himself.

    April 21, 2014 at 11:23 pm |
  7. crhoads62

    he is, was a 7th day adventist. he may have believed he was a Christian, but 7th day adventist although they sell a convincing argument that there doctrine is part of the Gospel. it isn't. the OT testament laws were given to the Jews and living by the laws encompassed every aspect of there lives. check the life style of orthodox jews to get a clue what this means. anyhow, 7th day adventist only prescribe to keeping the sabbath. the sabbath day was only a shadow of the true sabbath rest which is JESUS. JESUS put a end to all the laws. no one shall be justified by keeping the laws. even if you did not sin ever in the flesh you would still be unacceptable to GOD. we are all born with a rebellious nature(spirit) that wants to sin. when one receives JESUS as Lord, you are given a new spirit. hense, born again,not in the flesh, but in the spirit.

    April 21, 2014 at 10:30 pm |
    • jehovahjones

      Speaking of 'selling a convincing argument', you're not managing it either. Your illiteracy, your inability to take the time to express yourself using proper grammar, detracts greatly from your message - which is basically one of ignorance and intolerance, so it's just as well.

      April 22, 2014 at 4:17 am |
  8. thatinthebible

    In cases like this, maybe we just need to let God do His thing...

    "And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns." (Phil 1:6 NLT)

    I really like the idea of taking any random current local, national, or international news event and just seeing what the Bible has to say about that particular subject; if anything.

    I blog at http://isthatinthebible.com

    April 20, 2014 at 8:45 pm |
  9. lexingtonbobby

    This is an absurd attempt to gain the attention of the news media. This guy is a whack-job. First of all, no committed Christian, no true believer, who even come close to publicizing leaving the faith. This guy belongs in a straight jacket. The story is boring, dull, childish and just absurd….. Yawn

    April 20, 2014 at 9:03 am |
    • jehovahjones

      actually, I'd say the person who's ridiculous is the one who advocates a straight jacket for anyone who disagrees with them. in other words, you. (shaking my head)

      April 20, 2014 at 11:20 am |
  10. thozden

    Doubt in your faith is completely different from lack of belief. They cannot be equated, and you cannot simply play pretend that you have reached the latter because you experience the former. Doubt in your faith is seeing holes in the ship you've been sailing, maybe even seeing that it is sinking, not knowing where you will go or if it will last, seeing other ships far off, yet not knowing if you can reach them or if they will fare any better. No longer having faith is having reached land, feet firmly on the ground of only the reality right before you, no longer tossed about by theories or fearful of being consumed by their conclusions, watching ships battle the storm from a fortress on the cliffs.

    Losing faith is like feeling your hands losing grip on the rope that holds you up, which you trust completely as you hang your whole life on it, nothing but a black pit beneath you. And as you drop closer to the end of the rope, you grasp more desperately, trying everything you can to renew your strength, not knowing what may come past your doubt, not knowing what letting go could mean. Then suddenly, the rope itself breaks, you fall only 6 inches, land securely, and the lights come on. The ruse is over, and what you once believed is as silly as a dream you had last night. Dreams are convincing white yet in them, but a wakened mind clearly sees their impossibility.

    This is a kind gesture, but he is no atheist.

    April 20, 2014 at 5:40 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.