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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 Religion Editor

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

soundoff (6,251 Responses)
  1. Toni

    Either you believe or you don't. "Honesty is never seen sitting aside the fence." Lemuel K. Washburn.......and Mr. Washburn happens to be right.

    January 8, 2014 at 10:03 am |
    • hee hee

      So if I understand you properly, you're saying that only dishonest people say "I don't know"?

      I can see that you've thought this through.

      January 8, 2014 at 10:06 am |
      • G to the T

        To be fair, "know" is a bit different than "believe".

        January 9, 2014 at 11:44 am |
        • bushgirlsgonewild

          Well, "know" is actually a subset of "belief". We all believe things, some things we believe we consider "knowledge", but there is also justified belief, justified knowledge and the unjustified versions of both. Obviously (to me), religion is base on 'faith', which is unjustified belief and also must be unjustified knowledge. I now have a f'ing headache.

          February 6, 2014 at 11:48 pm |
  2. Doc Vestibule

    At least he doesn't have 700 or so obscure rules to follow when spending a year as an atheist, unlike A. J. Jacobs when he spent a year "living biblically".

    January 8, 2014 at 10:01 am |
  3. Paul Moloney

    "declare that you are an atheist"

    He didn't. He was trying an intellectual experiment to live as one.

    One read of many spiteful comments here shows the gulf between fundamentalist Christianity and the words of Jesus.

    P

    January 8, 2014 at 10:01 am |
  4. rabbitcommarogerindyreader

    "One of us! One of us! One of us!"
    "Oh, wait – you're going to do a thought experiment and open your mind for a while?"
    "Not one of us! Not one of us! Not one of us!"
    Tribalism at its finest. Funny, evolutionary principles explain this perfectly – but of course for many people faith causes them to block out that knowledge, too. This pastor is doing a genuinely decent thing and, presuming he's intellectually honest about it, stands to learn a lot and further, by doing so, may equip himself to do a lot of good communication between blind-faith groups and everyone else. But his particular blind-faith group is sure doing everything they can to proof themselves against learning anything along with him.

    January 8, 2014 at 10:01 am |
  5. baptist_deacon

    This guy is simply addicted to fame. He wasn't getting enough from Christians, so he switched to athiests. Atheists were conned into giving this guy money. He doesn't deserve anything except unemployment insurance.

    It goes without saying, that if you are a Christian pastor, you should be a Christian. Would you hire a bar tender that preached against drinking? Or hire a sports announcer that thought sports were dangerous? Or hire a car salesman that thought cars poluted the earth and should be outlawed?

    January 8, 2014 at 10:01 am |
    • Polish Sausage

      Addicted to fame you say . . . without scrolling up, what is his name?

      January 8, 2014 at 10:06 am |
  6. Maximus

    What is it with guys who have the last name "Bell"?

    January 8, 2014 at 10:01 am |
  7. avd

    "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.'"

    ....and this is why some Christian sects don't make sense! There are many Christian sects who believe faith AND works, not just faith alone. Being a Christian means LIVING like Christ, not just praying for help. If all you were doing was praying, when people were in need, then you were not of a true faith. That is part of the problem.

    There are many Christians who go out of their way to help others in need, whether those in need are religious or not. You need to lose yourself helping others, instead of always thinking about yourself. Therein lies happiness.

    January 8, 2014 at 10:00 am |
  8. Glenn

    It seems becoming Atheist is actually bringing Mr Bell closer to Jesus . I still don't understand how someone could pray for someone but not do anything of practicality to help . I don't see why it would have to be an either/or situation .

    January 8, 2014 at 9:59 am |
    • Doris

      I think some become closer to Jesus without necessarily believing in the divinity of Jesus. In the U.S. we always wonder about this when we think of the first handful of presidents being so heavily influenced by Deism.

      January 8, 2014 at 10:02 am |
  9. Stop the Madness

    I humbly suggest that Mr. Bell get saved first. It sounds like he has been religious his whole life. Huge difference between being a "child of God" vs. following a religion. Jesus told us, "You must be born again".

    Peace. Hebrews 11:3

    January 8, 2014 at 9:59 am |
    • bob

      How many times does he have to be born again –He has been doing it all his life- apparently it ain't working out for him one way or the other.

      January 8, 2014 at 10:02 am |
  10. RichardLB

    Each person has to find their own way through life, finding their own form of meaning.. be it through the various forms of religion or other means. and none are "wrong". I'm glad that he is finding his own way and that it is working for him. Life is full of ups and downs.. what defines us as individuals is what we do to get us through those ups and downs.

    January 8, 2014 at 9:58 am |
  11. Temesghen

    When you have two kids, 10 and 13, you DO NOT experiment, but you PROVIDE... Regardless of his philosophical adventure, he is an IDIOT!!! You adventure, when you are young or when your choices are going to affect only you!!

    January 8, 2014 at 9:57 am |
    • Hugh Jass

      He could get jobs that didn't involve selling religion to people . . .

      January 8, 2014 at 10:06 am |
  12. Doris

    Interesting that you can read all these minds and throw all these individuals into the same pot. I'm not saying I would trust this pastor, but what good do such generalizations do?

    January 8, 2014 at 9:57 am |
    • Doris

      (Corrected – this was a reply to geno marcello a bit earlier.)

      January 8, 2014 at 9:59 am |
  13. Scott

    So this man has learned more about the truth of religion than he had ever known before.

    January 8, 2014 at 9:54 am |
    • Temesghen

      No, he learned one thing: Choices have consequences, except in his case it affects his family as well.

      January 8, 2014 at 9:59 am |
      • G to the T

        Perhaps but all of those consequences seem to be due to intolerant reactions towards his decision, not the decision itself.

        January 9, 2014 at 11:47 am |
  14. Nicodemus Legend

    I think this is a wonderful thing he is doing. We all have those questions in the middle of the night about everything and I admire his being willing to explore things. My best wishes to him!

    The hard line atheists who are snickering, laughing, and feeling superior to the Christian community that has partially abandoned him for this would pretty much act the same way if some well known atheists did a similar experiment towards religion. I remember a few years a popular atheist spokeswoman became a Christian and she was attacked mercilessly by her former community for it.

    Everybody should explore and find out what works best for them.

    January 8, 2014 at 9:52 am |
    • bob

      I would bet because the atheist spokeswoman who decided to be a christian wanted money or attention or both–Just like the guy in the article

      January 8, 2014 at 9:56 am |
      • Nicodemus Legend

        So anybody who goes to the "enemy camp" is always working some type of scam? Nobody ever just wonders and contemplates their life and world and makes a decision that they feel is right for them?

        January 8, 2014 at 10:00 am |
        • avd

          Sure they can do that, but when they make it publicly known, instead of contemplating it internally or just with their own family, you have to question their motives.

          January 8, 2014 at 10:06 am |
      • Jeff

        Actually she did it so she could marry her husband. He was a hardline catholic and she was a hardline atheist. I am not sure I would call them "attacks" either. That's a pretty powerful word. I would say it was more along the lines of vocalizing disbelief, although I am sure some were mean about it. All groups have radical, fringe people.

        January 8, 2014 at 10:15 am |
      • Hugh Jass

        I think she was either a bit mental or a troll. Maybe she's a pagan or Scientologist by now?

        January 8, 2014 at 12:05 pm |
    • Temesghen

      How is it beautiful? He is just stupid, who decided to go against an organization that HIRED him without having a back-up plan to feed his family as a REAL man would do. I am saying this even if he was to stand up against any secular organization....

      January 8, 2014 at 10:00 am |
      • Nicodemus Legend

        He probably wasn't smart about it. It would have been a good idea to go to his superiors and said he was trying an experiment and made an effort to let them know this is a good idea for anyone (well especially for his bosses if he returned to Christianity).

        So no the guy didn't think out the consequences.

        January 8, 2014 at 10:09 am |
  15. Polish Sausage

    Where is your god now? It is in the same place it was when you wasted your life looking for it. Take the opportunity to move past religion and all the ignorance and fear that accompanies it. The god you seek will always be there.

    January 8, 2014 at 9:51 am |
  16. bob

    I have no sympathy for this guy. He is trying to play both sides. By the way,christopher hitchens is dead and no one will remember him 10 years from now.

    January 8, 2014 at 9:50 am |
    • RONK

      And no one will remember you in 10 minutes.

      January 8, 2014 at 10:01 am |
      • bob

        Good

        January 8, 2014 at 10:05 am |
    • Jeff

      Yeah that Darwin guy died back in the 1800s and nobody even remembers that fool now!!!

      January 8, 2014 at 10:23 am |
    • Hugh Jass

      "christopher hitchens is dead and no one will remember him 10 years from now." What an odd fantasy life you have! And so what if they don't? What if more people believe in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles than Jesus? Factuality isn't decided by vote or number of fans. LOTR is a fantasy., for example.

      January 8, 2014 at 12:11 pm |
  17. Art McFarlane

    Being a Christian means being "a friend of God." God is your Father (the same word that translates as "Daddy" or "Pop" in English). God is like the breath you breathe, your companion, your hope, your life. How does one divorce himself or herself from such a God for a year? Obviously the pastor knows God intellectually. But has he ever developed a personal relationship with God?

    January 8, 2014 at 9:49 am |
    • truthprevails1

      Imaginary beings are very difficult to have personal relationships with. Those who believe they do need serious help outside of their belief...starting with an education and potentially some psychological help for the delusions they suffer.

      January 8, 2014 at 10:02 am |
    • Lucifer's Evil Twin

      "personal relationship with God" that's hilarious... do you hang out, drink beer and watch football too?

      January 8, 2014 at 10:25 am |
      • bushgirlsgonewild

        And take it up the ass!

        February 6, 2014 at 11:50 pm |
    • Hugh Jass

      "But has he ever developed a personal relationship with God?"
      Do you mean "Who's your daddy?"

      January 8, 2014 at 12:12 pm |
    • bushgirlsgonewild

      Personal releationship? You mean like walking him to school or something? Copping a feel now and then?

      January 15, 2014 at 11:36 pm |
  18. Jake

    He is finding out just how hateful and judgmental many xtristians are. He will find out that life makes more sense and becomes natural when your worldview matches reality. After a year, I doubt he will have any interest to return.

    January 8, 2014 at 9:48 am |
    • Sean

      +Jake, christians are no more or less judgemental than anyone else. They just have a different belief. Read some of the really nasty remarks from both sides to realize this. I hope him the best, however, he may be lacking in the planning category.

      January 8, 2014 at 9:50 am |
      • Chris

        Truly doesn't seem like he planned this out at all. But I commend him on his effort.

        January 8, 2014 at 10:05 am |
    • dave karr

      Jake you are an idiot..

      January 8, 2014 at 9:54 am |
      • Jeff

        Case in point...

        January 8, 2014 at 10:00 am |
    • Jay

      So says someone who is judging ALL Christians after reading a blog

      If one says that he does not believe in science and loses his job as a science teacher, would you blame the school/university and call them intolerant/hateful? If you are not going to believe in something, even if it is for a temporary period, you should not be teaching others about it. Plain and simple.

      January 8, 2014 at 9:58 am |
      • G to the T

        Then we should fire about half the pastors out there. As he said, he hadn't wanted to explore these feelings/doubts before for fear of confusing his parish. How many other's have these same doubts but are too afraid to jeopordize all they've built?

        January 9, 2014 at 11:51 am |
    • Nicodemus Legend

      Leah Libresco, who’d been a prominent atheist blogger who converted to Christianity about a year ago and was heavily ridiculed by the extreme atheist community for it, even in the comments on an article in this column at the time.

      Bigoted, noses in the air "'cuz we KNOW we're right!" types are all over and on every side of an issue.

      January 8, 2014 at 10:04 am |
      • tallulah13

        The "prominent atheist blogger" that very few people actually know about? I remember that article. I remember thinking that her belief is her own choice. I remember that most people who commented on the article were more upset about the "prominent" label given this fairly obscure blogger than they were about her choice.

        January 8, 2014 at 10:10 am |
        • Lucifer's Evil Twin

          LOL.. I remember that article... I wondered who she was then and I actually had forgotten all about our "prominent atheist blogger"

          January 8, 2014 at 10:41 am |
      • Hugh Jass

        Yeah, "prominent" was a problem there. Who ever heard of this lady before her new church ladies began pretending she was another Dawkins? And seriously, what someone "believes" is pretty much irrelevant compared to what's actually true.

        January 8, 2014 at 11:54 am |
  19. Sean

    “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.”

    This is silly; if you are working at a religious based organization and declare that you are an atheist, then your don't lose your job, you decided to quit. Kind of like working at a gay bar and not agreeing with gay lifestyle; you've picked the wrong place to work.

    He should have tried lining up a job w/ a non-religious school or company _first_, then started down his road of exploration.

    January 8, 2014 at 9:48 am |
    • Ty

      Except that you would never be fired from a gay bar for being straight, while conversely, you would almost certainly be fired from a Christian job for being gay. The hypocrisy never ends. Christians can spout their message of love all day but their actions speak completely contrary to their words. And when I say "their", I mean the church and many of its followers. So before anyone gets all "way to generalize", I know there are exceptions. But overall, religion is bad for society in that it seeks to isolate and ostricize those who don't feel the need to believe in a god in order to be happy and secure.

      January 8, 2014 at 9:58 am |
      • Michael

        Ty, you missed the point. In the scenario of a straight person working in a gay bar. Of course, you are right they would not be fired simply for being straight, but if their job was to make the gay patrons feel welcome and the person doing the job disagreed with being gay and wasn't able to hide it, then the company would not keep him, because he is unable to fulfill his job due to his belief. It is called a conflict of interest in the corporate world and it is no different in the church world. How can someone teach, aid, counsel, or pray for someone if they don't claim to believe in God which is what they are there to help teach, aid, counsel or pray about and to. It is a conflict of interest.

        January 8, 2014 at 12:38 pm |
  20. AngieS

    I find it interesting that, in the face of personal catastrophe, Mr. Bell's Christian friends all voiced concern for him but none actually stepped up to help him in any tangible way. The teaching positions and consultancies could have been modified to take him out of direct contact or influence with students or – perish the thought! – maybe even allow him to have this conversation with students so that they can more fully explore the basis for their faith. But, no. The Christian community did nothing but, perhaps, pray for him and his family. Meanwhile the Atheist community stood up and actually helped him in a way that provided true support and respect for his spiritual journey. Viva la difference!

    January 8, 2014 at 9:48 am |
    • aaron

      Wonder what the atheist community would do with someone who "decided to give God a shot" for a year. It is much easier to come to the side of someone who is pursuing ideologies you agree with than those who don't. Let's not be so quickly misled, there is great vile and intolerance spewing from many atheist's mouths as well. Viva la reality

      January 8, 2014 at 9:58 am |
      • RTim

        Why would that person need help from atheists, or anybody else? Going to the majority view usually doesn't result in getting fired from your job.

        January 8, 2014 at 10:01 am |
      • Hugh Jass

        "someone who "decided to give God a shot" for a year." Wow, it would be SO BRAVE of them to go over and be counted with the intolerant majority! Only a real HERO would be tough enough to meekly bow down and say the same stuff everyone else says.

        January 8, 2014 at 12:15 pm |
    • Captian Obvious

      AngieS, please read the article in its entirety. It said that help is not coming from atheists alone. Christians and friends of Bell are helping as well. I second Aarons comments! Viva la truth!

      January 8, 2014 at 10:02 am |
      • AngieS

        Captain Obvious: we all, to one extent or another, see what we wish to see and you would seem to be just as guilty. The article said that Bell was aware of both Agnostics and Christians helping him but no where in this article did it say that any of his Christian "friends" we're doing so. His former mentor and employer said he would be happy to hear from him when the experiment was over but, until then, sorry...can't do anything for you. His own community of almost two decades did nothing to help him in any real or tangible way while the Atheist community felt compassion for his human plight and acted accordingly, people of faith outside of Bell's immediate community then joining in. In so far as whether or not Atheists would come to the aid of one experimenting with religion I can say from personal experience that many absolutely would. Not all religious are bad; not all Atheists are good. Neither is 100% right or wrong. The difference is that true Atheists don't condemn anyone for their spiritual journey mostly because they are sick to death of being vilified for their own.

        January 8, 2014 at 10:09 am |
        • Hugh Jass

          " true Atheists don't condemn anyone" There are no True Atheists, and No True Scotsman. A lot of angry, belligerent anarchists and Randite libertarians are also atheists. Plenty of cynical criminals who don't believe in anything also don't believe in God. I am not in a club with these people, or in solidarity with every swinging Richard who hates nuns. I am pretty sure that Kim Jong Un, for example, is not a believer in any god. But funk that guy, he's a waste of human skin that could be used for transplants. Millions of people do NOT believe in unicorns, but I bet they don't all have the same agenda about it.

          January 8, 2014 at 12:23 pm |
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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.