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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. Ted Tedson

    I admire this guy for having the courage to throw off the spiritual training wheels and embrace reality.

    For some, the mental gymnastics that are necessary to prop up the belief in fairy tales becomes too much.

    January 8, 2014 at 10:20 am |
    • TR in ATL

      Belief in fairy tales is one thing. Mocking and rejecting the GOD of the universe is quite different. There's still time to reconsider your position. Pick up your Bible and start reading the book of John. GOD just may transform your life forever.

      January 8, 2014 at 10:43 am |
      • ArmageddonKitten

        Tried it. It made me more firmly convinced that the book and the religions associated with it were crap. If you actually read the bible, you'll find out soon enough that god is a horrible, horrible character in a badly-written novel.

        January 8, 2014 at 10:45 am |
  2. Phil

    This seems like an example of self-absorbed silliness. The fact is – many Christians live as practical Atheists every day for much of their lives. It will do him good to go get a job, live like most of us, and then decide what he really wants to do with his life. The idea that someone who is actually a committed Christian engaging in this sort of fluff is what I find silly.

    I feel the worst for his two impressionable children who will have much more to wrestle with than their father – at a time
    when their emotional development makes it especially difficult.

    January 8, 2014 at 10:19 am |
  3. Lawrence of Arabia

    1 John 2:19 – They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us.

    January 8, 2014 at 10:19 am |
    • Lawrence of Arabia

      Wind me up a g a i n . . . . h...u...r....r.........y.......

      January 8, 2014 at 10:21 am |
  4. conoclast

    When he gets to the question of "given time and the force of gravity who needs a "god"? we'd love to hear his answer.
    Have a fruitful quest, pilgrim!

    January 8, 2014 at 10:19 am |
  5. CMC

    The article mentioned that he lost his jobs because those jobs required the faith. How can someone teach about faith when they are not living it.? It's not like sales where if you are a good sales man and really could care less about the problem, you can at least act like you do. But when you publicly announce that you will be living your life without God, then how is anyone going to take you seriously in your job. I don't think your accusations of Christians is correct because they are forgiving. This was about a contract that he signed and he broke it. And I firmly believe that atheists are supporting this as a pep rally to try and boost their position, especially when it's been made public as he has. There were some thoughts mentioned in the article that I think are geared in the wrong direction. That is what causes so much confusion in life is when people make wrong assumptions.

    January 8, 2014 at 10:19 am |
    • hee hee

      Maybe some of the donors have been through something similar.

      Are you sure that you're not making assumptions? Your post is riddled with them.

      January 8, 2014 at 10:21 am |
  6. jim

    just think only 357 more days...Really makes you wonder huh? I bet he never thought it would be this hard. I wish him the best of luck, I hope it was worth it. Have faith, just have it in yourself.

    January 8, 2014 at 10:17 am |
  7. tallulah13

    Blind faith isn't faith at all. If his employers were strong in their belief, they would welcome questions. If the tenets of your faith can't stand up to a litte scrutiny, then your religion does not deserve loyalty.

    January 8, 2014 at 10:16 am |
  8. drake mallard

    atheism is a non-prophet organization

    January 8, 2014 at 10:15 am |
    • Dan

      I see what you did there. That's quite funny

      January 8, 2014 at 10:27 am |
  9. Lawrence of Arabia

    Luke 9:26 – For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when He comes in His glory, and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.

    Romans 1:16 – For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.

    2 Timothy 1:8 – do not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord or of me His prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel according to the power of God

    January 8, 2014 at 10:13 am |
    • Lawrence of Arabia

      Wind me up – I can say other things!

      January 8, 2014 at 10:15 am |
    • Bob

      Numbers 31:17-18
      17 Now kiII all the boys. And kiII every woman who has slept with a man,
      18 but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.

      Deuteronomy 13:6 – “If your brother, your mother’s son or your son or daughter, or the wife you cherish, or your friend who is as your own soul entice you secretly, saying, let us go and serve other gods … you shall surely kill him; your hand shall be first against him to put him to death”

      1 Timothy 2:11
      "Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor."

      Revelation 2:23 And I will kill her children with death; and all the churches shall know that I am he which searcheth the reins and hearts: and I will give unto every one of you according to your works.

      Leviticus 25
      44 “‘Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves.
      45 You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property.
      46 You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.

      Note that the bible is also very clear that you should sacrifice and burn an animal today because the smell makes sicko Christian sky fairy happy. No, you don't get to use the parts for food. You burn them, a complete waste of the poor animal.

      Yes, the bible really says that, everyone. Yes, it's in Leviticus, look it up. Yes, Jesus purportedly said that the OT commands still apply. No exceptions. But even if you think the OT was god's mistaken first go around, you have to ask why a perfect, loving enti-ty would ever put such horrid instructions in there. If you think rationally at all, that is.

      And then, if you disagree with my interpretation, ask yourself how it is that your "god" couldn't come up with a better way to communicate than a book that is so readily subject to so many interpretations and to being taken "out of context", and has so many mistakes in it. Pretty pathetic god that you've made for yourself.

      So get out your sacrificial knife or your nasty sky creature will torture you eternally. Or just take a closer look at your foolish supersti-tions, understand that they are just silly, and toss them into the dustbin with all the rest of the gods that man has created.

      Ask the questions. Break the chains. Join the movement.
      Be free of Christianity and other superstitions.
      http://whywontgodhealamputees.com/

      January 8, 2014 at 10:18 am |
      • Lawrence of Arabia

        May God bless the reading of His word. Even if you would quote it out of contention and distortion.

        Philippians 1:15-18 – Some, to be sure, are preaching Christ even from envy and strife, but some also from good will; the latter do it out of love, knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the gospel; the former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition rather than from pure motives, thinking to cause me distress in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed; and in this I rejoice.

        January 8, 2014 at 10:22 am |
        • Bob

          if you disagree with my interpretation, then ask yourself how it is that your "god" couldn't come up with a better way to communicate than a book that is so readily subject to so many interpretations and to being taken "out of context", and has so many mistakes in it. Pretty pathetic god that you've made for yourself.

          So get out your sacrificial knife or your nasty sky creature will torture you eternally. Or just take a closer look at your foolish supersti-tions, understand that they are just silly, and toss them into the dustbin with all the rest of the gods that man has created.

          Ask the questions. Break the chains. Join the movement.
          Be free of Christianity and other superstitions.
          http://whywontgodhealamputees.com/

          January 8, 2014 at 10:30 am |
        • Robert

          Book of Louie 1:23.........Thou art so silly when be reading thine sacred words of thy knuckhead dumdumness.

          January 8, 2014 at 10:34 am |
      • TR in ATL

        Bob, why do you hate GOD so much? Where did that come from? You obviously 'read' your Bible. You should understand the context of what you're writing, but you choose to mock and ridicule. I don't get it. You will face GOD one day and will have no excuse. I'm sure you've read of the eternal punishment that you'll be subject to. Accept his grace and he will transform you forever.

        January 8, 2014 at 10:57 am |
    • Venn

      LA
      Would you have expected the NT writers to say "Sure, try atheism if you like"? That would be like a Ford salesman sending clients over to Honda.

      January 8, 2014 at 10:27 am |
    • Arizal

      How exactly is shame involved in this story?

      January 8, 2014 at 10:41 am |
  10. Robert

    He will continue to be punished for not believing. You need to worship and adore this god or he will punish you forever. And his minions will shun you and avoid you for thinking on your own.

    January 8, 2014 at 10:13 am |
    • axlb

      “This guy is getting punished for publicly saying he’s going to try atheism,”
      I'm a christians who's a former agnostic, first off seventh day adventist religion is questionable to me
      but i don't blame them for firing him, imagine being in the cabinet of president Obama and telling him you will suspend your liberal views and try conservatism and criticize the presidents ideology, what do you think would happen?
      Atheists claim to be open minded but rarely practice it, you guys are just as bad as the religious fanatics that you deride.

      January 8, 2014 at 10:22 am |
  11. AJ

    So when he was a Christian and had a sick friend, he would pray, but not "do something tangible and practical and supportive for them"?

    It sounds like he meant well, but my understanding of the Bible and the example of Jesus would suggest just praying is not really enough. I believe in the power of prayer, but I also think if you truly love an unwell person, you will be doing much more (making meals, chores around their place, grocery runs, etc)

    January 8, 2014 at 10:11 am |
    • JJ

      Prayer: How to feel like you are helping while still doing nothing.

      January 8, 2014 at 10:13 am |
    • Prayer is Worse Than Just Useless

      Prayer takes people away from actually working on real solutions to their problems.
      Prayer prevents you from getting badly needed exercise. Prayer makes you fat.
      Prayer wears out your clothes prematurely.
      Prayer contributes to global warming through excess CO2 emissions.
      Prayer messes up your knees and your neck and your back.
      Prayer reveals how stupid you are to the world.
      Prayer makes you think doilies are exciting.
      Prayer makes you secretively flatulent and embarrassed about it.
      Prayer makes your kids avoid spending time with you.
      Prayer makes you frothy like Rick Santorum. Just google him to find out.
      Prayer makes you hoard cats.
      Prayer dulls your senses.
      Prayer makes you post really stupid stuff.
      Prayer has been shown to have no discernible effect towards what was prayed for.
      Prayer wastes time.

      January 8, 2014 at 10:16 am |
      • TR in ATL

        Your post = meaningless.

        January 8, 2014 at 11:00 am |
      • James

        Well damn we need to tell Obama that all this damn prayer is making the Al Gore greenhouse gases go berzerks mode.

        January 8, 2014 at 11:04 am |
  12. Snafu

    It's hard to believe something that doesn't make any sense and is illogical to you, no matter how hard you try. Why lead a life that you don't believe in?

    January 8, 2014 at 10:09 am |
  13. Bill

    Lying to yourself in the face of hard evidence to keep yourself soothed is stressful. Having to make all of the dogma, metaphysics and doctrine consistent and coherent for yourself and with our discovery is even more stress piled on.

    There is a spirituality found in maturely accepting the world as it presents itself. I hope Mr. Bell gets a taste of it. His stress will melt away, his self esteem should improve but he will have to fight off nihilism. That is the tough part when you refuse to engage in fantasy or magical thinking so you can imagine yourself as able to live forever. Abandonment of outrageous ego.

    January 8, 2014 at 10:07 am |
    • Bob

      Terrific post, Bill. Great points and well said.

      January 8, 2014 at 10:14 am |
    • Billy Boy

      "but he will have to fight off nihilism" Why should he do that? Life is meaningless. You'll die, fade from existence, and everything you have done will be forgotten.

      January 8, 2014 at 10:31 am |
    • axlb

      right! the idea that these whole universe coming from nothing is really self evident and there's a lot of tangible proof that you can find such as uh uh uh well, never mind the proof it's just better to live without the burden of morality. 🙂

      January 8, 2014 at 10:35 am |
      • Ian

        axlb, google "strawman argument", stupid. And "proof" is not something you have, for your religious fairy tales.

        January 8, 2014 at 10:55 am |
      • Bill

        The only people who explicitly have to claim that something can exist without origins are theists.

        January 8, 2014 at 11:36 am |
      • Bill

        The morality that best suits human comfort and contentment will emerge and has emerged and it endures and is protected as we have proven time and time again.

        January 8, 2014 at 11:38 am |
  14. Chris

    He could be like a modern day "Job"; except that Job questioned God and still kept his faith.

    January 8, 2014 at 10:07 am |
    • Billy

      Sounds like Job didn't question his god enough to know the difference then.

      January 8, 2014 at 10:10 am |
  15. bretbmf

    But he's clearly NOT an atheist. He is "living the lifestyle" of an atheist, but he still believes in God. This is absolute rubbish. There is no "atheist lifestyle" and even if there was this guy would never be able to live it because he STILL BELIEVES IN GOD. He's just another person who is trying to get noticed and find a "clever" way to do so. I'm an atheist and I find this sort of behavior deplorable. This "social experiment" is nothing more than a scam to attract attention. Success – you're 15 minutes started about fourteen ago so enjoy it while you have it. You are now on the same level as the Kardashians – except they have jobs.

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

      It might be. I'm not sure.

      January 8, 2014 at 10:07 am |
      • hee hee

        A scam, that is.

        January 8, 2014 at 10:08 am |
    • Billy

      Yeah – I don't see how one can turn that believer switch off that quickly.

      January 8, 2014 at 10:11 am |
      • Diraphe

        We don't know what kind of doubts he has been living with.
        I know my path to atheism was a pretty curvy one.

        January 8, 2014 at 10:27 am |
      • Thinker...

        I dunno. I turned mine off during my baptism. I realized how silly it all was when the minister was going through his spiel. Kind of a bad time for that; you either have to say 'no, I don't believe' in front of your family and a hundred others or you have to lie. I decided to lie at the time unfortunately, but it was probably for the best at the time.

        January 9, 2014 at 3:25 pm |
    • Billy

      But then again, there are most certainly pastors out there who stopped believing long ago, but are still preaching.

      January 8, 2014 at 10:12 am |
      • Drucifer

        I was one. I preached for ten years with agonizing doubts. When I finally left the church, everyone I knew left me. I was still the same person. I still held myself to the same moral standard, but that's not enough for the average believer. My birthday was yesterday. I'm not a narcissist, and I don't need a lot of attention, but it is very telling that my phone was silent all day long. Five people wished me a happy birthday on Facebook. That's it. It doesn't bother me, though. Leaving the church simply clarified for me who my true friends are. Most forget to "judge not."

        January 8, 2014 at 10:41 am |
        • Bob

          Happy belated birthday wishes, friend.

          January 8, 2014 at 10:56 am |
        • huh

          You can't force people to be your friends. It is true that most people like to hang out with those that are similar. We live our life and share it with those want to be around us. If you don't have many friends that usually your fault. Don't we learn this when were in highschool/college?

          January 8, 2014 at 11:19 am |
        • Lsteel

          You need to make new friends who want to do the same things you do. Hanging around waiting for the phone to ring isn't going to accomplish that. Neither is telling people that you've discovered the truth but they are living ignorantly. Most people don't appreciate that.

          January 8, 2014 at 12:37 pm |
    • Deplorable

      Deplorable, indeed! How dare he try to understand the perspectives of someone who disagrees with him! He should know better! The way to true enlightenment is to surround ourselves with people who think exactly as we do and then ridicule anyone and everyone who thinks differently!

      January 8, 2014 at 10:22 am |
  16. gladiatorgrl

    so he now sees his "flocks" TRUE COLORS

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

      I think this is a very unfair comment. His "flock" has principles that are important for them. I fully support anyone–no matter what ethnicity, political background, nationality, etc.–who has and stands by principles. The Democratic party isn't going to allow a Republican candidate to lead their party; A burger joint isn't likely to hire a PETA protestor; my local mosque isn't likely to allow a Mormon to be their treasurer. This makes sense, to reasonable people. To remove an atheist (even a make-believe atheist) from their position from a Christian school isn't intolerable. It's the right thing to do in order to continue to uphold the convictions of the organization.

      January 8, 2014 at 10:18 am |
  17. Faithless

    Mr. Bell is still misguided, even as an "agnostic" or "atheist." The opposite of faith (theism) is not atheism, but rather the belief that blind faith is misplaced; it is the conviction that our lives must be guided by skepticism, pragmatism, and empiricism. Religion is, by its very nature, absurdly reductionist - and this is what atheists oppose. It's true that we as humans are very small beings in a practically infinite universe, but that does not mean we should abandon the inquisitiveness and committed exploration that defines our species. A blind theism robs us of that which truly makes us human.

    January 8, 2014 at 10:05 am |
  18. Ellen

    One of the hallmarks of organized religion is proselytization. There is no way that fact can he reconciled with employing or even being in a collegial relationship with a professed atheist. It's not so much about tolerance as it is about recruitment. Years ago when I was wrestling with my own doubts of faith, a "born again" friend came to visit and sat with me and cried for my soul. I couldn't begin to understand her emotionality toward my honest intellectual struggle. I was not in the devil's clutches; I was rather sorting through information putting together a philosophy and faith that I could fully embrace. It didn't take long for that pudding to be baked for me and today, although I am not an atheist, my faith is my own, not something that has been rammed down my throat by pushy religious zealots who ignore their own doubts by pressuring others to believe what they believe.

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

      Beautifully said.

      January 8, 2014 at 10:23 am |
    • Thinker...

      There are non-proselytizing organized religions. Judaism (in most forms), and Sikhism are a couple. Sikhs in particular (at least those I have met) just live by their faith and leave you to your own life. They might offer spiritual advice if you ask for it, but they seem very comfortable with themselves and don't seem to need to make everyone be like them.

      January 9, 2014 at 3:33 pm |
  19. Hugh Jass

    This will at least teach him that Christians never forgive. Carve that on his headstone when someone kills him for his lack of faith in their god.

    January 8, 2014 at 10:04 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.