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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. jj

    Would the reaction be any different if he said he would give Buddism, Islam, Shintoism or Hunduism a try for a year?

    January 8, 2014 at 10:39 am |
    • I think so

      I tried Taoism and it worked really well for me. It was only when I pondered that there was nothing at all that I got a bit depressed, though I can't say it's inaccurate.

      January 8, 2014 at 10:40 am |
  2. Bedoin

    I don't think this fellow is being intellectually honest. I don't think he can give atheism a fair assessment any more than an atheist could try a religion for a year.

    January 8, 2014 at 10:39 am |
    • I think so

      It's not easy. You have to try and see where you "might" be mistaken and once you know you probably are not mistaken like it or not that's what you are left with.

      January 8, 2014 at 10:50 am |
  3. pat

    I feel bad for this guy. Both my parents were atheists and I have never considered that there might be a god, just like most people would never be concerned that Zeus might be god.As a child in the 1960's my classmates always reminded me I was going to h*ll as I made no attempt to pretend to believe in Jesus or god or heaven or an afterlife. I felt bad for all of them too. It is sad that some would struggle over something that is really neither here nor there.

    January 8, 2014 at 10:36 am |
  4. arkay

    Sometimes it's best to create space and emptiness between the self and the Creator. Filling your life with too much God talk can be dangerous and a waste of time. Just "being" is enough and when the time is right God will fill in the blanks. No one knows how much space is needed or how much time. Perhaps it is a life time of silence or perhaps a moment.

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

      No one knows if there are any gods in the first place. There is a lot of opinion, belief, speculation, but no evidence of any gods.

      January 8, 2014 at 10:38 am |
    • skeptic4321

      "God will fill in the blanks"
      Yes, I think string theory will ultimately show the flying spaghetti monster is the one true god whose noodley appendages reach us all in quantum ways.

      January 8, 2014 at 10:40 am |
    • bushgirlsgonewild

      a god fills in the blanks when the blanks are missing portions of the brain.

      January 15, 2014 at 11:27 pm |
  5. KarmaBurns

    I will pray for him and his girls. I hope he finds what he seeks. God Bless his journey.

    January 8, 2014 at 10:34 am |
    • Neo Atheist

      Yeah, pray for him. That will do him a load of good.
      While Atheists donate money to help him through his time of need. He is experiencing the one of the first things atheists experience, discrimination for his views.
      So, go ahead and pray, we'll actually do something to help him out thats a little bit more tangible.

      January 8, 2014 at 10:49 am |
  6. Tai Nguyen (Lynnwood, WA)

    As a catholic, I feel ashamed for all Christians to punish this man for whatever he believes in doing. I totally agree with what he was trying to do. Examine God is a great way of getting to know God. To ask the question of whether or not God exists is a legitimate approach to faith.

    January 8, 2014 at 10:33 am |
  7. EN

    Look, this was all about the book and book sales. That's all. This wasn't an "intellectual experiment." This was a guy who wanted a career breakthrough and found a way. And look, now we're talking about it on CNN.

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

      Yes, all one need do is google "clergy project" to see what it's really like to lose faith while still being in the pulpit.

      January 8, 2014 at 10:32 am |
    • Pegasus

      And Richard Dawkin's "The God Delusion" was all about sales, too.

      January 8, 2014 at 10:42 am |
  8. child of midian

    Atheism is not an experiment, it's a belief. He didn't try atheism, he just stopped practicing religion, but he never didn't believe in God. Religion and Faith are not the same thing, you can't just act outwardly as if you don't beleive when inwardly you do, that's just bull. All of his income came from the religious community, so coming out atheist was of course going to be an issue. Still I find it offensive, as if you can try on atheism as if it where a pair of pants.

    January 8, 2014 at 10:29 am |
    • skeptic4321

      Atheism is a "belief" like not collecting stamps is a hobby or baldness is a hair color.

      January 8, 2014 at 10:32 am |
      • Neo Atheist

        Not stamp collecting is a hobby?!

        January 8, 2014 at 10:37 am |
      • Pegasus

        A lot of atheists treat atheism like a religion.

        January 8, 2014 at 10:43 am |
        • Neo Atheist

          Religion is about stories, rituals, and belief in a higher power.
          Atheism is about knowledge, truth, facts, and things provable through experimentation and evidence. People who don't understand atheism accuse atheists of being "religious" in their ideals.

          January 8, 2014 at 10:47 am |
        • bushgirlsgonewild

          not true. Religion requires beliefs in the supernatural. Atheism is the opposite.

          January 15, 2014 at 11:28 pm |
    • ME II

      @child of midian,
      "Atheism is not an experiment, it's a belief."

      While I agree that his approach is rather silly, Atheism is not a belief. One doesn't stop believing as an experiment; I think, most atheists come to understand at some point that they no longer believe. It is more of an epiphany than a decision.
      That being said, however, Atheism is not a belief nor a religion. If he wants to call what he's doing atheism, I won't debate him on the point.

      January 8, 2014 at 10:41 am |
  9. SkepticalOne

    Welcome to the view of Christian tolerance from this side of the fence Mr. Bell.

    January 8, 2014 at 10:29 am |
    • skeptic4321

      Ah, yes, that good old " Christian love"

      January 8, 2014 at 10:34 am |
    • Locksmith

      Most Christian churches chose to blatantly ignore, in their behavior, that New Testament bit about tolerance, wherein Jesus requests those who do not have sins to cast the first stones. It is a teaching that transcends author, time or religions, and yet...

      January 8, 2014 at 11:03 am |
    • Erasmus

      Im and aheist, i want to be a Christian for one year...............i tell my atheist friends its just an experiment.......and they all say, good on ya chap, we're behind you 100%, give it a whirl ........here's a little scratch to help out $19000.00 .../// Does this seem like a likely scenario SkepticalOne?

      January 8, 2014 at 11:24 am |
      • Thinker...

        That depends; how many friends do you have (and how well off are they) and did you lose your income by trying a religion?

        January 9, 2014 at 3:41 pm |
  10. drowlord

    I applaud the open-mindedness to this (or any other) line of thought, but... presuming that you've built your entire life and career around your religion, maybe you're not in the best position to do this particular type of experiment. I mean... I'm an atheist, and like to see the number of people "like me" to grow, but I have seen a few people take the dive, and their lives weren't better. If you're religious and your religion makes your life better, you should stick with it. I quit because religion made my life worse.

    January 8, 2014 at 10:28 am |
    • AtheistSteve

      I quit because it had no effect whatsoever on my life except maybe waste my time. That and the fact that it didn't map to anything in reality.

      January 8, 2014 at 10:39 am |
  11. skeptic4321

    "he will live as if there is no God"
    I've been doing this for a few years now – best thing I ever did was to deindoctrinate myself from Christianity – I find the ideology of Humanism or Buddhism much more rational and compatible with all we now "know" than "Christianity" (and vicarious redemption via human sacrifice predicted on animal sacrifice and all the other stuff that comes with Christianity are just too irrational for me).

    January 8, 2014 at 10:28 am |
  12. Ashy

    Hope he doesn't die this year.

    January 8, 2014 at 10:27 am |
    • Atheism is for everyone

      It would depend on how, even then it wouldn't prove anything. Approx. 155,000 people die per day wold-wide.

      January 8, 2014 at 10:32 am |
    • Mike De Fleuriot

      I speak Christianese, you actual meant you hope he dies and goes to hell, like your loving god told you he would do to those who doubt.

      January 8, 2014 at 10:38 am |
    • toodark

      Yup. God punishes the pursuit of truth.

      Tree of knowledge

      Tower of Babel

      Astronomy

      Natural Selection

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

        Not God. Those who think they speak on his behalf, and end up simply travestying words written by men and in figurative ways.

        January 8, 2014 at 11:08 am |
        • Thinker...

          Well according to the bible the tree and the tower were most definitely Yahweh.

          January 9, 2014 at 3:44 pm |
  13. JJ

    This is all misleading. There's no way you can just wake up one day and decide to be an atheist. That would require that you give into your doubts, become skeptical and could no longer buy into the horseshit and absurd inconsistent supernatural claims that he now believes. Now, if he is doing an experiment to see what it's like to be an atheist in the US and be public about it then it appears he's accomplishing that.

    January 8, 2014 at 10:27 am |
  14. Doug

    "(For the record, Bell describes his current theological beliefs as agnostic – somewhere between belief and atheism.)"

    This sentence is at best misleading and at worst wantonly malicious. Agnosticism is a position on knowledge. It has nothing to do with belief. Wishy-washy articles like this only create more ignorant nutjobs who run around spouting things like "agnostics are just wimps who can't decide" and "atheists really believe in god but hate him" and stuff like that.

    January 8, 2014 at 10:27 am |
  15. Dave

    But... but... doing something tangible and practical and supportive for sick friends is exactly what Jesus would have advocated. The lesson of Jesus healing people isn't that he did awesome things; the lesson is that he was both declaring his deity AND tangibly helping them. Yes, we should absolutely pray for others in need (whether it's sickness, poverty, etc.), but we should also tangibly help them. Hospitality is a command to the whole church, not something that just the one person gifted for hospitality needs to handle.

    January 8, 2014 at 10:25 am |
    • skeptic4321

      And what does Jesus do in Revelation?

      January 8, 2014 at 10:29 am |
      • Dave

        "And what does Jesus do in Revelation?"

        He'll throw down after everyone has picked a side.

        But let's not try to confuse the description of what will happen at the end (which happens to be under plenty of debate itself) with what we're instructed to do now. That's like saying, "Well, you're eventually going to drain the bathwater when your kid is done taking a bath, so why bother filling it up with water in the first place?"

        But these are good questions to wrestle with and discuss. I like one of the quotes in the article that points out that every honest Christian has doubts, and we should. We should wrestle with our doubts and look for answers. I would certainly hope that every honest atheist has doubts as well.

        Doubts don't mean we can't be happy or content with life, they just mean that we still have questions. Despite what I keep telling my wife, I actually don't have every answer to every question.

        January 8, 2014 at 11:08 am |
    • igaftr

      "Yes, we should absolutely pray for others in need (whether it's sickness, poverty, etc.), but we should also tangibly help them"

      Try this....pray , then help 10 people.....the DON'T pray and help 10 more.
      The end result will be that you helped 20 people, with NO difference between the ones you prayed for and the ones you did not. Praying just wastes time.

      Take 100 people and have them pray for an individual...then have 1 person actually help him...the only thing the person receiving the help will notice is the help from the one. He will never know 100 other people were trying to psychically involve a god.

      January 8, 2014 at 10:35 am |
  16. Colin

    Good for him. Another person is elevated above the silly, childish sky-fairy beliefs of Christianity.

    January 8, 2014 at 10:24 am |
    • Jim

      Colin...go clean your colon. You laugh at Christianity...I laugh at your pitiful existence.

      January 8, 2014 at 10:39 am |
      • Neo Atheist

        I Laugh at christianty, because it is funny and laughable. You wouldn't believe in fairy tales from the book Grimms fairy tales would you? Then why would you believe in a book of fairy tales of the bible?

        January 8, 2014 at 10:45 am |
    • Locksmith

      The problem is not Christianity, but people's personal interpretation of what Christianity is, or should be. They tend to complicate the hell out of a very simple (albeit not simple to achieve) concept: tolerance, charity, love, humbleness, charity, charity. Notice there is no "God" or "Jesus" within the list: there is no need. When the pastor chose to not pray for a sick friend, but "do something tangible and practical and supportive for them," he is practicing Christianity (although *also* praying would not hurt, but not *only* praying). When atheists chose to donate money to him (regardless of the underlying reasons) when churches and schools turned their back on him, atheists were practicing Christianity.

      But, oh well, as human beings, we just have to complicate our lives and fill them up with hundreds of senseless rules and prejudices...

      January 8, 2014 at 11:22 am |
      • bushgirlsgonewild

        The problem is christianity. All religions are a problem. People who believe in gods take their moral marching orders from a Mafia-god rather than from a moral system where they consider and decide what is right and wrong.

        January 15, 2014 at 11:31 pm |
  17. axlb

    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,
    “This guy is getting punished for publicly saying he’s going to try atheism,”
    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 10:24 am |
    • JJ

      So, you're previously agnostic but now you not only have a belief in a deity but the Christian one? What a leap!

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

      We atheists only seem intolerant to religious folk who wish to impose the tenets of their faiths on us, especially when they use our government and our tax dollars to do so!!!!

      January 8, 2014 at 10:32 am |
      • Neo Atheist

        Atheists are called rude and intolerant when they speak up against religious doctrine that is being forced on them through the law that christians keep pushing on everyone else. I"m all for freedom of religion, but what I am not for is freedom for just your religion.

        January 8, 2014 at 10:42 am |
    • toodark

      It's easy to see why theists frequently feel that we're arrogant and fanatic. When unsubstantiated claims fall on the ears of the rational it's bounces off like a five year old shouting "yuh hunh". Demonstrate that anything about your god is demonstrably true...then we'll talk.

      January 8, 2014 at 10:49 am |
    • Thinker...

      Honestly? If I was the President I would make sure I had both Liberal and Conservative advisers. I would want people who disagreed with me advising me. I make mistakes, and if I am surrounded by people who agree with me all the time I will make far more.

      January 9, 2014 at 3:55 pm |
  18. dconklin58

    >he wishes they would tolerate, if not support, his atheism experiment.

    i.e., he wants to try to be an athiest but be paid for doing so by Christians. The church was being consistent. He wanted to be a paid hypocrite.

    January 8, 2014 at 10:23 am |
  19. slim johnny

    He just wants God his way. Ever since Lucifer and Adam that is the story.

    January 8, 2014 at 10:23 am |
    • Lucifer

      You wish you knew my story

      January 8, 2014 at 10:28 am |
      • I think so

        I wish you existed

        January 8, 2014 at 10:48 am |
    • Neo Atheist

      Key word there, story. That is all the bible is full of, stories. Fiction, made up, make believe, stories. That is all.

      January 8, 2014 at 10:39 am |
  20. 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 |
    • Sara

      False.

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

        True

        January 9, 2014 at 5:56 am |
        • G to the T

          N/A

          January 9, 2014 at 11:53 am |
        • bushgirlsgonewild

          False.

          January 15, 2014 at 11:25 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.