January 8th, 2014
08:39 AM ET

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

By Daniel Burke, Belief Blog Co-editor
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(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. Pop

    Well, he has the smug look down.

    January 8, 2014 at 1:21 pm |
  2. Xty

    Pastor Bell will not only be denying his beautiful soul its spiritual nourishment for a year by not practicing his christian faith, he will also be involved in non christian acts through out the period of experiment. This is quite a journey for a soul that loves God.

    January 8, 2014 at 1:21 pm |
  3. Peter Metz

    Being an Christian or atheist is a mindset. Can he really change that like switching a lightbulb? He started the process last March but it will take him a while to lose his bias toward God and religion, if this is even possible. Nevertheless, kudos for him trying this experiment and I wish him well.

    January 8, 2014 at 1:21 pm |
  4. Gil Palm Beach

    Intellectualism or PHDs can't prove the existence of God. God has to prove the existence of God. If a person has not been touched by or encountered God's Spirit, it's all hypothesis...

    January 8, 2014 at 1:20 pm |
    • Devon

      So which one of Gods servants touched you? And can you point out where he touched you on this doll...?

      January 8, 2014 at 1:22 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      Indeed. But where is this God and why is it falling behind on proving its existence?

      January 8, 2014 at 1:22 pm |
  5. Nicko

    I can't stand the stink of any of you filthy, selfish creatures. The best part of your lives will be the last breath you take.

    January 8, 2014 at 1:20 pm |
    • hee hee

      You seem nice.

      January 8, 2014 at 1:23 pm |
  6. Jeebusss

    So what you are saying is that when this Christian decided to simply experiment with his faith, not even ACTUALLY become an atheist, all of his long time supposed "friends" immediately ostracized him and disposed with their relationship.

    Oh can't you just feel the Christian love and acceptance? I mean, you can't even really come up with worse hypocrites if you tried.

    January 8, 2014 at 1:19 pm |
  7. Zippy

    Maybe, just maybe, you should have had a real job that didn't revolve around the super-being overlord before starting your venture, then maybe your results would have been better. Maybe he didn't realize atheists are generally looked down upon and disliked by most god lovers.

    January 8, 2014 at 1:19 pm |
    • Jeebusss

      "But he loves you! ...And he needs money! He's all powerful, but he can't handle money!" – George Carlin

      January 8, 2014 at 1:20 pm |
    • Live4Him

      Keep persuing your short-lived pleasures – you'll spend all your time doing it without ever being satisfied.

      January 8, 2014 at 1:26 pm |
      • G to the T

        Indeed the Buddha teaches just such a philosophy. You should check it out sometime.

        January 10, 2014 at 7:39 am |
  8. NYer trapped in Texas

    This is newsworthy? A guy who is up to his ears in Christianity decides to become an atheist? That's a story? Is is not foreseeable that his Christian revenge-driven peers will abandon him? What is the point here?

    January 8, 2014 at 1:18 pm |
  9. Lamb of dog

    A woman once refused to shake my hand after she knew I was an atheist.

    January 8, 2014 at 1:17 pm |
    • JJ

      I've had Christians ask me what keeps me from raping and murdering upon discovering I'm atheist.

      January 8, 2014 at 1:18 pm |
      • Jeff

        Well, what is your response?

        January 8, 2014 at 1:21 pm |
        • hee hee

          My response is that if you need to ask that, then I would not trust you.

          January 8, 2014 at 1:24 pm |
    • Dyslexic doG

      my wife's best friend of many years refused to ever speak with her again once she found out I was an atheist.

      January 8, 2014 at 1:20 pm |
    • Peter Metz

      It's a communicable disease you know.

      January 8, 2014 at 1:22 pm |
  10. Robert Schoales

    I noticed on his blog he has a PayPal link to donate to him. Sort of ironic. My suggestion? Get a job and stop mooching.

    January 8, 2014 at 1:17 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      He's been a pastor for years.

      It's all he knows how to do.

      January 8, 2014 at 1:21 pm |
    • NYer trapped in Texas

      true story

      January 8, 2014 at 1:24 pm |
  11. Peter

    So, if he's from Hollywood, why isn't there a reality show about this?

    January 8, 2014 at 1:15 pm |
  12. David B.

    It is ironic that the Churches you go to that preach tolerance, had no tolerance for this guys experiment. And while all of his friends think that he is the black sheep, he is the one that is taking off his blinders and refusing to be a sheep at all.

    January 8, 2014 at 1:14 pm |
    • Amy

      Most churches don't care what he does.

      January 8, 2014 at 1:15 pm |
    • Edwin

      You cannot expect these religious organizations to keep him hired when he is denouncing everything they believe. This is a staffing issue in which one of the qualifications is that you have faith in God. His denouncing that makes him disqualified.

      January 8, 2014 at 1:18 pm |
    • Lamb of dog

      Just the ones that fired him.

      January 8, 2014 at 1:18 pm |
    • Happy Atheist

      Your comment gave me the image of a flock of faux sheep mingling around when one wolf stands up in the middle and asks "Hey! Are there any real sheep in here?"

      January 8, 2014 at 1:19 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      I wouldn't use the word "tolerance" in the same sentence with Seventh Day Adventism.

      January 8, 2014 at 1:26 pm |
    • Dan

      The "intolerance" cry is simply used by someone wanting to attach negative connotation to something you disagree with. It ridiculous to think that a church (which is obviously is founded on faith/beliefs) would let go someone who holds none of those core beliefs. Its like a womans group choosing to ask someone who had an operation/injections to become male to find another group. What did he expect to happen? And how can anyone be mad at the church?

      January 8, 2014 at 1:34 pm |
      • G to the T

        He. Still. Believes. In. God.

        This is a thought experiment. From your example it would be more like a guy that decides to try dressing up as a woman. He's still exactly the same guy underneath.

        January 10, 2014 at 7:43 am |
    • some_guy24

      because he's going to prove a point that they don't want him to make. it's not just faith they accept, faith is the only thing that allows their ideas to be truth. they don't like facts. when they see his life has not changed one bit except for a little more free time for other stuff, it will bother them

      January 8, 2014 at 2:19 pm |
  13. sly

    ... just to inject some levity into this story .... can we all go to the CNN main page and pay our respects to the late Governor Christie.

    No, thank God he did not die, but his political career just ended with the smoking gun emails ...

    Toast, oh obese Republican – you are now toast. Now go and loose some weight so you live a few more years.

    January 8, 2014 at 1:13 pm |
    • Bob

      Eh. Just an aide.

      January 8, 2014 at 1:16 pm |
      • sly

        ... yeah, which aide was it? Bob Haldeman or McGruden or McCord or Erlichman?

        I'm guessing the Obese One has already erased several emails, and I'll bet his Watergate tape will have more than the 19 minute's that Nixon erased.

        Republicans just have dishonest genes – nuttin' they can do about it.

        See Ya Christie! "Shut down the Democrats highway"! Ho ho ho ... kinda like "shut down America's government".

        January 8, 2014 at 1:25 pm |
  14. Bob

    And I have no issue with the guy trying out atheism, but I am sorry, be realistic. If you are no longer Christian, probably a job requiring faith is not a good fit for you.

    Losing the jobs was not a hateful attack on him, but just the reality that he is...a pastor. His job was IN faith teaching at Christian schools.

    Kind of a necessity to have faith.

    January 8, 2014 at 1:13 pm |
    • snowboarder

      i imagine there are a significant number of ministers that do not have faith. he could have simply kept his choice to himself and continued to go through the motions.

      January 8, 2014 at 1:17 pm |
    • Lamb of dog

      I imagine all the mega church pastors have no faith. How else could they justify the greed.

      January 8, 2014 at 1:21 pm |
      • hee hee

        Yes, most of them seem to be sociopaths.

        January 8, 2014 at 1:25 pm |
      • Bob

        Fair point. I bet you are right on about that.

        January 8, 2014 at 2:36 pm |
  15. Bob

    Seventh Day Adventists are not Christians, but a cult.

    January 8, 2014 at 1:10 pm |
    • Lamb of dog

      They are all cults!

      January 8, 2014 at 1:12 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Let me guess – your particular religion is The One True Faith....

      January 8, 2014 at 1:16 pm |
    • JJ

      Does anyone know if Billy Graham ever put Mormonism back on the cult list since Mitt Romney lost the election?

      January 8, 2014 at 1:22 pm |
  16. Dyslexic doG

    he'll spend one year loudly as an atheist and then he'll magically be SAVED by jesus and write a book about it and make a fortune from christian book sales and from speaking at churches and Christian gatherings.

    Who knows, maybe he'll set up his own megachurch and join the ranks of Kenneth Copeland, Creflo A. Dollar, John Hagee, Charles Blake, Benny Hinn, Joel Osteen, Eddie Long, Ed Young, Franklin Graham, Rick Warren and all the other snake oil salesmen!

    January 8, 2014 at 1:08 pm |
    • Dysliexic Enon

      Or he'll write some ridiculous atheist book like "The God Delusion" and make bank writing about a flimsy philosophy.

      January 8, 2014 at 1:13 pm |
      • Dyslexic doG

        I see what you did there. clever. you must be very pleased with yourself.

        January 8, 2014 at 1:23 pm |
      • peter

        The only ridiculous thing in this book are believers.

        January 8, 2014 at 1:23 pm |
    • Charm Quark

      Looks like we can add L4H to the list, says he has been teaching apologetics and is probably making a few dollars on the scam. I am on its naughty list so get zero response from our pompous arrogant fellow poster. The question I would like answered is if the bible is so true and clear why have the so called experts been apologising for 2000 years? Maybe L4H will answer you.

      January 8, 2014 at 1:16 pm |
      • Dyslexic doG

        i'll try. 🙂

        January 8, 2014 at 1:24 pm |
        • Charm Quark


          January 8, 2014 at 1:28 pm |
  17. Philadelphian Trapped in Texas

    I'm a non-proselytizing atheist who respects people's beliefs, whatever they are, provided those beliefs don't include shoving them down my throat. I have no interest in "atheist churches", wouldn't have contributed a dime to assist, and agree with those who don't think one can "try on" atheism; but I do find the "Revenge of the Christians" somewhat telling. In the end, most of us believe what makes us most comfortable, even if it includes a healthy dose of hypocrisy.

    January 8, 2014 at 1:07 pm |
    • Doris

      "Philadelphian Trapped in Texas"

      Oh goodness. Have a few prunes before bedtime tonight, and then first thing in the morning, shoot out of there and don't look back. It won't be easy – probably more difficult than escaping earth's gravity, but just keep your head up and straight ahead.

      January 8, 2014 at 1:12 pm |
    • Bob

      Midwesterner trapped in Texas myself, though not atheist. Good luck leaving. The people can be nice at times, but the lack of rain and non-stop 100-degree weather is horrible.

      January 8, 2014 at 1:15 pm |
  18. TLORop

    How did he expect to continue teaching at a christian school throughout this experiment?

    January 8, 2014 at 1:06 pm |
    • Peter Metz

      Actually, if you think about it, it may strengthen his teachings. Blindly following something without a healthy dose of skepticism isn't teaching is it? Is that the nature of the Socratic Method?

      January 8, 2014 at 1:29 pm |
  19. Alex

    No offense to Mr. Bell, but if you are going to try athiesm, then you need an occupation that does not require working for a religious organization. The reality is that his "non religious" qualifications for work seem to be an issue. He needs to develop an actual skill, take a certification course or degree in something not religious.

    January 8, 2014 at 1:05 pm |
    • ME II

      I don't know anything about his qualifications, but he didn't seem prepared for this experiment.
      And included his children in the risk as well.

      January 8, 2014 at 1:14 pm |
  20. Colin

    The Richard Dawkins Foundation supports a program for ex-priests and ministers who no longer believe. It is called the Clergy Project and helps ex priests and other religious figures who no longer believe.

    January 8, 2014 at 1:04 pm |
    • snowboarder

      breaking free of a lifetime of indoctrination is probably very difficult.

      January 8, 2014 at 1:15 pm |
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About this blog

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.