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.
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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.
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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.
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.
He shouldn't expect any "christian charity" from his ex-flock, ex-employer. They're showing their true colors.
Would you want them enabling a bad decision?
What, no faith that his "experiment" would fail and ultimately strengthen his belief?
@ME II : What, no faith that his "experiment" would fail and ultimately strengthen his belief?
If you enable an action, then you mitigate the impact of failure – ultimately hiding the cost of the failure. When the cost is disconnected from the action, then the failure is harder to see.
My apologies. That was more mocking and little content, please disregard.
They already ENABLE discrimination against gays rather than following THE GOLDEN RULE.
Christianity is for those who feel the need to be watched and told what to do. The need to be a slave.
So if someone at Planned Parenthood woke up one day and found that she no longer believed in abortion, are you suggesting that they would let her continue to be an employee there? What if someone at the NAACP woke up one day, lost his mind, and decided that racial segregation was okay? Should he retain his job?
As someone who knows the reality of God in my life, this experiment seems weird. Christian faith is a relationship with God. It would be like me telling my wife, "I have decided to try an experiment for one year. I am going to pretend we are not married. See you next December!" This may be a joke to unbelievers but it is strange for a believer.
As a non-believer, I think I do understand and to a certain extent I agree. Although I would modify your analogy to say, "... I'm going to pretend that I don't love you," which seems difficult to accomplish.
The part that I wouldn't agree with is the relationship part, of course, because the "wife" in my opinion does not exist.
However, that does not invalidate the feeling involved.
the only problem with that theory is that you can actually see your wife and you have a physical relation ship with her, when was the last time you saw god?
"Christian faith is a relationship with God"
Okay, which god?
Do you not think people of other faiths think they have a "relationship" with their god?
If you had been born and raised in India you would most likely be having a "relationship" with some other god.
Regardless, my older brother.........
I know his height, weight, shoe size and eye color
I know he has a scar on his left knee
I know he hates rice and rocky road ice cream
I know his kids names, his wifes name and his dog's name
I talk to him on the phone once a week
I know what school he went to and his profession
I know what makes him sad or happy or laugh
I know what car he drives
I know he is somewhat passive aggressive and has a temper
THAT is a personal relationship. You couldn't even pick your god or jesus out of a line-up.
Grow up and quit regurgitating meaningless Christian buzz phrases
"Christian faith is a relationship with God. " You mean it's a belief that you have a relationship with God, it's not an actual relationship. Have you seen him? Has he spoken to you except in your own internal voice? Has he visited you on your birthday and wished you happy birthday? Has he given you a hug when you were sad? I highly doubt it...
Religion is a disease that spreads among the weak minded. Forcing those whom it infects to believe the irrational.
Looking in the mirror are you?
Want a tissue for those tears?
Being a religionist this author is unaware of the fact that atheism is an evidentiary position that cannot be faked. It cannot even be chosen. Atheism, if one is not continually atheistic from birth, is a stance that is realized not chosen. One cannot just deny a god (for if one existed it would need to be interactive minute by minute and obvious), deny a god belief they hold for the sake of denying it (even a dog can't fool himself purposefully), or pretend to understand the ramifications of all the contravening evidence on hand when they are a believer who actually doesn't and consider themselves an atheist. One cannot pretend to be rationally objective, i.e. an atheist, as that would compound a delusion to the point of a psychosis. This not only shows a complete ignorance of what atheism actually is, but also shows that all this author does know about atheism has been garnered from pious propaganda.
This author is going to pretend to lack belief in god(s) when he actually has belief. This is psychologically equivalent to pretending to not believe in gravity. Preposterous.
After reflecting on this further, I have come tho the realization that what is being pretended here is not a lack of belief but the experiment itself. With that in mind, I applaud the effort for what it is: those first tentative steps into reality. I will add that I'm confident enough in this view to say welcome pastor, welcome to the light, and...
you have friends in understanding here.
This is what I see. This is a means for him to distance himself from the life he has lived for a number of years. It is easier on him and those around him if he states this as an experiment. He should really get in contact with the Clergy Project which helps clergy break free when they are trapped in a life which they no longer believe.
"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" they actually make these people sign a contract stating they believe in an invisible bearded man? that's pathetic
A pianist I know who wanted a position as accompanist at Baylor University's school of music faced the same sort of test. She tried to claim she was Unitarian. Not good enough, unfortunately.
The 5 stages of grief are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally, acceptance.
Religious people seem to be in a constant state of grieving, possibly about how because they're adults now the stories they were told as children about religion and god no longer make sense and they're grieving for the loss of that comfort.
So it's no surprise to me that those same billions of people seem to be mired in the very first stage – denial.
The more people that can move through those stages and finally reach acceptance, the better our world will be.
Religion is the mechanism by which most people continue to try to fool themselves into believing they will live forever – acceptance of our own mortality and nature of our existence is anti.thetical to religious beliefs.
It takes bravery to "come out" like that and announce your faith is shaken to the point of trying out living like there is no God. I find it funny that Bell thinks he can just switch it off, though. Personally, my road to understanding things as I see them took years and was heart wrenching early on because of how I was brought up and expected to believe. One year is not a long time, but something tells me that even if he comes out of this believing in God, that at least he will understand the point of view of atheists and not be compelled to write them off as simply those people going to hell.
You can't 'try' atheism. That's why I dint and won't read the article. It's a crock of organic fertilizer.
How do you know it's a crock if you haven't read it. Try reading something with an open mind before commenting on it.
He needs the book How to Speak Fluent Atheist, Agnostic and Secular Humanist. Non-believers have their own vocabulary. It can be quite confusing!
I M Probulos
leave it to CNN to make this news SAD WORLD I'M PRAYING FOR THIS MAN AND THE WHOLE WORLD GOD IS THE VICTOR PRAY PRAY GOD IS GOOD ALL THE TIME
My greatest wish is that people stop following a belief system that dictates to them that they should actively discriminate against others....while, of course, claiming to be loving and respectful to all of humanity.
And to top it off, not only do religious people fall into this trap of feeling forced to hate certain others, typically their indoctrination is so successful and complete that they are actually convinced that they are good people for doing it.
How can so many people in this world be so blind to the manipulation they willingly subject themselves to, all in the futile attempt to live forever?
So you're saying that if you believe in a religion you can't have love for all mankind? You have to hate parts of it? That doesn't make much sence to me, I would think that each person can make up thier own mind as to how to act. But you seem to be saying you give up that choice when you join a church.
Isn't this a bit like trying to experiment with living as a single person while being married? For belief to work, you have to be "married" to the idea. Like real marriage, it's not for everyone. But he needs to understand that you can't test drive a belief system like you can a car. Faith requires that we dive in head first. There's nothing quite a pitiful as a half-hearted faith.
I agree, but at the same time think that this is going to be a year of hard introspect for him. And even though it looks like he's just trying to switch it off, he already has his doubts about a god, and the fact that this has already affected his family so much by being fired for being honest about his current state of faith, I think this guy is serious.
Usually with a marriage you at least get to confirm that you are marrierd to someone and are expected to consumate your marriage. With God you just sit alone, waiting expectantly in a dark room your entire life...
"Well of course I had to fire him! You cannot be a fairy dust supplier if you don't believe in fairys! The dust just wont work!"
Having been raised in the SDA church myself, I don't find this at all surprising. They don't budge...they don't bend...you do it their way or that's it – you're out. I can promise you that this all started with him supporting the gay and lesbian community. That just simply won't be tolerated. They also take a very strong stand against divorce, but somehow that sin "isn't quite as bad." I left the church in the 90s and haven't looked back, even though I'm constantly reminded by some of the SDA friends that I still have that I'm living a life of sin. All I know is that I have a MUCH stronger faith and relationship with God now. I wish him luck on his journey and hope that it leads him to a life of peace and acceptance.
How do you demonstrate that faith?
That question seems so irrelevant. But I imagine that organized religion wants to know.
I do my best to live a life that reflects my love of God and his love of me. I grew up with "the rules" being the primary focus. I could write PAGES on what I grew up learning I should NOT do (no wearing jewelry, going to the movies, wearing makeup, turning a tv on/swimming/going out to eat/cleaning/playing sports on Sabbath, etc., etc., etc.). But rarely was the GOOD news ever focused on. So now I attend a protestant church that isn't afraid to dig in to the details, but also puts their primary focus on the basic message of God's grace and love.
When your religion's prophet only started hearing God's voice after they sufferred massive head trauma, you've gotta wonder about the validity of the crazier tenets....
@Doc Vestibule – You know, I'd never really thought of that but you're so right! Those who believe in the bible should put it above all other books, but for some reason the SDA church always turns to EGW when a tough question comes up or they want to prove a point. The bible, in and of itself, should be enough. If you can't justify it using the bible, then something is wrong.
Ryan Bell will continue to follow the Golden Rule that so many Christians opposed him following when it comes to gays.
OK, this is just stupid. He's not going to "gain" or "lose" anything. He might suffer negative stuff by way of self fulfilling prophesy. Atheism is not a belief. I don't believe there is no supernatural kingpin running the show, I know for a fact there is no mystical shot-caller.
What I do find funny is, just like most believers in the supernatural, he thinks you can change beliefs like a sweater. No matter how much he "practices" Atheism, a chunk of his brain is going to stay faithful. Kind of like a back-up.
It is nice when you know something rather than believe it. I will never, ever have this thought – "Why did God allow (insert tragic event) to happen!" Every one of my religious friends has described feeling this way at some point in their life. For some it was a period of absolute sorrow and pain because their belief contradicted reality.
I also don't have any thoughts about why I exist. I exist because 4.5 billion years of evolution made me and every other human. I don't have the typical human arrogance that makes so many think that humans are just so damn special that there must be a reason for us to be here.
I have no problem with those who do believe because I believe that evolution was a key player here as well. Thousands of years ago, the humans that banded together led longer lives. We are not physically strong enough to be loners out in the big bad world. Religion also gave "answers" to questions we hadn't figured out yet.
@Frank Mondana : Atheism is not a belief. I don't believe
How can atheism be both a non-belief system and based upon beliefs?
Atheism is freedom from a particular kind of belief system.
That's agnosticism... atheism is a belief in a negative, theism is a belief in a positive, agnosticism is a lack of belief in that regard.
That's incorrect. Atheism is not a belief in a negative. Atheism, as defined by the dictionary, is:
a disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods
I don't claim to "know" there is no god. I just don't believe it.
People who are free of belief in gods and have never even considered the issue aren't atheist?
What aren't you following? It's not based on beliefs. It's simply a disbelief in the concept of god, for which there is no evidence. It's no more a belief that disbelieving in Santa Claus is a belief.
@Jake : It's simply a disbelief in the concept of god
So, you BELIEVE that there is insufficient evidence for the concept of god – right?
Actually, that is something I know. There is no doubt that there is insufficient evidence to conclude there is a god. There is also insufficient evidence to conclude that I'll lead the Minnesota Vikings to the Superbowl next year as their new starting QB, but that's theoretically possible as well (although much more likely than the existence of a god).
I beleive that is equivocation:
Full Definition of BELIEVE
a : to have a firm religious faith
b : to accept something as true, genuine, or real
2: to have a firm conviction as to the goodness, efficacy, or ability of something
3: to hold an opinion : think
One of the major problems with religion that I see, is that what people are supposed to learn in church – like treating others as you would want to be treated – is unfortunately not what most people learn.
Most people learn not how to be good to others, but why others are bad and need to be 'saved'.
How can he "try" being an atheist if he still believes in God? That's the ONLY thing to being an atheist!
"(For the record, Bell describes his current theological beliefs as agnostic – somewhere between belief and atheism.)"
Clearly he's not sure. That's a bit of a personal crisis for a pastor. He's not the first.
I'm surprised to see no references to The Clergy project in this article or even in the comments.
"The Clergy Project is a confidential online community for active and former professional clergy/religious leaders who do not hold supernatural beliefs. The Clergy Project launched on March 21st, 2011."
This group might help Ryan Bell.
I always saw Atheism as the faith that there is no god – and agnosticism as the lack of belief either way. As a Zen Buddhist, I don't feel compelled to choose. If god only exists if I believe in him, I think there is something wrong somewhere.
But I don't see being personally responsible as mutually exclusive with having a faith. I guess if I had to believe in a god, it would be a god of humanity. Not an individual personal god. I don't know why it has to be that possessive. I take pride in the things I do and the way I relate to others. I find within me, the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.
No catori, that's wrongthink. Atheism is the absence of faith. Remember,
"Atheism is no more a belief than not collecting stamps is a hobby."
Keep on believing that! But can you prove it?
Can you prove the existence of your precious biblical god of Abraham without delving into nonsense and hysterics? Didn't think so....
So, not believing that unicorns requires proof as well? Trying to shift burden of proof much? 🙂
Atheism is not about faith. Atheism is a disbelief in the concept of a god. Faith implies believing something without evidence. That's the opposite of atheism. Atheism says, why would I believe that when there's no evidence? That is nothing like faith.
Religion is a corporation like any other; out to make money by selling a product to naive people who buy it up like junkies looking for a fix.
Open your eyes people and realize that the beliefs you hold so dear are not your own and were forced upon you as a child. The more you buy into the gimmick, the more you contribute to the scam.
Believe in whatever god you want to, but please detach yourself from this corporation before it consumes all the best parts of you.
Then why do they spend so much of that money on helping others?
because those in their debt can be more easily swayed.
Question for you: If the bible is so true and clear why have the so called experts been apologizing for 2000 years?
What is Apologetics? The word "apologetics" is derived from the Greek word "apologia," which means to make a defense. It has come to mean defense of the faith
But if the word of your god is so true and clear why does it need defending by mere humans, should the word of god not stand on its own merit? Could it be that it is so illogical that it takes so called experts to interpret the word, starting with the apostle Paul?
PS: Thanks again Dislexic doG, you may have to pick up the gauntlet for me if L4H is too much of a coward to answer me directly.
If I was terrified that someone was going to torture me forever, I'd disavow any knowledge of Him as well. That's pretty cowardly.
I have always considered it to be people making stuff up. Like when you claimed that Jesus and Satan went to the moon.
Or conning them out of their money L4H ?
Can exorcisms help soldiers with PTSD?
That all depends on the Church in question....
Live4Him, that's misleading. Religious organizations are notoriously inefficient compared with secular charities. If you want to help, a religious donation is the worst way to put your money to work at it.
Cuz they have to pay for all their silk dresses and hats for the priests
@Sue : Religious organizations are notoriously inefficient compared with secular charities
Non-sequitur – nothing you've presented leads to that conclusion.
LIve4Him, here is one example:
nited Methodist Church:
29% of revenues actually reach the poor/needy.
92.1% of revenues actually reach the poor/needy.
The Gates Foundation, aid without the need of also getting preached to.
Double check your facts. The humanitarian and charity work done by the local churchs far and way surpasses the secular charity work.
A lot of religious people take a vow of poverty. They give everything they have to others.
(But there are some who use it to get rich. But not all)
@samson, "a lot"?
i call BS.
Say what you will about their theology, but the 7th Day Adventists are more committed to humantiarian work than a lot of other Christian denominations.
The Adventist Development and Relief Agency does a lot of good in disaster stricken areas, particularly when it comes to Education, Emergencies, Food/nutrition, HIV/AIDS, Health, Refugees and IDPs, Shelter, Training and development, Water and sanitation, Women, Children, Monitoring and Evaluation, Programme management, and Security.
89.5% of their money goes directly to their charitable works – which is better than most other charities, whether secular or religious.
And they get an extra gold star becuase they do NOT prosthelytize while doing it!