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.
"I'M FREE – I'm free,
And freedom tastes of reality,
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And I'm waiting for you to follow me."
The Who, ca. 1969.
Like. Great music. Great band.
Organized religion base on man's interpetation of god's word has lead to more excuses for atocities than man's self introspective of what is good and what is not...
so toss the religion. It's that simple.
If we can't "interpret" Gods word how else are we supposed to know what he's saying? Especially since God won't tell us himself. Basically, we can't interpret and God won't do it either?!
It is fascinating how many people are projecting Christians as if they own Christianity, let alone God! Christians, like everybody else, dispute amongst themselves as well as with others.
Know this, NOBODY owns Faith/Belief/God. Faith/Belief is between the individual and God. Also, it is God ALONE who judges people, NO ONE ELSE can nor is to judge or condemn anyone.
Only the magic man in the sky judges people. Silly stufff
Vic, so re your statement " Also, it is God ALONE who judges people, NO ONE ELSE can nor is to judge or condemn anyone.":
Wow, so you have to reject our whole criminal justice system according to your beliefs. That's, well, criminal. No thanks.
And no wonder our jails are overloaded with Christians; they think they are beyond our agreed upon rules.
I'd rather under God's rules which are a fraction of lawyers/attorneys laws anyday! We live in a judicial litigation nightmare that according to law school papers I've read out of curiosity...costs the U.S. MORE than the Defense budget of the U.S.
The United States has 5 percent of the world's population a day 25 percent of the world's prison population. Most laws are based on religious ideals.
The lawyer lawmakers have made a judicial litigation nightmare of the United States. Eventually people will start realizing this.
Typo and not a day
And the US has the most lawyers per capita.
No one owns it, of course not. To think it's a completely individual experience is for Oprah.
To Christians it's very much a social experience as much as an individual one. And we're encouraged to "reprove, rebuke and exort" one another with patience.
If faith/belief is between the individual and god, then it would be up to the individual to define god for themselves
While I think it is a good thing for everyone to do, I still think the journey lies in searching for truth not "taking a year sabbatical" as an intellectual experiement. I hope he embraces Atheism not only in experiement but in concience otherwise the experiment is flawed.
Amazing that a man of faith and a pastor has tried to explore a life without God, and who bashes him for it? Atheists...
Read the comments a majority of the bashing is coming from the religious right.
Sorry I only looked at the last three pages. Seemed like the majority of posts were Atheists saying he can really try to live that way; for one reason or another.
You can't blame atheists or Christians for that matter for seeing the hypocrisy. A man who was a spiritual leader should have already done his soul searching and those baby steps of his "spiritual journey".
If he hasn't already figured all that out, he shouldn't be leading others spiritual lives. Or atheist thinking. He's kind of disqualified himself in both camps for not having something solid to begin with.
That some people actually believe that others can lead them to their own spirituality speaks volumes.
Your comment also implies that if somebody at age 21 had done their so-called "soul searching", that they will inherently hold the same beliefs and views 10, 20, 40 years later, which is simply asinine.
So if I were a rich man and left all of my possessions behind and lived on the street for a year as a homeless person, is the hypocrisy that I could go back to being rich or that I tried to see how someone else lives?
Truth is that since we do not know him personally, we don’t really know why he is doing this now. Maybe his faith was shaken when his marriage fell apart. Maybe he never really had faith and just went through the motions. Maybe he wanted to try and understand were other people were coming from in their beliefs. We don’t really know. All we know is that he is trying what he has deemed an experiment, written a blog about it, and has an article about it on CNN.
There seems to be a lot of skeptical Atheists but no-one bashing him.
Why would we bash someone who is willing to look outside their religion for answers? We'd like if more did that to be honest...the world would be a happier place.
Go f yourself, sheep!
Wrong. The atheists are bailing him out:
He faced two of life's greatest challenges: job loss and divorce. It would be abnormal if he didnt question his beliefs. Seems as if he wanted to discover why he had faith and test the water on the other side. Will my life be better without my faith? As a christian, I hope that he will discover a church group that is in line with his beliefs and I hope that he will not blame God for the negatives in his life. Life is hard for everyone and it is supposed to be.. We all have to learn to deal with loss and sadness. It comes down to how you handle what happens to you more than what comes at you. Our God, my savior, has given me the stength to accept the negatives. God loves this man unconditionally. I hope he returns to his faith.
"Unconditionally"? There are conditions all over the place in the lore... and you'd better get them right! Drop it.
god helps those who help themselves. So he does nothing.
"god helps those who help themselves"
NOT a quote from the Bible.
go f yourself, sheep
This could be a long post with all of the misinformation in this article but I'll do my best to bullet point everything.
– Seventh Day Adventists are not Christians. SDAs believe in the annihilation of the wicked instead of an eternal hell, and believe that Christians who die enter a state of soul sleep and that a person must observe the Saturday Sabbath in order to be saved. SDAs also believe in Ellen G. White, the founder of SDAs, as a true prophet of God, even though many of her "prophecies" failed to come true, and that Jesus entered a second phase of His redemptive work on October 22, 1844, as "prophesied" by Hiram Edson.
– Calling yourself a Christian doesn't make you one. I can wear an orange robe, shave my head, chant and call myself a Hare Krishna all day long but unless I'm LIVING OUT the tenets of their faith, I would be a fake and damaging who they really are. It's the same with Christianity.
– This man is unsure what he believes at all. He's trying to reconcile his work with his unbelief. The mask of unbelief only lasts so long and the truth always comes out in all of our lives. Even if giving the benefit of the doubt that he was a Christian, the scriptures say that those who depart from the faith were never really OF the faith to begin with. The reason? Because God is very real and makes that abundantly evident in the lives of true Christians.
Very very real. Just like tinkerbell
This is a typical response from unbelievers who haven't got a leg to stand on and can't argue the facts. No discussion points. Nothing sincere at all. They resort to juvenile insults and intolerance. That IS proof that God is real because no sane person gets angry or belligerent at things they truly don't believe exist in the first place. It's also hypocritical because of the current demand for tolerance and acceptance of everyone that society demands. Funny how those people still want to reserve THEIR right to rage at, bully and make jokes of the things THEY don't want to accept though. It's the very definition of hypocrisy.
You aren't a Christian so you have no idea of the truth to what I'm saying. You haven't seen God so He must not be real, right? That rather contradicts the science you cling to, doesn't it? There are a great deal of unseen things in science, too.
It's About Truth,
Speaking about TRUTH, why did so many Christians get upset with him for CHOOSING the MORE IMPORTANT Golden Rule when it comes to gays rather than CHOOSING negative verses?
Let's have some TRUTH.
facts? what facts do you speak of?
I was raised catholic. I did my our father's and hail Mary's. I was brainwashed and bought into the fairytale. God is a figment of your imagination. And if you want to act juvenile and say that something exists with no proof then I also will do the same.
All hail flying spaghetti monster. You boiled yourself into softness to free me from a ridiculous and dogmatic belief system.
I'll try to answer this point by point:
– Seventh Day Adventists are not Christians. Response – Yes they are and who are you to say otherwise?
– Calling yourself a Christian doesn't make you one. Response – If these boards are any indication, yes, it does. And again, who are you to say otherwise?
– This man is unsure what he believes at all. Supposition. Response – The entire "never of the faith" argument is circular logic at its best.
ALL of your arguments are flawed in the same way (see No True Scotsman Fallacy). You assume there is one "true" interpretation of the bible and christianity in general. That is most certainly not the case, nor has it ever been.
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My religion is based on the observable universe...and that lens is expanding as we move forward in time. Traditional religions, by contrast, must either adjust to the expansion or become irrelevant.
Those religions that see scientific knowledge as a fortification to their beliefs are strong, those that see the same as a threat are weak.
Interesting. So you base your religion on science? You mean science that is performed by fallible men and women? Men and women who have been caught time and time again falsifying results for special interest groups with cash bribes and threats? The science that says one week that coffee, chocolate and egg yolks are good for us and then they're bad the next? You mean the same science that supposes many unobservable elements themselves?
Science is a wonderful thing and has benefited society, to be sure. Science is also complimentary to Christianity. It just, however, cannot OVERRIDE Christianity because it's highly prone to error and fallibility for the simple fact that imperfect people are conducting the science amidst variables that cannot be controlled.
If that is your religion, then I defend your right to it and will fight for that right. Good luck. Your religion takes more faith than any other I know and I am not capable of that much faith.
It's About Truth,
Sorry you missed my question. Here it is.
Speaking about TRUTH, why did so many Christians get upset with him for CHOOSING the MORE IMPORTANT Golden Rule when it comes to gays rather than CHOOSING negative verses?
" cannot OVERRIDE Christianity because it's highly prone to error and fallibility for the simple fact that imperfect people are conducting the science amidst variables that cannot be controlled."
Do you have any concept of how amazingly arrogant it is to say that YOURS is the only possible interpretation of the bible/chrisitanity? You sir, have made an idol of the bible.
Hey, wouldn't it be interesting if some christian performed an experiment to show what utter j@ck@sses christians are when someone just pretends to disagree with them? That'd sure be interesting....
Is there something wrong with disagreeing with you? I don't think I've been ... that way .... with you in our talks.
Topher, this blog is nothing but shared opinion. It's all it is. I guarantee you that I would sooner be your friend in real life than you would be mine, if we found we were living across the street from each other.
I'd have no problem being your friend. MOST of my friends aren't Christian. Family, either.
No, you just say everybody hates God, no matter what they're posting about.
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Some Christians act that way and so do some Atheists. I don't really think we need an experiment to see that outcome. Just read this message board. All the proof you need one place!
The break down comes when people generalize about a group of people.
All ____ people do this or that. If you are one of those people you are naturally offended. Isn’t that really the point for most people on the internet? I would never say this to your face but since I am cloaked on the internet, I will verbally beat you down as much as I can possibly do now.
I am fascinated by this. I wonder what he's going to discover. I just feel like he's cut his strings from organized religion, but I think he's going to learn a lot about God. He's not going to be able to go back to his congregation, which is fascinating where a part of the cannon is "the prodigal's son". I believe God is going to bring him closer to the truth.
Do believers doubt sometimes? Yes, I think so. How do you cope? http://goo.gl/6357le
" I believe God is going to bring him closer to the truth."
And that would be ironic if the truth turned out to support atheism, wouldn't it?
The truth that religion is a form of mass hysteria?
"I believe God is going to bring him closer to the truth"
If that were true there would be only one religion
Funny though, what's your god waiting for, applause?
Stage fright? He hasn't been seen in two thousand years.
Interesting story I suppose. It seems his situation is more complex then anyone besides he will ever know. A marriage ending is enough to shake anyone who does not want it to occur.
"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.”
This is this man's problem. If you only pray without doing tangible and supportive things, then your faith means nothing anyway.
Doesn't that violate the "Justification by Faith alone" theology?
the bible teaches that faith without works is dead... faith isnt magic, a lot of christians have a backwards idea about what faith actually is. if we dont do our part, then relying on faith is hypocritical
Back when I was a Catholic, protestants use to accuse us of not having any faith because we did emphasize doing good works. I suppose that was just their way of criticizing us even though we were still doing it the right way?
And who wrote the book of James?
And isn't it interesting what when Paul says "works" it's interpreted as the Jewish Law but when "James" says it, "works" suddenly means "good deeds"... hmmm....
Yes, but that is o.k. because the bible is one giant contradiction after the next.
Prayer – How to do nothing and still think you are helping.
There are folks here who like to say that no acts/works we can do have anything to do with gaining salvation.
Salvation is by faith alone, but faith without works is dead. So, if your faith is dead, can it save you? There has been argument about this for two millenia, although there shouldn't be. If you depend on your works to save you, you are lost. If you depend on your faith to save you, then you are actually in relationship with God, so you help people anyway out of that relationship. So tangible aid to human beings comes from true faith.
actually you're wrong. there are multiple passages in the bible that conflict with your position.
your faith to save you, then you are actually in relationship with God
Which is your preferred notion of God? Which religion?
Hum, I read that normally prayer was his immediate response. Where does he say that he would do nothing for them but pray? I think you are adding your own version, but maybe you are correct. It’s not like we can rely on CNN for accurate reporting.
Some Christians seem to take joy in pointing out to atheists that they believe also (some even go so far to the absurd suggestion that atheism is a religion). We all have beliefs. If we didn't believe anything (i.e. only went with things factually true), we would be paralyzed.
So does that make all beliefs equal? No! Some are based on highly controlled experimental evidence, some are based on trends observed and learned, some are based on stories invented thousands of years ago with no objective evidence.
Beliefs are a huge benefit to our performance as a species. We can use them to anticipate and plan. We aren't always right, but we are way ahead of a species that doesn't do that. That doesn't make all beliefs equal though. Of course everyone has an equal right to hold their beliefs.
Atheism = Free to Think for oneself
Religion = Outsourcing your thinking to a Third Party.
Religion: Self-disciple in practice, and obedience to something greater than yourself.
You just restated his point. Thanks for showing us what religion really does to the mind.
Ignorance= posting generalizations about groups of people on the internet.
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One cannot abandon a belief as an experiment. One can abandon the the outward manifestations of a belief by not praying and not going to church etc. , but doing so does not abandon ones belief. He still believed in god even though he refused to show it
Perhaps he never really did believe, but went through the motions. He simply stopped going through the motions. If the only manifestation inwardly of his relationship with God was to pray for sick friends and such, then there wasn't much relationship there.
Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.
If I were religious, I'd still be gay.
If I were straight, I'd still be an Atheist.
Interesting take. Thanks.