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.
The greatest trick the devil ever played was convincing the world he didn't exist.
I say – The greatest trick man ever played was convincing the world god does exist.
That movie, The Usual Suspects, was quite good (if that is where you got the quote).
So, do you think the devil exists?
No, it was just a quote to use as reference to my take on it.
Isn't it interesting how your lack of belief can shake the belief of a "believer"? Why would Bell's Christian friends decide that he is no long a child of god no matter what he now "believed"? Is god so fragile?
Yes, even more fragile than we imagine.
Religion is specifically designed to start people off in life with little regard for diversity and far too much paranoia and suspi.cion of others.
Atheists are usually fairly familiar with what I call "the look" from religious people who are genuinely at a loss when we tell them we are Atheists. Call it shock, disbelief, etc…
The religious indoctrination in those people is so complete that when they encounter somebody who actually is an Atheist it results in them becoming automatically defensive....as if another person simply believing differently than them is somehow an attack on their beliefs.
Oh, no. They give you a look.
Do they ever call you brainwashed, mentally retarded, suggest you believe in fairy tales and should not be allowed to vote, delusional, or schizophrenic? There is something that exists in atheism that causes some people to do those types of things.
Perhaps these are human being problems. And not just problems that exclusively exist in religious people.
You mean like the president of the country saying that atheists shouldn't be US citizens? Something like that, maybe?
I think that was a fake quote. But, yes, even people that become president are human beings and say stupid things.
You are generalizing. I am an Atheist and I have done none of those things, and never will. Everybody's faith is slightly different, and so I would never say that my faith is the truth and yours is not. Most people that I know that are Atheists do not proclaim that they are Atheists. It isn't that I am ashamed of my faith, it is just that I don't care whether or not you know I am an Atheist. As I attend Church occasionally and hang out with Christians, most people take it for granted that I am a Christian. I am fine with this and will not correct them unless we get into a personal discussion of theology.
QS was generalizing, too.
I was truthfully telling what kind of things have been said to me from atheists. I never said that all atheists or even most atheists say those kind of things. I know most don't talk that way.
False equivalency – it's logical to question supernatural beliefs that essentially have people believing in, for all intents and purposes, magic; whereas it is illogical to question why some would choose not to believe in the same magic due to their adherence to logic and reason.
No. It is not a false equivalency. It is a man generalizing about what he imagines all religious people believe, and it is not based in logic. It is his imagination. So he is guilty of generalizing. You skipped over his generalization and accused me of doing it. That is what we call being biased.
Religious people question supernatural beliefs, too. Atheists do not have exclusive access to reason, logic or facts.
I would never call a believer anything other than indoctrinated. I can say that because I recognize that I was indoctrinated back when I use to believe. I was certainly not somehow "dumber" back then. Simply misled, and made to feel guilty for things that supposedly only the Church could relieve. That's how they hook you. First, they drill into you just how unworthy you are, and then they offer Jesus as the only thing that can make you worthy as a human being. If anything, it's like getting someone addicted to a drug. I sure am glad that I managed to see through it.
I am a believer. And I was not indoctrinated in any way you were. I'm sorry you were treated differently.
You can always tell when the indoctrination was 100% successful because they'll deny they were indoctrinated.
I'm disappointed. 🙁 I wasn't indoctrinated. I was waiting for it to come, and it never did.
love me or burn in hell -- yeah I'd say he was fragile if he existed
This is all a sham. As others have stated, you don't just wake up one day and say, "I'm now an atheist" when you've been a devout believer in the supernatural for so long. This guy was/is a priest! This is all for show to grab headlines so he can come back two months later and declare what a bleak and horrible existence life is with his god or whatever. There's no low Christians won't stoop to push their agenda. Dying of starvation in Africa? We'll feed you, but first have a Bible. Oh look! We found Noah's ark in the Himalayas (not really).
I switched overnight. Of course, I had doubts for a long time but, one day, I had an epiphany and realized that I just couldn't buy the claim that God exists anymore.
He could have been a closet atheist. Afraid to act because of the obvious ramifications.
The fact that he was surprised by his loss of religious employment bears witness to how out of touch with reality his years as a pastor have made him.
Yes, that was exactly my thought! How could you maintain a position teaching mythology, when you no longer believe in it??!!
I am a pastor, I welcome people to explore answers for their toughest doubts and questions. Jesus said the greatest commandment is to Love the Lord with all your heart, soul, and mind. (Matt. 22:37) Many intellectual giants are devout Christians. Why are people surprised that he lost his jobs, when those vocations by nature require faith in God? Anyway, I encourage anyone with serious questions about God seeking evidence for faith in God to visit rzim.com you'll find a wealth of intellectually sustainable reasons for faith in God. You can also google Lee Strobel, Norman Geisler, Josh McDowell, and William Lane Craig for more evidence for God and Christianity.
Also read how the grinch stole Christmas. It's full of similar facts.
Those are really good resources.
Ask yourself why you felt the need to start out by stating you are a pastor? Nothing you wrote after required that qualification.
It was important to show how religious he had been and how HYPOCRITES likely cost him his job.
I have studied all the apologists you mention and have not found a single piece of "evidence" that stands under scrutiny. Also, their arguments are extremely poor in logic/reasoning. I'd be interested in what you thought was the best argument for christianity, but it certainly wouldn't amount to proof. God is invisible, undetectable, and apparently, irrelevant, and if there was proof, it'd be as well known as gravity and debated about as much.
Question: Why does god allows so much confusion over his plan and will when he could have just made it like math or chemistry-–verified by measurable experiment?
$$$$$$$$$$$$#$$$$ 🙂 zzzzzzzzzzzzzz
I've been surprised to find many people in the Christian community that are open to dialogue and are not just trying to dictate what others must believe. I've been encouraged to ask tough questions and draw my own conclusions.
if god knows what we are going to do before we do it, and god cannot be wrong, how does free will exist?
i would be interested in knowing what you think of this, gmanuel.
Lesson learned – christians won't help you when you're down, and will actively try to push you down harder and further.
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.”
The christian thing to do for them would be something practical. If all he ever did for anyone was pray then he wasn't much of a christian.
How can he honestly believe that he could work for faith based organizations while doubting (agnostic) their beliefs. If he were TRULY and honest person he would give up his "credentials" as a minister. They require(d) a declaration in the belief of a God which he says he now doubts (agnostic).
He has the right to do what he is doing. He does not have the right to expect those he lied to about his "faith" and "beliefs" to accept whatever he wishes to do.
He is playing the "victim card" when he is the one that caused it all to happen. How long has he been falsely representing himself to his employers?
He seems to think he can pick up where he left off after the year. If I were on any of the church boards I would severely question his beliefs before allowing him to counsel or advise anyone.
He has every right to live and believe as he feels he must. He has no right to force others to accept much less donate money to his cause as a minister.
The last time I checked, SDA's are not evangelical christians which makes this debate pointless.
Then the last time you checked about SDA was in the wrong place. SDA are in fact evangeical Christians. And I am someone who grew up a devout catholic, a church that the SDA completely steps on it's doctrine. But I wont sit here and type that SDA aren't Christians because that is the most misleading sentences in all of these comments here. If you are going to talk about something, make sure you talk about facts, it will make you a more reliable person when it comes to credibility.
$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$ 🙂 $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$
That's me under a new name. I really fooled you with a new name and the same idiotic comments, didn't I!
WOW, what a skill set he brings to the non religious part of the Universe. Surprised he is not CEO of some NYSE or private hedge fund. Wonder how the $19K donated by ??? compares to the $??K that was plucked from his "parishoners" yearly before he was "laid off". Do preachers get Unemployment State/Federal Bennies ? Tsk, tsk, tsk. Life's a beach outside his world of nonsense isn't it.
If he is sincere, I would tend to think that he has had serious doubts about his beliefs for some time. Changing ones beliefs isn't as simple as forcing yourself to eat brussel sprouts.
I tried, oh how I tried, but I could not bring myself to eat Brusell Sprouts. The smell and taste terrible and give me GAAAAAASSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS !
Oh, Brussels sprouts are fine - as a vehicle for butter and salt or cheese sauce!
Maybe folks use divine beliefs as a vehicle for that imagined yummy immortality!?
That's sounds like a really good recipe. Minus the brussel sprouts of course.
Tries to experience Atheism. Leaves religion and is banished by those who believe in Christ. Sounds Christlike to me.
He wasn't banished. He no longer agreed with the teachings and policy of his denomination. Should they have kept him on as a janitor?
His brethren could have offered him a non "teaching/preaching" position (like janitor) if one was available. I'm sure they were all his good friends, as long as he stayed in the lines, now they cut him loose. At least some atheists are helping him out .. just goes to show ya!
LOL. Nice try bashing a Christian religion for firing an EX-pastor who became atheist. There is no janitor job in a church. They probably hire people to clean once in a while, and it would be unfair to fire them to hire this guy. If he was a pastor and a Christian teacher, and is leaving his faith, how the heck can he be a pastor and a Christian teacher? please tell me? To be a Christian teacher and a Pastor in a Christian denomination, YOU HAVE TO BE A CHRISTIAN! You are trying to bash Christianity and praise Atheism in the worst way possible.
How do you know they didn't? If they did, would it have been reported by CNN?
Francisco .. did you forget to read the part where I wrote " if one was available" .. how convenient for you to "miss" that part. I also stated they were his friends .. and none of them helped him find a job elsewhere. I'm sorry if the facts don't fit what you want to believe, but the truth remains the truth regardless of what you choose to believe.
very much sounds christ-like. jesus said you must accept Him in order to get to heaven - non-christians burn, according to the messiah.
No, Jesus said that some would "fall by the wayside" as he has. The door is always open for him to attend any church in the country as a Christian should he decide to come back.
I can't wait to fry his ass! Because I love people, really.
Its breach of contract, not "banishing." Its equivalent to a conscientious objector joining the Army.
Actually they can join the army and usually join the medical core so they don't have to fight.
Fear drives the behavior(s) of too many believers.....Jesus said love is the answer. As a believer I applaud this man for having the courage to explore his doubt....kinda reminds me of another apostle. Now for all those who feel justified to toss the first stone......look in the mirror because as Paul said to Peter "is that ham I smell on your breath"
Aren't we all atheists to some degree? Ra, Zeus, Apollo, Anubis, Mohammed, Kokopelli, Annapurna, Aphrodite, Isis, Amaterasu, Saraswati, etc.
We are ALL born atheist .. until someone, depending on location or year, decides to indoctrinate us to their current brand of belief. We spend the rest of our lives escaping this psychological conditioning or going along with it as to not rock the boat.
Well said – your religion is determined more by geographic location of birth than of actual beliefs.
The use of supernaturalism to manipulate and control people is the world's oldest confidence scheme, it relies on the ritual abuse of children at their most impressionable stage by adults who have themselves been made childish for life by artifacts of the primitive mind.- Your Mom on a CNN comment.
Really. There are Christians who were never taken to Church, parents and families are atheists, and were not exposed to Christianity. Yet they had a personal experience that led them to God. There was even are article here on CNN about a girl that had this very experience. The majority of the Christians I have met were not brainwashed and have questioned their faith many times. There are as many different types of Christians are there are Atheists, because we are all humans. So does it make you feel better to generalize about Christians? Is it that all of the Christians you have known are that way?
Rob, do you know any atheists who converted to Islam or Buddhim? When a nonbeliever (or "teenage back slider'") in Saudi Arabia finds god, do they most often convert to Islam or to some other faith that is not the main faith of their culture?
Yes, they spontaneously became christian having NEVER heard of it or being exposed to it or even known it existed .. sure it did. How "convenient" for them they didn't miraculously become followers of Zeus or Ra or become Asian!
I’m a nonbeliever but attend church with my parents whenever I visit. It would just confuse my parents if I tried to tell them I didn’t believe, who would just deny and justification for the truth and what good would come out of telling them. I’m sure many people are like me, the secret nonbelievers. Still hiding in the closet from those that believe.
My Mother in law has my wife and I attend church services with her on special occasions. It does me no harm and makes her happy .. win win. But I am not a closet atheist, I follow the simple concept of don't ask, don't tell. If they ask I will walk them through it though.
Better to air it out and let the cards fall where they may, I say. Any gay person can tell you of the same fear of rejection by those they trust the most at that time upon coming out...the religiously-minded in our society are so self-righteous about their beliefs that when a loved one comes out as a non-believer their first genuine instinct is to pity you and work frantically to "save" you.
It's all very condescending and patronizing on their part – and I don't think they even realize that; or they do and just don't care.
I've had this experience with a few members of my family.
My Mother actually worked the hardest on my and after years of respectful discussions on both sides she came to the atheist conclusion.
My sister was terribly condescending and self righteous, after years of condescension she's gone deeper as a southern baptist.
My other sister tried the born again charismatic movement. After years of some respectful discussion and some not so respectful discussion she's come to what she also calls the inescapable conclusion of atheism as well.
It's been a fun ride & there's more still to come I'm sure!
haha...what a loser.
Oh gosh, why would becoming an atheist, even temporarily, ever jeopardize your position as a pastor or seminary lecturer? Doesn't make sense to me! (sarcasm)
Yeah, I'm not even a believer and that premise sounded silly. If you stop wanting to be a doctor and wanna pursue furniture-making instead, great. Excel at furniture-making. But they will rightly keep you from showing up to work at the hospital.
I wonder how many Zoroastrians, Ancient Egyptians, Ancient Grecians, Myans, etc, were persecuted (or executed) for questioning the prevailing belief system? Now we look back and it seems a foolish thing to question ... and that's exactly how future generations will see this story and thousands like it.
Not sure about the rest, but it was a major reason Socrates was sentenced to death: allegedly telling youth that Zeus might not exist.
How wrong he was about Zeus.
Good for him, he will be better for it in the end. I think his experience with losing his jobs and the backlash from the people he knows is evidence enough that Christianity, as most churches implement it, is an exclusive club reserved only for the mindless, for those who do not question.
It's funny though that there are people scared to 'come out of the closet' as atheists. I am completely open about my atheism and I have had no problems in my life because of it. Then again, most of my family is atheist, along with my friends, and I don't work for a religious organization.
Religion creates an environment of such intense intolerance of anything outside that belief structure that detaching oneself from any given sect means you are to be just as hated and shunned for declaring your non-belief as you would be for announcing that you are gay.
Those are the people I try to reach; the ones who want desperately to escape from the fantasy world they've been imprisoned in but don't have a support system to do so.
This is why we Atheists need to be extremely vigilant in letting others know they are not alone and that it's beyond acceptable to denounce your superst.ition and begin to live as a human.
"Religion creates an environment of such intense intolerance of anything outside that belief structure that detaching oneself from any given sect means you are to be just as hated and shunned for declaring your non-belief as you would be for announcing that you are gay."
Sorry that has been your experiance. This is not an accurate statement about all religion.
It's amusing to me the hypocrisy behind those that continually preach "INTEROLANCE!" "BIGOTS!" "HATE SPEECH!" and then refuse to give the same courtesy (or should I say "right") to those that THEY don't care to tolerate or accept themselves.
Err, I don't think there's a horde of atheists afraid to come out of the closet, can we get more PC about this?
Also not true that every believer is there through blind faith. Many of us have had our own journeys and experiments and arrived wherever we have. Including yourself.
Seventh Day Adventism is not Christianity but, laying that fact aside for the sake of argument, let me ask you this:
You believe a Christian school should allow atheist teachers? You don't think that belief in God should be a reasonable job requirement for a school that teaches about God? By your belief, anyone should be allowed to have any job they choose. I highly doubt you'd feel that way if you owned a business.