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.
Not a surprise that the Adventist church dumped him. I grew up a member of that church, and while its members may believe they're spiritually rich, the truth is they're morally bankrupt.
If he really wanted to tick off his old church cronies, he would've spent a year as a Catholic!
Thanks to the media!
All you need is a saucy 'coming out' story to make you big!!
How long wll atheists support him? A week? A month? A quarter? In the end, he's still running from his responsibilities.
Still longer than his brethren at his former church did.
So, 22 years? I DOUBT that!
As long as he needs support he is likely to get it...unlike christians we don't tend to turn our backs on people that easily. What responsibilities is he running from?
Atheism just means you don't believe in God. There is no "we" don't turn our backs... I know a**hole atheists that would never donate money to anyone, so you have to include them, too. Sorry. And I've seen a lot of people bragging that they are donating which suggests they are doing it just to spite Christians.
I fully understand what Atheism is. You're right, painting with a broad brush is not usually smart, so I will rephrase that...it is unlikely they will turn their backs as quickly as his christian comrades have.
Until he gets the opportunity to support himself. He didn't just give up his religion here, he also burned his resume and at a time when finding a job can be very difficult. He expected to have some time to square his world up and in the end did not, so he'll be helped until he gets an opportunity to handle it himself. Welcome to atheism, your neighbors are all you've got, lend a helping hand and know they'll do the same for you given the need because there's no one else to come to your rescue.
Judgement will come. From Jesus
No it will not.
Oh noes! Is your pretend friend going to get me?
You're really ticking Odin off.
The Church only has one reaction when faced with people who want to know the truth and that is FEAR.
Well, now he's seen the church from the outside. He'll go back, of course, as that's what he's trained to do, but he won't be so quick to talk about tolerance and forgiveness after this.
That's why he's calling it an experiment, so he can go back and say he did it for the good of the church. Then everyone can breath a sigh of relief and go back to business as usual.
To believe in Jesus is not foolish as many say. He is the only salvation for the world. Without Him you are destined for destruction, but even more so a judgement before hand in that you will realize that God has made every effort to save you from your ways and to add you to His kingdom, but you would not listen. God is love. That is why Christians are to love each other and everyone else. I don't support gay rights but I would not treat them as if they were not human, as Christians we are still to love them because they are our neighbors. Tell me what is better? To believe in Jesus for your salvation and to have a part in His everlasting Kingdom where sin, death, sorrow, pain, despair, oppression do not exist, and in this life have a moral code that includes loving everyone though not participating in sin and have that hope of eternal life. Or to have no belief in God or the Bible and have no moral code as to set your standard by thus any direction that society goes you will blindly follow though what it does is capable of being wrong because of no moral code to go by. Also there is not hope beyond this world for those who do not believe in the Bible, and this world is so corrupt how is that any good at all? I guess what I mean to ask is if you don't believe in God to fix things in the end, who will you believe in? People? People are what have brought this world to its knees and will eventually destroy this world completely. It will become uninhabitable if humans were to be allowed to continue the way they are uninhibited. But as simply as I can put it, which this is not a very good perspective, to believe in Jesus for your salvation and give up the pleasures of this world which lead to oppression of your mind and body, is better than to live out your fantasies and pleasures and destroy your mind and body and have no hope if you have to face God for all of that. In other words, its better to have faith and come up on the winning side than to have no faith and come up on the losing side. For if those with faith come up short we have lost nothing for we were happy in hoping for eternal life, but if those without faith come up short then they have to face the reality that they rejected God and they missed out on the greatest opportunity, plus they probably were never truly happy in this life.
"...plus they probably were never truly happy in this life."
Because it is an assumption.
Just becuase someones lacks belief in the supernatural, that doesn't mean they're amoral.
Blah blah blah....belief in an imaginery sky fairy...blah blah blah...salvation....blah blah blah ...Jeebuz.....blah blah blah. LMAO
There's an awful lot of Pascals Wager tossed in there. Now just provide the peer-reviewed evidence for your god and you might just have a point.
" I don't support gay rights but I would not treat them as if they were not human" Like, by taking away their rights and standing aside while others persecute them? That's pretty lukewarm.
If you don't support gay rights then you are treating them is if they are not human. How do they not see this?
You're making the assumption that morality is only possible with religion. This is false, and thus, so is your argument.
It's easy to see why you chose to remain anonymous.
Stopped reading after the second sentence
"He is the only salvation for the world"
Not according to 2/3rds of the worlds population
Please provide evidence of this
He ( Jesus ) has done a sh!tty job so far.
Tries atheism? Atheism is not a lifestyle or behavior or habit or belief or choice or group .. it is only one thing, not believing in gods. It cannot be an "intellectual experiment" since it cannot be done by experiment. If he is just trying to "act" as though there are no gods he is proceeding from a position of belief and the experiment can not come to any valid conclusions.
A real experiment would be for example the Templeton Prayer Study. The prayer study proceeded with a double blind study where multiple subjects either KNEW / DIDN'T KNOW / THOUGHT they were being prayed for. The results showed the opposite of what the Templeton foundation set out to prove .. but prayer DIDN'T work. The only effect the study showed was that those who believed they were being prayed for had a HIGHER rate of post surgical complications. Psychology is a powerful thing indeed!
His experiment is not to determine if there is a god or the effects of a god, but to experience life as a person who does not believe in any god. To see how the different world view affects his life, his friends, his family, his daily struggles. To "see how the other half lives" in a sense. After it all, he may conclude that he does not believe but enjoys the structure which a church provides, or that while he believes in his heart, the personal accountability and responsibility intrinsic to non-belief has made him a better person, or just about anything in between. This is not an experiment to determine the scientific accuracy of God or gods, but the social impact of belief.
I don't know ...
It seems to me that one does not / cannot "choose" atheism.
Atheism chooses the one
At least that is what my experience was. I did not wake up one day and say " I'm tired of going to church. I'm tired of reading the bible. I think I'll become an atheist."
It was more, " I've gone to church and found it empty. I've read the bibile and found it fraudulent. I think I'm an athiest"
He said it....gave him time to "THINK" which is something not many people really do in regard to religion. Blind faith...pheh...use your noggin. Do something tangible and practical instead of praying...makes 100% sense.
As an atheist, I'm amazed how someone thinks they can "try" atheism. If you truly believe in God (any god) then how can you suspend your belief? I don't believe in a god and could not live any amount of time pretending as is I did. Maybe this guy's faith is not as strong as he thought and I hope he's questioning those of faith who have abandoned him.
He is going to live for a year "as if" God doesn't exist.
As a 7th Day Adventist pastor, he has spent a great deal of time and money on his religion – it literally has occupied every day of his life, probably for decades.
His particular sect can be pretty humourless. They're not supposed to drink, smoke, dance, use spi.ces in their food, watch movies, play games or do anything "wordly" that isn't for the glory of God.
Their prophetess taught that they're not even supposed to SMILE!
“You sport and joke and enter into hilarity and glee. Does the Word of God sustain you in this? It does not. Christ is our example. Do you imitate the great Exemplar? Christ often wept but never was known to laugh."
– Ellen White, Manuscript Releases Vol. 6, pp. 90-91
He is going to spend the next year acting as though God is indifferent to such things – that doens't mean that he's going stop having faith.
I actually think that what he's doing is very Christian.
Most Christians believe that a big part of Christ's message is that all the rituals, pomp and circu/mstance aren't important to God – only your faith is important. It's why they don't follow all the hundreds of arcane rules from the Old Testament.
I don't think he knows what atheism is. It sounds like he thinks atheism is simply questioning one's faith.
No one so far has shown knowledge or evidence of a real God or gods. It's hard to remain open to the possibility that there are such things involved in people's lives.
Regardless of what you are peddling – entertainment, politics, religion, etc. – the first rule of show business is Know Your Audience. Scripture reports that Samson slew 2000 Philistines with the jawbone of an ass. The same weapon kills countless careers every day.
I bet he prayed (before Jan 1 of course) for the rapture not to happen this year.
Good luck to him.
Christians aren't the most christ like people.
Atheists are more christian than these intolerant lunatics.
Thumbs up. (would be easier if this site actually had a thumbs up feature 🙂 )
I'd like to note that when we "pray for someone" in the face of difficulty, it also means in addition to spiritual support, we should do something tangible and practical for the person. It's not just pray and sit, although yes, there are some groups that believe that prayer does it all but that's not the belief of all people who believe in a god.
I'd have to agree with folks saying that the atheist community is not about the search for truth because they have arrived at their truth, that there is no being/beings watching over us. The reality is we all have our own truths and calling anyone's beliefs or no beliefs a fantasy, fairy tale, or negative is rude and unproductive for discussion.
Atheist seekers are concerned with proximate truth.
Theists search of ultimate "Truth".
No one is an "atheist seeker". People who happen to be atheist simply don't have a reason to believe in gods past, present or future. They certainly don't seek "proximate" truth .. they just accept reality.
Religious believers are not after the truth or they'd ask the tough questions. They do seek, they seek to feel better about what they don't understand .. they call it God and sit back satisfied.
And here we hit the semantic wall inherent in a term like "atheism" that is a negative description that says only what someone doesn't believe.
That's why I added the qualifier "seekers".
I've heard the passive acceptance of the world termed "apatheism".
The OP was implying that atheists aren't concerned with finding any truth – that none are interested in trying to understand the ways in which the universe works – but that is patently false.
The overwhelming majority of biologists are atheists – but they are seekers of proximate truth. Meaning tangible, testable, proveable truth with real world applications.
The semantics are yours. A-Theism is Non-belief in gods, period. If a person "seeks" more they are seeking for it's own sake, not for the sake of atheism.
You completely and conveniently ignored the part about theists seeking "truth" .. that in itself is purely false as there is not one shred of evidence or reason to pursue "truth" from that basis.
I am an atheist. That term is accurate in that it describes what I don't believe.
"A" = lack of "Theism" = belief in gods. I do not believe in the existence of gods.
The word that describes what I DO believe is "naturalism".
The naturalism I, and most scientists subscribe to is simply the belief that truth comes from the empirical investigation of the universe. If something exists, it should be possible to find evidence of it. If no evidence is found, we have to conclude that it either doesn’t exist—i.e., the possibility of its existence is nullified—or we haven’t figured out a way to discover it yet.
Religion is concerned with the search for a metaphysical "Truth" – an esoteric, ethereal "grand meaning" to life, the universe and everything. So far as I'm concerned, gods are an explanation for the reason behind the Universe's existence, something which is unknowable and has no relation to what happens in the Universe.
The world doesn't work how we want it to work. The world is. We can only describe it, and chronicle its workings.
That is what I mean by "proximate truth".
Calling out fantasy for what it is, is very productive and should be done more.
Religious delusions are dangerous and damaging.
Science built the Twin Towers, religion flew airplanes into them.
Headline news this morning HELL froze over – fact !
"Faith without works is dead. " Let's see-where was it I read that?
Do you really believe that truth is relative? Do you really believe that if it can't be proven then it can't be real? History will show that there is an ultimate truth....to everything. You may see an accident from your perspective and I may see it from mine.....but either way, the truth of what really happened exists, even if neither of us can accurately explain it. Same is true for God. He either really exists or he doesn't. You were either created specially by God (which I believe to be true) or you weren't, regardless of what either of us profess as our belief. You may not believe in gravity, but it will prove its reality once you test it and walk off a building. Isn't it possible that there is more to life that we can't explain than what we can? Doesn't science change almost every day? After all, the world was once flat and evolution was once fact, or so it was believed but now have been proven false.
"What are the facts? Again and again and again — what are the facts? Shun wishful thinking, ignore divine revelation, forget what “the stars foretell,” avoid opinion, care not what the neighbors think, never mind the unguessable “verdict of history” — what are the facts, and to how many decimal places? You pilot always into an unknown future; facts are your single clue. Get the facts!"
– Robert Heinlein
Like those who argue for a young earth, many flat earthers used scriptural interpretation to bolster their belief.
150 years later, Darwin's 5 laws have yet to be falsified. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Just ask Pope John Paul II:
"New findings lead us toward the recognition of evolution as more than a hypothesis. In fact it is remarkable that this theory has had progressively greater influence on the spirit of researchers, following a series of discoveries in different scholarly disciplines. The convergence in the results of these independent studies—which was neither planned nor sought—const.itutes in itself a significant argument in favor of the theory."
Do you really believe that if it can't be proven then it can't be real? NO, but I do believe that I won't believe it is real until someone proves it. Just like bigfoot could exist, but until someone proves that it does I will withold belief in bigfoot.
God – Creator of all
Jesus – Son of God
Human Beings – Created by God (call Jesus & God Father) – Don't call Jesus Brother?
Prayer – Eyes closed and talking to God : is that the only time God listens? Does it change the mind of God? Example: Human being gets cancer, prays but dies anyway, Gods Plan? Human being gets cancer, prays or doesn't pray, but cancer is cured, Gods Plan?
Church – Place where people who believe in God congregate to.... pray, worship, etc. Purpose??
What "If": 1) Result of war/disaster/whatever all religious texts, media, evidence was completely wiped from the earth. Would humans eventually come to the conclusion of God? If so, why the Bible? Man made ideas need man to keep idea going.
2) Jesus does return. How would we know, would anyone believe him? I doubt it. It would take some evidence, and so far that isn't looking likely.
3) Religion is engraved early in childhood, children depend and trust us to feed/house/cloth them early on, trust is the only they thing know. Religion is typically passed within family and religious barriers exist between geographic locations, ethnic backgrounds, and denominations within each religion. Religion is often accepted by desperate (the old, incarcerated, poor)
its easier to accept something when their is a large following, and some kind of benefit is to be gained.
Think about it all....
Religious fanatics are the most hateful and intolerant sheeple I know!
And you call THIS post tolerant of others?
You have no evidence to support your claim that any god exists or that the supernatural events of the bible ever happend. NONE. Give it a break and try to live rationally.
I agree! But its confusing why you replied to me with that statement!
Your position on belief isn't very clear.
yeh ... i was kinda confused on that too.... lol it was like a psychotic outburst...
You cant prove or disprove a belief, thats why its called a belief.
The article states, “It really validates that the (atheist) community is really all about the search for truth,” Bell said. Being that the definition of "atheist" is one that does not believe God exists, seems they've already done their research and formed their conclusion. I'm not sure this guy was qualified to teach even Christianity!
Atheists have made up their mind regarding supernatural, ultimate "Truth", but the search for proximate truth is ceaseless.
No one is "qualified" to teach fantasy...
Why not? To become a 7th Day Adventist pastor you first need an undergraduate degree in religion followed by a master's degree in "divinity" from one of the SDA universities and then a pastoral internship.
He spent a lot of time and money learning the fantasy....
Besides, literature professors teach fantasy every day!
True. There are many classes in mythology, theology even astrology. It gives us an insight into people's minds, even history. It's all good as long as they don't teach it as the truth or reality.
You can learn more about a people's mindset by studying their myths than you can their laws.
Our understand of ancient anglo-saxon culture is much more robust thanks to the nameless monk who transcribed Beowulf.
I've read several posts that talk about how Christians dumped him, and atheists donated money, but the article clearly says, "Bell said he knows Christians and agnostics who have contributed to his fundraiser as well, so it’s not an all-atheist effort."...
so, this guy who has 2 kids to support didn't even bother to think, gee, all my jobs are with Christian organizations, if I come out as an atheist experimentalist, I might lose my jobs, and then how will I support my kids? I am sure that there have been other pastors with doubts, who were smart enough to keep quiet and line up another job to support their family first before resigning as a church pastor! what an idiot!
I agree. IF you believe in or teach Christianity you are indeed an idiot!
And sadly, you have no respect for others opinion.
Not all opinions deserve respect.
First off the experiment is a mere joke and second, if anything this really does point out how intolerant believers can be.
The article doesn't make it sound like people are being that intolerant. He is being let go from jobs that are based on religious belief, which he is suspending (no matter how silly the experiment is). He no longer qualifies for a job and so hasn't been rehired. Sounds like the pretty straight forward decision for any organization.
You don't necessarily need to believe to teach convincingly. Even as an atheist, I can teach the principles of Christianity and the bible to most Christians. One can teach from a purely academic perspective.
Line up a new job? With what résumé? Where would they live? They would instantly be jobless AND homeless, with no network of business contacts, no marketable skills, no work history. This is exactly why Jerry DeWitt began The Clergy Project.
You mean he should have kept his doubts to himself while loudly reassuring others that there was no doubt? No, he's probably one of those actual believers in God. They have a tendency to avoid lying and deceit because they actually believe they will be reanimated and judged one day. What a fool he was not to just lie to his congregation, eh? Not like it's important or anything.
I will not believe in unicorns for the remainder of the year.
Please do not think ill of me for this, and for god's sake don't tell my boss.
If you can “turn off” you beliefs just to try something else – you are just a hypocrite, nothing else.