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.
Why are so many religious people this insecure over one man of faith trying something different with his life? His choices do not affect you.
Because we care. Simply care. That's all. Face it. We really believe what we say we believe. It is just THAT simple.
And you are just that stupid, Terry.
You care so much you condemn him. Perhaps you haven't read many of the comments on this thread, but there is not a lot of "caring" coming from the christian side.
Tallulah, correction can be caring. If your child is about to touch a hot stove, you may yell at them to prevent it- correction, even though an outsider who only saw you shouting at your child would call it mean. If your closest family member were addicted or had deep psychological issues, and had to be committed, an outsider might only see you locking your loved one away- but you know you do it out of love and a desire to help them. Similarly, if someone loves God, and knows that life without Him is awful, then if they care about someone- even someone like this pastor, who may be far away- then why would they not try to steer him (or anyone) away from a self-destructive path?
So, people allow themselves to say nasty words towards a stranger because you care? Can you explain to me how this makes sense to you?
Re: "...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."
…Faith w/o doubt, ISN'T faith!
…Muhammad Atta & his band ‘O ‘merry-pranksters’ had ‘faith, w/o doubt’!
Most of my (359) murdered co-workers had, (as I recall)...
Scott '50-to-life' Roeder, also known as the ‘quiet’ evangelical-super-hero-murderer, ‘Oubliette_Man’...
Had/has faith, w/o doubt!!
G.Bush/T.Blair/R.Chaney demonstrated they possess an endless amount of ‘faith w/o doubt’, by marching other people's children onto the ‘Iraq, etc.’ corporate battlefields!
Sacred human life, (‘foetels’), is NOT so sacred, (post enlistment), when there’s a buck-to-be-realized!
Faith w/o doubt reminds one of a mother-crocodile, in a sense!
…A brand new crocodile-parent will protect her offspring from any/all threats for a week or three…
Past that time…
A crocodile will gladly swallow any/all offspring, (aka, tasty morselets'!);
So goes it with the 'holy warriors' of ALL…
Muhammad Atta had faith w/o doubt!
Scott Roeder, aka Scott '50-to-life' Roeder, had/has faith w/o doubt!
G.Bush/T.Blair/R.Chaney demonstrated faith w/o doubt, marching other people's children onto the Iraq, etc. corporate batlefields!
With religions (all of them) full of scandal, his church admonishing him because he defended gay rights, it is easy to see how he would like to try atheism. Sounds like he found out that non-believers hold the thought that kindness is not done because"you are being watched, judged by some mythical being. Being kind is part of being human. you do not need a god to know that. Is this story really news worthy? there are lots of non-believers out there. People lose their faith everyday, it is liberating. Formal religion is a thing of the past....Let's just be human.
Drivel from both sides. Wow.
Double drivel. Sounds like a turnover to me.
very witty! 🙂
Pope does nice thing, does not mention god. Pope excommunicated. Good deed reversed as unbiblitutional.
"faith": believing something without a single shred of proof.
it amazes me that religious folk see this word as a badge of honor while any logical thinking person sees it as a mark of foolishness or insanity.
quite a disconnect.
Most of us exhibit faith by not demanding proof in our everyday lives. Do you test every chair you sit in before sitting down? Do you examine all of your fast food purchases to make sure that no foreign substances have been added (e.g., saliva)? There are countless examples of faith. But the examples I mention probably don't satisfy you, and I get that.
Do you believe that love exists? How would you prove it? Or compassion or courage or honor or commitment?
I learned a long, long time ago that there is no supernatural benefit to religion. You can get sick and pray to God all you want and nothing will happen. But if you go to a big church and let out that you are sick and need help people will help and maybe even see your problem resolved. That is its chief comfort to most people which they attribute to mystical intervention but in reality it is just the result of social interaction and you could get this from joining most groups–Nazi's, Chess club, Boy Scouts, Fight Club...ok maybe not Fight Club but you get the idea.
ABsolutely 100% correct.
Not too sure one can really pretend to lose faith in the way he's suggesting, but at the least he can be a guinea pig in seeing how people treat those who do lose faith for a short while. I think the premise kind of stopped working once he made it public what his intention was.
he's planning to be miraculously saved by jesus and then write a book or start a megachurch and make his millions.
just another snake oil salesman
My thoughts exactly...
His voyage is with agnosticism, not atheism.
God will be calling him back home, I just hope he responds to our Fathers call when the time comes. Actual Grace is powerful stuff. Most of us at one point or another become the Prodigal Son. But God's calling is to beautiful to ignore. What a gift of life and celebration to be united with the Triune God.
more hokey, greeting card sayings.
like safety blankets for Christians.
they can spit them out on demand.
and somehow think that they proved a point.
such an infantile, fairy tale explanation of the world.
I supposed you would believe I have a Rolex watch that just appeared out of nothing too then. It's about a possible as the big bang theroy. Everyone believes in some fairytale even athiests.
If you think the "watchmaker" argument is a valid one, you really should get out more.
Whether God exists is totally irrelevant, either God exists or he does not and our belief one way ot the other won't change that. What all the dispute is about is Religion, an organized church, ANY organized church. Those are all invented by people and maintained by some, often well hidden, form of coercion.
very well said!
It would only be irrelevant if people who believed in god didn't make laws in his name and mentally abuse their children in the name of religion.
Gotta root for anyone who's getting smarter and more courageous in life. This guy's no exception.
First I want to compliment the author of this article for an excellent piece of truly unbiased journalism. You stand out as a true reporter.
By definition, I guess I would be called an atheist, but it doesn't bother me much because I'm over 50 and I just don't care. When asked if I believe in God, my answer has been that I believe in God Concept, but not God Person. Concept is noble and concrete: take care of each other. Person is psychologically comforting as it puts a face upon Concept. Prayer is self-meditation, nothing more. I've been through a few surgeries and the only thing that I can remember about being unconscious is that "it was all black" so I'm not afraid of death. I think that the only true miracles are the things that people do for each other; the other 'miracles' were going to happen anyway. Of course there are things that happen that cannot be explained, but that does not affect the outcome.
Just my 2 cents...
My beliefs almost exactly. Love/good/help/kindness, I call those things God, but I don't believe there is a 'being' God.
@igaftr : No, hypothesis is not bias, unless the hypothesis offers no way to test or observe
They come from an individual, and since every individual is biased, EVERY hypothesis is biased. This is why DOE's are so critical. They seek to minimize the bias in the conclusion.
What "DOE" are you referring to?
Design of Experiment. Essentially statistical methods that determine experimental protocols.
like when someone wrote that god made adam out of dirt. Totally DOE.
Or that you can bring a stinking rotten corpse back to life after being dead for three or more days, has never been done never will be.
You clearly don't understand the scientific method. When you test a hypothesis, the default conclusion is the null. Therefore, the default conclusion is there is no god unless you offer evidence to the contrary.
We don’t see the wind, but we believe that the wind exists through indirect evidences, i.e., leaves are moving, feeling the wind on our skin, etc…, Seeing is believing, the empirical evidence that we seek to prove that God exists, but the existence of God alone does not make us a believer. Think of God as a relationship, if we could not relate to God, then we would not be with God anyway. If we cannot see God but we could feel or experience signs of reciprocation, then we would enjoy interacting with God and could not live without Him.
In order to know God, we really have to be pure as a child, so we could be in tune in feeling and receiving God as a form of energy. We have to learn to love and to live for others to know how love feels to fuel us to love more. What is love? Love is giving without expecting anything in return, an unconditional love. Perhaps, we have to learn to love unconditionally in order to understand God’s love for us. Have you ever loved anyone or even God unconditionally without expecting anything in return? No, a waste of time- Well, it is never a waste of time if we reap rewards through loving or giving regardless.
God is invisible just like the wind that blows constantly, and the receiver either enjoys the gentle breeze, or hates the wind, but for as long as we know how to dance with wind, the effect is grand. Haven’t you seen artists use the wind to enhance their performance, and they dance with the wind blowing on them or their clothes, and we enjoy looking at them. Well, God is invisible, but if we start loving or giving Him without expecting anything in return, and falling in love with God is like dancing with Him under the stars at night, sharing with Him our headaches, heartaches, and let God take care of them when we feel overwhelmed, feel His love through watching a beautiful sunset, paying attention to out of the blue thought when we least expect it, talk to God, and most of all, laugh and see our hearts dance with joy when we interact with God. If you don’t feel anything first, then dance with the wind to see how fun it is, and love with all your heart to see how far it would carry you through life. Maybe you would discover God when you least expect it.
more hokey, greeting card sayings.
like safety blankets for Christians.
they can spit them out on demand.
and somehow think that they proved a point.
such an infantile, fairy tale explanation of the world.
There are many gods out there, and we are supposed to find the God who is the true one of all. How are we going to find that true God? Try love first, and when one understands love, how it feels, and if we could live for others, be for others, and still love when others desert us. Maybe in our sorrow, we find that true love, and if we could always feel that invisible bond or love from God, then we might want to be with that special God forever. Let me assure you one thing if the true God ever sends you some signal or feeling, you would know for sure.
I do love my family unconditionally and I've never needed a god to do it. It seems to me that christians are the ones who put conditions on things. How many christians do you think would keep the faith without the promise of heaven?
And the creation story (myth) leads to the golden hook the pearly gates ?
When one loves someone so much, and the thought of not being with the person is like hell on earth. When one falls in love with God so much, and the thought of not being with God forever is like hell until eternity. Just think, we have the free will to choose of to be or not to be with God, we could float out there in that vast space of the universe as immortal souls until eternity experiencing a drastic changes in temperature, or not experiencing hot and cold anymore, and just floating in that vast space without being with God. Is that hell for eternity? Choose love and see for yourself, it would carry you very far on earth, and as you reap rewards in doing things for others, you would understand God's love. No ones would die for others unless he or she could feel love for others. The promise of heaven is an invitation for us to be in the kingdom of God for eternity. If we love God, then it does not take much for us to say yes because it is so much more fun in living with God than floating out there in the vast universe with no love for eternity.
"Look at the trees" is not evidence of your god, any more than it's evidence of Zeus. A whole lot of words to say "there is no evidence of the existence of any gods."
Have you ever wondered of why Mars or the moon did not have any trees, nor life in those places? We talked about the big bang theory in which life started on earth. Well, if it was that easy for things just to start from somewhere, then why didn't it start at other planets like Mars? Paradise was built on earth, and like it or not, it is still a paradise as compared to other planets. We just have to make the best of earth. When one could experience love, it is Heaven on earth. One must love or give until one could feel love, it would make us humble, thankful, and keep on loving to stay alive. We owe it to ourselves to find that God who loves us so much, and He taught us how to love others as ourselves, to feed them when they are hungry, to be for them when they need our help, et... As we discover the human spirit, we would in turn understand God's love for us. Yes, it is true that looking at the trees, we don't see God, but when we look to our fellow human beings and doing things for them, we acknowledge God's existence in the universe in the form of love.
He turned from Christ because he never did have Christ. He was never a true Christian as in he confessed Christ but didn't possess Jesus. Seventh day Adventist are not true Christians because they misinterpret the Scriptures.
Exactly. Everyone who does things different than you is wrong.
Easily the most obvious 'No True Scotsman' fallacy ever typed in the history of the internet. Bravo!
40,000 versions of christianity...it seems NO ONE interprets the bible correctly.
Why does a book 'written' by a perfect God need to be interpreted. Wouldn't a perfect God write a book perfectly to be understood by all. (Or do we choose not to understand?)
You are so right. It is easy to understand but people like to make up their own interpretation. It's only easy to understand that we are sinner in need of a Savior and His name id Jesus.
This is one of my favorite examples of Christianity "logic". If someone breaks our rules, then they were never part of the group to begin with, because no person has the ability to change their minds about church teachings.
The best example of this type of thinking is the annulment, used by the Catholic Church. Divorce is against the rules in the Catholic Church, but if the divorcee pays the church for an annulment, then the marriage never REALLY happened.
How educated people allow themselves to swallow this load of crap, and suspend all logic, is sad.
I was raised atheist and now I am agnostic, when I was a child I had way more issues with Christians trying to save my soul, but never as an adult did my lack of belief effect a job or a relationship. Of course I was never a teacher at a religious school, but its interesting though not surprising to me that his organizations could not support his experiment. Religion often asks its followers to not question to closely the doctrine. However I disagree with this statement "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." Non-believers explore religion and come to their own conclusion. As an atheist growing up God was in the back of my mind because we are surrounded by religious people, that does not mean I can't come to my own conclusion. I wish Bell luck, I hope he finds faith in humanity and in good deeds regardless of his view on God.
Do you believe a god exists? If the answer isn't "yes," you're an atheist. Atheism is lack of belief in gods. You are an agnostic atheist, which means you don't believe a god exists, but you don't claim to know no gods exist. Atheism and agnosticism are not degrees of certainty; atheism is about belief claims, and agnosticism is about knowledge claims. They are not mutually exclusive.
If your answer isn't "yes", you are a NON-BELIEVER. If you claim somehow you KNOW there are no gods, you are an ATHEIST. If your answer is "I don't know, but there could be" you are an AGNOSTIC.
From Agnostic to Islam and I have seen examples in the past... so my humble request to you is not to stop... keep learning or studying the new stuffs... an advice to you when you decide to study or learn about Islam – do not point to the people who does wrong things as wrong doing people are there in everywhere regardless of faith, but look into the scripture and go to someone who has knowledge if you have any question that bothers you but make sure that person is well educated to his community... i ask The Almighty God to open your heart...
PaulD, you most certainly can be a Christian and a physicist (or any sort of scientist). I am. Don't get me wrong, you can't be a full believer in the bible (since it is written by people who lived hundreds of years after Jesus died, and edited throughout the Middle Ages by terrible people), but that should not prohibit you from believing in Jesus or God. I like to think that physics are the laws that he created. I just think a lot of us scientists have a different understanding of religion than others.
but isn't every word of the bible the word of your god?
and if some words aren't and some words are, how do you know which ones are which? Really! This is a vital question!
sounds like the reality of your profession is trying to save you but cognitive dissonance is keeping you mired in your bronze age cult.
The Bible was called the "word of God," yes. By the same men who wrote it. I guess I would classify myself as religious, though I don't claim to know which religion has it right. I believe in God. What he (or she, I suppose) is called doesn't much make a difference. Believing in a diety and believing in scientific truth are not mutually exclusive. But if you are going to be a "by the book" Christian, then yes, that creates a divide.
So, none of the laws in the OT are applicable? Why did all those good Christians, the ones that people nowadays like to point to as being so like the Founding Fathers, point to their OTs as justification for owning slaves? Was all of their Christianity flawed? That would bring into question any claims that this was a nation founded by actual Christians, right?
Also, why would God need a Faith 2.0 in the first place? Is he that poor a communicator? If so, why not just assume that the Muslim claims to be an improvement upon Christianity are valid, or the Mormon claims? If God's message needs amending, why assume that Jesus was the final word?
The ones who were against slavery were described as "liberal", non-Bible-believing, and not "real" Christians. Sound familiar? I have no trouble with liberal Christians simply because I think of them as liberal, socially forward people who just happen to be Christians. The abolitionists didn't point to their bibles for support; the slave owners did. The abolitionists were merely following the secular thinking of the enlightenment. Christian thinking didn't end slavery.
And, the fact that any average human can come up with much better plan than your God's really ought to tell you something.
Really too hard to answer that question succinctly. The bible is "inspired" not transcribed directly from God. It is useful for teaching, morality, and understanding the story of salvation. It is all useful for understanding the picture of salvation. Is every word as useful as all the others... no. Some of it is more valuable than others and the Bible even attempts to point out the most important parts which are sometimes broad concepts. For example, love your God and love your neighbor as yourself.
The OP is posting that over the years the effect of translating has had an effect on the Bible as we read it. There will be multiple views as how much that has had a real effect on the overall picture presented, but may effect some of the minutia. Not all languages can convey a certain idea equally.
Well guess what DallyDo, after reading only the first few lines of your paragraph it was easily discovered that you do not know what in the world you are talking about. First of all, the Bible was written by many different individuals, some being the disciples that actually walked with the Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, you are absolutely wrong when you say that the Bible was written by people who lived hundreds of years after the Lord Jesus Christ died. What you are missing is that yes Jesus died but he rose again on the third day and is still alive and communes with the believers through the Holy Spirit. So, it does not really matter when the books were written. I pray that the spirit of the Most High God falls fresh on you.
the only people who believe that the gospels were written by eyewitnesses are Christians, and virtually all bible scholars realize that the gospels were written by people who never met Jesus.
"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."
Although Spinoza was excommunicated from Judaism, he was still very much a believer in God. His account of God, though, wasn't orthodoxic and he was labelled, for better or worse, as either a pantheist or atheist.
But, the point is that Spinoza is not an atheist in any strict sense, and has an important place in theological studies. His account of the "intellectual love of God," for instance, is a constant point of interest in theological circles.
This is just ridiculous. It is impossible for a person to separate himself from the core beliefs of his innermost soul. Twaddle.