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 not religious but I've seen studies where sick groups that were prayed for fared better than those that weren't prayed for. We humans really know very little about how we got here and the universe. We've barely gotten far from our own planet except for telesopes and probes
Placebo? Did they know that they were being played for. If I give you a sugar pill and tell you it's aspirin it can make your headache go away if you believe it's aspirin.
not only is the placebo effect very real, you don't have to have any actual change interventional treatment (in other words, you don't need to add a sham treatment/placebo for the effect to be seen) – just the increased attention and tracking/support by interested parties can improve clinical status
Right, try that with someone who really is in pain, that placebo effect only works on little things like a headache, they tend to go away after awhile anyway. Anyone in real pain will know a freaking fake pill.
In the studies i saw they didn't know. They used 200 sick people in two groups of 100. One group was prayed for and the other wasn't. They used a church to pray for the group that was prayed for.
Cite the study or it is just anecdotal. It isn't what you know, it is what you can prove. Some people believe that the President of the United States is actually an alien that has taken human form and that the flu shots are mind control serum. Just because you say it is true, or you know it is real, does NOT make it so.
Generally the sick that are prayed for only get better faster than the sick that don't because they are believers who know they are being prayed for.
It says more about the power of the human mind over the human body than it does about prayer itself.
o The John Templeton Foundation funded a 10 year, $2.4 million dollar study involving 1,800 cardiac patients to measure the effectiveness of intecessory prayer.
The patients were broken into three groups. Two were prayed for; the third was not. Half the patients who received the prayers were told that they were being prayed for; half were told that they might or might not receive prayers.
Analyzing complications in the 30 days after the operations, the researchers found no differences between those patients who were prayed for and those who were not.
Over the longer term, patients who knew they were being prayed for had a higher rate of post-operative complications like abnormal heart rhythms, perhaps because of the expectations the prayers created, the researchers suggested.
A 1997 study at the University of New Mexico, involving 40 alcoholics in rehabilitation, found that the men and women who knew they were being prayed for actually fared worse.
"Power of Prayer Flunks Unusual Test – NEW YORK — In the largest study of its kind, researchers found that having people pray for heart bypass surgery patients had no effect on their recovery. In fact, patients who knew they were being prayed for had a slightly higher rate of complications.Researchers emphasized that their work can't address whether God exists or answers prayers made on another's behalf. The study can only look for an effect from prayers offered as part of the research, they said.They also said they had no explanation for the higher complication rate in patients who knew they were being prayed for, in comparison to patients who only knew it was possible prayers were being said for them." http://www.nbcnews.com/id/12082681/#.Us7V6J5dUWk
I just looked up studies and you can pull up whatever you want to believe for or against.
True, but some are actual, controlled studies and others are simply anecdotal.
This is true. Which is why your OP is disingenuous, at best.
Actually, the opposite is true. Take a look at Wikipedia on Intercessory Prayer. In the Rutgers Study (http://www.templeton.org/pdfs/articles/060331Reuters.pdf), patients who were prayed for did WORSE.
at best that is pseudoscience, in that it loosely follows the appropriate experimental model.
There is ZERO way to definitively prove that prayer is the sole causal agent to a recovery from illness or injury
Aside from the fact that all the people in the study were still people with a disease or injury to combat and recover from for likely the rest of their lives even after the prayers. If the prayer group in the experiment suddenly, in controvention of known medical timelines, demonstrated that they were as they were prior to the diesease, surgery, injury etc, and subsequent testing provides no evidence of anything other than a straight up non medical intervention based change in their biology, THEN the results might be remarkable. Until then, its dumb coincidence and unscientific conjecture and nothing more
All I'm seeing out of this is that a career pastor got more involved with activism than community service, found his activism to be incompatible with his denomination and decided to try to turn his leaving the church into future speaking engagements.
That's his right to do, however he's destroyed his credibility on both fronts. He lacks the conviction and consistency to be either pastor or activist.
It's easier to judge than it is to give someone a second chance.
How is advocating what his religion supposedly teaches "activism"?
His activism is what led up to his disagreements with his denomination, if you read the full story. Probably gay rights particularly didn't sit well. Which again is is right, but not a priority of the church over matters that affect everyone like poverty and other areas of community service. But he knew beforehand what his denominations stance was, on whatever else he was involved with. He shot himself in the foot trying to make a career shift on his denominations dime.
He advocated for equality and loving others, which as a Christian denomination I would think were things they should support.
That isn't activism, that's saying "live what you say you believe".
"For the next 12 months, Bell says he will live as if there is no God."
How is that any different from all the past years of his life? Pretending to have a God doesn't make one exist.
What does any person know about God besides what others have told them? Where did those others get their knowledge? Someone must have been making stuff up at some point. Use your universe-given head.
To those people saying, “Look, he gave up his faith and it is running his life!” I would like to say: Working for religious organizations and giving up your faith and losing your jobs is a lot like being a doctor and giving up medicine and being shocked that you lose your job. If he worked for a public school or just about anywhere else, he would still be gainfully employed. God did not ruin his career. He did.
His belief in god caused him to learn a useless trade. So he is to blame but it is because of his belief in imaginary things.
I thought the same thing. Kinda stupid really.
You cannot pretend to be an atheist. To be an atheist, one has to utilize reason and common sense. Religious people utilize faith which is nothing more than mental masturbation and relying on a premise that is manmade that does not exist.
All it takes to be an atheist is to have someone make a claim for God and then ask them for evidence. The one making the claim then goes into long verbose explanations but they provide zero evidence. Their plan is to tire you out during the explanation that you will forget about waiting for evidence and just take their word for it. If you do not take their word for it then you are an atheist. It's that easy.
False dichotomy, spudnik.
Drug dealer stops dealing drugs, makes no money.
Selling god selling drugs. It's very similar. Maybe he should move up north.
In the Jewish religion, it is not a guarantee that as an atheist rabbi will lose his/her job. Because of the Holocaust, it is not considered "unusual" to be an atheist or an agnostic. In fact, a well known (among Jews) seminary in Michigan ordained atheist rabbis, and may still do the same now. These rabbis are under constant demand for employment at many reconstructionist synagogues. Most Christians are surprised by this and have no idea that it is quite possible to be a Jewish rabbi and not believe in god. It is quite understandable in the wake of the Holocaust.
A well known atheist rabbi conducted a wonderful service for my mother after she passed. She was also an atheist and the rabbi did a wonderful, meaningful and deeply moving "service" for her and us.
That's Interesting. But Judaism is a religion and also a race to some extent. Jewish people are good at sticking together.
We love everybody, that agrees with us....Sevent Day Adventist Church
Religion: smug insurance for the great unknown.
I'm a pastor. Drink the coolaid or your fired.
This story is ridiculous. Of course he lost two jobs right away, he denounced his belief for his "intellectual study", full well knowing it was his job to teach belief in christianity. What a waste of ink and time.
He could still teach faith; he simply could not demonstrate it. How many medical doctors do you think would lose their jobs if they smoked following this principle?
What a dumb story, of course he lost his job,
Clearly, Bell has an ulterior motive. You cannot "try" atheism; you either believe or you don't believe. It isn't a switch that you flick on or off at will.
I would put money that we will hear of this guy a year from now when he is either selling a book or writing a dissertation to get into a University about how God saved him from the big, bad atheism.
He will blame his woes during his "pilgrimage" on his lack of faith, but clearly his woes are of his own making. He is not the first pastor to come to the realization that his views on marriage have diverged from those of his Church. Other pastors would have gotten a job with a more liberal church or started a church of their own.
He chose to quit his career without preparing one iota for another career. It should not be any wonder that he is now begging for money. However, his current suffering at the hands of atheism will lead to his reward when he gets his first best seller. Do I hear an amen!
and then he'll start a megachurch. that's where the money and the entertainment really is!
I am not quite sure why I said, "views on marriage". It is early here. I meant "views on religion".
Sounds to me like renouncing God and a deal with the devil.
If you want to make a deal, I'm open 24/7. We're giving away free cookies to the first 100 signers today!
True – it isn't a switch. For me it was a journey. When one is raised in a religious household, the indoctrination begins very young and it can be difficult to root out. We accept the stories before we even begin to develop critical thinking skills. All of the authority figures in our lives endorse religious views. I was in my late 20s, early 30s when I began to read some philosophical works that challenged my constructed world view. And now, I see no evidence of God, at least not in any way humans have characterized him/it. Perhaps this pastor is setting out on his journey and perhaps his motives are not pecuniary.
I don't think his motives are that sinister. To me, they actually seem quite noble. Often, people of faith write off atheists as amoral misguided fools.This man on the other hand seems to be taking to heart the idea of walking a mile in their shoes. He wants to try thinking as they think in order to better understand them. And whether it leads to a personal revelation for him, or simply just allows him to be more compassionate towards them professionally as a man of faith, I see only good from this.
Well, the problem is that you cannot "walk a mile in the shoes" of an atheist, as the only requirement to be an atheist is the belief that there is no God or gods. Clearly, Bell still believes in God. Therefore, he is an Agnostic, not an atheist. Thus my point; you cannot choose to be an atheist any more than you can choose to believe in God. You either believe or you don't believe.
You can choose to read the Bible and go to Church and involve yourself in theological discussions and eventually become to believe in God, but to merely say, "I believe in God" or "I am now an atheist" is meaningless.
why doesn't your god appear to the world and have everyone adoring him?
He seems to be narcissistic enough and vain enough and insecure enough to want more adoration and worship. Your book which you keep bleating is the "word of god", certainly commands you to adore him and worship him.
It would be effortless to show himself, like he seemed to do pretty regularly back in the bronze age, and he wouldn't have so many people he would have to send to eternal fire and pain and torment.
I am shaking my head as I write this, in amazement at the pure infantile foolishness that enables you to believe in something so patently false.
amazing! simply amazing.
15 And they brought unto him also infants, that he would touch them: but when his disciples saw it, they rebuked them.
16 But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.
17 Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child shall in no wise enter therein.
Dyslexic- God created man with free will. Free will is lost if He coerces us. If He displays Himself fully, then people have no choice but to believe- no free will. So He has to walk a fine line between enough evidence to support those who seek Him, and not so much that He coerces belief, in violation of free will. If you'd like to look into the evidence, try reading the investigative journalist (also trained as a lawyer) Lee Strobel.
That is a logical fallacy, or, formal fallacy if you will. You are assuming that if God revealed itself, it would automatically force all of humanity to adopt belief under no force or coercion. According to your bible, man has no right or ability to comprehend the awesome power of the divine. You are trying to rationalize an answer to a question that just gave you away. You are trying to convince yourself that God exists. If you really believed in your own God completely and without doubt, you wouldn't have had to attempt to use bad logic to put an answer together, you would have merely answered with a reply something along the lines of "Because God does what the f*** he wants." If God is really omnipotent, and if it really is in control of the universe, it doesn't need you to attempt a bad retort to a statement attacking your belief.
Something seems off about "I'm going to try being an atheist for a year". I wish him well if this is an honest pursuit. But why set a time frame? Why not say,"I have my doubts; I am going to step away from the ministry for a while and do some introspection. I am going to follow wherever evidence and reason takes me and then pursue that path."?
You are correct, however if he did what you suggest he wouldn't generate nearly as much publicity.
Yes, I have since read other people's opinions about ulterior motives and so forth. I was blind, now I see.
There are plenty of pastors who realize they no longer believe. They don't want to be dishonest with their congregations and leave their ministries.
The Clergy Project (clergyproject.org) already exists to help such people.
Using a timeframe for such crises of faith is weird and makes it sound like a set up for a book deal about 12 months from now.
Very similar to Ms. Rachel Held Evans (whose articles are published here regularly) and her "year as a 'Biblical' woman".
I don't doubt that there are plenty of pastors who abandon their beliefs. In fact, I'm reading "Godless" right now. I was just questioning his take. I now agree with you and others who think there is likely some other ulterior motive.
I'm a pastor. God doesn't exist trust me.
You are not a Pastor.
If you have no faith and are an ordained, genuine Pastor, then you are a fraud. Be silent.
If you are just calling yourself a Pastor, then you are a liar. Be silent.
Pastors lead people to God. You are not a Pastor. You are a deceiver. Be silent.
You are not a Pastor. You are a deceiver.
Depending on point of view, many argue that pastors are deceivers?
Hi Lamb of dog. I'm a Bible teacher also. What has caused you to feel that God no longer exists?
I used to teach the bible. I do not believe in the bible's god because he is invisible, undetectable, and seemingly, irrelevant. If there is a god, it seems obvious that he is a god that does not interfere with humans or judge them or grant them eternal life--exactly the kind of god Einstein believed in.
Person wants to be noticed, decides best way is to do something outrageous that ticks off those closest to him in his "group", predictably leading to outrage and loss of status in that group, and instant acceptance by other people outside of that group. These other people decide this guy is a role model, and thus an article is written about his stunt/status, which gets a bunch of people from various groups to all be outraged at each other in the comment section, and the guy ends up getting high-dollar publicity via interviews, appearance fees on various talk-shows and ends up writing a book. i.e. he succeeded in getting noticed. But what does this really tells us about religion, belief, atheism? Not much... he could've done the same thing by going in front of his congregation wearing flesh-colored underwear, sticking his tongue out, standing up on the baptistry and twerking...then crying foul when he gets fired... what this tells me is that we're all idiots for being so predictably drawn into these types of stories... this is shameless self-promotion, plain and simple... and he wins because we're dupes...
I do not really understand, why did he make this declaration then seek employment in positions that are faith dependent?
Bell is NOT "finding out what it is like to be an atheist." Nothing about his experiment is normal. Why is it a surprise or in some way unjust for an organization dedicated to belief in God to want its paid employees to share that belief? As to the support received from atheists, nothing is surprising there. If one has no higher power to guide their actions, they simply obey selfish expedience. In this high profile case, atheists are certainly going to put their best foot forward. It is no surprise that Christians will want to show love for Bell and his family by meeting their needs, either. Jesus did not put a limit on compassion. The writer of this article sounds a little disingenuous and biased. Nevertheless, I wish Bell nothing but good in his experience, but my personal adventure in atheism without atheists trying to capitalize are more accurate. I still hope he discovers what I did. A real God in Jesus Christ right there where He was not supposed to be.
That is a tired old canard, Terry, and it is false. Substitute belief in the Tooth Fairy for belief in god and you might start to see what is wrong with it. However, you seem pretty stupid and probably won't get that.
Right there where he is supposed to be in your imagination.
You don't seem to understand compassion, Terry. Or maybe you just don't actually feel any. If you need a god to tell you to be nice, then you really aren't a nice person at all.
"If one has no higher power to guide their actions, they simply obey selfish expedience."
See, this is the sort of thing an intellectually immature, selfish person thinks. You cannot imagine not being selfish yourself, so you assume everyone else is. I'm sorry nothing will ever convince you otherwise–you're just that selfish and self-absorbed.
Unegen, have you read Nietzsche? Even he- a notable atheist- recognized that without a higher power (higher in terms of both power and morality), there can be no constant morality.
Societal decisions change over time. For example, if everyone on Earth believed that slavery was morally right, would that make it true? Or (not to Godwin the conversation), if the Third Reich had won, and brainwashed the world that the Holocaust was morally correct, then would that have made it so? If not, then there must be a higher power of some sort that sets moral standards- humanity cannot be the judge of morality, because we are impermanent and changeable.
I have read Nietzsche, and apparently you have misread him. he never advocated a 'higher power'. he refuted the idea of a standard or "constant" morality. Morality of the bible advocate slavery, killing children, taking virgins...the list goes on. The mafia godfather concept of morality is laughable. If your god exists and told you tomorrow that slavery is OK, then you would believe it was moral.
" humanity cannot be the judge of morality, because we are impermanent and changeable." Why can't impermanent and changeable being be the judge what is moral? The bible forbids divorce but we judge it to be OK, and I agree with it.
Forcing a woman to marry her rapist, as the bible requires, is obscene. Obviously, that biblical law was written by ignorant men, and because humans are changeable, we have 'evolved' our beliefs on such things and do not recognize what the biblical laws require – because they are immoral.
This story is moronic. Why is this on CNN's front page? This is supposed to be a news outlet, right?
Seriously if he was going to "try to be an atheist" maybe he should have applied for jobs doing something other than teaching religion instead of manufacturing some false dichotomy s we can all oooh and ahhh that turning from god ruined his life, which it didn't.
you are an incredible idiot
Wow, I'm sure you really opened his eyes. Nice of you to drop that golden nugget.