January 8th, 2014
08:39 AM ET

Pastor tries atheism, loses jobs, gains $19,000

By Daniel Burke, Belief Blog Co-editor
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(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.

MORE ON CNN: Behold, the six types of atheists

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.

MORE ON CNN: What Oprah gets wrong about atheism

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.

MORE ON CNN: Can atheist churches last?

- CNN Religion Editor

Filed under: Atheism • Belief • Christianity • evangelicals • Faith • Lost faith

soundoff (6,251 Responses)
  1. neoninsanity

    Go Atheism, it's your birthday! It's not? Do it anyway!!!

    March 11, 2014 at 2:17 am |
    • kdostaingive1973

      After been without work for 6 months, I started freelancing over this site and with a little effort I easily bring in around $65 to $95 per/h! Without any doubt, it's the easiest and most financially rewarding job I've ever had. It changed my life for the better and now I couldn't be happier. This is what I do... Jobs29.com

      March 11, 2014 at 8:01 pm |
  2. xx4zu1

    Pretty typical of christians, so much for lovin your fellow man. Their belief system is so fragile that if you dare question it you become ostracized and judged. It just shows the hypocrisy of most Christians.

    March 2, 2014 at 5:38 am |
    • photographermom1

      I am glad you said MOST Christians, instead of ALL.

      March 5, 2014 at 7:18 pm |
    • sactogary

      Criticism of the schools, and especially the church, that let him go is completely misplaced. I'm surprised he didn't resign in the first place. Can you imagine if a teaching employee of the American Atheist Society converted to Islam, Judaism, or Southern Baptist? He'd be terminated just as quickly. Or suppose Obama's press secretary suddenly became a Republican? In some jobs, your employment is tied to your beliefs.

      March 10, 2014 at 12:07 am |
      • jehovahjones

        Sactogary, you mean like Obama's defense secretary lost his job when it became known that he was a Republican?

        April 18, 2014 at 1:03 pm |
    • shawbrooke

      Some guy decides that his employer should continue to pay him AFTER the employee says publicly that the employee does not agree with the employing company's vision, goals, and practices? What is the employee smoking??And what planet do his supporters live on?? Would they themselves pay someone in their own companies while that employee is working for someone else?

      March 14, 2014 at 1:07 pm |
    • jnilvr

      How do you know what "most" Christians think or believe?

      March 16, 2014 at 6:56 pm |
      • donwhitebread

        Because they tell me every chance they get, and try to put that into the laws that affect my life.

        March 23, 2014 at 12:00 pm |
    • lcovey

      This is typical of human beings, not just Chrisitians. What would happen to a gay man who decided that being gay actually is a choice? Same thing.

      March 21, 2014 at 11:50 am |
  3. 0nesimus

    He is boasting in tomorrow with no guarantee that tomorrow will be found.

    The Lord said "seek me today, while I may be found" for "today is the day of salvation". You're not guaranteed another day.

    This "experiment" is for those who do not fear God and who do not believe in His declared judgment.

    February 27, 2014 at 11:01 am |
    • sam stone

      i cannot fear god any more than i can fear bugs bunny, or homer simpson

      March 2, 2014 at 1:37 pm |
      • marine5484

        Fear the bunny!!!!!

        March 5, 2014 at 11:28 am |
      • micahdabica

        The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

        March 5, 2014 at 11:59 am |
        • sam stone

          no, the fear of the lord is the beginning of subservience

          March 10, 2014 at 11:28 am |
        • auntiekale

          ...being scared of a fictional character that has "promised" you that you will live after you die. CUTE!

          April 13, 2014 at 1:39 pm |
        • kermit4jc

          too bad you don't know the Hebrew useage of the word "fear" which means with reverence and awe....

          April 14, 2014 at 11:28 am |
        • ilikestealingducks

          Fear of lard is more logical. Lard is at least real. It is clearly also in your head if you think there's a god to fear.

          April 17, 2014 at 11:32 am |
  4. 3511danny

    What a waste of money that could have went to the poor.

    February 25, 2014 at 6:22 pm |
  5. Roger Tharpe

    To know a man and then not no know him later is called... In the proper tongue ones mouth must be fix to utter truth and to know the truth that freedom may forever ensue.

    February 24, 2014 at 2:06 am |
  6. guidedans

    Everyone on this thread should be a Christian.

    Here's why: No one can prove anything. Heck, we can't even prove that we exist. If you really understand that, then you realize that everything you believe is actually just a choice between the various possibilities. No belief can be proven, even the most fundamental (e.g., you say that there are laws of thermodynamics, and I say that we might be in some very intelligent monster's dream and that all the 'laws' here are made up by this monster. Then you give me a hug for bringing up such a good point).

    Anyhow, if nothing can be proven, then why don't you just go with the belief that provides you with the most utility? If you really think about it, Christianity provides the most utility, both in life and in the potential for an afterlife.

    Now that I have demonstrated why you should all be Christians, I hope you will all make the right choice and hop on board.

    February 19, 2014 at 7:35 pm |
    • Sungrazer

      This sounds like a warped Pascal's Wager. Have you thoroughly studied all belief systems?

      February 26, 2014 at 10:40 pm |
    • jarredstancil

      What if I become a Christian and then Hinduism turns out to be correct? Can I blame you if I come back as a slug? Your argument is flawed, and I wish you luck in your new life as a ladybug.

      March 5, 2014 at 1:47 pm |
  7. newatheistnation

    The headline is not honest, and neither is Bell. In a long interview on Dogma Debate with David Smalley, Bell didn't once give any indication of actually giving up his faith or reconsidering god. Instead, he hedged, he dissembled, he fogged. Some of the questions he wouldn't answer: Does he still pray? Does he believe in gods? He wouldn't even give a straight answer on killing chickens for god! Many in the atheist community has been amazingly cordial to Ryan Bell. It will be encouraging when he exchanges their kindness (and money) for some forthright honesty.

    February 19, 2014 at 12:42 pm |
    • swipedcard

      Despite what the so-called "religious" would have you believe, atheists are some of the kindest and most ethical people that I've ever known. There's something to be said about someone who does well because of inner direction rather than because they're "afraid they'll burn in hell."

      April 10, 2014 at 5:33 pm |
  8. Derek

    The wise man built his house upon the rock,
    the foolish man built his house upon the sand,
    and the rain came down, the rain came down and floods came up
    and the house on the rock stood firm,
    and the house on the sand went splat!

    This ex pastor reminds us of the man who built his house on the sand!

    February 18, 2014 at 2:28 pm |
    • jehovahjones

      Classic. Only someone lobotomized by religion would cite a nursery rhyme as a refutation.

      April 19, 2014 at 4:52 pm |
  9. weismonger2222

    I suggest this preacher visit this blog and begin a dialogue of what Christians believe they know about Atheists. He might find it enlightening, and also realize that no one dies, no one becomes an ax murderer, god does not strike them down with lightening and they are the very same people they were as believers....only they removed the fairy tales and myths from their lives.


    February 13, 2014 at 3:06 pm |
    • albertleslie973

      "Happy Velentine Day With Red Flowers"

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      February 14, 2014 at 1:45 pm |
    • ne0527

      The one thing I cannot stand about atheists is not their lack of faith but their relentless bashing of others' faith. They consistently talk about their non-belief in a manner that puts down religious people. I understand that many people that are religious do the same to atheists, but fighting fire with fire does not work. I have respect for everyone's stance on this subject matter so long as it does not stem from negativity. So to your "fairy tale" comment weismonger2222, go fu** yourself.

      February 17, 2014 at 11:10 am |
      • incredulousmark

        The reason we sane people bash your ridiculous "faith" is because beliefs inform actions. Religious belief impairs one's ability to act morally. You consistently subordinate your empathy and reason to the arbitrary dicta of your capricious and cruel god thereby doing great harm to others all the while smugly convinced you're doing god's will.

        February 17, 2014 at 11:44 am |
        • guidedans

          Just a note, You mention how religion or faith impairs your ability to act morally. I would argue that, not only does religion/faith not impair one's morality, but that it actually allows morality to exist. Without an objective view of morality (provided by one's religion), you really have nothing to stand on when defining what makes an action moral or immoral. You can create a morality, but you have no argument why your morality is better than someone else's.

          That is not to say that you need religion to behave in a moral way, it is just saying that without religion, your "morality" is nothing but self-defined rules, which may end up being very very bad for the world around you.

          You need Jesus. You need to know that your actions matter and that everything you do on earth has import in the cosmic scheme of things. If you believe that the world is just a result of chaos, and will eventually end in the Heat-death of the universe, then you have truly nothing to add to the world. In that scenario, nothing matters at all. In reality however, there is a God, and He is watching you and waiting for you to come to Him. Please do it.

          February 17, 2014 at 8:38 pm |
        • kermit4jc


          February 18, 2014 at 1:46 am |
      • Sungrazer

        Calling Christianity, or any religion, a fairy tale is not bashing the believers. It is bashing the beliefs.

        February 26, 2014 at 10:43 pm |
        • kermit4jc

          well..depending on some..it may be as well as bashing the believers themselves..some of us live that faith..not merely believe it...Christianity is my life..in everything I do..not just a Sunday thing

          February 27, 2014 at 1:44 am |
  10. kermit4jc

    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.”< Uhh......The BIBLE tells us to DO tangible things for the people and support them! NOWHERE did the Bible say ONLY pray for them. in FACT it is written..I think in James about how when we say "go in peace, be well, yet do nothing about it, we practice hypocricy" (ok..so IM paraphrasing, but you get the idea) 1 John says "Lets love not in words, but in DEEDS AND ACTION" Apparently this "pastor" has not really studied the Bible

    February 13, 2014 at 12:41 pm |
    • incredulousmark

      That doesn't make praying any less useless and ridiculous.

      February 16, 2014 at 9:51 am |
      • kermit4jc

        WHAT it to YOU? If someone wants to pray..let them..MY point was that this so called pastor thought all you do is pray..the BIBLE itself said to do more than that..I find this pastor to be very ignorant of the Bible that he supposedly taught on

        February 17, 2014 at 2:00 am |
        • incredulousmark

          And where did I say religious kooks shouldn't be allowed to pray if they want? Pointing out the idiocy of an action is not akin to calling for it to be banned.
          Oh, and being ignorant of the details of a ridiculous book ancient myth is hardly something to ashamed of.

          February 17, 2014 at 4:28 am |
  11. santiagodraco

    "Lost two jobs..." REALLY? Amazing. He lost two jobs he had with the church. How is that news? Boggle.

    February 12, 2014 at 1:50 pm |
  12. closetiguana

    We are all born godless. Let's keep it that way.

    February 11, 2014 at 11:13 pm |
  13. yeahitsme72

    He might find after a year that it's much harder to pull that wool over his eyes than he thinks.

    February 11, 2014 at 8:55 pm |
  14. MJ Wetherop

    What is exactly wrong with the pysche of the modern western man...... Not living as if life can be taken away at a moment's time.... We are so filled with comfort and longeviety, we have no true sense of our fate... If one is a believer, how can one put it off for a whole year?????? What if he is struck by tragedy? Western thought of NOW is really changin the world, and in the least truthful way!

    February 10, 2014 at 2:11 am |
  15. Won

    SDA = Satanic Division Agency, not Seventh-Day Adventist. He was never saved to begin with.

    February 9, 2014 at 11:24 pm |
    • Observer


      He actually practices the Golden Rule when it comes to gays. It's not surprising that so many Christian HYPOCRITES are unhappy with him.

      February 9, 2014 at 11:29 pm |
      • 1ohreally1

        Here in lies the problem. Many people confuse themselves and others by claiming to be a Christain, as if that has something to do with Jesus.
        Disciples of Jesus will live The Golden Rule. Christians on the other hand seem to live by their opinions.
        Jesus said he actually didn't come to change the laws (Religious) but to fulfill them. He lived his life in the Jewish religion, and never mentioned converting to any other.
        Christianity, founded by the Apostle Paul by the way, takes a whole other approach.
        Once those attempting to follow Jesus' teaching discern the difference here a lot of the nonsense will clear itself up.
        Kind of a bully pulpit actually. It's tough to love and bully at the same time.

        February 12, 2014 at 6:12 am |
      • tv64

        Reminds of the Gandhi's response to missionaries about why he wouldn't convert to Christianity when he quoted Christ so much: "I like your Christ, but I don't like your Christians. Your Christians are a so unlike your Christ."

        February 12, 2014 at 9:50 am |
    • Karl Schneider

      If he's lucky he will be saved...from the cesspool of religion. http://www.godisimaginary.com

      February 10, 2014 at 1:29 pm |
  16. Sunday morning coffee

    A mid-life crisis gets national exposure...dude just buy a sports car and bang some bimbos that are younger and dumber than your soon to be ex. Then go back to work and support your poor girls. You may be aging but you are clearly not mature enough to tackle the big questions of life. Show me someone who holds their life together, sacrificing for people that love and need them whilst contemplating their weakness and mortality, not this lame quitter.

    February 9, 2014 at 12:49 pm |
  17. m.s.mohamed ansari

    Please bring original HISTORY .Six thousand journalist are suppressing the truth of history but in one day it will come out
    Now we are in 21st century there were times former journalist exposed truth and sacrificed their precious life for the sake of truth, they unveiled the real history. Perhaps contradicting to their present power and money clouded their mind and our upcoming generation becomes a victim.
    We do not believe politicians as we used to, we do not believe the media, and whereas we believe each other”
    Thanking you
    Your’s sincerely
    Pragmatism has now fallen foul of the continuing power of the press.

    February 7, 2014 at 7:53 am |
  18. Neved

    When we humans were primitive thousands of years ago ,we survived because nature provided us the basic conditions for life,that is called anthropic environment that until now sustained our existence,We as creatures never affect the environmental balance ,but today because of many synthetic products our existence had endangered nature ,that awareness developed a kind of concern for us to correct some of what we seemed us environmental abuse,That is the phiysical or material aspect of reality,in the spiritual part of our responsibility we also began to realize the meaninglessness of our existence without God, and for the atheists the reverse ,Why do you think is the reason?

    February 7, 2014 at 7:10 am |
  19. Dreaming

    Why do we dream?

    February 6, 2014 at 6:54 am |
    • ohdedoodahday

      Brains doing brain stuff, basically. Downloading/uploading/processing...rinse/repeat. We need idle time (sleep) so our Operating Center can assess what needs to be dealt with within the machine. Dreams can evolve from worries, hopes and even from what we eat. Humans like stories so sometimes all our thoughts get a cinemagraphic treatment to help us do our part in the brain's task of processing. It's not really for our enjoyment as much as it is for the brain to do it's job. Our brain gives us candy so we play along. It's kind of the brain's "bait and switch" trick on us so we just lie still and use less energy. When the brain is needing to do its job, it's not really about "who" we are but more so about "what" we are: living machines. See, a mechanic cannot really work on a car that is doing laps around the racetrack. So, we just have to shut down for the work to be done. The remnants we bring back from our time in the shop are our dreams. Think about it like sitting in the waiting area waiting for your car to be checked and worked on. All those magazines, the life going on outside the big paned windows, the phones ringing, a little time to check your calendar and missed calls, the usual television and the other people in there, too...well, that's all sort of a momentary dream, as you wait on the car to be tuned or fixed. Also, have you ever tried to remember every article you thumbed through or how many times the phone rang, what was on tv or what a new person who came in and sat down was wearing? Well, that's kind of like trying to remember a dream. Yeah, a bunch of stuff happened but can you remember every single detail? Dreams in our head are the same way...they are kind of the brain's waiting area for you.
      Now, how we interpret our dreams often depends on what's going on emotionally or in the world outside our brain. Add to that whatever personal spiritual beliefs you have and dreams may also reflect what you believe in. "Science" aside, Dreams can be boundless and lead us to wondrous worlds of Imagination and to new ideas and ways of thinking. Dreams can be haunting, and most certainly, magical. Dreams engage our human emotions – and vice versa. Whether we act on our dreams in grand ways or simply let them fade back into our subconscious often depends on the impact and clarity of the dream in relation to our current state of being/existence. How each person might act on a dream differs, as each person has varying abilities of insight and interpretation. People are also inspired by dreams and act upon them differently. Some people find no reason or purpose in dreams and see no need to give dreams any thought, as their life is perfectly fine without the distraction. Perhaps, they are very successful in their life and couldn't dream of a much better situation. Bravo. No problem there, that they have devised and live their Life well and even, in their own way, inspire new ideas and people.
      Other people, however, pursue the meanings of their dreams – or a notion or grand idea they have gathered from a dream – and sometimes, when shared, others embrace it as well. Given, enough embrace it or the dreamer goes it alone with great passion and tenacity, then, dreams can come true -or perhaps, more accurately, the underlying concept of the dream is threaded into the fabric of the real world. Whether it "sticks" and over Time develops into a larger, more defined pattern in the fabric is always unknown but certain threads will seem to be more Universal than others and those threads can become a part of and connect us, All. So, really, why do we dream? Because we must. Dreams help make us who we are.

      February 12, 2014 at 11:56 am |
  20. hellsyeahs

    Sounds like he finally found god. .....get it? lol

    My oh my those christians are a tolerant bunch aren't they?

    February 5, 2014 at 11:06 pm |
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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.