Can you really 'try on' atheism for a year?
Ryan Bell's "year without God" experiment has drawn a wealth of comments, from scornful to supportive.
January 14th, 2014
01:20 PM ET

Can you really 'try on' atheism for a year?

By Daniel Burke, Belief Blog Co-editor
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(CNN) - Ryan Bell, a one-time Christian pastor, says he didn't expect his yearlong experiment with atheism to get much attention.

"This wasn't intended to be an international journey that was done in public," he told CNN's Brooke Baldwin last Wednesday.

But what began as Bell's personal project has now been covered by NPR, the BBC, Religion News Service, and, of course, here at CNN.

READ MORE: Pastor tries atheism, loses jobs, gains $19,000

It's not just the mainstream media that are along for the ride, either. Dozens of blogs and columnists have weighed in on Bell's "Year Without God," with responses ranging from support to skepticism to scorn.

Sikivu Hutchinson, a writer who has criticized the lack of racial diversity in the the atheist community, called Bell's foray into atheism "secular tourism."

"Bell joins a jam-packed, largely white, mostly Christian cottage industry of religious leaders who are capitalizing off of untapped reserves of atheist dollars, adulation and publicity by jumping onto the 'maverick ex-pastor' bandwagon," Hutchinson wrote in a recent blog post.

PZ Myers, an American scientist and prolific blogger on atheism, echoed Hutchinson's comments, and called Bell's experiment "simply ridiculous."

"It’s not a set of superficial practices, it’s a mindset," Myers said of atheism. "What’s he going to do at the end of the year, erase his brain?"

Since the responses have been so varied - and so interesting - we wanted to know what other thinkers and scholars have to say about Bell's experiment with atheism.

In short, we asked a whole bunch of smart folks if it's really possible to "try" atheism for a year. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we got a wide variety of answers (The old adage about "three rabbis, four opinions" seems to apply to atheists as well.)

Some of these submissions have been edited for length and clarity.

Catherine Dunphy, executive director of The Clergy Project 

It would be accurate to say that some of our members tried similar experiments, though in a much less public fashion and for a shorter period of time before leaving their faith.

For myself, it was in stages. First, I decided to just stop praying and see what would happen.  Then I stopped going to church, and finally I decided that the idea of God just didn't make sense.

It was like learning to swim with "water wings." Eventually I realized I could float all by myself.

Testing the atheism waters, is in many ways an intellectual process but it is also intrinsically linked to emotion. God is often seen as a surrogate parent, a protector, a supporter. Untangling oneself from this type of over arching narrative is never easy.

Bell should be applauded for his attempt to ask the hard questions. Whether he'll be a theist or atheist on the other side of this journey, I don't know. But it is a good thing that he is wondering.

Penny Edgell, sociology professor, University of Minnesota 

What Bell is doing makes a sense if you remember that it is through daily practice that we become the people we are.  Meditation, daily prayers and devotions ... these are how people become Christian, Muslim, a believer of any kind.

And it's not just religion; there are all kinds of practical, self-help guides to being a better mom, a better husband, a more passionate lover, etc., all of which focus on doing the things that a better mom, husband, or lover would do until you a) feel more momly, husbandly, loverly feelings and b) it becomes a habit to act in the appropriate role-enhancing way.

So there is no reason to be skeptical about Bell's experiment.  Quite the opposite - it may work, and more profoundly than he anticipates.  A year is a long time, and if he really spends that year doing the things an atheist would do, he may not only act like an atheist, but feel like one, and in that union of action and feeling, find that he has become one.

Paul Fidalgo, spokesman, Center for Inquiry 

I think there is at least potential for profound personal and political implications to the discoveries Bell may make in his experiment.

Many people in times of crisis put a great deal of hope in the idea that God will come through, or execute a plan that makes sense of it all. But what happens when the mental and emotional energy that goes into prayer and wishing were put toward something more concrete?

Bell’s experiment won’t settle the religion-versus-nonreligion debate by any stretch of the imagination.

But he might help us to understand what powers we sacrifice when we spend less of ourselves on entreaties to an unknowable being, and direct those energies toward dealing with the real world, as it is, right now.

Dale McGowan, author of "Parenting Beyond Belief" and "Atheism for Dummies"

Trying atheism is not only possible, it’s a very common step out of religious belief. The comedian and author Julia Sweeney called it “putting on the No-God glasses” to see what the world looks like when you stop assuming a god is running things.

A lot depends on how serious and honest someone is in the experiment. There’s a tendency to scramble back to old explanations at the first snap of a twig or the first feeling of wonder.

But those whose will to know is stronger than the will to believe usually find their way out. And when they do, the most common emotion they describe isn’t the anguish and despair they were told to expect — it’s freedom and relief.

Dave Muscato, spokesman, American Atheists 

I think what Ryan Bell is doing is a great thing. It's important to try to see other points of view so that you can have a better understanding of why other people don't believe the same things that you do. I don't think it's quite possible to try on the absence of belief the way he's intending to, though.

If Bell has made the choice to drop faith in superstition in favor of what the evidence shows, then he can understand the atheist experience. If he is holding on, he's not doing what an atheist does. He's simply not practicing his religion. I would say that a better name for this would be a lapsed Christian, not an atheist.

An atheist is an active role, not a passive one. We don't simply stop reading the Bible and stop praying and stop going to church. We love the process of learning and exploring answers.

Instead of resorting to "God did it," atheists are comfortable saying "I don't know, but I'm going to find out." That's where the fun starts; it means we're on the right path to finding the real answers to our questions.

David Myers, professor of psychology, Hope College 

In my book, "A Friendly Letter to Skeptics and Atheists," I quote the Christian author C. S. Lewis:

"Believe in God and you will have to face hours when it seems obvious that this material world is the only reality; disbelieve in Him and you must face hours when this material world seems to shout at you that it is not all. No conviction, religious or irreligious, will, of itself, end once and for all [these doubts] in the soul. Only the practice of Faith resulting in the habit of Faith will gradually do that.”

Indeed, psychological science confirms that attitudes and beliefs tend to follow behavior.  Act as if you believe—or don’t—and in time your beliefs may shift toward your actions.

Mitchell Stephens, author, "Imagine There’s No Heaven: How Atheism Helped Create the Modern World"

I admit to being uncomfortable with the notion of “trying” atheism.

Can you try to have a conviction? And atheism, unlike religion, is not something that is simply accepted on faith. It presumes to be the result of reasoning and investigation. Limiting the experiment to a year also seems a bit artificial: that reasoning and investigation should never end.

Perhaps by “trying,” however, Bell means allowing yourself to be open to arguments that challenge your convictions. That certainly is noble. And the reading list of atheists and some of the West’s great questioners Bell has assigned himself is impressive. I would hope that nonbelievers would be as eager to confront the ideas of Kierkegaard or Dostoevsky.

Doubt, too, is noble. Surely, there is enough of it recorded in the gospels. Bell deserves credit for exploring rather than suppressing his doubts. He seems a thoughtful and courageous man. It is easy to imagine this being a rich and rewarding year – or lifetime.

It is a shame that some of Bell’s co-religionists are not better able to tolerate this exercise in openness and doubt. Perhaps that is one of the limitations of resting convictions upon faith rather than reasoning and investigation.

Merold Westphal, philosophy professor, Fordham University 

I think it is possible to "try" either atheistic unbelief or theistic belief to see if it "fits" in the sense of doing the practices that go with the position - praying or not praying, going to church or not going to church, reading the Bible or not reading the Bible, etc.

But I very much doubt that it is possible to suspend belief in the sense Bell suggested.

We do get caught up in the world of a movie and feel, for example, real anxiety. But then someone coughs or talks and we remember that what we are watching and hearing is fiction and the real world is the one where I'm sitting in a theater. We haven't ceased to believe, and the sense in which we have temporarily suspended belief (for an hour or two, not for a year) depends on powerful external  aids.  I'm not sure ceasing the practices of faith can have the same result, especially over so long a time.

Lauren Anderson Youngblood, spokesperson, Secular Coalition for America  

I'm not exactly sure how you would "try" it, because atheism is not a religion with rituals and obligations (attending church, fasting, not eating pork, etc).

Either you believe or don't believe. If you're on the fence, I would say you're an agnostic, not "trying" atheism.

- CNN Religion Editor

Filed under: Atheism • Belief • Faith • Lost faith • Nones • Spirituality

soundoff (3,260 Responses)
  1. Caleb Boone

    Dear Ladies and Gentlemen:

    I disagree completely with the suggestion that Mr. Bell's experiment is valid or worthwhile.

    For example, consider the following possible outcome.

    If he were to conclude Christianity is valid and atheism is not, who would believe him?

    He himself has admittedly believed in neither.

    My mother, a wonderful, intelligent, Christian lady, used to say, when Muslims asked her to read the Koran: "I don't need to read a 'true romance' to know that it's trash."

    The tenets of Christianity forbid belief in anyone but Jesus and The Holy Trinity.

    Sincerely yours,
    Caleb Boone.

    January 24, 2014 at 6:56 am |
    • Science Works

      Caleb Boone

      Well you sure can disagree but – we were not divinely created.

      January 24, 2014 at 7:07 am |
      • nclaw441

        You assume to know the answer to the question at issue, but can the answer be known outside of faith?

        January 24, 2014 at 11:06 am |
        • Science Works

          yeah Genesis 9:18-19- and the sons of Noah and ham was the father of ......

          Ham is not in my family tree !

          January 24, 2014 at 8:33 pm |
    • tony

      So do the tenents of all religions. What's special about yours that you can prove?

      January 24, 2014 at 8:37 pm |
    • Dandintac

      Maybe he's only interested in convincing himself. I'm not sure if I remember the original article, but if I remember right, he's only doing this for his own personal evaluation–not looking to try to prove anything to anyone else.

      January 25, 2014 at 4:40 am |
  2. Ron

    "Jesus was delivered over for our transgressions, and was raised again for our justification." ....Romans 4:25

    January 23, 2014 at 5:33 pm |
    • Ron is back

      You are funny not , you sort of show up on cue when the sh!t hits the fan on other treads ?

      January 23, 2014 at 5:42 pm |
    • iowacarcinoid

      All of the bible-beaters who are quoting the bible. I don't know what they think they are going to accomplish. Many atheists have already read the bible and think it's a bunch of garbage. Quoting it isn't going to get us to change our minds. It would be just as pointless if I were to quote Dr. Seuss books.

      January 23, 2014 at 10:06 pm |
      • Dandintac

        Exactly Iowa. I read the Bible cover to cover for the first time when I was about 18. I considered myself a "Biblical Christian" at the time. Afterwards I no longer could describe myself as "believing in the Bible". It was my first step toward becoming an atheist.

        In my opinion, reading the Bible, critically in a thinking, questioning manner, without someone telling you what to think, and which passages to ignore, and making excuses for the "bad parts"–is the best way to deconvert a Christian.

        January 23, 2014 at 10:28 pm |
      • Bob Weatherall

        Strange that. We both have similar beliefs. You believe that the Bible is a bunch of garbage. I believe that atheism is a bunch of garbage. The universe was put together through the use of intelligence.

        January 24, 2014 at 9:35 am |
        • sam stone

          For sake of argument, a-s-s-ume that is the case, Bob. How does an "intelligence" translate to ANY god, much less a particular god?

          January 24, 2014 at 10:53 am |
        • neved

          bob,intelligence is just one of the attributes of evolved human beings,but there are myriads or maybe infinite of other realities who are still evolving,we only exist as humans during the last 200,000 years of the 3,777,000,000 years of our existence,to deny Gods existence just because we cannot find proof or evidence of Him is presumpstous and illogical,

          January 24, 2014 at 11:15 am |
        • urnotathinkerareu

          Actually what IS illogical is to give credence to looking up into the heavens in the Stoneage and attributing it's existence to a "god" of sorts. It is logical of every generation AFTER this to then attribute everything else to a god that they did not understand and that is exactly ho we have the "evolution" of "god as it exists in its many forms and in many different religions. They all have the same thing in common from christianty to Hinduism to any religion you want to name. A logical evolution from an Illogical original identification. This is what scientists are discovering through the discovery. testing and peer reviews process. None of these takes place within the realm of religion.

          January 24, 2014 at 3:25 pm |
  3. Ron

    "And this is the condemnation, that light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil." ....Jesus (John 3:19)

    January 23, 2014 at 5:32 pm |
    • urnotathinkerareu

      any fairy tale can be written AFTER the fact...but how come they didnt include the gospel of mary magdelaine or the gospel of nicodemus or the gospel of timothy and a whole lot of others? What is your understanding of including some and not including others? Rather than throw out a bunch of cut and paste do you have ANY freaking ideas yourself or are you just a simpleton cut and paste guy?

      January 23, 2014 at 9:36 pm |
      • tallulah13

        It appears that Ron is a simpleton. Or a bot.

        January 24, 2014 at 11:04 am |
      • Dale

        Urn, just because something is called "gospel" doesn't mean it is inspired by God. The process of determining which books were divinely inspiried and which were not has long since been accomplished. We have the Word of God, and have had for over 2000 years. An arrogant atheist who comes around 2000 years later will not be able to change that one iota. Sorry. The people of God receive His Words, the others reject them.

        January 30, 2014 at 8:40 pm |
        • urnotathinkerareu

          Please provide EVIDENCE that the "gospels" were inspired by god? How would you tell the difference if one gospel was NOT inspired by god and which ones were and which ones weren't? YOU made the comment so YOU provide the evidenced rationale.

          January 30, 2014 at 11:55 pm |
        • Sean

          It has long been accomplished? Please, Dale, enlighten us with that process. And 'arrogant' atheists have made a difference. There are more and more people thinking rationally today than ever before in history, in regards to not believing in any gods.

          What you're basically saying is, "We will remain delusional."

          January 31, 2014 at 9:46 am |
  4. Ron

    "He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him." ....II Corinthians 5:21 Only one way to be righteous before God........faith in Jesus Christ, and His atonement for us.

    January 23, 2014 at 5:30 pm |
  5. Ron

    "He who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God" ....Jesus (John 3:21)

    January 23, 2014 at 5:28 pm |
  6. Ron

    "Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do NOT lean on your own understanding." ....Solomon Proverbs 3:5

    January 23, 2014 at 5:27 pm |
  7. Ron

    "Forever O Lord, Your Word is settled in heaven." .....Psalm 119:89

    January 23, 2014 at 5:26 pm |
    • sam stone

      "i cannot come up with anything to say, so i post scripture" – ron

      January 25, 2014 at 12:14 pm |
  8. kdkdkd


    January 23, 2014 at 5:22 pm |
  9. Doug

    Just have one comment to the author Daniel Burke: Agnosticism is not being "on the fence" which is a common misconception. Agnosticism is the acknowledgement that humans have no way of knowing the true answer. It's in the roots: Gnostic, meaning 'knowledge', and the "a" prefix meaning 'without'. Agnostics are not people conflicted between two opinions, they are people without an opinion either way. Suffice to say, there really aren't many true agnostics.

    January 23, 2014 at 12:13 pm |
    • Ann

      Actually, I think the world is full of agnostics. People of faith can acknowledge that the existence of their god is impossible to prove .... thus their reliance on faith. And, as we see people shriek here far too often ... we know it's not possible to prove a negative, so most atheists are agnostics, too.

      January 23, 2014 at 2:09 pm |
      • Sal

        "we know it's not possible to prove a negative," Yet by that very assertion you have contradicted yourself and implied that you have in fact proven a negative.

        January 23, 2014 at 3:05 pm |
      • Sungrazer

        It *is* possible to prove a negative. The key consideration is the size of the searchable universe. If I say to you, "Prove that there are no quarters in my right front pocket", it is a simple matter for you to empty the contents of my right front pocket to prove the negative. The size of the searchable universe in this case is quite small. That said, if I say to you, "Prove there is no god", then the size of the searchable universe is too large; it is in these cases where one would normally say "you can't prove a negative". However, depending on how a god is defined, it is possible to disprove its existence logically. For example, if god is defined as being both omnipotent and omnibenevolent, then there are many who would claim that this is a logical impossibility, and therefore that *specific* god is disproven.

        January 23, 2014 at 5:02 pm |
    • Sungrazer

      Agnosticism is not "I don't know" but "I can't know". I wouldn't say that agnostics are those left without an opinion. Agnostics are those that recognize that it is impossible to definitely prove whether a god exists or not *. Everyone should consider themselves an agnostic. That is why I don't find it a useful label, not as a noun anyway.

      * With my above caveat that many would make the case that some very specific gods *can* be disproven.

      January 23, 2014 at 5:09 pm |
    • nev

      at this point of our existence,we now had to focus on the more urgent need of humanity, which is survival,the increase in population and the scarceness of resources will be the most important problem we have to address.it is not atheism or religion that we have to give utmost importance, but the formation of our conscience and values is the priority,since we cannot continue with The ideology and philosphy of Marxism to descipline or use presuasive force to humans to shift our conscience and values,Religion that guides us towards that direction must be the one adapted and practiced,it must br panthrotheism

      January 23, 2014 at 11:44 pm |
  10. Allegedly psychotic

    Here's a question for the atheists from an actual crazy person.
    If I see or hear something with my own eyes, and you don't. Why should I take your word for it that it isn't there?

    January 23, 2014 at 8:52 am |
    • Allegedly psychotic

      Excuse me I mean see with my own eyes or hear with my own ears. You know what I meant.

      January 23, 2014 at 8:53 am |
      • Ann

        Just because you're experiencing hallucinations doesn't mean that you lose your ability to use logic. You may hear a voice, but still be able to reason that since there is no one else present, the voice is actually a perceptual disturbance in your own mind. I know you hear it. That doesn't mean that someone is actually talking to you.

        January 23, 2014 at 2:14 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Visual and/or auditory hallucinations are a clear indication that you should seek psychiatric help.
      That being said, if your delusions are gentle and do not interfere with your normal activities and interactions and you're comfortable with them, then you needn't necessarily abandon them.
      The man widely considered to be Canada's greatest Prime Minister routinely conferred with the spirit of his dead dog.

      But if the voices are telling you who to kill or what to burn, you might want to check in with your local psych ward to see if yuo need a huggy jacket.

      January 23, 2014 at 9:04 am |
    • dev

      atheist are also humans,therefore all of us belongs to the same specie,All religious believers are humans too so we are all one.The confirmation of the Big Bang last year is the irrefutable proof that we all came from pure energy to matter,and after billions of years ,we are now what we are,Also its shown and proven in history that there never was a time in that atheists exist until today,but this can be easily explained that in th evolutionary change that includes religions,two opposing ideas or arguments to arrive to the truth,its called dialectical

      January 23, 2014 at 9:33 am |
      • dev

        the dialectical process are compose of the theists,the believers of religions and the atheists who denies God,after an extended time of debates that might last for generations to resolve,the resultant religion will be panthrothiesm.The belief that we are one with Him.That because it is already proven that we came from a common parent 200,000 years ago and explained by science on genetics ,therefore we had a common reason and purpose for existing.and that this percieved conflict between us theist and atheist is just a necessary requirement for this evoluionary process called dialectics.

        January 23, 2014 at 9:44 am |
    • Dandintac

      It depends on what you claim to be seeing and hearing. If it's a floating dragon in your garage that no one else can see, and is undetectable to anyone else, you should consider that maybe your senses or your brain are malfunctioning. If it's something ordinary–believe your senses–at least provisionally. If you think you are seeing and hearing a supernatural being, like a centaur, a dragon or a god, you should seek psychiatric help. OR–take a picture and get a recording. Give us some hard evidence so that the rest of us can judge.

      January 23, 2014 at 11:07 pm |
    • tallulah13

      One summer day I looked into the sky, and to my surprise I saw a second sun. Had I been scientifically ignorant, I would have sworn in court that both suns were real, and that I had witnessed a miracle. But I am not scientifically ignorant, so I recognized that what I was seeing was a meteorological phenomena called a "sun dog".

      Our senses and our minds can be decieved. This is why I prefer to look for honest answers, rather than automatically claiming tht "god did it".

      January 24, 2014 at 11:13 am |
  11. Atheists' War on Lies failed. Try a War on Suicide.

    %%%% $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$ 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$

    January 23, 2014 at 6:03 am |
    • Science Works

      When are you going to learn lol?? ?

      Smithsonian's Human Origins Program


      January 23, 2014 at 7:20 am |
      • Who is this legendary lol?? ?

        !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!.................$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$ 🙂 🙂 🙂

        January 23, 2014 at 7:45 am |
        • Science Works

          No legend – But.......

          January 23, 2014 at 8:02 am |
        • Science Works

          No legend

          By the way the project above would like your comment .

          January 23, 2014 at 9:50 am |
  12. Historian1836

    You know atheist are or could be running this country into the ground. Sciencetist here's a clue the bible is not a science book because it doesn't need to be updated. If your atheist just stop spreading your message because its not getting out there to the people.

    January 22, 2014 at 7:20 pm |
    • Liz the First

      There is no atheist message, really; just that some people don't believe on any gods.

      I don't know what this particular man's crisis of faith is, but everybody has their own path.

      January 22, 2014 at 9:52 pm |
    • Breal

      The Bible has been updated many times over the years. What are you talking about?

      January 23, 2014 at 12:33 am |
    • Markin_FL

      Harry Potter doesn't get updated either. That does not make it a reasonable replacement for a rational view of our world.

      BTW, I would take Potters world over the bible's any day of the week. It is much less violent.

      January 24, 2014 at 5:23 pm |
      • Cpt. Obvious

        Unless you're going for lots of stupid, gratuitous magic. You're better off with the bible for that.

        January 24, 2014 at 5:26 pm |
  13. Harper

    Can you really "try on" no clothes?

    January 22, 2014 at 3:52 pm |
  14. urnotathinkerareu


    January 22, 2014 at 12:15 pm |
  15. Science Works

    Remember heaven is a fairy story.


    January 22, 2014 at 7:53 am |
    • urnotathinkerareu

      Maybe the singularity that we all seek on different levels intuitively ( if I can apply that term in this context) is god. The closest and most understandable is quantum mechanics though. To get to this understanding as Hawking has done is to have a scientific education and a seeking of the truth though this methodology. All other forms such as "religion" and its countless forms and even non religious professions like mathematics are all attempts to find the one understanding for all things. Many of these are seriously off the track of a solid knowing. People's obsession with religion is much like Hawkins obsession with finding the one answer. Hawking claims to NOT know as yet because he has no evidence as of yet but they are seriously getting closer to knowing with evidence. Other efforts to explain the singularity such as religious claims that GOD is the singularity have no evidence and expect people to believe without this evidence....Just some of my thoughts.
      This may be why DeGrasse says Science and religion really are incompatible http://www.patheos.com/blogs/progressivesecularhumanist/2014/01/neil-degrasse-tyson-argues-science-and-religion-are-not-reconcilable/

      January 22, 2014 at 1:18 pm |
      • Science Works

        Like the video below – planets from hell it is easy to see there is no heaven -but if the religious want to say heaven is in that 1 millionth of a second accounted for well that is .......

        January 22, 2014 at 1:41 pm |
      • Science Works


        January 22, 2014 at 1:44 pm |
  16. Keith

    I think that "Religion" can allow a person to live an unexamined life. I believe all this minister was needing to do is to ask himself those important questions. The ten or twelve greatest philosophical questions have not changed in millennia. At number ten or twelve is the question "does God exist?". Perhaps if you have never really struggled with that question you shouldn't be trying to lead other people. Doubt is as noble as Faith

    January 21, 2014 at 10:33 pm |
    • bud

      JESUS came to give us life and that more abundantly.

      January 21, 2014 at 11:08 pm |
      • dub


        January 23, 2014 at 5:44 am |
  17. Marilyn

    I don't see what the big deal is..... He is behaving the way he normally does behind close doors and calling it a project.

    Well done!

    January 21, 2014 at 8:26 pm |
  18. Oh the Humanity

    I think I just decided God is real, the fact that we can't find him is proof of it. If it were a matter of hanging out with all of us I'd hide too.

    January 21, 2014 at 7:50 pm |
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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.