Former Pastor Goes Atheist for a Year

Ryan Bell was raised Seventh Day Adventist. Since 1991, he has been either a pastor in the Christian religion or attending school, developing his skills to be a successful pastor. Then, on New Year’s Eve, 2013, he announced that for one year, he will be an atheist.

My husband told me about this last night—about how Bell was asked to resign from his position at his California church in March because of his views on homosexuality.

ryan-j-bellAccording to Bell’s Huffington Post article, “I had been an outspoken critic of the church’s approach to our gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered members—that approach being exclusion or, at best, second class membership. … I tried to maintain that I was a faithful critic—a critic from within—someone committed to the church and its future success but unwilling to go blindly along with things I felt were questionable, or even wrong.”

I assume his resignation was what started Bell’s path to a year without God. Following his announcement via the Huffington Post, he was soon asked to leave his position as professor at two Christian colleges. He’s currently looking for a way to survive the upcoming year with no gainful employment.

His mission statement: “For the next 12 months I will live as if there is no God. I will not pray, read the Bible for inspiration, refer to God as the cause of things or hope that God might intervene and change my own or someone else’s circumstances.”

There have been critics in the atheist community who call Bell a fraud, a fake. However, others have stood up and raised money to keep him going on his yearlong path without God.

What do I think about Bell’s decision? I was raised in the church. I attend church. I pray and sing in the choir. Yet, even I have days when I doubt the nearness of the Lord. Even I sometimes think no one is listening. I’m thankful to have Jake whose faith is devout, patient, and seemingly effortless. My husband tends to pull me back when I stray. And perhaps that is part of God’s plan for putting Jake in my life.

I imagine there are several Christians who are angry with Ryan Bell. They surely cast words of damnation over his decision to turn away from God, and I wonder what will happen to him in the year ahead. Will he realize he doesn’t need God to live or will he realize that with God is the only way to live?

When thinking about Bell, I asked myself: how would I behave if I thought there was no God, no eternal consequence? I was somewhat dismayed to realize I would act probably the same way I do now. What does that say about my Christianity? Says I’m shaky at best.

There are general rules, right? The Golden Rule, for instance, and other things that keep me out of prison, like “Don’t kill people.” But I drink and cuss and watch/read immoral content. I enjoy the company of skeptics (sometimes more so than fellow Christians). I don’t believe in resolutions, but maybe 2014 is my year for seeking, as well, although no, I don’t see ignoring God as an option.

I will be following Ryan Bell’s path on Already, his posts are covered in controversy, and hell, this might be one huge publicity stunt. Only time will tell, and I’m curious to see how he ends up. When his year is over, will he lean on his own strength or on the strength of God?

11 thoughts on “Former Pastor Goes Atheist for a Year

  1. I don’t know how you can “try” atheism. You either are or aren’t. But I actually did this in college. Not trying to a an atheist, just turning my back on everything I was raised to believe, not praying or reading and questioning everything and trying different religions. I didn’t just decide to turn it off one day though, it was a gradual breaking down of everything, until there was nothing left. I don’t see why the gay debate causes people trouble. I just feel like if you know it’s wrong to hate someone, then it doesn’t matter what the church says. The church is made up of people and they think for themselves. And whatever they think shouldn’t change anything for the people who know better.

    I did act differently when I turned my back, and it lasted a lot longer than a year, but I think the permanent changes that came from it were for the better. I have a lot less fear now, and it made me a lot stronger. God knows what he’s doing. That guy might need this break. It might be for the best. For some people, when one way is all you’ve ever known, it’s nice to have proof that there really is a difference. I can see it in other people, and I can see it in myself. A lot better than I could before, being sheltered as I was.

    1. Thank you so much for your very wise and compassionate comment. I took a break once, too, and “breaking down of everything” is a very accurate way to put it. I’m very curious to see how Ryan’s journey goes, and if nothing else, his journey has inspired me to do some faith digging of my own. Maybe that’s part of God’s plan for this man’s “Year Without God?” To inspire Christians and atheists to reassess their own beliefs?

  2. “How would I behave if I thought there was no God, no eternal consequence? I was somewhat dismayed to realize I would act probably the same way I do now. What does that say about my Christianity? Says I’m shaky at best.”

    This might show that you are in touch with God. I make an assumption that living with God is the most fulfilling (no matter how difficult that may look) way to live. If you had no God, then wouldn’t you want to STILL live in the most fulfilling way possible?

    This former pastor seems a bit confused because he either:
    1) does not truly believe that God’s way is the best way to live and wants a year to find out what the best way is
    2) he does believe that God’s way is the best way to live AND he does not want to live the best way he can for a year (i.e., unchaining his thanatos)
    3) wants to maintain his “best” consistent outward behavior, but thinks he can separate this from the motivation that inspires his behavior (ooo…that’s subtle, but hardly a new thing in the world)

    Who wants to live a certain way just because “God said so?” I want to live a certain way because I honestly believe that it is the most fulfilling way to live. I hope to never think of God as a killjoy who promotes a lifestyle contrary to truth or what makes life worth living.

    (By the way, this is all hypothetical, because I am constantly failing to do what I know is right and humbled when I see grace/giving/selflessness.
    Sorry, that was way longer than I intended it to be.)

    Here’s a quote that might have saved him from his venture: “Some people confuse God and religion and walk away from them both.”

    1. I love, love, love that final quote! Thank you for writing. I often forget that living for God and with God is the most fulfilling way to live. i sometimes do cast Him in the role of killjoy. Time to reassess and reconnect!!

  3. I’m excited for this guy. Sure, it might be a stunt, but I see nothing wrong with living “without God”. I’m atheist and have been most of my life. I don’t kill people. I hold the door open for strangers. I help out charities when I can. I’m a teacher and help kids when they need it. There’s this sigma that just because someone doesn’t believe in God that they are a horrible person. There was a study that showed that most Americans put the least amount of trust in rapists and atheists. Yet almost 30% of Americans are atheists or agnostic. Just because I don’t think there’s a god foes t mean I’m going to be terrible. I want to live life to the fullest. Enjoy every person I meet. Spend my time doing something that’s important. Because, as an atheist, I think this is it. There’s no reward or punishment after the curtain closes for the choices I made on stage. So I better make the most of those choices.

    1. That line about rapists and atheists is just horrible! In his blog, Ryan has addressed the way atheists are stigmatized. I never really thought about it before. I like how this guy’s mission has opened my eyes and opened about a million lines of dialogue.

  4. I don’t judge his decision. It is, in fact, his decision. I only know from my own experience that prayer and worship is my spiritual exercise. When I don’t do it, I get out of shape and I miss it. I suppose some part of me hopes he will also but that is to be seen. Like you, I tend to question whether or not this is a publicity stunt.

  5. I agree with Krystal Jane. Either you believe or you don’t. How do you try out the opposite belief for a year? However, that experiment truly is between Ryan Bell and his conscience. I personally believe that God will not be willing to let him go if he remains open to the possibility of coming back. What I find truly sad about the story is that Bell was brought to this point because he questioned something he thought was wrong in his church, and the church rejected him for it. Isn’t that what pastors are supposed to do, to keep testing to see if we are on God’s path? So I don’t judge or worry about Bell’s decision to experiment with living as though there is no God. I do grieve that his church seems to have so little of Christ’s love and compassion for others who are different from them—or the humility to submit its views to continual discernment.

  6. Interesting article. As a person who lost her faith in her teens and then regained it decades later, I can only say that it happens gradually. Of course, he is free to not pray, not read the Bible. But I don’t see anything heroic about what he’s doing. I have read countless stories of saints who died for their faith. Now that’s something to strive for. To have such a lively faith, that you’d suffer and die for it. That’s why we often pray: Lord I believe. Help my unbelief.

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