After living without God for a year, former pastor Ryan Bell no longer believes

Unknown-260x369-252x359By CHRIS STEDMAN
c. 2014 Religion News Service

(RNS) Ryan Bell — the former Seventh-day Adventist pastor who spent 2014 living as an atheist — is ready for his big reveal.

After chronicling the last 12 months on his blog Year Without God, Bell — who now works as director of community engagement at People Assisting the Homeless in Southern California — announced in an interview with NPR that he no longer believes in God.

Bell talked with Religion News Service about his decision and what it will mean to him and his loved ones. Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Q: This weekend you told NPR: “I don’t think that God exists.” Can you elaborate?

A: I think the best way I can explain the conclusion I’ve come to — and conclusion is too strong a word for the provisional place I now stand and work from — is that the intellectual and emotional energy it takes to figure out how God fits into everything is far greater than dealing with reality as it presents itself to us.

That probably sounds very nonrational, and I want people to know that I have read several dozen books and understand a good many of the arguments. I’d just say that the existence of God seems like an extra layer of complexity that isn’t necessary. The world makes more sense to me as it is, without postulating a divine being who is somehow in charge of things.

Q: You also said that you’re “still the same person deep down that I was before.” What was valuable about the past year? Would you do it again?

A:  I would definitely do it again! And I’ll go a step further: I think others should do it, too. Anytime you can step outside your comfort zone, you will learn important things about yourself and the world. I’ve learned that atheists are not the miserable nihilists that many Christians think they are.

I’ve also had a few remarkable moments of irony. Once I was in a gathering of atheists and the speaker referred to “seeing the light” and “finding freedom at last.” It struck me then that most people really are searching for the same thing.

Q: Do you still plan to write about, speak and work in the atheist community?

A: I do, in some capacity. I don’t think I’ll be joining a crusade to destroy all religion anytime soon, though some days I’m tempted. I just know too many good people of faith to see religion as any kind of universal evil. But I do think that there is much work to be done with and among atheists.

I have a special interest in post-theists — people who are in the in-between phase that I’ve been inhabiting for the past year. There are thousands and thousands of people who are betwixt and between, and there is next to nothing for them in the world of religion. I’d like to be a part of that conversation.

Q: After a year, what do you think about the priorities and actions of the atheist movement in the U.S.?

A:  On the whole, I love the no-holds-barred search for truth. I love the honesty and clarity of speech that is so often lacking in religious circles, where everything is couched in metaphor and innuendo.

On the other hand, I recoil from a one-track-minded scientism that I sometimes encounter — as though science has all the answers for every question that a person has ever asked. There is also a kind of smug condescension that is hard for me. I still have scores of Christian friends who are not dumb. Their faith is not like believing in Santa Claus. The more the atheist movement behaves like the traveling evangelists I encountered as a conservative Christian, the more I cringe — and for the same reasons.

Q: Your significant other is a Christian. How are you navigating that?

A: It’s challenging sometimes, but she is an open-minded, thoughtful person. I’d call her a Christian Humanist, or a Humanist in the way of Jesus, if that makes any sense. I still share a love for the stories of the radical Jesus preferring the poor and downtrodden, so we’re not as different as it may seem on the surface. Besides, our relationship is about more than debates about God’s existence.

Q: What would you like to say to people who question your motives or sincerity?

A: There’s not much I can say. I don’t feel like I need to defend myself. I’ve only lost money and earning potential this year, but I wouldn’t change a thing. I guess I can’t prove I’m not being dishonest any more than I can prove that God doesn’t exist. People will just have to evaluate the evidence and decide for themselves.

Q: You’ve lived as a Christian and an atheist. What’s one thing you wish more Christians knew about atheists? One thing you wish more atheists knew about Christians?

A: I wish more Christians knew that atheists are not nihilists who have no meaning to their lives or people with no moral compass. They’re not stubbornly rejecting God. All the atheists I have met have seriously hit a brick wall while trying to know God.

I wish more atheists knew that Christians care very deeply about knowledge and truth. They are not stupid. In every group there is a percentage that are ignorant — but if you take a wider view, Christian intellectuals have contributed a great deal to the body of human knowledge through history.

Religion News Service

RNS is owned by Religion News LLC, a non-profit, limited liability corporation based at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Its mission is to provide in-depth, non-sectarian coverage of religion, spirituality and ideas.

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
 
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George Nixon ShulerWes AndrewsDonniePeter W.Mark Recent comment authors
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George Nixon Shuler
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BTW I do not believe the characterization of the fundamentalist caucus in the UMC as “who trust in the authority of Scripture” is accurate unless the words “when it suits their purposes” is added at all. They selectively take scripture literally when it assists their exercise of power and control just as you do with your vituperous comments here about the liberal majority in the American UMC.

Wes Andrews
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Wes Andrews

Respectfully to you. I do not believe you can back up your claim “when it suits their purposes.” May I ask for specific examples of how those who trust in the authority of Scripture do so “when it assists their exercise of power”? You statement hinges on specific examples, not mere accusations.

Donnie
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Donnie

This is probably the least surprising story on this site. I had a feeling Bell long lost his faith before his “experiment.” This was just an easy way to save face while simultaneously getting famous.

Wes Andrews
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Wes Andrews

I applaud the contributions of Paul and Mark in this. Your comments are very insightful, and carry much more value than the article. These are very important topics to discuss. I wish we had more substantive and respectful differing views. It is possible to have these discussions and avoid getting mired in troll-speak.

George Nixon Shuler
Guest

My Friend, it does not appear that you wish to have a rational discussion. Instead, what I have observed is umbrage at the existence of differing views by the right-wing coterie. The “toll speak” of which you refer is this umbrage being expressed by you and the other dominionists participating here. Why, one fellow even sought to cross-examine me about my beliefs in a very disrespectful manner. the direspect, my dear fellow, is entirely the action of your fellow travelers on the extreme right.

Wes Andrews
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Wes Andrews

Ask a straight question without any derogatory comments or accusations and I would be honored to converse with you. Make a stand and engage rather than attack and be defensive.

Wes Andrews
Guest
Wes Andrews

OOOOPS, cliche “one can justify anything with Scripture” NOT!!!!! “one can’t justify anything with Scripture”

Mark
Guest
Mark

Wes, I’ve been reading Dinesh D’Souza’s excellent apologetic work, “What’s So Great About Christianity,” and came across this interesting observation on atheism: “Contrary to popular belief, atheism is not primarily an intellectual revolt; it is a moral revolt. Atheists don’t find God invisible so much as objectionable. They aren’t adjusting their desires to the truth, but rather the truth to fit their desires…It is a temptation even for believers. We want to be saved, as long as we are not saved from our sins. We are quite willing to be saved from a whole host of social evils, from poverty… Read more »

Mark
Guest
Mark

Well said, both Paul and Wes. This story is interesting, perhaps more for what it implies than what it says. The question arises: what it the true motivation for atheism? A secondary question may be what motivates ostensibly Christian groups, liberal though they may be, to present positive spins on atheism? Is this irrational kowtowing to atheism, at its core, an exercise in spiritual self-immolation, requiring a psychological explanation more so than an objective one? If we probe history and the human heart we will find interesting answers, and some of the responses of Mr. Bell dovetail perfectly into these… Read more »

George Nixon Shuler
Guest

The concluding sentence is not supported by the rhetoric preceding it.

George Nixon Shuler
Guest

Thank you for an interesting article.

Paul W.
Guest
Paul W.

I also don’t understand UMR’s fascination with and promotion of Christians who have abandoned their faith. This article, the glowing review of Franky Schaeffer’s book and philosophy, and the positive articles related to far fringes of the Emergent Church movement are all examples. If UMR had re-posted this as a warning regarding the results of hardening our hearts against God with a disclaimer that Mr. Bell, and others like him, need both our prayers and our outreach, I could see a tie-in with Methodism. However, as is, it unfortunately raises serious questions about the spiritual state of the UMR editors/owners.… Read more »

George Nixon Shuler
Guest

I find metaphors of “the Pit” and “doom” unproductive.

Kevin
Guest
Kevin

I do not think those are metaphors.

Wes Andrews
Guest
Wes Andrews

Very well said, Paul. There seems to be a bias toward how faith fails in recent UMR stories, or a celebration of marginalizing the revelation of God and how that positively impacts the lives of those He loves. Certainly, showing compassion and praying for Mr. Bell is the loving response for a Jesus follower. The most important aspect here is not the specifics of this story, but it is very much worth examining how we communicate the truly GOOD NEWS to people who have yet to believe and whose minds are NOT closed. This story is about SAD NEWS, not… Read more »

George Nixon Shuler
Guest

What a cruel and UnChristian characterization of progressives, and quite inaccurate to boot. The main thing keeping people from becoming Christians is such behavior which is typical of our right wing today. People of good character choose to not be associated with such.

Wes Andrews
Guest
Wes Andrews

My point regarding progressives has been proven again and again. The consistency is amazing….

Mark
Guest
Mark

Based on this report I find it hard to believe that Ryan Bell ever had a sincere belief in God. He is clearly a confused person.

With “Christian” reports like this the atheists will save money on PR firms. Thanks for sleeping with the enemy, UMR!

George Nixon Shuler
Guest

So, to you, he is an “enemy”? Why is that?

Peter W.
Guest
Peter W.

I actually think his relationship was real, I don’t think he is confused, I think he is human. I had the same burning desire to know the absolute truth, to find God, and I went to the Church looking and seemed I put in way more energy to my faith than people who were there for their whole lives. So here, I believe his faith was way more real than probably most peoples, and kudos to him for continuing to search and push the boundaries. That desire to know has been in all of us and you find the answers… Read more »

George Nixon Shuler
Guest

Well said. As the saying goes, “Honor a person who is searching for the truth. Beware of those who say they’ve found it.”

Kevin
Guest
Kevin

I got through three or four paragraphs. Reposting atheist columns from RNS does nothing to further discussions among Methodists. Simply my opinion.

George Nixon Shuler
Guest

We know what we believe. Knowing what others believe is always important.

Gary Bebop
Guest
Gary Bebop

UMR must be searching for something to believe in…

Wes Andrews
Guest
Wes Andrews

This is news?

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