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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54 Comments on "After living without God for a year, former pastor Ryan Bell no longer believes"

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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 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
Guest

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.

George Nixon Shuler
Guest

Of course. You would be a great example. What does leviticus 18:22 mean to you?

Donnie
Guest

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
Guest

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.

Mark
Guest
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 »
George Nixon Shuler
Guest
D’Souza’s characterization there at the end of the post is nothing but solipsim. While the atheist can make a rational case against the existence of diety I’ve never seen one who did have a bad experience with religious extremists, primarily of the Christian sort. It does not have a smidgen to do with a desire to sin – only to be free of rule by dishonest, evil theocrats. and this particular right-wing grifter (D’Souza) is hardly a great witness: he’s a vandal, a campaign finance law breaker, and adulterer, rather typical of those who seek power and control over others.
George Nixon Shuler
Guest

Oops I mean, “…did NOT have a bad experience with religious extremists.”

Mark
Guest

Oh my, George. If you are going to use a 5-dollar word–like solipsism–you might want to understand not just how to spell it but what it means. D’Souza is speaking of the collective human race, not himself only.

And would it be too much to ask for you to engage the arguments–civilly and intelligentlty–rather than continue to throw unsubstantiated personal insults at people like D’Souza?

Please understand that from here on out that non-responses to your tirades indicate only that they do not merit a response.

George Nixon Shuler
Guest

My Friend, do you actually think I care one iota how little you think of me and the rest of those you hate? I do, but primarily because of the harm you do with your actions. as to having your hate hurt me, I assure you it does not. I feel sorry for you and the rest of the finger-waggers.

George Nixon Shuler
Guest

My friend, I did no such thing. The fellow is known to be all that I recounted. Apparently if you are still trusting in this grifter, perhaps he is living his life as an experiment to prove Abrahm Lincoln’s dictum about fooling “some of the people all of the time.’

Wes Andrews
Guest
Mark, these comments are certainly worth discussing. I hope George is willing to do so without attacking. We’ll see. The entire point of the early chapters of Genesis seem to be the source for “But we want to leave untouched our personal evils…” It’s about surrender and submission. It’s about humbling ourselves before God. It’s about recognizing that our sin is not just offensive to the religio– social order, it in fact leads to death. I know that I’ve pushed hard when it comes to taking the mask off of the progressive agenda within the church, but I think the… Read more »
Mark
Guest

Wes, I think you hit the nail on the head. Of course, as with any generalization, there are exceptions, but the exceptions do not define the group. Modern liberalism has more in common with old-school fundamentalism than any other philosophy I can think of.

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
Guest

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

George Nixon Shuler
Guest

How do you suppose Jerry Falwell justified his devotion to segregation?

George Nixon Shuler
Guest

BTW, Wes, with this:

“By definition, it would be difficult for anyone to KNOW what a progressive believes…”

You hit the nail on the head. Of course, it’s sometimes similarly “difficult” to “know” what a dominionist believes either at times, but often they will tell you.

And that, is one of the joys of being progressive. If you don’t agree, we just shrug; until you do things like the christofascists are doing in this poor country.

Wes Andrews
Guest

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.

George Nixon Shuler
Guest

Oh? Will you practice what you preach? Does this mean you will cease your tiresome, inaccurate overgeneralizations of what “progressives” do, and reflexive segues to your pet issue obsessions? Time will tell.

George Nixon Shuler
Guest

but was it accredited by the CSWE?

Wes Andrews
Guest

My GSSW is an accredited graduate school. It was an amazing training experience.

Wes Andrews
Guest
“Don’t necessarily agree” is not denial, which is not good or bad. It’s probably more honest. By definition, it would be difficult for anyone to KNOW what a progressive believes. It is quite easy and simple to understand those who trust in the authority of Scripture. They MUST back up what they believe by using a balanced and reasonable defense based on one source: Scripture. This is contrary to the cliche, “one can’t justify anything with Scripture.” They might claim to do so, but in reality, backing up their claim, using the full counsel of Scripture, is quite different.
George Nixon Shuler
Guest

I don’t necessarily agree that “the progressive mindset would rather embrace a nebulous God that can be defined by the individual, rather than…” what you said, because that trivializes others’ faith. I believe the bulk of progressives/liberals/etc do agree with my position but it not merely a matter of preference. I believe it is because we follow Christ that we do such. BTW, Bible-beatin’ ain’t gonna convince me of bupkis. I’m not a fundamentalist.

I asked if the GSSW from which you received an MSW degree was accredited by the CSWE.

Wes Andrews
Guest
I set a rule for myself in my discussion with you, George. I have committed to be respectful. I will continue to treat you with respect whether you mutually embrace that or not. Some areas of agreement are: I agree with you that it is silly to pray for parkings spaces. Although I believe that most people who believe in the authority of Scripture aren’t praying for trivial, temporary things such as that. That is a convenient stereotyped example that doesn’t reflect the substance of those believers at all. I also agree that the “prosperity gospel” is poor and detrimental… Read more »
George Nixon Shuler
Guest

BTW, at first I thought you were the movie director with the same name. Knowing what kind of movies he makes, obviously you’re a different Wes Andrews.

George Nixon Shuler
Guest
My impression is that you don’t know very many progressives, otherwise you wouldn’t whine about them with so much vitriol here. Most are a lot less concerned with the mega-issues and content to live and let live. I can’t say I have much knowledge of Illif – when I considered going to seminary it was on my short list, but I had settled on Drake. I suppose, like in every other university and in every department of them, there are faculty for whom the pejorative for an orifice is an apt description. In my graduate school, I was warned about… Read more »
Wes Andrews
Guest
Words and labels are interesting. I think fundamentalists and progressives are not much different. Fundamentalists are progressive and Progressives tend to be fundamentalists. My explanation is that progressives desire to control others (so do fundamentalists). Both most definitely have a set of fundamentals that they tend to measure others by. I found Iliff School of Theology to be very fundamentalist and judgmental, and not just toward people like me who trust in the authority of Scripture. Differing groups fought for preferred turf and preference. Watching the dynamics there was very educational. With respect to your self-evaluation that you are not… Read more »
George Nixon Shuler
Guest
No, I don’t judge them. I believe fundamentalism is immature faith but for most sooner or later reality sets in. Like I said, hate the game, not the player. Since I am a United Methodist I would say the answer to the question seems self-evident. I believe there is something bigger than us as individuals but the details differ for everyone. We all carry our experiences. Perhaps it is illustrated by my aversion to so-called “contemporary” worship motifs including :Jesus is my boyfriend” type musical dreck, while the old hymns resonate with me. What about you?
Wes Andrews
Guest

“are your essentials LINKED to Jesus or some external source?”

Wes Andrews
Guest

George, but from your posts you do judge others. I say this respectfully and without meaning to bate or attack. Stereo-typing and marginalizing those right of center is all over what you have written, so you do have essentials that the “right” doesn’t measure up to in some way. Are your essentials liked to Jesus or some external source from yourself?

George Nixon Shuler
Guest

“Essentials” are not my thing. It’s not my job to judge others, or yours.

Wes Andrews
Guest

Okay, George I’ll ask a question. What are some essentials that you consider non-negotiable in regard to the identity of Jesus?

Wes Andrews
Guest

Ask a question. Let’s discuss without attacking. I’m glad to discuss with you, George.

Mark
Guest
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
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 »
Wes Andrews
Guest
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 »
Wes Andrews
Guest

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

Mark
Guest

Wes, you are correct. More atheists identify with the liberal end of the political spectrum. And liberals tend to be less personally charitable than conservatives or traditionalists. http://www.theblaze.com/stories/2014/12/05/one-experts-message-about-charity-that-liberals-and-atheists-likely-wont-want-to-hear/

George Nixon Shuler
Guest

Perhaps because we have less? Or is this just another insipid Faux News talking point?

George Nixon Shuler
Guest

I suppose this is true in the same sense believers in Bigfoot have seen proof of his existence time and time again.

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.

George Nixon Shuler
Guest

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

Kevin
Guest

I do not think those are metaphors.

George Nixon Shuler
Guest

Really? What do you think they are?

Mark
Guest

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!

Peter W.
Guest
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.”

George Nixon Shuler
Guest

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

Kevin
Guest

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

UMR must be searching for something to believe in…

Wes Andrews
Guest

This is news?

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