A former Seventh Day Adventist pastor who pledged to live 2014 god-free in order to test his faith, now says he is contemplating leaving religion for good.
Ryan Bell became a fascination for the religious and non-religious alike when he announced that he would be conducting an “intellectual experiment” to test out atheism after he began struggling with his own faith.
In a way, it was the perfect time for a change. Just months before his “experiment,” Bell resigned as pastor of the church he had worked at for 19 years. He had become uncomfortable with the way his religion has handled homosexuality and felt that the organization was no longer in line with his more liberal views. At the same time, his 17-year marriage was also ending. In that turmoil, Bell saw the potential for a radical change and took it.
According to Bell, he would spend all of 2014 living “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.”
For some of the faithful, that may appear to be blasphemous and quite possibly endanger Bell’s soul. Bell was a bit more good-humored about it, arguing that if there was a God, then God will probably “not be too flummoxed” by the test. In short, Bell assumed that a God worthy of the name probably can handle some guy not talking to him for 12 months without the world ending.
After his decision to “live as if there is no God,” things didn’t become easier for Bell. However, it wasn’t God who had forsaken him, but people. Almost immediately, two Christian schools where he worked as a teacher fired him. He was now a single parent with two young daughters to care for so things were grim.
Luckily, an atheist blogger heard about his experiment and started an online fundraising campaign that ultimately raised over $27,000 to help support his family during the year. Around the same time, Bell took his passion for helping people into the secular world. He landed a job as a “life skills” teacher at PATH, a nonprofit that focuses on helping homeless people get a solid education and marketable skills.
The year of “giving atheism a try” hasn’t had the negative affect that Bell probably assumed it would. Instead, he seems more comfortable in it. While he still hasn’t decided whether he will return to the church (he has until January), he now feels confident in describing himself as a “weak atheist.” It’s a designation that says one does not currently hold a belief in God (as compared to “strong atheism” which asserts that one is convinced that there is no God). Weak or strong, a former pastor describing himself as an atheist means he’s come a long way.
When interviewed recently by the LA Times, Bell said he was waiting until the last moment to announce what his decision is – if only to avoid the awkwardness of letting people in his life down. Should he give up religion, it will mean leaving a great deal of his life behind him. However, it seems unlikely that he will be ready to embrace religion after all he’s been through. For example, listen to the way he talks about the agony of choosing a “side.”
“I do think I’ve now seen both sides of the coin,” he said on a recent day. “Being with the atheists, they can have the same sort of obnoxious certainty that some Christians have, and I don’t want to be a part of that. It feels like I’m stuck in the middle. I want to be for something good, but I don’t want boundaries, and religion just feels like a very bounded thing.
“The question I am asking right now: Why do I need religion to love?”
That’s the language of doubt, if there ever was one.
UPDATE: Well, a few days before his deadline and Bell is ready to make his decision public: He’s sticking with atheism.
We can’t say we didn’t see it coming, but it’s nice that Bell finally laid his cards on the table. In an NPR interview on December 27, he talked about his “deconversion” and said that atheism just makes more sense to him.
“I’ve looked at the majority of the arguments that I’ve been able to find for the existence of God and on the question of God’s existence or not, I have to say I don’t find there to be a convincing case in my view.
“I don’t think that God exists. I think that makes the most sense of the evidence that I have and my experience. But I don’t think that’s necessarily the most interesting thing about me.”
Bell told NPR that he still doesn’t feel quite comfortable with the “atheism” label, and told interviewer Arun Rath that relationships with his Christians friends has become pretty strained given his new lack of belief, as well.
In all, Bell said he would rather people focus on the good stuff he is doing at his job at PATH than on what he believes or doesn’t believe. So in that spirit, we would just like to say that we wish Bell the best in his future endeavors and thank him for allowing us to glimpse this deeply personal journey.