As we first reported in December, former Seventh Day Adventist pastor Ryan Bell has spent 2014 exploring a life without God. Initially he posed it as a test of his faith, done after a series of personal setbacks made him question everything. Soon, it became clear that atheism was growing on him.
Some had criticized Bell’s “intellectual experiment” as little more than a publicity stunt. A few assumed that he wouldn’t give atheism an honest shake. Those opinions seem to have been blown out of the water this week when Bell officially announced that he would be extending his “year without God” indefinitely. He just found no compelling reason to go back.
In an interview on NPR nearing the end of the year, Bell said it was tough leaving the comfort of his religious faith behind, but in the end couldn’t force himself to believe any more.
“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.”
This mirrors what he began saying weeks earlier, when the first signs that he was still having doubts began creeping up. Speaking with the LA Times, he once remarked that while both atheism and Christianity have their “obnoxious certainty,” for Bell he didn’t want “boundaries, and religion just feels like a very bounded thing.”
But if his decision was personal, the response has been very public – and ugly. As Bo Gardiner documents on his blog Under the Greenwood Tree, Christians aren’t taking the news that they lost one of their own very well. Their reaction has been, well, downright intolerant.
On the Christian Post’s story, readers weren’t happy:
“This is nothing more than rebellion, and at the expense of many of the rest of us. What selfishness and irresponsibility, no matter what the personal struggle.”
“You need the Christian religion (and yes, Christianity is a religion, the true religion) to worship God, and God must be worshiped.”
“Those who have entered into a genuine relationship with Christ Jesus are the most loving people.”
That last quote seems to be an indignant response to a question Bell said he has recently wrestled with, asking “Why do I need religion to love?” The commenter’s answer: Just because.
The readers at Free Republic were even nastier:
“What a dirtbag. Sorry, without Christ your ‘good deeds’ are worth *****.”
“Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light….. Isaiah 5:20.”
“He means without submitting to God. But only God is good, so it is impossible without Him. “
“Being good without boundaries. The serpent couldn’t have said it any better.”
“No God, no concience… No God, no peace… Now come out of the closet faggot.”
“Calling evil good and good evil . . . where have we heard that before, I wonder?”
“Next he’ll tell us he’s discovered he’s a transvestite.”
“I was wondering if he is dating a male or female.”
“Seems as though he is sewing the devils fruits to me.”
On the LA Times article, readers dismissed Bell as a fake Christian:
“I think this guy never truly believed in Jesus in the first place! If he ever had a passion & love for the God of Israel and sought after Jesus, he would have found Him, and he would never want to let Jesus go.
We each have a choice to choose Jesus or to deny HIM. That’s one of the neat things about HIM – He does not force Himself upon us. He stands at the door of our hearts and knocks, and each of us can choose to let Him into our hearts, or to deny HIM.”
“His problem wasn’t the Lord, but legalism. He hasn’t formed a RELATIONSHIP with God. He hasn’t had a personal encounter with Him. He knows of God, but doesn’t know Him. I went through life that way for a long time… depending solely on myself, and it was a heavy burden. But once I cried out to Him and formed a relationship with Him… I know what I know, and know He is real, I am not going back.”
Reading through the responses, a pattern emerges. Most seem to be under the impression that Bell was never a “real” Christian, and therefore just doesn’t “get it.” It’s a convenient assumption because it doesn’t require any reflection on the problems with Christianity, but rather places the shortcomings firmly on Bell’s head. There can be nothing wrong with Christianity, the reasoning goes, so it’s clearly Bell’s lack of religious aptitude that’s leading him astray.
Ironically, the nastiness that Bell is now receiving is part of the reason Bell was inspired to leave religion in the first place. Just before he began his “experiment,” Bell says he quit his church because of the awful way they had treated homosexuals and other “sinners.” Sad, but perhaps not surprising, then, that when he said he didn’t want to go back, anti-gay slurs are some of the first things that his former religious peers hurl at him.