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Christian academic and ex-pastor gets the sack. His ‘crime’ was to begin living life as an atheist for a year

CALIFORNIAN Ryan J Bell embarked on a bold experiment on January 1, 2014.

Ryan J Bell

Ryan J Bell

An adjunct professor at Azusa Pacific University and at Fuller Theological Seminary, Bell  – a former pastor of a Seventh-day Adventist church – was having serious doubts about religion, and on December 31 he wrote here:

So, I’m making it official and embarking on a new journey. I will ‘try on’ atheism for a year. 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. (I trust that if there really is a God that God will not be too flummoxed by my foolish experiment and allow others to suffer as a result).

I will read atheist ‘sacred texts’ – from Hobbes and Spinoza to Russell and Nietzsche to the trinity of New Atheists, Hitchens, Dawkins and Dennett. I will explore the various ways of being atheist, from naturalism (Voltaire, Dewey, et al) to the new ‘religious atheists’ (Alain de Botton and Ronald Dworkin). I will also attempt to speak to as many actual atheists as possible – scholars, writers and ordinary unbelievers – to learn how they have come to their non-faith and what it means to them.

I will visit atheist gatherings and try it on. In short, I will do whatever I can to enter the world of atheism and live, for a year, as an atheist. It’s important to make the distinction that I am not an atheist. At least not yet. I am not sure what I am. That’s part of what this year is about.

He added:

For this life-long Christian, and a pastor for nearly 20 years, this feels abnormal. Risky, even. It is as uncomfortable as a lifelong atheist trying on Christianity for a year.

Many of my colleagues will fear for my eternal security (what if I somehow die during the year?), others will question my mental health, reasoning that the recent trauma in my life has sent me over the edge. Perhaps they are right.

There has been some religious trauma in my life in the last year and it has shaken the foundation of my faith, but honestly, it was getting pretty shaky anyway.

Hemant Mehta, the Friendly Atheist, didn’t think much of the experiment, and wrote:

I don’t think you can even pretend to be an atheist simply by reading books by atheist authors and attending atheist gatherings when your religious beliefs are still somewhere in the back of your mind.

But he applauded the fact that Bell was exploring atheism and wanted to learn more about it. No such applause though from Bell’s employers. They fired him, and he’ll stay fired until he comes crawling back to Jesus. Bell said:

So I find myself, on Day 4, without any employment. My savings will run out in about two weeks and I’m scrambling to find immediate work doing, well…anything – manual labor, waiting tables, other teaching and consulting, or whatever I can find.

Bell, who happens to be gay-friendly, pointed out that:

Religions institutions (Christian, in my case) are not able to endure … probing questions from their public leaders. My process for the next year does not square with official faith statements and creates untenable discomfort among members. Donors, it is feared, will pull back their donations. My inquiry is the beginning of a slippery slope and they simply can’t risk it.

And he added:

Those who ‘come out’ as atheist face serious consequences in our society. They are among the marginalized groups that get the least attention. I know this now from personal experience. Many people who have commented here or sent me private messages have told me heartbreaking stories of the suffering and estragement they have endured.

Others have said they are still closeted because their family, friends and employers could not bear the news.

On learning of Bell’s sacking, Mehta wrote:

I’d love to help this guy out and a few of you have already written me asking what you can do to pitch in. Here’s what we can do. If you’re so inclined, I’ve set up a fundraising page for Bell.

I think it’s important to show that, unlike the Christian organizations, we support someone who’s willing to put his own beliefs under the microscope. Furthermore, we’ll support his experiment even if he doesn’t end up becoming an atheist.

One thing’s for sure: Bell just got a dose of reality from his experiment. A lot of atheists remain in the closet precisely because they’re afraid of the ramifications of coming out.

They’re afraid of losing their families, friends, or jobs. Bell lost some of those, just for saying he was exploring life without God.I hope you can find it in your heart to donate to Bell.

As always, I’ll provide proof that he received all donations as soon as I can.

Note: This evening almost $9,000 had been donated in under 14 hours!

25 Responses to “Christian academic and ex-pastor gets the sack. His ‘crime’ was to begin living life as an atheist for a year”

  1. Caute says:

    Such is the charity and compassion of christians. Hypocrites one and all. Hateful, excremental bigots.

  2. AgentCormac says:

    My process for the next year does not square with official faith statements and creates untenable discomfort among members. Donors, it is feared, will pull back their donations. My inquiry is the beginning of a slippery slope and they simply can’t risk it.

    Telling that Bell perceives the biggest potential impact of his ‘defection’ for his former church to be financial. I also find Mehta’s response to be confusing – on the one hand he damns Bell for even trying, but then sets up a fundraising page to try and help him. Doesn’t make sense to me.

  3. Broga says:

    Because Christian belief is incredible and crumbles when subjected to open minded consideration the only defences open to the religion are threat and censorship. Thus the BBC dare not allow secular opinion on TfTD and must infest its channels with religious propaganda.

    And our Christian PM and his cohorts support faith schools in their efforts to indoctrinate innocent and naïve children. Nor is public debate permitted between a Christian and an atheist.

    The number of crypto atheists, silently submissive from Christian intimidation, is vast. There is a dam of secular opinion waiting to break

  4. Chuck Longstreth says:

    May I suggest that you include Bart Ehrman’s books in your reading?
    Those opened my eyes to religion.

  5. barriejohn says:

    Broga: Practically every day brings news of fresh “faith schools” opening up. Their only hope of survival is to indoctrinate the young.

    http://news.tes.co.uk/news_blog/b/weblog/archive/2014/01/02/free-school-once-at-centre-of-creationism-row-to-set-up-new-branch.aspx?

  6. charlie says:

    Seriously? He had no idea things like this would happen to him? Well, maybe being a life long xtian turned his mind to mush. Did he not see how religion tries to suppress any secular thought?
    While one might applaud his experiment, he should have perhaps done some investigation into what might happen to him.

  7. Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews says:

    He wants to learn how atheists “have come to their non-faith? By simply being born into a family that didn’t indroctinate its offspring, that’s how. What I find more amazing is how anyone whose religiot parents imposed their superstition onto them managed to grow up and not discover they had been duped since birth. Perhaps (ex-)Pastor Bell is beginning to understand.

  8. IikagenBoB says:

    Oh I don’t know. I have a Catholic mother and was raised as a C, but my own stubborness, introversion, and nosy nature turned me into a rather thoughtful child. By the age of 10 or so, I’d pretty much figured out something wasn’t right about the whole Christianity business. (Thanks mom for always encouraging me to read so much).

    And here’s the thing that really set me on the road to reason – in one of my first 3 years of schooling at a convent, one of the nuns said to me in English class “Because isn’t a good enough answer”. I bet she never thought that simple comment would lead me eventually to become an atheist and anti-theist.

  9. Cameron Logan says:

    Just goes to prove why religions hate questions.

  10. The Woggler says:

    I’m with the Friendly Atheist. You can’t just give atheism a try. Unless you’re agnostic, you either believe in a god/gods or you don’t.

  11. tony e says:

    I think Bell has already sussed out that religion is the biggest con going, and is using this year to get his head free from indoctrination.

    It would be great if more people would try this experiment but the fear of backlash from friends and family keep them mute.

  12. Angela_K says:

    I doubt Bell is doing this experiment/publicity stunt with an open mind and already has a preconceived idea of an outcome that suits his beliefs. He’ll report back with the usual stereotype nonsense about atheists: Our lives are shallow and without meaning, we worship the Devil, eat babies, engage in orgies…you can guess the rest.

  13. David Anderson says:

    Angela_K: My money’s on a book that describes how he overcame his doubts and why people need god because of what you describe.

    On the other hand, if he is sincere, he is making public the transition from religious to atheist that many people have gone through in private. There,of course, is another opportunity for a different book.

  14. ian says:

    Parrot fish eat coral reefs, the whole kit and caboodle, and what they pass creates some of the finest beaches in the world. When religion crumbles, as we know it does when put to the test, that has to be the beach of rationalism.

    It makes sense to me anyway :o)

  15. barriejohn says:

    Angela/David Anderson et al: The guy is a writer and speaker. There appears to be no reference to this amazing enlightenment on his original site, which shows “business as usual” for 2014. I remain to be convinced that this is anything other than a publicity stunt.

    http://www.ryanjbell.net/

  16. Bubblecar says:

    Maybe it’s because I’m not American, but I’m finding it hard to understand why donations of money should be involved here. The man has apparently decided that Christianity is not for him (or not so seriously for him that he can rely on a Christian institution to employ him) so why isn’t the next step just his normal responsibility as an adult, to find alternative employment? Why is it somehow an “atheist responsibility” to throw money at him?

  17. Broga says:

    Unlike religion, for any open minded, intelligent Christian who explores the reason underpinning atheism there is no return. There may be a pseudo return as a result of societal pressure, or a search for solace because of the fear of death, but the faith game is lost.

    The return to Christianity is the playing of a game, a charade, and that is why Christians who come to debate on this site rarely stay for long. It is apparent that in seeking to convert us they are really trying to confirm their own faith. As the anxiety from what they read, and the failure to persuade us grows, they run away.

    There is another category of those who have been unhinged by their faith. They are maladjusted beyond recovery and what they state and which is incredible and inane they interpret as defeating their atheist opponents. They are an irritant and so constrained by the narrow life inherent in their religious fantasy that they may even deserve some sympathy.

    Then there are the professional Christians: politicians, clergy, BBC employees etc who need the declaration of faith to avoid the attentions of the predatory Christians around them. I suspect most in those jobs have about as much faith as myself.

  18. John C says:

    If he is truly approaching this “trying it” with an open mind, then he is on a one way trip,thats what his church are so bothered about.Once you achieve a clarity of thought, it is dificult to put on the delusion again as if it were a coat put asside for summer.

  19. barriejohn says:

    After years of indoctrination by evangelical Christians I gradually came to the position where I just had to admit that the things that I had believed were totally unreasonable (the doubts had been there all along, of course, as they are with most – if not all – intelligent people). Once I emerged from the fog of faith into the sweet-smelling air of rationality there could be no going back!

  20. Broga says:

    @barriejohn: Our various experiences are interesting. I was never indoctrinated or put under pressure. Everyone just accepted, without thought and in a shallow way, that the bible stories were true. I went to Sunday School, enjoyed the summer picnic by the sea and the Christmas Party, and endured the ennui of church.

    When I saw, as a teenager, that the belief I had accepted was incredible I ditched it and what followed was an exciting exploratory journey. I had relatives who wouldn’t answer my questions and wouldn’t even discuss the problems. But no one really cared very much. I realise now how lucky I was to have had such an easy passage into atheism.

  21. AtheistNick says:

    I don’t think he accurately described his true intentions. You can’t “try on” atheism but you can certainly try on skepticism – and I applaud him for doing so. Asking questions and dissecting the answers should always be our goal and I’m glad Mr. Bell is doing just that.

  22. 1859 says:

    @Mr. Bell: You may be tempted think that ‘trying’ atheism for a year is like trying on another religion – it isn’t.

    As Bill Maher pointed out ‘calling atheism a religion is like calling abstinence a sex position.’

    I wish you well on your journey.

  23. Robster says:

    The twit has suffered some religious trauma recently. Poor poopsie. How can something of no importance, of no relevance, of no significance cause trauma? It’s really Imagined trauma.