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.
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.
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!