4:57pm

Sun January 12, 2014
Religion

Former Pastor Decides To Spend A Year Without God

Originally published on Sun January 12, 2014 6:50 pm

Former Seventh-day Adventist Pastor Ryan Bell made an unusual New Year's resolution: to live for one year without God.

He used to lead a congregation in Southern California, but in March, he was asked to step down after voicing some of the doubts that led to this decision to "try on" atheism.

Just a few days into the new year, after announcing his resolution, Bell was asked to leave the teaching positions he held at the Christian Azusa Pacific University and Fuller Theological Seminary.

Bell spoke with NPR's Arun Rath about his flirtation with atheism and how he arrived at the decision to put his work as a religious leader — and follower — on hold.


Interview Highlights

On the expectations of belief for church leaders

My entire adult life, I've been a leader in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. And I think the expectation of church leaders is that they would have fewer questions and more answers, and that the members or seekers or people that come to the church are the ones with the questions. And I can't remember a time that I wasn't wrestling with my faith. I think faith is one of those things that people wrestle with.

On experiencing doubt

When things start to come unwound, sometimes they unwind all the way. And then, you know, perhaps you can wind it up a little bit again later — who knows? But I feel like I lost my church leadership position and then I really didn't have any compulsion to go to church internally, like I just didn't feel like participating in church. I tried a number of times.

And it woke me up to the kinds of things people had been saying to me all these years, like, "I love what you're doing at the church, but church just isn't for me." ...

So I just decided not to fight it. I just decided to say, "Well, let me just give church a rest." And as I did that, I just began to wonder about the very existence of God.

On how members of his congregation have responded

Some people have been encouraging, some people have just been silently watching. Some are a little heartbroken. It's almost like people respond as though I've lost a loved one and I'm going through a deep grieving process and doing strange things as a result. Some people have just tried to talk me off the ledge.

Others have said, "I have these same questions. I'm really glad that you're doing this, and I'll be following along. Maybe I'll figure some things out along the way, too."

I'm not saying to my former members, "Follow me out the door." Nothing like that. I don't want them to do that. I want them to be on their own journey authentically.

On the reaction of the atheist community

Some people are, in a way, gloating. They're like, "Congratulations on coming to the other side" ... But other people are skeptical. There are a lot of atheists who are really not sure what I'm doing. So they say, "You are either an atheist or you're not. You can't be 'a little atheist,' like you're 'a little bit pregnant.' "

In a way, what I hear them saying is, "You're not authentically atheist" ... And my internal reaction to some of that is to say, oh, I was a Christian leader for a long time. I heard that argument on the other side, as well: "You're not properly Christian. You're not a Christian in our way of being a Christian, so you don't really fit here." And my response to that is, I'm used to not fitting places. So that's fine with me.

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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

New Year's resolutions are a cliché, but I have one I bet you haven't heard before. Tons of people resolve to give up things like eating too much, drinking to excess or staying in bad relationships. We have a man who decided to give up God, and that man is an ordained minister in the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Last year, Ryan Bell left the congregation he led, and earlier this month, he announced his plans to try on atheism. Soon after that, the Christian university and the seminary where he taught asked him to resign. Bell says the questioning that led to all of this actually started long ago.

RYAN BELL: My entire adult life, I've been a leader in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. And I think the expectation of church leaders is that they would have fewer questions and more answers and that the members or the seekers or people who come to the church are the ones with the questions. And I can't remember a time when I wasn't wrestling with my faith. And I think faith is one of those things that we - people wrestle with.

RATH: How then do we get from there to this experiment you've embarked upon to try to live for a year without God?

BELL: Like when things start to come unwound, sometimes they unwind all the way. And then, you know, perhaps you can wind it up a little bit again later, who knows. But I feel like I lost my church leadership position, and then I really didn't have any compulsion to go to church internally. Like, I just didn't feel like participating in church. Like, I tried a number of times, and it woke me up to the kinds of things people had been saying to me all these years, like, I love what you're doing at the church but church just isn't for me.

And it wasn't that I was against it necessarily or that I thought the people who were there were doing something wrong. It was just that it wasn't connecting for me. So I just decided not to fight it. You know, I just decided to say, well, let me just give church a rest. And as I did that, I just began to wonder about the very existence of God.

RATH: How are your old friends, you know, from the church? How have they been reacting to this?

Some people have been just encouraging. Some people have just been sort of silently watching. Some are a little heartbroken. It's almost like people respond as though I've lost a loved one, you know, and I'm going through a deep grieving process and doing strange things as a result, you know? And some people have just tried to talk me off the ledge. Others have said, I have these same questions. And I'm really glad that you're doing this and I'll be following along. Maybe I'll figure some things out along the way too.

MATT BELLONI: I'm not saying to my former members, follow me out the door, you know, nothing like that. I don't want them to do that. I want them to be on their own journey authentically.

RATH: And what has been the reaction from the atheist community? Has there been a lot of excitement about, well, we got one on our team or a little more subtle than that?

BELL: A little bit. Yeah, maybe a little bit from some quarters. Some people are, in a way, gloating. They're like, congratulations on coming to the other side or whatever. But other people are skeptical. There are a lot of atheists who are really not sure what I'm doing. So they say either you are an atheist or you're not. You can't be a little atheist, like you're a little bit pregnant. In a way, what I hear them saying is you're not authentically atheist.

RATH: Not a proper atheist?

BELL: Not a proper atheist. And I - my internal reaction to some of that is to say, oh, I was a Christian leader for a long time. I've heard that argument on the other side as well. You're not properly Christian. You're not Christian in our way of being a Christian so you don't really fit here. And my response to that is, look, I'm used to not fitting in places, so that's fine with me.

There are people that have reached out to me that said, look, I grew up in a family. We went to the Unitarian Universalist Church. I'm an atheist, and I go to church every Sunday. And it's not a problem. I think it depends on where your starting point is. And if your faith community and if your social community can contain those questions, then you ask and answer those questions within the framework of that community. If your community cannot contain those questions, then you step outside of it, and it's more painful and messy.

RATH: Ryan Bell is going to be living this year without God. He joined us here in our studios in Culver City, California. Ryan, thank you so much. Very interesting talking with you.

BELL: It's been a pleasure to talk to you as well. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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