Adjunct professor at Azusa Pacific University and Fuller Theological Seminary Ryan J. Bell is learning what it costs to announce a journey to live a year without God. Bell, started a blog about his intentions to live as an atheist for a year, and intends to write a book about his journey. As well as being a professor, he is a former Seventh Day Adventist pastor, raised in a churched environment. A Year Without God:
This was on top of my theological concerns. I couldn’t affirm the teaching that the Seventh-day Adventist Church was the “remnant church” — God’s chosen people to prepare the world for the last days. If fact, there was a lot about the church’s beliefs concerning the last days (and the more proximate days) that troubled me.
In March, I stood my ground on these issues and was asked to resign. I didn’t want to resign but I finally agreed. My family and my health had suffered over the past several years but my faith had suffered most of all. Since that time I have been a religious nomad. I have struggled to relate to the church and, if I’m honest, God. I haven’t attended church consistently; I struggle to relate to church people, preferring the company of skeptics and non-church-goers. I haven’t prayed much and, without sermons to write on a regular basis, I haven’t studied, or even really read, the Bible.
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.
While Ryan Bell says deans at both schools are willing to talk with him at the end of his exploratory year, he is now out of work. A non-profit Seventh Day Adventist group also let him go.
It began on the evening of January 1—the very first day of my year without god. First text messages, then email saying, “We need to talk.” By noon on Friday I had been let go from all the jobs that I had. Since leaving my position with the Seventh-day Adventist Church—and even before—I was an adjunct professor at Azusa Pacific University (APU) teaching Intercultural Communication to undergrads, and Fuller Theological Seminary, coaching doctoral candidates in the writing of their dissertation proposals. Both are Christian institutions of higher learning that have a requirement that their instructors and staff be committed followers of Jesus and, obviously, believers in God. They simply feel they cannot have me as a part of the faculty while I’m am in this year long process. Both APU and Fuller welcomed a conversation with me at the end of the year to see about my future work with their institutions. The Deans of both schools encouraged me and said they felt my project was bold and even important and necessary.
With two weeks of savings, he is looking for a job while he explores where he is headed. Hemant Mehta (The Friendly Atheist) has stepped up and set up a fundraising page for Bell. As I write this it has been up for 16 hours and over 8 thousand dollars has been given.
Bell is open about his previous attempts to be an internal critic in his church, advocating for LGBT inclusion, women in leadership, interfaith relationships, questioning six day creationism, Adventist end-time teaching and how his denomination does evangelism and church growth. “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.”
Seventh Day Adventism beliefs deviate from orthodox Christianity, despite the denominations attempts to brand themselves otherwise. (ie: Trinity doctrine, water baptism, sabbath observance and doctrine of Investigative Judgement. (see Apologetics Index) It is a group deeply divided.
In deciding to step outside his bubble, Ryan Bell has been pushed out of the nest. He needs a job, food, shelter and time. it is not enough to wish him God speed, for the bible says:
Year Without God – Dr. Ryan J. Bell’s blog