Josh Wood of The Voice, the student newspaper of Avondale College in Australia, recently interviewed former pastor Ryan Bell about his decision to live without God for a year. We are publishing an extended version of that interview here.
Ryan Bell’s story is one of gradual self-discovery. An almost 20-year tenure as a minister, most recently of the Hollywood Seventh-day Adventist Church, ended this past year when Ryan resigned from his pastoral role. He found it more and more difficult to align his beliefs with those of the denomination in which he was raised. So began a journey away from the church and from Christianity. Ryan’s devoting 2014 to “trying on” atheism. He’s documenting his experiences on his blog, YearWithoutGod.com, and answered these questions from The Voice’s Josh Wood.
Question: What leads an ordained Adventist minister to live a year without God?
Answer: That is a difficult question to answer briefly but perhaps the most direct way to attempt an answer is to say that being an Adventist minister led me directly to this place. My experience of Adventism is a study in contradictions. On the one hand, Adventists admirably encourage people to study the Bible for themselves and not take any expert's word for it. On the other hand, when that study leads to deeper, more troubling questions or even some conclusions that are inconsistent with Adventist dogma, serious problems arise, particularly for employees. On the one hand we emphasize that we are non-creedal people — "the Bible is our only creed." That is essentially a meaningless statement since there are as many interpretations of the Bible as there are interpreters, but still, it's an admirable intention. On the other hand, the church does not live by it's own professed convictions. The 28 Fundamental Beliefs very much function as a creed.
As I alluded to previously, being an employee of the church — a minister, especially — means that you must have fewer doubts and questions than anyone else. The church understands that its members have doubts but it cannot abide it's pastors having doubts. That prohibition makes it all the more difficult to live in the cognitive dissonance. Eventually it began to take a toll on my relationships and my health. I came to a point in my life that the questions had to be given the space they deserve.
In my final meetings with the conference in 2013, I expressed my doubts or lack of belief in certain Adventist doctrines like a literal six-day creation; the belief that marriage, and thus sexual intimacy, is only permitted between opposite-sex couples; and remnant church theology. These issues were part of what led to my dismissal as an Adventist pastor. However, I held doubts about God's existence and the conservative Christian notion of the inspiration of the Bible for a number of years.
This did not limit my ability to teach the Bible as God's word and lead my congregation in faithful discipleship. In the aftermath of losing my job at the church in March 2013, those doubts became much louder and demanded my focused attention. This, together, is what led me to the decision to embark on a Year Without God.
Question: What reaction has the Adventist church had? Do you have contact with church leaders in regard to your experiences?
Answer: The reaction from the Adventist church has been a deafening silence. I am in regular contact with many of my Adventist friends, but that is not in any official capacity. My former Conference President, Larry Caviness, phoned me not too long ago just to check on me and let me know he was praying that I would sense God's presence in my life. He's a kind man and his call was very much in keeping with how I hope Christians will behave in the world.
But in terms of official response, there hasn't been much. The Spectrum Blog wrote a couple of pieces. Adventist Today wrote a short piece. A few Adventist bloggers wrote about me. But the Adventist Review, for example, hasn't said anything, even though they cull many religion news stories from Religion News Service, who covered my story within the first week.
Question: Do you feel that your journey of a ‘Year Without God’ in and of itself recognises the existence of God and therefore nullifies your exercise or trivializes God?
Answer: It depends on what you mean when you say "God." There are many gods. There is the God of the Bible (and even here we are not dealing with just one God, but many people's conception of God: the God of Abraham, the God of Jesus, the God of Paul). There is the sociological reality of God; in my case the American God or, more generally, the Western God. So no, I don't think we need to recognize the existence of God to question God's existence. God exists as a sociological construct and as a philosophical concept whether or not there is a reality that corresponds to the word God. It is from this vantage point that we ask the question, "Is the God Christians pray to and claim created the universe really there? Or is this God just a projection of our wishes?
Question: Do you currently see yourself as a Christian, atheist or agnostic? (perhaps a combination)
Answer: I cannot see myself neatly in one of these categories just now. In some ways, agnostic is a meaningless term. It's like saying, I don't want to think about it and come to a decision. Atheism is defined as the lack of a belief in any gods. It does not mean that a person believes (or knows) that there is no god. It is the absence of belief in gods. I'm not quite there yet. I'm searching for a reason to believe there might be god, beyond the vanishingly small probabilities of science. On what basis can one say that there is a god? And furthermore, what difference does it make? These are the questions at the heart of my quest and I have not come far enough to declare any conclusions.
Question: Can you see yourself returning to Christianity, Adventism or Pastoral Ministry?
Answer: Not in any traditional sense, no. I could see myself in some sort of "pastoral" role among skeptics, doubters, atheists and secular humanists, but even then, pastor is probably the wrong term. I do not see myself being an Adventist ever again except in cultural association and the recognition of my own history. Nor do I see myself being an "orthodox" Christian, though I think there are tremendous resources within the Christian narrative to form the sort of communities of resistance that I think will be needed to advance the common good.
Question: Have you kept in touch with your former congregation? How is your journey affecting them?
Answer: I've kept in touch with individuals who have expressed a desire to be in touch. Even then it's been tough to keep in touch with everyone. My role is so different now. I'm not their pastor any more.
Some have expressed distress over my decision, but in the most supportive way possible. I think my choice confused some people and disappointed others. A couple of people said things like, "You and the Hollywood Church were the main things keeping me Adventist, and even Christian, but now we don't know what to think." I wish I knew what to say to those folks because I love them dearly and I feel their pain. It is exactly my experience. In many ways, leading the Hollywood Church was what was keeping me Christian. The loss of that beautiful community and the work we were doing together had a profound impact on me.
Question: What opportunities have the past three months offered you that you wouldn’t have had had you not undertaken this experiment?
Answer: I have met some incredible people I would never have had the chance to meet. Comedians, performers, public intellectuals, authors, podcasters. There's a large community of skeptics, atheists and non-theists out there. I've learned so much from them. I've had the tremendous privilege, due to the unexpected media exposure my journey has sparked, to hear the stories of literally hundreds of people who have struggled for years to believe and could not figure it out. I feel for them. They are honest seekers for truth and have finally found the peace and joy they were looking for outside of religion and theism. I've more recently been invited to speak to groups who are questioning their faith or who want to hear my story.
Question: Do you feel you are truly experiencing atheism or simply anti-theism?
Answer: Oh, I'm experiencing both! I hear from the anti-theists every single day. The old adage holds true whether you're a Christian or an atheist, "Hurt people hurt people." I attribute hostility, either from Christians or atheists (and it comes in roughly equal measure) to people being profoundly hurt in some way. Also the need to be right is one of the most irresistible human compulsions, so a lot of the angry anti-theists and angry theists, are coming from the same need to be right.
My goal, however, is to stand in the void. To simply stand in the painful emptiness of god's absence; god's silence. This is easy to set up and hard to live with.
Question: This experiment seems geared to help you learn about atheism but what have you learnt about Christianity in the process?
Answer: I guess I've learned more of what I already knew about Christianity. It's is a very human social construct that does a great deal of harm and also a great deal of good in the world. There isn't time to enumerate both sides of the ledger, but I'm sure your readers can do their own homework on that.
I've been disappointed that Christianity resorts to such flimsy arguments to support its primary claims. Watching Christians and atheists debate is like watching Hulk Hogan take on Pee-wee Herman. It's just not a fair fight. This is, again, why I think postmodern philosophy is Christianity's best friend, not its worst enemy. Far from eroding the foundations of faith (there really are no solid foundations for belief in post-enlightenment thought) it gives space for belief to live on a different plane than pure naturalism and empiricism.
Question: Your announcement of a year without God resulted in the loss of your job. Atheists jumped on board to help support you, did Christians?
Answer: Not officially, although dozens of Christians pitched in to the crowd-funding effort that Hemant Metha launched. There has not been an organized effort to support me. I didn't expect support from anywhere, to be honest, though I would love to have a job.
I was asked to resign in March 2013. However, I still had my teaching jobs and a consulting job. But when I announced on December 31, 2013, that I was embarking on a year without God, my teaching contracts were not renewed and my employment with the church I was working for as a consultant was terminated.
Question: What has been the reaction of some so-called "Christians"?
Answer: I can't sort the "real" Christians from the "so-called" ones, but I can say that the reaction has been all over the map. A majority have expressed their support for my journey. Many have confessed to me privately that they have similar doubts and struggles and hope they might learn something from observing my journey. There have also been concerned Christians — people who have plead with me and tried to pull me back from the brink of destruction. Some have been hostile. I think the most hurtful response has been from Christians that I have known a long time — colleagues in the Adventist Church — who have said, "we part company here." It's surprising and hurtful, but those responses have not been the majority.
To read more about Ryan Bell’s journey or to follow his progress visit his Facebook page ‘Year Without God’ or visit yearwithoutgod.com. See his open letter to read what he wrote about the situation as it was happening, and this page to read about his transition.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6003