Former Hollywood Seventh-day Adventist Church pastor Ryan J. Bell in front of PATH, Los Angeles.
On December 30, I sat down with Ryan Bell in a French cafe in Los Angeles, California to talk with him about his Year Without God, his loss of faith, and what comes next. This is our conversation. -Jared Wright
What are you tired of explaining to people?
If you just read those three words, “Year Without God” you could say, “How could a Christian just up and become an atheist?” I’ve explained that all year long. And I think people that haven’t followed the blog want to know, “How did you come to this point?” Oh Lord, that is a long story. I tire less of telling the story, the background part.
It seems amusing to people that you’re now with someone who is a Christian. Is that amusing to you?
It wasn’t really that big of a deal. We originally met for coffee. We shared an office at Azusa Pacific University, but we never got past “Hi, how are you?” I was going into that office to print quizzes and dash to class. But we said “hi” and I noticed her and she noticed me. When I started Year Without God she wrote to me and said, “I’m really impressed with what you’re doing. I approve,” kind of thing. And I said cool, we should get that coffee we’d talked about. We had mutual friends in common. It was really through Year Without God--that was the impetus for us to get coffee together. And we just stayed in touch and started talking more. She said to me, paraphrasing a bit, “I’d rather live in a world where people love each other and don’t believe in God than live in a world where people believe in God and hate gay people and marginalize people not of their tribe…” She said if she had to pick, she’d rather the people that are nice to each other.
Her faith and your moving from faith has not been a source of grief?
It has, when I get a little bit snarky. It’s so hard to say Christians...fill in the blank...because there are so many different kinds of Christians. So it’s hard to be too broad-brushed about how all Christians are. But when you read the wider stories in the news about Christians in America, I would say that it’s probably a majority of Christians in America that are really problematic for our democracy, for our freedom and equality, and so it is tempting to get a little snarky at times and say “Christians are like this…” And then she’s quick to remind me, not all Christians.
She works at an organization called Oasis that has a USA branch, and she works specifically in anti-human trafficking. Oasis is a Christian nonprofit, but they’re very connected to “Stop The Traffic, which is not. Working there would be like working with any social activist on a cause that is really…
What do you say to your colleagues who do the kind of justice work and activism that you do and did, but who find resources in their faith tradition to do that work?
Ya that’s great. I think we need all kinds of motivations--any motivation, really--to work for the common good. I think the thing I would be sensitive to is whether there is an ulterior motive for people to say, “we’re helping you get out of a bad situation, and we want you to come to our Bible study.”
So you feel as though religion in general has a hard time doing that sort of philanthropic work without…
...A motivation of...like proselytization. Yeah. It’s tough. Phil (her boss in Belgium) is not like that. They are focused on the work for its own sake, and they have their own religious, spiritual or not motivations for doing that work and they partner with people of all sorts of backgrounds and motivations, but its not confused by cross-over. I think that’s great. Some people are motivated by freedom and democracy, and some people are motivated by peace and justice. Some people are motivated by money, some people are motivated by happiness. They want to maximize the happiness of someone else, and all those motivations are valid. And can be brought together to achieve a common goal. I just don’t think it’s useful to segment that kind of work based on religious beliefs.
But you would say religious organizations still have a place at the table if they’re doing it without expecting something in return?
So you hear many new atheists who are not only atheists, but anti-religionists. Do you find yourself in that category or do you tend to reject that?
No, I think it’s much more nuanced than that simply because I know so many religious people that are doing good things. And they’re not just Christians--they’re Sikhs and Hindus and Krishna and Baha’i people that I know from the interfaith world here in Los Angeles. That being said, I’m not a huge fan of religion at the moment. People have said If Christianity is not for you, you should try Baha’i or another Christian denomination like the Universalist Unitarian Church. My response to that is “Yes, you’re absolutely right. I probably would feel welcome at a place like that. I just am burned out on religion and that is very personal. It’s not “religion is bad…” Even Sunday Assembly, when I went in January or February--that’s the atheist gathering. It’s very much like church, but there’s no God. I was like, this feels too much like church. It wasn’t that there was a god or a divine being. But even without that, it felt too religious for me. That being said, I think I’ll come around to that. It’s just a matter of my own burnout. I was talking to Bart Campolo the other day, and he’s like “We need you to form atheist communities in Los Angeles,” and he had that same evangelical zeal. I was like “Whoooah…” I felt the noose tightening. It wasn’t because of a divine belief, it was more that ‘We’re gonna change the world’ kind of thing, and I just need a break from that.
Do you feel PATH and the work you’re doing right now is fulfilling you professionally?
It’s very fulfilling, professionally, personally. Definitely.
In terms of your belief, are you at a place of inner peace or are you in flux? Is there anxiety?
There is a little anxiety. I’m comfortable saying I’m an agnostic atheist, which for people who are not familiar with that nuanced kind of terminology, it’s atheism that is still very willing to say “We don’t know for sure. But in the absence of clarity that there is a God...it basically places the burden of proof on those making the claim that there is, so that the null hypothesis is that there isn’t a God, and I find that compelling.
I’ve been invited to participate in a Sabbath School class responding to Philip Clayton’s book “The Predicament of Belief: Science, Philosophy, and Faith.” So every time I see that invitation I feel a little anxiety, like “Philip Clayton--he’s smart, and he’s got some nuanced ideas about belief. I should read that.” I don’t want to be caught in a situation where I haven’t considered an option. It’s not so much an argument from authority, but I do take people that have studied a lot quite seriously. And if someone spent their life studying these things has a view that’s different from mine, that makes me sit up and take notice. I’m not just going to write that off. I think there are lots of motivations behind that, and people do not let go of their religion easily, and they will liberalize it to the Nth degree, while still holding on to some fragment. I think that folks like that need to be honest and say they are atheists.
What do you feel people have to gain by doing that?
Credibility and honesty. I had to reinvent myself with a new platform to speak from.
Do you feel like you’ve found a tribe--a place where you belong?
Sort of, but it’s not what you would think. I said to Arun Rath (of NPR's All Things Considered), I don’t feel comfortable in either place. Where I do feel comfortable in the middle with people highly suspicious that there is no God, in private company willing to say, “I live my life as if there is no God--I don’t pray, I don’t invoke God,” but they don’t want to be bold and say I hate God and...Spaghetti Monster, and all that kind of stuff. But they are also very sensitive to the idea that the universe is a wonderful, mysterious place, full of wonders and unknown things. It doesn’t mean there is a God filling that unknown, but take the mysteries of our consciousness, for example.
I think one of the major pathways to atheism to through the Bible and just observing the immorality that seems sanctioned by God in the pages of the Bible. If you take the Bible literally as fundamentalists do, you’ve got big problems. If you take the Bible more liberally, the way liberals do, you have fewer problems, but they are different problems. And the different problem is how do you pick which verses to take seriously and which ones not to?
One of the major tipping points for me was the issue of homosexuliaty, when Julius Nam and I were having a conversation one day and we both looked at each other and said, “We just think Paul’s wrong about this. If he were here today, he’d say something different.”
And some people propose that there were several different "Pauls" represented in the New Testament.
Every time you start talking about the Bible there are all these eighteen footnotes about authenticity and authorship and dating of the text… I haven’t focused too much on that, but I did focus a little on theology. I remember the day, it was in January or February, when it hit me, this idea of Salvation by Grace, which was always held up to me as this great ideal, suddenly seemed perverse to me...If you believe that people are horribly evil and bound for hell, then Salvation by Grace is good news because there’s only one alternative. But if you say that based on intellectual assent or an ability to find reason to believe within oneself, Hitler may make it into the Kingdom of Heaven alongside Mother Teresa and Gandhi while skeptics are going to be in the lake of fire. You say that to a person who isn’t programmed to believe, and they’re just horrified.
I’m still enamoured of the communistic ideas in the Bible about how we belong to one another, how in community we have ethical obligations to one another. What comes along with that though is a loss of freedom and independence which offends the liberal American mind. It offends my mind a little bit too, but I push back a bit against atheists who are like “Nobody’s going to tell me what to do,” and I’m like, “I disagree.” Drive 100 miles an hour down the middle of town, and definitely someone’s going to tell you what you can and cannot do. We do belong to each other at a certain level. But I think this idea that God owns us, that we are God’s slaves...and that we’re nothing and have no value outside of God giving us value, leads certain Christians to say you cannot have an objective moral standard without God.
Concerning evolution as an explanatory framework: People argue that Darwinism leads to inhumane societal realities--social darwinism.
I get that a lot. I think if you want to make the jump from abiogenesis by which life diversifies and becomes what we have today to social darwinism, you need to demonstrate that. I think you need to demonstrate that those things are logically connected. I could see how a despot like Hitler could come up with a plan like that, but I don’t think it’s necessary or required or even logically follows. Biological diversification just is. That’s how it happens. To then make a social case for that is a choice people make to claim power for themselves.
I think protecting the weak and the poor doesn’t make sense from a raw evolutionary principle. Altruism doesn’t make sense, but I think people like Richard Dawkins have said acting altruistically makes sense in part because it serves your own good too because you’re going to be old one day and don’t want to be euthanized. So maybe we shouldn’t euthanize other people who turn 70.
The hardest jump for people to make when they lose faith is the assurance of an afterlife and the finality of life. How do you deal with that?
That’s a hard one. It’s a difficult truth to swallow. For me, like most things, I weaned myself off of it over time. The way it happened for me was that I saw in my ministry and in my own life that a reliance on the afterlife disempowered people’s involvement in this life. And I was really motivated to make change here and now. I had read some kingdom of God theology that really convinced me that the Jesus of the pages of the New Testament was talking was not talking about going to heaven but about a kind of life--a kind of existence where people are treated equally and fairly in this world. And I just found that a focus on the afterlife not only distracted from that, but it really wasn’t there in the text. It wasn’t as obvious in the text as you might think, and was a later addition to the idea that Paul had. It was a very Greek idea, a very Platonic idea about the heavens and the ideals. I sort of weaned myself off the notion of heaven. I was very agnostic about heaven. My answer to that was, “If I wake up some day on the Golden Street, I’ll be like ‘cool, this is awesome.’” But if I don’t, I don’t. When the light goes out, it’s over. I didn’t believe as an Adventist in an ever-burning, torturing hell. So I didn’t have that scaring me as many evangelicals did growing up. It’s a horrible anguish to put kids through, to say nothing of adults.
I just came to the point this year, and I wrote a blog post about this too, where I felt this life is good enough. I’m lucky enough to be here as it is. If the unfolding of relatively random events hadn’t brought my parents together, or they decided not to have kids, or whatever, I wouldn’t even be here. So what kind of hubris is it that I think that I get to live forever? Why would I think that? Everything else around me have its life then it dies.
People combat that by saying it’s a result of sin. Stuff is not supposed to be finite.
Right, people tell that story about that. If you start with that assumption that we’re supposed to live forever, then yeah, death seems pretty abnormal. But if you take reality as it presents itself, you see things coming into life and then dying and sure, all matter is conserved. So those atoms and molecules go back into the earth and become something else. So in a sense, there’s a kind of reincarnation--not a conscious reincarnation, but our constituent parts go into chairs and tables and dogs and cats and whatever else comes into life next--trees and plants. We are made of stardust. We’re made of extinguished stars, which is a fantastic, almost spiritual idea. And we live on beyond ourselves in the lives of others we touch--our children and their children. The civic institutions that we build and the good that we do, even though nobody will remember us. To me this was a really great wakeup call about mortality, even when I was still a pastor: I read Ernest Becker’s “Denial of Death,” in which he argued that religion stems from our desire not to die. This Christian idea that we are special and important and God remembers us is very comforting. The reality is that unless you’re president of the United States or nobel laureate...even Nobel laureates--how many can you name? They’re forgotten. Walk down the Hollywood walk of fame some day and look at the stars and see how many you recognize. They were famous enough to get a star on the walk of fame and yet I know maybe 20% of them, and even the ones I recognize, I don’t know what they did in their lives. I’m not going to be remembered. People will forget about me, and that’s like “Oh God! That’s a heavy thing.” But it’s liberating in a way too. Because once you accept that reality, then suddenly...It’s like an iris that blooms and then dies, and then all the energy goes back into the bulb so that next year there can be more irises. Once you stop putting all that energy into worrying about heaven and earning it and what’s going to happen after you die, suddenly it’s like, I get these several decades and that’s it. So I’m going to make the best of it. That’s where the meaning comes.
A lof of Christian apologists like William Lane Craig claim that without God, life is meaningless. For atheists, life has no meaning or purpose. I asked another Christian apologist how he could say that without a terminus out there, there is no meaning. He replied that his meaning derives from an ultimate meaning, without which there is no other meaning. It’s a deeply foundationalist notion that without this foundation, nothing has meaning in relation to anything else.
So where’s the bottom of the Internet? Where’s the beginning and end of the Internet? Does that mean that it has no value? No! It’s very powerful and important.
You spent 19 years as pastor--most of your professional life. Do you ever wake up and say, "Man, I really miss _____________ about pastoring"?
What I miss the most is the platform for a kind of moral voice that being clergy gave me--to call society to a higher standard.
And you feel like you’ve lost that?
I feel like I’m getting it back. I have an opportunity to talk…
What are atheists calling people to, or as an atheist, what would you be calling people to?
Humanists values. The value that life is to be preferred over death, that equal opportunity to thrive is to be preferred over the alternative. Freedom of thought and expression...those are values that have evolved in humans society, which, I think the proof of them, the importance or value of them is evident from the fruit, just like Jesus would have said. You know a tree by its fruit--a good tree produces good fruit, and a bad tree produces bad fruit. On the whole, freedom and equality produces productive, prosperous societies where people get to experience the good things in life--move up Maslow’s heirarchy. They’re not as concerned with trying not to freeze to death tonight. They can worry about celebrating a kid’s birthday or going to the movies or thinking a philosophical thought, whereas people that are struggling to survive don’t have that freedom and privilege.
Do you, in your new incarnation, have certain non-negotiables?
I would really place a premium on equal opportunity. That we strive to create a level playing field for people. We can’t dictate equal outcomes--we can’t make everybody be well educated, but we can certainly give people the opportunity to have a good education.
Do you weave that value into your current job?
Yeah, absolutely. PATH is about ending homelessness. People become homeless for a lot of reasons, some are there own fault, some are a combination of really unlucky circumstance, some are the result of decisions made by parents. All kinds of reasons. And it’s important to see them as human beings equal to any other human beings, and to have empathy--a humanist value that I would cherish--this is the limit of science.
My work with PATH is very much driven by values and I think modern Christianity and modern humanism aren’t as indistinguishable as people would think--on either side. Atheist humanists would like there to be this wide gulf: “I’m not a Christian, I’m a humanist,” and Christians who are fearful of that kind of thing say, “No, no, no, we’re not humanist, we’re Christians.”
I think that humanism is a maturation of the enlightenment process--coming out of the darkness of superstition into the light of knowledge. To me, and this is where I get kind of testy with some atheists who want to draw a big bold line between atheism and Christianity, my contention is that modern atheism is a direct outgrowth of Christianity, and that humanism is an outgrowth of modern Christianity, just like Christianity is an outgrowth of something else--Judaism. There’s nothing original here. Nobody’s cracking a new nut. Kant and Hegel were not trying to become atheist any more than Martin Luther was trying to become a Protestant. They were exploring knowledge claims to try to preserve in some way… Kant’s notion of the categorical imperative is a kind of bizarre Platonic notion that there is some kind of ideal that we all have to hew to. This comes from Christianity. I don’t think it’s defensible, per se, but it functions as a type or as a model. I think it breaks down under scrutiny. The Enlightenment thinkers were Christians, and to say that is not a remarkable claim. Everybody was Christian unless they Jewish. And these were just super smart dudes who were just like, “Wait, this doesn’t match...the earth is rotating around the sun and not the other way around. But the Bible says the sun rises and sets, so what are we going to do about that?” So they began the process of trying to make it all fit and tried to preserve the notion of divine participation in all of it. It wasn’t until Feuerbach--he was one of the first to say, “No people invented God, God didn’t invent people.”
Do you find yourself as part of that same lineage or process or tradition, trajectory?
Sure, I mean it sounds arrogant to say this is the march of progress and everyone behind me is less progressed… I wouldn’t want anyone to feel that way.
I think the history of Western Thought, and that’s the only one I’m remotely qualified to speak to, is a quest to find out what we’re doing here. How did we get here and what are we supposed to do? From science and philosophy--Darwin just wanted to know how did this all get here and why are these creatures here and not over there. Let’s find out. That quest to understand our place in the universe and how we got here. The greatest scientists and scholars whether Christian or Jewish or Muslim--the greatest scholars of the 12th Century were Muslims from the sub-continent and…
The Hollywood church and the people there... Are you still in touch with any of them? Do you have regrets about how it all went down?
I mean, I think I conducted myself pretty well. I don’t have personal regrets. I have sort of generic regrets...well, I don’t know. In a way, I think the conference did me a favor. I don’t think on my own I would have stepped down. I thought about many times.
I think the tension reached a breaking point. That’s the basic way to say it. I don’t really think it’s anybody’s fault. I had some ideas--the thing is, a lot of people have these ideas. A lot of pastors have these ideas, but I had a bunch of ideas that were just incompatible with Adventism. I had a lot of really well-meaning progressive Adventist people who convinced me that my place in the church was important and valuable and that I shouldn’t step down. In the end I think I wasn’t Adventist anymore.
What do you say about the idea that those who are progressives--those on the leading edge, should stay in the church to make it a better place?
That’s a really interesting question. There’s a place for it I suppose, because there are people that are...take the Hollywood Church for a moment. It’s hard to know if I hadn’t done this what would have happened in the world. But the Hollywood Church gave people a place to belong in the midst of their doubts, only because I made it that way. There’s nothing inherent within Adventism that would create a church like that. In fact I did that over the objections of, and in spite of Adventism. I think there’s a place for it, but I think...here’s what I think. I think it’s a losing cause. If people want to make that their avocation--some people are into stamp collecting and other people want to create a safe haven within Adventism, and I think it’s hurtful to marginalize people especially: women, ethnic minorities, LGBTQ people, and it’s not going to change. Not in my lifetime.
So you feel the progressive move to make it a better place is a losing cause because the church is not going to change?
I think so, but I think people have been committed to lots of losing causes. I think a lot of people died before Martin Luther King, Jr. made a big splash. They might have said, don’t go to the polls. Stay home, you’re going to get killed. It’s a losing cause. And they went to the polls and got killed. Medgar Evers and people like that. You could say that was a losing cause. There’s an interesting quote and I’m not going to get it right...there’s an idea in community organizing that any cause worth winning is worth losing a bunch of times before you give someone else in the future a chance to win it. A lot of people have to lose that fight before someone can win it. But I think Adventism is just too small a thing. I’m all for fighting and losing important causes, but I don’t think Adventism is a cause worth fighting for. Not worth bleeding and dying for. For some people it is, and they should follow their conscience and do what they feel called to do. But very confidently I would say that anyone who feels trapped in that world--you don’t have to stay. There’s light on the other side.
I remember feeling fearful. I almost remember feeling more fearful about leaving Adventism than about leaving Christianity. It was my home and my community, and it was so drummed into me that Satan is going around like a roaring lion seeking whom he can devour, and deceiving even the very elect. And I was like, “Damn! who can survive? Who can make it through the narrow gate?”
Now it all seems to me like a dream. Like you wake up and are terrified from a nightmare, and you tell it you your friend, and then you’re like, “Well that sounds silly.” Any terrifying nightmare when you try to explain it just sounds ludicrous. “There were these giant M&Ms chasing me and I thought they were going to eat me...Trust me, I was terrified.” But it sounds silly.
Has this last year allowed you to maintain any friendships in the Hollywood Church and in the Adventist community?
Absolutely. I think that’s a testament to really great friendships. It transcends. Friends like Syd and David Shook, Leslie Foster...Nathan French and I are in the same work now, doing homelessness work. It’s interesting who you meet on the other side as well. I went to Sunday Assembly and met some people I knew, and it was like “Oh hey, you too! I didn’t realize…” It’s like going to AA and seeing someone you know.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6541