Within the span of two short weeks, Ryan Bell's announcement that he would spend 2014 without God went from a single blog post to the subject of major, international news coverage. It's a trajectory, Bell says, he couldn't have predicted. Within the first two days after Bell announced the project in an article on the Huffington Post, people flocked to the project's website and flooded the blogosphere and social media with comments.
Initial reactions to the project were mixed. Some, particularly within the Adventist community, cautioned against abandoning God. For them the project was unnecessarily risky. On the other side of the issue, atheist bloggers and commentators weighed in with skepticism to the methodological approach of "trying out" atheism. Either one believes or one doesn't, the argument went. For them, the project did not go far enough. Between those polarities came a large number of curious and well-wishing observers. Many readers shared their own stories of grappling with or embracing Doubt.
Within days of launching the Year Without God, Bell received word that his revenue streams were not drying up; they were being dammed. Azusa Pacific University and Fuller Theological Seminary both canceled Bell's contract teaching jobs, and Glendale City Church, an Adventist congregation near Los Angeles, told Bell that they needed to end his consulting role with a fledgling non-profit the church operated.
Bell wrote on his blog,
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.
Relief for him came from an unlikely place: an atheist blogger, who just prior had publicly dismissed Bell's project. Math teacher and Friendly Atheist blogger Hemant Mehta wrote:
I’m all for religious people (or those like Bell who still have a foot on the religious side) reading things that might change their mind or talking to people who might point out the holes in their logic, but none of that makes you an atheist until you realize that God is a myth.
After learning that Bell had lost his jobs, the Friendly Atheist set up a GoFundMe page for Bell, encouraging donations. The initial fundraising goal was $5,000. As of press time, the fundraiser pulled in $27,249.00, all of which will be deliverd to Bell, Mehta said. Bell noted that donations came from Christian and atheist donors alike, and he expressed his gratitude saying, "I am shocked and overwhelmed a the outpouring of support that I have received after Hemant Mehta asked people to support me financially. I am grateful." Bell also added a donate button to his website at the suggestion of friends.
If that activity was seismic tremors rumbling beneath the surface, then the volcanic eruption was the media coverage that followed. The story spread from online journals to syndicated radio broadcasts to national network news shows. Salon, The Washington Post, NPR, CNN and the BBC were among the prominent outlets to cover the story, leading some to deride the project as a cleverly-crafted publicity stunt. Bell responded to the publicity stunt accusation saying that it gives him far too much credit, and that while he has appreciated the dialog that the coverage has sparked, it has also been something of a diversion. He wrote:
What started out as a personal project has blown up into an international story. I am as surprised as anyone. I’ve taken the media requests because there has been such an outpouring of interest and support from so many sides of the question of god. If my journey provokes conversation, I believe that is a good thing.
But questions about Bell's motivations for his Year Without God have persisted, and in a recent blog post, he offered a candid response:
Mine has been a slow erosion of the beliefs I was raised with. Unanswered and, indeed, off limits questions, knocking at the door of my mind, refusing, finally, to be ignored. Indeed, anyone who once believed in God, and is now an atheist, has walked this road. To finally take the God glasses off is not a heroic act or a herculean feat, but the logical next step in my exploration of faith. What if it were true that there is no god, as I have suspected for a very long time? My “trying on” atheism is more like taking the next step and allowing myself to embrace my serious doubts about God’s existence. By removing my “God glasses” (both beliefs and actions) I am freed to see the world in a different way.
The story has made waves within Adventism too. The Columbia Union Conference's Visitor Magazine published an aritcle in which four pastors from the Union weighed in on what to do with doubt. "Is Ryan Bell Right or Wrong?" the headline read. Pastors' suggestions ranged from reading Scripture every day as preparation for tests that might come to honestly facing doubts to seeking to take spiritual journeys with others, not alone.
I asked Bell whether he worries that this year might pigeonhole him, narrowing the possibilities for future endeavours. "I have thought about that," he said. "I feel like it might jeopardize my chances to work with my former colleagues. Thankfully my partners at Level Ground (www.onlevelground.org) have been happy to keep me on. But I'm also making new contacts and new friends. I'm meeting people who are doing things I never knew existed. Wherever I end up at the end of this year I'm confident there will be a place for me."
As for what is next on the journey, Bell says,
I just finished having coffee with three gentlemen who are part of the volunteer team running Sunday Assembly Los Angeles. I expect I'll be participating in some of what they're doing. I'm going to be giving a series of lectures to rabbinical students at American Jewish University in the next couple of months. I'll be speaking at Peter Rollins' Hocus Pocus gathering -- a Christian gathering, I should say, but one exploring the limits of theology. Other than this I'm setting up conversations with people who have reached out to me and planning to visit a few other people around the country. But those appointments aren't set up yet. I'm also on the leadership team of Level Ground and our film festival is coming up so I'm going to be busy working on all that.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/5757