The headline said “Former Pastor Decides To Spend A Year Without God”. A christian pastor was going to try living as an atheist for a year, and see what happened. Like many, I was interested in what led to this radical step, and where it would lead.
Not long ago, a year later, he announced his conclusions.
The story in brief
Pastor Ryan Bell had a very conservative upbringing in the Seventh Day Adventist church, then studied at the church’s theological college and became a pastor.
Life as a pastor was challenging, and he began to question some aspects of his faith. When he became pastor of a growing church in Hollywood, he stressed social justice more than salvation, and supported the rights of GLBT people and equality for women. His blog at the time shows he had definitely become much less conservative. He began to have deeper doubts, about prayer, science and the Bible, and eventually (because of the suffering in the world) the very existence of God.
2014 was a crisis year. Pressure was building in his church because of his unconservative views, and eventually he was forced to quit the ministry. His marriage was headed for divorce. And so he got to the point of deciding, very publicly, to give atheism a year-long trial.
The year of living atheistically
Many people, both atheists and christians, might think that the issue shouldn’t be decided just by living, but by examining truth. But Ryan immersed himself in both living and thinking. He began to attend atheist events, talk to atheists, read atheist books, researching to find the truth and asking “what difference does God make?” He appeared on radio and TV, and it soon became clear he was finding more answers in atheism than in his former faith.
And so at the end of 2014, Ryan announced that “I don’t think that God exists. I think that makes the most sense of the evidence that I have and my experience.”
Ryan Bell’s reasons for disbelief
Ryan identifies a number of factors in his conclusion that God doesn’t exist.
No convincing arguments?
“I’ve looked at the majority of the arguments that I’ve been able to find for the existence of God, and …. I don’t find there to be a convincing case.”
I haven’t found anywhere that he discusses which arguments he considered, and why he rejected them. But if he’s not convinced, then he’s not convinced. Nevertheless, I still find them convincing.
God makes no difference?
“God does not answer prayer, intervene in human affairs or have a personal relationship with us.”
Again, I can’t argue against his experience. But I wonder whether he considered the claims of millions of other people that God has intervened on their behalf?
Too many religions?
“The multiplicity of religions is also an argument against theism. With all the competing claims, which God is the right one?”
I find this reason curious. Does the multitude of different approaches to philosophy make all philosophical conclusions invalid (including his own)? It seems more likely to me that all that belief is based on something, and the question is how to determine where truth might be.
Science explains everything?
“I feel much more confident leaving questions of our physical world and the cosmos to science. …. the history of human social evolution is a much better way of understanding religion”
This is understandable, though I can’t see how scientific explanations preclude God – they could easily simply explain how God has acted.
He thinks the extent of evil and suffering shows either God doesn’t care or doesn’t take responsibility.
I can’t argue with this one. There is an awful amount of suffering and it is hard to explain how God created a world that allows it. I think there are strong enough reasons to believe in God to outweigh this problem, but Ryan thinks differently.
Conversions and ‘deconversions’
Studies show that quite a large number of people change their beliefs a least once in life (see some references below), though few do it so publicly. Ryan’s story raises a few questions in my mind.
Following in father’s (or mother’s) footsteps?
Children brought up with particular beliefs often stay with those beliefs, at least through their teens, sometimes far longer. (In the US, this will most often be christian belief, but in other western countries such as Australia, it is more likely to be a secular worldview.) We can question whether these people truly are believers (as doubtless some will question Ryan’s previous beliefs), but we can’t know and can’t generalise.
What I think we can say is that childhood beliefs may not be as well-based as beliefs that have been tested and reviewed. The more we examine our beliefs, the stronger they will likely be. There is a lesson here for parents, educators, church leaders and sceptics.
Why do you and I believe and disbelieve what we do?
People believe and disbelieve for all sorts of reasons. (That’s the topic of an upcoming post.) Some people question their beliefs, some don’t, or at least not much. Analytical people will question, whether they be christians or atheists or somewhere in between. Intuitive people, whether believer or unbeliever, will tend to go with what feels right.
I personally wouldn’t have felt right following Ryan’s path of trying to live as an atheist as a way of deciding truth. I’d want to have decided if I thought it was true first. And I don’t feel his analysis (as summarised above) would be adequate for me to make a decision.
But he is Ryan and I’m not. I think we should always be careful of criticising how other people choose their beliefs, for that may simply be the way their brain is wired. But if people claim to be basing their beliefs on evidence and reason, then I think criticising how they apply their own standards is fair.
You are what you eat?
Pascal wrote: “In faith there is enough light for those who want to believe and enough shadows to blind those who don’t.” I think that is very true. The evidence isn’t all either way, and what we want to be true, the assumptions we make and the way we go about making our decision can all be crucial in whether we believe or don’t.
So I believe if we focus on the things wrong with christianity and the arguments against, we will quite likely end up finding the evidence insufficient and opt for disbelief or be reinforced in our disbelief. But if we look for God and focus on the reasons to believe and the benefits of belief in our lives, we will quite likely end up believing or reinforcing our faith.
That being so, I can’t help feeling Ryan’s year without God was almost inevitably going to lead him to where it did.
Next steps for Ryan Bell
Ryan has concluded he doesn’t need God to be loving, and now works for a non-profit that helps the homeless. He is writing a book and completing a film about his year-long experiment.
Yet he isn’t as hard-edged about his atheism as you might think – he feels atheism is “an awkward fit”, but he also feels uncomfortable around his former Christian friends. Who knows if this is the end of his journey of belief?
Read more about conversion and deconversion stories and statistics
- Many christians, including many pastors, are turning away from their former beliefs.
- It’s not all one way and the children of atheist parents often don’t follow in their unbelief.
- Conversion stories on this blog and website.
Graphic from Ryan Bell’s blog.