Giving Up God—Not Just a Spiritual Stunt

Since announcing he was going for a Year Without God, newly unemployed pastor and professor Ryan Bell found himself an unexpected media darling. Becky Garrison caught up with Bell via phone to talk about his motivations, the reactions of his friends and family, and what he hopes to discover.

BG: What’s your reaction to this surge of media coverage?

RB: When I started this, I thought my blog would only be read by a few people. It’s been surreal. I have no clue how to make anything go viral, so this is totally unexpected. But eventually, I think this attention is going to stop—you can only hear the same story so many times.

What did you think of the recent RD post that links your quest to Pascal’s wager and the context of your quest in today’s spiritual marketplace?

Linn Marie Tonstad suggests that I am participating in a postmodern marketplace of religious ideas, choosing my “beliefs” from a smorgasbord of options. But then in the last sentence she seems to suggest that there might be a “marketplace” motive to my actions—that I might stand to benefit in the marketplace from my yearlong experience of atheism.

First of all, I’m not sure what the marketplace of religious beliefs and practices has to do with my possible success. It also seems to assume that I crassly set out to create a media storm for my own advantage. This just isn’t true and when people take the time to talk to me, I explain where I’m coming from.

There are other problems with her understanding of what I’m doing—which is as much my fault as anything, and which I will attempt to address at another time.

Well at first glance, your decision to live a year without God does sound like a stunt.

I read A.J. Jacob’s book A Year of Living Biblically and thought it was fun. I kind of enjoyed it, and I’m glad he wrote it. My initial intention was to do this blog project for myself and a few other friends. I had no idea it would take off like it did.

To be honest, it feels a bit surreal. Having lost my career after being a pastor for 20 years, I’m really questioning the virtue of religion. Yes, I know people tell me religion and God are different, but everything we know about God comes to us through religion.

So to lose one’s religion in such a dramatic fashion as I did, it made sense for me to just walk away and examine the basic tenets of my faith, especially now that I’m not responsible for a church full of people.

What were the specific teachings from your Seventh-day Adventist background that you began to question?

This started back in 2008 when I got involved with the Prop 8 campaign along with some other members of the church I was pastoring. Then the North American Religious Liberty Assocation, a department of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, came out in support of Prop 8 despite their long history of advocating for the religious liberties—even of people they don’t support.

But suddenly when Prop 8 came out, they began stating that allowing gays and lesbian couples to marry would make pastors go against their religious liberties by forcing them to marry same sex couples. I was afraid I would lose my job during this debate.

After Prop 8 passed, we did an It Gets Better video and a few other projects in support of marriage equality. Also, I did not share the Seventh-day Adventists’ beliefs in creationism or remnant church theology.

While RD readers are tuned in to the creationism v. evolution debate, they might not be familiar with remnant theology. What is that?

This is one of the church teachings that most members really don’t follow, and in fact I hadn’t thought much about it for at least the last 15 years of my ministry.

But the average Adventist will say that heaven will not be filled with just Adventists—but the doctrine remains that if you don’t adhere to Adventists teachings, you may not be saved. I  dealt with this theology by just not preaching on it.

You describe yourself on your website is an activist. How do you define this term?

In addition to marriage equality, I was involved in issues like banking reform, health care reform, and Proposition 30 (a tax revenue measure aimed to keep California public schools from losing even more money). I’ve had less of an activist role since I left my church because that was the medium for my activism.

Why did you take a public stance in support of marriage equality? And what was the fallout?

I made this decision because I had members of my congregation who were gay and lesbian. They were part of our community so we felt it at a personal level when the state of California wanted to prohibit their ability to get married.

We couldn’t see any secular or nonreligious argument that says same sex marriage was damaging to democracy in some way. At the beginning, I set this up as a religious liberty argument because I knew other Adventists would have a problem with same-sex relations. From there, I took the argument that one should not use one’s sexuality to harm others. It’s wrong if you’re using your sexuality to hurt people, but I no longer felt that committed same sex relationships were not pleasing to God. And that went against church teachings.

My church supported me but the Southern California conference forced me to resign. Technically, I’m still a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and have my ministerial credentials though I suspect they will take them away eventually. In fact, I’ve performed a few same sex marriages since I was asked to leave my position.

What happened at Azusa Pacific University and Fuller Theological Seminary?

Both institutions basically told me I needed to take a leave of absence from teaching until I could sign their faith statements again. They were super nice. Kurt Fredrickson, an associate dean of ministry at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California told me the same things that he conveyed to Daniel Burke at the CNN Belief blog, that while he supports this project and feels I am the person to do this and applauds and encourages me, this venture is incompatible with their mission. I knew when I started off on this project there was a possibility this might happen.

Sounds like US evangelicalism as practiced on the institutional level cannot support a personal faith quest that doesn’t lead to an embrace of their particular version of God.

This does reveal a tear in the fabric a little bit. But the nature of my journey is peculiar—it’s not a journey toward faith but away from faith. And I just don’t think they have a category for that.

I’ve had people ask me why I can’t hold on to my faith and explore atheism, but I chose to be more personally invested in this journey. It’s like when people would come to me when I was a pastor and tell me they were OK with some of the beliefs of Christianity but weren’t sure if they wanted to commit. My first thought would always be, “Why don’t you come to church, pray, read your Bible? Just test it out and see if this adds any meaning to your life.”

So in the same way, I’m asking: what would the world be like if there wasn’t any God? The only way to find that out is to just go there.

What authors have influenced you?

Merold Westphal, a theist and a professor at Fordham University, wrote a book titled Overcoming Onto-Theology that influenced me. I came to the point at the end of my pastoral career where the issue of ontology, or the “beingness” of God really didn’t matter much to me. I didn’t really care if God was a person per se—athough I’m very much interested in the sociology of religion and the way we have created God in our image.

People like Alain de Botton and Ronald Dworkin have been influential in my thinking about so-called atheistic religion. I’d like to know more about the social phenomenon of the rise of the nones and emergence of atheist groups. People in general now seem to be more comfortable expressing their non-belief.

Why didn’t you just go with a more liberal mainline denomination?

Not too long ago I felt there was a thinning out of authentic faith. Seems some churches want it both ways—they want to be biblical but they don’t want the challenge of living into the narrative.

While I have great friends who are Unitarian, Episcopal, or members of other mainline churches, and I’m very connected to the interfaith community, I feel it’s all so tribal. There’s a lot of culture wrapped up in these denominations; even the most progressive expressions of Christianity strike me as marketing and branding.

Nor am I attracted to atheist churches like Sunday Assembly because I just don’t care for the format of an evangelical worship service. One of the perks of being an atheist is not having to do that anymore. I’ve been in the religion business all my life and I just need a break.

Is this some kind of apophatic journey of the soul similar to those undergone by the Desert Fathers and Mothers?

Part of this for me is the epistemology of this: how can we be certain of what we know? So yes, I am stepping into the “Cloud of Unknowing.” I find that I go on a lot more hikes, see more art, and walk more on the beach. And I realized I’m starting to appreciate art and beauty in the natural world without attributing this to any deity.

Say more about the reactions you gotten from your peers?

A few fundamentalist types have told me I’m stupid, which is to be expected. Some who know me well have indicated they feel I might be self-destructing. But most people are supporting me in my journey even though this isn’t a path most of them will take. They’ve known me as being an authentic pastor so there’s no reason for them to question my authenticity until I demonstrate otherwise.

What’s amazing is how people have privately really poured their hearts out to me telling me they’re in the closet as an atheist, adding that what I’m doing is helping them in their journey.

How has this decision affected your family?

I’m going through a divorce, but that’s unrelated to this issue. I’ve talked to my two daughters (10 and 13) about this and I’ve reassured them that I haven’t turned my back on God. I want my kids at a certain age to know the truth and that they’re on their own journey as well.

So there is no book deal at the end of this year?

Some may think I’m in this for a book deal but right now I’m unemployed and not making any money. I’m a writer so I do intend to write a book about my journey—but there’s no book deal undergirding this project.