I remember reading about it a year ago. A christian pastor was going to try living as an atheist for a year, and see what happened. I saw occasional news about the experiment during the year, then as the end of the year got closer, I saw that he was due to make his announcement.
I couldn’t help thinking if a former pastor lived for a year without God, he’d already made up his mind, but I still wanted to know what he’d discovered.
The story in brief
Pastor Ryan Bell had a very conservative upbringing in the Seventh Day Adventist church – not drinking, eating meat, listening to pop music (except secretly) or believing in evolution. He studied at the church’s college and became a pastor.
He was challenged to find that many of his parishioners didn’t obey all the church’s strict rules, yet seemed to be good people, and he was challenged to think more about 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 doubts about much of his previous beliefs – 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 his marriage was headed for divorce. 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. I’m not sure if he ever asked God to join him in the experiment (you’d think he would, but I haven’t seen any mention of it), so I can’t help feeling he had already, perhaps unconsciously, decided against God and was wanting to “test drive” atheism.
But whatever was the case, 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.” His reasons apparently are:
- “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”
- He couldn’t see that God made a difference. He feels prayer isn’t answered.
- Science works and his former faith denied science. He knows other christians reconcile the two, but he sees no reason to.
- “The multiplicity of religions is also an argument against theism. With all the competing claims, which God is the right one?”
- Psychology and evolution explain religion better than thinking God exists.
- He thinks the extent of evil and suffering shows either God doesn’t care or doesn’t take responsibility.
Learning from the story
I see no point in criticising Ryan, he deserves our love, understanding and care just like anyone else. But I do think there may be some lessons for us christians to learn.
Was he really a believer all along?
One of the most obvious christian responses to Ryan’s story is to say he couldn’t have really been a born again christian all along. He never knew God and so his experiment confirmed his lack of belief.
I don’t believe this is a useful response. It may (or may not) be true for all I know. But we can’t know. He thought he was a christian believer, he lived as one, and I think it is better to respect that.
He’s not the first
I have blogged before about this. Many former christians, including many pastors, are turning away from their former beliefs.
Of course it’s not all one way and the children of atheist parents often don’t follow in their unbelief. But “deconversions” occur, and we can and should be better prepared for them.
The perils of a church upbringing
Ryan’s story highlights for me the potential dangers of a christian upbringing. Of course there are many advantages, which I don’t need to list, but christian parents must also recognise that it is possible for children to be conforming without necessarily understanding or being committed to what they have been taught.
It is critical that christian parents ensure their children see and experience an authentic christian faith in the family and in the church. Parents should discuss spiritual and current affairs issues with their children. Children should be encouraged to speak out their doubts, to ask their questions without any negative response, and to be making their own choices. Parents shouldn’t assume faith in their children, but be praying daily for them. Christian teens and young adults from non-christian homes should be offered adult mentors and prayer supporters.
It may be that none of this applies to Ryan Bell’s upbringing, I don’t know, but it will surely apply to others.
The perils of a “close-minded” church
Churches with strict, conservative teachings and discipline, and an anti-science stance, can offer a strong and internally consistent belief that helps some members keep their faith even when confronted with persuasive unbelief.
But the close-mindedness that often comes with the territory, and the pressure to conform and not ask difficult questions or express doubts, often leads to more thoughtful teens and young adults losing their faith when they move into the wider world. Biblical inerrancy especially is a doctrine that comforts some while making faith impossible for others.
Each of us has to stick with what we believe is true, but the perils of an anti-intellectual belief and attitude should be recognised. It isn’t unfaithful to cultivate a culture of openness and acceptance of questioning.
All you need is love?
A church where people turn up each week and passively sit in rows consuming whatever the pastor serves up, then go home without developing deep relationships, is not really a church at all, but some sort of religious supermarket. And some people will drop out without anyone knowing they are hurting, doubting, suffering.
But if churches focus on community, serving the weaker brothers and sisters, and following Paul’s teaching about love being the most important thing, everyone will be welcomed into a web of community and no-one will hurt, doubt or suffer without someone knowing and walking sympathetically with them. This will allow people to ask their questions and share their doubts in a supportive atmosphere.
Pastors are human too (though they and their congregations often prefer to act as if this isn’t true), and need to be included in these caring and supporting networks.
Why should anyone believe?
Do we give people good reasons to believe, or do we just expect them to believe without any good reason? Of course the Holy Spirit can and does lead people to faith in surprising ways. But christianity is a historical belief based on the life of Jesus in verifiable history, and there are good reasons to believe it is true. Evangelism should include some discussion of these reasons.
And it shouldn’t end there. Children should be taught reasons why in their families and Sunday Schools, adults should be encouraged to work their way through issues of faith and reason. Christians of all ages need to know why they believe, and be kept up to date. There is room in services for apologetics training.
Such training needs to be realistic. Too much christian apologetics is based on one-sided reading of christian apologists. There are serious questions and viewpoints which a lot of christian apologetics ignores or dismisses without giving good reasons. This means young christians who go to university or explore the internet will find arguments and supposed facts which they haven’t heard before and are unprepared for.
Some churches and some christians break friendship with ex-christians. Some think this is required as “church discipline”, but this seems to me to be totally against how Jesus would behave.
Studies show many people change belief more than once in their life. Retaining friendship, remaining open to conversation without preaching, all the time quietly praying, seems to me to be the right and loving response. Thankfully, while Ryan received his share of nasty responses from christians, he reports that the majority of christians have treated him well.
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? You might like to spare a thought and a prayer for him.
Graphic from Ryan Bell’s blog.
This is so timely. Last night my husband patiently listened as this worried mom wrestled with how to raise open minded, questioning children in a Christian home.
Our desire is for them to have a true love for God(and a true peace that He loves them) not a fake mirror image of our own faith just so we can sleep better at night.
Our hope is in our God. We are now praying for wisdom on timing and honestly I’m praying for them to start questioning the doctrine in our church as soon as their minds are ready to sift through the different thoughts on creation, hell, election etc.
My husband reminded me that the way our children are raised (not that I do not agree with most of the concerns you raised) will not determine their eternity or lack of eternity with God.
God calls people and God saves.
I couldn’t get out of bed due to fear that one’s relationship with their Creator had ANY bearings on my actions. .. talk about a burden that is not light.
This is hard for me because my deepest desire is for my children to know the peace and hope that comes from a loving God… I want control… “do XYZ and your child will come to faith in Christ” but this logic would not be just for the child who didn’t grow up in a Christian home.
Is there an unfair advantage in being raised in a God centered home is the area of salvation? I say “no” (I could be wrong)
As for Ryan’s journey, I will be praying for him along with those who claim to have left the faith. I was sorry to hear about his marriage too. Marriage is such a gift!
You’re right in saying we should not make the assumption that they who claim to leave their faith never were believers… only God knows their heart. I pray that if they do know the Lord that He will ever increasingly pursue them and show His faithfulness.
I heard it said that the church (as in the universal church… priesthood of believers) is being purged in preparation for more intense persecution. I have not clue if this is true for I hold no crystal ball but it is a thought.
Thanks for this comment. Raising children is indeed an awesome responsibility, but we can trust God who is their true parent!
It was mentioned in the beginning that Ryan Bell was a Seventh Day Adventist. What many Christians don’t realize, and I didn’t either until my brother married into SDA, that SDA is NOT and authentic denomination of Christianity and, in fact, may even be considered a cult. There are many SDA’s who leave the church because they do not know the authentic Gospel, but in fact, follow the misguided “teachings” of a false prophet, Ellen White.
I believe that when you truly know Jesus, it is impossible to lose faith in Him. I will be praying for Ryan because his faith was based on a false system to begin with. My heart goes out to him and all those who struggle in their faith.
Yes, you make a good point. The Seventh Day Adventist church used to be considered a cult by many christians (I used to have a book on cults that included them). But I have known some SDAs here in Australia who were strong evangelical christians, part of a reform movement in the SDA church. I wasn’t sure where Ryan Bell fitted in, so I thought it best to not mention that aspect.
Perhaps he had already answered the question – whether, for himself, it seemed better to live according to God or not – even before the experiment. If you are sure you are on the right path, you don’t need to take the wrong route. I know that in our Christian journey we make a lot of those experimenting as well, not scheduled as that, but because sometimes we have doubts or confused, but we should always try to come back to the right route.
Blogs like yours may work as little signs showing us The Way we should follow or those who have been beaten by others erroneously.
Hi Jonathan, yes I feel he may have pretty much answered the question before he started, but maybe the process helped him to feel more certain.
Some very valid points here. And even with where I am on my journey I am very conscious of my son and his belief and of him having his own faith. Regardless of me and mine. I want him to know why he believes what he does and to be able to have an answer for questions. He is free to question, something I never felt I was permitted to do. And I discuss various points of contention that may present themselves within church, christian life and the bible.
Hi JJ, thanks for visiting and commenting. I’d be interested to hear more about your journey some day.
I have also tried to follow Mr. Bell’s blog in the past year, which has been very interesting to me. I have been wondering if there is still any faith in his mind about God at this point. Does he ever question his conclusion? I was actually asking these questions this morning about the possibility of God not existing at all. It would mean that I am totally alone , except the company of my fellow human beings. But I feel that I cannot reach such a bold conclusion about God, because I have not gathered enough evidence in my short life to conclude that God does not exist. I don’t think that one year is enough time for me…
Hi Noel, I suspect he didn’t change his mind in that year, but solidified in his doubts. CS Lewis said he had as many doubts as an atheist as he did as a christian, and Ryan Bell seems to be unwilling to strongly identify as either christian or atheist, so perhaps he too has doubts both ways.