Los Angeles—A pastor who has resolved to try atheism for one year is paying a big price for his “intellectual experiment.” Less than a week after Ryan Bell, 42, announced he’d live 2014 as if there’s no God, his two teaching contracts weren’t renewed at Christian universities and a consulting job at a local church ended.
Bell, whose liberalism had put him at odds with his denomination, said he’s felt like a “religious nomad.” So now he’s “suspending my belief in God to see what atheism is all about.” He won’t pray, attend church, read the Bible, or trust in God to provide.
On his blog “Year Without God,” Bell wrote, “I didn’t realize…how difficult it would be for some people to embrace me while I was embracing this journey of open inquiry into the question of God’s existence.”
Kurt Fredrickson, associate dean of ministry at Fuller Theological Seminary, told Bell that taking a sabbatical from faith would mean taking a sabbatical from his position at the school. Fredrickson said he’s personally excited about his friend’s experiment, but it’s “a little contradictory” to his job duties there.
While worrying how he’d pay his bills, Bell received help from an unlikely source. Prominent atheist Hemant Mehta, who’s never met Bell, raised more than $19,000 for him online in just one day. Although Mehta said it’s hard to pretend to be an atheist, he admires Bell’s courage and willingness to jeopardize his jobs and relationships.
The outpouring of support “validates that the [atheist] community is really all about the search for truth,” Bell said. “They know that I might not even end up as an atheist at the end of my search, but it doesn’t matter to them. It’s such a beautiful gesture.”
Sources: cnn.com, yearwithoutgod.com, christianpost.com, patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist
* * *
Discussion Questions to Use With Students
What’s your opinion of Bell’s experiment? Do you think it’s a publicity stunt? a genuine attempt to sort out his beliefs—or lack of belief? Explain.
Should Bell be surprised that his employment with Christian organizations has disappeared? If you had to choose whether or not to keep Bell at a Christian school or church, what would you decide, and why?
If someone has a faith background, is it possible to “pretend” to be an atheist for a while? Why or why not? Does not praying or reading Scripture put someone on the path to becoming an atheist? Why do you think so many people who profess to be Christians don’t interact with God regularly?
When, if ever, are doubts healthy for someone spiritually? Should Christians take a serious look at their beliefs, even if they decide to ditch some of them as a result? Explain.
Why do you think atheists are rallying behind Bell? Do you think the financial support will help pull him to their “side”? Why or why not?
How confident are you in the beliefs you profess? How often do you profess them—and to whom? How would you cope if you were told you couldn’t read God’s Word or talk to or about God for an entire year?
If a friend asked how you knew God was real and Christianity was true, what would you say? Can you point to Scripture as “proof” if people question the Bible’s validity in the first place?
How do you think God feels about our doubts and questions? What doubts linger in your mind about Christianity, and how can you address them?
Scripture links: Psalm 53:1; John 14:6; Romans 1:18-21; 1 Corinthians 2:14; Hebrews 11:1-2; and James 1:5-8.