When former APU adjunct professor and longtime pastor Ryan Bell decided to embark on an unusual yearlong personal faith experiment, he didn’t realize how much of a stir he would create in the media and with Christians and atheists nationwide.
But after his opening letter declaring his “Year Without God” project was published on the Huffington Post Dec. 31, he has spent every day trying to keep up with what he described as a never-ending, exhausting influx of emails, tweets, Facebook messages, blog comments and other notifications.
“It’s emotional because people think they know you, and they say some pretty hurtful things at times. They ascribe motives to what I’m doing, like I’m just trying to create a media platform for myself, or I’m not sincere, it’s a stunt,” the 42-year-old told The Clause. “It’s so upsetting. I try to tell myself that it’s all part of the research; these responses are as interesting as the project itself.”
Bell grew up in the Seventh-day Adventist church, attended Christian colleges and has been a pastor his entire adult life. Most recently he served for eight years as a senior pastor at Hollywood Adventist Church, but was asked to step down last March.
Bell said his activism against Proposition 8, California’s ban on gay marriage, was a big part of why he was eventually asked to resign.
However, Larry Caviness, president of the Southern California Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, said in a statement emailed to The Clause that although issues with same-sex views may have contributed, they were not a major factor in in the conference’s decision to ask Bell to resign.
After Bell lost his pastoral position, he was left teaching one class on cultural communication for APU’s Global Studies Department and one class for Fuller Seminary’s Doctor of Ministry program, both as an adjunct.
Bell formulated the idea for his yearlong project during a friendly conversation on philosophy and theism sometime between Christmas and New Year’s Day.
Bell said for the last two or three years, he has been exploring a non-ontological approach to God – focusing on how to think about God, instead of the “being-ness” of God. Without any full-time work, he said if there were ever a time to explore these questions, it might as well be now.
“It would be a year without God, a year as an atheist, to sort of not force myself into theistic arguments, and just let my questions be there, and explore them,” Bell said.
One of Bell’s former APU students, Amanda Eckersall, called Bell’s sudden trek into atheism “a little shocking.” The former senior graphic design major has since transferred to Citrus College, but recalled how Bell would often start his classes by handing out a passage from Scripture.
“Of course I think it’s wonderful to explore different beliefs, but I just wonder how serious he’s going to take atheism,” Eckersall said. “I worry about him, spiritually and financially.”
Bell’s story has been picked up by mainstream media such as the BBC, NPR, CNN, Religion News Service, Washington Post and others. An atheist blogger even set up a fundraising page for Bell, raising more than $27,000 so far. After intense public scrutiny and questioning, Bell said he has been forced to clarify both to himself and others what his project really is, and that it has evolved since he first announced it last month.
For example, he did write that he would not pray or read the Bible for inspiration. Now he stresses that those are merely consequences, not goals, of the project. His faith was much more robust than just praying and reading God’s Word, he said. And he said he’ll still read the Bible, but with “a different set of lenses.”
“It’s almost like the thing I’m doing is stepping into the void. So it’s not about things I’m doing so much, but about being in a space where I don’t know what to do,” he said. “If God is not there actually, and my belief in God is really about the effort to avoid the reality … that God isn’t there, then a year without God is really about not fighting it. About not fighting that question, and allowing that question full room to roam.”
Bell will be blogging about his project throughout the year, as well as his plans to travel, meet with and interview both individual and groups of various atheists and theists. He said numerous people have “come out” to him as either serious agnostics or atheists, asking him spiritual questions and inviting him to be a part of their story.
“I said from the beginning this is one part journalism, one part spiritual journey,” Bell said. “I want to explore atheism in America from the inside. It’s really participant-observer research.”
Meanwhile, Bell is also hunting for full-time work, preferably something writing-related that isn’t too overwhelming, since he is treating his “Year Without God” project as a part-time job in itself.
“Social justice, community engagement, social services type of jobs … I think that would keep me connected to stuff I really care about. More than anything else, I’ve been a social justice activist,” he said.
Contrary to several media reports, Bell was not “fired” from his positions at APU and Fuller. Bell was on a semester-by-semester contract for the two Christian universities, and had to sign a faith statement to renew each term.
“We find it as a very high value that our professors will encourage students spiritually [and] pray for students,” said Kurt Fredrickson, associate dean of Fuller’s Doctor of Ministry program. “And Ryan, by his own admission, couldn’t do that for us.”
Ken Fong, a longtime pastor and former colleague of Bell’s at Fuller, said he is “[admiring Bell] from afar for being so honest.”
“I trust Ryan’s heart, to be motivated by things that are much more pure than not,” Fong said. “I’m enough of a pastor and a friend to not want to presuppose what a good outcome [of Ryan’s project] would be.”
Similarly, at APU, Bell said he had a “lovely conversation” with Dr. Donald Isaak, interim dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and Dr. Richard Robison, chair of the Global Studies Department, about his trek into atheism.
Isaak called Bell’s project interesting and “even courageous,” but that he personally thinks what Bell is doing is dangerous.
“If I’m mistaken I don’t mind being corrected, but as far as I understand it, he’s seeking for answers intentionally outside of God’s Word,” Isaak said.
The Rev. Kevin Mannoia reached out to Bell to connect after he learned about Bell’s change in his spiritual journey. As APU’s full-time chaplain, Mannoia provides spiritual support and encouragement to the university’s graduate students and faculty/staff, much like what the campus pastors do for undergraduate students.
“These are tough moments for anybody, and his world has changed dramatically. … I want to be available,” Mannoia said. “This is a very authentic time for him. He’s very sincere in his desire to pursue this project.”
Although Mannoia said faith without any doubt is never good, he would warn against having an antagonistic attitude.
“God welcomes the questions,” Mannoia said. “And be careful of doing it in isolation; don’t follow that path of questioning alone.”
Senior global studies major April Fautsch, a former student of Bell’s, described him as passionate and radical.
“If I had to picture one of my professors doing [this project], it would be him,” she said. “I wish him luck.”
Another former student, senior business management major Chris Duke, said he struggles to understand if Bell truly believed in God before, how he could completely cut God out of his life.
“I’d be interested to see how he’s doing in July,” Duke said. “I’m friends with him on Facebook and I’m constantly seeing his updates. … I’m very excited to see where it will lead him and what God’s going to do with him over the next year.”
Bell is now several weeks into his atheistic journey and said he’s learning about terms such as an “agnostic theist” and “agnostic atheist.” He is “probably” somewhere in between, he said. Reflecting on his journey so far, he said it has included elements of loneliness, high pressure, clarity and freedom.
“There have been moments of real, ‘Oh, no, what have I done?’ kind of things,” he said. “[But] there’s also a feeling of immediacy … living without the premise of a god really forces a person to deal with life as it presents itself to you right now. So someone asked me what do you believe in, and I said I believe in Zoe and Sophie, my daughters. That I know for sure.”