Ryan Bell has a Master of Divinity and a Doctor of Ministry in Missional Leadership. He went to Fuller Theological Seminary, and was a Seventh-Day Adventist pastor for nearly two decades. And as of January, he’s living a year without God.
In March 2013, Bell stepped down from his role as pastor because of “theological and practical differences,” and has committed the better part of 2014 to immersing himself in the world of atheism: talking to atheists, attending conferences, reading books, and engaging in personal and online discussions.
Bell grew up with devout grandparents and strict Christian influence. On his blog, Bell talks about frustration with the church’s traditional stance on homosexuality, his fascination with science and belief in evolution, and personal issues with his denomination’s theology as some of the issues underlying his doubts about Christianity.
So far, his nascent journey has received high-profile coverage on Slate, the Huffington Post and NPR, among others. Some have questioned his methods and motives. But from reading his blog, I see a smart and honest man truly grappling with one of life’s fundamental dichotomies: theism vs. atheism. Most commenters seem to agree: the overwhelming majority are lifelong atheists or former Christians encouraging him toward atheism, and there is a sense of respect and even relief among the conversations. (Though it’s notable that there are very few Christian voices, aside from Bell, in the conversation. Once a Bible verse pops up in the comments, God have mercy on that commenter’s soul.)
My reactions to this blog have been mixed. There is admiration: this is a brave journey, and it is one too many people are scared to talk about publicly. There is envy: in my darkest times of doubt, I’ve contemplated forgoing Christianity, thinking it may be freeing (and easier) to give it all up. Fear: that somehow his struggle and deconversion say something about my faith. Moreover, what if he’s right? There is anger: God cannot be mocked! Skepticism: You don’t just take off your faith like a winter jacket. Finally, there’s pain: for his family, his faith community and of course, his soul.
Overall, Bell is asking questions every Christian should ask, like “What difference does God make?” There is a lot to value in Bell’s blog. It is further confirmation that the church needs to be open to talking about doubt, even in its deepest (and to many of us, scariest) iterations. If we aren’t willing to talk about doubt within the church, people will go outside the church to find a safe place to work through their questions. He is thoughtfully challenging common Christian ideas that atheists are terrible, or that science is untrustworthy. He also challenges us that life “deserves our best scientific and philosophical energies.”
Though I’m pained by his personal unhappiness in the church, it’s refreshing to see such honesty. I’ve shared many of Bell’s struggles: the apparent rejection of intellectualism in many churches, a reluctance to ask hard questions about scientific evidence, a fear of ambiguity.
The most frustrating thing about being in doubt about the very idea of theism is that you can’t test both worldviews at the same time: they are so fundamentally opposed, it really is one or the other. Bell is choosing one.
Just two months in, it doesn’t look like Bell is only going to spend a year without God. He recently noted that he is “less convinced than ever before that there is a Giver [God].” But as a typical Christian optimist (and the Bell blog commenters will hate this!) I’m going to pray for a miracle.Photo: Facebook/Ryan J. Bell