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.
- “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
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.