Ex-pastor Ryan Bell’s Year Without God—his year-long stint of turning critical investigation and skeptical inquiry toward theistic faith—has come to an end. What did he conclude? That the case for God doesn’t pass muster.
“I don’t think that God exists. I think that makes the most sense of the evidence that I have and my experience. But I don’t think that’s necessarily the most interesting thing about me.”
The former Seventh-day Adventist pastor set out on this quest for truth after his congregation came to him with questions he was not equipped to answer. He looked for ways to reconcile his faith with science, suffering and everyday experience, but came up empty. This in turn caused him to doubt the faith he grew up with and had retained for his entire adult life. Deciding to take these doubts seriously, Bell started a blog in order to give his friends and congregants a ride-along as he explored an alternative worldview.
He resolved to “try out” atheism for one year. In his inaugural post, he announced: “For the next 12 months I will live as if there is no God. I will not pray, read the Bible for inspiration, refer to God as the cause of things or hope that God might intervene and change my own or someone else’s circumstances.” And, as if to channel Galileo, added: “I trust that if there really is a God that God will not be too flummoxed by my foolish experiment and allow others to suffer as a result.” To make good on this promise, he interviewed a number of nonbelievers all across the belief spectrum, while immersing himself in science and the philosophical arguments for and against his lifelong belief in a personal God.
Regardless of where he ended up, to embark on this journey in the first place is highly admirable. Most Christians I know and interact with don’t take kindly to people questioning their cherished beliefs and would never even consider something approaching a year of honest, objective assessment. Let’s not forget how those from his own community treated him when he first announced his intellectual odyssey. For many like Ryan Bell, the American church is an intellectually anemic space, where doubt is decried as a warning sign of pending spiritual failure. The gray areas of belief many of us might harbor are at odds with the absolutist certainty demanded by many evangelical communities. Rather than engaged with openness and sincerity, difficult questions are instead to be swept aside and under the rug where they belong.
Not so for Bell. He came to the table with pressing concerns and, through prolonged inward reflection and above-board evaluation of his beliefs availed of manifold modes of inquiry, ultimately arrived at a position that doesn’t include God. The important point, I take it, is not to assume the answers before we’ve asked the questions. That’s what Mr. Bell’s process was all about.
He is far from alone. Based on recent polls, a growing portion of the U.S. is embracing non-religious identification. More than 1 in 5 now describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated—the so-called “nones”. This figure jumps to 1 in 3 for Americans under the age of 30. And between 2005 and 2012 alone, America underwent a 13% drop in religiosity. While Ryan Bell’s story may grab headlines, it really is emblematic of a culture-wide shift that’s been happening for some time.
Of course, belief in God is but a single data point that makes up one’s view of the world. The big questions of life are still there to be wrestled with and audited with fervor. All the ills of modern society remain to be addressed. We are complex individuals with a portfolio of views on ethics and social justice, and an innate desire for purpose and meaning, none of which obsolesce in the wake of religious deconversion. Many atheists and agnostics look to preserve certain aspects of the religious way of life, particularly its sense of community, because it touches a deeper pulse in human experience. We should not allow simplistic labels or a metaphysical valence to shade our perceptions of people with whom we otherwise share much in common. We could, all of us, stand to do more listening, and less homogenizing.
Bell now works for PATH, a nonprofit dedicated to helping the homeless. For those looking to go deeper into Ryan Bell’s journey, a documentary is scheduled for release in late 2015.
Feature image courtesy of Russell Orrell