Christian pastor resolves to try atheism for a year

Former Seventh Day Adventist pastor and teacher at two Christian universities Ryan Bell decided to adopt as a New Year resolution to “live without God” for a year. In other words, he will live as an atheist would and “refrain from praying, reading the Bible and thinking about God at all”. Instead, he will read atheist authors, attend atheist gatherings and seek out conversation and companionship with unbelievers.

Oddly enough, this news has been treated with some disdain by some members in the skeptical community and others have derided it as some sort of gimmick.

I think that I can understand him. When people who are in positions of religious authority, like clergy, begin to lose their faith, they cannot simply say so like the rest of us. They initially have to find some means of exploring nonbelief and its consequences without burning their religious bridges.

As Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola discovered with their Clergy Project that sought to provide a safe transition for clergy out of belief, many took the approach of saying that they wanted to try and understand what atheists were saying and thus sponsored book clubs, discussions groups, and the like. This enabled them to explore disbelief with their parishioners under the guise of an academic exercise.

I suspect that Ryan Bell is doing the same thing, that he is already pretty much a nonbeliever but not quite ready to admit it to himself. Actually, he has gone much further than other doubting clergy by publicly saying he has doubts, statements that have led to his losing teaching jobs with Christian schools and being asked by his church to resign. We should cut him some slack and give him time to affirmatively accept the fact that he has lost his faith.


  1. doublereed says

    I think the idea of putting a time limit on it just smacks of dishonesty. I mean, what happens at the end of the year, exactly?

    But that really is just a matter of phrasing. I agree that it can obviously be awkward for them to explore nonbelief. He seems genuine enough to give the benefit of the doubt.

  2. Chiroptera says

    I suspect that Ryan Bell is doing the same thing, that he is already pretty much a nonbeliever but not quite ready to admit it to himself.

    Maybe. When I saw your headline I assumed it was another case of someone not truly understanding that atheism is a sincerely held belief.

  3. Alverant says

    This does sound like a gimic or trick. Changing philosophies isn’t as simple as changing clothes. I can’t go and suddenly decide to be Jewish one day and Evangelical the next. At least not honestly. I’m not going to predict what would happen, there’s too many possibilities and I don’t want to miss one. I hope that by the end of the year he will either make his change permanent or understand where we’re coming from and not speak out against us.

  4. raven says


    I tried out xianity once. For 4 or 5 decades. It didn’t do much one way or the other for me. But it seems lately to being doing a huge amount of damage to the country I live in.

  5. David Marjanović says

    At least not honestly.

    He never said he’ll be an atheist for a year – he said he’ll live as one, “refrain from praying, reading the Bible and thinking about God at all”.

    That last part must be difficult, though.

  6. jamessweet says

    I’m skeptical (bah-dump), but I agree with Mano about giving him the benefit of the doubt — especially since he has lost jobs in the past due to his doubts. That seems to suggest that it at least isn’t a gimmick of the flavor “Oh how awful it was to live without god!”

    I do agree with Alverant, that belief isn’t something you turn on and off with a switch (and the same applies in reverse: Even if I woke up tomorrow and decided that god-belief was a totally good thing that would make me a much happier person, I definitely wouldn’t be able to achieve it instantly, and I’m doubtful I could achieve it at all. Maybe with enough practice, but… 2+2=5, eh?). but like David said, he did only say he’d “live as” an atheist, not “be” one.

    I dunno, this is a weird, weird, weird thing to do. But if he really is just trying to experiment with non-belief, as Mano suggests, more power to him.

  7. rikitiki says

    I do so hope that, in that year, he self-identifies publicly as atheist, not
    just a Christian pretending to be one. If so, he might just
    get a feel for the discrimination involved. If his story gets any traction
    and he blogs about that, perhaps non-atheists will get a sense of the

  8. besomyka says

    I think he is pretty much an atheist in everything but name. I was skeptical at first as well, but having read his posts, I’ve started to see a lot of familiar themes from other people that escaped from religion.

    Consider this paragraph from a recent post:

    If I were beginning this journey having been, up until December 31, 2013, an ardent fundamentalist Christian, I would say there is no way to suddenly disregard God. But that is not my story. Mine has been a slow erosion of the beliefs I was raised with. Unanswered and, indeed, off limits questions, knocking at the door of my mind, refusing, finally, to be ignored. Indeed, anyone who once believed in God, and is now an atheist, has walked this road. To finally take the God glasses off is not a heroic act or a herculean feat, but the logical next step in my exploration of faith. What if it were true that there is no god, as I have suspected for a very long time? My “trying on” atheism is more like taking the next step and allowing myself to embrace my serious doubts about God’s existence. By removing my “God glasses” (both beliefs and actions) I am freed to see the world in a different way.

    Could he be faking it, aping the themes of other people to some other end? Yes, I suppose that’s possible, but it’s also starting to feel a bit conspiratorial to me. It has the air of truth to me.

  9. mnb0 says

    “We should cut him some slack”
    I totally agree. And even if he finds his faith back, so what? We should judge people on how they put their belief systems (or lack thereof) in practice and I highly doubt if that’s going to change for Bell, no matter the outcome.

  10. Frank says

    The only part that sounds gimmicky is that he is being public about it. But given that he has already lost his job, I doubt it.

    My own process out of Christianity took several years (I thought that praying for a sick loved one to get better or praying for rain was silly long before I thought of myself as an atheist), but I really only became conscious of it in the last few months. It seems that he has become conscious that he is on a road out of religion, and as a former church leader, decided to go public. It also seems that he is 90%+ there.

    @11 mnbo, yes, your comment is spot on.

  11. Pen says

    I don’t think this is quite as strange as some people are finding it, though I wonder about his motives and I’m not sure about Mano’s hypothesis. Sure, ‘living as an atheist’ doesn’t make you one. Not believing in any gods or supernatural beings does that. But he can, if he wants, go all anthropological on us and ‘live among us’ for a year. It’s not like we have some special immunity to being visited and observed, in fact stuff like that happens all the time. People go and live temporarily in other cultures for all sorts of reasons, sometimes to understand them, or because they feel attracted to them, sometimes in the course of their business. Occasionally, they switch their main cultural affiliation as a result, but in most cases, they return ‘home’. Bell seems to be approaching the project in this cultural light, rather than from the point of view of discovering a truth proposition.

    I imagine that for a Christian to live as an atheist is to lose some crutches and occupations and might take some effort especially at first. Imagine going the other way. For a lifelong atheist like myself, it would mean adopting a lot of meaningless activities and restrictions. If I was an anthropologist I would make my meaning out of trying to understand what they meant to the people around me while disrupting their flow as little as possible. I have studied religious art and made huge efforts to enter into the religious and cultural beliefs and customs that produced it, including reading religious literature, attending religious events and ‘using’ the works in the way intended by the religion of that time and place, because that was my job. PZ at Pharyngula did a tour of his local churches quite recently. I can’t remember what possessed him, but he gave it up quite quickly.

  12. filethirteen says

    Sure, I’m more than happy to cut him some slack for a year. Since I haven’t publicly criticised him yet, that part is simplicity itself.

    Will I relax my scepticism though? Not on your life. Wouldn’t the religious love it if I’d do that! If at the end of the year he says “I did it so now it’s your turn: live Christian for a year” I’ll totally laugh in his face (metaphorically speaking).

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