Life isn’t so black and white, things that were one way for many years suddenly embody their direct opposites. For instance, what you’d hate younger, in your late 20s you’d find yourself having a bowl of while watching your favorite show at the time on Netflix. Even an opinion you held firmly such as pineapple isn’t allowed on pizza is no longer supported and has morphed into the hill you will no longer die on. Or, in the case of former pastor Ryan Bell, a belief he subscribed to daily and firmly based his life on for many years, twenty to be specific, he no longer believes. You see, on New Year’s eve back in 2013, Ryan made the decision to go God-less, to forego his belief in God for exactly one year.
As a pastor, how was that about to look? How was this experiment that was a life without God going to look? Bell broke it down in the following words: “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.” Though, to be fair, this wasn’t a decision made on a whim. He didn’t go to sleep a firm believer one night and the following morning, woke up a raging non-believer. You see, the reason why it wasn’t difficult for Ryan to give up his faith is that for the years prior to the big decision, his faith had been steadily shifting. This decision, though amplified by 9/11, began taking root even further back than the 2001 terrorist bombings.
Growing up Seventh Day Adventist, young Ryan Bell wasn’t allowed to be involved in the many activities you’d often find kids his age partaking in. This included sports, extracurricular activities, and of course, parties. With the way most of these sessions were set up to go over into the night and/or occur over the weekend, these activities weren’t on the table for Ryan. The possibility of him being out after sundown or taking part in activities scheduled for the weekend heavily constituted a no and as such, were forbidden. This was because of his faith. In his house, weekends were reserved for church and the family. In fact, his high school had to arrange for him to walk at his Graduation before sundown on the day of. However, the real shift in Ryan’s belief took place in the aftermath of 9/11. At the time, President George W. Bush spoke of God and wanting war and in the same breath, Jihadists who were accused of the attack, claimed they were sent by God. According to Mr. Bell in discussion with USC News, “I started to think in my simplistic mind … these both can’t be right,” he said. “It came down to: God is on our team or God is on their team. It started me on a path of questioning.”
Moving to Los Angeles in a sudden need for a change of scenery and political climate, Ryan Bell made Hollywood his home. There he eased himself into a new Seventh Day Adventist church where he was committed to helping the homeless and getting more followers into the pews. Although frowned upon by the leaders of his church, he supported and rallied for the members of the congregation that were part of the LGBTQ+. This was particularly frowned upon because at the time, his church was lobbying for Proposition 8, which fought for same-sex marriage to be illegal.
In time, almost a decade later to be precise, he was asked to resign as they feared he was no longer a Seventh Day Adventist. “My boss finally said, ‘I don’t think you’re Seventh-day Adventist anymore,’” Bell said to the group of roughly forty students at USC that Sunday. “I like to say I was the last person to figure that out. I was in denial about it.” Bell told USC News. He was hit with those words while he was in the thick of a failing marriage and dwindling financials and a bout of homelessness which he combatted by sleeping at his dad’s and bartending.
With the realization that he wasn’t turning to God in the midst of this storm in his life, he made the decision to carry on with life but this time, without God. This decision was solidified when he went to meet a friend for a bite of lunch. He told Adventist Today, “I had just picked up a book at a neighborhood bookstore called Religion without God, when I was meeting a friend for lunch. We started talking about why I chose that book. I’ve been drawn to Alain De Botton, who had written Religion for Atheists. I knew there was this new literature, and I was really interested in it because I wasn’t sure if I believed in God anymore. I told my friend at lunch, “Maybe I’ll become an atheist for a year and just see how that feels.”
When asked when was the exact moment he began to doubt, Ryan said, “There wasn’t one exact moment, but there were a series of moments. One was developing a personal friendship with a member of my church who was gay. That led me on a years-long project of trying to figure out what the bible said about homosexuality. The idea that the bible may have gotten this wrong was a big moment for me. September 11, 2001, was also a turning point. It was in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 that it struck me that people of other religions also believe God is commanding them to do things, things I thought were unspeakably evil, which led me to recall the things that my people — Christians — have done and continue to do in God’s name that are unspeakably evil. That was the beginning of me wondering whether religion is just a belief system that people use to justify their perceived supremacy. From that initial wake-up call, I started getting involved in a lot more ecumenical and interfaith dialogues and that further relativized my beliefs.”
Now don’t get him wrong, sure he gave up his faith but to what cost? Were there any challenges? To Adventist Today he said, “The transition was not without its challenges. Honestly, the most dramatic change was in my career. All of my education and experience was in Christian theology and ministry, so when I was dismissed from the church I didn’t have a degree or vocation to fall back on. I went through several years of periodic unemployment and underemployment, resulting in mounting debts. But today I’m on much more solid footing and beginning to tackle my debts.”
At the start of 2015, one year after taking the plunge of life with no God, Ryan Bell concluded that he’d continue his life like he did in 2014. In his eyes, the “intellectual and emotional energy it takes to figure out how God fits into everything is far greater than dealing with reality as it presents itself to us.” That one of his biggest lessons he walked away from that experimental year (2014) is that “people very much value certainty and knowing and are uncomfortable saying that they don’t know.” Bell, in 2015 told NPR that “I’ve looked at the majority of the arguments that I’ve been able to find for the existence of God, and on the question of God’s existence or not, I have to say I don’t find there to be a convincing case, in my view. I don’t think that God exists. I think that makes the most sense of the evidence that I have and my experience.”
Bell, who sports a tattoo on his left forearm, got it as a gift to himself for completing his doctorate in 2011. “I wanted to get a tattoo to mark the achievement of my doctorate, but I didn’t want it to be very Christian because — and I remember having this exact thought — I wasn’t sure how long I would be Christian.”