Play Video

Life After God

GUEST NAME: Ryan J. Bell




Episode Transcript


Ryan Bell  0:00  

If there is a God who has an ever burning hell where he tortures sinners then I don’t want to be in heaven with that God anyway. 


Kareem Phillip-Jackson  0:12  

There are so many different religions and every religion needs different things


Ryan Bell  0:17  

 if I’m saying, Oh, I love my Muslim brother, then that means I’m not really trying to convert into Christianity



Kareem Phillip-Jackson  0:29  

Welcome to another episode of Untold Perspectives. Today we want to explore the idea of organized religion, God and religion. For some time I’ve been playing around with this topic, I have some strong ideas on religion myself. When I learned about this guy’s story, I was very interested in speaking with him. So today, our guest is Ryan Bell. He’s a writer, speaker, humanist Chaplain [inaudible] and he’s a former pastor. So we’d like to welcome to the show Ryan, welcome. Thank you for coming. 


Ryan Bell  1:03  

Thank you so much for having me. 


Kareem Phillip-Jackson  1:04  

Before we kind of dive in, can you tell us a little bit of who Ryan Bell is?  


Ryan Bell  1:10  

I used to be a pastor. My college education was in Pastoral Ministry and all of my higher education after that is in some way related to religion, theology, church leadership, and spent 20 years doing that and then came to a point where I had really, I guess, come to the end of my relationship with the Christian denominations that I was a part of, and left being a pastor, left my church. And at that point I had a decision to make about whether I was going to continue to be you know, go to church and be a Christian. And little by little, the sort of the layers fell away, right. So I ended up doing what I’m sure you saw online. I called it a year without God where I spent a year really exploring my faith, exploring what people who don’t believe in religion, what they think and what they hold on to and what they value, just to see if my faith would hold up under that type of scrutiny. And I had a suspicion about that, but I also really valued my faith so it was kind of an unknown at the beginning. 


And then at the end of that year, that was in 2014. In 2015, I fully decided that I was an atheist, and humanist and we can talk about all those things of course. Since then, I’ve done a lot of different kinds of things, but I’m currently a community organizer in the Tenant Rights Movement. So I work with low income tenants and help them defend their housing against predatory landlords and corporate landlords who are getting rich off of our need for a roof over our heads. 


So yeah, I do involved in that struggle now. And I’ve been for a long time even back to when I was a pastor, but now I do that full time. Yeah, I love to read I love history. I love all of the, you know, social justice struggles that we’re in right now and have you know, gone on for many years, and live in Pasadena, California. I have two daughters and I just got married to a beautiful woman who is now my wife. 


Kareem Phillip-Jackson  3:35  

So obviously, you didn’t just wake up one morning and just decide, okay, I don’t believe in God. Can you pinpoint the particular moment where that doubt kind of started to creep in? 


Ryan Bell  3:48  

For me it was a very slow, gradual process. I think and also key to my story is that I grew up in and became a pastor in a very conservative Christian denomination. So I was raised Seventh Day Adventist, and I was part of the Seventh Day Adventist Church all of my growing up years and as I said, ended up becoming a Seventh Day Adventist pastor. And in that context, it’s things that are pretty strict. You know, the, the belief system is pretty structured, and there’s not a lot of room for deviation from the accepted beliefs of the church. So I mean, in some ways, I think my earliest doubts came all the way back in the mid 90s when I was a brand new pastor, and I encountered people who didn’t fit the mold.


In school, you learn what the theology of the church is and what the behavior of church people is supposed to be and it’s all kind of neat and tidy. And then you get out there in the real world and you enter a church, and people are messy. You know, people have lives that are complicated and they don’t always fit that perfect image that we have., you know, I had as a young person of what a Christian should be. So then I had a choice to make about whether or not to accept people as messy people, or whether to hold a hard line you know, and, and say, no, you can’t belong here because you know, your life is not in harmony with, you know, all of the beliefs of the church. Like do we make exceptions for people who are working out their lives?


And I guess that from an early age, I really opted for accepting people as complicated human beings that we are along a journey somewhere learning. So and then it you know, things became more clear to me. Like the doubts began to grow honestly, the more I studied. So when I got my master’s degree and eventually my doctorate, like the more you learn about the Bible, and the more you learn about the history of theology, the more you realize that this is not just handed to us by God, you know, but has been manipulated and worked on and changed and tweaked by by men, and very specifically men over many millennia. 


It’s a very human institution, the church, and it reflects all of the problems that humans bring to the theological, religious endeavor and that that kind of demystifies it a little bit you know. Like when you’re young you think this magical idea of a God and how God answers your prayers and the older you get, the more you think like, how come God didn’t answer that prayer? Or, or how come this church doctrine seems very, like, sexist? You know, or why is this, why is this piece of church history so racist?


If God is all loving, and so kind and, and is perfect and all that, and why, you know why does is like colonialism and racism like embedded throughout the history of Christianity? Like, couldn’t God have directed things you know, a bit better? And anyways, all those things, the more you learn, the more it just becomes complex, and it’s not as simple as you used to think and as an adult, you know, as a pastor, I tried to hold all those contradictions in place. You know, and then the contradictions became, like LGBTQ people who were in my church and were, according to my denomination, not approved by God in their, the way they are as people and and I had again, the choice to make. 


Do I accept them because they’re, you know, people who, at the time, I thought, you know, God loves them, why would they, why would God make a person a certain way and then condemn them for being that way? You know, it just didn’t make any sense to me and eventually those contradictions just boiled over and I was kind of hiding out in the denomination, you know, I was sort of like, pretending to go along with everything and but really the church that I led, which was in Hollywood, California, was much more open and accepting than what the denomination would have liked. 


And they finally called me on it, you know, and said, why is this happening? Why is that happening? Why are you doing this? We had a transgender woman join the church and wanted to become part of the leadership of the church and so we said, that sounds great. That was also one of the big things that my, the people in the church higher up said, yeah, that’s not going to fly. And eventually, you came to a parting of the ways.


Kareem Phillip-Jackson  8:45  

You actually were forced out of the church.


Ryan Bell  8:46  

Kinda Yeah. There were some issues that came to a head. There were a few years there probably seven, six or seven years where I got called into the denominational office and so just so your listeners understand like, there are churches out there, but we were all connected through like a central office in Southern California. And there are lots of these like units around the country and the world. My unit was based in Southern California and they had authority over me like they could fire me. And they would call me in and they’d say, we heard this thing or we saw this email that you sent out, why are you doing this? Like, why is there a community garden, you know, at the church, that’s not the gospel, you know, we’re supposed to be saving souls. 


Or why are you dealing with so much with homelessness? You know, the church is supposed to be focused on sharing the gospel and winning converts to the church. Or, you know, your tithe income is kind of low, like the income from the donations to the church is kind of low. Why is it so low? Maybe it’s because you’re too busy worrying about homelessness or other things, you know. So they would just constantly like, price me about why my church wasn’t doing what they thought it should do and yeah. And eventually it came to a head around, you know, theological issues, doctrines, beliefs, practices, and I finally told them the truth like the whole truth that I didn’t believe this and I didn’t believe that and I didn’t believe that and then they were like, okay, that’s it.


Kareem Phillip-Jackson  10:21  

I’ve always believed that organized religion is basically like a big corporation like the Vatican to me is like a huge corporations. But it’s interesting that they really operate that way. They actually check all these boxes [inaudible] are they tryna gauge how good you are doing? It doesn’t seem like the good was part of what they were gauging. It just kind of seemed like they were just trying to make sure that you were bringing enough money and get the right people in. 


Ryan Bell  10:51  

Yeah, that’s pretty [inaudible] that for them is the good. You know, like more members in the church, the more money coming in is an indicator. It’s not measurable that you’re talking about those, those deliverables like how do we know if the church is doing good? Well, if it’s growing, if there’s more members sort of like you know, how do you know if like, I don’t know, you’re, the gym that you go to is doing good? Well, more members, right? More members come to the gym workout, and they pay, they pay money to come work out at the gym, you know and so, it’s a pretty easy thing to see. Like, if membership at the gym is going down, then something’s wrong. Or maybe a big new gym opened up next door. It took all your people.


Kareem Phillip-Jackson  11:42  

I don’t feel like the same metrics should work for both but I guess I could see why it happens. 


Ryan Bell  11:48  

Right? Yeah. No, I agree. I mean, I think the funny thing is our Church was actually growing. We were growing in a demographic that was not common for our church to grow in. Which was, like 20, 20-somethings and maybe early 30s, single people not married people with children, and churches historically have a problem retaining, or bringing in that group of people. And so they liked that piece. They liked that it was growing, but they also they didn’t like that we were doing like social justice ministries and interfaith. Like we were doing interfaith stuff with like, the mosque in our town. 


Kareem Phillip-Jackson  12:37  

Can you break down what interfaith is for me please? 


Ryan Bell  12:19  

It’s a pretty old idea. Ecumenical work came first, which was like, real Christians from different branches of Christianity talking together, instead of like fighting each other and trying to steal church members from each other. You know, they would say, Oh, the Lutherans and the Catholics and most of the Methodists and Baptists are going to have a little council and they meet and have lunch once a month and you know, talk about each like maybe one every month, one of them says what it means to be a Baptist versus what it means to be a Lutheran and, and they kind of learn from each other but they learn to build relationships, and maybe they do a community project together, something like that. And then that expanded to include religions other than Christianity. So interfaith, is interfaith dialogue or interfaith cooperation is where people from all different religions, so maybe Jews and Muslims and Christians and Hindus and Buddhists and Bahai and Sikh, you know, all come together and say, let’s learn about each other, because there’s a lot of ignorance of what those even are.


And then we also would do solidarity actions. So like, you know, this was all post 911 and the Muslim community was experiencing a lot of hatred and hate by hate crimes and vandalism of their buildings and such like that. So, you know, the interfaith community would come and stand in solidarity with them and hold a press conference to say like, our religions don’t accept this kind of behavior towards our Muslim brothers and sisters. So it was just kind of a way of being together. But it also especially for Christians, I think, is a difficult thing. Because if I’m saying, Oh, I love my Muslim brother, then that means I’m not really trying to convert him to Christianity. And if I’m not trying to convert them to Christianity, then that means at least tacitly, I think, it’s okay for him to be Muslim. Right? That he’s not going to go to hell or be punished or whatever. It’s just kind of an interesting like, ‘cuz Christianity is pretty clear that like, you have to accept Jesus as your Savior and then you’ll be saved, you know. So what does it mean that my Jewish brother doesn’t accept Jesus?


Kareem Phillip-Jackson  15:10  

That brings up a super interesting point and something I’ve been actually personally thinking about. So, there are so many different religions right and each religion believes different things. The only common denominator among them is to some extent you have to be a good person and there is a higher power that is all powerful, right? That’s mostly the, the things they have in common. But I’ve always thought of this right, based on the Christian faith, system, it means that everybody who isn’t a Christian goes to hell, right. So that means that all Muslims, every Jew everybody they’re gonna go to hell.  And then I feel like I’ve not gone into like the Quran and these other books, but I have a feeling that they have a similar sentiment towards Christians as well. So technically, all these people just think that everybody’s going to hell. 


Ryan Bell  15:10  

Some religions don’t really have a Heaven and Hell concept. It’s a very Christian idea in some ways, or at least Abrahamic. When I say Abrahamic that’s Jews, Christians and Muslims. So those three all come from a common root, which is Abraham. In the Bible, he is the father of all of those religions. So, in the Abrahamic traditions, there tends to be a concern about salvation. Like will I be saved? Am I going to Heaven, am I going to Hell? Buddhists, you know, many, if not, most Buddhists have a concept of reincarnation which is similar, but there’s not a hell really, you just, you know, maybe you don’t have the same kind of life that you would have if you’d been a good person or something like that.


And Hindus have a different idea and some don’t have really a Heaven-Hell concept at all. Many Jews don’t really have a concept of Heaven and Hell, they’d see hell as just death and when you die, you die and that’s it. And so, yeah, the goals of each religion are somewhat different. But yeah, to the extent that there is a belief in a eternal reward or an eternal punishment, they tend to be mutually exclusive. And then within every tradition, there is a more progressive wing, which tends to be more inclusive, right? So many Christians will say, Oh, no, like, it’s not that you have to be a Christian per se, to go to heaven and they sort of justify that it’s like, God really wants to save everyone through Jesus, but that you don’t have to, like say the sinner’s prayer exactly, right. Like that’s not a requirement. 


So, theology creates all kinds of different explanations for what the Bible actually says. There’s more progressive theology and more conservative theology. The conservatives want to just take the Bible as it reads, you know, if you can even, I would argue you can’t really even do that, but they want to be more literal about it. So if it says that you have to accept Jesus then that means you have to accept Jesus to go to Heaven.


Kareem Phillip-Jackson  18:41  

It’s very interesting how something that is so up for interpretation could cause so much havoc around the world. Because as you said, like there’s, nothing in there is really like, set in stone as this should be like this, this should be like this. It’s really left to whatever that group of people decides to interpret that piece of text as. I guess one question for you, since, for someone who has been entrenched in religion for like your entire life. How was it turning off your faith for that year? And was Was there a part of you that realize that you asked for all the attention that you got when you started? Was there a part of you that realized that there was just no going back? 


Ryan Bell  19:33  

In some sense, right. Like none of us can ever go back like we’re always going forward. So for me, certainly there was no going back to what I was before. That was out of the question. I didn’t want to go back to that world of like, conservative Christianity where I was trying to be something different, but I was in this container that was too small for me, and in fact, the church president who eventually fired me said that he thought I was a bird who had outgrown the cage.


And, and I said, that’s, you know, do you really think that faith is like a cage? Like, is this a good thing that the bird outgrew the cage? I mean, that sounds good to me, right? Like it’s time for freedom you want to fly? So, yeah, I knew I wouldn’t go back to that. If you’re asking whether you thought I would go back to Christianity or whether I knew that I wouldn’t go back to Christianity? I wasn’t sure for a long time because there are some very progressive church systems that care about all the things that I care about.


But there there is a kind of, there was a kind of Pandora’s box to it a little bit where you know, you open this thing and all this stuff comes out and you can’t get it back in, you know, like, it’s you um… I had really opened my mind to the idea that, that maybe there’s not a God at all, you know, like maybe all of this is just a human construct that humans developed over millennia of evolution. For as it turns out, really good reasons. I mean, it’s super understandable why they would develop religion. It would it would be super weird if we hadn’t actually because there’s just so many things that we didn’t know. It’s still, there’s still so many things we don’t know. To assume that there is an all knowing, all powerful, benevolent being controlling everything’s very, it kind of fills in all the gaps, right? Like, anything you can’t understand it’s God’s will, you know, it’s God’s idea, God’s plan.


So I knew I wouldn’t go back to all of that. But I did, I did wonder if I would stay with any kind of religion at all. It was probably three quarters of the way through the year before I realized fully that I wasn’t going back to a belief system, like a traditional religious belief system. 


Kareem Phillip-Jackson  22:18  

Are you done with organized religion? Or are you done with God entirely? Cuz to me they’re two separate things. Like there’s organized religion and then there’s one’s belief in a higher power. So are you just done with organized religion or are you just actually just done with God?


Ryan Bell  22:39  

Both, but I agree with you that [inaudible] one came before the other. So I, you know, I was really done with organized religion pretty early on in that experience. It was later that I, it took a little bit, it was harder for me to accept that maybe reality is only what we can experience with our senses. You know, like, there’s no supernatural is how I would describe it. 


There’s no X-Men, you know, we’re superheroes. Like there’s no, there’s no like, spider that could bite you and now you can spin webs like there’s no that doesn’t exist, you know? But I’m also open to the, you know, the discoveries of science. I mean, I think people from the 1700s would have thought cell phones were magic, you know, like, how could you possibly talk to someone on a little square thing that you know, and it looks like magic in fact, whenever I print something wirelessly, I just feel it feels like magic to me. Like I’ve just hit a button here and something prints out over there on paper.


So things that we don’t understand, appear to us as being supernatural. And so you understand it and then you’re like, oh, okay, I don’t really understand how Bluetooth works but I get the idea, you know? So I, yeah, I think the more we understand, the more we realize that the universe is understandable. It operates based on some principles and then sometimes the universe breaks those principles.


In extreme cases, like towards the speed of light, for example, things change, like time doesn’t work the same way. But in our sphere of influence, like where we live, like it’s pretty predictable that if you knock your pen off the table it’s gonna fall into the ground and it never, ever ever doesn’t do that. Right. Like, always, you know, falls. So I really came to feel very comfortable with the idea that science as we understand it generally describes the world and the universe and that it didn’t require for me a God or supernatural power. 


Kareem Phillip-Jackson  24:58  

When you went on that journey, did you have a plan going in? Like did you have like a schedule of people to talk to or was it just like spontaneous you just went on a journey, and just said let me see how it goes?


Ryan Bell  25:09  

Um, there was a little bit of a schedule but it wasn’t super, super spelled out. Like it wasn’t long. So I knew that there were certain people I wanted to talk to and certain organizations that I didn’t even know existed before I started. You know, like, there’s an organization called American Atheists, and they’re pretty big and they have a big convention once a year. So I thought, Okay, I want to go to that convention because I want to talk to people who are atheists, see what they’re like. Are they, you know, are they scary people, like, you know, you know, because I think a lot of religious people would be terrified to go to a convention of atheists you know. They might think that they’re going to cast a spell on you or something, I don’t know. 


So, I knew there was certain, you know, high profile atheists in the media that I wanted to try to talk to and was able to talk to a number of them. And I also had kind of a reading list. You know, I had some, some reading that I had been postponing just because, you know, I was a Christian pastor, and it wasn’t really a great idea probably to read atheist literature. You know, it was hard enough being a pastor as it is, without feeding your doubts. You know, the doubts are there but I didn’t want to like feed them necessarily because I had a job to do and a congregation to look after and then we were doing a lot of good stuff in the community and so that took up my focus.


But when I left the church, it opened up space for me to, you know, read some philosophy and read some history and begin to uncover what are the origins [inaudible] and of course, nobody knows exactly, but there’s a lot of theories and a lot of research about that, it’s a lot of fun to explore. 


Kareem Phillip-Jackson  26:54  

At what point during that year did you decide that this was a life for you and your family? At least at what point? The middle, like closer to the end or like off the bat? 


Ryan Bell  27:05  

Yeah, it was closer to the end, I would say in the Fall. And at that point, my writing, because I was writing a blog this whole time, and at that point, my writing started to reflect it, I think and some of the people who were reading my blog, commenting in the comments were like, “why don’t you just admit it, you know, you’re an atheist.” And I said, well, I committed to the year like I committed that I was going to take a year. And once I thought I was pretty convinced that there was no God and no supernatural. Then what I decided to do was try to like reconvince myself, if I could, by reading some books about from Christian apologists, you know, those Christians who are trying to convince others that God is real, you know, to see like maybe I, maybe I missed something, you know. Maybe, let me just give it one last shot to see and so I [inaudible] that and didn’t convince me but it was like, around in like maybe October, around Thanksgiving between then and Thanksgiving that I was starting to feel comfortable, like at ease thinking about myself as an atheist. 


Kareem Phillip-Jackson  28:10  

And you know, identify as a humanist. So why the label humanist and how is it different from atheism or any other category of non believer?


Ryan Bell  28:22  

Yeah, it’s a great question.  So, so atheism really describes something very narrow, which is do you or do you not believe in God? And when we say God, typically, you know, at least in in North America, and throughout large sections of the world when we say God, we typically mean like the God of the Bible, right? So and then we can even broaden it a bit further like, okay, forget the God of the Bible, do you just believe in God generally, like if there’s a benevolent being and so do you or don’t you believe in that?


If you don’t, then you’re an atheist. It doesn’t say anything else about anything else you believe in. So you could be an atheist and you could be a Nazi, right? Like, it doesn’t make you a good person or a bad person. You could be an atheist and you could be like, the biggest humanitarian you know, that saves goes you know, travels the world saves lives, you know, just being an atheist doesn’t really tell you anything about the other person’s moral character, or other beliefs they can be Democrat or Republican or like, whatever, you know, it doesn’t really tell you much. So then humanism is a philosophy of life, a positive philosophy of life, that says that human beings have agency, we know this, and, and with that agency, that human beings are responsible for their own actions and for making the world as as good as possible.


Ryan Bell  0:00  

These things are responsible for their own actions and for making the world as as good as possible for everyone. So sometimes we talk about thriving, human thriving, that the world should be a place where all humans can thrive. And we know that that’s not the case. We just have to open any newspaper on any day and you can see that people are suffering, even in the wealthiest countries. And then when you go to countries that are poor of course the suffering is even more obvious. 


So we don’t live in a world where people thrive and so humanists are committed to the idea that without a God, without a supernatural, without a reward, you know, like no pie in the sky after it’s just, it’s our responsibility as human beings to make the world a beautiful place for everyone. And not that any one of us can do that alone, but that together, we can contribute to human thriving and then not just human thriving, right, but also the habitability of our planet because humans can’t thrive if the planet is burning down around us. And so it also includes plants and animals and like the whole natural world, a commitment to healing the world as Jews would say. There’s a Jewish saying “Tikkun olam”, which means to heal the world and it’s a kind of a religious commitment for them. For the humanists, it’s a commitment that doesn’t require any gods.


Kareem Phillip-Jackson  1:37  

What was it like finding yourself in society on the other side of your of your experience? How did you like react [inaudible] you know getting back out there?


Ryan Bell  1:48  

Yeah, I mean, the hardest thing was, I think, feeling like I had betrayed people because I think for some people who knew me well, they knew that was my struggle all along. But for a lot of people, for them, it was like a light switch. It was one day I was a pastor, and the next day I didn’t believe in God. And they felt like I really pulled a fast one on them, you know, like it was hurtful. And some people didn’t really recover from that. I don’t think, I lost a lot of friends. And I understand that, you know, like, I tried to explain it in the things I wrote, and in some personal conversations. I still have a lot of friends from that time period, maybe maybe not a lot, a few good friends. But I also lost a lot of friends because it’s also like the church system, especially when you’re a pastor. The check itself contains the people within that religion, you know, the other clergy, you know how the system works. 


And when you leave that, it’s almost like the people that you left behind don’t know how to relate to you anymore. Like they don’t know what to say to you. Like, the idioms become confusing or, or not clear. So, yeah, that was hard. Finding a job was hard, you know, because I had, that was my career, that was my, my livelihood and I had two advanced degrees. All of my education had been invested in being a pastor and being the best pastor I could be. So finding work after that, even to this day has been very hard. And I’ve been out almost 10 years. I worked in several nonprofits. I worked for one nonprofit, that that works with the homeless population, helping them get back into housing. And that was really rewarding, but you know, company restructured, and they had cutbacks, and I got laid off. Then I worked in, to switch it up, I worked in the beer business for a while. 


There was a brewery that opened up in Los Angeles. There are many, but this was one of them. And I did all kinds of different things there from bartending to sales and managing the bar. And then, yeah, I actually worked at an organization called the Secular Student Alliance for a while which is an organization that supports student led clubs on university campuses. High School also, but mostly, most of our clubs were on university campuses, among students who are humanists, basically, or atheists depending on how they want to describe themselves. So it’s like an atheist club, you know, for kids who, like there’s the Christian clubs on campus. And then if you’re not a Christian, you kind of don’t have a space in there. And so, years back, some students formed an atheist club, and they called it the Secular Student Alliance, and then it spread all over the country. So I was helping to support those student clubs. I did that for about three years, now I work in tenant rights. But yeah, finding gainful employment was really really hard. I went through a number of years. I still have some bills I’m paying from from those days.


Kareem Phillip-Jackson  5:00  

How often do you find people?  To have yourself like counseling sessions with people who have a similar position as you are? And like how do you approach those conversations if you have like a young person that’s confused and have these same questions that you had?


Ryan Bell  5:16  

Well, that, you know, I’m a, you know, volunteer chaplain at the University of Southern California and I do encounter that.  And I also have, I don’t do it so much anymore, but I have a podcast called Life after God, and a lot of times people would reach out with those types of questions like, somebody would find it and they were like, “I’m listening to your podcast, but nobody can know. And you know, my husband doesn’t know my wife doesn’t have whichever. My kids don’t know, my friends, like, you’re the only person that knows that I’m going through this.” 


And it is, you know, I went through some tough times, but some people go through way tougher times than I did. Sometimes people lose their families they lose everything, you know, that respectability that they had. Sometimes a really severe mental health crisis such and because of all the broken relationships that result in the chaos in their in their world. And so I always, I never encourage people to rush anything. There’s no prize at the end for figuring it out. It’s only your own personal sense of well being. 


So for me, the contradiction was starting to make me sick, you know. Like I was living with these doubts and concerns, especially related to my, my specific religious denomination. And what my head was somewhere else, and it was, I think people can relate to that feeling, whether it’s about religion or something else, right. You know, maybe you’re in a relationship that’s really broken and you know, you need to get out but it’s hard to get out and so you have this, you’re torn inside, right? So some people need to make a move just for their own sanity. 


When I encounter young people, you know, something like, for instance, one time this young person said, “You know I was raised Muslim, but I’m not going to this Christian college and my Christian friends want me to convert to Christianity, my Muslim parents want me to stay Muslim, what should I do?” And I just, you know, I just advised him to take it slow. Like, there’s no need to like, what’s the rush? Like, you don’t need to figure this out right now. You’re, you know, you’re 19 like give yourself a break. Like you just study, read, keep your mind open and one day it’ll make sense what you’re supposed to do. 


And, yeah, I think that’s, to me, I think people should just embrace the question. Whatever the question is that they have, like, don’t be afraid of it. Because sometimes that you know, for me, I would say, oh, what if there’s no God, oh I can’t think about that, I can’t think about that and I would push it away. And I think a lot of people do that for good reasons, you know, and eventually I came to the place where I just wanted to let that question be.


Kareem Phillip-Jackson  8:05  

Do you or have you ever advise someone against being religious?


Ryan Bell  8:10  

You know, I think I get in the spirit of the counseling tradition. You know, people should make their own choices like, and the reality is people do make their own choices. So I try not to tell people what to do. And I think it’s important to help people clarify by asking questions, like where they’re at, and then people I feel like, we know what we’re supposed to like, when we when we’re when we know, like we come to a point where we know we’re supposed to do and sometimes we just don’t want to admit it to ourselves. And it takes a little time to get used to the idea, or we want someone to affirm for us like should I take this job or should I stay in the job that I’m in? 


Why don’t know like, what’s the right you know, let’s do the benefits and the you know, the pros and cons. You know, and then eventually, you just want to like there have been some cases where I’ve suggested to a person that, that the religion that they were a part of was so toxic, that it was contributing to their you know, like, they’re such a illness about themselves, like they just was hurting, to be in that space. And I, you know, said why don’t you take a step back, you know, the same way you would if you found out a friend was being in a harmful relationship, you know, you’d say, you know, I’m not gonna tell you what to do, but that’s, I’m worried for you. I’m worried for you. If you stay in this relationship, you’re gonna get hurt, like severely hurt. And sometimes it’s that way with religion.


But I think that people are curious, like people that grew up. So I’ve met some people that really grew up atheists and then they become curious about religion. And I think to myself, gosh, I wish they wouldn’t do that, you know, get involved in all of that. But it’s not for me to say, you know, people are smart, and they’ll figure it out for themselves and the people do a lot of good through religion too. Maybe I try to give them a pointer towards something I think is more healthy.


Kareem Phillip-Jackson  10:15  

So you struggle at all like after all these years, is there anything that um, that you struggle with?


Ryan Bell  10:22  

Oh, just in general?


Kareem Phillip-Jackson  10:23  

No well, well with your decision


Ryan Bell  10:26  

Not really. You know, I don’t think about it much anymore, really. I’m really content and happy. Occasionally, the only time I ever think about, I mean sometimes Facebook will throw up like a post from a friend I haven’t talked to in ages or it’ll be about like, a religious idea, like someone have a Facebook post and so for some reason, the algorithm decides to like serve me that that post, and it kind of, it’s like, it’s like seeing a photo from like, high school, you’re like, whoa, that’s what we look like, you know, that’s what we dre- that’s how we dressed you know, I can’t it’s like to seem so like another world. So yeah, I don’t really worry at all about religion or whether I’ve made the right or wrong decision. I feel very happy with where I am.


Kareem Phillip-Jackson  11:19  

So does any part of you have like any fear that you might be wrong?


Ryan Bell  11:24  

Yeah, I’ve been asked that question a lot, it’s a hard one to answer. Because, like, if there’s a God who has an ever burning Hell where he tortures sinners, like, I don’t want to be in Heaven with that God, anyway, right. Like if he’s going to torture me for using my brain and coming up with different conclusions, do I really want to spend eternity with a torturer? Like I don’t, even if I’m on the right side of the torture like I don’t I don’t know. 


I didn’t know, my brand of Christianity never really believed in that kind of eternal torture anyway. So I don’t know what’s the worst case scenario that there’s a paradise that I don’t get to be a part of, because I made the wrong decision. I mean, I can live with that. I don’t, I think the idea of living forever in Paradise is kind of overrated. I don’t really, I don’t it just doesn’t make sense to me anymore actually. I don’t. I think what makes sense to me is that we’re born by some amazing luck, that, you know, our DNA came together from our mother and our father and out came us like, me and you and it’s like, such a freakin privilege to just be here at all. Like, it’s just such a weird thing to exist. You know, it’s like it feels like like you won the lottery just to be alive. That when, when my time is up, I die and I make room for someone else to have that, you know, like, I don’t, it doesn’t – I don’t feel like I deserve to live forever. Like [inaudible] your life and it’s over and then someone else lives and then they’re done and someone else lives. It’s kind of how nature works, right? Like, one tree dies and it plants the seed for another tree and I’m super comfortable with it. 


Kareem Phillip-Jackson  13:17  

Would you say that there exists any traditional religion today that allows like, significant freedom of thought? Or they’re all kind of really just in that box?


Ryan Bell  13:29  

No, I think there is a range. You know, I think like evangelical Christianity is on one end of the spectrum where there really is very little room for freedom of thought. In my experience, you know, on the other end, I think you’ve got traditions like Reformed Judaism, for example, is very open. In fact, many reformed Jews are atheists, actually, but they still practice you know, their tradition. I think Buddhism is very, you know, and again, there’s different stripes you know, different kinds of Buddhism. But Buddhism is really about achieving a higher sense of consciousness, and it doesn’t even require a God. In fact, Buddhists probably are the original atheists in some way, like to my accounting like millennia ago and some Buddhists have a God concept for most Buddhists. That’s my understanding, most Buddhists do not have an idea of God at all and Sikhs are very free thinking. 


A lot of the Eastern religions have an emphasis on, on free thought and it’s not so constrained. So I think yeah, I think there are. The challenge for me and those is that I’m, there’s a cultural component to them as well, but I don’t feel it really fits me. I would feel like an interloper, you know. In Judaism or, or like, there are a lot of like, quite Western Sikhs. Now a lot of people converted to Sikhism in the 60s and 70s kind of during the hippie movement and sort of kind of free love free thought movement of the 60s. Yeah, so I think there’s a lot of there’s a lot of religions that I don’t know, anything like I know just the bare minimum. So I’m certainly not the final word on on whether a religion is open minded like that or not, but there’s some definitely. I just happened to be born into the one that was the least open minded.


Kareem Phillip-Jackson  15:40  

So why do you think so many people in this modern world cling to religion? I know like if you look at back in the days, ancient times, like, you know, the, the church was like the head of state and you know, the kind of used the idea of God to control people, right? Why do you think now with all the information out there with you know, all advances in technology and science and all these other things, why do you think people still cling to religion?


Ryan Bell  16:18  

Whoa, that’s a good question, that’s a loaded question. There’s so much to say about that and I think some of the things that you just described are still in effect, like, not in the same way maybe but I do think religions are a system of control, to keep people in line, you know. Religions historically, and to this day, really served to define in groups and out groups. And so like, in ancient times, as you were saying, and even prehistoric times, religions were about safety, right? Like, I have a tribe and you have a tribe and the most important thing about your tribe is that it’s not my tribe. Right, and, and you’re, and there’s scarce resources, and so you’re hungry and I have food and you’re going to come try to take my food, or maybe my women or whatever else, and I need to fight you to keep you from doing that. And the God, my Gods are gonna defend me and your Gods are going to defend you and and it really helped people identify with the group because we can survive better in large numbers. And so you know, religion kind of sustained that sense of tribal in groups and out groups. And I get, you know, when you think about it kind of does the same thing today, if you turn on [inaudible] I mean, you’ll see same kind of kind of thing like those Americans who are Godless and liberal and, like, don’t believe in anything. They want certain laws, you know, and to take away our freedoms and to you know, they have crazy ideas, often about like, how people are being groomed, sexual or how, you know, critical race, like brainwashing children, you know, just like, kind of crazy things. And in religion really amplifies that. I don’t think it’s caused by religion, but I think religion just really supports it and sustains it as a viable narrative, a myth, you know, that people can cling to. 


There’s also I think, the security of of like, no belief that you’re gonna have an eternal future like that you’re safe. That when you die, you don’t really die. That’s a really clever idea. Right? It sounds attractive on the surface. You know, so that’s a that’s a reason why Christianity at least I think, still survives, and then it’s just tradition. You know, people don’t like to change their ideas about things. It makes them feel to have a story that explains everything and that’s what Christianity especially does, is it offers you a story that, you know, allegedly explains everything and your place in it and then it says you’re special and that you’re going to have a future and you’re going to live forever. And and here are the moral qualities to keep you in line.


Kareem Phillip-Jackson  19:37  

But we’re almost running out of time. So do you have any er, any words to people that might be listening and might be hanging on the fence? Might be unsure, and I mean, even if they are sure, you know, like, do you have any last positive words for like all this?


Ryan Bell  20:00  

Yeah, kind of what I said before, which is I mean, I hope that in my comments that I haven’t come across as condescending to anybody that is, still believes in God or religion. Like I don’t, I don’t think it’s wrong to believe in God and to have a religion. I think it has more to do with how you how you do that, like how you believe and how you practice your religion, whether it’s harmful to the world or, or, or, or makes the world a better place. And just to be open to new information. And you know, I think right now, you know, and I know that you travel the world a lot I’m in I’m in the United States, and that’s the part of the world I understand the best. Right now in the United States religion, especially this particular kind of religion, is being weaponized to harm the people who can least afford to have it, like weaponized against them. Poor people, people of color, LGBTQ people are on the receiving end of the attacks of these folks who are religious, God’s people, allegedly. 


And in that sense, I think it’s a very toxic influence in our society right now. And I would encourage people to think deeply about it. It also doesn’t mean that it’s also simple either just because I came to the conclusion that I don’t believe in any higher power or any supernatural, like my wife who does believe that there is, she’s not religious, but she does believe that there’s something right that kind of holds us all together, and that makes the world makes sense in a way that there’s a kind of a sense of spiritual connection between us. And I’m totally, I don’t, like I don’t know how to get my head there but I’m totally comfortable with that idea. Like, I guess I shouldn’t say I’m totally comfortable with it, but I get why people would believe that and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that and maybe they’re right, you know, like I, maybe I’m wrong. So I think keeping an open mind, being willing to be wrong, you know, like being open to the idea that you might be wrong and just kind of keeping that there. 


I sometimes talk about holding it with loose hands, you know, not gripping too tightly on to, to what you believe because you might learn something new and it might change your whole perspective. So yeah, I just think, I think fear is the other thing you asked earlier, what keeps people in religion, after all, with all this information that we have about the world? I think fear is a big part of it. They’re afraid that if they step away from this thing that they’ve known or this worldview, that nothing will make sense anymore and it is tricky to jump to a new worldview. It does take some adjustment, there’s some vertigo kind of about it and… but in, in doses that you can, that you can handle, it’s good to confront that fear, I think and, and just be open to another person’s perspective.


Kareem Phillip-Jackson  23:15  

I feel like if everybody was kind of open to different perspectives without any animosity, the world would be a better place we would all be able to talk on differences without conflicts. And even if there is conflict, have like constructive conflict, right? Not like violence and all that but just you know, constructive dialogue. Hey, I appreciate you for hanging out with us today. I think I’ve learned a lot of [inaudible] interest, super interesting insight in your mind and your thought process behind everything. And yeah, thank you for joining us again and good luck with everything. Everybody and all the listeners, appreciate you guys for listening and like, subscribe, follow and look out for the next Untold Perspectives. Bye.


Play Video
Kareem Phillip Jackson