The name Ryan J. Bell has been popping up in my news feed quite a bit. I stumbled upon his story a few days ago while looking for articles about pastors who had threatened their church standing by advocating (and in some cases, endorsing with their ministerial credentials) marriage equality. Ryan Bell is one such pastor, and since January 1 of this year he has been embarking on an experimental “Year Without God.” Bell plans to live out 2014 as though there is no supernatural, explore atheist literature, immerse himself in secular environments, and chronicle his experience. His actions aren’t particularly remarkable (another blogger explains why here), and like researching a political candidate or looking up auto reports before purchasing a vehicle, simply represent what all discerning adults should do at least once in their life: take an inventory of their belief systems and thoughtfully explore other points of view.
Bell’s experiment has garnered national attention not because of its novelty, but because Bell is a well known activist, teacher, and Seventh-day Adventist pastor. Or at least he was. Since announcing his decision to temporarily live as an atheist Bell, an ordained minister, has lost his teaching positions at Fuller Theological Seminary and Azusa Pacific University (although both institutions have welcomed him to check-in when his experiment has ended). He also lost his consulting position at the Glendale City Seventh-day Adventist Church. While Bell is no stranger to controversy, this is a new storm-front for him, as he has previously been able to take some refuge in the more liberal elements of his denomination, and hasn’t been a major target of atheist ire since he is only one of thousands of middle-profile clergy. Now he faces criticism from both.
Since the original HuffPost story broke on December 31, some atheist bloggers have criticized Bell’s methodology, others have written off the experiment as a “stunt,” and a few more (mostly in the comments) have suggested that it’s a plot to discredit atheism by “taking a year off” from religion only so that he can return to the church and report on how horrible it all was. These voices dissipated soon after Bell started to face the real-world consequences of his experiment, namely unemployment. Atheist blogger Hermant Mehta has traded his critical eye for compassionate ones and set up a $5,000 fundraiser intended to help keep Bell financially afloat while he searches for a new source of income. Skeptics have rushed to Bell’s aid, and as of this posting, have raised nearly $25,000.
What I find most interesting in all this, however, are not the criticisms of Bell’s method, his subsequent unemployment, or the outpouring of monetary support, it’s that all of this was completely predictable.
Firstly, let’s note that Bell’s journey into atheism is not an entirely dramatic shift. Bell himself wrote in Huffpost, “I really didn’t fit within the church anymore.” As the result of his work with the LGBT community and anti-bullying initiatives, Bell was asked to leave his ministerial post at the Hollywood Seventh-day Adventist Church less than a year ago. Bell has been falling out of step with the official policies and doctrines of the Seventh-day Adventist church for some time, so the notion that he is struggling with his faith and interested in exploring atheist literature and culture should not come as a complete surprise.
What made this problematic was his position as a spiritual leader in not one, but two religious institutions of higher learning, and his continued connection with Adventist congregations in an authoritative capacity. Bell wasn’t just a dreadlocked worship leader or even a slightly heretical English professor. He was an ordained minister in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and more importantly, a scholar at Christian institutions of higher learning which require their employees to profess a Christian brand of spirituality. In his blog asking for monetary support for Bell, “Friendly Atheist” Hemant Mehta wrote:
All he did was voice the idea of giving atheism a try — even if only superficially — and it was enough for his Christian employers to cut all ties with him. It’s like when Jesus said, “Follow me. And if you ask any questions, I’ll cut you. Jesus, that’s awful.”
But this isn’t what happened at all. Bell didn’t toss around nihilistic notions at a dinner party, he made a public announcement, published in a national blog, and started a new website to chronicle the experience. Issues with methodology aside, this can hardly be called “superficial.” Furthermore, while he was let go by his Christian employers, it was with the understanding that he might find employment with them again later, when his year of atheism is complete. In short, they didn’t “cut all ties” with Bell, but rather left one substantial tie remaining, essentially saying, “We’re interested in welcoming you back when this is over.”
Why did they let him go in the first place? Simple breach of contract. Bell knew these institutions required professions of faith from their employees, and yet he chose to openly explore a period of religious faithlessness. These institutions can hardly be expected to sustain Bell in his position as a “Christian scholar” while he no longer claims to be a Christian. In Bell’s words, “I am not sure what I am. That’s part of what this year is about.” So to those who are “disappointed” in the response of Bell’s employers I say, please. Bell left them no choice.
This is the hazard of working for a religious institution. Your personal life is not personal, it’s professional. Once expressed publicly (which Bell does frequently and with great reach) your beliefs become the business of your employer because you are the ambassador of an institution which embodies a belief system. You are the practical measure of how that belief system functions in the world, and once you and the embodying institution are no longer sufficiently aligned, you stay at the peril of both the institution’s integrity and your own. While his unemployment is unfortunate, it is a natural result of the circumstances, and the only way for all parties to maintain their spiritual, intellectual, and legal integrity.
I want to make it clear that like many atheists, agnostics, and religiously unaffiliated people, I deeply respect what Bell is trying to do. I’m glad that people have found it in their hearts to support him financially, and that he is receiving encouragement from atheists and Christians alike. Some people wonder why Bell couldn’t just pursue his questions quietly, but as an activist, public speaker, spiritual leader, and consultant Bell has made his living off his ideas and passions. To ask him to bottle that up would to be to ask him to shrink from the world, something I am convinced he is incapable of doing. As I sit behind this keyboard and think of how I started this blog nearly two years ago to chronicle my own ideological journey, I’m reminded that examining your beliefs is universally difficult, sometimes alienating, and occasionally terrifying. There have been times when my readership and various online communities were all that sustained me, so I understand why Bell chose this medium for his own journey. I wish him luck. ♦
ADDENDUM: Bell clarifies the circumstances of his unemployment here, in an entry published on Tuesday, January 7.
You can follow Ryan J. Bell’s experiment with atheism on his blog, Year Without God.