Ryan J. Bell was raised in the Seventh-day Adventist tradition and spent nearly twenty years as a pastor—the last eight as senior pastor at the Hollywood Adventist Church in California. In March of 2013 he was asked to resign, having become a vocal critic of, among other things, the Seventh-day Adventist’s treatment of women and LGBT members and the church’s approach to evangelism. Bell spent the following nine months living as a “religious nomad,” and on the last day of 2013 he wrote at the Huffington Post that he would “try on” atheism for a year, reading popular atheist texts and living without God. At the end of the year Bell announced that he was no longer religious.
A former adjunct professor in the Doctor of Ministry program at Fuller Theological Seminary and in the Global Studies Department at Azusa Pacific University, Bell has contributed to several books—most recently to Manifest: Our Call to Faithful Creativity. He is a regular contributor at the Huffington Post and is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Hillhurst Review.
The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
The Humanist: When you began your “Year without God,” did you imagine you’d come out the other end talking to the Humanist? In other words, how probable did you think it was that the year would end without any return journey?
Ryan J. Bell: I was already sort of moving in that direction when I decided to do it. If I’d been having a really healthy relationship with my faith, I don’t think I would have done it. One of the critiques that Christians aim at me is: “How can you just go from having faith in God to a year without God?” Well, I didn’t go from a robust Christian faith. I was trending in the direction [of humanism], but I never would have used the terminology at that point, because I didn’t even know there was an organized humanist world out there.
The Humanist: The way that you’ve done this is perhaps entirely unique. It’s been quite a public journey for you over the last year. I wonder, what’s been the reaction of those close to you now that it’s come to an end and you’ve let the world know you no longer believe in God?
Bell: I think the people who are the closest to me weren’t shocked. Some of them may be a little sad or disappointed—not so much in me, but I think I represented a kind of progressive Christianity that they were counting on, and so to not have me in that camp feels like a loss.
The Humanist: Some people who come to realize that intellectually they’ve lost belief in God say they feel a “God-shaped hole” in their psyche, as I’ve heard it described. Is that true of you? Are you feeling a sense of loss?
Bell: Right, the Augustinian God-shaped hole. Do I feel one? I don’t think so, but when you’ve had an expectation of something and it’s not there anymore it does create a sense of absence. Earlier in the year, I felt alone in the universe. This is sort of an irony of losing your faith—you have people around you all the time. It’s quite obvious that you’re not alone. But it’s that kind of cosmic aloneness that you feel. There’s nobody at the switches.
The Humanist: Professionally, it’s also been a remarkable journey for you. I have to say you’re certainly not the first member of the clergy or religious leader to find they’ve lost their belief in God, but many have kept quiet and continued to do the job. Were you ever tempted just to shut up and keep going?
Bell: You know, I had already left my church position in March of 2013. I was a clergy person in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. As religion goes, it’s a pretty fundamentalist American form of Christianity. I had become very liberal inside a very conservative frame, so I had worn out my welcome there and was asked to resign from my pastoral position. It wasn’t until nine months later that it finally landed on me with force that I might be an atheist.
I already had a certain level of doubt, especially about church theology. I would freely say, “I don’t believe in creationism, I don’t believe in the literal six-day creation.” I was pretty free with what I didn’t believe in, even though I still believed in God, Jesus, salvation, and all of that.
The Humanist: I read that the breaking point with your church came with your defense of lesbian, gay, and transgendered people as full members of the church. Is that right?
Bell: That was one of the key issues. It depends on who you ask. The denomination did not want to be seen as against those groups, but it had been one of the main issues, especially since the passage of Prop 8 [outlawing recognition of same-sex marriage in California]. So, since 2008 there was an increasing tension over that issue. I finally said to my denominational leader, “Ask me anything you want.” So he asked me several questions, and I answered him truthfully, and at the end of that process we agreed that I needed to make a change.
The Humanist: Well, that’s certainly a principled stand, but there are many denominations that are accepting of people across the spectrum of sexuality, and there are many liberal Christian nondenominational congregations. So, you had options if you wanted to continue as a minister, but there was more to it, right? You were confronting a deeper loss of belief.
Bell: Yeah, it’s sort of like dropping a rock into a well, and you’re waiting to hear that splash at the bottom. It’s so dark, you cannot see, but you’re thinking any moment now it will hit the bottom, and it doesn’t. I started going to other churches, and would think, “Oh, this doesn’t feel right either … where’s the bottom here?”
I was now questioning without a fiduciary responsibility to a congregation. I was a free agent. I was free to question anything. I was free to have whatever opinion I wanted. Because of that new freedom to think without restriction, I found that the stone went all the way to the bottom of the well.
The Humanist: That freedom has come with a cost. You’ve lost your calling of twenty years. What are you doing now to make a living?
Bell: I’m working at a nonprofit called PATH Services—that stands for People Assisting the Homeless. It actually started in a church but very quickly became a 501(c)(3) nonreligious [entity]. We walk with people every step of the way from being homeless to being housed. My title is director of community engagement, which means I do what comes fairly naturally to me after twenty years as a pastor—networking and nurturing relationships with the faith community. And I just gave a tour to one of the organizers of the Sunday Assembly here in Los Angeles, so we’re getting skeptical and nonbeliever organizations involved. It’s very exciting for me.
The Humanist: That’s the kind of work that traditionally religious Americans think of as an extension of their faith. But now you’re doing it in a secular context. What does that kind of work mean to you, now that you’ve shed your religious identity?
Bell: In the past, it was more about motivation. In the Bible Jesus speaks of looking after the poor and the homeless. So, I engaged in those things, like you said, as an extension of my beliefs that each one of us is created in the image of God and has a responsibility to be in healthy relationships with everyone.
Now, as a secular person, I wouldn’t say that everyone is created in the image of God, but I would say that everyone has an inherent dignity in that they are a conscious, sentient being with human rights. One of those human rights is the right to have the opportunity to flourish, along with access to healthcare, education, housing, and food—all the things that give us the opportunity to be fully human.
The Humanist: That’s an outlook that many humanists share, in addition to concern about the freedom to inquire, and it’s always stunning to me when a religious person doesn’t see how someone could take that point of view without having a religion, but I guess you’re living it now. You’ve seen both sides of that street.
Bell: You know, I think I was probably a Christian humanist before. I was not doing that humanitarian work in order to force my religion on other people, although a lot of homeless services do that. You know, the classic mission approach, “Come in, have a warm meal, and then listen to the sermon.” It’s a shame to connect that generosity with a bait-and-switch, where you have to hear my ideology now that I’ve fed you. It isn’t really a gift, is it?
The Humanist: I’ve never been religious myself, but I understand that one of the great comforts of religion is the promise of life after death. Yet I’ve often observed that many religious people seem to have great anxiety about what comes after the moment of death. Humanists don’t like the idea of dying—I can be as afraid as anybody if confronted by the prospect of dying—but the nonexistence of self holds no more terror than our nonexistence before conception. Have your thoughts about death evolved?
Bell: You know, they’ve been evolving. What I noticed in my tradition is that the promise of life after death often disempowers people to participate in good work here and now, because “God’s going to fix it later.” Anything we do now is just sort of icing, it’s not really the cake. I gave up that idea of heaven for practical reasons. I said to my congregation, “Nobody knows what happens after we die, so let’s make the best of the life we have.” When I lost my faith, it was a fairly seamless transition.
I think, though, the thing that’s troubled me the most in that transition is not the loss of my own self after death, but letting go of the promise of seeing my grandfather again. I said goodbye to my grandfather on the promise that I would see him again. It’s almost like grieving [for] him all over again.
The Humanist: You’ve mentioned “humanist” several times in our conversation. Is that starting to become a conscious identity for you?
Bell: As labels go, I’m very comfortable with it. I don’t see a downside to being a humanist.
Someone asked me an interesting question the other day. He’s a Christian and he asked me if humanists care about ecology, or just humans. And I told him that all the humanists I’ve met are very concerned about ecology, but I suppose the label “humanist” can be misleading for some. Then there’s “transhumanist.” I don’t know just what that means, or will mean, but I feel quite comfortable using the humanist label. I just have a lot of reading to do. I want to read every word that Ingersoll ever wrote, for example. I’m basically twenty years behind on my humanist reading list.
The Humanist: Ryan Bell, thank you and welcome to being good without God!