Why I’m not surprised Ryan Bell turned atheist after his year without God

Branson Parler

Branson Parler
January 14, 2015

Ryan Bell's year without God may have led him to atheism, but it also teaches us what strengthens faith.

Interpreter Again
January 14, 2015

Great article Branson but I found one thing missing. What must the state of his relationship without God have been before the year?

If I decided to go a year ignoring my wife and pretending she didn't exist, people would ask whether our relationship was on the rocks. In fact, it would probably be in a worse state than that. I doubt very much whether his year without God was a bolt from the blue. For him to even get that far, something had gone wrong somewhere already.

That leads to a second thing. I am absolutely with you on the importance of a believing community but I was surprised that you majored on the externals: ceremony, church attendance, etc and very little on the inner, personal relationship side of Christianity. Aren't we called, above all, to love God first and then love our neighbours? For me, that entails a personal life of prayer and listening - sustaining a dialogue and an intention to good for and with God in the same way as my marriage relationship entails dialogue and doing good for and with my wife.

Perhaps that is precisely the point. We (a generic "we) are often very good at ceremonial Christianity but leave very little in the way of clues and cues as to how to keep the conversation going when the pastor is out of his robes and the cat is up the tree. Maybe what this guy is really teaching us is that it is our dialogue with God and not simply the believing, hoping and thinking that sustains the relationship.

As a tiny aside, I am now wondering how much God was chasing him, trying to get his attention. There is, of course, a huge gap between not deliberately paying attention to someone and deliberately ignoring them when they wave their arms, shout your name, give you presents, send you a beautiful sunrise and attempt to woo you without ceasing.

January 14, 2015

I think there's something to be said here for the formative influence of being MINDFUL about our faith practices--whether theist or atheist, Christian or otherwise. In my experience, the great disease of Christianity is not the small minority of Christians who denounce their faith or those handful of vocal atheists who campaign vehemently against the Christian worldview. It's that large segment of lukewarm believers who do "go through the motions" week after week, mindlessly practicing a faith that they never challenge to test its resilience in the face of life's big questions and which consequently never challenges them to become more like the One they profess to follow. Bell at least had the courage to mindfully practice his faith, and you're right...it's not at all surprising that his heart began to follow. God preserve us from being mindless Christians.

January 15, 2015

Motions do not a Christian make. There are many a children who grew up believing that as long as they remain in the motions of church that they would sustain they're "Christian" status. Bell didn't remain in his belief with God for the same reason some church kids end up denouncing their faith - they never had an encounter or strong personal relationship with Him.

This is the crux of the gospel. The reason we were created at all - to have a personal relationship with the creator of everything. He gave us free will so that we could choose Him.

I agree with "Mr. Interpreter Again". If I am in love with my husband and he is in love with me, can I really pretend he doesn't exist? Even if I did, would it change his existence? No, he would still fervently love me and wait for me to choose him again. This is what Jesus does for His bride, and it's what He's doing for Bell. He waits.

January 15, 2015

I've followed Bell's journey this year. He has been honest and upfront that this "year" has been a part of a larger trajectory. He's been soaking in his doubts for quite a while now. His fits a narrative of disenchantment, of subtraction, a moral journey of rejecting "dogma" and entering into an open space where the obviousness of the new morality is shines brightly. In some ways the "year" afforded him some visibility to hopefully replace the lost career his longer journey required. Those on the same path as him find a fellow traveler that offers validation.

The exhilaration of leaving will likely be followed by haunting and attempts at replacement.

In some ways the narrative suggests that we were born on the African savanna and so the blue sky freedom feels right at home.

Consider this observation from the life of Pi

A house is a compressed territory where our basic needs can be fulfilled close by and safely. A sound zoo enclosure is the equivalent for an animal (with the noteworthy absence of a fireplace or the like, present in every human habitation). Finding within it all the places it needs— a lookout, a place for resting, for eating and drinking, for bathing, for grooming, etc.— and finding that there is no need to go hunting, food appearing six days a week, an animal will take possession of its zoo space in the same way it would lay claim to a new space in the wild , exploring it and marking it out in the normal ways of its species, with sprays of urine perhaps. Once this moving-in ritual is done and the animal has settled, it will not feel like a nervous tenant, and even less like a prisoner, but rather like a landholder, and it will behave in the same way within its enclosure as it would in its territory in the wild, including defending it tooth and nail should it be invaded. Such an enclosure is subjectively neither better nor worse for an animal than its condition in the wild; so long as it fulfills the animal’s needs, a territory, natural or constructed, simply is, without judgment, a given, like the spots on a leopard. One might even argue that if an animal could choose with intelligence, it would opt for living in a zoo, since the major difference between a zoo and the wild is the absence of parasites and enemies and the abundance of food in the first, and their respective abundance and scarcity in the second. Think about it yourself. Would you rather be put up at the Ritz with free room service and unlimited access to a doctor or be homeless without a soul to care for you?

Martel, Yann (2002-06-04). Life of Pi (pp. 21-22). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

There are a few who are like Christopher McCandless, heading out into the wild. Once you eliminate God you usually need to replace him with something. There's a reason we're determined idolmakers. Mr. Bell like many others will likely find "spirituality" of some sort.

Branson Parler
January 16, 2015

I appreciate the comments and feedback, especially the emphasis on mindfulness and owning our faith, not just going through the motions. I don't want to diminish the importance of either of those things. But neither do I think the choice is between "relationship" vs. "rituals." Rather, our real relationships are constituted precisely in and through rituals. As Jamie Smith puts it, we are 'homo liturgicus.' However I think about my own encounter with God and personal relationship with God, I can't somehow remove it from the rituals of the people of God. It doesn't mean they are alone are sufficient; but they are necessary, which leads me to conclude that quitting those rituals is a fast track to unbelief. Or to put it differently, I don't even know what to make of belief devoid of those rituals, although this kind of 'belief' is more common than not these days and makes perfect sense to most of us. But I think that's a problem with us. Perhaps that's why, Mr. Interpreter, I DID focus on the externals. Because everybody and their brother has some kind of internal spirituality going on these days. That's not to diminish the importance of prayer and ongoing dialogue with God, but rather just to say that internal dialogue alone isn't enough either.

I certainly affirm the key points made by JKana and Emily: the more we can be mindful and teach one another about what we're doing as the body of Christ, the better off the church will be.

Interpreter Again
January 17, 2015

Hi Branson,

Thank you for your response to our comments and concerns. To a great extent, I agree with you. I think it is important to recognise that we need both the rituals (in some form or other: I doubt you would suppose that churches without a set liturgy were less spiritual) and the relationship.

My issues was that I felt that the article tended to read as if doing the rituals was themselves indicators of belief. Often, they aren't. Certainly, when I was growing up, it was common to see and hear of people being in church and doing the rituals for reasons that seemed to have nothing to do with relationship with God. "Respectability", fashion and even family expectations can drive felt needs to perform the rituals, even if they mean nothing personal to the person doing them.

I would agree that it is not a choice between relationship and rituals but I would argue that without the former, the latter can simply become legalism and show. Perhaps this is why some of the OT prophets were so disparaging of people keeping to the ritualistic side of the law but being so distant from God in their hearts, which, of course, showed in their attitudes to the poor, to justice, and to each other.

I would also like to create a line between the surface, fashionable meaning of "spirituality", which you are right to see as all too common nowadays, and the meaning of relationship that seems to be found in the work of theologians like Dallas Willard. For him, the point is not that we are "spiritual" but that we are in constant communion with and being changed by God. If I read him correctly, he seems to suggest that the rituals and disciplines are helpful inasmuch as they help us to grow in this relationship and in its flow into and through our relationships with each other.

January 24, 2015

I know a lot of people who do just as you say. going to church, getting involved with their church families, taking sacrament and so on. when asked they believed in God and yet had no relationship with Him. At the end of their life they did not know if they were going to heaven. I believe it takes more than participation ...Jesus said 'you must be born again'.
Am I completely wrong?

March 16, 2015

Why risk your salvation? What if he died during that year.

March 19, 2015

If he was a saved, genuine believer in Christ, this exercise would not put his salvation at risk. It certainly widens the gap on an already disconnected relationship with God. However, God is more powerful than our belief or our practices. This may be something God is using to bring glory to himself in the long run, by one day restoring and increasing this man's faith, and witness and/or God has simply given this man over to his own desires for a time to educate him. Either way, his salvation, if present, is not at risk.

Jim McClure
November 9, 2015

Any article that refers to Pascal's Wager cannot be taken seriously. Pascal's Wager is a laughable argument that is mostly used on children who have a harder time thinking through all the ways it fails. To say it's now working in reverse is a slap in the face to anyone with critical thinking skills. It just doesn't work. I don't care how long I pretend to believe something my belief will not change without evidence. I suggest you take a year and live like Santa exists and see if you really believe after that year. What Mr. Bell learned in that year was that truth is not what people tell you is true and in fact if people feel the need to preface their message by calling it the truth, you should look closest at that message. Truth should be supported by evidence and Mr. Bell obviously found thet the evidence to support his former beliefs were either thin or non-existant.

January 5, 2016

I have followed Ryan Bell's journey with great interest. I appreciate the openness and honesty of his experiences. As a Christian, I've learned a lot from Bell. While I don't agree with his conclusions and decisions, we all have to make that same decision: God or no God. Or if you prefer: God or man. Having faith in mankind, for me, requires a bigger leap of faith.

August 16, 2016

Unfortunately I have to point out that what Bell did, very closely resembles what God has called his closest followers to do over and over throughout the Bible. I personally share a lot with Bell in his prior journey of faith. I have a retreating soul, and a tendency to wander that is fostered by curiosity. From a Christian point of view I could say that God has made me that way, and that it is in those wandering, curios, retreating moments that I will find a personalized relationship or experience with God. Moses, during his own personal exodus retreated and found God's presence, while alone on a high mountain inside a cave. Abraham, Daniel, Elijah, David, JESUS and countless others followed suit.
However, it would seem that Christian teachers and leaders today are afraid to allow themselves away from the rituals and the "flock" enough to gain such an experience, due to fear that they will be retreating the very things that loosely glue them to their belief. How can a faith that is based on personal relationship and strengthened by fasting/retreating into "closets" with God be threatened by the absence of a bandwagon, full of cheerleaders? This is the problem for believers who actually try and ascend the norm, which is just a half-effort commitment of going to church and paying tithe. I'm afraid the clergy would in-admittedly prefer that followers choke down their desire to be more than status quo, and rather they continue in the heavily beaten path of mind-numbing religious ritualism, therefore alleviating the possibility of God not "showing up" in the still, quiet place where He claims to be found.
I would more likely suggest that wavering believers take the "year" journey, to escape the tight clutches of religion, and seek God through the very experiences/avenues in which He has been found in the past, by the heroes of faith. The path that God has made clear in His own word. If they can't find Him there, then He is either determined to conceal Himself from us/them, or simply not there. We love to shout that God is everywhere, begging all to see Him, offering Himself to any who are willing to seek Him out. If that's the truth, how can He deny one who is fervently seeking after Him in such a humble and genuine way as this? Obviously there is always a question of intent, and we can only choose to take Bell at his word, or not. He states over and over that his journey began with hope that God WOULD be revealed through the experience, not the alternative. Dependence on the "support group" to keep your faith and belief alive will eventually be the death of such faith.

October 29, 2016

@Jim McClure

Bell did not examine his beliefs, he lived a year as an atheist and concluded God did not exist based on his own emotional personal experience. That describes many atheists and how they reach the conclusion that there is no god, this method of conclusion is irrational.

What is laughable is how many atheists leave Christianity, perceiving the religion as wrong and then draw from that conclusion that God doesn't exist without even examining the philosophical arguments for his existence or without researching other systems like deism or unitarianism. This behaviour alone is proof that atheism is based on the mere emotional rejection of Christianity.

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