An ‘atheist’ Adventist’s alienation: any missing voices?

The most popular story on Religion News Service’s website right now involves a Seventh-day Adventist pastor who has decided to flirt with atheism for a year:

(RNS) California pastor Ryan Bell has a novel New Year’s resolution. For one year, he proclaimed, he will “live without God.”

It’s an odd resolution for an ordained minister, former church pastor, teacher at two highly regarded Christian universities and church consultant. Yet for the next 12 months, Bell, 42, plans to refrain from praying, reading the Bible and thinking about God at all.

Instead, he will read atheist authors, attend atheist gatherings and seek out conversation and companionship with unbelievers. He wants to “do whatever I can to enter the world of atheism and live, for a year, as an atheist.”

Still, his resolution is only an experiment — he is not, he said, an atheist. “At least not yet,” he wrote in an essay for The Huffington Post, where, on New Year’s Eve, he announced his plan and a new blog to document it.

“I am not sure what I am. That’s part of what this year is about.”

From there, the story notes:

But so far, it has also been about loss. Since announcing his plans, Bell has been asked to resign from both of his teaching positions and lost a consulting job. In the months before his decision to, as he put it, “try on” atheism, his health and his family relationships suffered too.

And later, there’s this background:

Indeed, Bell’s path has been marked by controversy before. Born to Methodist parents who converted to Seventh-day Adventism, he eventually led Hollywood Adventist Church, a Los Angeles congregation known as a liberal outpost in a mostly conservative denomination.

Over the years, Bell’s once-fundamentalist views became more progressive, he said. He advocated for women’s ordination and the full recognition and inclusion of gays and lesbians, both prohibited by current church doctrine. He also took issue with the church’s literal interpretation of a six-day period of creation and its end-times teachings.

Last March, after eight years at Hollywood Adventist, he was asked by denominational leaders to resign. And that, he said, in part led him to his yearlong experiment with atheism.

“Not being a pastor for nine months has given me the freedom to not have to believe in something for other people’s sake,” he said.

RNS quotes a few sources besides Bell, including the author of a book on clergy who lost their faith and an atheist who considers the experiment flawed.

But the wire service doesn’t quote anyone directly involved with Bell’s past employment. The report, lacking any measure of normal journalistic skepticism, doesn’t quote anyone from his former church or ask denominational leaders about his performance and why they asked him to resign. The story doesn’t identify the “highly regarded Christian universities” or ask university officials about his performance and why he was asked to resign.

Those missing voices leave a big hole in an otherwise intriguing story.

About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Julia B

    Those would be good questions to ask.


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