CNN finds missing voices in ‘atheist’ pastor’s media blitz

Earlier this week, I posted on Ryan Bell, the Seventh-day Adventist pastor who gave up his faith to focus on granting media interviews.

I kid. I kid.

What I meant to say is that Bell has decided to “live without God” for a year so that he can flirt with atheism. The free national headlines are, apparently, just a bonus.

In my previous post, I raised concerns about missing voices in a Religion News Service story:

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.

So, what would a report look like that included those missing voices?

Enter CNN’s “Belief Blog,” which produced its own account of Bell’s experiment:

(CNN) - In the past, at times like these, when his life foundered and frayed around the edges, Ryan Bell often prayed for help. But this year, at least, the pastor has resolved not to.

For the next 12 months, Bell says he will live as if there is no God.

He will not pray, go to church, read the Bible for inspiration, trust in divine providence or hope in things unseen. He’s taking the opposite of a leap of faith: a free fall into the depths of religious doubt.

Bell’s “intellectual experiment,” which began January 1, has already borne dramatic consequences.

In less than a week, he lost two jobs teaching at Christian schools near his home in Los Angeles. He’s 42 and has been a pastor or in seminary for most of his adult life. Now he faces the prospect of poverty and taking odd jobs to feed his two daughters, 10 and 13.

“There have been times, usually late at night and early in the morning, when I think: What have I done? It really undermines the whole structure of your life, your career, your family,” Bell said.

But just as the man of God began to despair, he found help from an unlikely source: atheists.

But what about those missing voices?

CNN offers one:

The first signs of trouble came around the turn of the new year, just days after Bell announced his experiment online.

Texts and e-mails arrived from friends, family and colleagues with the ominous phrase, “We need to talk.”

Kurt Fredrickson, a friend of Bell’s and associate dean of ministry at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, sent one of those messages.

Bell, a graduate of Fuller, had taught in the school’s doctorate development program for the past year. But Fredrickson told his friend that his sabbatical from faith meant a sabbatical from the seminary as well.

“From an academic standpoint, and even as a personal journey, I’m really excited about what Ryan is doing,” Fredrickson said.

“There is no honest person of faith who doesn’t have doubts, and Ryan is being courageous enough to take a step back and assess his life. This is bold stuff.”

But Bell’s job at Fuller was to help students through their doctoral dissertations, a particularly stressful time, Fredrickson said, when seminarians need to lean on a person with strong faith.

And an attempt at another one:

Azusa Pacific University, where Bell had taught intercultural communication since 2011, also declined to renew his contract.

Rachel White, a spokeswoman for the school, wouldn’t comment, saying it was an internal personnel matter. But she said all school and faculty are expected to sign a statement of faith outlining their belief in Christianity.

Kudos to CNN for advancing the story.

Alas, I’d still love to see the unnamed denominational leaders referenced by both RNS and CNN given a chance to speak. And I’d love to see Bell’s wife given a chance to respond to this:

“I have kids to support and utilities to pay and the rent is due,” Bell said. “At this point I’m willing to do almost anything.” Bell said he and his wife are divorcing, though not because of his atheist experiment.

“If your mother says she loves you, check it out” is an old journalistic adage.

In this case, if the husband says the divorce has nothing to do with his atheist experiment … by all means, check it out.

Meanwhile, a little Twitter discussion:

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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.