The Cost of Atheism (or just asking questions)

We still love you!

So many of my closest friends and colleagues have said this to me in the past few days. My initial, unspoken reaction was, “Well, I certainly hope so.” Now I understand that this is not a forgone conclusion. I didn’t realize, even four days ago, how difficult it would be for some people to embrace me while I was embracing this journey of open inquiry into the question of God’s existence. I have to say that anyone who knows me personally, while they may not agree with what I’m doing or fully understand it, has expressed their support for me personally. I deeply appreciate that because the organizations that I have been affiliated with have not been able to do the same.

It began on the evening of January 1—the very first day of my year without god. First text messages, then email saying, “We need to talk.” By noon on Friday I had been let go from all the jobs that I had. Since leaving my position with the Seventh-day Adventist Church—and even before—I was an adjunct professor at Azusa Pacific University (APU) teaching Intercultural Communication to undergrads, and Fuller Theological Seminary, coaching doctoral candidates in the writing of their dissertation proposals. Both are Christian institutions of higher learning that have a requirement that their instructors and staff be committed followers of Jesus and, obviously, believers in God. They simply feel they cannot have me as a part of the faculty while I’m am in this year long process. Both APU and Fuller welcomed a conversation with me at the end of the year to see about my future work with their institutions. The Deans of both schools encouraged me and said they felt my project was bold and even important and necessary.

The other work I do is consulting with congregations. One congregation in particular—the Glendale City Seventh-day Adventist Church in Glendale, California, had recently asked me to start a non-profit organization that would network the faith communities in Glendale and Northeast Los Angeles to build social fabric and work for the common good of the city. We were just in the infancy stages of that project when I embarked publicly on this journey. I have long admired the Glendale City Church, partnering with them on many projects through the years when I was a pastor in Hollywood. They are strong advocates for the full inclusion of the LBGT community in the church. While shouldering that important justice burden against much opposition from around the Adventist Church, the fact that I was embarking on a year without god was just too much for them.

So, while I understand and appreciate where these three organizations are coming from, I have a few observations about what has transpired in the last day.

1. Religions institutions (Christian, in my case) are not able to endure these probing questions from their public leaders. My process for the next year does not square with official faith statements and creates untenable discomfort among members. Donors, it is feared, will pull back their donations. My inquiry is the beginning of a slippery slope and they simply can’t risk it.

2. Christian educational institutions are not serving their students by eliminating professors that are on an honest intellectual and spiritual journey, just because it doesn’t line up with the official statement of faith. My guess is that many professors at APU, Fuller Seminary and other Christian universities, have a wide range of opinions about the official faith statement. The difference with me is that I publicly declared my disagreement, or at least uncertainty.

3. Those who “come out” as atheist face serious consequences in our society. They are among the marginalized groups that get the least attention. I know this now from personal experience. Many people who have commented here or sent me private messages have told me heartbreaking stories of the suffering and estragement they have endured. Others have said they are still closeted because their family, friends and employers could not bear the news.

So I find myself, on Day 4, without any employment. My savings will run out in about two weeks and I’m scrambling to find immediate work doing, well…anything—manual labor, waiting tables, other teaching and consulting, or whatever I can find.

I understand so much better now why dozens of people spoke to me and about me as though I was diagnosed with a terminal illness. Some aspects of my life did receive a terminal diagnose because of this journey. My hope is that I will find work to support myself and my family as I continue down this road, and my heart goes out to those who have suffered similar consequences as a result of following their conscience.

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About Ryan Bell

For 19 years Ryan Bell was a pastor, most recently the senior pastor of the Hollywood Seventh-day Adventist Church. In March 2013 he resigned his position due to theological and practical differences. As an adjunct professor he has taught subjects ranging from intercultural communication to bioethics.
Currently he is a researcher, writer and speaker on the topic of religion and irreligion in America. In January 2014, Ryan began a yearlong journey exploring the limits of theism and the atheist landscape in the United States and blogs about that experience here at Year Without God.


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