Where I stand: a six-month report

The goal of this journey, as I set out on January 1, was to explore the world of atheism, to see what the world and, more importantly, my life looked like without God. In the process I said I would read and research in whatever way possible, the reasons people give for being atheist. This research has led me to several states, dozens of book and podcasts, and literally thousands of emails. I have faced the question of atheism from many different angles. The crazy thing is that I’m not sure I’m any closer to a clear answer. Here’s where I stand at this six-month mark.

I have let go of so many beliefs and frameworks to get where I am, I’m going to try to take this in sequential order. Roughly speaking this sequence represents a decreasing level of difficulty. The first belief systems to go are the most difficult to hold on to. I think you’ll see what I mean.

Seventh-day Adventism
I started my journey questioning whether I would remain a Seventh-day Adventist. For those of you who don’t know much about the Adventist denomination, you can click the link just above. The Wikipedia article is quite accurate. This level of belief was very easy to part with because I have been parting with it for a while now. In fact, I was asked to resign—and I agreed to resign—because I was no longer Adventist enough to be employed as a pastor. As always I had hermeneutic work-arounds for how my beliefs could be considered Adventist, but I finally came to the conclusion that church administration was right. I had, in the words of my Conference President, “outgrown Adventism.”

When I left my post at my church I never really considered remaining Adventist except in culture and name. Now, even this is not acceptable to me. I feel that to remain associated with the church would be to tacitly, and perhaps even explicitly, endorse things I’d rather not and need not be associated with.

Dozens of people wrote to me and asked why I was leaving God completely. Perhaps Adventism was the problem, not God. Hadn’t I considered another Christian denomination? Something more liberal? In fact I had considered all of that. Because of my ecumenical and inter-religious work I am friends with Episcopal priests, Methodist, Lutheran, Menonnite, and non-denominational ministers as well as Buddhist monks, Rabbis, Imams and Unitarian Universalist ministers. The whole menu of religious choices was before me and I tried a few. Rather quickly I realized that my crisis was deeper. It was an epistemological crisis more than a surface level challenge of denominational flavor.

None of this is to say that I might not one day find a spiritual home among the Unitarian Universalists or a Buddhist group. But at the outset, deciding on a new religious affiliation was not my issue.

The question most on my mind was whether, as I had begun to serious suspect, there was no God there to begin with. There are a few ways to arrive at an answer to this question.

The Bible. Most Christians, when I ask them, say that they take God to be a given. For them, God is the ground of all knowledge. He is, quite literally, their epistemological foundation. And where can we ground that epistemology, since none of us has seen God, or even Jesus? The Bible. This is known as presuppositionalism, as anyone who’s spent much time around these debates will know.

As Hebrews 11 says, “Faith is the evidence of things unseen.” In the biblical book of Joshua, God tells Joshua that he will part the Jordan river so they can cross, but it is only as they step into the water that it opens (Joshua 3). To change the metaphor, imagine a bridge that is only visible to those who take the first step off the cliff. This is what we usually mean by a “leap of faith.” The problem is that most skeptics, myself included, have already leaped and discovered that the bridge isn’t there. Or it isn’t there for us. Or at least not anymore.

So, while I understand that many Christians begin this quest with the Bible, I did not set out on this journey in that way. In fact I specifically said I would not search the Bible for evidence of God. My main reason is that I did that for 30 years; twenty of those years professionally. Some will then say that I had an intellectualized religion but never really met Jesus for myself. To that I can only say: not true. We’ll have to come back to that pesky Scotsman another day.

Experience. Christians often turn to experience as their evidence. They experience God first hand. He may not speak audibly to them, but God’s voice, through the Holy Spirit, is just as real. I know what this is like. I have experienced it, too. There are several problems with this as evidence. First, this evidence is locked up inside your brain. I can’t examine it or experience it myself. It is yours and yours alone. Other people say they’ve never had experiences like that in spite of trying everything, including begging God. Others have had these divine experiences only to find they suddenly stopped for no apparent reason. I have hundreds of emails from readers like this. The other problem with experience as evidence is that it is explainable other ways. Neurology and psychology have given us a much better understanding of the inner working of the brain.

For myself, I have had some profound experiences that I attributed to God. Things I couldn’t explain any other way. But the longer I lived, the more I studied the Bible, history and the sciences, the less I found notions of the supernatural convincing. I realized that when my mind critiqued someone else’s view of the supernatural I was implicitly undermining my own. Who’s to say Scientologists aren’t right?

Science. Most skeptics who have found Christianity or other supernatural belief systems lacking do so because they have concluded that the only way to interface with our world is through our five senses. We call the that exploration, science. There is a specific method that governs science which has to do with observation, testing, repeatability, peer review, and endless scrutiny. This is a realm where we can all meet on level ground.

To me it is patently obvious that there is no empirical, scientific evidence that there is a God. I don’t have time, or really the ability, to review the main cosmological arguments for God’s existence, but I can say that after listening to many people explain them, I don’t find any of them very convincing, mostly because they create other problems of an ethical and phenomenological nature. Most of these come under the heading of, “So what?” Let me explain.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that there is a convincing cosmological argument for God’s existence. For me, the most convincing is the idea that the universe had a beginning and because I’m not Stephen Hawking, I have a hard time understanding how this vast universe could come from nothing. For the sake of argument, let’s say, “God did it.” God kicked off the entire process by igniting the Big Bang. This is essentially the God of deism—a God who is not involved in the affairs of our world, and has not been since he got the whole thing started. So, to come back to my first question on the first day of the year, “What difference does that God make?” I’m not inspired to worship that God. That God cannot possibly be described by the Bible and Jesus was incorrect in his understanding of that God, because that God has been absent for 13+ billion years. Frankly, I’m surprised that so many Christians even make these cosmological arguments. They don’t get us any closer to the Bible or Christianity.

If we try to cover that gap and posit a God who not only caused the Big Bang but is involved in the world, we run into other problems—mostly ethical problems. Why is God so silent and inert? Why is God such a bad communicator? Why are people killing each other to defend their version of God? And why does it seem so much like we are evolving as a species and editing our view of God as we go along?

This is a very short and hand-waving way of saying that, at this moment in time, I do not see a way to explain the existence of God through science and, even if you do, I don’t think it matters. Atheism would be better news than deism, as far as I’m concerned. An all powerful entity that could cause the universe and then feel no ethical obligation to it is far worse than no God at all.

Beyond Being
The only thing that makes any sense at all at this point in my journey is to say that God is inscrutable. From this perspective, you should not expect to detect God with your five senses or any technological instruments designed to enhance your five senses. God is beyond all this. Tillich is often the most quoted spokesperson for this viewpoint.

“God does not exist. He is being-itself beyond essence and existence. Therefore, to argue that God exists is to deny him.”

“God is being-itself, not a being.” [1]

Of course, this defies verification. It is an assumption. Process theology has a similar problem which, as I’ve said elsewhere, seems to me like the gradual receeding of God into the background of human existence in this world. At that point, I find myself back at the first question again: What difference does this God make (this God of Paul Tillich or process theology)?

Still, it is possible, I suppose, that God exists without being (whatever that means—still haven’t gotten to Jean-Luc Marion’s book by that title).

So, that’s over 1600 words to say this…

At the halfway point, I don’t see how there is any empirical, scientific evidence for God’s existence. I don’t see any evidence for any recognizable pattern of God’s interaction in the world. I don’t think the Bible records anything more than ancient people’s search for the divine.

So on the Dawkins Scale, I’d say I’m a 5—Weak Atheist. When I stared the journey I think I was 3—Weak Theist. I guess what’s consistent is that I’m weak.

The last thing I’ll say for now—and this is a source of perpetual frustration—is that committed Christians and committed skeptics are approaching this question from two completely different epistemological frameworks which really don’t communicate with each other. If you question this, just watch Matt Dillahunty’s debate with Sye Ten Bruggencate. It’s two hours of what appears to be stonewalling by Sye. In reality, the two of them are literally standing on different ground, in different worlds. The possibility of God’s existence requires there to be a world beyond what we can see and experience with our senses and so the conversation very quickly becomes about empiricism vs. rationalism vs. supernaturalism.

I haven’t said anything about the phenomenon of religion or it’s potential harm or value. I haven’t said anything about ethics or values without God, or a host of other things. I’ll keep posting mid-year updates throughout the week or so. Until then…


[1] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, vol. 1 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), 205, 237.

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.