Ryan Bell: Adventist to Atheist…Really?

Ryan Bell: Adventist to Atheist…Really? January 6, 2015

Seventh Day Adventist pastor Ryan Bell spent a year intentionally living as an atheist and came out on the other side (surprise!) as a nonbeliever. But on further inspection, is he really a tried and true atheist?

What Bell says he has let go of is the certainty required by his previous religious affiliation, and thus far in my reading about him, he has not said anywhere that he is an atheist. In fact – at least as I understand it – atheism is founded upon the certainty that God does not exist. And for Bell, he says that even to suggest that he has arrived at the conclusion that God doesn’t exist is “too strong a word for the provisional place I now stand and work from,” based on his recent Huffington Post interview.

To me, this is more the result of the rigid requirements delineated by fundamentalist Christian belief, rather than any lack of clarity on Bell’s part. After all, there are many Christians (especially in my reality) who claim to have abandoned all sense of certainty about the existence or no-existence of God. I argue in my book, postChristian, that it is this certainty that has led to so much pain and violence in the name of God in the first place, and that embracing such uncertainty is actually the most intellectually and spiritually honest space within which to explore their faith.

As Bell notes in his NPR radio interview, after spending time away from his spiritual practices, and after delving into atheist literature, he no longer finds a compelling case for the existence of the supernatural. This is understandable, actually, as the constructs we build to contain and define God for ourselves are, after all, false. As Peter Rollins writes, it is only once we recognize these false constructs for what they are, and engage in dismantling them, that we have any hope of truly experiencing anything transcendent or any sense of psychic liberation.

A sense of the existence of God is just that: a sense. It is not to be reasoned, defended or rhetorically reduced. It is akin to one’s sense of the existence of love, though love can never be proven. Yes, expressions of it can be pointed to, though others may argue that love is not the source of those expressions. The same can be said about someone who senses the expression of God in other ways, be they physical, emotional or otherwise ineffable. Others may have different attributions for such phenomena, but one’s sense of the Source of such experiences is entirely one’s own.

Which leads us to the important point that faith, in itself (regardless of what we have faith in) is a choice, not a material, logical fact. Faith in the existence of God is a choice, as is faith in the nonexistence of God. Both require faith, though. And neither is made any stronger with certainty.

So, Mr. Bell, welcome to postmodernism. We join you gladly in your uncertain quest for meaning, love and justice in the world, whether you name the Source of such things God or not.

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  • From “blessed assurance” to the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Doubt.

    St. Thomas is the most honest character in the Gospels, but the author of Ecclesiastes, who doubted the afterlife and thought the best we can do is eat, drink, find enjoyment in some work and get into bed and try to love someone, is the best in the Bible.

    But Paul and Jesus are just running a confidence game. That is what faith is, essentially, confidence. Like Hebrews 11:1 explicitly states. I just can’t fall for that con.

    There are way, way better stories out there that contemplate the quest for meaning, love, and justice. Interstellar. AI. Breaker Morant. Amélie.

    Theater > Church.


  • Elzeenor

    This is old news and not really news worthy, but it’s good the guy found something that works for him and makes him happier.

  • R Vogel

    You probably want to be careful using the Oprah Winfrey ‘You’re not really an atheist’ approach. Ryan actually did a post recently where he defines Atheism (and then contradicts himself but that’s a different issue) and ‘certainty’ that there is no G*d is not how he nor frankly most atheists define it.

    • Christian Piatt

      it’s fascinating to me that there’s nearly as much diversity and even friction within the atheist community about what does and doesn’t constitute atheism as there is within Christianity. Really, we’re all so much more alike than we might even care to admit 🙂

      • Tim Newell

        While I agree that there is diversity of philosophy and belief among atheists I think most atheists will consider someone atheist because they claim to be. When I was Christian I often heard other Christians state that someone isn’t really a Christian even though that person claimed to be. I’m an atheist but I still go to church from time to time. I don’t think anyone would state that I’m not a real atheist because I sang hymns and listened to sermons (or your podcast). Atheism is about relying on what we can see and being willing and happy to be proven wrong as long as the proof isn’t “because the bible tells me so”.

        • Christian Piatt

          yeah, Christians have a really bad habit of needing to draw the circle of inclusion/exclusion, and of course, it always places themselves right in the center. Some of that is the product of empire (now crumbling)), but it’s also some element of basic human nature. I’ve seen similar distinctions among atheists, but granted, it’s definitely not as prevalent as it is in Christendom.

          Also glad to know you listen to the show! You’re not the only atheist who does, so you’re in good company.

        • Ronixis

          I sometimes see the opposite from atheists: an assertion that someone who does not claim the label does qualify for it. Particular targets of this are the group of people in surveys who answer both that they are certain that no god exists and that they are not an atheist (which admittedly seems rather strange).

      • R Vogel

        I agree. It seems to me, albeit I am an outsider and may very well be all wet on this, that I see much more of this happening within Atheism recently which I take to be a good sign that we are moving in the right direction. When under siege disparate groups tend to organize around what unites them and ignore their differences. (I always think of the Revolutionary Generation who fought England and the day after victory turned on each other!) When they are no longer under that pressure they are more free to explore their differences. I hope this is a sign that Atheism is reaching a level of cultural acceptance that they no longer feel they need to focus exclusively on that one single defining characteristic (publicly anyway, I’m sure internally these conversations have been ongoing). We still have a long way to go in many places, but it’s nice to see.

  • raytheist

    Atheism is not “founded upon the certainty that God does not exist.” Atheism is the absence or lack of certainty that God does exist. Atheism is the absence of theism. Because the existence of ANY God cannot be proved or disproved, and the existence of BibleGod is simply impossible, I think most atheists would grant only that there is insufficient evidence or reason to think any god or gods exist.

  • Michael Mock

    The idea that atheism requires (or even implies) certainty about the non-existence of God is one I hear from Christians, not from atheists. (Though I’m sure there are some exceptions; there always are.) I myself am an atheist, in that as far as I can tell there’s no reason to believe that God is (or gods are) out there. I’m also somewhat agnostic, in that I really don’t know for sure. (It’s possible, for example, that God created the world but doesn’t interfere with it now; though I’m not sure there’s any practical difference between a deity who leaves the world to function on its own and a deity that doesn’t exist in the first place.)

    I also disagree strongly with the idea that faith is a choice. The things we believe are better described as conclusions. My Christian friends have reached a different conclusion than I have regarding the likelihood of God’s existence, but that isn’t because we “chose” differently. It’s because we’re working with different information and different experiences, and we weigh that information and those experiences differently.

  • Adam King

    You misunderstand atheism. An a-theist is one without a god. I believe that gods are products of human imagination, and they don’t impress me as likely to be based on anything real at all. As to “the certainty that God does not exist”: I assume you’re speaking of a Christian god, but which one? Jesus? If he ever did exist, he’s dead now. The Ground of Being? I don’t think that really means anything. Yahweh? Ancient Hebrew myth, no more likely than Zeus. The Primum Mobile? A philosophical failure in light of modern cosmology. The “God is Love” god? I don’t think that means anything, either. When Christians come up with a comprehensible definition of “God”, I’ll tell you whether I’m certain it doesn’t exist. Until then, it’s just a bunch of slippery talk.

  • Christian Piatt

    Interesting that some commenters on my blog are asserting that being atheist does not mean one believes with certainty that there is no God. My question, then, is what the difference is between an agnostic (no knowledge, ie, of God’s existence or non-existence) and an atheist (no God).

      • Psycho Gecko

        Something tells me this guy would know.

    • Michael Mock

      I’d answer that there isn’t exactly a “difference between”; they aren’t opposing viewpoints, but rather descriptors for two different categories that can (and frequently do) overlap. Also, like a lot of category-terms (including Christian) they’re only loosely descriptive; they indicate a general direction, but not a complete roadmap of specific beliefs.

      In my personal experience (so, y’know, take this with a grain of salt) a lot of people who call themselves agnostics are, for all practical purposes, what I’d consider atheists. They don’t believe God is out there, they just don’t want the confrontational baggage associated with the “atheist” label.

      • Christian Piatt

        You can certainly understand my confusion, then, especially when popular culture loves to glibly toss around labels like “satanic” and “atheist” for shock value if nothing else. My main concern in all of this is to keep stretching the tent of postmodern conversation and a/theology so we can all fell we have a place beneath it, irrespective of particular beliefs (at least for today, acknowledging that beliefs evolve in many ways and directions. Or at least mine do).

        • Michael Mock

          Oh, absolutely. It doesn’t help that atheists and agnostics tend to use the terms “atheist” and “agnostic” with a completely different set of connotations than Christians do (even if the actual definition is theoretically the same). It also doesn’t help that some Christians (though certainly not all) dump any sort of non-Christians into the general category of Tools Of Satan (e.g. that one very concerned woman who seemed to think that, as an atheist, I must naturally agree with the writings of Aleister Crowley). Further confusing the issue is the existence of the Church of Satan, which is actually atheistic.


          So, yeah: all in all, I think a degree of confusion is perfectly understandable. In fact, it may be a good thing; it forces us to talk about how we’re using the terms.

        • brewster101

          And as well, we have to contend with views or impression of atheism that is influenced by theists. e.g. those clergy or pastors who like to say dumb things like “Oh I was an atheist once, too (for a while)” after their mother died of cancer, or they went-off to university for a few years and were rebelling or whatever. We hear from the faithful all the time how they can lose their faith; stop going to church, put their religious book away, become down on god, stop feeling as though god is hearing their prayers or working in their lives, maybe even become cynical toward faith and believers. A subset of those might even become angry with god and delude themselves into concluding this must be what all the atheists are about, this must be what is atheism. Then later, when their depression has improved, find their ‘faith’ again, but never in fact abandoned or changed their “belief” in god. We’re not immune from having deluded people who are confused about their motives or actual beliefs going around calling themselves atheists.

        • Nick G

          I can understand your confusion, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t inexcusably sloppy and intellectually lazy not to bother finding out what atheists themselves usually mean by the term. And as for the offer of a place in the “tent of postmodern conversation” – no thanks, it lets the rain of irrationality in.

    • Mike Ward

      While Christians will have doubts, I think that when we say someone believes in God we mean more than they believe maybe, just maybe there is a slim outside shot that God exist, but they aren’t going to spend much time worrying about out and certainly aren’t going to let the possibility effect their lives. To me, a person with that sort of faith is completely correct to call himself an athiest.

    • Wallace Finch

      Gnosticism is a knowledge position. When you add an a- in front of it it gets negated, as in “I have no knowledge (of god(s)).” Theism is a belief position. When you add an a- in front of it it gets negated, as in “I have no belief (in god(s)).”
      Since no living person knows for sure whether supernatural beings exist, we’re all technically agnostics, but obviously that’s not helpful in discussions of belief. As an atheist I do not believe that supernatural things exist because I see no evidence for them. This is not something that requires “faith” any more than my lack of belief in leprechauns requires “faith.”

    • Psycho Gecko

      Theism and atheism are concerned with belief. Gnosticism and agnosticism are concerned with knowledge. So while someone can be theist or atheist, they can also be agnostic or gnostic.

      Now, for atheism, the minimum is that someone lacks a belief in a deity. If someone believes that no deities exist, this is a more extreme position that happens to fall under the same definition. But while B is equal to A, A is not necessarily equal to B. Just like how Mormons are Christians, but not all Christians are Mormons.

      Most atheists are agnostic atheists: they aren’t sure you can prove the existence or nonexistence of a deity, but they do not believe in one. And that’s fine. It’s the religious making the claim that deities exist. And just as a jury in a trial can vote “Not Guilty” because the prosecution hasn’t presented evidence to prove its side, then people can be atheists without knowing for certain that deities don’t exist. Even Richard Dawkins, the Christian boogeyman, has said he’s an agnostic atheist.

      In the end, there is no need to be exclusively agnostic or atheist, just like there’s no need to have brown hair or brown eyes but not both, because they are addressing different questions.

  • “In fact – at least as I understand it – atheism is founded upon the certainty that God does not exist.”

    There is “positive/strong atheism” and “negative/weak atheism.” The first is the belief that there is no God; the second is the lack of belief in God. Neither are more or less “atheist.”

  • chrisgogh

    Quote: “In fact – at least as I understand it – atheism is founded upon the certainty that God does not exist.”

    I quit reading right there, because you can’t determine whether someone is an atheist if you don’t even know what the word means.

    • Nimblewill

      Maybe its because you keep changing the meaning of the word?

  • Rick K


    I was searching for discussions about Ryan Bell and found this blog. Others have already said it, but you are incorrect by stating that atheism means a certainty there are no gods.

    You don’t want to be guilty of improperly defining who is/is not an atheist out of ignorance. Do you appreciate it when someone claims that only radical fundamentalists are true Christians? If you want to write about atheism, then learn about atheism.

    Richard Dawkins, in “The God Delusion”, outlines a 7-point spectrum of probabilities on the existence of God with 1 = 100% certainty there is a God, to 7 = 100% certainty there isn’t one. Agnosticism, by this definition, is “completely impartial – 50/50 chance.”

    Note, Dawkins puts himself at a “6”. If Dawkins isn’t an “atheist”, then who is?

    As for your contention that God is simply a “choice”, i suppose that is true – in the same way that belief in fairies, ghosts, demons or other gods is a “choice”. But then again – believing that you exist is also just a choice, isn’t it? I can faithfully declare that all your posts are the work of some blog-writing program developed by the people at Patheos to generate traffic. And I can choose to discount all evidence to the contrary. And there’s vastly more evidence supporting your existence than supporting God’s.

    Of course, if faith in God is just a choice, then God doesn’t need to exist at all. Which makes Ryan Bell’s conclusion rational and logically supportable.

  • brewster101

    Atheism requires no faith and is hardly a “choice”. Once one confronts the evidence against all religious beliefs, tracts or narratives, and does so in good faith, it becomes an inescapable conclusion. Either god does not exist, or god does exist and has failed to reveal adequate knowledge and evidence for anyone to reasonably decide which of the 3000 known gods is the “one true” god. And being “god”, we are right to presume he ought to know damn well he has failed to reveal enough knowledge about himself for any reasonable and informed person to FREELY decide with high confidence – without coercive or indoctrinating influences – which god he is, what he wants from us, how we are supposed to go about worshiping him, or even whether he gives a damn if we worship him. It is entirely permissible to me as an atheist that there could be a god who is completely absent in the affairs of humanity, has never revealed much if anything to us, and doesn’t really care that we worship him. But then, what would be the point of acknowledging such a god in any way beyond an intellectual or academic discussion after some beers or bong hits?

    • Tony C

      But just a minute – firstly you say “Atheism requires no faith…”, but then you say, “Once one confronts
      the evidence against all religious beliefs…..and
      does so in good faith” – can you understand why I might find this confusing?

      • brewster101

        Because you don’t understand some common English expressions or terms? Replace “good faith” with “open mind” or “honest intent” (BTW, it’s also a term used and recognized in law).

  • Pickee

    “For we have not followed cunningly devised fables, when we made known unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” 2nd Peter 1:16

  • As others have said, being sure no god exists is not required in order to be an atheist. Furthermore, I disagree to your comparison between God and the existence of love when you say “Love can never be proven.” Proof can be a tricky word, but I think there is a vast quantity of evidence for the existence of love. Suppose you’re in a serious dating relationship — does your partner love you? How do you know? Do you merely “believe” they love you because you feel that’s how it ought to be? Or do you have some evidence that they love you? Maybe they do nice things for you. They talk to you even when you have nothing important to say. They take an interest in you even when you feel boring, and seem to enjoy being around you even when you’re not at your best.

    Of course none of those things are proof. But they’re great evidence that the love your partner feels is true. When it comes to God, you don’t even have good evidence that your partner exists.

    You seem to redefine Christianity and the Christian god to become so nebulous that it could mean absolutely anything. It’s not surprising to me that Ryan Bell didn’t consider such an open view of Christianity when he said he was leaving Christianity.

  • aldrisang .

    Your understanding of atheism is false. It is not certainty that God doesn’t exist. It’s failure to be convinced that *any* gods exist. Atheists don’t by-and-large claim certainty, because for all we know there could be something that can be considered a god out there somewhere, we just think you believe made-up stuff. You haven’t convinced us that your god exists, and neither have the Hindus convinced us of their gods, etc. etc.

    We’re mostly “agnostic atheists”, neither believing in any gods nor making the positive claim that no gods could exist. The burden of proof is on you, not only to prove that God exists, but to prove that Brahma, Ra, Zeus, Quetzalcoatl, and thousands of other gods that humans have worshiped don’t exist (if you’re claiming that God is the only god). We’re still waiting, after thousands of years, for anyone to prove such a thing. It’s not incumbent upon us to disprove the existence of a non-existent entity… we can’t disprove Leprechauns either, but that doesn’t mean you’re justified in believing they’re real!

  • Dan Barker

    Atheism is not a certainty or claim to certainty, though a subset of atheists might make such claims. Atheism is simply the absence of theism. If you don’t have a belief in a god, for whatever reason–and it can be simple ignorance, as well as thoughtful analysis–then you are an atheist. Atheism is not an alternative to Christianity. It is not a belief at all. It is lack of belief–like the old joke that if atheism is a religion, then baldness is a hair color. Or “OFF” is a TV channel. I explain this in my book Godless:How An Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists.

  • Nick G

    at least as I understand it – atheism is founded upon the certainty that God does not exist.

    OK, so you don’t understand it. Why not actually try listening to some atheists before pontificating about what they believe?

  • Nick G

    Faith in the existence of God is a choice, as is faith in the nonexistence of God.

    Substitute “leprechauns” or “vampires” for “God” and this makes just as much sense.

  • J

    *Which leads us to the important point that faith, in itself (regardless of what we have faith in) is a choice, not a material, logical fact. Faith in the existence of God is a choice, as is faith in the nonexistence of God. Both require faith, though. And neither is made any stronger with certainty.*

    No, I don’t accept this construction. If there is no evidence of something then there is no reason to ‘believe’ in it. In fact, why even bother with the constructs of ‘faith’ or ‘belief’ when we can talk about *facts* instead?

    Oh and apropos of that: pretty sure you can, in fact, prove the existence of love. I just don’t accept any of your handwaving.