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Former Pastor Embarks On Year Without God


“I believe. Help Thou my unbelief.” Except in this case, without the “I believe.” And without “Thou.”

For former Hollywood Adventist Church pastor Ryan Bell, 2014’s motto could well be “Help my unbelief.” Bell published an article New Year’s Eve on The Huffington Post announcing that he would live a year without God. His plan was to eschew Christian sacred texts and instead look to non-religious thinkers for insight in a new season of unbelief.

For the next 12 months I will live as if there is no God. I will not pray, read the Bible for inspiration, refer to God as the cause of things or hope that God might intervene and change my own or someone else’s circumstances. (I trust that if there really is a God that God will not be too flummoxed by my foolish experiment and allow others to suffer as a result).

I will read atheist “sacred texts” — from Hobbes and Spinoza to Russell and Nietzsche to the trinity of New Atheists, Hitchens, Dawkins and Dennett. I will explore the various ways of being atheist, from naturalism (Voltaire, Dewey, et al) to the new ‘religious atheists’ (Alain de Botton and Ronald Dworkin). I will also attempt to speak to as many actual atheists as possible — scholars, writers and ordinary unbelievers — to learn how they have come to their non-faith and what it means to them. I will visit atheist gatherings and try it on.

Along with the announcement that he planned to try on atheism for a year, Bell launched a website, With regular updates, the website quickly garnered scores of subscribers and thousands of comments. Predictably, many from within the religious community offered words of caution. Writing on facebook, gay Adventist blogger Eliel Cruz said, “I have reservations of this concept. For me, a year without God is a lost year. You’re jumping outside of a comfort zone and bubble you’ve been raised in. I’ll pray for you not to ‘see the light’ but that in every decision you make that God may be with you, whether or not you will be believing in him.” Bell seemed to anticipate some of the criticicms that came. He wrote,

Many of my colleagues will fear for my eternal security (what if I somehow die during the year?), others will question my mental health, reasoning that the recent trauma in my life has sent me over the edge. Perhaps they are right. There has been some religious trauma in my life in the last year and it has shaken the foundation of my faith, but honestly, it was getting pretty shaky anyway.

Beyond the cautionary notes and dismissive comments from the right, the project also drew critiques from the left. At the Patheos website, Friendly Atheist blogger Hemant Mehta rejected Bell’s approach.

As much as I appreciate what he’s trying to do, this is a badly-designed experiment. As someone who once visited a hell of a lot of churches in the span of a year, I feel like I can talk about what it’s like to cross over to the “other side.” At no point did I ever pretend I was “trying on” Christianity. I was merely an atheist visiting church and no one assumed otherwise. Make no mistake: Bell is not “trying on atheism.” He’s just a Christian doing what all people should do and exposing himself to an alternative perspective.

Critics notwithstanding, the project is drawing considerable interest, and if all goes well, will be the subject of a book. “During the year I will be blogging my experience and working on a book,” Bell wrote. “I invite you to follow along and share your thoughts.”

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