California pastor Ryan Bell tries atheism for a year: a publicity stunt?

This story has been floating around for awhile now: California pastor Ryan Bell has vowed to live 2014 as an atheist.

Ryan Bell

Ryan Bell

That means for the next 12 months, Bell, 42, plans to refrain from praying, reading the Bible and thinking about God at all. Seems like an odd choice for the ordained minister, former church pastor, teacher at two highly regarded Christian universities and church consultant.

Bell explained his choice by saying he wants to “do whatever I can to enter the world of atheism and live, for a year, as an atheist.”

Bell said he will read atheist authors, attend atheist gatherings and seek out conversation and companionship with unbelievers. All will be documented in his blog.

The decision had immediate consequences for Bell. He has been asked to resign from both of his teaching positions and lost a consulting job. In the months before his decision to, as he put it, “try on” atheism, his health and his family relationships suffered too.

The Religion News Service covered the story and suggests the possibility it is a publicity stunt. Bell has been receiving enormous media coverage so far. On a side note, the RNS lists the top 12 pastor stunts in recent memory.

I am not ready to question Bell’s motives. For one, his spiritual journey has been marked by twists and turns.

Born to Methodist parents who converted to Seventh-day Adventism, he eventually led Hollywood Adventist Church, a Los Angeles congregation known as a liberal outpost in a mostly conservative denomination.

Over the years, Bell’s once-fundamentalist views became more progressive, he said. He advocated for women’s ordination and the full recognition and inclusion of gays and lesbians, both prohibited by current church doctrine. He also took issue with the church’s literal interpretation of a six-day period of creation and its end-times teachings.

Last March, after eight years at Hollywood Adventist, he was asked by denominational leaders to resign. And that, he said, in part led him to his yearlong experiment with atheism.

With the rising popularity of atheist churches, the topic is a sensitive one right now in faith circles. But it seems worth a discussion.

“In a way, it is like being gay and not being able to come out to your family,” Bell told the RNS from his home in the Los Angeles area. “There have just been so many people who said they have wanted to ask questions too and didn’t feel that they could. So they are living vicariously through my spiritual journey.”

What do you think: is it appropriate for a Christian pastor to consider atheist concepts?

About John Hilton

I grew up in Susquehanna County, Pa. and graduated Syracuse University with a dual degree in journalism/political science in 1998. After working for nearly three years for a weekly paper in upstate New York, I came to southcentral Pennsylvania. I spent 13 years as a reporter and editor for The Sentinel in Carlisle and joined the York Daily Record as religion reporter in September 2011.
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