Christian Professor Gets Fired for ‘Trying on Atheism’

At the end of last year, Ryan J. Bell, an adjunct professor at Azusa Pacific University and Fuller Theological Seminary and a former pastor of a Seventh-day Adventist church, decided to “try on atheism” for a year.

According to his piece in the Huffington Post, Bell had a falling out with the Seventh-day Adventist church, a church he’d been a part of his entire life. He had theological concerns, as well as concerns about how his church chose to treat others:

As it turns out, the day came when I really didn’t fit within the church anymore. I had been an outspoken critic of the church’s approach to our gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered members — that approach being exclusion or, at best, second class membership (“we won’t kick you out but you can’t participate in leadership”). Through the years, I had also been a critic of the church’s treatment of women, their approach to evangelism and their tunnel-vision approach to church growth. I was deeply committed to my community and its betterment — something that won me the praise of some (and even an Innovative Church of the Year award from the North American Division) and the vitriol of others. I engaged in and sponsored interfaith relationships within my churches and in the community. I struggled alongside our neighbors for justice and peace. All of these things — things I was most proud of in my ministry — earned me rebuke and alienation from church administrators. I tried to maintain that I was a faithful critic — a critic from within — someone committed to the church and its future success but unwilling to go blindly along with things I felt were questionable, or even wrong.

Bell was asked to resign last March, and since then had stopped going to church regularly and — gasp! — started to prefer the company of skeptics. So Bell decided to just run with it and be an atheist for a year.

So, I’m making it official and embarking on a new journey. I will “try on” atheism for a year. 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.

In short, I will do whatever I can to enter the world of atheism and live, for a year, as an atheist. It’s important to make the distinction that I am not an atheist. At least not yet. I am not sure what I am. That’s part of what this year is about.

For the record, I do not like the way this experiment is constructed. There is a sense of frivolity to it. There are places in the world where people can be killed for their atheism. (While this is unlikely to happen in the U.S., it still feels flip.) Furthermore, as an atheist, I take issue with his definition of living like an atheist. Do you know what has changed for me since leaving organized religion? On Sunday morning, instead of going to church I walk to the store for a fresh bagel and walk home again so I can watch the Sunday morning talk shows. Also, I have read neither Hitchens, Dawkins, nor Dennett. But I live a regular life with a family and I’m confronted with the same moral choices that most people have to make, I just make those choices without reference to an outside arbiter. (Which I think is something most of us do, it’s just some people’s moral compass is more aligned with what they think their religion teaches.) When you have your belief in God nestled in the back of your head, I have a hard time believing that the implications of atheism will be truly felt.

To be fair, I was never one who found a lot of comfort in religion even when I was in it, and I certainly didn’t read the Bible to find that comfort. However, I do appreciate the effort Bell is putting in. A lot of Christians won’t. And he certainly didn’t deserve what happened to him next. It looks like, just for trying to understand atheism, Bell has lost his job teaching.

According to his blog, Bell lost two teaching gigs and a position consulting with a Seventh-day Adventist church in California. All of this happened a mere four days into the project. I feel for the guy, I really do. But this turn of events has actually taught Bell an important lesson:

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.

Ding ding ding! That is a paragraph written by someone who has just recognized the privilege of being Christian in a country where being anything else is considered deviant. That’s probably the most important lesson anyone can take from this. To be honest, I don’t even care if Bell actually becomes an out and proud atheist. I’d very much rather have a world populated with people who fight for the rights of women, the LGBT community and recognize their own social privilege than an atheist who does none of those things. (Of course, in an ideal world, everyone would be all of those things and more.)

Photo Credit: Waiting for the Word via Flickr


Saliane A.
Saliane A5 years ago

Elizabeth J - he is NOT an atheist!
Although I understand why he couldn't do his job at the same time he is "trying atheism on". At least he is willing to see the world from a different viewpoint.

Elizabeth Jobbins

Of course he lost his job. If you were a person's employer and the job was "consulting with a Seventh-day Adventist church in California" would you employ an atheist? - a person who does not believe in God. If he was an agnostic, that means he's not sure either way.

As his employer you would be wasting your money employing him, he could not be a help to the church or its members. It's just common sense.

Elizabeth Jobbins

Of course he lost his job. If you were a person's employer and the job was "consulting with a Seventh-day Adventist church in California" would you employ an atheist? - a person who does not believe in God. If he was an agnostic, that means he's not sure either way.

As his employer you would be wasting your money employing him, he could not be a help to the church or its members. It's just common sense.

Philip W.
Philip W5 years ago


"Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God? - Epicurus

P.S. "God helps those that help themselves" is not in the bible.

Philip W.
Philip W5 years ago

Anita B.,
How far do you go? What is the "stopping point" of your belief in the supernatural? Do you believe in other supernatural beings like Santa, Satan, the Easter Bunny? Do you apply logic against the acceptance of supernatural beings that you don't believe exist? Do you accept logic against your beliefs? If there is an "entity than it does not get involved in life here", how do you know anything about it? If it doesn't involve itself with our affairs, what good is it? You suggest that god's intention is that "We are here to help each other", how do you know this? When you admit that "God's gifts" are born to those who "simply don't want children", and the "horror that goes on with unwanted litters", you inadvertently confirm that god's intention has failed miserably. Amazingly, this has the same results as though a god did not exist. God simply becomes extra baggage for you to concern yourself with, a pacifier to alleviate fear, a justifier for the atrocities people commit, and a tool to use against, and advantage themselves over, those who refuse to question and are quick to believe without evidence.

Just because you believe something does not make it TRUE or REAL. To believe for beliefs sake is self-deluding and self-defeating. I agree with you that we are the solution, "we have to create change". Religion and unfounded belief cause people to be passive, to expect change to come from a contrived source, allowing those who would do wrong to be unhindered.

"Is Go

Joseph Belisle
Joseph Belisle5 years ago

Good article. Interesting posts. The authentic quest for understanding and self-actualization cannot be limited to what other people impose upon you. If Mr. Bell wants to see what it means to be an Atheist then fine. He is seeking what truth he can find in the way he can find it. I personally consider myself 3% Atheist, 90% Christian, 20% Buddhist, 5% Earth religions with a minor spattoring of other faiths. I know that equals more than 100 but that is the authentic quest for self knowledge. It never adds up right. How can we know for fact what cannot be entirely understood by our limited capacities? Most people get upset when I tell them I'm 3% Atheist because they think its unreconcilable with faith in God. We all learn. We all change. The only thing that stays the same is that all things change. In 10 years I may be 100% Atheist or 97% Christian. I will learn, understand and grow in time. Kudos for Mr. Bell stepping outside his comfort zone. And I'm sorry anyone feels that is a threat or insult to their belief system. It affirms mine. God or the Spaghetti Monster bless him or ignore him as required.

Line C.
Line C5 years ago

What a load of crap. You cannot just "try on" being an Atheist. You either do or don't believe in a higher power.

ANITA B5 years ago

Very interesting what Mr. Bell is doing. Although I could never be an atheist (I believe in the supernatural too much) I think it's great that he is keeping away from the confines and sometimes the overbearing beliefs of religion. Even in today's society I find it hard for people to be open minded anymore. They look at you like you're unAmerican. You're almost afraid to say anything. I get tired of people saying that babies are a gift from God when (in working in social work for 25 years) I find that most of "God's gifts" have been given to drug addicts and women and men who simply don't want children but don't have the brains to take birth control. In working with animals I have seen the horror that goes on with unwanted litters of puppies and kittens and often would ask "why does God let this happen"? My answer, he doesn't. If there is such an entity than it does not get involved in life here but leaves it to us. We are here to help each other. Maybe Mr. Bell will find this out (as he probably already has). Instead of "praying" for things to change we have to create change. "God helps those that help themselves", isn't that the Bible quote.

I wish him luck on his journey.

karin y.
karin y5 years ago

He should get a job at UNC Chapel Hill with Bart Ehrmnan, author of several books including "Misquoting Jesus" and is professor of religious studies at UNC, and a former evangelical gone agnostic.

Justin Kidd
Justin Kidd5 years ago

Some commenters here think Professor Ryan is merely seeking attention, looking for his fifteen minutes of fame. They seem to think that calling attention to one's self is one of those things that Just Aren't Done.

I too grew up in the 1950s, when standing out from the crowd was indeed considered dangerous and un-American, worthy of punishment and ostracism, of being denied the right to exist as an unmolested fellow citizen. The vocal dissenter back then was very likely to become an "un-person"; to get along one had to go along. Just as middle school and high school had taught us, out in the grown-up world as well, "different is dead."

It was, and it remains, a quick and dirty way of disarming and marginalizing anyone who threatens the status quo, and it's less messy than actual crucifixion.