Viewpoints Interview Series #17
Ryan Bell Interview by Jeff Boyd
Submitted January 8, 2015
Welcome to Viewpoints: Adventist Perspectives on Peace, Justice and Righteousness. 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. In January 2014, Bell began a yearlong journey exploring the limits of theism as well as the atheist landscape in the United States, an experiment known as Year Without God. He received a Master of Divinity degree from Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan, and a Doctor of Ministry in Missional Leadership from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California.
AToday: Why did you decide to do the year-long experiment in this way—blog, events, etc.?
Bell: It came up very off-handedly over lunch. There was no real strategy. I was feeling a little frustrated with my unemployment and my theological questions that were coming to the surface a bit more. I had just picked up a book at a neighborhood bookstore called Religion without God, when I was meeting a friend for lunch. We started talking about why I chose that book. I’ve been drawn to Alain De Botton, who had written Religion for Atheists. I knew there was this new literature, and I was really interested in it because I wasn’t sure if I believed in God anymore. I told my friend at lunch, “Maybe I’ll become an atheist for a year and just see how that feels.”
I thought I might write a book in the end, but my friend encouraged me to write the blog. He said, “I think people would be really interested in reading about your journey because I think a lot of people are in a similar place, and I think it would be interesting to follow along.”
And because I have an outlet on the Huffington Post, it seemed appropriate to post it there as well. So I put it up, and they published it, and it just went crazy, which was a huge surprise to me.
AToday: So you didn’t expect so much coverage?
Bell: Yeah, yeah. I just read again today a comment on the Spectrum blog. Someone said they were sympathetic to my doubts, they just didn’t see why I had to be so self-promoting and make a big publicity thing out of it. Which of course I didn’t do that. That sort of happened. I say this to people: I challenge you to make a media splash. Try it and see how it goes. I’ve tried before with church stuff, and at PATH we’re constantly trying to get our name out more. It’s difficult. You never know what’s going to strike a chord with people.
I had intended to visit some skeptics’ and atheists’ gatherings and meet some people. When you meet people they want you to meet other people, and the next thing you know you’re invited to this thing and that thing. It really evolved organically like that. There wasn’t any foresight into trying to create a viral campaign.
AToday: As you look back, what do you see as positives and negatives to having it such a public journey?
Bell: The negative for me is that I had less time for myself. I’ve had less time for my own thinking, reading, writing. Especially at the beginning of the year and then at the end of the year.
The benefit of doing it publicly is that there are so many people who can identify with my experience and have been in a similar kind of place. They may come to a different conclusion than I have, but I think people feel validated when they hear about somebody else who did something similar or is in a similar place.
It’s very pastoral actually. There is a nonstop stream of people who say, “If you have any time, I’d love to chat.” Right now I don’t have that kind of time, but I do intend for that to be part of what I do with my life going forward. I do want to talk with people who are in between. I want to try to create a space in whatever way—and I’m not sure exactly in what way yet—for people to feel safe and not to have fear around asking these big existential questions.
It does have a pastoral quality to it, which is weird because I’m in this transition myself. I really don’t feel that qualifies me, especially during this past year, to be a guide for anybody else. But people are looking for role models. It’s pretty interesting how people put me in that role the same way they did when I was a pastor. I didn’t love it then; I don’t love it now. But there’s something fulfilling about just being with people in their journey.
AToday: There are many Jews who are atheists in one sense but who are still Jewish in another. Is this a parallel to where you are with Adventism?
Bell: That’s interesting because one of my very first lunch appointments in January of last year was with a rabbi friend of mine whose first comment was, “You’re on a very Jewish journey. Half of my congregation are atheists, so you’d fit right in.” I knew there were plenty of atheist Jews, but I didn’t know that atheist Jews went to shul.
Atheism is not that threatening to Jews, liberal Jews especially, because the narratives give shape to them culturally, and it’s not about the ontology of God as much as it is about ethics and the moral framework that the Jewish story—whether it’s exactly true according to the Torah or not—gives their family, their culture, their community.
Am I that connected to Adventism? My favorite part of not being religious is actually not being Adventist. Sometimes I miss Christianity; I almost never miss Adventism. But my friends are there, so that’s the rub. I have a lot of friends who are Adventists.
The longer I’ve been away from it—almost two years now—the more I feel that there are some things that are inherent within Adventism that are really destructive. And I know people who are trying to make Adventism a safe place for women and for gay and lesbian and transgender people. There are people who are trying to make Adventism safer, but it’s not in and of itself a safe thing for people, especially for people on the margins of life and society.
I wish the “atheist Jew” analogy were more apt. I do. But if the analogy were “Is Ryan an atheist Christian like there are atheist Jews?” then I would feel a lot more connected to that idea because I think the narrative about Jesus has real ethical value and narrative value.
I think it’s important to say that my friendships with people in the Adventist community are certainly not contingent on what I think about the existence of God.
AToday: Are there any pieces of Adventist identity that you hold on to?
Bell: I’m not doing a very good job of practicing it at the moment, but I definitely think that the rhythm of Sabbath is something that is healthy and beautiful. It doesn’t need to be on any particular day, and it doesn’t have to be from God, but I think the practice of ceasing from work and being more attentive to the important people in your life and perhaps taking a day and giving away your time to others is a very healthy practice that I picked up as an Adventist.
I think my politics, which is ironic because I think my politics was one of the problems that I got into in Adventism. But I feel like my politics around peace and justice are actually things I learned from Christianity and in part from my attempt to make Adventism more relevant.
AToday: You studied pastoral ministry at Weimar. How do you see the journey or trajectory from there to where you are today? Is it marked more by continuity or discontinuity?
Bell: I’m going to wrestle with that more in some writing I’ll be doing this year. I don’t know if this is something that was part of my childhood upbringing or whether it was something that I learned along the way. But I think a fundamental impulse of conservatism is that there is this outside standard—whether it’s the Constitution in the United States or the Bible in Christianity. It’s the absolute standard and everyone has to accommodate their lives to that standard. Whereas I think I’ve always just been more classically liberal, where I thought people’s individual experiences and stories mattered a great deal. I needed to at least take into account as a serious part of my decision making process the experience of people. A concrete example, the Bible appears to say that homosexuality is a sin. But I knew lots of people who were gay who were wonderful people who loved God and wanted to be part of a congregation, so I had to really wrestle with those things.
Even though I was raised conservatively, I think there was always a seed of liberalism in me. And by liberalism I just mean that people’s personal experiences have to be taken into account. It’s not just words on a page—sort of the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. I think I’ve always been more inclined to the spirit of the law than the letter. I think that seed of liberalism for me was always there somehow, so even though I was at Weimar I valued compassion or empathy. I don’t want to imply that conservatives aren’t sympathetic, but I think that hurting people matter, and our theology has to take into account the fact that people are hurting in unequal ways. So I see it as a natural progression from Weimar to where I am today.
AToday: Beyond religion, what do you think is the best contribution Adventism can make in the world today?
Bell: I think by being true to what I take to be the original Adventist impulse, which is to not be content with truth handed down from authorities before them and instead pursuing present truth. To me no matter what conclusion you arrive at about present truth, it’s that pursuit of present truth that is the impulse of Adventism. James and Ellen White and others didn’t want to accept their Methodist or Christian Connection as final. They saw something different or something more compelling or something their intellectual forebears left out or couldn’t see. I think that’s something the Adventist pioneers—and not just Adventists—said, “No, we’ve got to go for the truth no matter what. Even if it means we have to leave our churches. Even if it means we have to suffer some relationship breakups if our families and friends don’t see things as we do.”
I lost my jobs over the pursuit of the truth, but Adventist pioneers lost their jobs over it too. I disagree with their conclusions, but I think that spirit of searching for the truth and this idea that there’s present truth—always something new to be learned or discovered—that to me is an Adventist spirit.
AToday: I think it’s safe to assume that other pastors are dealing with questions, either about particular points of Adventist theology or with God more generally. What would you like to say to them?
Bell: I’ve been thinking about how much fear is involved in the process of having these big questions, especially for pastors. Not only have we been taught that this is the truth, but we’ve also been called to ministry. And that calling to ministry feels like an absolute too. We see that absolutism when a person leaves the ministry, and colleagues say, “Oh he left the ministry,” like they really betrayed God because God called them to ministry and God can’t be wrong.
So I think there’s a lot of fear, not only around having doubts about theology, but around saying, “Do I want to be a pastor for the rest of my life. Is that required? Am I being a total fraud if I decide not to?” And also around beliefs about the afterlife. Maybe I’ll burn in hell. We don’t have a burning hell the way Baptists do, but we still have a hell in which you don’t exist anymore. So that can be pretty bad if you’re expecting to live forever with family members in heaven or on the new earth.
So my message to pastors would be: have courage. The truth can stand on its own two feet. If your belief system is true, then you really don’t have anything to worry about. You should explore it and dig into it. And if it’s not true, wouldn’t you want to know that? It’s the same kind of thing that an Adventist Bible worker would say to a Catholic family in their living room. “Don’t be afraid. If Catholicism is correct, then you’re fine. But if it’s wrong and I’m right, wouldn’t you want to know that?” So I would say, “If evolution is true, and creation of the earth didn’t happen in six literal days or in six thousand or ten thousand years but over a much longer period of time… If that’s true, wouldn’t you want to know that? And if it’s not true and you’re right, then great.”
There’s so much fear that’s instilled in people, not just pastors, everyone around these off-limit topics.
And I would say too—and you haven’t asked this question—if you were to ask me what is the greatest freedom I’ve experienced this year, I’d say it’s the freedom to have all subjects open for inquiry. The Adventist Review article and other comments people have written have really emphasized this. “Well, it’s because he was reading those uninspired authors.” I think other people would just call that knowledge. Not all books are true and right, but I think if there’s a god, he gave us brains to use to sort through things. One of my atheist friends says, “If there’s a god, and God created me, and the brain or mind he created me with made me inquisitive, but then he didn’t provide sufficient evidence to satisfy my intellectual curiosity, then that god is just toying with me.” So that’s a problem for a lot of people. So I think that freedom to ask, Is the earth millions and millions of years old? Is the universe 14 billion years old? That’s a great question. We should ask that question. We should talk about it. We should explore it without having predetermined answers. And the same is true for God, Jesus, the Bible, or any other topic.
This goes for atheists too. I would say any skeptic or any secular person, if they’re being faithful to their values, and I come along and I say, “Look, I’ve got this really important evidence that there’s a god,” then that person should listen and pay attention to that.
Christians aren’t the only closed-minded people out there. Not all Christians are closed-minded, and not all closed-minded people are Christians.
AToday: You said in an interview that you would love for there to be a god. What did you mean by this?
Bell: It depends on which god we’re talking about. There are a lot of gods that it would not be a good thing if they were true—the Southern Baptist God or the Westboro Baptist Church God. I want nothing to do with that god. In fact I hope that god doesn’t exist.
I think what I meant was that I think many people who believe in God hold it as kind of a general statement. They haven’t really examined it closely. They haven’t felt a need to. It’s just a worldview concept, a concept that outside of me, outside of all of us, outside of the universe, there’s an intelligence. And if you’re loosely Christian, the idea is that this intelligence is benevolent and created us and loves us and wants to create a better future for all creatures. That’s a really nice idea. I would love for that to be true. That’s a beautiful story.
I think people have this grandfatherly picture of God. God is a judge—he’s not to be screwed with—but also he loves us and he wants us to prosper and be healthy and enjoy eternity with him. That idea I think is very attractive. I think if you drill down into it, it has problems, but on the surface, I think that’s how people have this positive idea about God. My whole life was spent trying to reconcile that kind of a god concept with my experience of life and the world.
AToday: How did you choose between an agnostic or an atheist position?
Bell: The way it’s explained in the skeptic community, agnosticism is a label that refers to epistemology. It’s a question about what you think you know or don’t know. So an agnostic is someone whose posture toward whatever topic is being discussed is “I don’t know.” But atheism pertains to the question of God’s existence. So the two terms are actually about two different things. Agnosticism is about how confident you are about your knowledge. Atheism or theism is the question about God’s existence. I describe myself as an agnostic atheist, which means that I don’t think there’s a god, but I don’t know for sure. And I don’t think anybody can know for sure. At least not yet.
Most atheists are open to the possibility of discovering there’s a god. Some prefer not to even think of themselves as atheists because that’s not the defining characteristic of their lives. They’re humanists or activists of various types; they just happen to not believe in God. It’s not a big deal to them. So I would say for someone who is purely agnostic, someone who genuinely doesn’t know—it’s almost like a 50-50 proposition that there’s a god or not a god. Most atheists that I know do not claim that they know that there’s not a god. They simply say, based on the evidence that I have, I don’t think there is. It’s not a positive claim—there isn’t a god—but it’s more of a negative claim that I lack evidence or I lack a belief in a god.
Most people would say that unless they can know something is true they’re going to assume it isn’t. The default position or the null hypothesis is that there isn’t a god, and if you’re going to claim that there is, then you need to demonstrate that. So most atheists are just in a neutral position. I don’t believe in unicorns, not because anyone has proven to me that there aren’t any unicorns. Most people don’t need evidence to prove there aren’t unicorns; my assumption is that there aren’t unless someone can produce one. I think a lot of atheists have that approach to God. It seems unreasonable to believe there is a god unless there’s evidence that there is. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
AToday: You said in an interview that there are more important questions than if god is real. What types of questions, are more important to you and why are they more important?
Bell: I think one of the things that led me to where I am now is a concern that the kind of belief in God that most of us have puts our focus and our emphasis off into another world—some other time, some other place. What I think are the most important questions are the questions that pertain to how we live now. This is where I actually find Jesus to be quite a compelling character because he—sort of against his cultural stream—focused on the immediate needs of his community, the people that he encountered.
To me the question of whether there’s a god or not sort of pales in comparison to questions like How should we live with one another? What are we going to do about the climate crisis? What are we going to do about income inequality and racism? If I had to pick a way to spend my life, I would rather spend my life working on those issues than endlessly going around the question of whether there’s a god or not. I would rather focus on those humanistic questions—relationships between people, our communities and nature.
AToday: What would you like Christians to understand about atheists?
Bell: I wish Christians would not immediately jump to the conclusion that atheists are immoral or bad people with no moral compass or are nihilists with no meaning and value in their lives, that all atheists are depressed with no way to make good ethical judgments. I think that’s a real fallacy. I think there are plenty of depressed Christians, and they’re are plenty of happy atheists. And vice versa.
AToday: What would you like atheists to know about Christians?
Bell: I wish atheists knew that not all Christians are biblical literalists. They’re not all homophobic and anti-women. It’s the fundamentalists that get a lot more media coverage in the U.S. than more liberal Christians.
I think we’ll all have better conversations if we can understand each other better, so a theist and an atheist can come to the conversation admitting the best in each other and talking about the actual differences that we have instead of these straw-man differences that we wish the other person would have so we could easily dismiss them.
I think atheists have to deal with the fact that there are a lot of really good Christians who do good in the world and who are happy, healthy productive members of society. That doesn’t mean there’s a god; it just means that some Christians have managed to believe in God and figure out how to live good lives in the world. And I think Christians have to realize that atheists are people who have very similar interests and values. That kind of parity in our understanding of each other would be a really good start.
AToday: You’ve said there are healthy and destructive ways to be a person of faith. How would you describe this healthy way.
Bell: I think anytime a person uses their moral, ethical, philosophical beliefs to channel the best human impulses to do good in the world and fight for the common good, those are things that are good expressions of Christianity that contribute to human thriving.
I think destructive ways of being a Christian are all the ways Christians can use ideology to discriminate against people who the Bible says are less or that they just think are less.
AToday: You’ve shared that a belief in the afterlife can be disempowering for action in this life. For those who believe in the “Great Controversy” theme with Jesus’ literal return, what would you want them to understand in order to be empowered rather than disempowered?
Bell: What I tried to tell my congregation is that one way of looking at eschatology is to say that we should be people who do now what we anticipate will be true one day. If we believe that there will be no more rich and poor, slave and free in some kind of future paradise, then as people who believe that, they should work to make that as true as possible now. That’s what I tried to encourage my folks about—we’re called to be people of action to produce the kinds of results we hope to one day see.
AToday: Carl Wilkens, the American Adventist who stayed in Rwanda during the genocide, told me that he believes God is active in the world through people (link to interview). I’m curious how you would react if your Christian friends said they believe God is still working through you in the world through your work with PATH or in other ways. Would that be offensive?
Bell: I think there’s a way for it to be offensive, where it comes off condescending like, “You’re still a theist even if you don’t realize it.” That’s a condescending way to say that person thinks they know more about what’s going on in my mind than I do. It’s a little offensive, but I don’t get offended easily. It’s more just wrong.
But I think that the way you’re intending it is fine with me. If you believe that there is a divine being—if we can use that word—that is superintending human affairs to some kind of good conclusion, then yeah there’s this kind of notion that anyone who is doing good in the world is doing it in participation with that process. Not all Christians would say that of course. That’s fine with me.
I think there are some forms of Christian theism that would see God as roughly equivalent to the concept of love. And so they wouldn’t see god being a being per se, a creature among other creatures, the most powerful being among all beings, but would see God as more of a force, sort of like gravity is a force that we can’t see or identify but we see the results of it. In that sense if you think love is equivalent to god—god is love, love is god—then anybody who is acting loving is acting in harmony with that, whatever you want to call it. That’s fine. We can all choose to call things different words.
The risk there is that people in the dominant society can tend to co-opt the minority position for their own. So there’s a way you can sort of say, “Let’s not focus on race. We’re all just human.” And if you’re a white person saying that, it’s very easy to sort of slip into, “Human, like me, of course. We’ll just call it human and we’re all just the same.” And a person of color might say, “Well, let’s unpack that a little more.” I think it’s also true that there is a line that you could cross in co-opting another’s viewpoint by saying, “They’re all worshiping the same thing even if they don’t know it.” But I also understand why someone would believe that if that’s truly their belief. Christians just have to understand how that can come across as sort of a totalizing kind of story.
AToday: During this year you started dating a Christian woman. What wisdom do you have for couples with different beliefs?
Bell: I think what works for us is that we’ve identified common values that in many ways transcend the question of whether we think there’s a god or not. I think if two people are romantically attracted to each other and they don’t have common values, that’s tough because one person wants to just spend money and one person wants to save money; one person wants to help the poor and one person wants to just keep it all for themselves.
Rebecca and I have more in common than not. The results of our belief systems are more in common even though on the question of whether there’s a god we differ. I’m a fan of her kind of Christianity. I was that kind of Christian myself, so I think it’s a good way of holding your faith. If you’re going to believe in something that is relatively unbelievable, then you should at least channel it for good in the world instead of harm. Rebecca is that kind of a Christian, and I’m totally supportive of that. And she supports my exploration, my doubts, my inability to make the puzzle pieces fit together. I think that’s the key—to find those common values that you can hold almost as religious values in a way. For me it’s from the perspective of humanism and for her from the perspective of Christianity. She’s working with survivors of human trafficking, and I’m working with the homeless. Unless you asked us what we thought about the existence of God, you wouldn’t necessarily know.
AToday: What can you tell me about the film Year Without God?
Bell: The film is being made by two guys—Ryan Moore and Tim Banks. They’ve been following me around as much as possible this year, as much as I would let them. I’m not a producer or a film maker. I’m the subject. I basically told them that they could do it.
It’s been fun. It’s going to be good. I think people will like it. I think people who think it’s going to be a hit piece against Christianity shouldn’t worry. It’s not going to be “Now Ryan gets revenge on Adventism.” It’s not going to be like that. It’s really a matter of documenting what it’s like to be in this in-between place where you’re struggling with doubts and questions. It’s one story of how someone navigated that. It should be out in the fall of this year.
AToday: Will there be a book?
Bell: I’m working on a book though it’s a slower process than I wish it was. There are no hard and fast commitments. We’ll see a book eventually, but I don’t know anything more than that right now.
AToday: What is the Life After God project?
Bell: It’s still in its conceptual stage, but my interest there is in being a companion in whatever way with people who are in a similar place and creating kind of a cultural space and a social space for people who are in a crisis of faith and trying to sort through what they believe and how it impacts their lives.
I don’t have an agenda to tear people’s faith away, but I do think that when people start having these deep questions and doubts about what they’ve been told, they don’t have a place to go or people with whom to have that conversation, so I’d like to hold that space for people in whatever way. And “in whatever way” is what I’m still trying to figure out.
I think it will include gatherings, online forums, even up to the point of doing some personal coaching. Usually coaching has to do with career coaching or life skills coaching, but this would be more like worldview coaching—what do you believe about the world and how do you go about asking those questions.