Ryan J. Bell’s year of atheism testimony shows need for apologetics

Are you interested in knowing how to avoid losing your Christian faith? Well, an episode of the Unbelievable show will give you some clues.

But before we go to the podcast, I want to recap some reasons why people think that God exists.

In addition to these arguments for theism, Christians should be able to make a minimal facts case for the resurrection, one that leverages the early creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7. And some sort of case for the belief that Jesus was divine using only the earliest sources.

In addition to those positive evidences, there would be informed defenses to other questions like the problem of evilthe problem of sufferingreligious pluralismthe hiddenness of Godmaterialist conceptions of mindconsciousness and neurosciencethe justice of eternal damnation,sovereignty and free will, the doctrine of the Incarnation, the doctrine of the Trinity, and so on.

I listed these out so that you can see how many of these positive arguments and defenses that he wrestles with in his deconversion testimony.

The podcast


Ryan J Bell is a former pastor who has decided to try being an atheist for a year. He explains why and interacts with New Zealand apologist Matt Flannagan.

The MP3 file is here. (We only care about the first 45 minutes)

Matt Flanagan and Justin Brierley do a great job in this debate getting the real issues on the table, although you have to wait until about 20 minutes in. Quick note about Bell. He has a BA in Pastoral Ministry, an MDiv, and a doctorate in Missional Organization. Now I have a suspicion of people with a background like that – my view is that they are more likely to be impractical and/or insulated from real life.

I also noticed that his politics are liberal, and that he is featured on the web site of GLAAD, a gay rights organization, for supporting gay marriage. Why do people support same-sex marriage? I think the most common reason is because they care more about the needs of adults than they care about the needs of children for a mother and a father. That’s where this guy is coming from – he is a people-pleaser, not someone who promotes the needs of children over the needs of adults.


At the start of the podcast, we learn that Bell was in the Seventh Day Adventist church, which is strongly invested in young-Earth creationism. Depending on how strict his young Earth view was, this closes off many of the best arguments for theism from science, such as the cosmological argument, the cosmic fine-tuning argument, the stellar habitability argument, the galactic habitability argument, the Cambrian explosion argument, and even the origin of life argument (to a degree). These are the arguments that make theism non-negotiable.

When he started his journey to atheism, he says that he was reading a book called “Religion Without God” by Ronald Dworkin.I was curious to see what view of faith was embraced by this book. Would it be the Biblical view of faith, trust based on evidence? Or the atheist view of faith, belief without evidence? I found an excerpt from the book in the New York Times, which said this:

In the special case of value, however, faith means something more, because our convictions about value are emotional commitments as well and, whatever tests of coherence and internal support they survive, they must feel right in an emotional way as well. They must have a grip on one’s whole personality. Theologians often say that religious faith is a sui generis experience of conviction. Rudolf Otto, in his markedly influential book, The Idea of the Holy, called the experience “numinous” and said it was a kind of “faith-knowledge.” I mean to suggest that convictions of value are also complex, sui generis, emotional experiences. As we will see… when scientists confront the unimaginable vastness of space and the astounding complexity of atomic particles they have an emotional reaction that matches Otto’s description surprisingly well. Indeed many of them use the very term “numinous” to describe what they feel. They find the universe awe-inspiring and deserving of a kind of emotional response that at least borders on trembling.

The excerpt quotes William James, who reduces religion to non-rational emotional experiences. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think that view of faith is Biblical at all. Biblical faith is rooted in evidence. So clearly, what is important to this Dworkin is not objective evidence, it’s feelings. And this is what Bell was reading. He was not reading academic books like “Debating Christian Theism” to get the best arguments pro-and-con. He was looking for something that “resonated” with his feelings.

His journey was prompted by a female Episcopal priest friend who was asked by an atheist “what difference does religion make in my life?”. So, the framework of his investigation is set by a question that is not focused on truth, but is instead focused on emotions and life enhancement. Now Christianity might be a real stinker of a worldview for life enhancement, and the Bible warns us not to expect a bed of roses in this life. Christianity is not engineered to make you feel good or to make people like you, especially people like female Episcopal priests and GLAAD.

When talking about atheism, he is not concerned with whether atheism is logically consistent or consistent with objective evidence. He is concerned by whether atheists can have the experience of being moral without God. He sees an atheist who has moral preferences and seems like a good person by our arbitrary social standards, and he finds that as “valid” as religion. He is judging worldviews by whether people have their needs met, not by truth.

He says that as a pastor, his method of evangelizing atheists was to encourage them to “try on faith” “go through the motions” “participate in social justice outreach events”, etc. His goal was that they would “step into the stream of the Christian narrative and discover that it held value and meaning to them, and find that they actually believed it”. So his method of recommending Christianity to others has nothing to do with logic, evidence or truth. He is offering Christianity as life enhancement – not knowledge but a “narrative” – a story. If it makes you feel good, and it makes people like you, then you can “believe” it. He says that he was “a Christian by practice, a Christian by tradition”. Not a Christian by truth. Not a Christian by knowledge. He just picked a flavor of ice cream that tasted right to him, one that pleased his parents, friends and community. And now he has new friends and a new community, and he wants to please them and feel good about himself in this new situation.

He says that the Christian worldview is “a way of approaching reality” and “creating meaning” and “identifying meaning in the experiences we have”. And he says that there are “other ways of experiencing meaning”. He talks a lot about his correspondence with people and reading atheists, but nothing about reading Christian scholars who deal with evidence, like William Lane Craig, Stephen C. Meyer or Mike Licona.

Literal, literal quote: (23:35) “Well I think the only access we have to  the question of God’s existence or not is how we feel. I mean there’s no falsifiable data that says God either exists or doesn’t exist. It’s all within the realm of our personal experience”. “If living as though God exists makes you happy and comforts you, then by all means, go for it”. This attitude is so popular in our churches today, and where does it end? In atheism. I had a fundamentalist woman telling me just last night how this feelings mysticism approach was the right approach to faith, and that the head knowledge approach was bad and offensive.

I’m going to cut off my summary there, but the podcast goes on for 45 minutes. Matt Flannagan is brilliant, and went far beyond what I wanted to say to this guy, but in such a winsome way. I recommend listening to the whole thing, and be clear where this fideistic nonsense ends – in atheism.

My thoughts

This podcast is a great warning against two views: 1) faith is belief without evidence and 2) religion not about truth, but about life enhancement. Three other related stories might also help: the story of Dan Barker, the story of Nathan Pratt and the story of Katy Perry. I think the Christian life requires a commitment to truth above all. If you think that you can get by as a Christian relying on hymn singing, church attending, mysticism and emotional experiences, you have another thing coming. This is a different time and a different place than 50 years ago, when that sort of naivete and emotionalism might have been safe. Now we have many challenges – some intellectual and some not. To stand in this environment, it’s going to take a little more than piety and emotions. 

People today are very much looking for religion to meet their needs. And this is not just in terms of internal feelings, but also peer approval and mystical coincidences. They expect God to give them happy feelings. They expect God to give them peer approval. They expect God to make every crazy unBiblical, unwise selfish plan they invent “work out” by miracle. They feel very constrained by planning and moral boundaries, believing in a “God of love” who is primarily concerned with their desires and feelings, not with rules and duties. Nothing in the Bible supports the idea that a relationship with God is for the purpose of making us feel happy and comfortable. When people realize that they will be happier in this life without having to care what God thinks, they will drop their faith, and there are plenty of non-Christians to cheer them on when they do it.

I would say to all of you reading that if the opinions of others causes you to stumble then meditate on the following passage: 1 Cor 4:1-4 too. There is only one person’s opinion that matters, ultimately.

12 thoughts on “Ryan J. Bell’s year of atheism testimony shows need for apologetics”

  1. Spot on, WK. I think the liberal theology is a big deal here. Liberal Theology (LT) has a high view of man and a low view of God and the Bible. Thus, it almost HAS to evolve into secular humanism over time. And I think the history of those who hold to LT pretty accurately demonstrates that.

    Just wanted to add that, despite leaning YEC, I have successfully used Kalam, teleology (both cosmological and anatomical), Cambrian explosion, and everything else on your list except habitable zones (which I need to get up to speed on – thanks for the links!) all without digressing into sidetrack discussions on universe age. The people I was talking with were Darwinists by default.

    I realize your comment was understandably directed toward inflexible YECs, but I just wanted you to know that, if during the discussion they are thinking old earth and I am thinking young earth, it really does not matter: the points are still applicable. In fact, they ARE thinking old earth – Darwinism – and even an OEC is not thinking that! This applies in particular with the Cambrian explosion.

    The reason I wanted to point this out was that it was OEC that got me into the Bible, and I do believe that introducing stumbling blocks that are irrelevant to not only salvation, but also to acceptance of early church history and Christian orthodoxy and orthopraxy, is unnecessary in these cases. It has not come up with me. Also, OEC might very well be correct, so it is not a battle I am going to fight when someone’s soul is at stake. Thanks for all of the links here – I will get educated on these other arguments!


    1. I think that’s a very reasonable view, and I know tons of YECs who don’t make the age of the Earth an issue when they debate, they just use everything and the kitchen sink, which is the right approach. But some of them are like Ken Ham, making the the age of the Earth the main issue, throwing down our best weapons and trying to talk about presupposing the Bible as true in order to do science. Look, the science we have now is lethal to atheism. Let’s just use that, and discuss the age of the Earth afterwards. Inerrancy is very important, but chronologically speaking, it can come after theism and the resurrection.


      1. I agree wholeheartedly. If he’s playing age of the earth early and often, he has a lot more trump cards he should be playing. Instead, I use Kalam early and often, and I have never had age of earth come up. I say that modern science, mathematics, and logic have all combined to kill the oscillating universe, the eternal universe (talk about OE[notC]!), and all of the other options that I was taught growing up and to which atheists can no longer cling.

        If my friend is thinking the beginning was 16 billion years ago, and I’m thinking 10,000, it matters not one whim – no more than an OEC bothers me – especially when the Biblical and scientific evidence are somewhat fairly divided, IMO. This is not a hill to die on. Christology, abortion, gay marriage, universalism, etc – those are different stories.

        To me, it’s kind of like how Calvinists and Molinists wrongly break fellowship. I have seen it. I don’t think our signal-to-noise ratio is good enough to break fellowship over this issue. I’m a well-educated guy, and I feel like a Ping-Pong ball when discussing those two views. :-)

        There is truth that is slam dunk, and there are truths that are more difficult to discern this side of Eternity. The big question is why didn’t Ryan Bell catch the slam dunk truth? I think you answered that in your “My Thoughts,” WK.


  2. Thanks for the summary.
    Why is pro-LGBTQ politics so prominent in the testimony and apologetics of luke warm, liberal theists.
    Being a pro-gay Christian evangelist wont make unbelievers think twice about what they should be doing on Sunday morning. They ALREADY think they are good without God.


  3. “At the start of the podcast, we learn that Bell was in the Seventh Day Adventist church, which is strongly invested in young-Earth creationism. This closes off many of the best arguments for theism from science, such as the cosmological argument, the cosmic fine-tuning argument, the stellar habitability argument, the galactic habitability argument, the Cambrian explosion argument, and even the origin of life argument (to a degree).”

    I can’t let that go unchallenged. Young earth creationism absolutely is NOT incompatible with any of these scientific and rational arguments for theism. I’m surprised at you for suggesting that. These arguments point toward theism whether one believes in a young or old earth. The evidence is the evidence, and it points to a Creator.

    The only one of these arguments that I could see being slightly more difficult if you are a young earth creationist is the Cosmological Argument because the most common form uses the evidence for the Big Bang to postulate a beginning for the universe. However, the evidence for a beginning of the universe is strong and is independent of the Big Bang model. The Big Bang model is consistent with much of the evidence for a beginning of the universe, but there are other potential explanations that are compatible with a young earth. In fact, the Big Bang itself is not actually inconsistent with young earth creationism because young earth creationists are not necessarily young universe creationists. Some of us believe the distant universe has experienced billions of years of time, but the earth has not.

    Even for those of us who reject the Big Bang, however, the evidence for a beginning is still evidence for a beginning and can be used as such in the Cosmological Argument. Or one can say that even secular scientists agree that the universe had a beginning and go from there.

    The rest of the arguments mentioned are used by young earth creationists as well. There is nothing anti-intellectual or anti-science about the YEC view.


      1. Whether or not one can use these arguments has nothing to do with how strict one’s YEC view is and everything to do with how informed one is on science and logic and how committed one is to using arguments that can be understood by others who may not agree with you. Ken Ham doesn’t use these scientific arguments (not that he can’t, but he doesn’t) because he thinks his presuppositionalism is a superior argument that makes the others unnecessary. I disagree. I think we should use every means at our disposal (and while I understand the presuppositional argument, I never found it very convincing).

        I guess what I don’t like about the post (still) is the implication that it is the YEC view that is at fault. There is nothing about the YEC view that is inferior or that makes it difficult to use these arguments for theism. There is nothing about being a YEC that keeps one from using these arguments. It’s not a case of we “can’t” use them. We can and we do. Some don’t, of course, and that’s unfortunate. But that is not the fault of the YEC view. It’s the fault of people who fail to educate themselves and make the scientific and logical arguments.

        Basically, I’d like to caution you not to commit guilt by association and label all YECs and their views as anti-intellectual just because some are unwilling to embrace all the arguments at our disposal. Just because some people embrace YEC because of presuppositionalism or blind faith doesn’t mean that’s all there is to the position. It’s actually quite rigorous, even though some never learn to defend it well.


  4. First of all, thanks for this post. I don’t know why I stopped receiving email notifications for the blog. Looks like I’ve missed quite a bit. I’ll have to look into that.

    Second, thanks for the list at the beginning! I will have to check out all the links. It’s helpful to have something like that all in one spot for easy access.

    Lastly, thanks for the discussion on this man. We’ll see if I can make it through the podcast without screaming. (Literally. Stuff like this makes me talk out loud to the people spouting off nonsense, even though I know they cannot hear me.)

    I heard about his “experiment” and even checked out his website/blog briefly. I realized that I’d be there for days and I just didn’t have the time. I can no longer seem to be able to read things without responding, so I just let it go.

    I normally try to not form an opinion on anything without examining all the firsthand material. If it’s a book, I read it. If it’s a video, I watch it.

    But in this case, with the info given here, I don’t think I need to waste so many hours. The fact that this guy supports homosexuality and appears to think of faith as a feeling demonstrates he was never born again to begin with. Someone who is a born again follower of Christ would never want to live without Christ for any amount of time!

    They also wouldn’t be so spiritually foolish as to pretty much present yourself to the devil and saying, “Here you go! Destroy my life!”

    I hope this man encounters some Christians who can help guide him back to sanity. This is not going to end well.


  5. This guy was a pastor?! How can people get to such a position when they obviously have no idea why they believe anything they believe? That astounds me!

    And wow, if only Christians would support their own in endeavors the way these atheists decided to financially support this guy in deliberately walking away from God!


  6. I did end up listening to his full segment. (And now continuing with the other guests.)

    What a tragedy. I cannot believe this man was a pastor. He seemed to know very little about Christianity other than attending church and having certain spiritual feelings and experiences.

    In all of this there was not one word about actually examining the claims of Christianity and the Bible to see if they were factually true. Not one word of then comparing that with the atheist view of life, and deciding which one seemed more probable – not complete certainty, but just more probable!

    This guy was an atheist long before he began this “experiment”. He just didn’t know it.

    I feel like I am witnessing someone’s death. I need to remember to pray for him. I hope he’s got someone in his life that can speak some sense to him, before he completely walks away and becomes a rabid anti-theist as so often happens to nominal “Christians” who leave the church. They rarely seem to end up happy atheists, content to simply live without the religious rituals that were once a part of their lives. They often seem to go on a rampage against Christianity and Christians.

    I don’t know if he’s reached that point yet. Following his blog would be too depressing for me.


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