Photo by Mercedes Blackehart

A Pasadena-based consulting firm explores what happens when people lose their religion

By Justin Chapman, 9/1/2016, Pasadena Weekly

Where do people turn to find purpose in their lives when they no longer believe in God?  

In November, a study by the Pew Research Center found that American adults are becoming increasingly less religious, especially Millennials. A new organization called Life After God, a consulting firm based in Pasadena, is attempting to fill that hole for those who are struggling to find meaning after losing their religion by providing personal and group coaching, retreats and online resources such as podcasts.

This week marked the one-year anniversary of the “Life After God” podcast, which explores theology, atheism, spirituality, philosophy, and other relevant themes with experts and is frequently recorded live at Level Ground HQ, an artistic space for dialogue located in the Playhouse District. A sister podcast called “The Ex-Files” features ordinary people discussing their journey from belief to unbelief.

“The podcast helps me feel like I’m part of a group,” Tamra Thacker wrote on Life After God’s Facebook page. “Even though I’m not surrounded by people in my daily life who understand how hard it is to transition away from the religion I grew up in, this podcast puts me ‘in touch’ with folks who know where I am and where I’ve been. You guys speak my language. I cherish Life After God like an old friend.”

The organization grew out of the experience of Pasadena resident Ryan Bell, a former pastor and doctor of ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary, who in 2014 decided to try a “Year Without God” to explore his budding atheism. Bell grew up with Seventh-day Adventist parents in Ohio and became a pastor in 1994 at age 22 when he and his family moved to California. Originally conservative, Bell gradually became more liberal when he encountered people who didn’t fit into the ideological categories defined by his church.

“People are messy, they have contradictions about them,” said Bell. “I began to make room for the messiness of people, and my theology began to flex to allow for imperfect people and imperfect circumstances. The classic example is my denomination’s view of LGBT people. I began to encounter people as a young adult who were gay and lesbian and they seemed just fine to me. And the circle began to widen on who was in and who was out.”

Bell began bouncing from church to church trying to find one that fit, but then he started asking himself, “Why am I trying to find one that fits? What’s the question underneath that question?” He decided to give himself a calendar year to explore his spirituality and write a blog about it called “Year Without God.”

“I was open to any outcome at that point,” he said. “I was about 75 percent sure that I would find out there was no evidence of there being a God, but I was about 75 percent wishing that I would find there was evidence for a God. But I also had this suspicion in the back of my mind like, ‘I know what I’m going to find here. Pretty sure. But there are supersmart people who still believe in God, so maybe I can be one of those. But I need to find out.’”

He spoke with many other atheists who were former Christians and discovered that they had similar experiences. Readers of his blog wrote in to say they were going through the same soul-searching process.

“We all had some similar, common themes emerging around the problem of evil, the hiddenness of God, the problem of prayer, all these issues that everyone circles back to,” said Bell. “But I also received a lot of criticism from both sides of the issue as well. Christians thought I was imperiling my soul. They thought I was crazy, that I had snapped, that the trauma from being fired from my church was just too much and that I went off the deep end. On the other side there were atheists who thought I was doing a bait-and-switch in which I was pretending to be an atheist and then at the end of the year I would be like, ‘No, I’m really a Christian and these guys are dumb.’ But I was genuinely trying to figure it out for myself.”

Bell said it was often a painful and difficult process that sometimes left him feeling depressed and alone.

“There was a sense of silence, of absence, like the death of a loved one or the breakup of a long-term relationship where you’re used to being comforted by the fact that that person’s just a presence,” he said. “But now you come home at night from work and you’re tired and you flip on the lights in the house and it’s empty, and you’re just like, ‘F***, I guess I’m just here by myself now.’”

Still, it was a silence that Bell accepted as the truth, insofar as “truth” can be established. He now considers himself both an atheist and an agnostic.

“I’m agnostic in the sense that there’s a lot I don’t know about the world and I’m really comfortable with the idea of being uncertain about things that I don’t know,” he said. “One of the real problems with some types of religion is this quest for certainty. When I would get pinned down by my religious authorities I could just retreat into that not knowing. And then the more I dug in the more I thought, ‘Well, no, there are things we can know with some fairly good degree of certainty.’ Do I believe in God? No, I don’t believe in that, so that makes me atheist. But do I know there’s no God beyond a shadow of any doubt? No, but I would put the probability of the Judeo-Christian God existing somewhere in the 1 percent category.”

Bell founded Life After God to help those people he encountered during his Year Without God who were struggling even more than he was. He said not everyone who stops believing needs that help, but that a significant percentage of the population does experience depression and loneliness.

“Some people are just really flummoxed by their mortality, by the contingency of things, by the sense that there’s no grand plan to all of it, that no one has a plan for their life,” said Bell. “That’s tough to cope with.”

Bell says Life After God does not have an agenda to convert people to atheism. The goal is not to convince people that there is no God, but rather to be a resource for people who are already struggling with doubts about their faith.

“We’re calling it faith transition/faith crisis experiences,” said Bell. “People might go through our coaching and actually remain somewhat of a Christian, a progressive Christian of some sort. We’re not saying, ‘Now you need to become an atheist.’ We’re just walking them through their experience, serving as a sounding board for them. It’s about exploring what to do after we decide there is no God. It’s about forming community, raising ethical children, working for the common good, advancing the cause of human flourishing and finding peace and joy in a world after traditional notions of God have ceased to be relevant.”