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Stern student Ryan Bedell discusses transition from believer to atheist in new memoir

Even in the era of Covid, business school can be such an insular or intimate experience that we sometimes forget our classmates lived whole lives before we met them. Of course, that’s no major revelation, and most of us are the logical sum of our experiences. 

Some of us, however, have lived a life wholly different from the one we inhabit now. Langone student Ryan Bedell is one such person, having grown up a deeply devout Catholic before choosing to leave the Church as an adult. It is hardly rare for people to become less religious as they grow up, but Bedell experienced a profound transformation as he gradually realized the tenets and principles of his faith no longer resonated with him.

The change was so dramatic and so emotionally complicated, that Bedell chose to organize his thoughts by putting them all down on paper. The result is his self-published Memoir Altar Boy to Atheist: Giving Up God, which is currently for sale on Lulu, Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Bedell recently sat down with The Oppy to discuss his experience self-publishing, his journey away from his faith, and the significant challenges that came with telling those in his personal life that after a childhood of leading his church youth group and serving as an altar boy, he was no longer a Christian.

Answers have been edited for clarity.

You wrote this book that you then self-published about your experience, for lack of a better term, of leaving the church or becoming non-religious. What compelled you to write this down in the first place and were you setting out to write a memoir to publicize or did you just need to collect your thoughts in some way?

A little bit of both. I started writing when I was living in England getting my masters degree and I had had a particularly — I didn’t include this in the book, I guess I should have — but I had a particularly contentious conversation with a classmate who was very religious and was just sort of being a jerk about it. I went back to my room and journaled and it sort of took on this first-person description of how I felt about it. It definitely started as me trying to process that experience, but then I was like, “Man, I’ve got 100 different things I could talk about.” I think it was maybe a full year before I thought about actually turning it into a book, and I had maybe 15,000 or 20,000 words at that point. Early on I knew that I wanted to make it a book, but it wasn’t the plan from the get go.

Was your original hope to pitch this to a publishing house or were you always set to self-publish?

I thought about it and emailed it to maybe one or two publishing houses and then I kind of thought I just wanted to be done with it. I felt like I had said what I needed to say and almost as the last bit of catharsis I needed to put it out there. I reached out to a friend who I knew had published a book and he suggested to me this website called Lulu.com and it was super easy and really great. I got to design my cover and everything, which I’m super happy about. I think the photo is kind of hilarious. It wasn’t about making money or making it widespread. I never really anticipated that happening because I’m a good writer, but I’m not that good of a writer. I’m very happy with how it shook out as far as getting it out there.

It took me maybe a week to get everything formatted in their system and make sure the margin looked good or the spine was going to line up. You can tell it’s not total professional quality I think, but essentially I pay for the cost of the book whenever someone orders one. That’s just subtracted from what I would pay for it, though. I don’t have to pay anything up front.

It sells for what, $27?

$23.

Ok, $23. So the production costs get cut out of the price, then they take a piece and you get the rest, is that the deal?

Correct. If you buy it directly from the publisher I get $13. But if you buy it from Amazon I get $3. If you buy it from Barnes and Noble I get like $3.99.

But literally every copy that’s sold you profit even if it isn’t very much money.

Correct. I paid $1,600 to get it professionally edited and have not made that back.

Ah. Well, is it selling?

Yeah, actually. Since I put it out there there hasn’t been a month where I haven’t sold at least a couple of copies. The last purchase was made on Sept. 9 and it was purchased in Taiwan, which is hilarious for some reason. I’ve sold 106 copies in total.

Did you ever think you’d sell that many?

No. Honestly, I thought my parents would buy it and that would probably be it. It’s really personal and introspective as opposed to proselytizing or trying to change minds. It’s really more my experience. I didn’t really think people would care, but it’s been very gratifying to have people here or there reach out to me and tell me they couldn’t put it down or that they related to so much of what I was talking about. It’s been few and far between. I’m not hearing that from everyone I’ve talked to, but it does feel good to hear that.

Religion, as you obviously know, can be a powerful or controversial subject. Did you have any worries from friends or family about potential backlash from publishing this?

A million percent. My grandfather’s a Catholic deacon, so I gave him a copy, and I think he tried his absolute very best to act like he was ok with it, but he definitely wasn’t. I knew I had some friends from my religious period who would see it on Facebook and not be happy about it. I got some messages and things, but that was expected. I wasn’t surprised at all. I also think if I’ve posted on Instagram or Facebook about it I’ve tried to make it as clear as possible that I don’t hate religious people and I’m not a bigot in the other direction. I’ve just gone away from it and I think it’s a striking story that I was incredibly religious and now I’m not at all.

Have most of the religious people in your life read it or are they just seeing that this book exists and judging it on face value?

Oh, none of them have read it. I gave my grandpa a copy and I guarantee you he hasn’t read it. My parents aren’t particularly religious anymore. Both of them have read it. I think some of my aunts and uncles who are a little more religious have read it, but they haven’t talked to me about it. Old youth group friends I know have not read it. There were a couple of people I reached out to who were mentioned, not by name, but they’re in it. I wanted to do my due diligence to let them know, but I also offered to send them a copy and most of them were like, “No that’s alright, as long as you’re not mentioning me by name.”

One of the goals of your book that you make clear early on is that you feel you’re a better person without religion, but not that religion is inherently evil or wrong. Christopher Hitchens for example used to be very anti-religious in his writing, but why was it important for you to make that distinction?

Literally one reason. I know so many good people that are religious. My grandfather is a great example. He is a deacon. He’s incredibly devout. He’s almost 90 and he either goes to mass or says mass every Sunday. I don’t know a better person on the planet. I think it’s important to take a stand against fanaticism and people who use religion to bring others down or cause harm, but I mean, sports has things that can lead to bringing people down. I think nothing is inherently evil other than obvious things like, say, violence.

In the book you say: “Everyone loves a good ‘coming to Jesus’ story. My story is similar, but in the complete opposite direction. I feel I was a worse person as a Christian, and I improved as a person after I became godless. People tend to equate finding Jesus with finding goodness, wholeness, and forgiveness. My experience was that religion gave me emptiness and guilt. I often hear from folks who automatically assume that without religion, I must be missing out on a whole lot of other things that they deem related. I make efforts to meditate, be introspective, and have a sound moral compass, and these are things of value that I believe religion can be an avenue to. I just do these things without any mysticism or God. Sounds so easy, right?” Obviously, it’s not easy. What are major challenges you find in trying to still pull the positive things you could derive from religion into your personal life while rejecting the underlying faith religiosity requires?

One of the things I dwell on quite a bit is the community that religion provides. I’ve talked to people who say they don’t really believe any of it but they love the community it provides and they love being a part of something every Sunday. That’s great, I’ve felt that as well. Youth group was a place where I felt particularly accepted, which was important as someone who was bullied at a young age. I really struggled with who was going to accept me once I decided I wasn’t religious anymore. My friends were people from the youth group. What was I going to do? Who was I going to talk to? Who would be my support system? It was a hard lesson to learn, but it was important to realize that it wasn’t the religion that gave me that. It was the people who were a part of it. I think part of the pull of religion is that it’s centered around your entire being. Your afterlife. You being a good person and how you value yourself and the world around you. It’s so tied into your core being, I truly didn’t realize I would be able to make friends. There are online communities and things for atheists, but that’s not where my brain was. I wasn’t searching that out, I was just like, “What do I do now?” As far as morality or things like that, I don’t really think the core of who I am as a person changed. I needed to find a way to explain the things I believe as far as morality outside of religion. That’s taken time. Like I said, it sounds easy. It seems easy to just start throwing out sentences about how I’ve changed. But that’s why there’s a book. I had to sort of process who I was going to be outside of religion for everything from morality to how I felt about sex to what would happen to me when I die. A whole range of things. It’s been an interesting decade or so to say the least.

Another interesting passage: “Humility to me as a Christian meant surrendering my agency. It meant having faith that God would carry me through. Humility as a non-Christian I think means to me that I should believe in my abilities, but be aware that I am fortunate to have them. Humility does not mean putting myself down, but it does mean that I am not something special and irreplaceable. Quite frankly, I find humility as a non-Christian to be much more difficult.” Why do you find humility so much more difficult without a religious grounding?

I think humility within religion is letting go. It’s accepting you don’t have all the answers in a weird way. In a similar way, I think not being religious is accepting you don’t have all the answers so the core value of humility is still there. I think it’s harder because you’re surrendering to something when you let go with religion. You’re saying, “I don’t have all the answers, but I know who does. It’s God. It’s this community. It’s this church that I’ve been a part of.” When you don’t necessarily have that and you’re trying to say, “I don’t have all the answers,” or “I’m just a regular guy who might not be the most talented person in the world, I’m just a regular human being,” what do you look to for the answers after that. I think it’s hard to say, “I don’t have the answers and I don’t know who does,” as opposed to saying “I don’t have the answers and I know who or what does.”

You later say of meeting a Christian in Jordan who is looking to spread the gospel: “I could not help but think he might have better luck converting folks in a country where one certain religion was not so dominant. I left that interaction with a pamphlet about Christ (he had assumed I was Christian), and a few good scratches of my head. He did not seem like he cared to learn anything about Jordan. He seemed like he wanted it to fit his mold. I often wonder if he saw anything that was culturally Jordanian, or if he ate at McDonald’s the whole time.” It seems like you’re saying that one of the things that ultimately turned you away from religion was a lack of worldly curiosity by some of the devout that you interacted with. Would you say that’s fair?

Yeah, more than fair. It’s spot on. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that — and this is getting into rough territory as far as what people might think of me — but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the religious right in our country is against immigrants. They’re against people that are different. People from other parts of the world that aren’t in their backyard. It’s not to say I know for sure what that guy’s intentions were, it was just very clear that he was there to preach his way of life. It would have been interesting if he had said something like, “I’m also interested in learning about their religion,” but it was a conversion trip. I thought it was a stark contrast to think “I’m swimming in the Dead Sea, having this cultural experience that’s in a cool place to be, whatever, but also, like, I don’t really give a sh*t about anyone here. I’m just here to tell them how they should live their lives.”

Is this a one-time thing? Do you see yourself doing more writing and more publishing? And if you do, would it strictly be a memoir-type thing or do you have an interest in fiction or other stuff?

I’ve always enjoyed writing. Even in school, I would choose writing a paper over an exam any day. I’ve always been someone who journaled and enjoyed writing for himself. I really love writing letters to friends, that sort of thing. I never saw being a writer as something I would do, but I have started working on a second book, which is fiction. I think after the first book I’m a little tired of writing about myself, but it’s also a little hard to not inject yourself a little bit into your writing even if it is fiction. The next book is essentially someone 100 years in the future looking back at now.

Did your experience at Stern inspire some sort of entrepreneurial spirit that pushed you to move this project along and self-publish?

I do mention in the end of the book being in New York and at Stern and being in the job that I’m in, just sort of as context to where I am now in comparison to where I was then. I don’t know if entrepreneurial spirit is really how I’d put it. I obviously felt comfortable sharing it with my blockmates. It was an environment conducive to intellectual thought and a willingness to have a discussion even if people didn’t agree. But if you’re asking if it had any hand in making me release it…I would probably say no.

You turned 30 this weekend (Sept. 24). What would 13-year-old Ryan think about 30-year-old Ryan?

Oh man. He wouldn’t care to meet him. The word atheist was a dirty word to me. I wouldn’t have wanted to meet who I am now and I wouldn’t have cared to know about the complexities of my life because I’m not Christian. I wish I could say I have more to elaborate on, but I wouldn’t have even started. There wouldn’t have been a conversation. 

What does 30-year-old Ryan think about 13-year-old Ryan?

It’s funny because I have a tattoo in the middle of my back which is a fleur-de-lis and it says AMDG — “Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam” or “To the Greater Glory of God” — it’s like a Jesuit school motto. I’ve gotten a lot of snarky comments over the years like, “Oh, do you regret getting it?” Absolutely not. It’s a part of who I was. 13-year-old me was, for the most part, happy. It did provide a community for me. I don’t think I necessarily treated other people the way I wanted to be treated, to lean on a Christian motto, but I would not be Ryan at 30 without Ryan at 13. I think he was misguided and a little all over the place, but trying to figure it out like everyone else.

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