Once upon a time, Americans believed religion offered solutions. Today, many believe religion is the problem. In the twenty-first century, do we really need God?
- What kind of faith or religion was a part of your upbringing, if any? What has been your experience as an adult with what you were taught as a child to embrace?
- Do you agree with the idea that when we move away from something, we are essentially moving toward something else? Do you feel that you’re moving away from faith? Or have you already walked away? If so, what do you feel you are moving toward?
- Andy stated that just because something is unsettling doesn’t mean it isn’t true. What unsettles you most about Christianity? What unsettles you most about atheism?
- Do you believe the process of walking away from faith or religion is more personal or intellectual? Explain.
NOTE: The following content is a raw transcript and has not been edited for grammar, punctuation, or word usage.
This is one of the strangest things about religion, the strangest thing about churches, the strangest thing about God. Why in the world, and I don’t know if you’ve ever thought about this. Why in the world do we even have to believe in God? Why can’t we just know? Why would there ever be any doubt? Why would there ever be any question? I never have to take my marriage by faith, I’ve never thought “Okay, I think I’m married and I’m believe I’m married, and I believe I’m married, and I believe… ” I don’t ever do this with my kids. I believe they’re my kids, a God given gift. If I could just have enough faith. So why in something that is so extraordinarily important like God, do we have to have faith? Why is it something that we have to believe? And why is it so difficult to believe? It seems like we would just know, doesn’t it? Doesn’t it seem like we would just know, that there would never be any doubt? And so while you think about it, while we think about that, and while we wonder, because some of you have extraordinary faith and some of us don’t have much faith, and some of us have lost our faith, and some of us are trying to regain our faith, and some of us don’t think we could ever know anyway.
Meanwhile, while we have all these different opinions and while we try to figure it out, here’s a cool fact… Today we are all together regardless of what you believe, we are all traveling at 67,000 miles an hour around the sun. And there’s not even a breeze outside. And not only are we all traveling at 67,000 miles around the sun, we have all been traveling 67,000 miles an hour around the sun that’s about 20 miles of blank, blank 20 miles, 20 miles, 20 miles. We’ve been doing this our whole life with no effort. And as you may know, we’re in what often is referred to as the Goldilocks zone. The Goldilocks zone is the earth is the exact distance away from the sun so that we don’t burn up or freeze. It’s not too hot, it’s not too cold, and everybody said, “It’s just right.” That’s right, that’s the Goldilocks zone. While we all struggle with whether or not we believe in God, or whether or not we believe in a personal God. So let’s begin the conversation. Who needs God? Who needs God? And do we really need God? For some people, the question isn’t really, do we need God or who needs God? For a lot of people the real question is, do we need religion? Who needs religion? And more Americans than ever are giving up on, or backing away from religion. And the reason they’re pulling away from religion and pulling away from God, isn’t because atheism is all that attractive, it’s just that religion is less attractive, religion is less so. In fact, more and more people in our culture, more and more people in the United States would say, “Andy, religion is actually the problem.” We were brought up to believe that religion has answers, that religion is the solution. But more and more as we look around at what’s happening in the world, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that no, the truth is religion is the problem.
Now something really interesting happened that you may not be aware of… Right after 9/11, when the World Trade Center was destroyed, the twin towers were destroyed, the Pentagon was attacked. Right after that, there was an initial surge in this country around all things Christian and all things Jewish, and basically almost all things religious. That next Sunday, everybody who hadn’t been to church in a long time, or weren’t even sure what they believed, the churches were flooded, the second Sunday after 9/11, the churches were flooded, the third Sunday after 9/11, right back to normal. And then something else began to happen that perhaps you weren’t aware of but we’ve all been affected by, there was then this sort of surge, this sort of anti-religious surge that happened in our country. In fact, immediately following 9/11, Neuroscientist Sam Harris, began writing a book that would eventually be published called “The End of Faith”. The End of Faith, the subtitle is “Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason.”
Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. This was a scathing, scathing critique, not of Islam, this was a scathing critique of all religion. He turned it into publisher, after publisher, after publisher, after publisher, and nobody wanted to touch it. Because the assumption was, right after 9/11, a book that was anti-Christian would not be a book anyone would wanna read. Perhaps anti-Islam, but not anti-Christian. But after over a dozen publishers, and let me tell you what, when a dozen publishers turn down your manuscript, that’s very discouraging. Over a dozen publishers turned down his manuscript, but he finally found one. And that book spent 33 weeks on the New York Times best sellers list. Now, Christians hated this book. He got so much negative response from this book, he published another little book called “Letter to a Christian Nation”, that addresses specifically Christianity. And Christians basically saying you’re the problem, or we’re the problem, religion is the problem.
The same year this book came out, Richard Dawkins published his famous book “The God Delusion”. At the openings section of this book, Richard Dawkins tells us specifically why he published this book. This was not simply a book about atheism. This was a book specifically targeting religion. Here’s what he says in one of the opening paragraphs. “If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it, will be atheist when they put it down.” Over three million people purchased this book in over 35 different languages. The year after The God Delusion came out, Christopher Hitchens, journalist Christopher Hitchens published his book “God Is Not Great”, “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything”. And once again, this was an attack on all religion. It was not so much an argument for atheism as it was to say religion is the problem, religion is the problem. Not a specific religion, all religion.
Now, these guys were rock stars. They were on late night television, college campuses, YouTube sensations. Their debates were watched over and over and over. They sold millions and millions and millions of books. And while there was not a surge in our country of atheism, a significant percentage of our country, a significant percentage of the people in our country, continued what had already begun but it picked up speed. A significant percentage of people in our nation began to disconnect from all religion. In fact, so many people have disconnected from religion, and disconnected from faith, and disconnected from God, there’s actually a name for this group. In fact, you may be familiar with this, they’re now called the Nones, the Nones. You have to be careful how you spell it, the Nones, okay?
These Nones are non-affiliated, they are non-affiliated. It’s about 23% of the US population, about 35% of millennials would say, “We’re just not affiliated.” Mostly male, mostly left-leaning politically, theologically agnostic or apathetic, in other words they don’t know, they don’t care, they just don’t need it. The Nones would say, “Hey, we’re not hostile toward it necessarily, we’re just not affiliated with it. Don’t ask us necessarily any hard questions, this isn’t some new philosophical thing we’ve bought into, we’re just done with religion. And whereas I can’t speak on behalf of all religion, I can say this pretty much with confidence: The Christians that have migrated into the None category, it is the church’s fault. It is the church’s fault. It’s people like, that do what I do. It’s our fault.
Because when you open the pages of the gospels, the four counts of the life of Jesus, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, when you read the account of Jesus, and you look at his interaction with people, here’s something that is absolutely unmissable. It is from the beginning, all the way to the end, that people who were nothing like Jesus, liked Jesus. That people who were nothing like Jesus liked Jesus. That Jesus, the person Jesus, not just the miracle worker, not just the teacher who taught things that we still can’t figure out, there was something about Jesus that was attractive. People who were nothing like Jesus liked Jesus, and Jesus liked them back. And the church is supposedly the body of Jesus.
If Christianity is not compelling, if Christianity is not compelling, if Christianity is so easy to migrate away from, I’m convinced it’s because we have the wrong version. And the thing that convinces me of that more than anything, are the de-conversion stories that I read. For a long time, I’ve been fascinated with people who used to be Christians or would say, “I grew up in church. I used to go to church and I’m not a Christian anymore.” I love de-conversion stories. But as I listen to these stories, it breaks my heart. As I listened to the people who talk about migrating away from God and faith, and Christianity specifically. I think to myself, “Wait a minute. I don’t believe in that God either. That’s not even true.” The original 1st century version of Christianity never embraced the ideas that you find so offensive. That much that you wanna walk away from, are things that the Christian faith should have walked away from a long time ago.
For the next few weeks, I want to try to correct that. For the next few weeks, I want to address that. And to begin the discussion, I wanna go way, way, way out of the outer edge of the conversation, and I would like to begin with an update on atheism. In fact, today’s message is called Atheist 2.0, Atheist 2.0. And the reason I wanna do this, is not because so many people have checked the Atheist box, not because so many people had stepped across that line, but because so many people in our country have stepped toward that line. Because when you step away from faith, and when you step away from God, especially when you step away from faith, and you step away from God, without considering what you’re stepping toward, oftentimes, people find themself in a situation they never meant to find themselves in.
Bottom line is pretty much this. You cannot, you cannot move away from something without moving toward something else. And the good news is this, the new atheists… You know, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and others, the new atheists who’ve written all these books and all these articles, the new atheists have essentially updated us on atheism. They’ve updated atheism for the rest of us. Thus, Atheist 2.0. And what they remind us of, and what I want you to understand and especially if you would consider yourself a none, you would consider yourself one of those people, “I grew up in it, I grew up with it. I just don’t buy it, I’m tired of it. It seems irrelevant.”
Here’s what I want you to understand and here’s what they would want you to understand, that atheism is not simply disbelief in God. Atheism is not simply, “I don’t believe in God anymore.” atheism is actually a complex belief system that logically leads to some unsettling conclusions, that atheism is actually, it’s a belief system like anything else, and it is a complex belief system, just like Christianity, just like any other world religion. It’s a complex belief system that logically leads to some unsettling conclusions. Now, this is important. Unsettling is not a truth test. Unsettling is not a truth test. In other words, something can be unsettling, and be true at the same time. For example, your teenage daughter’s boyfriend, right? It’s like it’s true, it’s true, but it’s unsettling. It’s true, it’s true, but it’s unsettling. Something can be absolutely true and absolutely unsettling at the same time. Unsettling is not a truth test, and here’s why that’s important.
Many people, perhaps you, have stepped away from religion, and specifically have stepped away from Christianity. Because of some of the unsettling outcomes, or the unsettling results, or the unsettling consequences, of the Christian faith. Unsettling is not a truth test. Something can be absolutely true and unsettling, and that cuts both ways. Simply because some of the things we’re gonna talk about today, relates to atheism, are unsettling. This is not an argument against atheism, in fact, my goal today is not to convince you that atheism is wrong at all. I simply want to update you, on what it means to be an Atheist in the 21st century, because we know so much more than perhaps we knew when you studied atheism if you ever studied it all. And here’s my agenda, because I have an agenda.
For those of you who have stepped away, I want to scare you just a little bit. For those of you who have stepped away, I wanna broad your thinking just a little bit. Because you cannot step away from one thing, without stepping toward something else. Today is not an argument for Christianity. In fact, next week isn’t either. Today is not an argument against atheism, it’s not an argument for God. Today is just a “huh”. Today is just a if you choose to give up religion, and if you choose especially to give up God entirely, then here is the alternative. And you owe it to yourself to know.
Real quickly. For the rest of our few minutes together today, I wanna give you sort of the six tenets of atheism. In other words, if you’re going to embrace atheism or if you’re considering it, or if you’re one of those people that you’re kind of like me, you just hate to be inconsistent, I mean, some people can live with ambivalence, some people can live with, “I don’t know and I don’t care, that’s very difficult for me, it’s a personality thing.” And if you’re one of those people who are like, “You know what? I’ve lost interest in God. I’ve lost interest in church. I’ve lost interest in religion. I really do agree with Christopher Hitchens, religion is the problem.” But then when you look at the alternatives, you’re sort of churning a little bit because you’re not sure which way to go. You’re kind of caught in the middle, you’re a None.
Today, I wanna explain what it means in the 21st century to embrace atheism. There’s six things, the first three maybe new. The last three are things that we all knew or heard about growing up. Here we go. The first one is this, I’m going to call it the “illusion of mind”, the illusion of mind. If there is no God, and that perhaps there’s not, if there is no God… And I don’t know how to say it any other way. Look up here. There’s no you in there. There’s no you. The whole idea of mind. We all know what our brains are, but the whole idea of mind, the mind sort of sits on top of, or sits outside of this intangible thing that we call the mind. The mind is an illusion. In a world that is biology, chemistry and physics, in a world where there’s nothing but biology, chemistry and physics there is no place for, there is no room for, the mind. Now here’s the, I guess the thing that brought this front and center for me… Years ago, I read Christopher Hitchens’ book entitled “Mortality”. Christopher Hitchens passed away in 2011, from esophageal cancer, and he actually he died from pneumonia related to his cancer.
So in the book because he was dealing with cancer, he would have conversations with his doctors constantly. And his doctors would say things like this… These are the types of things doctors say. They would say, “Christopher, your body is fighting, your body is trying, your body is reacting to… ” They kept responding to his body, his body, his body. And in the book he said, “I finally said to my doctors, ‘I don’t have a body. I am a body. I don’t have a body. I am a body.'” Now when I read this, I closed the book and I thought about that, I thought, “That’s it.”
If there is no God, if everything is chemistry, biology driven by the laws of physics and the laws of nature, then that’s true. There’s no Andy. This is, I am just a body, and I thought, “I’m gonna try to live this way, ’cause I don’t think you can,” but I thought, “I’m gonna try for a couple days what would it look like to live your life as if you are just a body.” And my three kids, just bodies, Sandra, just a body, all of you just bodies, my friends’ bodies, staff bodies. All it is is a bunch of biology. There’s no me. There’s no you. There’s just biology.
Wow. It was so hard. It was so difficult, because the whole idea that there’s mind and there’s something beyond biology is so ingrained into our experience, but he’s right. He’s right. If there is no God, there is no you, there’s just biology. Now, that may be true. That’s just one of those uncomfortable conclusions that you have to embrace if you decide, you don’t need God.
The second one, is the illusion of free will and this may be a new one for you. In a world that’s governed by physics, the laws of physics, there is no room for free will. Everything is determined, everything is determined. You may have experienced choosing who you married, but that was determined. Every decision you make is determined.
Steven Hawking, who you know… Brilliant Steven Hawking, who’s suffering from ALS but his mind is just amazing. And who talks about, and writes about things that most of us mere mortals have to just stop and think about. He believes in determinism that everything is determined. In fact, there was a lecture he did some years ago where he basically said, “Everything about the human experience is determined,” but then he said, “Because it’s determined, it doesn’t matter,” which I just, I don’t know. I guess he’s right, but here’s what he said. He’s a believer in determinism, a believer that there is no free will.
And yet jokingly, he said this, “I’ve noticed that even people who claim that everything is predestined, and that we can do nothing to change it, look before they cross the road.” [laughter] Because once again, we bump into something that may be true. Today I’m not gonna argue that its not true. I’m not smart enough to argue with these guys, but it may be true. But when it comes to the end of the day, it is almost, in fact, it is unlivable. You cannot live as if you are just biology. If you try that, eventually, you will be locked up by other biology and you will lose the freedom you never had. Okay? It’s an unlivable world view, but that does not mean it’s not true.
And the idea of free will, it’s almost… In fact, some of you would say that because of your religious convictions, you don’t believe in free will either but you exercise it all the time. Again, it’s something that maybe true, but if you’re going to be an atheist, and if you decide God is not in the picture, this is the logical consequence of that belief system. The third one is that, this the most disturbing one to me, is the illusion of value. That there is no room for value. See, if I brought a box in here and said, “Hey, I’ve got a box full of value” it would be empty. We all believe value is a thing, we exercise and leverage the idea of value all the time. Not just financial value, but the value of people, the value of work, the value of exercise. There’s the whole concept of value, it’s not really scientifically plausible, or possible in a world governed by physics. And yet it’s something we leverage and talk about every single time we have a conversation, including this conversation. But it is an illusion. There is no actual value, there is only ascribed value. There is no actual value, there is only ascribed value. That is, there’s nothing that actually has value, it’s just that in my predetermined way of living, I ascribe value to things. Now this is a really, really big deal, especially when it comes to justice. Because it means that just or justice is just what we want it to be.
In other words, in a world where there is no God, where there is no theism, where it’s physics, chemistry and biology, there is no actual justice. So the moment, the moment we reach outside of our biology, to try to hold other biology accountable to some invisible thing that we can’t put in a box, we have appealed to justice. But it is an illusion, there is no such thing that justice is just what I want it to be, that just is just what I want it to be.
Number four: Something or some thing came from no thing. Some thing came from no thing. This is just that, the big mystery. It’s the “What happened before The Big Bang”? And you can’t really say what happened before the Big Bang because nothing happened. That you can’t say what was before, because before is like a time term and there was no time. That when the Big Bang happened, suddenly there was time, matter and space.
After the Big Bang, there was suddenly time, matter and space, and there were the laws of nature, and there were the laws of physics that govern all that. But before that, even though you can’t use the word before, nobody knows. In fact, Richard Dawkins he admits, he says this, “The cosmology is waiting on its Darwin.” That Charles Darwin gave us natural selection and evolution, but we’re still waiting on someone to come up with a plausible theory. We’re still waiting for somebody to come up with a believable hypothesis. We’re still waiting for somebody to come up with something that isn’t so extraordinarily improbable, that it really falls into the category of impossible. We’re still waiting on someone to come up with a theory that explains why anything exists. You believe, and maybe it’s true, that there was nothing and there was something.
The fifth one is that, first life emerged from no life. That the first life emerged from no life with no help. That the first life emerged from no life with no help. And again, you studied this in school, and you’ve heard people talk about this, and because most of us are so far away from this problem, it seems simple. We talked about that a few weeks ago, the further you are away from a problem, the simpler it looks. Well what could we get further away from, than the formation of first life? That’s about as far away from anything as we can get. So for those of us who don’t live in that world, the idea of no life becoming first life or simple life, seems maybe like a simple problem. But it’s not, as you know, because there’s no such thing as ‘simple life’, there’s just such thing as ‘simpler life’. But the very first life, the very first life even the most simple form of life, was extraordinarily complex. And so, if you push God out of the picture you believe whether you can explain it or not, and this isn’t an argument for or against… You believe, that the first life emerged from non-life.
From lifeless matter, to what Frances Collins calls, I love this phrase, “from lifeless matter to the digital elegance of DNA. From lifeless matter to the digital elegance of DNA.” And then the last one, the last one, number six is that natural selection is responsible for all life after first life, that natural selection is responsible for all life. All life forms, all the variety we see, all the varieties that have come and gone through the years that natural selection is responsible for all life after the first life.
Now, when I read “The God Delusion”, which is just a fascinating book. I mean all of these guys, the men and women, but primarily the men, who have written these books, they’re all so ridiculously smart, it’s just fascinating. When I got to the end of “The God Delusion”, Richard Dawkins is making his case for natural selection. That this unguided, purposeless, but somewhat focused thing that’s an invisible, I couldn’t bring natural selection in here in a box and say, “Hey, here’s the thing, here’s the reason you’re here.” It’s, and we’ll talk about it a little more in a minute. But at the end of the book, Richard Dawkins summarizes natural selection and honestly when I read this summary, when I read this summary, I thought he was kind of making fun of his own view. So I just wanna read you, a rather lengthy quote from “The God Delusion”, where he talks about natural selection. And I understand what he’s doing. He’s trying to bring some life and some emotion into this sort of lifeless conversation, about we’re all related to an early life form and something came from nothing, and all the things that he talks about in the book.
But here, here is perhaps the best description of natural selection I’ve ever seen, and ever read, and this comes straight from Richard Dawkins himself in context. Here’s what he says. He says, “Think about it. On one planet, and possibly only one planet, in the entire universe molecules that would normally make nothing more complicated than a chunk of rock. Molecules that would normally make nothing more complicated than a chunk of rock, gather themselves together into chunks of rock-sized matter of such staggering complexity that they are capable of running, jumping, swimming, flying, seeing, and hearing,” talking about us. “Capturing and eating other such animated chunks of complexity. Capable, in some cases, of thinking and feeling and falling in love with yet other chunks of complex matter.”
I know. When I read this, I kinda laughed. I thought, “Are you making fun of evolution? Are you making fun of natural selection?” No. He’s, in his creative way kinda trying to make us all go, “Wow! That’s amazing.” In fact, look at how he finishes the statement. He says this, “We now understand,” and he’s talking specifically about Charles Darwin, he says, “we now understand essentially how the trick is done.” Okay. That’s… That may be true. That just through this invisible force that we refer to as natural selection, the most simplest form of life, became every form of life there has ever existed since then up until now, with a lot of life forms that are extinct, and we know nothing about.
Now, before I wrap up, I just have to say this, as I have just read and read and read and just immersed myself in all of this new version of all this interesting stuff, I find it personally, and I’m not trying to make an argument for it, this is just an observation, chalk it up to my ignorance to the fact that I have a Master’s Degree in theology, not biology, okay? So I’ll own my ignorance.
I find it impossible, impossible to talk about natural selection. I find it impossible to describe natural selection without it beginning to sound like an invisible, personal force with an agenda. Every time I read a description of natural selection, and the process of natural selection, every time it’s almost impossible not to load the discussion up with things that personify this invisible, relentless, focused, disciplined, you can’t put it out of business, you can’t stop it force that resulted in the earliest forms of RNA and then DNA to the point to where we have the world as we see it today. But perhaps that’s how we got here.
Now, if you have lost faith in God or you are losing faith in God, here’s my hunch, [chuckle] it doesn’t have anything to do with any of that, does it? It’s not that atheism has become appealing or more appealing, it’s that your version, and that’s what we’re gonna talk about next week, your version of theism has lost its appeal or doesn’t seem as if it could be real.
It’s not that you have this new infatuation with atheism. It’s not that you find it more appealing, it’s that your current version or the version of faith, the version of religion, the version of Christianity that you grew up with, has lost its appeal. And at times, when compared with what science is telling us, appears as if it couldn’t even be real. In other words, you’ve lost or you’re losing your faith in God. And I’m gonna do my best in the next few weeks if you’ll hang with me, I’m gonna do my best to convince you that the God that you quit believing in, the God that you are losing faith in, never existed to begin with. As arrogant as this may sound, that perhaps you had the wrong God.
My purpose today is simply to shine a light on the only alternative which may be true, it may be true. It may be true that every decision you’ve made, that you felt like was your free decision, your free choice was an illusion. It may be true that you have no value, and neither do your children, and neither do your grandchildren, and neither does your work, and neither do the people that you love. It’s possible that this is all an illusion. It’s possible that there’s no justice. It’s possible that this thing we keep trying to appeal to to make things fair, and to make things even, and to make things people are treated correctly, it’s possible that all of that is an illusion, because there’s no mind, and there’s no you. But here’s what I know about most of us, we hope not, we hope not, we hope not.