The Doubt Series

Reader Mail - Atheist in Church

Subject: Atheism

Message: I consider myself an atheist- because in almost all contexts when God is described, the subject of that description is not something I consider well-enough evidenced to accept as real. Of course, in your case- that description of god is not at all what the vast majority of theists subscribe to (a good thing in my opinion.) However, I also am going to a Christian church with a strong focus on community and diversity, makes good judgments about which causes to support with our giving, provides a great springboard for community interaction, and usually isn't afraid of tough questions. I dig it. Anyway, while I admit I have barely scratched the surface of how you might describe yourself, your axioms of faith don't seem to describe anything that necessarily contradicts an atheist's view of religion. Is this non-atheism a part of your attempt to pretend as Rob Bell suggests? I guess- the main substance of this question is- what is the necessary difference between you and an atheist, and are there any tips you might have for an atheist attending a Christian church who often feels overwhelmingly isolated in thought, but for their own reasons chooses to stick around that environment? I really appreciate your taking time to give this a read.

Hey Austin,

I'm recovering from a motorcycle accident and I have a concussion. Forgive me if any of this doesn't make sense.

What I've learned from neuroscience and cognitive psychology is that labels are a big deal. The labels we apply to ourselves create a powerful bias. When we encounter evidence that undermines our chosen label research indicates we unconsciously filter it. This isn't some rational process where we evaluate information and make a decision–this is an automatic function we're not well aware of.

People love to label themselves. Doing so creates both social identity and cognitive certainty. Those are two things we crave because evolution trained us that we thrive when we live in a tribe and when we make good guesses about the future. For example, if a hunter gatherer guesses well about a rainstorm, they can avoid a flood and find more food.

Social labels create in-groups, but they also create out-groups. Certainty in our self labels mean we reject information about the world. I want the best, most truthful understanding of reality. So, I pretty much don't waste time assigning labels to myself.

Am I a Christian? An atheist? I'm not sure either of those labels describe me completely, and I think both describe me partially. Both manners of thinking and being inform my life, and both have something to teach me. I'm not looking for a place to land my ideologically airplane. Instead, I do my best to be open to new ideas and experiences, while honoring the traditions and cultures that have brought me where I am.

That means I need to honor what Billy Graham taught me, even as I honor what Richard Dawkins taught me.

I'm a skeptic, and I look for evidence to support my claims. But I'm also fascinated with Jesus, and the God he represents. I refuse to call heads or tails–I say let the coin spin all day.

Hope this helps.

Peace, love, entropy,
Science Mike

Axioms About Faith

PSST! I wrote a whole book about doubt and the science of learning to love God again after losing your faith. It's called Finding God in the Waves. Click here to learn more.

This post is going to be nerdy, but it's been widely requested. I can't put it off any longer without starting a riot among my most loyal listeners and readers. It probably won't be interesting if you don't need it, but I've found that people who need these ideas find them fascinating–even refreshing.

These are my axioms of faith. An axiom is a premise so evident as to be accepted as true without controversy (according to Wikipedia). To that note, everything on this list is something I can support with mainstream science. This is a form of faith for empiricists and skeptics–the people who need evidence to support any belief.

Some of these are more developed than others. My axiom for God is an example of one I can defend well. My axiom for sin on the other hand, could reasonably be disputed by a philosopher. It's reasonable, but far from perfect.

This system isn't perfect, but when the way you know God is crumbling (or already dust), this can be a scaffold that supports you as you build a new model for the Divine. Even in my case, these axioms don't incorporate all I believe. I'm leaning towards an Eastern Orthodox view of salvation these days, but I can't back that empirically. It's a matter of faith.

The Axioms of Faith are a ladder. The starting point is complete religious and spiritual unbelief. Each step moves you toward some form of Christian belief and practice–but never an orthodox Christian faith. There's nothing in these axioms about Christ as an exclusive means of salvation, for example. Nor is there anything about heaven or hell–the afterlife is unfalsifiable at this point.

For me, these were a fence against my most intense doubt. My ability to deconstruct and analyze every experience led me to doubt the nature of my encounter with God in the weeks after it happened. So did new insights or learnings from science, and new arguments against belief in God. This list is my search for answers in the face of The Mystery–all those things we don't know about how we got here and the why behind it all (if there is any "why" at all).

Faith is AT LEAST a way to contextualize the human need for spirituality and find meaning in the face of mortality. EVEN IF this is all faith is, spiritual practice can be beneficial to cognition, emotional states, and culture.

God is AT LEAST the natural forces that created and sustain the Universe as experienced via a psychosocial model in human brains that naturally emerges from innate biases. EVEN IF that is a comprehensive definition for God, the pursuit of this personal, subjective experience can provide meaning, peace, and empathy for others.

Prayer is AT LEAST a form of meditation that encourages the development of healthy brain tissue, lowers stress, and can connect us to God. EVEN IF that is a comprehensive definition of prayer, the health and psychological benefits of prayer justify the discipline.

Sin is AT LEAST volitional action or inaction that violates one's own understanding of what is moral. Sin comes from the divergent impulses between our lower and higher brain functions and our evolution-driven tendency to do things that serve ourselves and our tribe. EVEN IF this is all sin is, it is destructive and threatens human flourishing.

The afterlife is AT LEAST the persistence of our physical matter in the ongoing life cycle on Earth, the memes we pass on to others with our lives, and the model of our unique neurological signature in the brains of those who knew us. EVEN IF this is all the afterlife is, the consequences of our actions persist beyond our death and our ethical considerations must consider a timeline beyond our death.

Salvation is AT LEAST the means by which humanity overcomes sin to produce human flourishing. EVEN IF this is all salvation is, spiritual and religious actions and beliefs that promote salvation are good for humankind.

Jesus is AT LEAST a man so connected to God that he was called the Son of God and the largest religious movement in human history is centered around his teachings. EVEN IF this is all Jesus is, following his teachings can promote peace, empathy, and genuine morality.

The Holy Spirit is AT LEAST the psychological and neurological components of God that allow God to be experienced as a personal force or agent. EVEN IF this is all the Holy Spirit is, God is more relatable and neurologically actionable when experienced this way.

The Church is AT LEAST the global community of people who choose to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ. EVEN IF this is all the church is, the Church is still the largest body of spiritual scholarship, community, and faith practice in the world.

The Bible is AT LEAST a collection of books and writings assembled by the Church that chronicle a people group's experiences with, and understanding of, God over thousands of years. EVEN IF that is a comprehensive definition of the Bible, study of scripture is warranted to understand our culture and the way in which people come to know God.

May this scaffold support you as it supported me.

Reader Mail - The Fourth Dimension and God

Subject: The Fourth dimension Question

Message: I lost faith in God and religion sometime ago. Efforts to convince me otherwise have been fruitless. I am, at best, an agnostic. Somedays I am an athiest. I've been reading a bit about the fourth dimension and have begun to wonder if the ideas of other dimensions might fill in the blanks. Many scientists believe that time is the fourth dimension, but some are beginning to disagree. I'm not a scientist, but I am trying t make sense of the lies I've swallowed by religious folks. What do you have to say about other dimensions, eternity, spirituality, and faith in what we cannot see? I realize this is a vague question. Can you help me understand how spirituality and the physical universe come together?

Message: Let’s start with a fun science video…

We know of three spatial dimensions and one time dimension. String Theory is one model that tries to rectify relativity with quantum mechanics, and its “extra” dimensions are curled up like a pig’s tail—which is why we don’t experience them. But String Theory is just a theory, not a Theory. It’s unproven in the world of science.

I’m not sure at all that there is any separation between the spiritual and physical universe. You and I are made up of empty space and energy that’s interacting with fields to take on the appearance of matter. The “solid” stuff in us is just energy that slowed down and started interacting with the Higgs field. That’s more magical and mystical than the classical understanding of the spirit world.

So, spirituality is how I cope with being a part of the Universe aware of itself. It’s a search for peace, for oneness, and the best way to live. I find Christ’s example most compelling, and my spiritual experiences are decidedly Christian, so I follow Jesus and participate in the church.

We don’t have answers to the biggest questions. Science is the tool I use to learn more about our world, and faith is the tool I use to find purpose and meaning in the life I’ve been given.

Finally, don’t fret over the lies you’ve been told. They weren’t lies. To lie, you have to have an intention to deceive someone, and most religious folk believe what they’re saying. They may have been wrong, but they were probably not lying. You’ll find more peace in life if you can find a way to forgive them and move on. I know that’s hard, but you’re the one who’s hurt by bitterness, not the ones who hurt you.

Grace and peace,
Science Mike

Reader Mail - God's Desire for Justice

Subject: the crossroads of primal instincts and morality

Message: Dammit. I feel like I'm a day late on so many accounts. Just yesterday I was going to send you an email (assuming I could find yours) of an audio recording of me just sharing with you my story and how you're podcast on You Made It Weird was so helpful at a pivotal time BEFORE YOU JUST INVITED THE WORLD TO SEND YOU AUDIO RECORDINGS WITH QUESTIONS. ;) And now, after listening to the debut podcast, the one question I was going to ask you IS THE FIRST QUESTION THAT'S ASKED! I have no more wind...

But to be honest, that's ok, because the heart of my real question comes at the first one you answered from a different angle. Here it is:

At what point did God begin to hold homo sapiens (or even hominins) accountable for their behavior on a moral level? My assumption is that basic survival instincts are at odds (or at least can be) with the instruction to "love your neighbor as yourself", and yet these very (primal) instincts were necessary ingredients for our evolution into human beings—image bearers of our Maker. So when did God decide to hold mankind accountable for the moral implications of these instinctual biases?

Message: I’m not sure exactly how God holds us accountable, or what that would look like. I don’t know very much about God. Does God have consciousness, awareness, or agency, or is God simply an animating force?

Beats me. I experience God as personal and aware, but I see things in our world that don’t fit what a loving, aware God would do or allow. I’m making some bad assumptions somewhere, but I don’t know where. My atheists friends say my assumption that God exists at all is where the error lies, but belief in God changes my life in wonderful ways. I'm happy to live in the tension.

So, I turn my attention to the story most central in my faith: the life of Jesus of Nazereth. Jesus, who was God (at least that’s what we say), let himself die on a cross to satisfy a need for violence and vengeance. But who’s need? Who was crying for Jesus to be crucified?

People. The crowd. The religious elites.

I think part of what the cross tells us is we have a brutal, punitive desire for barbaric justice. We’re the ones who think an electric chair, firing squad, or waterboard is a suitable response to transgressions. We're a fight fire with fire kind of species. So, we can talk about God holding us accountable, but what I find much more compelling is the way God showed us how to grow beyond our primal drives and into selfless, sacrificial living through Jesus.

I think we're the ones who need blood for the remission of sin, so God gave us his own.

Reader Mail: A Question About Peace

I get a lot of mail from readers of my Doubt Series with further questions and insights. I answer as much of that mail as I can, and I thought it would be helpful to start posting some of the common questions on my blog. If you'd like to ask a question or share your story, use the form on this page.

Dear Mike,

I’d like to start by thanking you for your blog and the Liturgist Podcast. Both the blog and podcast have helped a lot in my faith walk.

I grew up in a Christian household and have always thought that Christianity is a good thing. Both of my parents are pastoral counselors and I get to see first hand the peace and healing that Christ can bring into people’s lives.

For the past two years though, I have struggled with a lot of doubt. For most of these two years, even though I attended church twice a week, I had not been putting any effort into seeking out God out of fear that I might not find anything. Every now and again I would feel as if God was real and I would feel like I was in his presence. Even with these rare occurrences of faith, doubt would ultimately take over.

When I found your blog and The Liturgists Podcast, I felt compelled to explore Christianity more. I have read your entire doubt series and am currently working my way through Rob Bell’s series on the bible. A lot of the questions that I initially had about Christianity, that created a lot of my faith deconstruction, have been answered and I’m continuing to learn more and more about how applicable Christ is in my life.

All of this sounds inspirational but there’s a problem. Now that I am struggling towards God, I am not at peace. One day I will wake up and think ‘Wow, the Universe is so beautiful! How could you not believe in a loving, personal God?’ The next day I will think ‘Wow, the Universe is so beautifully explained by science. We don’t need a silly creator.’ This constant switching back and forth wears down on me.

One of the aspects that is most appealing to me about Christianity is the peace that it promises. I feel like I’m missing out on this great gift. Do you have any advice on how I could find peace in my faith even if my faith involves healthily wrestling with God?

I've got two Weimaraners. They're wonderful dogs: fast, strong, wicked-smart, and picturesque. Max and Ruby are laid back and easy-going, but that hasn't always been the case. They were lunatics when they were puppies.

Weims are high-energy dogs. They have a nearly limitless energy supply, and a powerful desire to hunt. When they were younger, the frustration of suburban life lead them to dig trenches in my yard and chew up anything they could get their mouths on--including a gas grill, all our shrubs, and our home's foundation.

The sad thing is all this frenetic, obsessive activity did nothing to satisfy them. They'd get into a frenzy and their eyes would go wild. I walked them, but my human legs couldn't go far enough, fast enough to help.

I loved days when I could take them out to our family farm and let them run. A Weimaraner finds itself when it can run across a couple hundred acres. My dogs would change after a few hours of running and chasing wild game. They'd be calm, centered, and considerate.

That peace only came to them after they'd had an opportunity to channel their natural energies in a healthy way. So, let's talk about a couple of human energies.

First, Human brains have a remarkable need for certainty. Studies have shown people crave certainty, and they experience something neurologically similar to pain when they are in a state of chronic uncertainty.

Second, humans have a need for meaning. Humans that don't have a sense of meaning are much higher suicide risks, and research shows that humans will sacrifice their lives if they believe their death has meaning.

Christianity does a remarkable job addressing these needs, even across all its diverse sects and denominations. Christians trust that God has the answers (which offers certainty) and that God has a plan for the world (which offers meaning). I spent most of my life in this warm blanket of certainty and meaning, and the result was inner peace.

When times were tough, I trusted that God was in control and that God had a plan. I remained at peace.

And then I lost God, and all my certainty vanished, along with that feeling of peace. Without God's plan, my life had no meaning, and I struggled with existential nihilism and depression. This compelled me to furiously research what science had to say about our world. I dove into philosophy, epistemology, quantum physics, and cosmology. I was determined to find out the answers to life's greatest questions: How did we get here? Why did it happen?

Like my dogs, all that energy compelled me to dig deep, unsure of what I was looking for.

It would be easy for me to say is that discovering God again offered me peace. That's what the crowd loves to hear, but it's not what happened.

I found peace as an atheist. I learned to accept that there were things I would never know, and that this life was the only one I would ever have. I learned that I had to make my own meaning in life. After a few months of angst, I discovered a powerful sense peace in humanism and atheism.

I believe that is what ultimately prepared me to know God again.

When God came back to me in the waves of the Pacific, I couldn't reconcile it with my model of reality, but my understanding of science helped me know my model was just that: a model. My experience with humanism taught me to be certain about my own uncertainty. There's always going to be new data and new experiences that will challenge my older ways of knowing the world.

I hold my understanding of the world in an open hand instead of a closed fist.

I believe God is real. I could be wrong about that. That's ok. I'm not trying to find the final answers to the big questions. I'm trying to live a good life--the only one I know for certain that I get.

You need certainty to have peace, so place your certainty in your uncertainty. Stop treating life as a puzzle, and accept it as a gift instead. We're wrong about things all the time, we just don't know which things. If you want to trust in God, then trust in God. I accept that I could be wrong, and that stops the constant loop of doubt and anxiety.

But, what about meaning?

I find my meaning in Matthew 25. Jesus tells a story about sheep, goats, and salvation. It's a famous story, and it shows how the Gospel changes the world when Christians work for the hungry, thirsty, homeless, shivering, sick and imprisoned.

We have a need for meaning, and I find that meaning when I serve others. A lot of people think I'm nuts for reading all the email I get on my blog, but that's one of the places I find meaning and connect with God. I find it when I accept those who've been rejected, or sit with those who have no place in our society. When I walk with someone in their suffering, and offer the little insights I've found in my own, peace comes to me.

I found certainty by letting go, and meaning by getting my hands dirty. With those things, came a profound and lasting peace.

May you know the peace of letting go and getting your hands dirty.

photo credit: Debarshi Ray via photopin cc