reader mail

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

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

Reader Mailbag: Passwords

My previous posts about passwords here and here generated a lot of emails, Facebook messages and even phone calls.  In today's post, I'm going to answer some of those questions. If you have a password question, just leave a comment below or use the contact form on this site and I'll try to answer it as well.  All these questions are being shared with permission from the person who wrote them.

Password image

Here's the first question: "After reading your password post I downloaded 1Password.  It was hard to figure out how to make passwords but once I did I noticed my bank won't let me create a good password (1Password colors it yellow).  Is my account safe?"

Great question!  I have noticed a disturbing trend with banks, insurance companies, payroll processors and similar sites to have really poor password policies.  These sites have access to some of our most sensitive data and you would expect them to have password policies that allowed very secure passwords.  Instead, you often find that passwords must be at least 6-8 characters with a maximum of 12-16, and very few special characters are permitted.  Of course, this means such a password is much lower entropy than the passwords a password manager can produce and manage.

Part of this is based on the laws and change management systems that banks and health organizations have to follow.  It takes a long time and a lot of work to certify an authentication system in these industries.  Also, in the case of banks your account is monitored much more closely than a typical web account for abnormal activity.  That said, I believe these industries should modernize their password policies.

Now, how do you protect yourself on sites that won't take good passwords?  I tag all my weaker passwords with the term "quarterly."  If you don't use 1Password, you could do something as simple as making a list of these sites by hand.  Whenever it's the first day of a new season, I change all these passwords - given bad operators a smaller window to compromise my account.

Several people asked a variant of this question: "I created a good password that I can remember.  Is it safe for me to just add something to the end of this password for each site I use to make it easier to log in?"

In one case, I was actually emailed the password for examination!  This brings me to my first point: don't share your password with anyone, and never email a password.  Email is transmitted in plain text, and it is possible to intercept emails in some cases.  Don't email passwords.

Now, our goal is to have better password practices, not perfection.  By creating a passphrase with high entropy you've already made yourself a less attractive target. With that said, I think it's a bad idea to reuse any portion of a password.  Remember, you don't know how a given company or website will store your password.  It's possible they are storing it in plain text, or encrypting it in a way where it can be converted to plain text with a key.  If that site is compromised and they gain access to your passphrase it can be used as the basis for an attack on your other accounts.  Suddenly your security is reduced to those extra digits–which are probably shorter than a normal password.

I like the thinking, but you are better off using a password manager and completely unique passwords.

Now a question about email & passwords: "you mentioned you have an email and password for every account. My iTunes and gmail are the same email. One time I logged into my iTunes account and saw all my contact and billing info had been switched to some random other person. No charges every appeared on my card and went ahead and changed my password for both accounts. 

But if I were to create a ----itunes@gmail (for example) could I forward those emails (iTunes receipts etc) to my ----gmail@gmail account. Or is that safe? I'm assuming if a hacker got into the iTunes account they'd see the forwarding/backup email and start hacking it..."

I mentioned that I create unique email addresses for password recovery for critical accounts.  I do this because most sites use email as a mechanism for restoring account access for lost passwords.  If you have one email address and all your accounts use it for recovery, that email account becomes a single point of failure in your security chain.  Even worse, in this age of mobility someone doesn't need your password to get your email.  Your unsecured mobile phone will give them all the access they need.

That's why I create a dedicated email account for each service I use that has the power to charge my credit card.  Each of these email accounts has a unique, strong password.  All of them are stored in my 1Password vault.  If you forward these emails to your main email account, you defeat the security model.  Password resets generally happen via an emailed URL–you want to keep an attacker from getting access to this URL.

Now if someone gets into an account and learns you what email account is used for recovery they still have to compromise that system to get access to that email.  That's not easy.  They have to compromise the system enough to gain access to the actual password hash.  That means a compromised email account makes it easy to gain access to other accounts, but the reverse is not true at all.

Our last question is sharp, and one I've only considered recently.  "I've gone back and changed all my passwords.  It took me three days.  I noticed that all the sites seem to use the same security questions.  What's the point of working so hard on passwords if my mother's maiden name and my childhood pet are all that someone needs to change my password?"

In this age of social media, the answers to most security questions may be just a Google search and some clicking from discovery.  This is a powerful way to gain access to accounts, and to the reader's point it absolutely undermines our secure passwords.  What to do?


Don't give the actual data.  Instead, use your password manager to generate unique answers to these questions and then store the question and the answer in the notes of the password record.  For example, if the question is "What is your maternal grandmother's maiden name," set the answer to something like "why7vusp5spe5ja6zub" and save both with the password you created for that site.  I'm in the process of doing this for my accounts, starting with email, banking and healthcare and then moving to less vital accounts.

It's a lot of work to secure your digital identity, but it's much less work than recovering from a breach or identity theft.  Kudos to everyone who is doing the work.