Seth Andrews gave this speech June 3, 2017 in Toronto at the Imagine 7 conference. It’s a humorous (and perhaps therapeutic) romp through Seth’s religious past…and the often bizarre words and attitudes that reflected his Christian faith.
[Applause] I got to play my cards upfront my friends. You aren’t going to learn anything new or special over the next 45 minutes, okay? You aren’t going to leave a better person. And if I was to be completely honest, I just got to tell you, I came all the way from Tulsa Oklahoma here to vent. Image from a favorite John Carpenter film from the 1980s. Look, I got to blow off some steam. I need to talk to a friend about my issues, you ever feel that way? I just need somebody to talk to. This is therapy right this is us talking to each other we’re helping each other out. For the next 40 whatever minutes we are each other’s bartender. Tell me your troubles. Tell me what’s going on in your life you know have another one drink up drink up.
I’m occasionally asked what the biggest gripe is my biggest beef is, with my former faith I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian home I was a student leader a spokesperson for Youth for Christ. I was a broadcaster for successful Christian radio station in Tulsa Oklahoma for a dozen years. I was a true-blue believer in Jesus Christ and really wasn’t given a choice to be anything else, you know, and now I am an atheist. And people will say well, what’s your biggest beef with Christianity and I usually give my standard response starting with the Bible otherwise known as The Goat-Herder’s Guide to the Universe. The error filled in Aaron’s word of God. The abhorrence and blood-drunk quote unquote good book. The Bible of course is a real mess I’m not telling any of you anything you already know it’s a big deal but at the moment it’s not my biggest beef with Christianity it’s not the prosperity preachers and the prophets of doom yeah they make me crazy they make you crazy those people declaring from their posh mansions and private jets that God whispers into their ears so that they might whisper in two hours often at the end of an offering plate many of these people getting rich in the process tax free in some cases yeah it makes me crazy but it’s not my biggest beef at the moment it’s not my church’s Mis teachings about evolution this vast conspiracy of scientists all colluding down in the Star Chamber trying to kill God through evolution right not the church’s warnings that I shouldn’t trust my brain too much it’s not the indoctrination of kids this is huge for me I did a speech a few years ago called get them while they’re young which talks about how the church hyper targets the young and the vulnerable and what is called the four to fourteen window when a year most likely to brainwash them I’ve discussed it on many occasions it’s not my biggest beef today religiously motivated bigotry I talked about how my own best friend had come out as gay to me in the 90s when I was still devout and it almost cost us our friendship and it was my fault because I was a bigot in the name of God it makes me crazy not my biggest beef today they’re all legitimate issues anyone might be number one on the list tomorrow but today my friends my bartenders my therapist dude a what angers me the most what frustrates me the most what drives me crazy the most is this: Christianity made me talk like an idiot. This isn’t true for all Christian it’s not true for all religious people it’s true for a lot of them, and it was true for me. and you know it didn’t sound stupid at the time. these Bible verses and doctrines and sermons and touchy-feely platitudes they sounded enlightened and compassionate and reasonable than thoughtful and deep and profound, yet the words that came out of my mouth made notes them they made no sense whatsoever.
Here’s a great example I’m sure many of you from religious families get your uh get your minds around this one you get together with a religious family for a meal but what has to happen before you can enjoy one bite of that meal you say the prayer or blessing where I come from it’s usually something vacuous like this we say “Oh, Lord, bless this food. Nourish it to our bodies, and our bodies to your service. Amen.” Now, the act of praying on its surface does seem like a laudable act, a generous act. We stop, we reflect, we bow, we give thanks we give gratitude– if you only go again deep, this really does seem like a beautiful gesture. Now, this the type of meal we might say it a special occasion in the Andrews home. Typical stuff, you know, you can see the turkey, and you got the stuffing cranberry and maybe if you’re lucky you finish it off with some pumpkin pie and homemade whipped cream which, in my part of the country, we call flippin cream. Let’s say this is your meal, for just a second let’s focus on the potatoes shall we my friends now the ingredients for mashed potatoes vary depending on the chef but we can pretty much count on the basics can we not? If we’re to analyze the specific ingredients: the calorie count, the fat, the sodium, the carbs, the carbohydrates, the vitamins, whatever, beforehand, and then we say the blessing, over this meal, what measurable change might we see? Are there fewer calories? Oh, I wish it was true. Less sodium? Sorry… More vitamins? Not that we can detect… How is an unblessed potato any different than the blessed potato? Blessed in which religion? By which God or God? By which spirit or spirits? Is there a detectable aura, around the potato? A divine glow after it’s been supplemented supernaturally… What is this blessing? What form does it take? People stop me. Religious people stop me, right here in my tracks, and say “It is such a beautiful thing—this prayer for our food—it’s a beautiful gesture, it brings families together, it demonstrate thanks. Thanks to whom? We can all think of instances when someone thanks God for the meal, without giving one second to the people who planted the food, cultivated the food, harvested the food, transported the food, bought and sold the food, prepared the food and then cleaned up the mess afterward. The cooks, completely ignored from the equation, because we’re busy giving our gratitude to a ghost. As my friend Aron Ra likes to say, “It’s the equivalent of saying ‘please, magically enchants this food’,” right? What do we sound like? Oh, poor Seth, he just doesn’t understand, he just doesn’t get it, he’s missed the whole point… bless his heart… bless his pea-pickin heart… Mmm, what the hell is this supposed to mean? And the faith we used to say this a lot, “Bless their heart, bless your heart, bless his heart,” it is in fact a multi-purpose piece of sanctimony, you can do anything with it. It’s a multi-tool: you can pity someone, you can love them, you can build them up, you can tear them down. In fact that internet meme is absolutely true, when it says, “You know, inside every ‘bless your heart’ is a teeny tiny ‘fuck you’.” [Applause] What do we sound like?
Here’s another big one: someone’s going in for surgery… someone’s going in under the surgeon’s knife and we must say the prayer, usually goes along the lines of “Lord, we ask that you guide the hands of the surgeon.” I said this prayer a ton when I was a true-blue believer and I had no problem with it. I didn’t realize what I sounded like. Let’s do a hypothetical, okay? Using a fictional example, this is dr. Patricia Blackwell, now decades ago Patricia went to college to complete a four-year pre-med undergraduate. This involved intense studies in the fields of chemistry, anatomy, biology and physics. She studied her ass off to pass the Medical College Admission Test—before even being accepted to medical school—for another four years of anatomy, biochemistry, pharmacology, physiology and a whole lot more. She studied foreign past the United States medical licensing examination and immediately transitioned into the next phase of her education which was a five-year residency with 16 plus hour shifts and many of those shifts found her sleeping on the floor in the break room, just to get some shut-eye between patients, sacrificing pretty much anyone in everything, outside of the medical profession. But she still wasn’t finished, because she had another two-year fellowship in her specialized field of surgical oncology. Now, this represents thousands upon thousands of hours, committed to her education and training. An accrued student loan amounts that are greater than the asking price of many of our homes. Dr. Patricia Blackwell has been a practicing surgical oncologist for 26 years. She’s also… an atheist.
This is dr. Stephanie Fraser she’s a devout Christian she believes in the literal healing power of Jesus Christ. She’s a literal biblical believer, okay? She calls this she prays for Jesus’s healing all the time and believes wholly in his power. She is a person of faith. She is also a dentist. Now this would be an interesting social experiment. I don’t recommend it if you know someone that’s going through medical trauma, but it would be interesting would it not to talk to the believer who has some loved one going in for a surgical procedure and say “Would you trust more the believer, the person who holds to your all-powerful deity, who believes in the healing power of Jesus Christ, and you name and claim that healing, would you hold to the dentist in the operating room? Or would you rather an atheist who knew what the hell she was doing? In fact, for any surgeon in any context, how was the surgery without the prayer any different from the surgery with the prayer. At any moment, is there a doctor in the operating room and he looks up at the assistants and nurses and staff and he says “Shit, we should have said the magic words! We should have sprinkled the fairy dust, we should have said the incantation, we didn’t see the magic words.” Christians love this popular depiction of Jesus Christ, literally in the operating room, literally guiding in the hands of the surgeon. But if you remove Jesus from the equation, what changes is the surgeon not performing the exact same procedure, the same way with the same level of skill and training.
By the way, if you’ve ever played the game operation you’ll like this little post here, it’s got Jesus in the operating room and he says “Haaah, you hit the side, you’re out!!!” “Go away Jesus,” he says.
If Jesus—not the human surgeon—Jesus, the most powerful entity in the universe, who adopted his children as his own– if Jesus is the great healer, who made the lame to walk, the blind to see the dead to rise again, the Jesus of the book of Matthew, who said “Whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, as long as you have faith.” He said “Whatever you ask in my name, I’ll do it, to give glory to the Father through me.” That’s a biblical promise of Jesus.
Why not skip the surgeon, why not eliminate the middleman and bring the healing right to you, the consumer… avoiding the time and the trouble, distress, the pain, the often overwhelming devastating expense that comes with invasive surgery? The Bible is filled with stories of Jesus doing this very thing, the Jesus who is the same yesterday, today and forever. Why would that Jesus not heal immediately, directly, personally, his own children? Why are their hospitals in Florida advertising on their billboards that faith is greater than cancer while also advertising services by paid physicians for the physical treatment of cancer? How do you know which maladies are cured by medicine and which maladies are cured by miracle? Any Orange Is the New Black fans in house? I figured you’d like that slide.
I used to do endorsement commercials when I was on KXOJ Christian Radio for a chiropractor and his tagline at the end of every commercial was this: he would say “Doctors treat, God heals.” What does that mean? What does that mean?
Somebody sent me a Facebook page that they found interesting, and so did I. The page is called “Stop Cancer. Start praying,” and one of the posters wanted to proclaim a praise-Jesus miracle. I mean, this brute this is bonafide fruit and they said this, they said “With prayer and faith and chemo treatments for a year and a half, she is 100% cancer-free.” Well, I’m glad they’re cancer-free, I’m delighted for them. But what did that sound like?
Here’s another of praise-Jesus miracle I think you’ll enjoy– jaw-dropping demonstration of God’s miraculous power. There’s a conservative talk show host—I don’t know if she’s international, but she’s still big in the United States, her name is Laura Ingraham—and she, on her website, posted this story: she said “Watch what happens when this group of kids prays at the flagpole.” Now, we have a deal on the first Thursday, I think of every May, where we have a day called “See you at the pole”, well, churches have a day called “See you with the pole group.” Students at their schools are encouraged to gather at their flagpole before school and then adults gather at the flagpole of their courthouses, either before school or during lunch, to pray for our nation and its leaders. And so somebody was rolling phone video at a 2015 “See you at the pole” event. Now, if you want to see a bonafide praise-Jesus miracle, just watch the screen, because you’re about to see one. Here we go. All right, we’ve got three flags, we’ve got the Christian flag, flying in the middle, the American flag on the left and a state flag on the right. And someone said “Now, wait a second, this is odd… the other flags go dead and dormant … and the only thing moving… is the waving flag of Jesus Christ. How can you even look at that and not know that the Bible is true?” Well, a commenter on Reddit pretty much summed it up for me. He said this, he said:
the God of diminishing returns:
10,000 years ago, creates the universe, man and woman.
5,000 years ago, parts the Red Sea.
2,000 years ago, virgin birth, resurrection.
200 years ago, heals the sick, less frequently as medicine advances.
20 years ago, speaks to televangelist, usually to tell them to ask for money.
two years ago, appears on toast.
two days ago, causes a slight breeze.
Now, Laura Ingraham posted this and the article said that the holy spirit is often they call it a miracle the holy spirit is often known as a breeze or the wind with a straight face they had declared have any concerns about the materials the flags were made of the fact that the Christian flag is a lightweight sheer material might explain something now of course it’s the divine breath of Jesus Christ why do people thought it sound like when I was a Christian in high school we should do prayer requests before every class and invariably anybody going on a road trip would pray for something we call traveling mercies Oh Lord we ask that you give us safety and protection as we travel please protect us Lord with your divine protective power as we travel in our vehicle designed with cutting edge safety technology developed by scientists Lord keep us safe as we travel as we buckle up in our seatbelts just in case and use our front rear and side cameras just in case as we rely on our front and side airbags just in case as we buckle up our precious kids in car seats just in case almost 40,000 people die every single year in the United States and car related accidents more than 4 million are injured many of them seriously and a ton of them are Christians we are statistically obviously not remotely immune from death or injury why would a protected child of God not be immune from death or injury after all Jesus is the ultimate airbag Matthew tells us are not two sparrows sold for a penny yes not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your father’s care you’re worth more than the sparrows the Lord has taken the time to count the numbers of hairs on our heads we should be able as Christians to disengage every single safety feature in our entire lives and live worryfree because Psalm 121 declares:
The Lord will keep us from all harm—
he will watch over our life;
the Lord will watch over your coming and going
both now and forevermore
But you know what, maybe we shouldn’t invest too much into preventing a negative outcome. After all, no matter what happens, everything happens for a reason. I get this one, I do understand this one. I get why people would grasp on to the idea that in this, often insane, world there would be a divine sort of a puppeteer who had a master plan and a reason for all of the unreasonable things that happen in this life, and I used to believe it with all my heart now I don’t say reason but the capital R now I believe in cause and effect you know I don’t believe in karma anybody here and believe in karma you know what goes around comes around they’re going to get there you know that’s right. I saw this sign the restaurant sign that said welcome to the karma cafe we have no menus here you get served what you deserve. oh that was clever. wouldn’t that be something wouldn’t it be something if everybody got served what they deserve. “If what’s meant to be will always find a way.” The problem is hey karma I know some people you miss we can all think of horrible people who got away with it right we can all think of somebody and we can all think of beautiful wonderful worthy human beings whose lives were plagued with misery and pain. When I was a believer, a faithful believer, I would shrug and say you know whatever will be will be it’s all part of God’s master plan everything happens for a reason a church roof collapses on its worshipers in Nigeria you know there must be a purpose it’s all part of God’s plan everything happens for a reason twelve-year-old boy decapitated on a water slide in Kansas City oh there must be a purpose a grand design everything happens for a reason 300 reindeer are struck by lightning in Norway there must be a purpose everything happens for a reason 30,000 ish people will starve to death worldwide today well there must be a divine plan a purpose everything happens for a reason it’ll all just work out the Bible tells us we know that all things work together for good to those who love God and those who are called according to his purpose we sort of speak in these saccharine bumper stickers in the faith they teach us to talk like this the mean birth is full of this stuff here’s just a few examples this one’s one I saw spread on social media says God never shuts one door without opening another actually when God closes a door he opens a window sometimes God has to shut the door for own benefits and protection and there is no window. Until God opens the next door praise him in the hallway. When God closes a door open it. That’s how doors work it’s Jesus at the door knocking because he wants you to answer and let him in. Unless it’s not Jesus and it’s the devil the devil has come to knock on your door in Jesus who apparently is already in the room is there and you asked Jesus to answer for you. Have you guys seen that Betty Bauer’s meme with Jesus knocking on the door? It sums up the mission statement of Christianity perfectly Jesus knocks and says “Let me in why so I can save you from what from what I’m going to do to you if you don’t let me in.” the one who threatens the torturous has gone to rescue us from torture and in the church we proudly brandished these messages you know on our jewelry and on our bumper stickers and on our tears an actual Christian t-shirt warning exposure to the Sun s o-n may prevent burning we thought this was profound but what did we sound like?
How much do devout Christians know about the Bible they pitch and promote this true the Bible that’s on their t-shirts on their cross necklaces and almost fish symbols on their cars how much should I really know about the Bible? Well, a guy named Stephen prothero was the chairman of the religion department at Boston University he wrote a 2007 book called religious literacy what every American needs to know and doesn’t it he went out and surveyed people religious and non-religious people alike to find out just how much they knew and didn’t know about the Bible on their nightstands or whatever. And the results were fascinating: 60% of Americans can’t name even five of the Ten Commandments. They usually remember the one about adultery and thou shalt not commit murder thou shalt not steal and then you see them start to drift, right? But if you were to ask them in advance what are the most important Commandments ever given to humankind the Ten Commandments. What are they? Right they can remember although the lyrics to Gilligan’s Island but they can’t remember even half of the most important Commandments ever given to humankind only one-third of the people surveyed could tell you who gave the Sermon on the Mount. Only one-third knew it was Jesus 75% said that the sentence god helps those who help themselves is written in the Bible. It appears nowhere in the Christian scriptures. 50% of high school seniors think Sodom and Gomorrah are married. 10% of people surveyed think Noah’s wife is Joan of Arc. And the experts, they don’t give us anything more to work with, because they’re busy contradicting each other at every turn. Both sides of the mouth fully engaged you got apologists like dr. James Dobson they write whole books declaring that when God doesn’t make sense it’s more proof that he’s there and that he’s God. Right it books called when God doesn’t make sense and it essentially posits that an understandable proven God a sensible God something we could digest and figure out well that God then wouldn’t be godlike if he can be understood by insects like human beings so he must be confusing and beyond our capacity and that there is proof that God exists all right we have to have faith without faith it’s impossible to please God. Faith as it says in Hebrews is the substance of things hoped for the evidence of things not seen this is a verse designed to sound profound while making absolutely no sense. Have you noticed? Faith has substance because it reflects what we hope is going to happen and then that substance of Hope serves as evidence for that which we do not have evidence for. What do we sound like? I’ve been taught since my earliest memories faith always overcomes down that’s a problem Bible would tell us Jesus said when you ask you must believe and not doubt the one who doubts they’re like a wave of the sea they’re blown and tossed by the wind. And it goes further it says that person shouldn’t expect to receive anything from the Lord. Who’s the one disciple that our Christian parents never told us to emulate and be like in our own life they’re like be like John be like Paul go up and be like Peter did they ever say be like Thomas doubting Thomas no why doubts a problem. The other disciples John 2025 the other disciples therefore said unto Him we’ve seen the Lord but he said unto them except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails and put my finger into the print of the nails and thrust my hand into his side I will not believe. He wanted evidence, he’s my favorite disciple show me the evidence let’s get some peer-review going. What did Jesus? Jesus rebuked him right he said because you’ve seen me you believe blessed are those who have not seen and believed that faith that it’s happened. This is the essence of faith right I envision I think I suspect I imagine I believe I want to believe therefore I know. And yet the late Christopher Hitchens was really on to something when he said you know it’s called faith because it’s not knowledge.
Where there’s evidence, no one speaks of “faith”. We do not speak of faith that two and two are four or that the earth is round. We only speak of faith when we wish to substitute emotion for evidence.
No problem! Another group of apologists spends all of its time explaining how God is indeed that proven. He’s all around, it is so obvious, how could you miss it? Like this guy, dr. Stephen Meyer, he’s a Christian who works for the Discovery Institute—which is a religious organization, posing as a scientific one—he has no firsthand training or degree in molecular biology, so obviously he decided to write a book on the subject. It’s called Signature in the Cell, it’s been roundly tossed out. But in the book he makes this claim he says there is digital code in our DNA are very genome which looks like the signature of a designing intelligence somewhere the proof is right under our microscopes so to speak. It’s amazing it’s proof Meyer seems totally unconcerned with a God who would sign his name in such a way that humans wouldn’t be able to see it until 200,000 years later when they had finally developed the technology to read and understand the genome, right? Jesus essentially is the hide-and-seek champion of the world. The leaf net an apologetics website says quantum physics proves God’s existence we’ve just did an expose on evangelist and apologist Ravi Zacharias, the guy just running around throwing out a bunch of honorary degrees blah blah. And he’s invoking the quantum which which do a religious audience is hugely impressive well of course the quantum knows we understand the quantum we have no idea what the fuck we’re talking about but it’s the quantum yes yes the quantum well I saw this and I saw wonderful someone’s going to get a Nobel Prize they’ve proven God quantum physics has proven God instead of proof I see essentially a theological word salad invoking Einstein and a few other scientists making the startling revelation that there are things that human beings don’t yet know and at the end of the article after all that it says “By faith we can know that it was belief Nets prefered God cherry picked out of thousands of options. Unseen particles must equal Yahweh. What’s the real message that belief net is sending they’re saying “God exists because I don’t understand things.”
These kind of back flips are why I call these people the apologist acrobats, because they’re always doing tricks. I did a video a few years ago called intelligent design it was sort of a tongue-in-cheek satirical video which looked at all of this supposedly perfectly fine-tuned stuff in our world and universe you know a Sun that gives us cancer blind creatures with eyes flightless creatures with wings, parasites that live and the human eye and bore their way out and you know human embryonic tails, and vestigial organs and we looked at the quote unquote design of the eye. We talked about natural disasters and so often this planet just seems to want to so all of us whole 300,000 people die of once in a tsunami and volcanoes pour lava on US and there’s earthquakes and whatnot… Well, never fear there’s an apologist his name as far on he runs a website called reason to believe he must have stumbled across my video and he produced a video response. And he had an explanation for the earthquakes on a perfectly fine-tuned planet if you want life on the planet.
You have to have tectonic activity no tectonic activity no life to have a planet without earthquakes would be to have a planet without life and it’s important to note along these lines that a recent study done by two engineers published in Nature demonstrates that over 83 percent of the deaths that result from earthquakes in the last three decades has been directly attributable to government corruption that is it’s due to moral failing on the part of humanity not not due to the nature of the world that we live in.
We die in earthquakes because of our own moral failing. What do they sound like what did I sound like for so long when I was inside the church uttering all these things why didn’t I figure it out sooner much sooner how did I get locked into this nonsensical feedback loop of what I call Jesuspeak:
God watches. (But watch out)
God protects. (Buckle up!)
God heals. (Call the doctor, quick!)
God is revealed. (Go find him)
God clearly works (…in mysterious ways)
God is love (…and jealous and vengeful)
Give God the glory. (Give people the responsibility)
God gives wisdom (…but then God uses the foolish things to shame the wise)
Ask and receive (…but his Will will be done anyway)
anyway, where did I learn to talk like this well, I was taught by religious mother and father. I was raised to accept, pretty much without question, Christian doctrine we memorized Christian scriptures, we went to Christian Church we couldn’t go to church on Sunday they made us stay home and watch it on television. If there is a hell it is Christian Church on television. Trained programmed to speak and act like this learned behavior I was his kid right pretty short leash I wasn’t allowed to stray too far wasn’t allowed to ask too many questions that didn’t come back with the answer Jesus my whole life was a theological hand-me-down I was told reasonings a problem don’t trust your brain you trust in the Lord with all your heart whatever you do don’t lean on your own understanding a well propagated lie must be the truth it’s I mean of course it’s the most popular book ever printed, of course that’s true, that’s their proof. Its agents for God’s prophets and of course that they laughed at these guys they had their own profits that they embraced and accepted and promoted I was taught to be proudly ignorant to basic science I must say it was when I discovered the work of Richard Dawkins and I started to read about he facts. It was when I picked up books like Why Evolution Is True, by Jerry Coyne; when I met so install the work of people like dr. Donald Prothero and I began to learn the facts of evolution—I was nearly 40 when it happened. Where had I been? What happened to me? Well, I’d been caught from someone else’s claw, I’ve been wearing somebody else’s skin, I’d been speaking in somebody else’s voice. I’d excuse my own bigotry through sanctimony and self-righteousness, I’d rejected the wonders and thousands of books so that I could hold and clutch desperately to just the one book. For me Alejandro Jodorowsky’s quote proved true: “Birds born in a cage think flying is an illness.” That was me finally in my late thirties I spread my wings I flew the religious coupe so to speak I came late to the party but I am here and for what it’s worth I’m glad to be here despite all my flaws and failings despite the fact that I’m not a great thinker I’m not a great physicist I’m not a great philosopher I don’t have greatness in that way in me. I’m just a guy trying to figure it out here at midlife trying to live truthfully you know I want to embrace and pursue good ideas want to root myself in the evidence I want to pledge myself to reasonable words to say things that make sense. To pursue real wisdom as best I can to thank the helpers the humans the agents of of charity praise the cook thank the physician support the science encourage the skeptic to pursue the solutions that don’t cheat me and dilute me and enslave me and make me a poster child for illogic. Sagan was right: “It’s far far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and assuring.” Perhaps one day—it won’t be soon—but maybe one day humanity will see an end to all of the insanity of the apologetics acrobatics: the magical thinking, the corruption, the doublespeak, whatever, and perhaps one day we will see better ideas prevail.
I want to leave you with an encouragement that you are part of that fight on every level and your families and your homes and your neighborhoods and your friends offices and your schools and your social circles on the internet as activists as human beings as rationalist you are part of the solution what you do and say matters you are making a difference and I encourage you to continue to do so after all what we all really want is not to kill God we simply want a personal relationship with reality.
Thank you all very much [Applause]