“Turn your mind off” says Joel Osteen

Photo: D Dipasupil / Getty Images
Photo: D Dipasupil / Getty Images

I respond to Joel Osteen’s anti-intellectual encouragement for people to ‘turn their minds off’ and embrace faith.

Megachurch pastor Joel Osteen frequently advances a prominent anti-intellectual attitude of neglecting reason, argument, and evidence in favor of faith within a philosophically barren sphere of Christianity.

On October 2, Osteen wrote, “Faith is not in your head. Faith is in your heart. Sometimes you have to turn your mind off and listen to your heart.”

It is difficult to charitably interpret Joel Osteen’s comment particularly because his position appears to be self-refuting; Osteen advances what he would consider reasonable advice while simultaneously telling people to neglect using their minds which would be necessary for comprehending advice. Perhaps Osteen is being metaphorical — particularly because thought is a product of the brain and not the heart — and wants people to prioritizing feelings while neglecting anything which would seem to oppose feeling?

Nevertheless, it is quite clear that Osteen is not advancing what some Christians would call a reasonable faith or a combination of faith and reason which would warrant belief in the Christian god. Rather than providing reasons for Christian belief — without merely appealing to faith — Osteen advocates a position of ‘listening to the heart’ – a faulty approach to attaining justified true beliefs which ironically leads religious people of various denominations to radically different conclusions about the nature of the supernatural…and presumably also leads some to believe that no gods exist.

If Christian belief — or any belief for that matter — is worthy of consideration it should have no difficulty facing the greatest intellectual challenges. Rather than ‘turning the mind off,’ Christian adherents ought to, as 1 Peter 3:15 suggests, provide reasons for their belief in God. Besides, if there is good reason to suggest Christian belief is warranted, faith — in Osteen’s case, ‘listening to the heart’ — need not enter the picture.

I am extremely skeptical of someone who casts reason, argument, and evidence as something to be shunned – something to be ‘turned off’ – especially when very good reasons exist to doubt the claim being advanced. Osteen’s position, it seems, regarding Christians dealing with doubt, is not to rationally evaluate whether Christian beliefs should be maintained, but rather appears to be a suggestion to self-delude and neglect to wrestle with any challenges. Perhaps this position also further mires Osteen in an epistemological wasteland since this renders Christian belief is unfalsifiable — immune to revision — if it is the case that all challenges should be neglected in favor of faith.

Resorting to a position of telling others to ‘turn their minds off’ is a tactic of desperation and a huge red flag indicating that a claim may not stand to face intellectual rigor. Osteen offers a faulty epistemology with his anti-intellectual appeals. Christians should do much better than this. Are there any other areas in life in which people should ‘turn their minds off’ and ‘listen to their heart?’ If not, why take this approach when considering Christian belief?

As always, feel free to comment below.


Another discussion with Pastor Dan Nichols

I recently spoke with Pastor Dan Nichols whose church, Restored Church in Wilkes-Barre, received national media attention following its display of a billboard reading “I Love Sex” – God.

In a recorded audio clip, we speak about the billboard, sex, sexuality, marriage, abortion, politics, marketing Jesus, Christian belief, atheism, philosophy, and much more.

Consider also watching our first recorded discussion — an open-to-the public conversation which took place in Restored Church — here. Also consider reading some of my recent pieces which are follow-ups (1, 2, 3) to the discussion we had.

As always, feel free to comment below and/or on the YouTube video.

2014 National Day of Prayer protest experience

Photo with members of Restored Chruch who attended the National Day of Prayer event
Photo with members of Restored Chruch who attended the National Day of Prayer event

I recount my experiences protesting the 2014 Circle the Square With Prayer event on Public Square in Wilkes-Barre commemorating the National Day of Prayer.

Due to the unprominent and late placement of the Freedom From Religion Foundation ‘Nothing Fails Like Prayer’ banner, this piece recounting my experiences — namely discussions — at the Circle the Square With Prayer event commemorating the National Day of Prayer was delayed.

I spoke with a newspaper reporter about my protest with members of the NEPA Freethought Society (read about the published article and my other, unpublished thoughts here). Thanks to NEPA Freethought Society members Rodney Collins and Erik Dickerson for accompanying me at this event.

Side view of scaffolding structure showing NDOP banner facing event and FFRF banner text out of sight
Side view of scaffolding structure showing NDOP banner facing event and FFRF banner text out of sight

I approached the Circle the Square With Prayer event with a foamboard sign and, rather than engaging people in discussion, allowed people to engage me. The first person who engaged me in a discussion told me she believed the Christian god exists because she prevailed through depression. She explained that ‘nothing else worked,’ but after she prayed to God she was cured. It’s too bad that she won’t take personal credit for her improved health.

I asked the woman if she had a support system of family and friends to help her. She explained that a support system, medication (she voluntarily disclosed this without my asking, and ‘everything else’ did not work. I asked her, then, how non-religious persons prevail through mental health issues and she didn’t provide an answer to this. I also noted that people of different religious beliefs prevail through mental health issues [and claim that deities they exist helped them].

Protesting 2014 Circle the Square With Prayer event recognizing the government-sanctioned National Day of Prayer (front of sign)
Protesting 2014 Circle the Square With Prayer event recognizing the government-sanctioned National Day of Prayer (front of sign)

Belief in specific deities cannot be warranted through religious experiences – at least when people claiming different things about different gods are using similar thought processes to arrive at different claims. The Christian who uses religious experience to arrive at a conclusion that God exists faces the Hindu who uses religious experience to arrive at a conclusion that Ganesh, for instance, exists. Both Ganesh and God cannot exist.

At least three individuals engaged in the ‘people would not die for a lie’ reasoning – pointing to martyrdom and people willing to die for Christian belief as evidence for the truth-value for Christianity. I explained that people of many different religious orientations are willing to die for their beliefs and indeed die for their beliefs. The fact that someone dies or would die holding a belief does not demonstrate that the belief is true, but rather shows that a person likely feels sincere and fervent. Read more of my thoughts on this here.frontsign

One person told me that compassion is not consistent with the atheistic worldview – that an atheist has no reason to treat others with compassion [and only in a Christian worldview may compassion be logical]. After explaining that atheism is not a worldview (it is a label for someone who lacks belief in any gods – nothing less, nothing more), I explained that there are many reasons people exercise compassion including a want to help others; the benefit of feeling happy after engaging in good deeds; and a realization that other humans are like us and have similar wants, needs, and desires. A god belief is not required for one to exercise or explain compassion.

A man speaking at-length about the Shroud of Turin was arguing that since the image on the Shroud of Turin cannot be [re]created by humans, and there is no natural explanation for the Shroud of Turin, the Shroud of Turin is proof for God. Taking advantage of my smartphone after identifying the ‘mystery therefore magic’ fallacy, I found an article from Nature explaining that the shroud was a medieval forgery and another article reporting on an Italian scientist recreating the shroud. After the man said something like ‘you cannot trust what scientists say because they are lying to you about evolution’ I exited the conversation.

Banners are equally prominent on 5/5/14 - days after the 5/1/14 National Day of Prayer event
Banners are equally prominent on 5/5/14 – days after the 5/1/14 National Day of Prayer event

One person told me I have faith just like Christian have faith in God because when I turn on a lightswitch I have faith that a light will turn on. I explained that my belief isn’t like Christian faith because I have, throughout my life, seen lights turn on when I turn on a switch. When the light did not turn on, I modified my belief and reasoned that something was wrong. I have a justified true belief, then, that lights will turn on when I flip lightswitches that I have seen work before.

Pascal’s Wager also propped its head into discussions…

Overall, I was not impressed with the level of conversation at the event because it was not very challenging or thoughtful. One pastor at the event — someone who asked to lay his hands on me in prayer (watch the video below) — however, brought more thoughtful discussion and offered to have a conversation following the event. We’re currently having an e-mail exchange after speaking on the telephone about the possibility of a future live, open-to-the-public discussion similar to the discussion I had with Pastor Dan Nichols.

Thankfully, although Pastor Michael Brewster was arguing that my hanging of the ‘Nothing Fails Like Prayer’ banner [was seen as] offensive and disrespectful (I will respond to this in a future piece), almost everyone I had conversation with was respectful. I plan to protest and hang a banner in response to the 2015 Wilkes-Barre National Day of Prayer event.

At the end of the day, people were educated on matters of atheism and separation of church and state (although most people didn’t want to talk about separation of church and state). Throughout the event, people — most of them Christians — told me that they have read my content, listened to my discussions with pastors, and thought that I was respectful and well-educated. It’s nice to leave a positive impression on people and dispel the notion that atheists are cynical curmudgeons.  This is a success.

Afterthoughts on “A Manual For Creating Atheists”

41amGtvxO6L._SY300_Dr. Peter Boghossian’s new book “A Manual For Creating Atheists” inspired deep reflection concerning the way I present myself when engaging in real-world activism, participating in formal debates, and challenging religious beliefs in face-to-face conversations.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading the final copy of Dr. Peter Boghossian’s new book “A Manual for Creating Atheists” which I had the pleasure of editing. I first communicated with Dr. Boghossian following pieces I had authored in early 2012. Boghossian contacted me, we chatted through e-mail, and we eventually conversed on an early episode of the NEPA Freethought Society Podcast.

Boghossian’s book, while it touches on such arguments, proposes a radical shift in conversations between atheists and religious individuals: a move away from discussion of metaphysics (the nature of existence) and facts to discussion about epistemology (how one knows that one purports to know) and faith.

Dr. Peter Boghossian speaking at The Amaz!ng Meeting 2013
Dr. Peter Boghossian speaking at The Amaz!ng Meeting 2013

Since reading and reflecting on Boghossian’s book, I have moved the focus of my conversations with religious individuals from metaphysics and facts to discussion of epistemology – insisting theists explain how they come to their belief and critiquing the methodology by which they arrive at belief. Most notably, as Boghossian mentions, atheists ought to focus on the core of theistic belief, religious faith – a mechanism which Boghossian rightly considers an unreliable means of arriving at truth.

Boghossian — drawing upon psychological research and literature — stresses that those who seek to challenge religious belief avoid forming adversarial relationships with theists – noting that people ‘turned off’ by discussion are less likely to listen and experience a cognitive shift.

Protesting outside "Public Square Rosary Crusade" event holding FFRF "Nothing Fails Like Prayer" banner
Protesting outside “Public Square Rosary Crusade” event holding FFRF “Nothing Fails Like Prayer” banner

Throughout my career of atheist activism and activism for the separation of church and state, I have worked with organizations displaying messages which may have led to adversarial relationships (read more about this here and here). Perhaps a more ‘gentle’ message, veering away from “Nothing Fails Like Prayer” and moving toward simply the word “Atheists” [although mere mention of the word ‘atheist’ is considered “attacking religion” by a solicitor of a transit authority and impermissible for an advertisement], can lead to more positive engagement?

It often seems like the content of messaging atheists employ does not matter in the eyes of many religious individuals who will claim offense and resort to acts of vandalism – most recently, [attempted] aggravated arson. More ‘biting’ messages, too, may often lead to increased conversation — especially with the help of media coverage — while more ‘benign’ messages may be ignored. Perhaps ‘biting’ messages can ‘rally the troops’ and appeal to certain demographics of atheists while more diplomatic messages may be considered uninteresting.

While there are many good arguments for both ‘diplomatic’ and ‘firebrand’ approaches, I find Boghossian’s plea for atheists to avoid adversarial relationships more relevant when considering face-to-face conversations which are usually much more in-depth than engagement with a billboard or banner.

My recent recorded open-to-the-public discussion with Pastor Dan Nichols, for instance, was much different than my recorded open-to-the-public debate with Pastor Michael Brewster – mainly because of the format. While I enjoyed both formats and the content within, I found my discussion with Pastor Nichols — largely informed by Dr. Peter Boghossian’s book — to be more productive.

Pastor Dan Nichols and Justin Vacula Photo by A. Elizabeth Baumeitster
Pastor Dan Nichols and Justin Vacula
Photo by A. Elizabeth Baumeitster

Audience members attending the discussion with Pastor Nichols — compared with those who attended the debate with Pastor Brewster — participated more, were more engaged, and pursued conversation with me following the event. The open style of conversation with Pastor Nichols allowed for more exploration, was less formulaic, and more spontaneous. Debate, by its nature, is a more adversarial format – pitting one person ‘against’ the other as opposed to conversation which allows people to talk with each other.

Dr. Boghossian’s book is very worthwhile – a breath of fresh air in the body of skeptical and atheist literature, tackling topics seldom discussed. Words from pages in his book have inspired change within this atheist.

Learn more about Dr. Peter Boghossian and his book by listening to his discussion with Karla Porter and I on Brave Hero Radio. Consider purchasing his book which is available on various platforms.

As always, feel free to comment below.

Video of discussion with Pastor Dan Nichols

Debate2 (1)
Pastor Dan Nichols and Justin Vacula
Photo by A. Elizabeth Baumeitster

Video recordings of my November 3, 2013 discussion with Pastor Dan Nichols concerning religious faith and atheism are now available.

Read the original press release for the event here.

Listen to the high-quality downloadable and streaming audio version of the discussion here.

Watch parts one and two of the discussion below.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Thanks again to Pastor Dan Nichols for participating in this discussion and providing our venue, Shawn Walker for moderating, Restored Church for the audio recording, Dorene for video recording, and everyone who attended in-person and listened live online.

As always feel free to comment and enjoy the conversation. Stay tuned for my after-thoughts.