“Practical Atheism” – Psalm 14

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Sir Julian Sorell Huxley FRS (22 June 1887 – 14 February 1975) was an English evolutionary biologist, humanist and internationalist.

Timothy F. Leary Editorial Stock Photo

Timothy F. Leary (1920�1996), an American writer, psychologist, campaigner for psychedelic drug research and use and 60s counterculture icon, with Laura Huxley

Timothy F. Leary and Laura Huxley

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Leary and the Huxleys at the 14th Annual Congress of Applied Psychology, Copenhagen, Aug. 1961 Original: NYPL

Leary and the Huxleys at the 14th Annual Congress of Applied Psychology, Copenhagen, Aug. 1961 Original: Leary Archives, NY Public Library

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Never Before Published Photo of Timothy Leary with Aldous and Laura Huxley

Leary and the Huxleys at the 14th Annual Congress of Applied Psychology, Copenhagen, Aug. 1961 Original: NYPL

Leary and the Huxleys at the 14th Annual Congress of Applied Psychology, Copenhagen, Aug. 1961 Original: Leary Archives, NY Public Library

By Michael Horowitz and Lisa Rein

This photograph–possibly the only one in existence of Timothy Leary and Aldous Huxley (there are some with Laura from later years)–documents a historic moment:  the only time the two appeared on stage and gave talks at the same public event.

It also marked a milestone in Leary’s career:   it was the first time he addressed an international conference, where he spoke about the psychedelic research project at Harvard–an event that had both personal and professional implications for him and his associate, Richard Alpert (Ram Dass).

Reprint of the two talks distributed by IFIF (International Federation for Internal Freedom) in 1963. Original from Michael Horowitz' Archives

Reprint of the two talks distributed by IFIF (International Federation for Internal Freedom) in 1963. Original from Michael Horowitz’ Archives

The event was the 14th Annual Congress of Applied Psychology, held in Copenhagen in August, 1961.  Leary chaired the symposium on psychiatric drugs.  It was he who invited Aldous to attend.  The two had met some months earlier, when Tim invited the author of the first two major works of modern psychedelic literature (The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell) to participate in the Harvard research program.   Huxley agreed and was “Subject no.11” in a group psilocybin session run by Leary in November 1960.

In Copenhagen, Huxley spoke on the subject of “Visionary Experience,” a topic he often revisited.  After discussing various non-drug methods of achieving visionary experiences, he came around to this:

“In modern times pharmacology has produced, partly by more refined methods of extracts and partly by methods of synthesis, a number of mind-changing drugs of extraordinary power, but remarkable for the fact that they have very little harmful effect on the body….With such drugs as psilocybin, it is possible for the majority of people to go into this other world with very little trouble  and with almost no harm to themselves.”

He concluded his talk by noting that “we shall hear from Dr. Leary of the induction of such experiences by such substances as psilocybin,” anticipating Leary’s subject by noting that psychedelic drugs “may be very, very important in changing our lives, changing our mode of consciousness, perceiving that there are other ways of looking at the world than the ordinary, utilitarian manner, and it may also result in significant changes in behavior.”

It is noteworthy that Frank Barron, Leary’s lifelong friend and colleague, also spoke.  His talk made reference to his “commending the mushroom to the attention of Dr. Leary, who immediately seized upon its possibilities as a vehicle for inducing change in behavior as a result of the altered state of consciousness which the drug produced.”

Leary spoke later in the day on the topic, “How To Change Behavior,” during which he summarized the work he and his team had done since initiating the Psilocybin Research Project in the fall of 1960, offering some controversial opinions:

“For many people, one or two psilocybin experiences can accomplish the goals of a long and successful psychotherapy…. The non-game visionary experiences are, I submit, the key to behavior change.  Drug-induced satori.   In three hours under the right circumstances the cortex can be cleared.  The games that frustrate and torment can be seen in the cosmic dimension.”

The way Robert Greenfield tells it in Timothy Leary: A Biography, Leary’s talk deeply disturbed many of the professional psychologists in the audience (which included several of his nervous academic superiors at Harvard), who believed mind-expanding drugs caused temporary psychosis and should only be used under strict medical supervision.  Richard Alpert (almost a decade before he became known as Ram Dass) followed Tim at the podium, freaking out the assembly even further with the notion that psilocybin and LSD produced genuine mystical experiences, which was an end in itself.

Their deviation from the medical model was more than anyone in the audience could handle —with the exception of Aldous Huxley, who had made similar assertions in his talk, though with a less impassioned tone.

Tim was later told by some psychologists who were present that his talk “had set Danish psychology back twenty years.”   Their Harvard colleague, George Littwin, claimed that this event proved to be the beginning of the end, not only for the research program but of Leary and Alpert’s time at Harvard, which came to a close in June 1963.

Nonetheless, “How To Change Behavior” proved to be one of Leary’s most popular writings, being reprinted in a number of books and journals.

The Copenhagen congress thus represented the first public pronouncement by Leary and Alpert who, taking their cues from Huxley and the results of their own scientific research, were early on convinced that the advent of synthetic psychedelics was a major evolutionary stage for humanity, destined to bring about a cultural revolution which they had no hesitation in facilitating if not spearheading.

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“Practical Atheism” – Psalm 14

Introduction
I’d like to begin by asking you a question I’ve asked myself. Are you an atheist? You probably think that’s an ignorant question to ask. Of course you aren’t! You wouldn’t be here, worshipping God, if you were. But that isn’t necessarily true. The fact is that America’s churches are filled with atheists. That’s because there are two kinds of atheist and that’s what I’m going to preach about today.

Professing Atheists
David wrote Psalm 14 and in verse 1 mentions those who say, “There is no God.” We call those who do so professing atheists. Professing atheists believe and proclaim that only matter, only atoms and the molecules they form, exist. God, therefore, doesn’t exist.

Atheism is an issue in America today. For one thing, atheists are growing in number. According to a George Barna poll, 11% of Americans are atheists, agnostics or have no religion at all. That’s 30 million people. For another thing, atheists are growing in organization and initiative. This past Christmas season, for instance, four separate groups instituted aggressive radio, television and billboard campaigns attacking belief in God. One, American Atheists, put up billboards displaying the nativity scene. Written over the scene were these words: “You know it’s a myth. This season, celebrate reason.” Christians no longer have the luxury of assuming everyone believes in God. Many don’t.

Why People Are Atheists That’s why we need to understand what David teaches us about atheists in Psalm 14. He begins by telling it like it is in verse 1. They’re fools. The word “fool” here has a mental component and implies something all of us need to know and proclaim. Atheism is intellectual suicide, a point that Paul also makes in Romans 1:18-23. It requires a blind leap of faith, blind because it’s contrary to the facts. It believes, for instance, that something came from nothing or that matter is self-existent. It also believes that chance, which is a pure abstraction, caused the universe to be the way it is. But those beliefs are absurd. They violate logic, which makes them blind leaps of faith.

In his recently published book The Grand Design, Stephen Hawking proposes that the cosmos spontaneously generated “from nothing.” But one has to wonder. How can nothing produce something, let alone hundreds of billions of galaxies? Atheist Richard Dawkins famously declared that theists, those who believe in God, are delusional. But just the opposite is true. It’s atheists, not theists, who are delusional.

But why are they? Stephen Hawking, for instance, is considered the most intelligent person on earth. So why does he believe something that so obviously flies in the face of the facts and common sense?

David tells us in his choice of the Hebrew word translated “fool” in verse 1. There are several Hebrew words for “fool”. The one he chose, nabal, implies an aggressive perversity, which he defines in verses 1-4. Notice the vivid language he uses to describe what atheists in general are or do: “corrupt,” “abominable deeds,” “does not do good,” and “workers of wickedness.”

With that language in mind, listen as I quote two celebrated atheists. One is the 20th century English writer Aldous Huxley: “I had motives for not wanting the world to have meaning; consequently assumed that it had none. The philosopher who finds no meaning . . . . is concerned to prove that there is no valid reason why he personally should not do as he wants to do . . . For myself, the philosophy of meaninglessness (atheism) was essentially an instrument of liberation, sexual and political.” The other atheist is contemporary philosopher Thomas Nagel: “I want atheism to be true . . . . It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God, and, naturally hope I’m right about my belief. It’s that I hope there is God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”

Those astonishing confessions illustrate that atheists in general believe God doesn’t exist because they want Him not to. Their objections aren’t nearly as much intellectual as they are moral. They want to run their own lives, to do whatever they want, without guilt and fear. But if God exists, they can’t. So, they choose to believe He doesn’t. Professing atheists, in other words, don’t live the way they do because they’re atheists. They’re atheists because they live the way they do. They make the way they believe fit and sanction the way they live.

Professing Theists
But it isn’t just professing atheists that concern David here. It’s professing theists as well in verses 6 and 7. These verses picture the wicked oppressing the righteous. But the righteous don’t fret because they know God shelters them, verse 6, and will “restore their fortunes,” verse 7. The righteous of verses 6-7 stand in sharp contrast to the wicked of verses 1-5. The wicked believe that God doesn’t exist. But the righteous believe that He does. They’re theists.

Now, the belief of theists is unlike the belief of atheists. Atheism is a blind leap of faith. Theism is a logical step of faith. By “logical step”, I mean this. If we do the math, if we gather the relevant evidence and connect it up rightly, we’ll conclude two things.

First, we’ll conclude that God can exist. There is no reason in the nature of things why He cannot exist. Atheists commonly point to certain realities or facts like Darwinian evolution or the existence of evil and claim they prove God cannot exist. But they’re categorically wrong about that. The truth is this. There is no reality or fact we can point to and say, “That makes it impossible for God to exist.” Take Darwinian evolution for instance. It’s false but let’s assume it’s true. That would not prove God cannot exist. For one thing, it only addresses how living things came to be and how they came to be the way they are. It says nothing at all about the existence of non-living things and their intricate nature. For another thing, Darwinian evolution itself is elaborate. The complexity and order that characterize it would actually be an argument for God. They clearly imply that someone designed and created evolution. It certainly didn’t design and create itself.

There’s no debating it. Nothing about the universe or life in it renders God existing impossible, improbable, or implausible. So, any objective person, with no ax to grind, will conclude that He can exist.

If we do that math, we’ll conclude a second thing. God does exist. The evidence make it clear to any objective person that He does. I explained some of that evidence in a Sunday school study titled Do the Math. I don’t have time to reiterate it now. But I’ll recount an anecdote that illustrates the result of gathering it and connecting it up rightly.

Antony Flew, who died last year, was a legendary British philosopher. Until the early 2000’s, he was one of the most notable atheists in the world and an outspoken critic of theism and creationism. But the developing knowledge of molecular mechanisms and DNA caused a monumental shift in his worldview. He came to believe in a creator God and explained why: “What I think the DNA material has done is show that intelligence must have been involved in getting these extraordinarily diverse elements together.” In a 2007 interview, he added that his belief in a creator God was the result of “my own insight that the integrated complexity of life itself . . . . can only be explained in terms of an Intelligent Source.” Statements like those compelled the atheists who once adored him to detest him. But Flew didn’t care. He simply replied: “Well, that’s too bad. My whole life has been guided by the principle of Plato’s Socrates: Follow the evidence, wherever it leads.”

That’s exactly right. We should follow the evidence wherever it leads. Flew is a classic case of what happens when we do. We become professing theists. We come to believe that God can exist and does.

Practical Atheists
But that isn’t all we come to believe when we follow the evidence. We also believe that this God who exists is Yahweh, the God of the Bible. Again, I don’t have time to explain the evidence that proves that. I can only refer you to the Do the Math study I mentioned before. But when we objectively follow the evidence it presents, we can and will believe that the God who exists is Yahweh, the God of the Bible.

But it isn’t enough just to believe it. As the Bible and good sense demand, we must live it as well. We say that God exists and is the God of the Bible. So let’s act like it. We’re practical atheists when we don’t. That’s the second kind of atheist. The first kind is the professing atheist of verse 1, who believes God doesn’t exist. The second kind is the practical atheist, who believes God does exist but acts as if He doesn’t.

An analogy helps explain what I mean. Atheists live in many ways as if they aren’t atheists. The belief that there is no God spins off a whole host of other beliefs, like human beings are nothing more than a chance collection of molecules or there are no objective rights and wrongs. If atheism is so, those two beliefs and others must also be so. Atheists though almost always act as if they aren’t. Francis Schaeffer met a group of bright young physicists who insisted to him that only matter exists – that God doesn’t. So he asked them: “How do you live out your atheism at home? Do you treat your wives and children a chance collections of molecules?” To which one of them laughed and replied, “Dr. Schaeffer, you know our lives are a dichotomy.” He meant that they could live out that implication of their atheism in the lab, but couldn’t at home and didn’t.

Whenever atheists love people and treat them as objects of worth or whenever they judge something right or wrong, they’re thinking and acting as if God exists. They are practical theists when they do.

That helps us understand, by way of analogy, what practical atheists are. They’re Christians who are thinking and acting in some way as if God doesn’t exist. The belief that He does exist spins off a whole host of other beliefs. Christians are practical atheists when they’re thinking and acting as if any of those beliefs aren’t so.

With that in mind, the very first belief that God’s existence spins off is this. The invisible world, consisting of God and His kingdom at hand, is utterly real and ultimately important. If it is so that the God of the Bible exists, then that is also so.

Unfortunately many Christians think and act as if it isn’t. A George Barna study, for instance, found that the average Christian spends nine minutes a week reading the Bible. Another study found that the average Christian spends fifteen hours a week watching television. Calculate that in these terms – nine minutes engaging the invisible world and fifteen hours the visible. It’s clear which of the two worlds those Christians in that context regard as primary. It’s the visible.

Christians who think and act that way are practical atheists. Don’t misunderstand me. That doesn’t mean that they won’t go to heaven because in Jesus they will. It does mean that in this specific context, they’re like atheists. They’re giving primary importance to the visible world.

Our call, in contrast, is to give primary importance to the invisible world. It’s to have what Dallas Willard calls “a life beyond.” We think and act as if God and His kingdom at hand are utterly real and ultimately important. We learn how to routinely direct our minds and bodies to God and His kingdom at hand, which we teach here at Bethel, and then do just that. A.W. Tozer sums it up well in his book The Pursuit of God: “We must break the habit of ignoring the spiritual. We must shift our interest from the seen to the unseen. For the great unseen reality is God.” We’re practical Christians, not practical atheists, when we do.

Conclusion
I close with an observation. The greatest distinction among Christians today is this. It’s between those who give primary importance to the invisible world and those who give primary importance to the visible. Are you a practical atheist? Give primary importance to the invisible world, God and His kingdom at hand. You aren’t if you do

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