This is a guest post by author and former minister Dustin Lawson
I will only be one of many helpers on the ground at the Reason Rally in Washington, DC. But if I had been among the honored few given the opportunity to speak to the thinkers assembled before the Lincoln Memorial, I would have given the following speech:
Hello, my name is Dustin Lawson. And I am considering a new career as a stand-up comedian. I have no experience as a stand-up comedian. But I think I would make a great stand-up because I used to be a preacher. That means I already have a lot of experience standing on a stage and saying stuff that is a joke.
What are some of the great jokes that I used to say from the pulpit? The universe is only six thousand years old. Dinosaurs and humans lived together and the reason dinosaurs are now extinct is because they were too big to fit on the ark so God decided to let them die off. It’s completely fair that every human should have to pay the consequences for the mistakes of Adam and Eve. Eternity in a lake of fire is a justified punishment for every person who doesn’t give their life to Jesus and that is somehow compatible with the idea of an all-loving God. And this country was founded on a religion.
Now, how did I believe all these great jokes with such conviction that I used to preach them in front of crowds of thousands? Because religion’s number one marketing strategy, used very effectively for thousands of years, worked great on me: get ‘em while they’re young.
Probably as early as age three or four, the church began indoctrinating me. As I grew up in the church, I had no intention of becoming a preacher. I had a much different career path planned. Well, it was a much different career path after I finally accepted the reality that as a 5’9” white guy who couldn’t jump, I probably wasn’t going to make it to the NBA.
At age 15, I began my first job. Whereas most people’s first job is serving food, in my first job, I could have been the food. My first job was as a lion or tiger trainer at a big cat reserve ten minutes from my house. Go to YouTube and type in “Lions, and Tigers, and Lawson, OH My!” There, you will see me get attacked by a tiger named “Ikatarina.”
After three years of working with lions and tigers, my dream was set, I was going to go to Ohio State, major in zoology and broadcasting, and become the next Jungle Jack Hannah. The path was clear, and nothing was going to stop me. But one thing did stop all of that from happening.
Towards the end of my senior year of high school, my pastor preached a sermon about not wasting your life. It was clearly geared towards all the high school seniors who were making major career choices. The pastor challenged us to not chase money, but to consider the ministry. After hearing the pastor’s challenge, I began to feel guilty, and I eventually talked to my pastor who convinced me that if I devoted my life to animals and not souls I would be wasting my life. So, I changed course and went to a Christian college and majored in theology to become a preacher.
For the first two years of college, I had mixed feelings about my decision to change career paths because I still wanted to work with animals. So, I had the bright idea of combining them, doing shows with exotic animals to draw a crowd and then preaching the gospel. But then, toward the end of my sophomore year of college, I kid you not, I became allergic to lions and tigers. I thought it was God confirming that I was to leave lions and tigers in my past and devote myself completely to preaching.
But I still had one problem: I didn’t think I was very good at preaching. Then, my junior year, I preached my first sermon in front of a big crowd. It was in front of the entire campus, about 2500 people.
When I was done, groups of people began coming up to me and saying that it was one of the best sermons they had ever heard and that I had a gift as a communicator. One guy pulled me aside and said that he thought I was going to be the next Billy Graham. Over the next week, dozens of people came up to me and told me how good of a preacher they thought I was. With each round of encouragement, the calling became more secure, and the dream became clearer: I was going to be the next Billy Graham preaching in front of crowds as big as the Reason Rally.
But the calling became more refined as I began to read books by the apologist Josh McDowell. These were books like “Evidence that Demands a Verdict” and “More than a Carpenter,” books with lots of “evidence” in them in defense of Christianity. After reading those books, I concluded that I did not want to bring people to Jesus like Billy Graham, through fear and emotion, through their heart. I wanted to bring people to Jesus through their minds with “evidence” and reason. Now, instead of being the next Billy Graham, I was going to become the next Josh McDowell.
I memorized every argument from Josh’s books. I also memorized about 90% of the New Testament. Then, during my senior year, I got picked out of dozens of applicants from all over the country to be Josh McDowell’s personal assistant for a year. The plan was coming together. I was going to be mentored by my hero and then I was going to lead a life just like his, bringing millions to Jesus all over the world through preaching and writing, most importantly, through reason.
When I graduated college, I had three other offers besides working for McDowell. I could have moved to Las Vegas and help take care of Siegfried and Roy’s lions and tigers. I still loved the lions and tigers but knew I was allergic to them, so I turned that one down. I tried joining the reserves because I wanted to serve in the military alongside preaching and writing. But during my junior year of college I had testicular cancer so the military rejected me because of my history of cancer. Yes, you are looking at a guy who only has one testicle. But don’t feel sorry for me because someday I will get 50% off the price of a vasectomy. And I won a cancer survivor contest that paid for me to go to an acting and modeling competition in Orlando. At that competition, an agent from Los Angeles picked me out of the crowd because he liked my look and asked me if I was willing to sign a contract to be one of his clients and move to LA.
I saw dollar signs, and I almost accepted. But then I had what I thought was a divine moment. I thought that agent was a temptation directly from the devil himself (or herself). I thought the devil saw in me the potential for a great warrior against his cause and that agent was his last ditch effort to keep me from working for Josh McDowell. So, I turned down the agent’s offer and stayed the course of going to work with McDowell, a job in which I had to raise my own support.
For the next year, I traveled with McDowell on a tour bus and airplane. I was in 44 of the 50 states, Canada, Mexico, Israel, Jordan, France, England, and Poland.
Everywhere we went, Josh would preach to thousands, using his arguments, his “evidence,” his “reason,” to try and bring people to Jesus. I thought each event was like a “Reason Rally for Jesus.” When my year with McDowell was done, I thought I would start my own preaching and writing career holding“Reason Rallies for Jesus” all over the country and the world. I even dreamed of having a Reason Rally for Jesus on the Mall in Washington, DC. Everything was falling into place, and nothing was going to stop me.
But something did stop me. That thing that stopped me from having my own “Reason Rallies for Jesus” was…well…reason. Better known as “doubt.”
It began one evening, about a month before my time with McDowell was done. I was in the back of the church running the PowerPoint and sound, and Josh was on stage in front of about a thousand people, sharing with them his so-called evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. And it was one particular argument where the doubt started for me, an argument I had heard McDowell say hundreds of times.
The argument was this: a person will not die for a lie that they know is a lie, so the resurrection must be true. The disciples would not have willingly died for their belief in the resurrection if it had not happened because they were eyewitnesses and would have known if it had not happened.
I had used that argument many times myself. But, for some reason, that time is when it stopped making sense. I realized that that argument only worked if you could first prove at least two other things: first, that Jesus and the disciples even existed. Then, if they did exist, that the disciples did in fact get killed specifically for their belief in the resurrection of Jesus. And neither one of those things are proven. Nowhere in the New Testament does it say that any of the disciples died specifically for their belief in the resurrection, not that it would prove anything if it did say it.
That evening, on the tour bus, I went to bed early, pulled back the curtain, and laid there in the dark going through all those arguments I had memorized in college. One by one, I realized that each one of those arguments lacked credibility if you looked under the surface.
When my time with McDowell was done, instead of beginning my own preaching and writing career, I spent the next ten months challenging everything I grew up believing. For the first time, instead of using all my high-powered reasoning to challenge everybody else’s beliefs, I turned it back on myself.
Finally, one late night in March of 2008, on the second floor of the library where I was going to grad school, I closed the book I was reading, a book written by the Internet Infidels, and stared at the wall for about half an hour in a disillusioned gaze. Then, with no one around, I whispered, “No one has any idea what the truth is. I am now an agnostic.” And I concluded that all of those obstacles that had blocked all the other opportunities and led me to work for McDowell that I thought were divine were actually just coincidences. And I began to realize how mistaken I was for thinking God was protecting me all those years in the cage with lions and tigers and concluded I was just lucky to have survived.
You might find this hard to believe because Hollywood couldn’t have written it any better, but I was going to grad school at Regent University, the school founded by Pat Robertson. So as I walked outside and walked across campus to my car, I looked left at the cross-shaped building where the 700 Club is produced. And then I looked right at Pat Robertson’s house. The irony couldn’t have been greater: I became an agnostic in one of the most religious places on earth.
For the next couple of weeks, I was desperately trying to salvage my worldview, the whole foundation of my life, all I had ever known. But I couldn’t. Eventually, I emailed McDowell and said we had to talk. I flew out to Iowa where Josh’s tour was at the time. The next morning, before traveling to the church he was speaking at, Josh and I sat in the hotel lobby and debated for an hour. I was desperately hoping that he, Josh McDowell, the most prominent Christian apologist of the second half of the 20th century, the guy who had probably done more research than anybody in history to try and prove Christianity through historical evidence, had some ace in the hole arguments he had never used. But he had nothing different than everything I had already heard. That sealed the deal of my agnosticism.
President Garfield, a fellow Ohio boy, wrote, “The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable.” That quote defined my life for many years after becoming an agnostic. As you can imagine, the truth destroyed my life. The truth obviously destroyed my career. I preached two sermons as a closet doubter before deciding I couldn’t continue. It also destroyed my love life, because the girl I was seeing did not become more open-minded with me and we had to break up, and it took me a couple years before I could trust non-Christian girls enough to take them seriously as a potential relationship. The truth also destroyed almost every friendship I had. And the truth hurt relationships with family members. Essentially, I had to rethink about 75% of my life.
But I do not resent the truth. I don’t even resent the Bible. In fact, my worldview is still in the Bible. It’d called the book of Ecclesiastes. That book is the greatest treatise on freethinking and agnosticism ever written and it’s right in the middle of the Bible and the church either hides it from its congregations or reinterprets it to make it sound softer. Neither do I resent God or Jesus, or the idea of God or Jesus since I have no idea if they exist. What I resent is the church for indoctrinating me for 20 years and not giving this little kid’s mind a chance to think objectively and causing me to build my entire life on a foundation of what is probably a false reality.
Eventually, six years ago, after rejecting me 13 times over the span of five and a half years, the military doctors gave up and let me in. But I only joined the reserves. One of the reasons I didn’t join full time was because I still held out hope that maybe it was all true and God would eventually give me evidence that would allow me to get back to preaching, something I couldn’t have done if I had joined full time. You see, that moment in the library when I became an agnostic, my mind instantly left religion and has never gone back. But the heart, the heart takes much longer to let go. I even wrote a book called Christian Agnostic, trying to show that the Bible is more open-minded than the church thinks because I was trying to create a space where I could maybe get back in. But now, my mind definitely wants truth more than my heart wants the fantasy. And here is the truth: you cannot have a reason rally in defense of any religion because no religion is based on reason.
Looking back, even if I had known how badly the truth was going to destroy my life, I would still take the red pill and pull my mind out of the matrix because the truth is more important than my life. The truth is also more important than false hope. The world needs hope, but hope that is based in reality.
As I look at the crowd of the Reason Rally, I see a lot of hope. My life, like many of yours I will bet, has been very lonely at times as a skeptic. But here are thousands of brothers and sisters in reason. I also hope that as you look at me you see hope. That hope is this: that if a mind that was as enslaved to dogma as mine was, as dependent on the drug of dogma as my mind was, can go through a dogma detox and be set free by real reason, then any mind can. Even the minds of Congress.
I used to believe that this country was founded on a religion, that religion being Christianity, and I used to resent all of you for thinking otherwise. But now I believe that this country was founded by a reason rally. The Revolutionary War, and the documents this country was founded on, was a reason rally that helped pull the human race out of the darkness of ignorance. How could a person read the writings of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, my boy Thomas Jefferson, and Thomas Paine and not think that this country was founded by a reason rally?
And one of the cornerstones of that rally was the separation of church and state. But somewhere along the line this country convinced itself that this country was founded on a religious rally. And it’s taking another revolution in thought to gradually break this country of that dogma. But I have hope that this country will again be led by the light of the truth that open-mindedness and not dogma is the path to truth, the path to peace, and the path to progress.
As for me, I no longer want to be the next Billy Graham or the next Josh McDowell. Now, with my tongue and my pen, I want to be the next Voltaire, Hitchens, or Harris fighting dogma for the rest of my life and helping spare children from what I went through.
I used to believe I had the greatest calling in the world, preaching the gospel of Jesus. Now I believe the greatest calling is to fight dogma because it’d the obstacle in the way of fixing so many problems.
Let me leave you with a quote that helped change my life. It’s a quote that I believe would change this city and country if taken seriously. The English historian, Thomas Fuller, wrote, “Truth fears no trial.” Truth, regardless of the subject, wants to be taken to court and put on trial and challenged by the whole world. Why? Because the truth understands that by being challenged it only shows it to be true even more, separating it from all the false ideas. Only false ideas fear being challenged. Great conviction is not challenging everybody else’s beliefs. The greatest conviction is opening your worldview and telling the whole world to challenge everything you believe. That is what a person of true reason does.
Any person who says you shouldn’t challenge their beliefs is insecure about the credibility of their beliefs and they are the person whose beliefs should be challenged the most.
Thank you for this opportunity.