The following is an excerpt from Talbot School of Theology professor Dr. Thaddeus Williams’ new book Don’t Follow Your Heart (Zondervan, 2023), which features the voices of Biola graduate David Yohan Chung (‘19), Talbot graduate Dr. Josh McDowell, Talbot professor Dr. J.P. Moreland, friend of Biola University Joni Eareckson-Tada, and more.
Oxford’s Richard Dawkins, the self-described “militant atheist,” opens his dated bestseller The God Delusion by laying his cards on the table. He doesn’t want you to believe in a god who is “a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak.” Neither do I. Worship this god and it will make you miserable. It will tear you and the people you care about apart. Just who is this controlling, destructive, malevolent deity? I refer, of course, to the god of self. We all, regardless of our official religious identity, have a tendency, as natural as blinking or breathing, to place ourselves at the center of our own existence. By the end of this book, my prayer is that we would be joyously cured of this “god delusion.”
THE WORLD’S FASTEST GROWING RELIGION
“God” is a notoriously slippery word. By “god” I simply mean your most sacred something or someone. A celebrity guru, a romantic partner, a political party, an orgasm, a dopamine hit — each can become our functional deity. It is wherever you look for identity and meaning, whatever you trust as your authoritative truth source, whomever you spend the most energy to please.
There is little doubt who the trending “god” is in my extremely religious home country. Eighty-four percent of Americans believe that the “highest goal of life is to enjoy it as much as possible.” Eighty-six percent believe that to be fulfilled requires you to “pursue the things you desire most.” Ninety-one percent affirm that “the best way to find yourself is by looking within yourself.”
Such self-centeredness is well on its way to achieving world religion status. Over the last century, it has witnessed a global expansion that could give the Christian expansion of the first to fourth centuries and the Muslim expansion of the seventh to eleventh centuries a run for their money. One could make a case that self-worship is the world’s fastest growing religion. It is certainly the world’s oldest (just read Genesis 3).
In addition to this book, we will meet many of the patron saints of this ancient and trending world religion. Nero turned his self-worship into the enforced faith of an empire. Nietzsche inspired many to become supermen who soar above traditional morality to reach godlike status as sovereign makers of reality. Michel Foucault, Nietzsche’s all-star acolyte, took to self-glorification with a twist of sadomasochistic sexuality. Harvard’s hippie guru Timothy Leary, who advocated psychedelics as the means to self-exaltation. L. Ron Hubbard added a sci-fi spin to self-deification with his Church of Scientology. The father of modern Satanism, Aleister Crowley, summed up his ethic with the Shakespearean dictum “to thine own self be true.” French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, beat poet Allen Ginsberg, drag queen RuPaul, tech giant Steve Jobs and assorted pop divas will join our ensemble of saints.
THE SOUNDTRACK OF SELF-WORSHIP
In addition to adherents and saints, the religion of self is not without its hymns. Ol’ Blue Eyes himself, Frank Sinatra, famously sang, “I did it my way,” the self-worshipers’ classic equivalent to “Amazing Grace.” Roxette closes its 1980s pop-rock hit with the looping mantra “listen to your heart,” sung thirteen consecutive times. Country music icon Reba McEntire assures us that “the heart won’t lie.” Proto-punk rockers The Kinks agree that you should “truly, truly trust your heart.” Original bad boys of hard rock Motörhead shout, “Listen to your heart / Listen all your life / Listen to your heart / and then you’ll be alright” over gritty power chords.
Then there are the children’s songs. In Disney’s Mulan soundtrack, Stevie Wonder catechizes young, impressionable minds: “you must be true to your heart / that’s when the heavens will part . . . . / your heart can tell you no lies.”
Little feet tap along with an animated swallow named Jacquimo as he serenades Thumbelina: “when you follow your heart, if you have to journey far, / Here’s a little trick. You don’t need a guiding star. / Trust your ticker, you’ll get there quicker.”
There are enough tween-targeted self-worship pop songs to fill a year-long playlist. We hear songs about bucking authority, songs about your wildest dreams all coming true, about being a super girl, or some roaring animal goddess who eats people’s expectations for breakfast and excretes fireworks and rainbows. Packed auditoriums of adolescents, hands outstretched in worship, have sung in unison with JoJo Siwa: “My life, my rules, my dreams . . . / My life I choose who to be . . . / So I’ma be me . . . / I follow my own lead.”
THE NEW DECALOGUE
The religion of self comes not only with saints and hymns but also with its own sacred commandments. Here are ten:
#liveyourbestlife: Thou shalt always act in accord with your chief end — to glorify and enjoy yourself forever.
#okboomer: Thou shalt never be outdated, but always on the edge of the new.
#followyourheart: Thou shalt obey your emotions at all costs.
#betruetoyourself: Thou shalt be courageous enough to defy other people’s expectations.
#youdoyou: Thou shalt live your truth and let others live theirs.
#yolo: Thou shalt pursue the rush of boundary-free experience.
#theanswersarewithin: Thou shalt trust yourself, never letting anyone oppress you with the antiquated notion of being a “sinner.”
#authentic: Thou shalt invent and advertise thine own identity.
#livethedream: Thou shalt force the universe to bend to your desires.
#loveislove: Thou shalt celebrate all lifestyles and love-lives as equally valid.
Of course, many of these hashtags are harmless, perhaps even helpful in certain contexts. A t-ball coach may tell a five-year-old to believe in himself as he sheepishly approaches home plate with a quivering bat. For someone afraid of the big wide world, #yolo may be good advice. Following your dreams and your desires may be sagely wisdom, especially if those dreams and desires arise in the heart of a believer who has yielded to the Holy Spirit. But people often deploy these hashtags with a far more seductive and even diabolical meaning, a meaning that includes false and antibiblical claims about divinity, human nature, sin, salvation and the future.
With prophets, millions of devotees, a thick hymnal, commandments and underlying dogmas, self-worship is more profound than a trend or lifestyle choice. It is, in a deep sense, a religion. In countries throughout the western world, it is arguably the only state-endorsed religion. It would be easy to sneer at self-exaltation as a religion, thinking we have outgrown the fanatical faith of our toddler days. I sneered for years. Then it dawned on me: I wasn’t only an outspoken critic of the cult of self, I was and remain a devout member. (Ask those who know me best. I’m practically a saint.) I have been, and will be until the day I die, in one long, painful deconversion process.
Here we reach the liberating and joyous thesis of this book. If you want to become more truly yourself, then break the commandments of self-worship. Break them often. Break them shamelessly. Break them boldly. The subtitle of this book could easily be “The Misfit’s Guide to Sinning Boldly against the World’s Most Popular Religion” or “How to Be a Twenty-First Century Heretic.” I wrote it to convince you to become an atheist about yourself — a defiant, outspoken, strident atheist cured of the delusion of your own deity.
That is my prayer.
For more info on Thaddeus Williams’ new book, and to access bonus content, an album that goes with the book, and a live Zoom Q and A with the author, visit jointheheretics.com.