On Atheism: A Parable
I have, at various times in my life, been faced with crisis situations. My sister delivering her baby somewhat early was a relatively minor crisis but there have been much more serious ones. During many of these crises people around me have suggested or engaged in prayer as a part of their reaction and I have not participated. I do not attempt to stop the praying but I also don't take part. This has provoked two questions. The first question is usually, "Hey, why don't you pray?" The answer to this is trivially simple: because I don't think talking to myself is going to help. You see, given that I don't believe in any god or gods silent prayer isn't all that different from the internal monologue I have going on most of the time anyway.*** So, more or less, I just don't feel like making a big deal out of something that's entirely mundane. The next question that gets asked, however, is often along the lines of, "Yeah, but you could be wrong. I mean, what's the harm of praying? If there is no god you're not out anything and, if there is a god, it might do some good." Leaving aside the fact that for virtually any religion the logic underlying this question is a theological trainwreck,**** I do have an answer. To be more amusing, however, I will provide this answer in the form of a lame parable. I hope you enjoy it.
The Parable of Steve
There once was a man named Steve who lived a very ordinary life with an ordinary job. He lived in an ordinary town and drove an ordinary car. He was, in a word, ordinary. Like many ordinary people Steve had a desire to be helpful to his fellow man. He was no saint- he swore occasionally, and left the toilet seat up, and sometimes forgot to signal when changing lanes- but he meant well and did what he could in an ordinary kind of way.
One day Steve was having a very ordinary kind of dinner in an ordinary sort of restaurant when the man eating at the next table began to choke. He hacked and he flailed and his face turned purple but air did not go in or out. So, Steve rose to his feet and resolved to do something for the man.
"This man is choking! Does anyone know what to do?" Steve cried.
"Try hopping on one foot!" came a reply.
Steve was baffled, "What? What will that do?"
Another man rose and approached before answering, "It will please the great Hop and he will help!"
"That's absurd!" said Steve, "How will hopping help a man who is choking?"
The man looked cross and responded, "You don't have to insult my beliefs! Besides, how could it hurt?"
Steve was flumoxed at that. It can't really hurt, he reasoned, and so he raised one foot and gave a little hop.
"Not like that!" came another voice.
"What?" Steve asked.
"Your foot!" replied a new man, "You hopped on your left foot. The great Hop only responds to right-footed hopping!"
"What does it matter?" asked Steve, "Isn't the hopping enough?"
"Well if you're going to do it," said the voice, "shouldn't you at least do it the right way?"
"Well I... I suppose." Said steve.
"Don't listen to him!" said the first man, "He's one of those right-footers! The left foot is the one the great Hop prefers!"
"Left foot, right foot," Steve cried, "How about I hop on each in turn. Will that satisfy you?"
After a hurried consultation the two men decided that it would and Steve began hopping on one foot, first the left and then the right. Yet, even as he finished came another voice...
"You must twirl as you hop, young sir!"
"What?!" Steve cried in anguish.
"The foot upon which you hop is irrelevant," said a young woman, crossing to join them, "unless you twirl as you hop the great Hop will bless your hop not!"
"Fine," said Steve, "I will twirl."
And so he did, hopping on one foot, and then the other, twirling all the while.
"What is this great Hop, anyway?" asked Steve.
"It is the Hop that guides the hopping of the world!" she replied smiling, "We can feel its presence when we hop."
"All I feel," panted Steve, "is dizzy."
"See?" she answered.
"Cease all this nonsense at once!" bellowed a deep voice.
"Oh thank Hop!" Steve muttered,
"All this twirling and one-footery is an offense in the eyes of the great Hop!" continued the booming voice, "You must repent this hopping and hop only on both feet!"
"Wait," sighed Steve, "I need to hop on both feet now too?"
"No!" answered the boom, "You must only hop on both feet! Hopping on only one foot is blasphemy and will be punished by the great Hop!"
"Liar!" screamed the first man, "Hop-heretic!"
"But how," asked Steve, "do I know that your hopping is right and their hopping is wrong?"
"You must have faith!" answered the boom.
"No, I must help this man!" Steve muttered, turning to find his poor fellow patron quite dead.
"It's a shame," said the woman, clapping Steve on the shoulder, "But you did all you could."
Steve did not give voice to his frustration.
Years later on another ordinary day Steve found himself eating dinner in an ordinary restaurant when another ordinary person began to choke. Once more Steve rose to his feet and cried out:
"That man is choking!"
As Steve crossed to the man he heard a second voice say, "Hop to the great Hop for him!"
Steve this time answered with a curt, "There's no time for that nonsense!"
He grasped the purple-faced man from behind, wrapping his arms around the man's stomach and jerking upwards in the way developed by another ordinary man named Heimlich. Once, twice, thrice Steve jerked until- POP!- an ordinary piece of food was expelled from the man's throat. The purple faded and the man resumed breathing, thanking Steve for his timely help.
And one onlooker said to another, "How brave! He just saved that man's life!"
"Indeed!" came the reply, "But why not hop? What harm would it have done?"
Look, the thing is we know that prayer doesn't change physical reality. Or, if it does, it certainly doesn't do it consistently. This isn't in doubt. So, if prayer does anything it either boosts the emotional well-being of those who are prayed for or makes the prayer feel better. Well, as it happens research suggests that knowing you're being prayed for doesn't help, and may hurt, so we're really left with "it makes the prayer feel better."
And this gets us to the main advantage of prayer: it doesn't do anything to help the situation but it at least makes bystanders feel better. Yet, ironically, we also learn of the greatest weakness of prayer: it doesn't do anything to help and yet makes bystanders feel like they've done something. If one is truly helpless then taking an action with no actual benefit except making you feel better is fully warranted. Yet, if there is some sort of constructive action one could take, then spending your time on something that only makes you feel better is self-indulgent. I am not castigating religious folks for praying- they believe that it serves a purpose and there's always the possibility***** that they're right- but for me, as an atheist, prayer is frankly immoral. If I respond to a crisis by doing something that has no benefit to anyone except myself when I could have been doing something constructive, something that would actually help deal with the crisis, then I am behaving in a morally reprehensible manner.
And so, ladies and gentlemen, that is why I don't pray.****** If you believe then pray away but please don't ask me to do it with you. I will help in any way I can but I won't just sit around and talk to myself when I could be doing something to actually make a difference.
* For the most recent installment, try here.
** For those who are wondering, the baby is doing well although she hasn't been released from the hospital yet due to a spot of jaundice.
*** Not strictly true. My internal monologue consists mostly of my voice humming the theme to Bonanza over and over again. "Dum-da-da-Dum-da-da-Dum-da-da-Dum BO-NAN-ZAAAAAAAA!!!!"
**** Do we all seriously think that the Judeo-Christian god would respond equally to the prayers of an atheist and a theist? Hell, given how jealous the guy is, I rather expect I might well do more harm than good.
***** Granted, that possibility really only extends to some sort of spiritual effect since we're pretty sure at this point that it doesn't have a material impact on the world.
****** Keep in mind, as always, that I'm not speaking for all atheists the world over here.