Total Drek

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Tuesday, March 04, 2008

On Atheism: A Parable

Many of you are aware of my ongoing series on atheism* and, thus, that I am currently trying to explain what atheism is and how atheists like me feel. In line with this effort, I recently reported on a conversation I had with my mother about my sister and her impending delivery.** During this conversation my mother suggested that I pray to whatever it is that I pray to and I responded that this was "nothing" and, instead, I would be thinking about my sister. This exchange reminded me of something I thought I might share with y'all and, as it has to do with atheism, I figure I may as well make it a part of the series.

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.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

LOVE the Steve parable.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008 1:34:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cute story. But I have to agree with one of your tags – and I mean this in the nicest of ways – you probably shouldn’t be writing about this, this being prayer. There are a couple of things that I think you really have wrong, and this is coming from someone who is not overtly religious, but definitely believes in God, and who thinks this series on atheism is pretty good. But you really don’t know what you are talking about when it comes to prayer.

First, I don’t think any believer in their right mind would advocate passivity when activity is a possibility. You are right there – it is immoral to pray, and only pray, for a chocking man when you have the physical skills to save his life and the ability in the current moment to do so. The story is cute, as I said, but totally misrepresents what the vast majority of believer would do in the situation you’ve posited. There is another parable where a poor man fervently prays to God that he win the lottery; years pass and nothing, he’s still poor. Believing that God answers all prayers, the believer asks God why He has yet to deliver a lottery win. God replies, “My child, first you must buy a ticket.” God helps those who help themselves. Indeed, at least in Christianity, the mandate is to live as Jesus lived, which is any way BUT passive.

I have some other ideas about this (hence the “First” in the preceding paragraph) but, alas, I have to go to class. I’ll be back.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008 1:42:00 PM  
Blogger Drek said...

Anomie: Glad you liked it.

Gradmommy: Yeah, I suspected this one might stir some things up. I'm going to wait to see the remainder of your thoughts before I respond, though.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008 2:00:00 PM  
Blogger Marf said...

A parable is good for getting a point across, but when you start to look at it critically and pull out every detail, they break down.

I like to use analogies, but they have the same problem.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008 5:29:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ok, I’m back. Thanks for waiting for me.

So, my second thought is about the study you link to that shows that prayer had no effect on the outcomes for heart bypass outcomes. I don’t have time to read through the original article, but in reading your links, they certainly do not prove that prayer doesn’t work, but that shoddy science has not proved that it does work. I suspect that those who are truly believers don’t feel the need to attempt to prove it, though. Although I’m training to be a social scientist, there are some things that I don’t feel our tools of analyses and inquiries are capable of examining. Prayer is one of them.

This brings me to a third point which is that even if the science could *prove* that prayer does not affect the material world, you’d really only be looking for the lack of the effect that you hypothesized would happen. Not seeing the change you were looking for does not mean that change did not occur. A common response (in Christianity, which is the only religion I am familiar with) is that God doesn’t always give you what you want, but always provides what you need. We sometimes pray for things that aren’t good for us – if I were a junkie and prayed for my next hit, I don’t think God would play much of a role in me receiving it. Sometimes we pray for people not to die, but that is not really the best thing for that person or for us. When prayer is undertaken by those who are believers and have faith, we know that suffering – our own and that of others – has a purpose for our own self-development. Simply, it may not be in God’s will that suffering be removed at any particular time. This site has what I think are very good answers (provided one believes in the Bible, but of course that wouldn’t be you) to the question of unanswered prayers:

I realize that this will not convince you, as I know you realize that your words will not convince believers. But it’s fun to have the conversation anyway, right?

Tuesday, March 04, 2008 8:37:00 PM  
Blogger Aftersox said...

Very interesting post - cool, silly story where the point was made about a third of the way in, I think.

Although I'd point out that I do think prayer has an effect, but not on the object of the prayer. Prayer affects the person praying. It has been shown that the practice of gratitude increases personal happiness. I'm a complete atheist, but will often pray (in a way) just to express my thanks for everything that has gone right in my life and my hopes that I can meet the challenges I face in the future. I think it helps a lot.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008 8:40:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

aftersox - who are you praying to? to whom are you expressing gratitude?

Wednesday, March 05, 2008 8:49:00 AM  
Blogger Drek said...

Gradmommy: Okay, now that you've had a chance to post all of your thoughts on my parable I'll try and respond. First and foremost I want to just thank you for your comments. I have some fairly strong opinions a lot of the time but I also value free speech and the ability to exchange ideas pretty highly. I almost always appreciate it when people leave comments even, and sometimes especially, when they disagree with me.

Your first comment has two parts to it. The first (keeping in mind that I chose first and second arbitrarily since they're mingled in your comment) is that the parable I crafted is not an accurate representation of Christian attitudes towards prayer and action. The second point is that Christians would not choose prayer over action when action is possible. In answer to the first part of your point, I pretty much agree with you completely. As Marf pointed out parables often convey a lesson or idea in an enjoyable way but at the cost of strict fidelity to the real world. The parable you presented about the man who prays to win the lottery is a good example of this since it relies on the rather foolish idea that the man is smart enough to pray but not smart enough to buy the ticket. In either case, the story is meant to generate thought. In my parable I was trying to convey the idea that, from my perspective, praying is more or less pointless. As Aftersox remarked, prayer can have benefits for the person doing the praying, and I conceded that in my original post, but such benefits can be obtained in ways other than prayer as well. I was not trying to imply that Christians or other theists would allow a man to choke to death because they were too busy having a theological debate- I find such an idea absurd- but rather to present a metaphor. To me, praying for the solution to a problem is just not a useful expenditure of time. If I had changed the parable such that Steve was told to hop for a man dying of cancer, the point would have been the same. The hopping would have no direct benefits and would only serve to waste Steve's time when he could have been doing something more productive. The only difference is that there would have been a less clear-cut solution to the problem at hand. I chose to go with choking for my example, however, because parables gain some of their effect through a deliberate over-simplification of the world. Besides, how often do I get a chance to write a parable, even a bad parable? The second part of your first point, that most Christians would not choose passivity over action, is I think debatable. In the post earlier this week on vaccination I remarked on a woman who has decided to forego vaccines in the belief that god will protect her children from disease. Similarly, we can probably all recall the Georgia legislators who recently prayed for rain. In either case there is a certain degree to which passivity is being chosen over activity and, in the case of the legislators, I am absolutely convinced that there are more useful ways they could have been spending their time. Again, I think that the overwhelming majority of Christians would not allow a choking man to die so that they could pray but in less clear-cut situations than this passivity is often chosen over activity.

Your second comment is that the studies I link to do not prove that prayer doesn't work. This is fair and I overstated things in my original post, so you're absolutely justifed in calling me on it. What I should have said is that studies to date do not support the notion that prayer has an effect on the world. So, it's true that prayer hasn't been proven to not work but it's also true that we don't have much reliable evidence indicating that it does anything other than benefit the person praying. I would additionally observe, however, that the burden of proof is on those who assert that something does work or is true. If the state claims that Bob killed Janet it is incumbent on the state to show that Bob did kill Janet, it is not incumbent on Bob to prove that he did not. On a more ridiculous level if I claim that I have an invisible dragon in my garage it is my job to present evidence that this is so, not the job of others to show that it is not. If someone claims that prayer is efficacious it is their responsibility to demonstrate that such is true, it is not the responsibility of others to prove that it is not. You additionally assert that scientific methods aren't really suited to studying religion. I partially agree with this and partially disagree. Where we agree is that I do not think that science is at all suited to study the metaphysical. Science isn't a system for deriving morality and the god concept can be made non-falsifiable rather easily. Yet, at the same time, if someone makes a claim that god intercedes in the material world, such interventions should be observable. So, to the extent that claims are made about the material consequences of god, such claims can be studied even if the god concept itself will forever be beyond scientific scrutiny. All that said, however, there is a catch in all this that I will discuss in more detail below.

Your third and final comment is that even if we could study the effect of prayer, and even if we found no effect, that still wouldn't show that prayer does nothing because god may simply be giving us what we need rather than what we ask for. This is a fairly common defense of god that boils down to "God works in mysterious ways," and it rather effectively places prayer outside of the realm of scientific investigation. It was also covered in my original post when I remarked that prayer at least had no consistent effect. Indeed, your current argument implies that sometimes god gives you what you ask for, sometimes gives you something entirely different, and sometimes gives you nothing as the current sequence of events is appropriate. As it would be more or less impossible to quantifiably measure "what is best for us," this means that prayer simply cannot be consistently linked to anything. I find this argument about god to be rather unconvincing but arguments from personal incredulity are hardly compelling. More important for the current discussion, this argument about prayer is one of the main reasons why I strongly agree with you that science and religion should not be mixed. I go into this in some detail elsewhere but the long and the short of it is that even if we could design a test for the influence of prayer, all the concerned parties would not bind themselves by its results. I strongly suspect that parties like the woman who trusts her child's health to god or the Georgia legislature would accept scientific findings that support the power of prayer but would reject contrary findings, likely invoking arguments like the one you present here. This doesn't invalidate the argument that god works in mysterious ways but it does show why studying the effect of prayer scientifically is something of a fool's errand. And this is the catch I mentioned above- even in the cases where scientific research might be a useful way to evaluate certain claims about religion it is probably not wise to make the attempt as only one result will be accepted while the other will be rejected. I think your view of theology as it pertains to prayer is quite sophisticated but I don't know that most people have an equally sophisticated view. It is that cruder view of prayer- the one that uses it to protect children from disaease or to bring rain- that I think deserves the most criticism. The view you advocate here, while not convincing to me, is infinitely more reasonable.

And with that I hope you feel that I have responded to your thoughts!

Aftersox: Yeah, the parable got to the point rather early, but where's the fun if you don't beat it into the ground?

Wednesday, March 05, 2008 9:53:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was never Christian, but I used to be Pagan. For many Pagans, magic and spells have the same function(s) as prayer and rosary--to ask the deity(s) for divine intervention, etc.

The points Gradmommy made about God not answering all prayers is part of the reason that, when I was religious, I still never really did magic.

If we don't know what's best for us, and some deity out there does, then why not just do in tangible action what we think will lead to our tangible, profane goals, and leave the divine intervention to the discretion of the divine?

Then, I'm doing everything I can to help myself, but not being so presumptuous as to think I have a god at my beck and call. 'Cause I don't. Not if they're just going to ignore the prayers in which I ask for things that aren't in my best interest. Why waste my time, then?

I could spend that time doing more productive things with the power I do have.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008 10:16:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Drek - yes, you have. And I think the point that we agree on is probably most important - science and religion should not be mixed. I love your posts on the Creationism movement - it is empirically wrong to assert that God can be measured by scientific concepts and morally wrong to try to teach it in public schools where not everyone is a believer.

Yay for good conversation!

Wednesday, March 05, 2008 10:40:00 AM  

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