Patti (whipartist) wrote,

On Religion

I posted this on the BARGE list today, so many of you have seen it. I want to share it here as well, since I'm pretty happy with what I had to say on the matter. I'm quoting a private mailing list without permission, but I think it's OK in this case.

[Summary: his wife's daughters both had cancer. She spent a lot of time
praying for them, including traveling to places she considered to have great
religious significance for her.]

>Do I believe
>that any of this had any effect on the recovery of her daughters? No. Do
>I believe that these actions allowed my Peg to stay functional? Yes.
>Why? Because it allowed her to be proactive in solving the problem. She
>because part of the solution rather than an ancillary victim.

Actually, it allowed her to *believe* she was being proactive in
solving the problem. It's not at all clear that she was actually
doing anything to improve her daughters' situations. It is entirely
possible that she was making them worse-- as JP pointed out a while
ago, it's certainly possible that there is a god and he doesn't
like being prayed to. If god is grumpy and doesn't like being
begged for favors...

>The point is that there are many situations that we encounter in life
>where believing that we can influence the future (through prayer) is
>necessary for our own mental survival.

If that is true, then atheists would never be able to survive.
And yet we do quite well for ourselves.

>The belief in prayer is a meme
>that confers on its owner a survival advantage that is no less powerful
>than an opposing thumb.

Perhaps, perhaps not. I don't buy it.

Let's take John as an example. John lives in Galveston, TX.
Even though he was under a mandatory evacuation order, he decided
to stay in his home and pray, since he knew god would take care of

A few hours before Ike hit, a truck drove down John's street. The
driver called out to John to come with them, but John declined.
"God will take care of me." John went back to his prayer.

The hurricane hit, and it was a doozie. A few hours later, John's
house was flooded, but he went up to the second floor and kept
praying. Two men in a boat came by and called to John, but he
wouldn't budge. "God will take care of me."

Still the flood waters rose. John climbed onto his roof to avoid
drowning, but kept praying. A rescue helicopter came by and tried
to pick him up, but he would have none of it. "God will take care
of me!"

The waters continued rising, and John drowned. When he got to
heaven, he was angry and demanded an audience with god.
Surprisingly, he got one. "God, I prayed and prayed! I knew you
would save me, but you let me drown. Why?"

"I sent a truck, a boat, and a helicopter. What more do you want?"

OK, it's an old joke, but the point is a good one. Relying
on prayer may well cause one to make poor judgments, miss out
on valuable opportunities, and perhaps leave one in worse shape
than if one did not pray. Christian Scientists are a prime
example of this-- we routinely hear stories of them dying
because they refused medical treatment, and praying didn't seem
to be enough.

What if, instead of praying, your wife invested all of that
time, money, and energy into developing a better understanding
of treatments for her daughters' conditions? What if she used
her time and energy to take care of them, make them more
comfortable, and do things that would help them heal?

>So which would you rather have
>a. An Opposing Thumb.
>b. A God that answers your prayers.

Well, let's define what we mean by "answers your prayers."

A god who grants me everything I pray for every time would be
the right answer, of course, since then I could just pray for
opposable thumbs and have the best of both worlds.

However, it's easy to prove that such a god doesn't exist. If
nothing else, far too often people pray for things that are in
opposition to each other. If I pray for an ace on the river and
you pray for no ace, one of us isn't going to get our prayers
answered. (One could probably write a science fiction story
about a world where god answered every person's prayers every
time. I suspect it would be an ugly world indeed.)

A god who answers every prayer and occasionally grants one's
wishes has some utility, but obviously the utility depends
upon the probability of getting your wishes granted. A god
who grants wishes at exactly the same probability as random
chance (which seems to be on par with current behavior) is no
more useful than no god at all. I'll take opposable thumbs.

It seems obvious to me that even if there is a god (and I don't
for a moment think there is), prayer is much more like tossing
a coin into a wishing well than feeding it into a vending machine.
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