Wednesday, March 13, 2013

On a mission from God

   A rather incredible letter to the editor ran in our Podunk Press last week. The writer accepts the invitation of another lunatic “to collaborate with him in his effort to rid our schools of atheistic teachings.” The use of the verb “collaborate” sets the tone for the whole letter.
   The writer is honored by the invitation “from a man as well known in this area for his level-headed, plebian (sic) approach to issues.” The man is, indeed, well-known, as a demagogic wing-nut who has all but called President Obama, among other things, a terrorist sympathizer and a baby killer.
   The writer is sure that his collaborator-to-be has “amassed volumes of information on people” over the years, and he calls on him to send him a “list of the known atheist teachers in our schools.” He cautions him to avoid mere hearsay, as the ACLU frowns on “witch hunts.” (Quotation marks are his.) A few lines are worth citing:
   “I will need actual, documented statements from students who feel that their rights were violated by a teacher who told them there was no God, or possibly ridiculed them for holding a particular religious belief. It will be especially poignant if the teacher tried to lead the student in an atheist prayer of some kind. Even if they said nothing, but put atheistic symbols in their classrooms, or wore jewelry that indicated ‘There is no God’ or ‘Jesus is a myth’, will be helpful evidence.”
   The letter is so extravagantly paranoid and loony (for example, what might an “atheist prayer” sound like? And do they make atheist jewelry?) that one has to wonder if the writer is serious. Even if he is, laughter is still the best response, for now. So let’s strike up the band, sit back and enjoy it—two of our community’s stalwarts are, like the Blues Brothers, on a mission from God.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Praying, against all odds

In his book, “Mortality,” Christopher Hitchens, the famous latter-day atheist, devotes the better part of a chapter to a discussion of prayer. When many of his multitudes of friends found out that he had the cancer that would eventually kill him, Hitchens says they let him know they were praying for him even though it might offend him.
Hitchens is tempted to write these folks back: “Praying for what?” a good number of them, he knows, are as much, or more, concerned for his eternal salvation than for his actual recovery.
The effect of prayer on one’s fate in the afterlife cannot be determined, of course, as no one has ever reported back, but Hitchens cites a 2006 study—“the most comprehensive investigation of the subject ever conducted,” he calls it (see below)—that found no correlation between prayer and a patient’s improvement. It did, however, find a negative correlation, in that the person prayed for often felt worse, because he thought he had let his petitioners down. And if he should happen to get better, Hitchens muses, wouldn’t it convince the pious that their prayers had been answered? The thought depresses him even more. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
Prayer, besides being possibly un-therapeutic, is also self-contradictory, as Hitchens notes. Presumably the devout regard their deity as all-powerful and all-knowing; if so, isn’t prayer blasphemous if it beseeches this being to change its mind?
And isn’t even a humble prayer, along the lines of “Let my wishes be Thine,” while maybe not negative in character, at least a little redundant? Why ask God to do something He’s going to do anyway? In this case we pray to God in order to praise Him, say the prayerful. But the God who needs constant admiration and thanks is one of the many gods he doesn’t believe in, Hitchens says.
What’s the big deal about praying, the reader might ask. What harm can it do? Hitchens’ answer:
“The emptiness of prayer is almost the least of it. Beyond that minor futility, the religion which treats its flock as a credulous plaything offers one of the cruelest spectacles that can be imagined: a human being in fear and doubt who is openly exploited to believe in the impossible.”
Or believe in the possible, the praying individual will undoubtedly say. But then you can’t argue with such a person—you can only pray for him.  

(The study Hitchens mentions is “Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer.” Look online at