Monday, April 19, 2010

To Pray... or to Sacrifice a Goat?

During a recent conversation with a close friend, I came to an important realization as it pertains to how I feel about religion in general and Christianity specifically. I have been an atheist, properly defined as an individual who lacks belief in god, ever since my early college days; I certainly retain that label. However, in conversing with my friend, who is also an atheist but takes a more benevolent view of religion than I do, I came to realize that I am an antitheist, as well. It is not merely that I lack belief in god: I possess a passionate antipathy toward religion as a whole, and Christianity in particular. Although I would not contend that Christianity, while clearly ludicrous, is more nonsensical than other prominent religions are, it is the religion that was inculcated into me and the one from which I escaped; thus, I cannot feel neutrally toward it.

My hatred of religion, however deeply felt, has not colored my analysis or blinded me to potential weaknesses in my arguments; on the contrary, my passions have been inflamed precisely because I have come to understand religion's flagrant falsity and its power to prey on the minds of those who are weak or helplessly indoctrinated. Moreover, as one who recognizes the power and beauty of science—as one who acknowledges that science, more than anything else, has pulled us out of our miserable ignorance and given us some shred of knowledge about the universe we inhabit—I take great offense at the pitiable primitivism, mysticism and supernaturalism that are part and parcel of religious practice. This “magical” fancifulness, which ought to have been abandoned in early childhood, serves to undercut a scientific approach to reasoning, crippling our ability to think and analyze rationally. This muddled thought and shameless unreason is nowhere more evident than in prayer.

Let me be succinct and clear: Prayer is a useless exercise, undertaken by those who, in a fit of childish delusion, believe they can effect change in the real world by falling to their knees and murmuring to themselves. These people, oftentimes adults who have been properly educated and who can function in day-to-day society quite serviceably, are under the distinctly infantile impression that muttering under their breath can affect the outcome of some circumstance in which they have a stake, emotional or otherwise. If an adult man conversed regularly with his invisible friend Paco Bill, an Old West-style cowboy, it would be a sign that man had departed from his sanity; when a large proportion of the population meekly murmurs to an invisible god at night, however, one is expected to hold one's tongue and not remark on the bizarre nature of said behavior. I shall not.

Perhaps the element of prayer I find most bothersome is the combination of silliness and arrogance that is manifest in the act. Suppose you are fervently praying one afternoon when, quite suddenly, the telephone rings. If you wished to finish your prayer, and you had a fidelity to honesty, you might tell the caller something like this: “I'm sorry, John, but I'll have to call you back. I'm talking to the creator of the universe at the moment, and I haven't quite finished what I have to say. I'll give you a ring when I'm done.” This is the delusion under which people who pray operate: They believe—and, yes, I find this utterly incredible—that they are conversing with, or at least directly addressing, the god who, they believe, is the architect of the cosmos. When a person prays for a sick friend, or a missing loved one, or whatever the cause might be, that person is attempting to make contact with—and ask a request of—the being who, they believe, designed Alpha Centauri and invented quasars and pulsars. What could be more arrogant than to believe the creator of the universe is accessible to you and wishes to hear your thoughts and requests?

Nothing puts humanity in its proper place like science. Current scientific thought suggests the universe is about 13.7 billion years old. As it pertains to the small blue planet on which we live, it has been around for about 4.54 billion years. With respect to humanity, hominids in something approaching modern forms did not evolve until perhaps 200,000 years ago, meaning that, on a cosmic scale, humanity has existed for merely an instant; we barely register as ever having existed at all. If there is a cosmic creator—a notion for which there is no good evidence, to be sure—we can be certain this creator is either unaware of, or disinterested in, humanity as a whole—let alone individual members of the species! Humanity is to the universe as a single grain of sand on a beach is to Earth; the entire species could go extinct in a nuclear blast tomorrow, and the universe would not take the slightest notice, nor miss our kind. The breathtaking ego of thinking one's petty personal problems would interest the universe's architect cannot be overstated, nor can the lunacy of believing such a creator would even be aware of the pious muttering, let alone listen to it.

Prayer is, indeed, an exercise in self-deception. When people feel powerless—when they feel like they cannot do anything to aid in a terrible situation—they grope desperately to find that magical act that might help; all too often, prayer is the result. As philosopher Daniel Dennett once wrote, the feelings of affection and love that inspire prayer might be appreciated, but the act itself is not; indeed, it is an act for which forgiveness should be sought. To pray is to do nothing of do nothing that will effect any change in any situation. If someone hears about a catastrophic earthquake and then proceeds to pray for the victims, rather than donating a substantial sum, that person, in my view, is acting in a way worthy of disapprobation. The same goes for a hypothetical missing little girl: If a neighbor fervently prays for her safe return home, but does not participate in the search party, the neighbor does nothing of use or help. Speaking for myself, I would urge my own loved ones to keep their muttering to themselves. I, of course, appreciate the feelings for me that would inspire prayers, but I no more welcome them than I would invite someone to sacrifice a goat on my behalf on an altar he constructed in his backyard.

The aforereferenced self-deception becomes ever more apparent when one considers the degree to which people who believe in the power of prayer “count the hits and ignore the strikes.” There is a word for when a person prays and then the thing for which he prayed happens: a miracle. There is no word for when prayers are callously ignored. Not to prostitute a tragedy for argumentative purposes, but consider the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster that occurred on April 5. How many times did you hear the phrase, “Pray for our miners”? How many prayers were offered, in earnest hope that precious life would be preserved? If those miners had lived through the incident, people surely would have partially credited the power of prayers for their survival. Given the tragic eventual outcome, though, the refusal to acknowledge a strike against prayer's efficacy is conspicuous. Answered prayers are a sign that prayer works; unanswered prayers are just tragic twists of fate. This kind of intellectual dishonesty—counting the hits and ignoring the strikes—is worthy of disapprobation, as well, and is even more disturbing for its seeming universality.

When you wake up tomorrow morning and leave your house for work, take a quick look skyward before you get into your car to drive off. Can you really imagine, for instance, seeing Jesus descending from the heavens—perhaps casting a luminous specter over the local Dairy Queen—ready to separate the righteous from the wicked? Is that the kind of world in which we live? Or do we live in the more prosaic, albeit still amazing, world that science has illuminated for us? Do we live in a world rife with miracles and prodigies and magic and supernaturalism? Or do we live in a world that, although deeply mysterious due to our continuing ignorance, operates according to a comprehensible natural order that allows for no convenient, anomalous miracles?

Rise from your knees; cease your mindless murmurs to a god who does not exist or, at best, does not care; and accept the world as it actually is. There is learning to do, there are discoveries to be made and there is knowledge to win. The blackness has not yet fully lifted, but we can only strive for greater illumination when we clutch science as, as Carl Sagan might have said, our candle in the dark.