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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

What in the world makes you hate prayer so much? I understand that you find religion to be insulting to your idea of this perfect utopia of soulless devotion to science, but what specifically about prayer do you dislike? Prayer brings people comfort in times of pain and suffering. Losing a loved one or being raped or losing a job... any of those things can really bother a person. And really, you can't do anything about those things, so it feels good to pray. You could knit, or you could pray. Neither one does anything, nor does it directly affect you. You're attacking a huge population of the country that have done nothing to you. All they do is exist. Calling all Christians infantile is like calling, oh... I dunno... all atheists morally bankrupt. Attacking a group of people for no apparent reason other than what a few of them have done. People could hate all atheists because some people post inflammatory, rude, cruel blogs on the internet. People could hate all Christians because some people evangelize and say inflammatory, rude, cruel things.

You're not any better than them. I assure you.

8:11 PM EDT  
Blogger The Jolly Nihilist said...

Prayer does irk me, inasmuch as, in my view, it is a false comfort and an illusory method of help, when, in many circumstances, actual help might be offered in its stead.

However, I do recognize the inflammatory, Dawkinsian style of this article. Criticism of the tone is noted.

9:16 PM EDT  
Blogger Tommykey said...

Shame on you Jolly for hurting Hannah's feelings! :-)

What in the world makes you hate prayer so much?

Hannah, I think JN pretty much explained why in his post.

The difference between knitting and praying is that the person who knits makes no pretense that what they are doing will affect the situation. It's simply a way for a person going through a rough time to keep him or herself occupied.

When a group of people pray for someone, there is this implicit expectation that somebody up there might be moved enough by such supplications to answer the prayers.

That being said, I understand that the act of prayer still has meaning for lots of people and that it serves to some degree as a display of solidarity with a loved one. It's not going anywhere and I don't expect it to. I personally don't care all that much if people pray, even though my views on prayer are about the same as our esteemed host.

12:41 PM EDT  
Blogger The Blogger Formerly Known As Lvka said...

E pur si muove...

After struggling with severe clinical depression for about three months, I was delivered from it during prayer. (Can't say it was "instantaneous", because our prayers are long: in that particular case, they took about two hours).

One time in college, I had applied to a better student-home, only to find out later, when the lists were printed, that I didn't get in. I amusingly said to myself that any being can alter the course of current or future events; it takes a God to change the past. :-) The next week, I found out I was admitted.

But, of course, there are perfectly plausible naturalistic explanations for both of these cases: prayer may have been the perfect psychological cure for a perfectly psychological condition; and the reason the admission-lists were changed and republished was the same as every year: they didn't know the final grades yet, so the student-home-residents were considered by default admitted... only that some of them had bad results in school, and people with better grades took their places [so the process was not closed, as I've thought, but was still on-going -- but I didn't know that when I uttered my little prayer].

8:38 PM EDT  
Blogger Andrew said...

Your post was on prayer; but I must put that aside for the time being. I have a serious question about something that really confuses me. From where does a self proclaimed nihilist summon all of this moral outrage? Are you only nihilistic about your own morality? Why, if you are morally nihilistic, do you treat prayer as though it is not only ridiculous in your view, but actually wrong? What am I missing here?

12:24 AM EDT  
Blogger The Jolly Nihilist said...


Thanks for the comment.

Actually, this is something about which Rhology has frequently asked me, as he seems to have the same confusion as you do with respect to my moral nihilism. In order to avoid any further confusion or possible misapprehensions, I shall clarify.

It is my contention that, given the lack of evidence for objective moral facts, we, barring convincing new evidence, can tentatively conclude none exists. However, the absence of moral facts does not prevent me (or anyone) from confecting a moral code to which I hold myself and against which I compare the behavior of others. In essence, every statement of "right" or "wrong," "moral" or "immoral," "righteous" or "wicked" that I make is merely one of opinion, derived from my confected moral code.

One need not mistake one's opinions for facts in order to form, articulate and passionately hold said opinions.

I am a devoted fan of the cinema and, in my judgment, David Lynch's film Mulholland Drive is the best cinematic work in a quarter-century. I could write a passionate, articulate essay extolling the film's many virtues. However, the passion with which I hold my opinions, about Mulholland Drive or anything else, should not be mistaken for a misguided certitude with respect to things about which there is no certainty to be found.

10:59 PM EDT  
Blogger Andrew said...

Let me make sure I understand. Is it your position that all morality is simply a matter of opinion? Does this opinion of yours apply to all actions at all times and all places? To ask it another way: In your estimation are there any objectively moral or immoral acts? Forgive the tedium of my questioning. I am trying to make sure that I have a crystal clear understanding of where you are coming from before I really say anything more.

5:46 PM EDT  
Blogger The Jolly Nihilist said...

Here is my position:

I have seen no convincing evidence whatsoever to support the contention that objective moral goodness or objective moral wickedness exists. I am not omniscient, and I do not know whether, in the future, evidence might emerge that would support objective, prescriptive morality. However, in the absence of any convincing evidence, I tentatively conclude objective morality does not exist, while remaining open to new, germane evidence.

Based on the current evidence, I conclude morality is a matter of opinion. In my opinion, the Holocaust was immoral. In my opinion, feeding the hungry is moral. These are statements of opinion, though, rather than fact.

8:13 PM EDT  
Blogger Andrew said...

Thanks for your response.
Is it moral for one person (let's say Madalyn Murray O'Hair) or group of people (let's say the Roman Catholic Church)to try and impose their moral convictions on others?

5:09 PM EDT  
Blogger The Jolly Nihilist said...

For me, that question is inextricably bound up with the Zero Aggression Principle, which can be stated as "No human being has the right, under any circumstances, to initiate force against another human being, nor to advocate or delegate its initiation."

When you talk about trying to impose one's moral convictions, that might or might not violate the Zero Aggression Principle. If a devout Christian, such as Rhology, preaches his understanding of the Christian message to an infidel such as myself, one might say he is attempting to "impose his convictions" on me, but he is hardly initiating force, which means his actions, to me, are consonant with moral virtue. If, however, he were to try to force me to live according to Christian precepts--not preach to me, but force me to change my lifestyle--he would be violating Zero Aggression and acting immorally.

Here is another example: If I, as an atheist, write atheism-themed books and maintain an atheism-related website for the purpose of spreading the Good News of atheism, in hopes of winning converts, I am acting in a manner consonant with moral virtue. If, however, I attempt to block Rhology and his family from entering their church, because I vigorously oppose the Christian message, I am initiating force and, thus, acting immorally.

In my version of the Zero Aggression Principle, those who flagrantly violate the principle sometimes must be stopped, including at times by forcible means. For example, Nazi Germany certainly was in clear violation of Zero Aggression, which, to me, made it permissible for a country, such as the United States, to stop the Nazis forcibly from further aggressive acts.

9:51 PM EDT  
Blogger Rhology said...

No human being has the right, under any circumstances, to initiate force against another human being, nor to advocate or delegate its initiation

And of course, that is a moral statement. And yet the JN elsewhere denies objective morality. So this has no prescriptive or normative power outside of his own opinion. This is otherwise known as a descriptive thought, much like "this apple looks more red than green to me".

4:55 PM EDT  
Blogger Andrew said...


Thank you for yet another response. My next question is this: Does the 'zero aggression principal" apply to all people at all times and in all places?

5:27 PM EDT  
Blogger The Jolly Nihilist said...

It depends how you mean that, Andrew.

Do you mean to ask, looking through my moral lens, whether the principle applies to all people at all times and in all places? If that is what you mean, then yes.

Do you mean to ask, apart from my moral lens, whether the principle applies to all people at all times and in all places? If that is what you mean, then no.

Think about a pair of glasses, Andrew. When you look at an action through my glasses, then the rule applies. If you take my glasses off, then the rule does not.

12:33 AM EDT  
Blogger Andrew said...

So if another person, or group of people, do not look through the same "moral lens" and find nothing repugnant in unprovoked aggression is it moral for them to violate the "zero aggression principal"?

9:57 AM EDT  
Blogger The Jolly Nihilist said...

What matters here is perspective, Andrew.

From my perspective--when looking through my moral lens--the Zero Aggression Principle applies to all people at all times and in all places.

From some other person's perspective--when looking through his or her moral lens--the Zero Aggression Principle might well not apply to any person at any time in any place.

My moral glasses are different from yours, thus making our perspectives, and judgments, different.

4:13 PM EDT  
Blogger Andrew said...

Is anybody's morality objectively superior to that of anybody else? Yours to mine? Rhology's? Mine to Stalin's? Etc.....

4:47 PM EDT  
Blogger The Jolly Nihilist said...


I see no convincing evidence to support any such statement.

5:14 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

First I would like to say I appreciate the comprehensiveness of your posts and your ability to clearly convey your ideas.

That being said, I have a few questions for my own edification:

I found information regarding STEP's intercessory prayer research here - - and could not help but feel that you omitted certain facts in your post "Why I Am Not a Christian". You make a sweeping statement that "Prayer has been tested in a scientific manner, and failed", yet the article itself claims that "Our study was never intended to address the existence of God..the study did not compare the efficacy of one prayer form over was not our objective to discover whether prayers from one religious group work better than prayers from another." It seems that you drew a conclusion never intended to be drawn based on their hypothesis or methods. Please correct me in my misunderstanding.

Additionally, I ask that you walk with me on a hypothetical journey, as you proposed biblical-literalists do with you in a previous post. Suppose there is an all-powerful God who created everything (I'm not asking you to believe, just to hypothesize). Would it not be reasonable to purport that this God has the right to determine how his creation approaches Him? Would He not have the right to accept certain prayer over others? I am in no way presenting the correct method to do so, however, I am claiming that this Harvard study could very well have chosen - in my hypothetical scenario - praying people that have not found the correct way to approach an all-powerful God and therefore have no right to receive a response. Therefore, in this scenario it would make sense that no results were seen to these "standardized prayers". Now, your level of intelligence expressed in your posts leads me to believe that you could extrapolate the intent of my hypothetical scenario, however that is not my point of discussion. My point is that they may have inaccurately tested prayer, albeit unknowingly.

2:33 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is part two. Blogger wouldn't accept my 4000 characters. Unfortunate:

I have another question unrelated to prayer with the purpose of trying to understand your worldview better. This question only stands to be discussed if you agree with one or both of the two following statements:

"I have felt love in my lifetime."

"I have felt compassion in my lifetime."

I believe that defining those terms is unimportant at the moment, however I would be glad to if you find you require that for an answer. Where do these feelings/senses/emotions fit in your worldview? Are they biological responses? Are they synaptic interactions? Are they indicative of another element to the human condition? Where do they stem from?

More importantly: Can they be tested?

If so, what do they tell us?

What benefit is there in love? What benefit is there in compassion? If survival of the fittest were a scientific condition, for example, then love and compassion would be a horrid pitfall, causing one to prefer others over self at inopportune times. If God existed, for example, then love and compassion would be derived from his nature imparted to his creation.

All of these questions can be summed up with the following:

What is the purpose of love and compassion in your worldview?

(You could validly state that you do not believe in the existence of any altruistic act and settle the discussion immediately, but I implore you to humor me with more than that.)

I do not expect - nor do I want - an answer to each individual question. I hope that you see my intent and answer that intent.

I believe it is important that one's worldview permeate every aspect of their life, otherwise it is not a valid worldview because it introduces elements of other worldviews. If the world is subjective morality, then apply that to everyone at all times. If the world is ruled by a Flying Spaghetti Monster, then allow him to inform every decision you make. If the world is governed by an omniscient God, then allow him to govern all.

I have more questions for you but I realize you have a life outside of the realm of blogging so I will refrain until I receive some indication that additional questions are welcome.

2:34 PM EDT  
Blogger The Jolly Nihilist said...


With respect to the STEP investigation, my argument, when writing “Why I Am Not A Christian,” does not hinge on, and is not affected by, any of the following: The study's lack of interest in adjudicating the question of god's existence; the study's absence of intention to judge the efficacy of forms of prayer comparatively; the study's avoidance of determining whether one religious group's prayers are more effective than another one's are. My interest is, and always has been, the size of this study, the diligence with which procedure was executed, the dedication with which the accepted scientific procedure was adhered to and the fact that, inasmuch as the study was substantially supported by the John Templeton Foundation, it represents the triumph of evidence over self-interest. This was the largest, most comprehensive study of prayer ever attempted, and prayer's utility was found to be nil.

Does a possibility exist that, in studying intercessory prayer's efficacy, the scientific investigators associated with STEP somehow approached prayer in the wrong way, thus leading to their negative conclusion with respect to the effectiveness of such prayer? I would certainly grant that possibility. It could be that this hypothetical god answers prayers on a whim, picking and choosing to whom he responds; depending on his feelings toward the person praying, or the individual for whom prayers are offered, this hypothetical god might be inclined to do more harm than good. It could also be the case that--wouldn't you know it--Southern Baptists are correct, whereas, with respect to every other denomination, there are doctrinal flaws, whether large or small, that separate those people from the god in whom they believe, thus diminishing prayer's efficacy. For prayer to hold any sway as a scientific concept, though--for prayer to be something to which attention ought to be paid--it must not be systematically closed to investigation; it must be testable, with the possibility of replicable results.

To address your questions regarding love and compassion, yes, I can certainly attest to my having felt, and indeed feeling, both in my lifetime. As for their origin, and their meaning in the human experience, I hold that love, compassion, and all thoughts and feelings that humans experience are a mere exercise of brain function; the entirety of our illusory “self,” and all the thoughts associated therewith, can be boiled down to physical processes. The best available science, incidentally, fully supports the some-would-say materialist viewpoint just articulated. A blow to the head can rob one of one’s memories. Neurodegenerative disease, in some cases, can result in what might be described as the loss of the “self.” Phineas Gage suffered a traumatic head injury, the lasting effect of which was a dramatic change in personality. Neurological and medical evidence strongly indicates that our memories, emotions, thoughts and, indeed, our very personalities reside in the physical particles of the brain or, more precisely, in the ways those particles interact.

Although I am not an evolutionary anthropologist, I might be able to shed some light on your subsequent questions, dealing with how love and compassion could develop in a godless world. Altruism, cooperation and solidarity all would have been evolutionarily beneficial characteristics during the earliest days of our species. We were never like the solitary orangutan; from our earliest days, we were a more social species. The elements of common morality that exist, in a quite general way, across nearly our entire species speak to the reinforcement of evolutionarily beneficial traits and the disfavor into which many harmful traits fell. Compassion, I think, is very much a natural extension of those tribe-welfare instincts; love, in the sweeping, romantic sense, as in, “I can love nobody but you,” would probably be considered a side effect--a misfiring, if you will--of our more prosaic social instincts.

12:21 PM EDT  
Blogger Andrew said...

You said:
"OBJECTIVELY superior?

I see no convincing evidence to support any such statement."

So morality all boils down to preference. Some may base the preference of religious beliefs, others on some attempt to scientifically quantify it; but it comes down to a person's opinion.
Jolly, I think you know that no one can actually live that way. You brought up the Nazis earlier so I will take up that example. The allied forces could not have possibly done the good they did in WWII while holding to your world-view. You seem to think that murdering Jews is wrong. I agree, but if it's just our opinion then we have no right to impose that on anyone else. You in essence said it was alright to violate the "zero aggression policy" in order to enforce it. Here's my point: People such as Rhology, and I can live consistently with our world-view. We may not at times, but it is possible. I don't think that it is possible for you. That is why your atheistic, nihilism is, in my estimation, utter folly.

12:33 AM EDT  
Blogger Richard Allen Crook said...

I agree with everything said except for the contention that prayer is only done by the insane, like murmuring to Pecos Bill. The difference is, many people are told by everyone they know and respect that they should prey to a higher being...many times told while they're growing up.

8:43 AM EDT  
Blogger The Jolly Nihilist said...


I think you are correct. It is not a sign of insanity to pray, because people, since they were tiny children, have been instructed to murmur to themselves while pretending to be in communication with the creator of the universe. It's merely a silly, irrational, illogical and bizarre behavior that, sadly, remains culturally sanctioned.

2:31 PM EDT  

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