Category Archives: Religion

Prayers and a Good God

[If you don’t already know, I’m an atheist. If you’re going to be offended by a frank discussion of religiosity, please stop reading now.]

Prayers

{Originally written in 2013, but never posted}

A friend of mine frequently posts various prayer requests to Facebook . I don’t typically respond, though if it were something serious, I would probably offer some sort of secular condolence or assistance. Her most recent prayer request was especially striking to me and got me thinking again about the point of prayer for action on the external world. To be clear, this post is not about inward prayers or meditations, where someone asks for strength or guidance or understanding. This post is about praying that something happen in the physical world.

I’m not going to quote her directly, but I’ll give you as accurate a paraphrase as I can. She asked others to pray that her son’s lost backpack be returned to them. He had evidently lost it on a city bus, and it was full of homework. She and her son had attempted to find the backpack on their own, but that had proved futile at the point she posted the prayer request.

I wondered why would someone pray for such an event? To be clear, she didn’t say “pray to God” but I think it is typically understood that’s who a Christian (which she openly is) would be praying to. So I’ll assume it was something like “Hey friends. Would you all please pray to God with me for the return of my son’s backpack?”

So this gets me to wondering–does she believe that God is all-knowing? If yes, then God knew what was going to happen before the backpack became lost, and even knows the consequences of such a loss, far into the future. If not, then God probably doesn’t know any better where the backpack is.

Does she believe that God is all powerful? If yes, then God could have steered events differently such that the backpack wasn’t lost in the first place. If God isn’t all powerful, then its probably futile to ask him to do anything.

And if God knew this was going to happen, and chose to let it happen, why would prayer from any number of people change his mind? And if it did change his mind, he knew it would all happen, then he’s just playing with everyone.”Hahahaha! I just took your backpack. You’ll get it back when just the right number of people pray to me!!!”

let me try to illustrate with a table:

All Knowing Not All Knowing
All Powerful Toying malevolent
Not All Powerful Impotent Human
  •  All Powerful & All Knowing: he’s messing with you.
  • All Powerful & Not All Knowing: he’s doing bad stuff but doesn’t know the outcome? That’s just mean.
  • Not All Powerful & All Knowing: he’s knows it all but can’t doing anything, so he’s impotent.
  • Neither: yeah, that’s us humans.

In none of these situations does prayer seem like a logical choice. So why?

More recently, a lot of people have been “praying” or posting prayer requests for storm victims in Moore, OK and Oklahoma City, OK. One friend in particular, as the tornadoes were bearing down on Oklahoma City, posted:

People in OK need our prayers….Lord in your mercy….

Is it safe to assume that this person, and many more, actually prayed that people in OK not be hurt or killed by the storms? Would that prayer go something like this?

Dear Lord God, please keep the people of Oklahoma City safe as these storms bear down on the city. Please don’t let them die.

Yes, I’ve just made this up, but, really, what else would a prayer in such a situation be intended to do?

Knowing that I’m an atheist you see this coming, right? What would you think of a human being who had the power to prevent deaths but didn’t? If it was within your power to throw a line to someone drowning in a lake, but you didn’t, what are you? If it was within your power to throw them a line, but you didn’t know they were drowning? If you knew they were drowning, and you threw the line, but couldn’t quite reach them? What does this say about God? What does it say about god that despite innumerable prayers, 20 people have died from the tornadoes and flooding? Here’s my table again;

 

Knew of impending deaths Didn’t know of impending deaths
Could prevent deaths, but didn’t Evil Blind
Could not prevent deaths Impotent Less effective than Humans

If this were the first time that prayers failed to prevent deaths from natural disaster, we might be asking “Hrm, what went wrong with our prayer-line of communication with the almighty one?” But its not. People die from storms and volcanoes and earthquakes every year. Prayer never helps.

God is Good

god is good

God is good, all the time. About an hour ago, I was sideswiped by a lady on
315. My car is all bashed up, but I am ok.

The above was posted by an acquaintance March, 2015. My acquaintance was neither Eric Slone, nor Jaroslav Boukhtin. Nor was my friend one of the 130 people killed in car accidents so far this year in Ohio. My friend was one of the fortunate ones, and for that I am happy. Truly, I am. I don’t want anyone to die in a car accident, regardless of their thoughts about god.

So, just in case my point isn’t yet clear, I’ll illuminate it a little further. My friend/acquaintance, Missy,  (not her real name) was in a car accident. I know from later posts that it did enough damage to her car that it is now being repaired, and she has a rental–so this was not a minor scratch. It was a pretty serious accident. And Missy was pretty shaken up. She seems to attribute the fact that she was only shaken up and not killed to the goodness of God.

So, lets take at face value, for a moment, that God Is Good, and had some direct influence over the accident. For if God didn’t have influence, then there would be no reason to proclaim his/her/its goodness in the same post as the one describing the accident. Allow me to break down the potential severity of car accidents into some really broad categories:

  1. No accident at all. The cars never touch, or even come close to each other.
  2. Near miss. The cars never touch, but perhaps there is a harrowing moment as they come close. No actual harm is done.
  3. Minor accident. The cars touch, ever so slightly. Perhaps a few scratches exist to prove it happened, or maybe a broken mirror.
  4. Significant accident, no harm. The cars collide, doing more-than-trivial damage to their exteriors, but the passengers are all unharmed physically.
  5. Significant accident, with injuries. The cars collide, are dramatically damaged, and some number of drivers or passengers require medical assistance.
  6. Deaths. Some number of the people involved in the accident die as a result of the accident.

These kinds of accidents happen with a fair bit of regularity in our society. Just in Ohio, there is an average of two to three deaths per day due to car accidents (2014).

Missy had an accident in the 3 or 4 range. She’s happy, and praises God, that it wasn’t worse. God, according to Missy, is Good, and prevented the crash from being a 5 or 6.

But how good is God, really, if he/she/they could keep a specific crash from being worse than it was, but couldn’t prevent it in the first place? How many people get home at the end of their commute and praise God for the fact that nothing happened at all?

And how good is God, really, if he/she/they could keep Missy safe, but not the other 130 people who have died in crashes so far this year, just in Ohio?

The goodness of God can get muddled in our language, since many who are religious tend to equate the words “good” and “God”. God is, in many religious traditions, defined as perfectly good. Some would even argue that atrocities committed by God are good things just because God did it. Anyway, I don’t know if Missy believes this, so I’ll move on to my human example…

You’ve got a friend, whom you would consider a good person, right? Let’s call him Elliot, just to give him a name. Elliot takes care of his kids by helping with their homework, taking them to sports activities, giving them shelter and food, and a supportive loving home. You would say that Elliot is a good dad. In addition to his fatherhood, he’s also a great person to work with. He is smart, reliable, pleasant, thorough, etc. He’s a good employee/manager/worker. Elliot also volunteers in the community–perhaps through a Scouting organization, or at an animal shelter. Elliot even visited you in the hospital a few years ago. Put enough of these together, and you would call Elliot a good person, and rightly so.

While chatting with Elliot over coffee (which he bought for you, he’s so nice!) he tells you about hitting a dog on the road. It was a terrible experience, and he’s really broken up over it. He stopped to see if he could help, but the dog was dead. It was a country road, with no houses nearby, so he just left the dog there. It was a terrible thing, and Elliot felt really badly about it. Does this affect your evaluation of Elliot as a good person? No, of course not. It was an accident. Elliot had no control over the situation.

The next week you’re having coffee with Elliot (the muffins he baked are fantastic!) and he tells you about the cat and the racoon that met their demise under the wheels of his vehicle. He’s still very upset about it, and is wondering why he’s having this string of bad luck. But, accidents do happen, and you still think of Elliot as a good person, though maybe he needs to slow down a bit.

A couple of weeks later, you join Elliot for a couple of drinks after work. He doesn’t tell you any more stories of animals dying beneath his wheels, and you’re a little bit afraid to ask. Alas, the rest of the conversation goes well, and you really enjoyed you time with Elliot. You say your goodbyes in the entry-way of the restaurant, and he heads out to his car. You stay inside to hit the bathroom before heading home. After washing your hands (you’re a good person too, natch) you make your way to your car.

In the dark parking lot you’re aware of a car coming up behind you. As you try to move to the side to let it by, you hear the engine rev and tires squeal. Your heart skips about 2 beats as you lunge out of the way, desperate to not get hit by the maniac coming right at you. The reckless asshole somehow misses you, but manages to remove the bumper from your car. The driver stops, and starts to get out, and you’re not sure whether to run at him or from him. Are you angry or afraid? Beat some sense into him or run away in case he’s still got murderous intentions?

And Elliot stands there smiling. “Nice moves! You really handled that well. Sorry about your car, but notice that you’re not hurt. I would never have hit you. I had it all under control.”

So how good is Elliot now? He’s a psychopath, right? Elliot had within his control any of these possibilities: drive home without any altercation, pull up next to you carefully and say goodbye again, or even playfully rev his engine but keep a safe distance. But he did none of those these. He chose to scare the shit out of you, AND damage your car. If Elliot were a human, you probably wouldn’t speak to him ever again, after filing the police report and insurance claim.

So when God does exactly the same things, why is he/she/it considered good?

A transcendent experience

photo (3)Have you ever had one of those moments where you felt totally connected to something larger than yourself? Felt like you were part of a web of caring, that your life was important and that you wouldn’t be let down? Aware that your life had value way beyond your own experience?

I had one of those experiences just a couple of days ago. I was flying through the air, not a care in the world, looking down on houses and trees and roads and people. I was perfectly calm, relaxed even, as my vision was consumed by the moving landscape, and I watched the ground whizzing by.

Was this a dream or meditative moment? Nope. You might have guessed already–I was on an airplane. Yes, it was one of those modern, yet entirely mundane moments when we were approaching the airport, and the plane banked pretty steeply such that the only thing I could see out my window was the ground, and the suburban neighborhood (with depressed home prices because of the flight paths, I’m sure) that covered it. The amateur physicist in me wondered what angle we banking, and how hard the pilot must be pulling into the bank so that we felt more connected to our seats than our arm-rests, despite the enormous pull of gravity to our right.

And it suddenly occurred to me, that without the technology and amazing engineering surrounding me, and the web of professionals guiding that technology, a human body flying at 300+ miles per hour at 5000 feet above the ground would be so terrifying as to be unbearable. To say that’s what nightmares are made of is putting too thin a cliche on it. Without that technology and the skilled professionals guiding it, death would surely be just moments away for a human body in that situation.

But there we were. Calm. Relaxed. Reading, even. And how many people made that all possible? From the pilots and flight crew, to the air traffic control, to the FAA regulating maintenance and safety standards, to the engineers, scientist, computer programmers, chemists, and dozens more professions encompassing thousands of people that are required to bring an airplane from design to lift-off. Why is it safe? Because all of those people valued human life. Safety of the passengers and crew has been the utmost of design principles. There are failsafe systems everywhere you look. The planes could even fly with one engine and no pilot. On every flight, every person is instructed to buckle their seat belt–and the plane will not take off until every passenger has. (When was the last time you buckled your seat belt in the shuttle from the parking lot to the terminal?) Any time anyone dies while in this endeavor, an intensive investigation helps to find the root cause and find ways to prevent it from ever, EVER happening again.

We do this, as a society, because we value human life. We support the idea that people who are alive should be provided the utmost opportunity to stay alive. And we’ve demonstrated through years of improving safety standards in air travel that not only do we care, but we demonstrate that caring through positive action that actually has results.

That, my friends is a transcendent experience–that my life has been entrusted to thousands who took that trust very seriously, and I lived to tell the mundane tale.

Kook Corner

The Lord Is Coming May 21, 2011

There’s an intersection a few miles from my house that have three prominent billboards decorating the crappy Ohio landscape. For the last couple of years, these billboards have almost exclusively been rented by religious groups for various theological messages. For several years a local mega-church had feel-good messages up–I don’t remember a specific message, but I think they were mostly about connecting with a community, friendship, love of neighbor, etc.

This past winter (I took these pictures in January) the “Lord is Coming” billboard went up. Evidently, around 6PM (local time) on the Pacific rim earthquakes will spread around the globe. The Good Christians(TM) will be called up to heaven, the rest of us will wait in fear for 153 days, when the whole universe will then be destroyed–that’s October 21, 2011 for those of us left on the ground. Some people are so convinced of the truth of this prophecy that they’ve quit their jobs, and have budgeted their savings so they’ll have no money left on May 21. I feel very sad for these folks. I dearly hope they’ll be able to file a class-action lawsuit on May 22 against the purveyors of this crap. I’m not sure what the offense would be–I’m not sure this is protected speech and wonder if it borders on dangerous speech like yelling “fire” in a crowded theater. The news on May 22 should be very interesting–I just hope no one commits suicide as a result.

After you die you will meet god

Turning 180 degrees from where I was standing for the first picture, we see the next one, “After you die, you will meet god”. Its an effective bit of fear mongering or theology-by-threat. It leaves open lots of wonderfully imaginative interpretations, but I think attempts to imply that god will judge you personally then send you to heaven or hell. Lovely.

The final billboard is about 100 yards away, and I’m always driving when I go by it, so I don’t have my own picture. This one is very similar, “In the beginning, god created”.

So at one intersection we have three billboards spouting literal interpretations of the bible: god created you [so worship him], god will judge you [harshly if you don’t worship him], and god will kill everyone who didn’t worship him. And I’m supposed to think the bible is the word of a loving god?

The Wager

A person very close to me, I’ll call her M, recently handed me a printed copy of this sermon. She handed me this sermon because she knows of my recent faith questions and she thought I might find it interesting. It took me a couple of weeks to get to it, but I finally read it last night.

The sermon opens rather poorly for me–with a condescending story about a 23 year-old questioning some tenets of his religion, only to be told “There are lots of things that you don’t know at twenty-three.” Though the statement is absolutely true, there are also lots of things that you don’t know at 43 or 63 or 93. To decline to discuss the issues head on with an adult clearly interested in discussing them is to miss an incredible opportunity. Instead, the priest (not the author of the sermon) chooses to be condescending toward the student. Imagine if I were teaching a class at work on technical topics where I’m an expert, and someone said “I don’t understand, why should I do that step?” If I were to simply respond “You’re too young to understand, just do what I tell you to do” I would be considered a bit on the pompous side.

The sermon touches on a church member, Hoff, who refused to say certain parts of the Apostles creed because he didn’t believe in them. I find I agree with Hoff, and that’s where I started having difficulties in my own church-going. I couldn’t stand in the pews and say words that I didn’t believe to be true. I find the pastor’s argument–” It’s the church’s creed, not ours.”–rings hollow. What is the church if not the members? Can members not choose to change the church as their understanding of the world evolves?

The pastor then makes a serious mistake. He mentions the “new atheist” movement and two prominent authors, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. He then quotes an anonymous reviewer of The God Delusion:

One reviewer of Dawkins’ book gently asks if the author has forgotten that the Soviet Union was an intentionally godless state and culture? Have Dawkins and others forgotten the atrocities Josef Stalin afflicted in the name of secularism? Hitler, Mao Tse-Tung, Pol Pot presided over mass murder of millions of people in the name of a new godless, religionless secularism.

It is clear that neither the pastor, nor the reviewer actually read the God Delusion. Nor did they look in the index under Hitler or Stalin. In fact, pages 272 through 278 are dedicated to addressing exactly these concerns. By asking the question rhetorically, the reviewer (and the pastor by using the quote) implies that Dawkins thinks all atheists are wonderful and therefore cannot do evil. This is not the truth. Dawkins fully admits that Hitler and Stalin committed horrible acts. Many people commit horrible acts. The real question is does atheism actually lead people to commit the horrible acts? The correct answer is that there is not currently any evidence that it does.

The pastor moves on to a tone of reconciliation between all the worlds religions which is admirable. The world would definitely be a lot better place if there were less killing of people. If that means convincing them that God doesn’t want them to kill others, fabulous. He then quotes Isaiah 19:23-24 which predicts an alliance between Israel, Egypt, and Assyria. I’m not sure how that is supposed to inspire hope that God can bring us together–its been a few thousand years since that prediction, and Assyria hasn’t existed for over 2600 years.

The pastor then makes what I think is an absolutely absurd assertion: “The Bible nowhere argues for the existence of God.” That’s like saying that my Camry manual never argues for the existence of my car. Of course it doesn’t–that’s one of the founding assumptions in the whole book. The bible doesn’t argue for God’s existence but it sure does claim that all who don’t believe in God will burn in hell.

He then brings up an interesting point that I’ve seen mentioned in atheist blogs: “In the Bible, faith in God means trusting God more than believing ideas about God to be true”. Frequently when a believer says “I believe in God” they really mean “I trust God will do what he says he’ll do or what I think he’ll do” in the same sense as if I were to say to my daughter “I believe in you” as she attempts to ride a bike for the first time. The core of my problem with believing in God is precisely this interpretation. For me to believe in God, I have to see some reason to trust that God will do anything. I believe in gravity even though we have a very poor understanding of the core mechanics because it does something. I believe in electricity even though it feels a lot like magic because I know how to trust it to do work (or provide warmth, or inspiration, or joy).

Finally, the pastor gets to the reason for the name of the sermon–Pascal’s Wager. He doesn’t describe the wager explicitly, but it goes like this: the risk of belief in God is low (religious life), and the risk of unbelief is high (hell); the benefit of belief is high (heaven) and the benefit of unbelief is low (atheist life). Therefore based on a risk-benefit analysis, we should just believe because it makes sense. The pastor seems genuinely unaware (or more likely, unconvinced) of the criticisms of the wager. He ultimately claims to wager on God for two reasons:

  • the highway builder, making a way where there is no way, bringing together antagonists and mortal enemies, his precious children, Egyptians, Assyrians, Jews
  • and that shepherd, with a lost sheep on his shoulders, coming home

So, he chooses to believe in God because of a failed (so far) prediction to bring three nations together in harmony, and because of the lost sheep parable. Its a wonderful parable, and volumes have been written on it. But there are lots of parables around. Sorry pastor, that’s not reason enough for me to believe.