Next Time, Pray For Forgiveness

I’ve just read a post about “what prayer is” on Why Don’t You, which was inspired by a post about “prayer in schools” on GodBeGone. Heather sees prayer as “special pleading” to God, which seems pretty reasonable to me. Obviously it depends on what you hope to achieve by the prayer, but many people seem to want to effect a direct change in the material world purely by praying. My basis for this is mostly Christianity, as I’ve seen most of it and they mostly pray in English. Almost every Christian prayer I’ve ever heard has made specific requests of the recipient: deliver us from evil, say, or strangely, from the Hail Mary, that she prays for the person praying to her. (Presumably this is the Catholic equivalent of having ‘contacts’.) There are loads of studies of prayer used as a medical intervention (all of the properly done ones reporting that prayer doesn’t help, and that telling someone they’re being prayed for makes things worse). And then there’s this, from the Telegraph:

An 11-year-old girl died from diabetes after her parents prayed for her recovery rather than calling for medical assistance. ... [Local police chief] Mr Vergin said the couple, who run a coffee shop in Wausau, had blamed her death on their lack of faith.

There’s a picture in the article of the parents and the girl, and the caption is just brilliant:

Dale and Leilani Neumann say they are not 'crazy religious people'. But after Madeline died, they prayed that she might be resurrected

There are churches which routinely endorse this kind of thing, and they (like Madeline’s parents) are protected by specific “healing by prayer” legislation. The whole thing is covered in more detail (and it somehow manages to get worse) at Pharyngula.

Personally, I see this as just one part of a much larger problem: people genuinely seem to think that praying will achieve something. This is one of the most dangerous aspects of Christianity, and it’s also one of the stupidest. Let’s be ridiculously generous, and grant these people the irrational and bizarre assumption that there is an almighty god who watches us and has little else to do but interfere with our lives. So what kind of a god is he?

The conventional Christian wisdom (and I use the word “wisdom” somewhat figuratively) is that he is all-loving. In which case, it would seem to me, he would simply cure these people without being asked – at least, if he thought that was the right thing to do. The idea that he is omnipotent but has no initiative somehow doesn’t ring true to me. He did, we’re led to believe, create the universe, after all. I can’t imagine who would have suggested that. (I’m not completely sure it was a wise move, in hindsight.)

It’s also fairly well accepted by those who think he exists at all that he has a Divine Plan. Usually the plan is held to be ineffable – that is, that no human ever can or will understand it. Let’s again be ridiculously generous and grant them the assumption that it is possible for something to be Beyond Human Understanding – that is, simultaneously impossible to understand and true. I would have said when something can’t be understood, it’s probably because it’s bollocks, but let’s assume for now that that isn’t true. So now the theory is that God, who is all-loving and omnipotent, has devised a Divine Plan, which presumably therefore represents the very best course of history that the human race could possibly take. We’re left to assume that things like the holocaust were strictly necessary for some unimaginably greater good further down the line, or perhaps for avoiding some even more terrible event which has now been averted. If so, thankyou God, although I don’t really see how it was your call. If all of the above is true, then it would seem to me that God would be an idiot to mess about with his Plan just because a load of humans who don’t understand it in the first place ask him to. (It would also suggest that God isn’t going to let a little thing like “free will” interfere with the Plan, so now all forms of action become pointless. Why take the girl to the doctor if God’s already decided how this ends? It also implies that murderers shouldn’t really be punished because anything and everything they do is sanctioned in God’s Plan. This is a really dangerous train of thought to stay on too long.)

And as if all of the above was somehow insufficiently absurd, when one prayer doesn’t work, they start getting more people to join in. People genuinely organise huge gatherings for prayer, and the Pope not so long ago tried to instigate a 24-hour “shift” prayer to rid the church of corruption. I ask you – if God is all powerful, then surely he can take a suggestion once, evaluate it, and implement it or not without having thousands of other people pester him about it as well? He’s not your MP, and even if he was, I’d like to think he was smart enough to realise that almost all petitions are a moronic waste of time. The merit of an idea isn’t a function of how many people support it (nor is the reverse true) and in any case God has never been known for his commitment to democracy. He tends, at least in the literature, to prefer a kind of auto-theocracy, where he rules all and anyone who doesn’t follow his rules is burned horribly or drowned or turned to condiment or something.

It’s moronic. And the problem is, that nobody in this story did anything but try to help. Her parents genuinely thought that if they sat at home and didn’t call the doctor for long enough, Madeline would get better. Then she died, and they genuinely thought that if they sat around the body and wanted it hard enough that Madeline would come back to life. (There is a sentence which can apply to multiple news stories.) In real life, their actions are unjustifiable. They were negligent and they imposed their ideology on a vulnerable young girl who trusted them and was too young to understand what was happening to her. The same is true of Jehovah’s Witnesses who apply their religious rules to their children, and the child dies where a blood transfusion would have saved them. It also applies to Daily Mail readers who think that vaccinations are harmful and their children – and other people’s – die of preventable diseases. I nearly added “worse still” before “other people’s” but I thought better of that. “Your” children aren’t yours. They’re theirs. They’re no more “yours” than “your” friends or “your” parents are. It’s an indicator of relationship, not possession, and anybody other than yourself, regardless of relationship, mustn’t be subjected to your delusions if that puts them at risk. But if you believe it, like this guy does, they absolutely did the right thing.

This article, from the universally accepted standard source for anti-vaccination nutjobs that is The Daily Mail, has quotes like this:

I've done a lot of research, mainly on the internet, and I'm doing what I think is the right thing for her.

You’re wrong. The world is complicated and nobody is expected to understand the whole lot. That’s why governments have advisers. Delegate this decision to someone more qualified.

Or this:

I've been called selfish by doctors and health visitors. In fact, I'm more vigilant than most parents - I've chosen to educate myself about immunity and how to deal with diseases, rather than blindly hand over responsibility to the State or doctors.

You are selfish and slightly moronic to boot. Do the smart thing and trust medical experts on medical matters. You can answer all their questions about your area of expertise, which is probably the lives of Katie And Peter.

Or this:

If Max did get measles I'd give him a boost with Vitamin C and Vitamin A from cod liver oil. If we have a second child, there will be no vaccinations at all.

You are negligent parents and should not have children – you’re literally no different to the Neumanns, except with fish oil substituted for prayer.

The problem is that even the best of intentions are worthless if you’re too ignorant to make the right decision. Some people say there are two kinds of truth: “scientific” truth, and “religious truth”. The former, they say, affects the world we live in, and the latter guides us in spiritual matters. Usually these people are either trying to protect their religious convictions from proper scrutiny, or else are trying to distance themselves from people like Madeline’s parents. The problem is that you end up saying “religious things can’t be understood, and aren’t a useful basis for real-world decisions, but they are nevertheless true”. To my mind, you are by that point using the word “true” in such a weak sense that it loses all meaning.

I prefer an approach that says “you go ahead and believe in your god, but only if you recognise that it’s irrational and don’t inflict it on anyone else”. I think about the universe, of course I do. Life is incredibly strange compared to everything else we know about science, and it seems to require a special origin to explain it. Personally, I tend to assume that “life” is a property of the universe which operates on some tiny level (say, the quantum randomness) and consciousness is an emergent phenomenon which appears when this ‘control’ is placed in a system as complex as a living human brain. It seems plausible to me, and it appeals to my kind of mind. (I like emergent complexity. It’s elegant and the neatest way to explain the existence of complexity at all. I’d hate to have the kind of mind that prefers to substitute God for a difficult question.) But since I’ve no evidence, I don’t put too much stock in that hypothesis, not that I can think of a situation it would affect anyway. That is a healthy and reasonable approach to take. If people said “I think there’s a god, and I think he’s against it, but I can’t be sure so you’d best get that transfusion anyway” then that would be reasonable.

Free speech is important, but I think we badly need a new crime of causing death by misinformation. Deaths from measles rose by infinity percent between 2005 and 2006 after the whole stupid autism “controversy” kicked off, and it’s in no small part because people like the Daily Mail publishing stories like this one. In principle, this would mean a lot of churches would be liable too, but really it would just mean that they’d have to be careful about what they preached – which I think would be a good thing.

It could save lives, and in so many more ways than by simply preventing deaths.