So why wait? Tax them.

I’m still waiting to hear of any potential fallout from the little stunt called Pulpit Freedom Sunday, in which 33 Christian Right churches decided to send an unambiguous message to the government — to wit, “We’re Christians! Rules don’t apply to us!” — by openly politicking from the pulpit.

The whole charade was done in the hopes of igniting court cases. But I don’t see why that should be necessary. All the IRS needs to do is send these churches letters informing them that, as they have chosen to violate the laws pertaining to tax-exempt organizations by making formal political endorsements, their tax exempt status has been revoked effective immediately. And if the churches were to respond to such a letter with lawsuits, the courts should simply say, “Well, the tax laws are pretty clear about this one point, and you flagrantly violated it. So your suits are dismissed. Have a nice day.” See…no big deal.

You know, if every church in America were taxed — especially those absurd, stadium-sized megachurches that boast weekly attendance in the 10,000-and-over range — can you just imagine how that would help the country out of its financial slump?

Apropos of nothing: The post preceding this one was our 600th. Go us!

When you have no evidence, try fear

Got another TV show fan letter today, from this fellow, who voices a common apprehension (and don’t snipe at his poor English, as it obviously is not his native tongue):

whats up i been muslim for 11 years after being a roman catholic, and i was shocked but i lost my faith, i was a sunni salafi, now i cant get enough with these atheist vidoes i am still scared about hell, someone told me i should start a show. i cant shake off the fear of hell though everlasting burning

Well, you just need to realize that hell is something religion scares you with in order to control you. It should tell you something about religion, that it has to use an idea like hell as a tool of fear/control, and that it can’t just convince you of its truth through evidence and rational arguments. You don’t see scientific journals saying things like, “And if you don’t agree with our findings, you’re going to be tortured unimaginably for all eternity!” Do you?

Any religion that has to resort to a doctrine like hell to compel compliance and obedience is, by definition, immoral.

Show #572: A Missed Opportunity

What does it mean to say “God Exists”? That was what I examined Sunday afternoon on The Atheist Experience. The statement is brief–only two words. It should be simple, but for some reason, it’s always disproportionately hard.

What is god? Every theist seems to know. Yet no two theists seem to agree. And no one theist seems able to communicate it in a way that actually provides any real, informed data.

I think it’s safe to say a concept of god can exist in any mind. But most apologists put forward that god is not merely mental concept–an idea; god is, rather, existent outside the mind. Despite the often used refrain “god exists like love exists,” I have yet to meet the theist who will then declare that god, like love, is a mental concept with no external referent–solely an idea. God does not exist like love exists, to theists, when you explain how love exists, and ask them if this is what they mean by “god.”

I have been told on air that god is “ultimate strategy,” and tonight someone told me god is “the set of all [logical] possibilities.” What does this mean? I agree there is a set of logical possibilities–but how does that constitute a “god” any more than the set of all ipods constitutes a god? I’m less willing to agree there is such a thing as “ultimate strategy.” I have actually witnessed many times when there are equally efficient strategies for achieving any given goal. But even if there is a most efficient strategy–again, how is that a “god”? This might provide me some shred of information about an individual theist’s concept of a god–but it gives me no data about any god that exists outside this theist’s mind.

Without a god to compare to the theist’s idea, I must acknowledge no real information or data about a god has been provided to me. If a theist claims god is “ultimate strategy”, and I cannot examine god, then I understand his idea of god is “ultimate strategy”–but is there an existent god that actually is “ultimate strategy”? Telling me about an idea of god does not provide me with data about a real, existent god. And our argument is not about anyone’s concept of god. As I said, I fully agree that a person can have a mental model of a god. No one needs to convince me of that. But if a theist is claiming god is more than an idea, then providing me with more and more information about his idea of god helps me not at all. Explaining his idea of god does nothing to support the existence of a god outside his mind.

If his idea of god cannot be verified as correlating to any “god” in objectively verifiable, existent reality, then his idea of god cannot be said to be a god until some external referent can be provided with which to compare his claims. I don’t doubt the theist has an idea of god. I understand that he clearly does. What I doubt is that there is an external referent, “god,” to compare to his claims about his idea. I doubt that his mental model exists in any way outside his own mind.

Meanwhile, there are attempts to “define” god by putting god forward as the cause of particular effects. “God is the creator of the universe,” is one common example (but “the Bible” or “manifestation as Jesus” would work just as well). Ask this theist, “if we examine the universe to determine the cause, and it turns out to be a singularity–is that god to you?” You will find that is not god to the theist. So, “god” is not whatever the evidence asserts is the cause of the universe. God, to this theist is a preconceived concept that exists regardless of the actual cause of the universe. If a singularity turns out to be the best model of what caused the universe, but god, I am told, is not a singularity–then this helps me not at all to understand what it is this theist is calling god. And I am only confused now by his claim that god is what caused the universe. Going back to an earlier point, without a god to examine, I have no idea whether a god is at all connected to the production of any universe, holy books, manifestations of Jesus or prophets, miraculous events, or anything else we can drum up. What is this theist calling god, then? I have no idea.

There are also those who define god as “nothing.” God cannot be measured. Cannot be examined. Cannot be verified. Cannot be known or understood by mere mortals. God is transcendent, supernatural (and what does that mean?), outside time and space. In other words, god shares all the same attributes in objective existence as “nothing.” Except that god is “something,” insists the theist. God is exactly like nothing–except god is something. Not helpful.

In fact, definitions of “god” are as unhelpful as they are confusing. And the only external referents we are given are insufficient, to be kind. Intuition and instinct are often defined as evidence of “god” guiding believers. In my earlier post about Jung’s book “Psychology of Religion,” I discussed his reasons for pointing out that the subconscious mind is more than sufficient to explain why most people who believe in a god, believe in a god. Alternately, claims of miracles are sometimes provided. In fact, on the program, a woman claimed that several years back, she had an indeterminate mass in her chest one morning. She never went to a doctor, so we have no idea what it was. She prayed. It was gone the following morning. Ergo god. I feel no need to critique this “miracle,” as I trust any reader’s capacity to identify the problem here.

I don’t doubt such experiences. However, I’m highly dubious of the presumed interpretations and implications that people place upon them, unfounded.

In the end, I have no idea what any of these people mean when they say “god.” And explanations of what “exist” means only appear to cause more trouble.

Humans use the term “exist” in normal conversation to mean “manifest to humans”–to be somehow measurable in a way that is perceptible to human beings. If I say to you, “give me an example of an existent item,” you will, no doubt, point out something that clearly manifests. Certainly some things are more difficult to make manifest to us than others–but the things that we can measure–difficult or easy–are the only things we can legitimately toss into the group we label “existent.” And, again, just to clarify, I’m not referring here to the existence of ideas–but of the objectively verifiable items we think of as being existent outside our minds.

How do theists tell the difference between existent and nonexistent items? Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? We all are called upon every day of our lives to perform this task. People who can’t perform it are sometimes locked away–considered too defective as human beings to function properly in reality. But never, under any circumstances, underestimate the power of a theist to confuse the simplest of things if they conflict with his belief in god. Don’t get me wrong–existence itself is a real wonder. I’ll be the first to agree that I’m amazed at the idea that I am “here.” I’m confounded by the properties of light. I have no idea what causes matter and energy act on one another as they do. But as odd and wonderful as existence can be, is it incorrect to claim that we can tell the difference between that which exists and that which does not exist? If we can, how can we? If we cannot, then how can it mean anything to say that any item or entity exists?

This is a fair question–and one I was repeating often on the program. But at a pivotal point, with a caller on the line, I failed to address it. Alisha called to talk about “The Void.” Apparently god is a physics model called “The Void.” Alisha is going to send us some information so we can look into this for ourselves. “The Void,” according to Alisha, is the set of all possible items. Somehow, we reached a later consensus of “logically possible” items. But, when pressed as to whether she believed in a god or not, she said it was possible. “All things are possible,” she quickly added.

My first failing was in not pointing out that not all things are possible. As I had noted earlier, logical impossibilities can be formed. There are no married bachelors. I might have asked Alisha how much she believes her own statement. If I drop a lead weight off a building on a normal day–does Alisha think we can predict accurately whether the weight will float away like a soap bubble or fall to the ground? Or is she unsure what the weight will do–since all things are possible?

Carl Sagan once repeated a quote that it is fine to keep an open mind, but it may not be wise to keep your mind so open that your brain falls out. Did Alisha mean that at the singularity, we cannot say what is and is not possible? I don’t know, because she didn’t mention the singularity. Did Alisha mean that relativity and uncertainty and subatomic behavior wreak havoc with our physical “laws”? Perhaps. That was my initial assumption. But should I have to assume and guess at what someone means? If a theist expects to communicate an idea, and he is unclear about this idea–how can he possibly hope to provide an understanding of it to another human being? If a theist can’t explain what he means, he will sound as though he is saying he doesn’t understand what he believes. And if that is the message, how can he then ask me, not only to share that belief, but to even comprehend it?

But I missed a golden opportunity. We asked the caller if she believes fairies exist. Her response was “It’s possible.” OK, I understand her framework. No matter how farfetched I make the example, I am going to get “it’s possible.” While this may be an interesting philosophical thought, is it not the case in reality that we operate as though certain possibilities are not possible, and that others are so probable that one would be a fool to doubt them? For example, there may be an invisible, pandimensional vehicle in the middle of my lane as I’m driving forward on the highway. Should I swerve to avoid it–since it is possible the cars on either side of me will not be impacted by my car as the mass of my vehicle moves through them effortlessly? Philosophically, we can acknowledge this is possible. Realistically, however, will it work? Does anyone who holds to this philosophical claim walk the walk in their life outside of their god claims? Not that I’ve ever seen.

Did my brain lock up? I’m not sure. But the next question I should have asked was “is there anything you are willing to acknowledge does not exist?” At this point I can only wager a guess–since I didn’t ask. But based on her response about the fairies, I’ll wager that Alisha would not be willing to state conclusively that any item-X does not exist. I do not think that is an unfair characterization of her mindset during our discussion. All things, after all, are possible, to Alisha. She cannot, therefore, say they do not exist. Gods, fairies–sky’s the limit.

Alisha scores a brilliant gold star for consistency. However, she presents a major dilemma for the claim “god exists.” What does it mean to exist in a reality where nothing can be said to NOT exist? If we cannot differentiate between existent and nonexistent items–does it mean anything to claim that any item-X “exists”? Rhetorical as that could be, let me answer for clarity’s sake: No.

In order for Alisha’s god to “exist” requires “exist” to be redefined to include all items–whether they actually exist or not. In other words, it’s the same as defining “red” as “all colors–whether they are red or not.” If we accept that, does it then mean anything anymore to call something “red”? No. It doesn’t.

I missed my chance to exercise the point of my presentation live and on the air. And I couldn’t have asked for a more serendipitous opportunity. My only excuse is that when presented with claims that are unfamiliar, unclear, and that defy my experience with reality, it is sometimes difficult for me to wrap my brain around them in the present moment. And it is only later, after some consideration, that the bizarre contortions of logic that were used become clear.

“God exists.” Three callers later and I still don’t have a clue what I’m even being asked to believe.

“Did you have a good day?”

I wasn’t going to post any follow up to the “I’ll Pray For You…” post, as I’d generally prefer to keep my health issues within my “inner circle”. Fortunately, I was reminded that there are many friends and fans who care and, after receiving a number of kind and encouraging comments, e-mails, text messages and phone calls, I think some minor update is in order. There’s also a point to this post, so if you want to skip the diagnosis and get to the meat, scroll down a couple of paragraphs. :)

Yesterday, I stopped by my doctor’s office to go over the results of my lab work. As suspected, I’m diabetic. He explained the lab results to me, pointing out each number, what it meant and why it was (or wasn’t) a concern. He explained the specifics about the type of diabetes we think I have, discussed what to expect, what changes need to be made, what my potential risks were and then, after he was confident that I had a good grasp on the situation, he went over his proposed treatment plan. I’m now on medication and will be going back in 2 weeks to check my progress and make modifications to the treatment plan.

With luck, I’ll be able to avoid taking insulin, but it’s a possibility. With hard work and some difficult changes, I might eventually reach a point where medication isn’t required but as it stands now, this isn’t something that’s going to be corrected by diet and exercise.

On my drive home, I stopped by the store to pick up things I needed. As I was checking out the teller asked if I was having a good day. I had to stop and think for a moment. I started to weigh the good and bad events to gauge my day…I got off work early, so that’s good…but I had to go the doctor, that’s bad. I found out I’m diabetic, that’s bad…but it’s treatable, so that’s good.

I left the store and headed home, ready to make a few phone calls to people who had asked to be informed of the test results, and kept thinking about whether or not I’d had a good day. It didn’t take long to reach an answer, once I realized that I’d already started off by categorizing some events incorrectly.

Yes, I had a VERY good day.

There has never been a better time in all of human history to find out that you have an illness. I was fortunate to be able to visit the doctor and to have health insurance coverage to make the visit affordable. I was fortunate that my condition is fairly well understood, treatable and possibly correctable.

More importantly, as one of my friends pointed out, I gained more information about reality, and was able to form a plan to deal with it rationally and responsibly. Seriously, what more could anyone ask for? I’ve preached that goal in one form or another, on both programs, for years. ‘Believe as many true things and as few false things as possible’…’Understanding reality is critical to making good decisions’, etc.

No, I’m not saying that I’m thrilled to have diabetes (although it’s possibly the kick in the ass I’ve needed to make some changes to improve my health) and I’m not just looking for a silver lining…but I definitely had a good day.

And because of that good day, I’m more likely to have more good days.

Dan McLeroy: stupider than you thought

It’s physically painful to realize that someone this thoroughly idiotic is in charge of the Texas State Board of Education.

If science is limited to only natural explanations but some natural phenomena are actually the result of supernatural causes then science would never be able to discover that truth — not a very good position for science. Defining science to allow for this possibility is just common sense. Science must limit itself to testable explanations not natural explanations. Then the supernaturalist will be just as free as the naturalist to make testable explanations of natural phenomena. The view with the best explanation of the empirical evidence should prevail.

People, that’s thermonuclear stupidity!

Precisely how does McLeroy propose we test for those supernatural causes? Is he implying that supernatural explanations are testable but natural ones are not? How does he propose to differentiate the supernatural from the natural when testing it? Hell, how does he even define the supernatural in any context? Isn’t the word just a sockpuppet for “God”? Of course it is. Seems to me the last sentence of the above quote completely negates all the blather that preceded it, because like it or not, the natural explanations science presents us with are the ones with the best empirical evidence behind them. It’s hardly science’s fault if brainwashed, asstard ideologues like McLeroy just ignore evidence that doesn’t flatter their belief in their sky-fairy-of-choice. (Oops, there I go again trash-talking. I guess I’m due for a Kazim finger-wag.)

McLeroy raises these questions, to appear as if he’s actually intellectually engaged in the issue, but he provides no answers, of course, because he cannot answer. He isn’t interested in explanations for anything, anyway. Life to him is about belief, not knowledge. He’s just looking for a legal strategy, as are all these Liars for Jesus, by which he can shoehorn his religious beliefs into public school classrooms and help throw an entire generation of students back into the 18th century, while the rest of the world barrels along into the 21st. There simply cannot be any limit to the public ridicule these people deserve.

Elitism: a feature, not a bug

We had a fellow write in to the TV show address tonight, with a charge one tends to hear a lot these days leveled at those uppity folks who can’t just go with the mainstream flow: that we’re all snooty “elitists.” Troy writes:

My question is: What makes you feel that your cause is a noble one, especially considering the lack of open-mindedness, and often outright confrontation that your audience often brings? If your show was purely for advancing the benefits of an atheist point of view, I’d say more power to you. But, I tend to agree with my girlfriend that I often see what looks to me like elitism – you’re content with your intellectual superiority to the bulk of your audience, and often seem to gloat over their vain attempts to justify their faith. In my opinion, they shouldn’t have to – it’s their business, and I wouldn’t be surprised if many called in to the show simply as a reflex to feeling attacked by your show’s attitude.

Allow me to be the first (well, second, after Sam Harris) to declare that elitism is a feature, not a bug. I see elitism as nothing more than a dirty word people have attached to something that ought to be considered a noble goal: the pursuit of excellence rather than mediocrity in all walks of life, whether personal, professional, intellectual, artistic, or otherwise. After all, what can you be, if not an elitist, other than an advocate of mediocrity? Frankly I think there’s far too much mediocrity in the world.

I think that Troy and his girlfriend have allowed themselves to be sold the negative definition of elitism, which is that it’s a bad thing practiced only by snobs who think they’re better than you. Mediocrities want you to accept that definition of elitism, because it gives them a name with which to dismiss people who are simply more informed or better capable of defending their ideas in the court of public opinion (or anywhere) than they are.

Don’t be fooled. Elitism is a good thing. Everybody alive ought to be elitist. Having high standards is to be admired, not disdained.

As for any of us having a smug, snooty, smarter-than-thou attitude, okay, I’ll cop that that’s a risk when A) you are someone who considers elitism a feature, not a bug, and B) you are willing to argue your views not only articulately but with conviction. Many people mistake conviction for elitist arrogance, especially when, once again, they’re not as good at expressing and defending their own views. If we come off as arrogant on the TV show sometimes, I see that as just being a by-product of conviction. We don’t claim to be infallible intellectuals, but at the same time we aren’t going to dumb down our presentation so as not to offend touchy viewers.

Finally, as to why we bother defending atheism? Come now, do we even have to ask that question? You’d be surprised, but ideas do change. I can tell you, from my own experience as past host and present co-host since the turn of the century: I have seen the show evolve from a rinky-dink little local access show to a program with fans all over the world via the internet, that has inspired numerous other like minded-groups to undertake their own efforts. Certainly the calcified fundamentalist mind will not change, but more people than you would think are open to hearing what we have to say. Seriously, if the civil rights leaders or the early suffragettes had thrown up their hands and said “Screw it, nothing’s going to change?” where would they be today? Our very next president may well be African American. Something to consider.

More thoughts on Ebert’s Poe

Martin wrote:

Ebert comes clean

And gives those of us who get a little smug about our critical thinking a refresher on the importance of critical thinking. Go read.

And he thanked me by name! You now get to ridicule me mercilessly for going into fanboy squee mode.

To be fair, PZ does have some valid criticisms.

Yeah, more than valid; it’s an excellent point that PZ is making. I like and respect Ebert, and many times I’ve relied on his well-written opinions to decide what movies to see. Having said that, I’ve seen this “point” made too many times to find it in any way novel or clever. The point appears to be: “I said stupid things in a public forum to show how people would react, and sure enough people called me stupid.”

I mean, yes, ho ho Roger, very droll. The problem is that if I went around assuming that everyone was kidding when they recited a bunch of ignorant tripe that sounds exactly like what real creationists say, I’d be wrong in 95% of all cases, instead of (as some people were) wrong in this one. I am a fan of Ebert too, and like Martin, I’m familiar enough with his history that I didn’t think he would really turned into a creationist. But most people, having at most a passing familiarity with his non-movie writing, would have no reason to assume it wasn’t real. The only way to be sure is to read through the creationist nonsense carefully enough to detect the subtle sarcasm. And who the hell wants to do that, when all the creationist “I told you so” lists are so very uninteresting and similar to each other?

Lots of people pull the “I acted stupid and people called me stupid” trick and call it a study of human nature. Many of them even use this tactic to cover up the fact that they really do believe something genuinely stupid, like Scott Adams. Another guy who very clumsily pulled the same thing was our good buddy Patrick, who, after receiving well over 100 emails that universally panned his weird lawsuit crusade, wrote to tell us that the whole thing was an “experiment.” Right.

I’m not saying that Roger Ebert is lying, of course, I’m just saying that it’s strange to criticize people for being convinced by your plausible imitation of real idiots. Ebert does make a very fine point at the end of his recent post:

These days, there is no room for ambiguity, and few rewards for critical thinking. Now every word of a politician is pumped dry by his opponent, looking for sinister meanings. Many political ads are an insult to the intelligence. Here I am not discussing politics. I am discussing credulity. If you were to see a TV ad charging that a politician supported “comprehensive sex education” for kindergarten children, would you (1) believe it, or (2) very much doubt it? The authors of the ad spent big money in a bet on the credulity and unquestioning thinking of the viewership. Ask yourself what such an ad believes about us. No politics, please.

Yeah, he’s absolutely right, somebody would have to be a moron for believing that Obama wants comprehensive sex education for kindergarteners. However, somebody would not have to be a moron to believe that somebody would earnestly claim that he said that. They already did, and do. Hundreds or thousands of blog posts have been written which take the claim seriously.

So suppose that instead of writing about creationism, Ebert had written a “Jonathan Swift” style post saying, “Hey did you hear about Barack Obama? He wants to teach six year olds about condoms.” And then further suppose that a lot of people had written to him with all kinds of verbal abuse, and then Ebert had said “Ha ha! You see how gullible these people are? To their credit, no Republicans wrote to me at all.” That’s really not all that clever.

Besides which, I’d have to say that PZ didn’t really get fooled. Oh sure, he wondered what was up with that post, but speculating that his blog got “hacked” instead of assuming that Ebert was writing a joke isn’t all that unreasonable. I would say that he was no more fooled than Matt was when “Eve” and I conspired to mess with him on the show. Matt took the call at face value, but he also looked suspicious and said “I’m not sure that call was real.”

The difference between our joke and Ebert’s was that I was genuinely trying to make Matt laugh later. I wasn’t trying to prove anything about his gullibility, or claiming to expose a character flaw.

Dobson: clueless on American slavery

I turned on my local Christian station this morning (99.3 FM in Austin) and ran smack into Dobson gearing up for a rant on abortion. I don’t remember how I knew that it was going to be about abortion, but I could tell from a phrase and the tone.

Sure enough, it turns out they were talking about this clip from “The View.” In this clip, John McCain says that Roe v Wade should be overturned so that abortion can once again be thrown as a matter to the states. McCain specifically says: “I want people who interpret the Constitution of the United States the way our founding fathers envisioned.” Whoopi Goldberg asked: “Should I be worried about being a slave, about being returned to slavery? Because certain things happened in the Constitution that you had to change.”

At this point, Dobson breaks in on the clip and berates Goldberg, saying that, of course it’s the CONSTITUTION that outlawed slavery. Specifically, the 13th amendment passed under the Lincoln administration. And so, foolish Whoopi, she should learn some history.

This obviously misses the point, by a very long way. First, McCain’s traditionalist appeal to the “what would the founding fathers do?” argument is very directly countered by Whoopi’s point that the founding fathers supported slavery, even going so far as to write into the constitution that a slave‘s vote is worth 3/5 that of a regular person’s is worth 3/5 of a person for the purpose of census counts (Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3).* That Lincoln had to come along and fix this only emphasizes that point, which is that no, we DON’T always want to strictly go by “original intent.”

In addition, Dobson should turn the page to the next amendment, because that bears very directly on the kind of “states’ rights” argument that John McCain invokes to indicate that RvW should be overturned. Ratified shortly after the 13th, the 14th amendment says:
No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

Later Supreme Courts recognized this as overruling what was originally a states’ rights justification for slavery. Essentially, before the Civil War, individual states were free to allow or not allow slavery as they saw fit. The 14th amendment says that no, individual states are NOT allowed to override what has become the law of the land.

This was the same legal reasoning that was later used in the Roe v Wade decision. Previously, abortion was a matter that was left up to the states to allow or outlaw. Now it’s not. Nobody’s REQUIRED to provide abortions, but nobody can PREVENT you from having one, regardless of which state you live in. Despite what anti-abortion advocates would like you to think, this is not “legislating from the bench”; this is an ongoing process of exploring the legal ramifications of changes to the constitution, and this process started within a few years of the amendment’s passage.

Whoopi had a perfectly valid point in the above clip. Our current interpretation of what the 14th amendment means is based on the way that historical courts have ruled on the matter. And that’s perfectly constitutional. Unlike, say, the Bible, the Constitution isn’t supposed to “interpret itself” (hah); the Constitution SAYS that the courts have the power to indicate what is Constitutional. Whoopi’s point is that you can’t just go back to the way the founding fathers interpreted their laws, because it’s changed. One of those changes was disallowing prohibitions on abortion. Another was disallowing slavery. The same argument that invalidates one would also invalidate the other.

* Edited: The stricken out passage was a total brain fart. Obviously I wouldn’t have meant to claim that slaves had any vote before the Voting Rights Act. Thanks for bringing that to my attention, Tommy.

I’ll pray for you…

Nearly two years ago, Daniel Dennett wrote one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read. After surviving a 9-hour operation to repair damage to his heart, he wrote ‘Thank Goodness‘, a short essay that discusses the ordeal, his take on the sentiments of well-wishers and his view that “Thank Goodness” isn’t simply a secular substitute for “Thank God”.

This essay has been on my mind for the past few days. It came up in a discussion following Sunday’s show and I found myself thinking about it again this morning. As it turns out, I’ve got a few health concerns of my own and I visited my new doctor yesterday to discuss them. While we won’t have test results until Thursday afternoon, there’s a pretty decent chance that I’m diabetic (at a minimum, there’s a serious blood sugar concern and a few miscellaneous issues to address). I wanted to keep friends and family informed of the situation, so I fired off a quick e-mail, with the full knowledge that I’d receive a few “I’ll pray for you” responses.

In situations like this, that doesn’t really bother me. Yes, it’s as silly as saying you’ll sacrifice a goat for me, but I understand that most of the time it’s really just a sincere attempt to show that you care. The words don’t matter nearly so much as the sentiment, and I can appreciate both the sentiment and the inability to find a “better” way to express it.

I wouldn’t be upset if someone said they were keeping their fingers crossed, so why should I be bothered by those who say they’ll pray for me? As rhetorical as that question appears, the situation is not nearly so clear cut. Of those who would promise to keep their fingers crossed, I suspect there are relatively few who seriously entertain the notion that doing so is likely to have an effect on the situation. Of those who would offer to pray, I suspect that many (if not most) believe in the efficacy of prayer. Despite that difference, I’m not going to let someone’s superstitions distract me from their sincere desire to see positive changes in my life.

Unfortunately, some people simply aren’t content to offer a simple “I’ll pray for you” without injecting even more of their ignorance, self-righteousness and superstition into the mix. I received an e-mail response from one individual that went beyond the simple, superstitious sentiments of prayer. Without violating this persons privacy, I’d like to quickly point out some of the responses. I’ll paraphrase, rather than directly quoting the message, but the following is accurate…

‘I’ve been praying for you for a long time. I pray to the God that you deny and he’s told me so much about you.’

It’s curious that he couldn’t be bothered to give either of us the specifics on the problem. I’m wondering what else your god told you about me…if you’d just tell me, we could check the claims for accuracy. It’d also be nice to hear these ‘divine revelations’ before their confirmation. It’s a bit like looking at the lottery numbers and saying, “Yup, those are the numbers that God told me would win.”

‘I believe that this is what I saw that was “wrong” when I looked into your eyes. The eyes are the window to the soul and your soul is sick.’

This is a very thinly veiled assertion that my illness (whatever it may be) is because I’m an atheist. I have no doubt that this individual cares about me and wants me to be healthy and happy, but their religious beliefs have so thoroughly poisoned their mind that they’re unable to address situations like this rationally and simple expressions of love and compassion become opportunities to preach their superstitions with an “I told you so” bent.

Everything becomes tied to their religious views. If something bad happens to them, it’s the devil, trying to attack them for being a good Christian. If something bad happens to me, it’s God punishing my defiance. Health problems, money problems, family problems – every single event has some supernatural motivation.

People like this are unable to face reality rationally. The world is full of demons and angels, pulling our strings, guiding our fates, pushing us around like pawns in a cosmic game of chess. There is no grand mystery or wonder in their world, the supernatural ‘explanations’ fill the gaps. There is no hope of discovery or improvement, humanity is sick and sinful and the Earth is simply a place to wipe our feet while we wait for Jesus to spirit us away to the real life. Yes, modern medicine may be able to tell us more about illness, but these people already know that the ultimate cause is man’s sinful nature and the capriciousness (though they refer to it as ‘justice’) of the invisible friend they call ‘God’.

Those of you that have been crippled by religion, unable to face reality without your superstitions, I’ll pray for you.

No really. If “I’ll pray for you” is shorthand for “I’m sorry you’re in that situation and sincerely hope that things improves”…then I’ll pray for you.