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.