Should Atheists Pray?

“Should atheists pray?” the paper asked
And commenters all had to share…
Seems nobody knows what an atheist is,
And nobody understands prayer

At the New York Times, the “Room for Debate” opinion page asks “Should Atheists Pray?”.

With atheist church services this month in Louisiana and New York, nonbelievers are borrowing some of the rituals of believers: gathering, singing, sermons.

Would it be fruitful for atheists to pray? For believers and others, what is the point of prayer?

They ask 5 people, only one of whom is an actual atheist (Hemant Mehta). The others include a professor of psychology and former pastor, a professor of preaching, a visiting professor of the new testament and co-pastor, and (naturally) Deepak Chopra. Of course, the real fun is in the comments to each essay.

We find, among essayists as well as commenters, that there are myriad understandings of just what atheism is–from simply not believing in a god, to specific denial of a god even if evidence for one was shown, to those who specifically hate the Christian god, to frankly incoherent quasi-descriptions. Oh, and it takes more faith to be an atheist than to believe, but you already knew that.

There are also a wide spectrum of beliefs about prayer. Now, atheists are sometimes accused of being the only ones who really take the bible seriously (thus, our claims about what believers believe are simply straw men), but honestly, there is no perspective of religious belief that I can conceive of that doesn’t have its manic proponents–from Chopra’s new-age touchy-feely amorphous blobby bullshit to prosperity gospel “god wants you to be rich, so ask him for money” to “prayer is not asking for anything, it’s thanking for everything”, to “prayer is the same as meditation” to anything under the sun.

So, should atheists pray? Near as I can tell, That’s about a thousand different questions, with about ten thousand reasonable answers, and about a hundred thousand unreasonable ones. Me? I have had more than a handful of occasions when I would have prayed, back when I was religious. Some of you know. I have had occasion… but I have not prayed in over 25 years. Never had the slightest inkling. My parents have prayed, my sister has prayed, and I don’t think any less of them for it. Not in the slightest. There is every reason for them to believe in prayer. Every reason but the right one–that it works. I know the studies on intercessory prayer. I know the evidence. I’ve pissed off my whole family by correcting my sister, in her hospital bed, when she credited prayer for her recovery. My own opinion–should atheists pray? No; nor should anyone.

Do I think any less of anyone for praying? Absolutely not. Depending on your own views, and your own definitions of prayer, there are maybe a million reasons to pray. None of the good ones involve there being a god, though. All the good reasons to pray involve us being human, and frail, and scared, or hopeful, or happy, or angry, or… oh, yeah, there are probably a million or so bad reasons to pray, too. So like I said, on the whole, my own opinion is anti-prayer.

But any question that takes a spectrum and requires a black or white answer is a bad question. And that is what the NYTimes has done.

Maybe they should have asked more atheists.

Maybe they should have asked me.

Those Dead-Eyed, Soulless Atheist Types

The eyes are the windows to the soul
Or at least, that’s how they are credited;
And demons show up in a camera’s view
When the image is printed unedited—

The atheist hordes have no spirits inside,
You can tell from their cold, lifeless eyes;
Of course, they will claim it’s a trick of the light—
They are liars, so no great surprise.

Yes, I know that a flash will reflect in your eyes
It’s just physics, that’s all, I’m aware—
But I choose to believe that it’s more than just that…
They’re just atheists—I really don’t care.

Ok, this was weird. The good news first: The Secular Coalition for America just announced that they have met with the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships:

Edwina Rogers led a group of several representatives from the nontheistic community including several of the Coalition’s member organizations, which included Aisha Goss, Deputy Director of the Secular Coalition for America; Wendy Kaminer, Secular Coalition Advisory Board member; Amanda Knief, Managing Director of American Atheists; Maggie Ardiente, Director of Communications and Development at the American Humanist Association; Greg Epstein, Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University; Jason Torpy, President of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers; and Michael DeDora, Director of the Center for Inquiry’s Office of Public Policy and CFI representative to the United Nations.
Edwina Rogers said it was important that a variety of Coalition members were at the meeting in order to show that the movement is unified. The religiously unaffiliated or “nones” now account for more than 19 percent of the American population. Among people aged 18-29 that number is even higher, with a full 35 percent identifying as unaffiliated, and 42 percent of that segment identifying as atheist or agnostic. The religiously unaffiliated are a growing and politically important demographic-the nones now represent the largest “religious” bloc of registered Democratic voters, comprising 24 percent, according to statistics from the Public Religion Research Institute and the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
“It’s impossible for the White House to work individually with every organization, but as a unified group the Administration can more efficiently work with us as a community,” Edwina Rogers said. “The role of the Secular Coalition is to be the unifying voice that speaks on behalf of the nontheistic and secular community–we feel this meeting was a prime example of our mission in action.”

But, see, I didn’t find out about this from the press release. I found out about it from The Blaze, where they think it strange that atheists would be interested in meeting with a government Faith office. Where, strangely enough, the commenters focused on… the photograph. If you take a look at the first (SCA) link, you’ll see a normal photograph, like those you have seen in stories on any number of topics. If you click on just the photo itself, though, and open it, you’ll see the unretouched version, before the very minor edits to get rid of flash artifacts in most of the eyes. Anyone using the photo for any story would do what they did, and simply get rid of those nasty white dots.

Anyone but The Blaze, it seems. Their story uses the unretouched (and unflattering) pic, and commenters were quick to point out that

they certainly have strange eyes. The camera doesn’t lie.

and

No indeed something does NOT look right in their eyes. Soulless…sort of like our Dear Leader and his “You can never spend too much of the citizens’ money” wife… If God does not inhabit; evil WILL enter. Indeed….

and

Look at their eyes. Reminiscent of Poltergeist!

and

I know people will just say it is because of the lighting, but take a look at each one of their eyes in the picture…..something doesn’t seem right. They all look evil.

This last commenter was responded to, and doubled down:

@Lucretius…I understand what you are trying to do and the point you are attempting to make. Yes I realize that there could be several factors that cause their eyes to look like that…such as the light from the flash reflecting off of the lenses in their eyes, although they do have this relatively new invention on cameras that stop that…maybe they just didn’t have it turned on. Or maybe it was dust particles reflecting back…..I get that….however, it does not take away from the fact that these people still look dead inside and evil…..and I”m not the only one that has pointed that out, just read through some of the other posts.

What I find so entertaining is that atheists claim to be these “freethinkers” and that they use “science” to explain everything. However, in science you have rules that you must abide by which in all honesty limit your ability to think freely.

And the funny thing? As ludicrous as these comments are, when compared to the other comments at The Blaze, these are the people who are at least commenting on something with some relationship to the real world. There really actually is a photo, and it really does have white spots in some people’s eyes. Sure, there is a simple explanation for it, but it is part of an observable reality. I can’t say the same for many of the other comments there.

Sarah, Rick, And Bill Report For Duty In The War Against Christmas

Dateline: Late June, 2013

Once again, the War On Christmas sees the atheists attack,
But there’s something different this year—this year Christ is fighting back!
Let the godless and their minions rant and rave and do their worst,
Cos our strategies are changing—yes, we’re even striking first!

There’s a book that’s set for launching, and it’s just what you’d expect,
Sarah Palin taking aim at the politically correct.
So it’s festive and it’s jolly; it’s tradition, meant to please,
With first amendment platitudes in pidgin legalese

And in Texas, there’s a notion, and Rick Perry says it’s his,
Making “Merry Christmas” legal which it… um… already is
But this pandering to Christians, even minuscule amounts
Makes the martyrs feel much better, and of course that’s all that counts.

Now I hear that Bill O’Reilly wonders where religion went,
When it’s tough to be a Christian (in the 80-plus percent)
Bill-O wants a Christian country, so it’s worth our fighting for
Which explains the man’s obsession with a six-month Christmas War

Here, it’s summer—barely summer—and the sun is beating down
And there’s no sign yet of Christmas in our sleepy little town
In the churches, stores, and neighborhoods, if Christmastime you seek,
Then you’re just a little early… Christmas season starts next week.

The war on Christmas gets earlier every year! I swear, though, it’s not my fault. This time, it’s a Christmas troika–Sarah Palin, Rick Perry, and Bill O’Reilly are harnessed up and pulling their sleigh through… the heat and humidity of summer.

Conscientious Objection The Godless Way

Your conscience is that little voice
Contributing to every choice
For those who let their conscience be their guide
The conscientious types report
If you’re the conscientious sort
You know that voice is coming from inside

For those who know their morals’ source
No Christian God, nor Jedi Force
Is necessary target for our search
But those who lack a moral spine
Whose morals need some source divine
Find conscience in the teachings of the church

For those whose morals are their own
Their stance is theirs, and theirs alone;
For others, moral views are heaven-sent.
I must admit, I was surprised
The moment that I realized
The latter group includes our government!

I guess the laws intend to seek
A very special kind of meek:
Without a god, one cannot show contrition!
Without religion, one can’t choose
From pacifist religious views!
So praise the Lord, and pass the ammunition!

See, now, this is where writing in verse is problematic. I finish the above comment, only to find that the problem has been solved. Margaret Doughty’s application for citizenship has been approved, after some very strange requests that her refusal to bear arms in defense of the nation (a 64 year old woman, she would not have been asked to) must be supported by a church’s endorsement. Apparently, conscience (on which conscientious objection depends) is officially seen not as something arising from within, but as something imposed by and supported by a particular religious tradition.

When I started this verse, Doughty represented a clear first amendment violation–that an atheist could object to taking up arms was unheard of. Quakers? Sure. Mennonites? Yup. Brethren? Have your pastor sign on the dotted line. Atheist? Wait just a moment.

I had a nice long rant ready… but Doughty’s application has been approved, so I’ll just go to bed now. You can read all about it here.

Cuttlecap tip to Joan!

By Human Intelligence I Mean…

I haven’t yet written a symphony
And my poetry? Crude, simple verse.
My theorems, my physical theories
And technologies, frankly, are worse

I question the meaning(s) of living,
And I question the Meaning Of Life…
Do my shortcomings say I’m not human?
That’s the viewpoint of some (take my wife*).

(*Please**.)

(**I can quote Henny Youngman, though.)

So, yeah, this is a followup to yesterday’s. In the comments over at NPR, Gleiser is challenged by his colleague Barbara King for his claim that dinosaurs were “stupid”. He clarifies that he means human intelligence, rather than animal intelligence:

By human intelligence I mean the ability to create symphonies, poetry, theorems, physical theories, technologies, to be able to question the meaning of existence and the meaning of intelligence.

Of course, I am reminded of the scene from “I, Robot”: Detective Del Spooner asks (mostly rhetorically) “Can a robot write a symphony? Can a robot take a blank canvas and turn it into a masterpiece?” Sonny replies, simply, “Can you?”

Does Life Have A Purpose?

What does it mean to be alive?
What is life’s purpose, if any?
Material stuff that wants, that strives,
To turn its one self into many

What does it mean to have an urge?
What does it mean to struggle?
Must we ensure that our gametes merge,
Or is it ok just to snuggle?

What does it mean to have purpose or plan?
Who choreographs for the dancer?
These questions have plagued generations of man…
Most of all, cos we don’t like the answer.

This was just a bit of musing in response to a piece (Does Life Have A Purpose?) by Marcelo Gleiser at NPR’s 13.7 Cosmos & Culture blog. In particular, my verse is inspired by this bit:

The essential difference between the living and the non-living is the urge for preservation. Life is a form of material organization that strives to perpetuate itself.

For those who don’t click through, my comment from there:

In my opinion, the vocabulary of the article is a bit misleading, albeit clearly not intentionally so. In the same sense that “design” in nature leads creationists to infer a “designer” (when in actuality, the process of natural selection suffices), terms like “want”, “urge”, and “strive” perpetuate the notion of a functionally dualistic “self” that drives the process of life. When the larger view (across time and environment) is taken, natural selection discards those individuals whose actions were less conducive to survival and reproduction in their particular environments; those whose behavior matches what we now call “purposeful”–wanting, striving, urge-driven–were the ones more likely to live long enough to reproduce.

“Purpose” is imposed on us from outside. Our mentalistic vocabulary claims this purpose as our own–even when we expand “us” from just humans to all living things. The struggle for life is not always a “struggle” in any meaningful sense, but the phrase we have chosen to describe it.

William Lane Craig’s Wrong Number

The door to God is open, and the path is straight and true;
A child’s faith is more than faith enough.
But should you choose to leave God’s side (as many people do)
There are obstacles that make your leaving tough.

When the God that you believe in, ever since you were a kid,
Is consistent in His absence when you call
When you can’t believe He’s always there, the way that once you did,
Why, that’s not enough for disbelief at all!

Religion has its guardians, whose job is to protect it
Though a child or a fool may be devout
There is serious theology, which won’t let you reject it,
Which you have to know, before they’ll let you out!

Now the godless have a hotline for the doubtful or confused
Those with questions about life without a God
But the faithful think it’s dangerous, and hope it won’t be used,
Though the arguments they make are rather odd:

Why, the godless are ignoring all the new theistic thought—
Metaphysical philosophy and such—
They’re not offering religion all the deference they ought;
So the hotline can’t be helping people much

If they’re calling in a quandary, for a sympathetic ear,
When their relatives or neighbors give them grief
The advice they might be getting is inadequate, they fear,
If it lacks the modern logic of belief

Or some local church encroaches on the actions of the schools
And they’re looking for the proper place to turn—
Why distract them with minutia over first amendment rules?
There’s theology aplenty we must learn!

When a person leaves religion, who can better ease the friction
Than an expert from the flock you want to quit?
Cos, you know, the perfect person who can help you with addiction
Is the dealer who’s been selling you the shit.
[Read more...]

Well, Damn.

What’s the problem? I haven’t a clue
And I’m hoping the man will pull through
But he’s eight states away
There’s not much I can say
And there’s nothing at all I can do.

CuttleFatherInLaw is, unexpectedly, not in a good way. I am hopeful–the man has been healthier than I am for as long as I have known him–but at cuttlehouse, there are tears tonight.

And yeah, there is nothing at all I can do. So, in desperation, I do what I do when I don’t pray. I remind people to do what they can to help out their local hospitals–blood donations are a start, of course. Or, you know, bone marrow, stem cells, a kidney, whatever. My father-in-law is a believer, so if you are the type to pray for him, go ahead… but since this is my blog, I’ll ask you to do something a bit more tangible as well before you are allowed to feel good about yourself.

Me, I don’t much feel good about myself. There is nothing I can do to make everything better for Cuttlespouse. Or for my mother in law. Or, hell, for me. CuttleFatherInLaw is where he needs to be, getting the best help he can, so I am hopeful that this is all just an excuse to remind you all to donate blood. But damn, it’s really not helping.

So, yeah… hug your loved ones. Donate blood. Support research. We’ll be ok here. You be ok there.

UPDATE: It appears (things are still in flux) that this may be more a case of Mother-in-law anxiety and hypochondria by proxy than actual dire emergency. Yes, FiL is under care, but this is not quite the big deal, as they are in an assisted living facility where such care is readily available and already paid for. I am hopeful that this was much ado about very little, and that he’s back on track to outlive me by decades.

Thank you, all of you, for your kind words and thoughts. It was a brief roller coaster ride in Cuttlehouse, with emergency travel plans being made and tears being shed and blotted up, but three cheers for modern medicine, and here’s hoping the good news continues.

Oh, but you’re not off the hook for blood donations.

Privacy? Nevermore!

Once upon a conversation, I received a revelation—
Just a tiny aberration in the phone line could be heard
It was near too faint for hearing, all too quickly disappearing,
And it surely had me fearing they had listened to my word
But of course, there is no reason to be snooping for my word
Such a notion is absurd!

With the conversation ending, and my paranoia pending—
Was some listening ear attending? Had a wiretap occurred?
My suspicions were implying what I’d rather be denying;
That the government was spying, and the lines had all been blurred
There had formerly been limits, but those lines have all been blurred—
Ah, but surely that’s absurd!

Could my phone call now be quoted? My associations noted?
Are there data banks devoted, at the mercy of some nerd?
All the data they can hack up, with more copies just for backup
In some cave where servers stack up with the info there interred?
They will long outlast my body, which will rot when I’m interred
This is far beyond absurd!

In a time that seems chaotic, is my worrying neurotic?
Maybe spying’s patriotic—it’s what 9/11 spurred.
Sure, the citizens are frightened, but security is heightened
With the leaky borders tightened and some terrorists deterred
Why, the means are surely justified if terror is deterred
Or they’re not… cos it’s absurd.