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Religion and Mortality

One of the things that inevitably happens when an atheist gets sick, especially if they face possible death, is that they are inundated with religious messages. Lots of people in the last few days have offered to pray for me, with a few people adding something like “I know it doesn’t mean anything to you, but I’m going to do it anyway.” You know what? That’s fine with me. I don’t mind a bit.

No, I obviously don’t think that prayer does anything at all. My stepmother told me that my being alive was a “miracle,” but it’s not. I’m alive not because I managed to find favor with this or that deity, but because of large numbers of hard-working doctors, nurses, technicians and research scientists who are dedicated to keeping others alive and healthy. Not only were they brilliant, they have shown great humanity, concern and support for me and my family. They went out of their way to keep my loved ones updated on my condition and make them comfortable so they could help make me comfortable. I can’t possibly express my gratitude to them strongly enough.

But make no mistake about it, they are the ones who deserve the praise, not imaginary deities sitting on clouds and deciding that this person gets hit by a bus, dies of malnutrition or wins the lottery. The idea of some cosmic deity making such decisions is not comforting to me, it’s frightening. If we depend on such arbitrary judgment, we are at the mercy of a madman’s whims. Am I really to be comforted that God decided this week to intervene to save my life but let 20 children be killed in Newtown, Connecticut? That provokes disgust, not comfort.

My oldest brother, who is Mormon, asked my dad if he thought I’d be okay with him sending in the local elders here to pray over me. Dad told him he didn’t think that would be such a good idea, that I wouldn’t be rude to them but that I wouldn’t find that at all helpful, only annoying. And he’s right. I think there’s a difference between someone casually saying “I’ll pray for you” and sending actual strangers here to lay their hands on me and pray. I wouldn’t be rude to them, but I would have told them that they’re not welcome. I was surrounded by my family and friends and that is who I should be surrounded by, not by strangers unknown even to them, with whom they share only a religious belief.

At the same time, though, I’m not offended by it. When someone says they will pray for me, or even makes a suggestion like Jack made, I take it in the manner in which it is intended. They are only meaning to wish me well and I gratefully accept it in that spirit. I may tell them that I don’t think it does any good, but they already knew I thought that. So who really cares? Wish me well and I will thank you for it, even if the form isn’t what I would prefer.

So thank you, all that have sent their good wishes, in any form at all. My family and friends were amazing, but I am also part of a larger community at this blog and in the secular community in general. Everyone has been unfailingly kind and I thank you for it.

Comments

  1. says

    I’ve been behind on my blog reading so I only just now found out about your illness (get better soon, btw!) but as soon as I did I sacrificed a chicken for you.

    Didn’t really have a specific god in mind, but the offer is out there (kinda like a divine craigslist, I guess) and we’ll see if I can get any offers.

  2. says

    I always try to take “I’ll pray for you” in the spirit I think its intended. If it’s somebody or a situation where I think the person saying it genuinely thinks it will be helpful, then its no different, AFAIC, than me saying “Well, I hope you feel better soon”. If they seem to be saying it as some sort of snotty commentary on my lack of religiousity, well, THEN we have a problem.

  3. dingojack says

    I sacriiced & ate some noodley goodness – with carbonara sauce.*
    YUM!
    Dingo
    ——-
    * Not specifically for you personally Ed, as I know it would irritate you, rather for the world at large (’cause I’m nice that way) :D

  4. dingojack says

    (Pssst – Lady Hope told me that Ed had a deathbed change of heart [so to speak] – pass it on)
    Dingo

  5. Randomfactor says

    “I’ll pray for you.”

    “Great. Why don’t you do it while donating a pint of blood to the Red Cross*?”

    *(Yes, I’m aware of their antiquated rules against whole classes of perfectly healthy donors.)

  6. dingojack says

    To be fair, groups like the Seventh Day Adventists have some pretty antiquated rules toward the Red Cross.
    :) Dingo

  7. glodson says

    I prayed for you. But I took Carlin’s suggestion and prayed to Joe Pesci. I’m sure that was super effective.

    I hope that by the grace of Pesci, you feel better soon.

    In all seriousness, I do the same. When someone says they’ll pray for me, I just take it as them wishing me well by talking to their imaginary friend. As long as it ends there, I don’t see the need to make a thing of it.

  8. dingojack says

    “…and I’ll be thinking for you. Win win!”
    :) Dingo
    ——-
    In all seriousness, I let them go ahead with it. If it lessens their evident pantophobic* anxiety and shuts them up for a time, it sure won’t do me any harm, or good.

    * A fear of pantomime animals or pants, or pantomime animals creeping up behind you whilst wearing pants… ;).

  9. grumpyoldfart says

    Every time the Pope get sick, millions of Catholics pray for him to get better. So far, all the Popes have died.

  10. says

    As long as they are not pestering you in your sickbed. A few years ago I was in the hospital for a perforated intestine. Massive, emergency surgery followed and I lay there fighting infection with last-resort IV antibiotics and counting the minutes until the damned machine would give me another shot of morphine. A minister of our acquaintance came to visit. He inquired as to my spiritual condition and I equivocated. I may have rambled a bit.

    “Ok, it’s not as if you’re an atheist then”

    (jerk. I really didn’t want to have this conversation at all.)

    Yes, it is. I don’t believe in god.”

    “Well would it be OK if I pray for you in Jesus’ name?”

    “Yeah, go ahead.”
    (jerk.)

    I was in no condition for an argument and somehow he thought it was all right to press ahead.

  11. Rodney Nelson says

    When I had surgery some years ago a friend said “I prayed for you even though you would think that was annoying.” I replied “If you got pleasure out of thinking you were annoying me then your prayers had some positive benefit.”

  12. doug834 says

    I hope you get well soon Ed.

    I went through two near-death experiences a few years ago myself, so I can certainly relate to what you are talking about. I was suddenly surrounded by people who meant well, but who offered me prayer and wanted to attribute my survival to divine intervention when I knew that neither had any relevance. In fact, I was drugged up a bit at one point and not in the best of moods when confronted by a family member wanting to pray with me. “Why don’t we do something useful, instead?” was my snarky, but honest reply. That didn’t go over we’ll with those who believed my survival was a miracle, but having called 911 myself, having witnessed the doctors and nurses do their jobs with skill and care, and having been as close to death as losing more than half of my blood could get me, I knew more than ever that it was no god that saved me – hard-working people did.

    I read your blog every day Ed, so I was worried when your usually frequent posts began to decrease in number. Thankfully you are still with us and as passionate as ever. Thank you for giving us a powerful voice.

  13. says

    A short version of my own experience with people who want to pray for others, no matter what:

    My late wife was an atheist (me, I’m just an agnostic, but let’s not get into an argument about what that means).

    When she decided she didn’t want any further treatment for her cancer, the daughter of our good friends, who is a physician’s assistant but who we were not close to, all but kidnapped my wife from the hospital and took her to her own home, installed a hospital bed for her and made it possible, with her assistance, to care for her in a way that made the last year of her life one of dignity, rather than the bleak prospects if I had to do it on my own. She disrupted her own life and that of her daughter for that year without complaint.

    Our friend, who is religious, offered to have “spiritual counseling” for my wife but never forced the issue. After my wife’s death (her body was donated to a medical school and, therfore, no funeral), the friend wanted a “memorial service” at her church, which is rather evangelical. I was uncomfortable with some of the service but did not and would not in any way object because it was a comfort to the person who had done more good for my wife than perhaps any one person, myself included, had ever done.

    What that experience brought home to me, with great force, is that, as long as you do no harm, I don’t care whether or not I agree with how you want to express your caring; I’ll accept it with gratitude. You can never know when that caring will change your life for the better.

  14. Michael Heath says

    Ed writes:

    My stepmother told me that my being alive was a “miracle,” but it’s not. I’m alive not because I managed to find favor with this or that deity, but because of large numbers of hard-working doctors, nurses, technicians and research scientists who are dedicated to keeping others alive and healthy.

    Let’s not forget these practitioners stand on the shoulders of giants. Scientists who abandoned God as an answer and sought the actual truth of how the world works. Some of these scientists were castigated, some persecuted; contemporaneous scientists are still disparaged by many conservative Christians even today because they dare to reject God as answer and/or discover truths which are inconvenient to their religion. Many kids raised by conservative Christians are dissuaded from attending the universities which promote science and teach its methodology and findings.

    This is important to note because when we accurately point to the practitioners as the primary reason on why we’re better off after their treatment, a popular response is that, “Well, God was guiding them”. Well no again, what was guiding these practitioners was what they learned from their predecessors and those that built the knowledge base they now leverage, a lot of which was learned at institutions conservative Christians despise.

    Ed writes:

    I’m not offended by [prayers on Ed’s behalf]. When someone says they will pray for me, or even makes a suggestion like Jack made, I take it in the manner in which it is intended. They are only meaning to wish me well and I gratefully accept it in that spirit. I may tell them that I don’t think it does any good, but they already knew I thought that. So who really cares? Wish me well and I will thank you for it, even if the form isn’t what I would prefer.

    I do view this juncture as a teachable moment in meat-world where I’ve had some very rare success. This is where I promote the above point. That the actual treatments which improved your wellbeing derived from those who didn’t get on their knees and pray, but instead from those in the distant and near past who entered a lab and worked to find the truth and shared their findings regardless of the societal consequences. It’s this latest price that Charles Darwin paid which helps explain why I’m so respectful of his work, that and his knowing how much evidence he had to compile to make the best case for what is true – and then going out finding it, and articulating it so persuasively. [No, I don’t raise Darwin in this context, only in this venue as a prime exemplar given he was the Jackie Robinson of biology.]

  15. Jordan Genso says

    [The hard-working doctors & nurses] went out of their way to keep my loved ones updated on my condition and make them comfortable so they could help make me comfortable.

    I must have missed the blog they posted here to inform us of your condition. Or do we not count as your loved ones?

    :-)
    j/k

  16. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    Lots of people in the last few days have offered to pray for me, with a few people adding something like “I know it doesn’t mean anything to you, but I’m going to do it anyway.”

    But why do they tell you?
    If praying for you works wheher you know you are being prayedfor or not, they don’t need to tell you. If prayer works- as it might- because of psychological effects on believers it would be worth saying they’re praying for other believers even if they aren’t. However, telling a sceptic you’re praying for them would at best have no effect; at worst it might irritate them into feeling- or being- even worse.

  17. maddog1129 says

    “But why do they tell you?”

    If you care about someone, you tell them. They just phrase it differently.

  18. mishcakes says

    It baffles me that prayer is still offered up as a positive, kind action when it so obviously doesn’t work. Well, I suppose it makes the pray-er feel better despite what happens with the pray-ee. In that light, it seems rather selfish.

    Wasn’t there a study that found when ill (believing) patients were told that they were being prayed for, but then their condition worsened, ended feeling WORSE than if no one had been praying for them at all? Some sort of guilt that they weren’t getting better despite the prayers.

  19. tfkreference says

    I’m sure your brother would have preferred to be there himself, and sending the elders in was a sincere gesture. In contrast, when my sister was recently diagnosed with cancer, she received a dozen get well cards from people saying they were praying for her. Only one came close to offering any real help, and it said: “don’t be afraid to lean on your family and friends, they will be happy to help.” (emphasis mine)

  20. says

    I actually even feel weird saying “Get well soon!” Yes, I want people to get well – you included, Ed – and the sooner the better because being sick sucks. But some part of my brain answers back; “Oh, well I was going to stay sick but since you told me to get well…” It’s kind of like “Baby on board” stickers. Or prayer.

    Yeah, I know. I don’t go to a lot of parties.

  21. Michael Heath says

    maddog1129 writes:

    If you care about someone, you tell them. They just phrase it differently.

    That has not been my experience with theologically conservative Christians though it is with liberal, political and/or theological, Christians. The conservative Christians I know want to use your story as further proof of [their] God’s existence and power. They’re pulling a proselytization arrow out of the quiver custom-made for the occasion.

    A related story. An older relative, a big Palin fan who is a standard-issue conservative Christian, passed on a conservative viral email asserting that President Obama was preparing to destroy the U.S. I phoned the husband of this person to let them know their spouse was propagating dishonest hate speech to other relatives in their teens where that was not going to be welcomed by those kids’ parents. I suggested he step in to mediate the situation.

    While he too is a conservative Christian, I was startled by the depth of his hatred and racism for the president and Muslims after hearing his response. It was a five minute profanity-filled, spit-flying rant against the President, from someone who never swears so the profanity was awkwardly delivered.

    I drove over to this person’s house to talk about this. I took the book they claimed was “proof” Obama was preparing to destroy the country (Fareed Zakaria’s Post-American World. They of course did no research on the book, their hatred for the president was so deep, as racism is, that they trusted this email simply because it validated their hatred. In spite of my previously proving to them every single one they’ve forwarded over the years was not true.

    They had been softened up to accept this email because they just gotten all fired-up about a viral video that’s been around now for years. It’s the one that claims Obama is a Muslim and has had millions of views on YouTube. Fox News clips were all over the video and was used to convince them it must be true since it came from Fox – their most trusted news source.

    I went through Zakaria’s book, which I’d read when it came out, and convinced them the book was exactly what a reasonable person would want their president to study. I went through the video point-by-point where they conceded there was not only zero evidence presented the president was a Muslim. I also convinced them the video’s quote-mines from his Egypt speech, when taken in context, were consistent with the ideals the framers advocated – especially George Washington.

    So after conceding all of this. They then claimed the president still unfairly favored Muslims and was persecuting American Christians; that I was blinded by Satan for not being able to “see this”. That they would pray for me to stop being so easily fooled by the president and the, “liberal media”. Me, after I had just spent about an hour dismantling the lie they were propagating (the email the president was going to destroy America) and the underlying justification for believing that lie (the video he was a Muslim subservient to the Saudis and Islamism).

    These are normally calm articulate people; but as science has found, certain topics send people straight to the most primitive parts of the brain where fear and hate rule and dopamine will give you a buzz. Conflate religion and politics and boy, you really amp up this reaction – to all our detriments. While Christopher Hitchens’, “Religion poisons everything”, is obvious hyperbole, it sure poisons a lot – starting with people’s ability to think coherently about certain topics.

  22. Michael Heath says

    mishcakes writes:

    It baffles me that prayer is still offered up as a positive, kind action when it so obviously doesn’t work.

    The Christians I know in meat-world know prayer works. That the efficacy of prayer has been repeatedly proven by their own personal experience and those with whom they congregate.

    I doubt most are even aware science has studied the subject unless it was presented by an ally where the findings were misrepresented. Besides, these types dismiss science unless their health is threatened, where they attempt to attribute getting better after treatment as more proof prayer works. Circular logic at its finest.

  23. says

    Since I found myself with a semi-colon, and find myself now on a course of rather unpleasant chemo, I have had quite a lot of online people saying they will pray for me, though none in real life.

    So far I think that the prayers come from people with some genuine concern, and I am happy to accept them in the spirit of being good wishes.

    In most circumstances I am a pretty outspoken atheist. I’m certainly that when I comment at the conservative Church of England Cranmer blog. Fair play to Cranmer, he has an admirable toleration of dissent in his comment threads. Some people there have offered me prayers and best wishes, and I have thanked all those who have offered goodwill, regardless of religious or political affiliation (I’m not conservative, either:))

    Recently, though, I have been spending some time at Cancer Forums, which I have found informative, useful, and a source of good fellowship. It has a healthy moderation policy regarding quackery and those who push it, whether well meaning people who have been taken in or quacks.

    A lot of the people there offer prayers, not just to me, and express their gratitude to their god for giving them another month with a loved one, or something. Sometimes I have to bite my tongue, quite hard, so to speak, but Cancer Forums is the only place I go to online where I am not an open and outspoken atheist.

    It seems inappropriate to attack the beliefs of people whose prognosis is often far worse than mine, and who are living with side effects of treatment also worse than mine, or the beliefs of people who care for and love sufferers, including those who have little time left.

    It is sometimes difficult to keep quiet, but I think I’m doing the right thing by biting my tongue in that sort of situation.

    David B

  24. says

    Michael Heath “I also convinced them the video’s quote-mines from his Egypt speech, when taken in context, were consistent with the ideals the framers advocated – especially George Washington.”
    Oh. My. God. George Washington was a Muslin!

    “So after conceding all of this…”
    You navigate the globe, leading them the whole way, only to end with them hitting you with the same thing they started with. If showing them point by point, in context, how things actually are (vice what they were told they were) has no effect, there’s not much you can do. There’s some men you just can’t reach. All you can do is provide the best data and hope they eventually incorporate it properly (it’s tough to tell someone they’re being lied to. Tougher to do it in a way that breaks through the bubble instead of causing them to dig in their heels). Failing that, avoid politics at family gatherings. Failing that, avoid family gatherings.

    Alternately, did you try turning him off and on again? Jiggle the cables? Maybe the CMOS battery is dead.

  25. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    It seems inappropriate to attack the beliefs of people whose prognosis is often far worse than mine, and who are living with side effects of treatment also worse than mine, or the beliefs of people who care for and love sufferers, including those who have little time left.

    That’s true, Davidb. We have no right to deprive people of comfort who need it so much, but when healthy acquaintances say ‘I’ll pray for you.’ to an atheist acquaintance it’s ractless at least.
    Or perhaps they’re praying for something else?…

  26. says

    “It was a five minute profanity-filled, spit-flying rant against the President, from someone who never swears so the profanity was awkwardly delivered.”

    Michael, I can help him with that problem, for a price. I’m thinking about doing a series of workshops for stupid motherfuckers who have shit for brains, lack balls and are GODbothering fuckwads. Please feel free to give him my contact information. I pay a “finder’s fee” to all whose leads turn into proficient cursers. As we like to say here at democommie’as Go fuck yourself-help Ministries, “We put the “Pro” in profanity.

  27. mildlymagnificent says

    If showing them point by point, in context, how things actually are (vice what they were told they were) has no effect, there’s not much you can do. There’s some men you just can’t reach. All you can do is provide the best data and hope they eventually incorporate it properly (it’s tough to tell someone they’re being lied to.

    Always remember it’s not when people come to acknowledge the truth, it’s whether.

    What this exercise has done is plough and fertilise some ground, admittedly a very small patch, where the seeds of doubt and second thoughts may grow. The next time some relevant item comes up in their email or on TV, there’s now some background for that item. It just might make a worthwhile difference – even if it’s only in lessened vigour in accepting or advancing these views as facts. Judging by the starting point, that in itself would be a great boon.

Trackbacks

  1. […] When I think of this whole business of respect and intent I think of an exchange that took place between Ed Brayton of Dispatches from the Culture Wars, an atheist, and Fred Clark of The Slactivist, a progressive Christian. Shortly after announcing that he was ill, Ed said the following: […]

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