Why Prayer is Nonsense – part 3

2 – Know your deities

This is part 3 in a series of posts on prayer. Please use the links at the top and bottom of each post to navigate through the parts.

but everyone knows prayer works!

Everyone prays when your time comes or when you get into trouble, even atheists — or so the aphorists would have you believe. Belief in the power of prayer is seemingly omnipresent, with daily reinforcement of the concept from other people that believe likewise. You see the reports on the news of the one little boy that walked away from a horrific plane crash (who was saved by God — never mind that everyone else on the plane was *not*). You know the story of the hurricane that tore through a small town and left only the church standing. You’ve heard about the “light at the end of the tunnel” when a dying person’s neurons start misfiring and they gasp out their last coherent words immediately prior to oblivion. The media, populated in equal measure to the society at large with theists, use phrases like “miraculous” or “divine providence” or “act of God” in describing rare events.

In the presence of such widespread and self-reinforcing memes, it’s difficult to imagine how to shake the general populace’s belief that prayer does anything. The only way I can see, as with pretty much every other problem humankind faces, is through judicious use of science. Sound logic will, of course, only get you so far.
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Update on DanJ of Relatively Unrelated, Donation Link

His wife reports on Dan’s current status. And it’s not great news.

We got the results of the biopsy today. RelUnrelated has stage 3 Hodgkin’s lymphoma. This is not the news we wanted to hear, but at the same time I do not think it is as bad as it could be. It really isn’t. Hodgkin’s lymphoma appears to be one of the more treatable forms of cancer. The survival rate is at least 90% even in the later stages. Out of the 12 signs and symptoms that Wikipedia has listed in the article, he had 7 of these. Several of the signs were pointed out to the doctor and the doctor brushed it aside, saying it had nothing to do with his persistant illness

The silverest of silver linings though — at 75, then-Republican Senator Arlen Specter survived being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma at Stage 4. He relapsed at 78, and has been through course after course of chemotherapy to return to cancer-free status in the past several years. He is in remission again, and has hopefully for him many years ahead of him to, despite now being a Democrat and a direct beneficiary of health care without paying for it, go on being an asshole about health care reform. So remission is very possible.

Now, my fear in this is that, being a senator, Specter had Cadillac health insurance. Dan decidedly does not. And the health care reform that the non-Social-Darwinists have been fighting so hard for, mostly only takes effect in 2012. This could bloody well bankrupt the Johnsons. So I’m taking it upon myself to post a link to a known-working donation link (I tested it myself!) — okay, Paypal does some very squirrelly things with links so try this button. If it doesn’t work, go to Relatively Unrelated and scroll down one page, the donate button is in the right bar.

Neither he nor his wife have asked for my plea, but we all know the reality of the situation. This is going to be tough. We should do what we can to help, because it is fundamental to our better natures as human beings.

Please. If you can spare it, send them something.

Draw Muhammad Day – May 20, 2010

Thunderf00t explains why you should participate:

And I explain why drawing Muhammad isn’t even all that bad, unless you’re some sort of complete nutter that values fan-fiction over the canonical fiction that started your religion. Yes, this is like those children on the internet who prefer their Fox Mulder / Jean Luc Picard slash fiction to the real deal. Exactly like that.

With that in mind, here’s my drawing of Muhammad.

The Prophet Muhammad, Peace Be Upon Him, and his wife Aisha, mother of all believers.

Why prayer is nonsense – part 2

1 – First, define prayer

This is part 2 in a series of posts on prayer. Please use the links at the top and bottom of each post to navigate through the parts.

know your deities

In the monotheistic religions that make up the bulk of religions in the Western world, the variety of qualities ascribed to deities are so diverse as to populate the complete spectrum from the deist’s “the entire universe is God” (replacing nature with deity), to “God created everything exactly as suggested by my holy book and all the accounts therein of his intervention in history are absolutely true”. As there are as many postulated gods as there are people who believe in gods, one cannot argue against so many deities without letting a few slip through the cracks. Therefore, instead of breaking things down by deity, it will be far more useful to break things down by the properties postulated for the specific gods people happen to believe in.

In concert, some of these properties are mutually exclusive. Unsurprisingly, those couplings also cause the most grief when it comes to figuring out whether praying to your particular deity is worthwhile. Many of the properties that are suggested by humans for their particular flavor of deity are impossible in the scope of the universe we understand today. Many are redundant and require you to believe some very narrow views of the universe to accept their possibility. Many outright refute the body of evidence we humans have collected so far. For the purpose of this series, I will by and large ignore these problems, taking the special pleading arguments necessary to resolve such issues for granted, with one caveat — I will absolutely use the fact of the problems to argue against prayer in the matrix planned for part 5: “So why pray?”.
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Dio is dead

Ronnie James Dio, one of the most influential heavy metal rockers of all time, apparently succumbed this weekend to the stomach cancer he’s been fighting for the better part of a year. Dio rocked out with Black Sabbath, Heaven & Hell, and his own band Dio, having chosen the name knowing it means “God” in Italian. He probably singlehandedly gave heavy metal its “satanic” and anti-religious flavor, playing it up to the chagrin of those that condemned it as devil music in the spirit of “no publicity is bad publicity”, and is even credited with the famous devil horns symbol.

For sheer sticking-it-to-religion-itude, the man went balls out from cradle to grave. For that, and for his ability to rock, we salute him.

Why I do what I do, and where I get my moral code

James Carey, whom I know from university out there in meatspace, asked a few questions that were well off topic on the prayer post, and questions about prayer itself that will be, I hope, adequately answered in the course of the series proper. I decided to post my response as a full blog post of its own because I don’t really want to derail the point of the prayer threads.

James:

I had a bit of an ephinay the other day.

Every once in a while I find two silverfish in my bathtub. Silverfish are very inoffensive little critters so I just usually let them stay for a bit. Finally I go to take a shower and I look at them and think to myself, you guys aren’t going anywhere, you aren’t going to do anything productive. Gave you time to get going, now it’s too late. Turned the water on and sent them down the drain all the while thinking “I bet the apocalypse will be something like this…”

I have read several of your articles and I feel that there is an underlying venom that you try to camouflage with all of your facts, links, and introspectives. I am not particularily religious but even I realize that “prayer” is synonomous with “hope”. You say prayer is usless, it might be, but in my experience thinking good thoughts is never a waste. It goes further beyond trying to appeal to some diety, it is searching for some personal comfort to ease pain, fear, anxiety, etc. When you crap on prayer, you are crapping on hope.

“My father is dying of cancer, rather than praying to ease his suffering, I’ll go shop for hats.”

“My little girl has been kidnapped by a pedophilr, instead of everyone out of reach to offer any help praying for her safe return, you may as well squeeze in an extra game of solitaire”

“My husband is a firefighter, instead of praying for him to come home safely, I cry myself to sleep everynight thinking that tonight will be the night he doesn’t come home”

So I have a few questions for you. Why are you doing all of “This”? And more importantly, what is your moral compass? The Bible, the book of mormon have all been provided to you to tear apart and criticize but have you provided us with any sort of literature of what has helped form your own morals and core beliefs for us to inspect and criticize? If so, send me the link and I will be happy to read it and give it the same consideration you would on my beliefs.

And for anyone who wants to know what my moral compass is:

http://acc6.its.brooklyn.cuny.edu/~phalsall/texts/taote-v3.html#37

Response below the fold.
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Why prayer is nonsense – part 1

0 – Master post

This is part 1 in a series of posts on prayer. Please use the links at the top and bottom of each post to navigate through the parts.

first, define prayer

It’s always important to define your terms. Especially in debate with someone that believes in a particular religion — it’s horrible to get knee deep into a theological argument only to have them suddenly say “But I’m a Southern Baptist Episcopalian Wesleyan, I don’t believe THAT!” It makes the whole theism-vs-atheism debate ultimately futile, because while on the one hand you have the blanket position “there is insufficient evidence for any deities”, on the other you have a unique flavor of belief with such subtle nuances as to be shared by absolutely nobody else in the history of mankind. There are as many versions of God as there are people who believe in God. So figure out what your goalposts are before you start trying to make the punt.

The same is true with prayer. There are a number of different varieties of belief about prayer, which are usually coupled with specific properties ascribed to the deity to which you’re praying. Of course, in this list, I’m probably missing a bunch of important variations, but like I said, this isn’t meant to be exhaustive. The one major commonality is that praying involves actively directing one’s thoughts to a deity, usually also assuming a physical pose of piety (e.g. one one’s knees with hands clasped, bowed low so your forehead touches the ground, etc.) They may have other names in more seasoned theologians’ vernacular, but I break them down like this:

  • Interventionary prayer — prayer where you petition your deity to intervene in a particular event
  • Imprecatory prayer — asking your deity to do something evil to, or curse, another person. I’ve only separated this from interventionary prayer because of its diametrical opposition to omnibenevolence.
  • Prayer for guidance — wherein you ask for help or more information in making decisions (the “show me a sign” prayer)
  • Sycophantic prayer — wherein one proclaims how much they love or adore their deity, or giving thanks for events or prosperity that has been ascribed to divine provenance
  • Meditative prayer — prayer whose only purpose is to either calm oneself or convince oneself to accept a situation as God’s will
  • Redemptive prayer — praying for forgiveness for an act that one feels transgresses some law or another, looking for divine absolution (which sometimes comes in the form of not being smote — no smiting, no anger from God, right?)
  • Ouroboros prayer — when a person’s faith is flagging, praying to the deity for the sole purpose of reinforcing their faith in the deity’s existence (e.g., because you’re having a conversation with this deity, it must exist) — a self-feeding prayer

I’m sure someone will come along and offer other kinds of prayer that they believe to be totally worth doing, but any new addition would likely be nothing more than a slight variation of one of the above. Of these, the only one that at all resembles anything actually proven to work is the meditative prayer, because science has already proven meditation causing brain changes, it’s an old saw that blocking off a time for quiet introspection has net positive effects on your well-being and clarity of mind, and the effects of attempted mental self-discipline in the face of growing panic during desperate situations is self-evidently beneficial in the event you need to take some drastic action. So, because meditative prayer so resembles meditation itself, it says nothing about the deity involved (or not involved as the case may be), and so can be, by and large, ignored for the purposes of this series. Let’s just say “we know meditative prayer can help because it’s just meditation” and move along.

Please keep these definitions in mind through the rest of the series. Knowing these different kinds of prayer helps decide whether each is effective in the presence of certain types of deities.

2 – Know your deities

Why prayer is nonsense – part 0

By no means is this intended to be an exhaustive list of every theological discussion, every argument and counterargument, with regard to prayer’s efficacy. My aim with this series is to show why prayer is an ultimately useless endeavor, either devoid of any merit when defined narrowly, or if defined vaguely, indistinguishable from other mental disciplines like meditation; and how people entrenching prayer in the public consciousness and including it in their individual philosophies in such large numbers as exists today, tangibly harms society.

This is the master post, the first in a series that will be updated as time allows. I’ll be editing links into this post as I create the subsequent parts. There are a lot of interconnected points that need to be woven together to form my final argument, so please bear with me as I get this thing built. If you’d like to start pulling on threads early, that may help to shape future parts, but otherwise, bear in mind I may well cover it by the time this series is done. Some posts will be longer than others (especially part 2), but I’ll be making an effort to keep the parts relatively digestible, which is of course why I’m chunking this up to begin with.

Part 1: First, define prayer
Part 2: Know your deities
Part 3: But everyone knows prayer works!
Part 4: Even if it IS useless, what’s the harm?
Part 5: So why pray?

Tim Minchin: The Good Book

A bit of Tim Minchin as blog filler. Since I’m working on something huge, my brain tubes are a bit clogged, but I’m hoping it’ll be ready tomorrow. Tim’s song ought to get you thinking about the circular, self-perpetuating nature of the memes called religion, in making fun of the one you personally, statistically by virtue of being an English reader, probably follow.

That helpless feeling.

Was chugging along at a pretty steady pace on that promised post when I got the news that my friend Dan J of Relatively Unrelated likely has lymphoma. He’s been getting the runaround from a clinic for the past two weeks in that country with “the greatest health care system in the world”, America. Naturally. The whole story threw me for a loop and is making me more and more upset as I chew over the situation.

So it’s like this: the United States does not have the best health care system in the world. Unless you’re willing to fork over money, hand over fist. If you’re poor, they aren’t lying, get sick and die. Every lie a right winger spouts about how great our health care is just goes to show they have no clue as to what people who don’t have money and live paycheck to paycheck go through.

The last several months we have been going round and round with a ‘clinic’ in town. It’s a sliding scale clinic for people who don’t have insurance or aren’t made of money. Now I understand, especially right now, that there is a demand for such a service and there are so many hours in the day to help people. If they actually helped people.

At the moment, my husband is in the hospital. I made him go there at 5 AM this morning after dropping me off at work 2 hours early. Seven hours later I finally heard from him. The hemoglobin counts are very low and he needs blood. They’re going to do a CAT scan on him and keep him overnight at least.

His wife blogged about Dan’s current status here.

I have a rant or two stored up about the fucking bullshit health care system the USA has set up right now where if you’re rich, you’ll survive everything short of a nuclear bomb, but if you’re a staggeringly intelligent but relatively poor chap like Dan, your health care plan is to die as quickly as possible.

Alan Greyson hit it right on the head.

I am so mad I could spit nails, and I feel totally helpless to boot. I think I have to go kill things on a video game for a while.