When things look grim in the world, you can always look to Pat Robertson to cheer things up with some new lunacy and he rarely lets you down. Just recently, Robertson said that god has been speaking to him again and there is much merriment in the country. According to CNN:
Evangelical broadcaster Pat Robertson said Tuesday that God has told him that a terrorist attack on the United States would cause a “mass killing” late in 2007.
“I’m not necessarily saying it’s going to be nuclear,” he said during his news-and-talk television show “The 700 Club” on the Christian Broadcasting Network.
“The Lord didn’t say nuclear. But I do believe it will be something like that.”
Robertson said God told him about the impending tragedy during a recent prayer retreat.
God also said, he claims, that major cities and possibly millions of people will be affected by the attack, which should take place sometime after September.
The funny thing is why would god tell him just the problem and not how to solve it? During these cozy chats, Robertson never seems to have the sense to ask god for more details about the impending attack so that the disasters might be minimized. We need to give him some journalistic training so that he will ask the when, where, how, who questions that will give us usable information.
Although his past predictions have not turned out well, this does not stop the irrepressible Robertson from continuing to make them. The millions of viewers of his show who send him money presumably take his claims seriously, despite the lack of details. But the interesting question is how the rest of us respond to his claim that god speaks to him.
As an atheist, this question is easy to answer. Since we don’t believe in a god, anyone who says that they received a message from god about anything can be dismissed as either simply lying, or mistaken (because they took some random event or a coincidence as a special message from god), or delusional (because they were dreaming or in an otherwise less than fully rational and conscious state of mind) or, in the most serious cases, psychotic. I tend to agree with the TV character House who in one episode about a faith healer tells a colleague: “You talk to god, you’re religious. God talks to you, you’re psychotic.”
So for atheists the obvious and easy conclusion is that Robertson must be either psychotic or an insatiable publicity-seeking liar who knows that this kind of thing will propel him into the news, since his chats with god occur too often to be taken as mistakes or temporary delusions.
But if you are a believer in a god who can and does act in mysterious ways in the world, on what basis can you judge if god is talking to some chosen people or even to you? Some have said that Bush feels that god talks to him too. How can religious people judge if that is true?
This is not a trivial matter since people have been known to shoot up other people and claim in justification that god told them to do it. If people are psychotic, they need help before they can harm themselves or others. And yet, news reporters are willing to flatly report the statements of a public person like Robertson without asking the obvious follow-up question about whether he is certifiably insane, despite the clear indications that they don’t believe him. If they did, they would ask him questions like “What does god’s voice sound like? What were you doing when he spoke to you?”
Suppose someone said that Abraham Lincoln spoke to him or her on a regular basis. Since Christians believe in an afterlife, they should have as little difficulty believing in this as in believing that god speaks to people. But anyone claiming to have cozy chats with old Abe would be immediately looked upon askance, and such an assertion would cast serious doubt on their sanity. But a similar statement about god speaking to them does not raise the same warning flags. Assertions by some people that god speaks to them are received with an indulgent smile but are not openly dismissed as crazy either.
Why is this? I can see no rational reason for this casual attitude except to think that even devout Christians, in their heart of hearts, really don’t believe any of this stuff about god speaking to people but don’t want to come right out and say it. Richard Dawkins in his latest book The God Delusion quotes a believer who describes what I think is a common attitude among religious believers. (Thanks to MachinesLikeUs for the link.)
Every thinking person, perhaps, is assailed at times with religious doubt. My own faith has wavered many a time. But I never told anyone of my spiritual aberrations for two reasons: (1) I feared that I might, by mere suggestion, disturb and damage the life and hopes of some fellow being; (2) because I agree with the writer who said, ‘There is a mean streak in anyone who will destroy another’s faith.’
It is very much an ’emperor’s new clothes’ syndrome. The vast mass of people keep their doubts and skepticism to themselves, possibly out of fear that others will confess their own skepticism and the whole house of cards will collapse, leaving them with an existential void that they are not equipped or prepared to fill.
This is another reason why it is such a relief to be an atheist. Once you require evidence for assertions of fact, it becomes so much easier to distinguish the credible from the crazy and to simply say so.
POST SCRIPT: Cell phones and driving
I just went to a memorial service. It was for a lovely and talented 24-year old woman, the daughter of a friend and former colleague and who was also a classmate of my own daughter. I was told that she apparently lost control of her car and crashed into a pole. She was supposedly using her cell phone when it happened.
It is always hard to tell in such cases if the cell phone use was the direct cause of the accident or not. All I know is that when I see the great sadness that has descended on all her family and friends, I felt the need to ask all readers of this blog (and through them the people they know) to not take the chance.
I am hoping the day will come soon when putting away the cell phone when you begin to drive becomes as automatic as putting on your seat belt.