Recently a couple of people have asked me, “What’s wrong with believing?” after listening to one of my rants about the power and glory of Faithlessness. It’s a question that is akin to the more basic query: “What’s wrong with feeling good?”
Because religious belief does make many people feel better. Yesterday on a cable news channel I saw an interview with a female doctor about the power of prayer. She said that she had a patient who now was almost totally paralyzed.
He told her that prayer and a belief in God’s goodness—that there was a divine reason or plan for what had happened to him—was sustaining him. Seemingly you can’t argue with that. Whatever works. The interviewer said, “There are no atheists in foxholes.”
Except, there are. No doubt about it. Here’s an example of a man who refused to pray even when he had to wait helplessly outside the operating room where his wife had to undergo a C-section after complications arose.
It’s a good story. He ends with this:
As for all those religious folks out there sitting in their own foxholes, they would do well to reconsider their prayerful ways. After all, if their nightly prayers to God were really effective, they would never have ended up sitting in foxholes in the first place.
I’m not an atheist. I identify more with the terms “agnostic,” “uncertain,” “open minded.” I discussed my attitude toward religious belief in “What’s wrong with faith?” But basically I’m in accord with the non-prayerful atheist, who says:
Searching desperately for comfort, I tried to think of what other people would do to calm themselves down. It occurred to me that most people in my situation would pray. Could it work for me? Was my stubborn atheism placing my wife and child at risk? What did I have to lose?
At this point, I wasn't above trying anything that had a reasonable chance of working. Nonetheless, after considering the possibility of prayer for a few minutes, I realized that praying wouldn't help anything.
What would have happened if I had decided to believe in God just so that I could have someone to pray to? I would have placed myself in the position of praising an entity which has the power to help everyone in need but only gives such help when it is promised loyalty and obedience in return.
Even then I wouldn't have any guarantees because, as even the most fanatical Christians believe, sometimes the answer to a prayer is "no." I wasn't about to place the lives of my wife and son under the power of an all-powerful deity who is nonetheless inconsistent and stingy.
Besides, I still didn't believe in God. If I was sure that God didn't exist, then prayer would be nothing but talking to myself, asking an imaginary entity to influence events in a way that just isn't possible. I knew that the natural laws of the universe work without regard to the personal problems of individual humans. Praying really hard couldn't change the course of the cesarean section any more than it could keep the sun from rising.
Psychologically, I realized that dependence upon prayer would lead down the path to insanity. If I believed that reality could be changed just by my wishes for it to change, then the concept of reality would cease to have any real meaning to me. A reality which follows the whims of my imagination would become nothing but a hallucination. What I needed was to exert control over my anxious imagination, not to surrender to it.
Right on, brother. Religious belief or faith is almost always individualistic. That’s a paradox, considering that humility and loss of ego usually is considered to be a religious virtue. It’s self-centered to believe that a God, guru, angel, Buddha, or whoever is going to bestow upon us the blessing of a miracle that isn’t available to all.
We are special. Divinity cares more about us than others. These beliefs underlie every intercessionary prayer. For if we merely wanted God to give us what is natural, normal, lawful, and regular, we’d merely say “thy will be done” (which, in my opinion, is the best prayer—if you feel the need to pray at all).
It’s better to let reality trump belief. Focus on what is happening, not in what you hope will happen. Focus on what you can change about reality, not on what you hope a higher being will change.
Even in a foxhole. Especially in a foxhole.