I've got some semi-serious health problems. Meaning, they aren't fatal or debilitating. But they're damn annoying. The details aren't necessary to know for the purposes of this post, though I've blogged about what I'm going through here.
It's been interesting to see how my atheist mind has been dealing with the stress I've been feeling.
Back in 2006 I wrote a couple of posts on the subject of turning to God during difficult times. The first was "Atheists in foxholes do exist." It concluded with:
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.
And here's an excerpt from the other post, "Yes, there are agnostics in dentist's chairs."
During my devotional days I’d try to adopt the attitude that a dental visit was God’s will, part of my bad teeth karma. I’d repeat the mantra given to me by my guru and do my best to enter into a relaxed “thy will be done” attitude.
Today I felt just as calm, cool, and collected. Yet the Brian whose mouth was open for well over an hour was an agnostic, not a believer. I felt no need to lean on a higher power. Reality was my mainstay.
“What has to happen is happening,” I told myself. “Accept it.” And I did. I found that it helped to focus on my one-syllable mantra, if only to keep myself from worrying about how much decay would be found once the malfunctioning crowns/bridge were removed.
However, what I'm going through now is much tougher for me to handle than a visit to the dentist (even for a root canal).
I'll be honest and admit that Atheist Me has occasionally laid in bed at night, when I feel the most anxious, and uttered some prayers to the God I no longer believe in. I've also called upon the Indian guru I no longer believe in to make an appearance in my consciousness.
So I totally understand why believers in a divinity find comfort in feeling that their health problems have some spiritual purpose/benefit, are being overseen by a supernatural being, or will be ameliorated through the grace of a higher power.
After all, if a nonbeliever like myself is tempted to appeal to God for help, obviously religiously-inclined people are going to look upon God as the Healer of Last Resort (or first resort, since some extreme believers reject medical treatment entirely -- even for their children, which should be considered child abuse).
Here's what I've found, though.
As my favorite saying by Philip K. Dick puts it, Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.
Reality is what sustains us. Reality also is what makes us suffer, pushing us down. Reality is all there really is. And that includes our thoughts, beliefs, imaginings, and such that only exist within our own minds.
Yet as Dick said, there's a difference between a reality that is only a mental belief, and a reality that continues to exist even in the absence of a belief about it.
When I'm physically hurting, that's real.
Praying to God might make me feel better about the pain, but prayer to an imaginary God isn't going to make the pain go away. More accurately, if the pain does go away, this will be due to the power of a person's mind, not the power of a supernatural being.
Thus I still use a mantra to help me get to sleep at night, and to relax during the day. But I no longer believe that the mantra has some mystical power, or is being sensed by a divine being. It makes me feel better, which is all I need.
Yes, I realize that prayer also makes religious believers feel better. That's why I said in my previous post:
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.
That still makes sense to me. Whatever works.
And this will be different for atheists and believers. Atheists with a health problem can derive the same comfort from a secular practice as a religious person can get from a faith-based practice.