I go up and down in an elevator every day, usually multiple times. It’s really a marvel of engineering that we take for granted, all of the complex machinery and programming that goes into making sure that it runs smoothly and efficiently. As I’m being whisked up or down, I can’t help occasionally wondering as the numbers change how safe it is. My rational brain tells me that it’s perfectly fine, that these things run every day without a hitch, that regular maintenance and inspections are performed on these elevators, and that the chances of an accident and the car plunging down the shaft to our collective doom is slimmer than a heroin-riddled New York ballet dancer. However, my lizard brain whispers from its dark corner in my mind that this is exactly what everyone thinks in the horror movie right before the cord breaks and every dies.
That’s the difference between faith and assessment. You could say that there’s a certain amount of faith behind stepping on an elevator or boarding a transatlantic flight. The elevator could malfunction. The plane could still fall from the sky. There’s always risk, but there’s also science and probability that allow us to measure those risks and take educated leaps.
This afternoon on NPR there was a story about ritual and belief, starting with an anecdote from the author about sitting in a yoga class and thinking positive, empathetic thoughts for Michael Joel Hall, the yoga instructor who was violently beaten earlier this week along with his boyfriend.
As we sat there repeating a simple combination of Sanskrit words, I imagined our voices floating out the window, down the street, and into the hospital room of Hall (whom I’ve never met). After six minutes, we stopped. Though reason told us our efforts did nothing to speed Hall’s physical recovery, a resounding feeling of accomplishment nonetheless lingered in the room as we made our way out.
I probably don’t need to editorialize too much about this as it’s probably not too hard to imagine what I think about this. Exercises like this are largely masturbatory and serve only to make the user feel good. Scientific studies have been carried out to examine and measure the effects of prayer and meditation on subjects, such as the Mayo Clinic’s famous 2001 double-blind study that found that “intercessory prayer had no significant effect on medical outcomes after hospitalization in a coronary care unit.”
It’s what Freud called magical thinking, and what we can more broadly refer to as superstition, to believe that anything we do can have a significant effect on an outcome or condition. Furthermore, it’s supreme arrogance to think that a God or god who created the universe and human beings should arrest the laws of nature for your convenience or welfare. If you pray for a parking spot, doesn’t that imply that someone else should be denied that same spot? Or if you think that God helped your team win a football (or any sport) game, don’t you then believe that God was against the other team?
I don’t have a problem with people thinking nice thoughts about others, or believing that there’s a God out there working everything for your benefit. If it makes you feel better, great. What you believe is your business, and it’s none of mine to police or tell you what to think. However, we run into problems in two areas when:
- you try to force or share unbidden your personal beliefs with or on me;
- that magical thinking extends into the real world, with real world implications.
Take, for example, the case of Carl and Raylene Worthington, a couple who allowed their 15-month old daughter, Ava, to die. Do I think these people are monsters? No. They are probably very nice, albeit tragically negligent, people. Their church took the following passage from the Book of James literally:
Is any sick among you? Let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him.
The Oregonian described the scene this way: “As the 15-month-old girl struggled to breathe, church members anointed her with oil and pleaded with God to provide a cure. But Ava died March 2, 2008, of bronchial pneumonia and a blood infection. Antibiotics could have saved her life, the state medical examiner’s office said.”
Antibiotics could have saved her life. I can imagine that scene in my mind, and it looks pathetic. Those deluded, weak-minded Christians look pathetic. Mourners in Aurora praying before the memorials of loved ones gunned down by James Holmes look pathetic—desperate people looking for a magical solution to their desperate problems.
Believe what you like, but just as believing that the laws of gravity can be suspended just for you won’t keep you from falling off a building if you jump, you cannot abdicate your intellectual responsibility to face facts.
This is the beginning of a much broader conversation, but it concerns me that there are members of our government who use (or at least claim to use) prayer as a form of decision making on very important issues that have consequences for real people. It worries me that we have a man who believes the earth is no more than 6,000 years old and that God lives on a planet called Kolob who wants to be president of the United States. It worries me that presidents have turned first to men like Rick Warren and Billy Graham rather than policy advisers or scientists for council.
And, of course, it worries and infuriates me that we have politicians trying to ram through legislation that would deny me and millions of other GLBT Americans constitutional and civil rights and liberties based on Bronze Age beliefs and teachings. And that millions of people take that shit seriously.