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Did You Also Slaughter A Goat?


Daniel Dennett is tempted to ask this of people who say they'd prayed for him during his recent hospitalization with a "dissection of the aorta":

What, though, do I say to those of my religious friends (and yes, I have quite a few religious friends) who have had the courage and honesty to tell me that they have been praying for me? I have gladly forgiven them, for there are few circumstances more frustrating than not being able to help a loved one in any more direct way. I confess to regretting that I could not pray (sincerely) for my friends and family in time of need, so I appreciate the urge, however clearly I recognize its futility. I translate my religious friends' remarks readily enough into one version or another of what my fellow brights have been telling me: "I've been thinking about you, and wishing with all my heart [another ineffective but irresistible self-indulgence] that you come through this OK." The fact that these dear friends have been thinking of me in this way, and have taken an effort to let me know, is in itself, without any need for a supernatural supplement, a wonderful tonic. These messages from my family and from friends around the world have been literally heart-warming in my case, and I am grateful for the boost in morale (to truly manic heights, I fear!) that it has produced in me. But I am not joking when I say that I have had to forgive my friends who said that they were praying for me. I have resisted the temptation to respond "Thanks, I appreciate it, but did you also sacrifice a goat?" I feel about this the same way I would feel if one of them said "I just paid a voodoo doctor to cast a spell for your health." What a gullible waste of money that could have been spent on more important projects! Don't expect me to be grateful, or even indifferent. I do appreciate the affection and generosity of spirit that motivated you, but wish you had found a more reasonable way of expressing it.

But isn't this awfully harsh? Surely it does the world no harm if those who can honestly do so pray for me! No, I'm not at all sure about that. For one thing, if they really wanted to do something useful, they could devote their prayer time and energy to some pressing project that they can do something about. For another, we now have quite solid grounds (e.g., the recently released Benson study at Harvard) for believing that intercessory prayer simply doesn't work. Anybody whose practice shrugs off that research is subtly undermining respect for the very goodness I am thanking. If you insist on keeping the myth of the effectiveness of prayer alive, you owe the rest of us a justification in the face of the evidence. Pending such a justification, I will excuse you for indulging in your tradition; I know how comforting tradition can be. But I want you to recognize that what you are doing is morally problematic at best. If you would even consider filing a malpractice suit against a doctor who made a mistake in treating you, or suing a pharmaceutical company that didn't conduct all the proper control tests before selling you a drug that harmed you, you must acknowledge your tacit appreciation of the high standards of rational inquiry to which the medical world holds itself, and yet you continue to indulge in a practice for which there is no known rational justification at all, and take yourself to be actually making a contribution. (Try to imagine your outrage if a pharmaceutical company responded to your suit by blithely replying "But we prayed good and hard for the success of the drug! What more do you want?")

Posted by aalkon at November 12, 2006 11:13 AM

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I usually just say, "You're in my thoughts." When someone's going through something difficult like a hospitalization or a divorce, it's nice to be reminded that you're not all alone in the world.

Posted by: Lena at November 12, 2006 9:03 AM

What Lena said.

> if they really wanted
> to do something useful

DOn't be greedy.

> myth of the effectiveness
> of prayer

Your friends pray when you're sick because it makes *them* feel better. Knowing this, they think it might make *you* feel better. Who's feelings are you concerned with?

Swear to God, the meanest people on the planet are the self-righteous heathens.

Posted by: Crid at November 12, 2006 9:23 AM

I like Lena's response. The way I see it, it's the thought that counts, although I do think to myself when people say "Bless you!" when I sneeze that I don't, as far as I know, have a "soul," nor a soul which is in danger of making off for Argentina or someplace when I breathe in and expel a bit of pollen.

The little irrationalities are part and parcel of the bigger irrationalities -- the ones that have people hating and killing and denying rights to some in the name of the irrational belief in god.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at November 12, 2006 9:39 AM

I've not visited for a while and the first things I see are you've troubles and crid being otherwise.
I have personal experience with a dear friend in distress and no last minute "irrationalities" acceptable.
Luckily, I am not under the conceit that what I think makes much difference to the operation of the railroad ( so to speak ). Nonetheless, if I choose to suspect that illogical fantasies have some power to ease distress through biofeedback and meditation, I don't find that unreasonable. It is, however, a personal choice. Self hypnosis and enabling one's favourite delusions should be an informed indulgence of minor madness.
Hating and denying others in the name of a God of Love is a perversion I have no intention of supporting.
crid chill. You're ungracious.
amy Take care of yourself. When everyone is a unique individual, replacement is not an option ( without denying I have preferences !).

Posted by: opit at November 12, 2006 10:09 AM

> You're ungracious.

Yeah? So?

Amy's blog get's the blood going before work... ("No! No! No!")

Listen, I really think we have to make peace with the fact that many people like to believe in things that aren't there. It's a human nature. And we don't get to reconfigure human nature just because it would be convenient.

If you could control a single component of human nature like that, which would you choose? (Other than the habit of some bitter bacherlors to put bitter comments on blogs before work every morning...) Is belief in God really the *worst* thing at work in the human heart?

Posted by: Crid at November 12, 2006 8:00 PM

Oooooh, Opit, I like you. So refreshing to hear your European turns of phrase (such as "I've not" instead of "I haven't") and lovely expressions such as "ungracious". Thanks for bringing a bit of polite society to this blog. It's sometimes sorely missing.

Don't mind Crid. He's a pain in the whatsit, but he grows on you. Our Self-Appointed Devil's Advocate. Bitter bachelor indeed. But then, every blog needs one.

Crid, I can just imagine you grinning ear-to-ear from that impetuous compliment. You're welcome. Sometimes you sound so familiar. Are you that debate club enthusiast I dated (briefly!) as an undergraduate?? Way, wwwwway back in the day? Very, very smart but oh so misguided.

Dear Opit, please check by more often. It does at least one of us good.

Posted by: Marie at November 13, 2006 5:30 AM

"Listen, I really think we have to make peace with the fact that many people like to believe in things that aren't there."

I'll go ahead and believe in Klingons, then. They're sexxxxay!

Posted by: Melissa at November 13, 2006 9:25 AM

Never dated, too bitter. And too short. And poor. Crooked teeth, bad haircut. Shy, can't dance...
So then driving to work there comes a moment on the Sepulveda pass where we're free to imagine what we would change in the human heart if we had the power. I choose the need to look down on others. It's number 5 after food, clothing, shelter and sex, and it shares bunkbeds with music and inebriants... On any given day, one of those three takes the spot.

Posted by: Crid at November 13, 2006 3:29 PM

Amy, this is one of the most ridiculous arguments against the practice of prayer I've ever read. In one instance you state emphatically your belief in the ineffectiveness of prayer, then you imply that if a spiritual person must pray they should "devote their prayer time and energy to some pressing project that they can do something about." This argument is a solipsistic cop-out at best.

Prayer is not about what the person praying can accomplish, it's about what God can accomplish according to His will...

And is the goat joke supposed to be some kind of gross generalization? Are you suggesting everyone who prays is Jewish...and also living 121 B.C.?

Prayer is communication with God. It's not rattling off a wish-list for Santa. And it's not all about the one praying. Most Christian prayer, as it should be, is praising and thanking God and committing oneself to God's will. How can this be "morally problematic" as you submit?

I can understand your abhorance of prayer if your dominant examples of it have been provided by Hollywood, popular culture, TV evangelists, or friends who pray, as someone wrote, to make themselves feel better, but I'd be extremely dubious of flying if my only exposure to it was the movie Airplane...

I know you think believing in God is irrational, and you know what? You're pretty much correct. BUT I'm not sure you have a sound understanding of the world view of first the Century A.D. Do you think Christianity was easier to "take in" back then, and that society is just more advanced and enlightened now so Christianity seems ridiculous? If you look at it from the worldview level, then you'll see the claims of Christ and his early followers seemed just as irrational, just as implausible back then, as they seem today. And yet, through persecution, hatred, death, crucifictions, stonings, beheadings, and more, Christianity spread and flourished. WHY?

Not because Christianity was WORKING for those early believers...(in fact, you'll never be truly satisfied if you believe in something because it "works for you"...some people spend their entire lives bouncing from different ideologies, philosophis and relationships looking for things that "work for them.") No, Christianity wasn't working for them, it was killing them! When Paul was in chains in front of Agrippa, about to be sentenced to death, and Agrippa asks him why he preaches about Jesus, Paul doesn't say "Well Christianity works for me, and it'll work for you too!" What would Agrippa have thought then...'Oh great, so it'll work for me, and I'll be off my throne and in chains like with you?!?'...No, the answer is in the book of Acts. The early Christians said they believe because they saw him! They saw him! Once they'd seen the resurrected Christ, it didn't matter what previous worldview they had, it didn't matter if it worked for them or made them feel warm and fuzzy or not, His resurrection and sacrifice for sin completely shattered their world view! And it can shatter yours too.

I could go on, but the point is, if you don't accept that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ occured, you have to come up with an alternative, historically possible explanation for the rise of the Christian church.

Posted by: jeff at November 13, 2006 9:37 PM

There's zero evidence there's a god, so praying to god is as intelligent as praying to a coffee mug.

As for the rise of the Catholic Church, it's a huge business based on preying on the irrationality of its followers. Whether it started with a fairytale about death the ressurection of a man is immaterial. The question is, to borrow from Sam Harris, if you don't believe your frozen yogurt can become invisible, why would you believe, without evidence, in god?

Gullibility is a polite word for it.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at November 13, 2006 11:47 PM

I'm with Crid. Religion is here for the foreseeable future, so live with it. Do what you can to mitigate the problems it causes.

Jeff, I've heard this argument so many times and it still doesn't convince me. The key figure you mention is Paul. He didn't see Jesus, ever. He did have a mental breakdown, causing a compete reversal of his world view. This is actually quite a common psychological effect; see "Battle for the mind" by William Sergant (ISBN 1883536065) for a very readable explanation. I think it satisfies your need for an alternative, historically possible explanation.

Personally, I think Paul is responsible for pretty much all of the mess that Christianity has given us. Without him it might just be an obscure branch of Juadaism.

Posted by: Norman at November 13, 2006 11:55 PM

Norm reminded me of another point: Hearsay isn't evidence.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at November 14, 2006 12:21 AM

This is very simple. The existence and nature of God cannot be proven or disproven by science or reason. That's why its called faith. Calling faith irrational is REDUNDANT. But, here's the kicker, claiming atheism is riddled with just as many theological assertions as claiming Christianity. It's just as big of a leap of faith.The only difference is Christians recognize that. You can't denounce belief A without simultaneously clinging to its opposite, belief B...

Norm, you can say what you want about Paul, and I will look into the book you mention, but what about the other some 500 or more witnesses? I would suggest reading the books of Luke and Acts (really two parts of the same text), and then we can have a better discussion...

Amy, name one other "huge business based on preying on the irrationality of its followers," that has been as successful as Christianity in the face of the criticism and bigotry it faced in its early years...and your explanation is still not historically possible.

You should read about the sacrifices Christians made during the European Black Plagues. They stayed behind to care for and minister to those dying when everyone else feld the infested cities. Was that irrational behavior? Maybe from a selfish, temporal point of view, but from an eternal point of view, it makes perfect sense.

Posted by: jeff at November 14, 2006 10:45 AM

Jeff, in the words of Carl Sagan, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."

It's not up to me to prove that god exists, that's up to you. And you can't prove it. Believing in god without evidence that god exists is equivalent to believing yogurt will become invisble.

I see no evidence there's a god (and the fact that a lot of people who don't think too hard believe in god doesn't count as evidence), hence, I do not believe in god.

Because a business is successful doesn't mean it's a good business. Christianity has been responsible for the slaying of countless innocent people in the name of keeping the business going, and was responsible for children making my own childhood torture.

I don't care what sacrifices anybody made -- plenty of people made them without believing in silly unproven crap. Moreover, religion is the cause of much misery and violence in the world.

And you don't give any evidence-based reason why you believe in god -- so the reason must be that you're gullible and don't think too hard.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at November 14, 2006 11:23 AM


I am willing to re-read Luke & the Acts (again!) but to be honest I am starting from a position where I don't see a great deal of point in doing so. I view these writings as unreliable, propagandist, primitive stories of a group of ignorant (well relatively ignorant) superstitious people, passed down by word of mouth and selected and edited by another bunch of people with something to sell. That's as plain as I can put it. I don't see why I should place any trust in them at all.

You could ask why I don't view other writings in the same way. Well I do. Just because somethng's written down, means absolutely nothing. An unexpected benefit of the huge amount of misinformation now available on the world wide web is that it may help more people to be more skeptical about what they're told & sold.

Skepticism leads me to ask, when someone tells me something, how do they know? How can I tell whether this is true? The difficulty with using faith as the basis for your belief is that it seems that god has cunningly set everything up so that it looks exactly as it would if he didn't exist at all. Otherwise you wouldn't need faith, and that's what god really really values. So it all hangs together, and either you buy into it or you don't. But internal consistency is not hard to achieve - any good detective novel is consistent. To my mind the god hypothesis is, simply, superfluous. It does not add anything of real value, party because by definition it can't without violating the faith rule.

Posted by: Norman at November 14, 2006 12:32 PM

No, no, no. I'm not talking about you or I proving the existence of God, I'm talking about you "Jane Atheist" providing an alternative, HISTORICALLY POSSIBLE explanation for the rise of the Christian Church, if you reject the resurrection of Christ. And I'm still waiting. Don't give me the "its a mass dillusion, everyone's been fooled conspiracy theory."

But since you mention it. That's the funny little catch isn't it? You CANNOT prove Got DOES NOT exist! I know I can't prove God exists using science or reason, I admit that. Can a single thread of a sweater prove that it was designed and created into a sweater? No. But that doesn't disprove the possibility now does it?

But, you'll never admit that you can't prove God doesn't exist. I said all this in my previous post!

How can you dismiss the writings of Luke (which came out of interviews with many many witnesses to the you dismiss news articles with multiple sources?) so quickly and then just stand completely firm on the opinion of Carl's your choice. Just as its mine to believe the writings of Luke. Sheesh, this is why I have much more respect for agnostics...they aren't so closed-minded or bigoted to others views.

Try to prove God doesn't exist, you can't! You have to be self-aware enough to realize that your atheism is just as dependent on unproven theological assertions as someone's Christianity. But that's not self-examination you're prepared to commit to.

And if you think Catholicism or the Holy Roman Empire are the same as Christianity, then we have a huge disconnect, and you haven't done your research. Of course wars and terrible things have been fought in the name of Christ and as well as many other religion's figures, and, let's not kid ourselves atheists (and others with no religious affiliation as well). But those people co-opted the religion for their own purposes. They're not true Christian's (you know "followers of Christ"). Christ never waged wars or called for others to people, or overthrow governments (even when the Jewish establishment wanted him to!).

Christ and true Christianity is the most inclusive, nonjudgemental religion on Earth. WHY? Because while the world was sinful, and Jesus was rejected by his very own people, he died for them. All of them! He sacrificied for those who not only disagreed with him, but openly hated him. Christianity is also nonjudgemental because Christ did not come to lay judgement, he came to bare judgement. And he bore is all-- all the sin of the world in his death on the cross. And that's the point. True Christians follow Christ's example in this.

On another note, Christianity differs greatly from other religions in that Christ's teachings are not what saves people. Islam says follow the teachings of prophet Mohammed and you'll be in paradise with a bunch of virgins and all the rest. Buddhism says follow the teachings of Buddha and you'll reach enlightenment. BUT Christianity says "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." It's not what Jesus said that saves us, its what he DID! His sacrifice in our place. Therefore the works or deeds or the earthly "sacrifices" you so crassly put down, are not the cause of salvation, but one of the proofs of it! Doesn't that make sense to you? It does to me. That's why I believe in Jesus Christ as the sacrifice and atonement for my sins which resulted in separation from God who is completely just and righteous.

And if you don't see any reason in that, then we'll just have to agree to disagree. I'm not here to convince you or trick anyone into Christianity. It can't be done. People don't bring other people to Christianity. God calls them. I just hope the bigotry toward believers, and the name-calling would stop. I won't post anymore on here for the time being, but I hope what I've written is at least considered with an open mind. Thanks.

Posted by: jeff at November 14, 2006 1:01 PM


I can't prove god doesn't exist. Proof requires a formal system, and there isn't one for this. But, I can't prove that Santa doesn't exist either. Can you? Nor that Thor, Kali or thousands of other gods do or don't exist.

I'm not trying to.

Do I dismiss news articles with multiple sources? I'm just skeptical. With news stories where I have personal experience of the facts, I have found that my skepticism is justified. How about you? Do you have such experiences? If not, how do you judge? Do you believe everything you read?

I have read, but cannot see any sense in, the story of Jesus as a sacrifice. I could possibly accept that it is a self-consistent story, but I have to say it simply does not make sense to me. The actual words you use, such as "Jesus Christ as the sacrifice and atonement for my sins which resulted in separation from God who is completely just and righteous" seem to me to be literally non-sense - they don't have any meaning that I can detect. Don't take this as a personal criticism. I'm commenting on the language itself. Perhaps I'm missing the cultural baggae that everyone shared 2000 years ago. If so, the message has dated rather badly, and god should consider issuing a new and revised edition. Is there any reason why that should not be possible to him?

If, as you say, god calls people to Christianity, then you have to wonder why he almost exclusively calls people who are brought up by Christian parents, and lets Hindu parents bring up Hindus, and Muslim parents bring up Muslims. It almost as if religion was entirely a phenomenon of human culture with no other basis. Oh, I forgot! He must behave as if he didn't exist, so you can have faith.

Jeff, I haven't been calling you names, and I don't believe i've been bigoted. I do have strong opinions and have not pulled my punches. But they were only words, not real punches. My opinions are strong because I have been considering stuff like what you wrote for many years. I'm not sure I have an open mind on the topic any more. There was a time for that, but I have reached a conclusion. If you want me to change it, you have to present something quite exceptional in the way of evidence. Mere words are not enough - I have read them before. Would that be a fair description of your position too?

Posted by: Norman at November 14, 2006 3:16 PM

"Christ and true Christianity is the most inclusive, nonjudgemental religion on Earth."

Wouldja mind telling that to the girls who chased me around in junior high, throwing chairs at me, and calling me "Dirty Jew"?

How Christianity originated? Not really of interest to me, or important in the question of whether there is a god. Your beliefs, Jeff, are based on zero evidence, so you dance around with inconsequential questions about the origins of the church. It really doesn't matter how the church originated -- the fact that it did is not proof of the existence of god, or the validity of Christianity.

PS While you're believing that Jesus Christ died for your sins, I'd like you to also believe that sending money to that Amazon or Paypal button on my main blog page will gift you with great riches for all eternity. There's as much evidence for that as there is for your silly belief in Zeus...oh, sorry, Jesus, as something more than a guy who probably walked around barefoot and maybe did some nice work for the poor a lotta years ago.

"Try to prove God doesn't exist" -- silly, it's up to you to prove that god does exist. It's so hard arguing with a person who is so lacking in the rudiments of logic. Here, I'll explain again, I don't believe there is a god because there's no evidence of a god. Should you find evidence there is a god, I'd of course, reconsider my beliefs.

I'll explain again: I don't believe there is a god, just as I don't believe there is no giant purple vagina hovering over my house. Would you also expect me to prove there's no giant vaginal hovercraft? Or would you just not believe there is one since there's no evidence of one.

I consider what you've written with a highly rational mind, and consider it sad that you let your capacity to reason lie fallow and instead operate on about as modern, scientific, and sophisticated a rational level as a guy in a grass skirt and face paint.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at November 14, 2006 3:47 PM

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