Elayne Riggs' Journal (for Leah)

Saturday, November 04, 2006

An Atheist in a Foxhole

I found this excerpt from atheist Daniel Dennett's recounting of his recent heart scare and its aftermath fascinating:
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... 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?")
I don't care how he justifies it, it's still harsh. Dennett himself characterizes these people as his friends. Caring about friends, and expressing that caring to them, is one of the things that connects us all as thinking human beings. It doesn't automatically convey expertise in how to cure those friends when they take ill. Prayer, hoping, wishing, sending good mojo - they're all things we do when we're faced with things we acknowledge as beyond our personal control and want someone to know we care about them but are powerless to help them beyond that basic human impulse to reach out and hug them with our thoughts. That Dennett wishes not to hear about these good thoughts, and dismisses his friends as gullible and useless, even though he pays temporary lip-service to "appreciat[ing] the affection and generosity of spirit," says less about his atheism, to my mind, than it does about his lack of such generosity, one of the things which makes our humanity so worthwhile and special.

(That said, I'm still working on practicing what I preach, since my first reaction to strangers telling me they're going to say a prayer for me is often to cringe as well, as I noted here. But you know, that's strangers, not friends.)