Last Friday (4 September) regular commenter on Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution is True website Ben Goren, wrote a guest piece: The One Question a Christian Can’t Answer. It was about the big problem with Christian belief: why God doesn’t intervene to help – the problem of evil. It’s a great piece and provoked an enormous amount of discussion. I was having a bad day and didn’t feel up to commenting myself beyond letting Goren know I thought it was excellent. It’s a subject I do have strong opinions on though, and it also brought back a memory of a childhood incident, so I thought I’d jot down a few thoughts here.
Goren’s piece started like this:
Imagine you find yourself in one of any number of calamitous situations — somebody you’re with clutches her chest in pain and falls to the floor; you hear, coming from the far end of a dark alley, the voice of a frightened old man crying for help; a tree falls as you’re driving down a lonely road, missing you but smashing the car following you.
In all such cases, the very first thing you — or anybody else — would do is call 9-1-1 [Goren lives in the USA]. By now, it’s practically an instinct, even to the point of being unthinkable that you wouldn’t make that call. You might not know CPR; you might not be a big and burly cop; you might not have a MEDEVAC helicopter … but the 9-1-1 dispatcher has people standing by who meet all those qualifications and more, and will make sure they get where they’re needed the most as fast as humanly possible.
He went on to talk about the possible excuses someone who didn’t contact emergency services in such a position might use, and how, whatever the circumstances, any excuse would likely sound hollow and most people would consider it unacceptable. In fact, he pointed out, many of the excuses a person might use for not helping would see them in prison. Whatever the situation, most people would do their best to help.
But that’s not what God does, and His failure to help is not just one occurrence. In Goren’s words:
Now, imagine that it’s not just a single incident you observed and yet stood silently by, but every such case everywhere. Never mind the fact that you’d be a pervert for looking in everybody’s bedroom windows, but to look in a bedroom window, see a lit cigarette fall from sleepy fingers and catch the curtains on fire and then not call 9-1-1 to get the firefighters on the scene before the baby in the crib burns to death in uncomprehending screaming agony, well, that would go unimaginably far beyond mere perversion and move solidly into the worst brand of criminal psychopathy. There are those who get their kicks from so-called “snuff” films, in which victims are murdered on camera for entertainment purposes, but you’d be hard pressed to imagine a more horrific type of criminal mind than the one who would seek out or produce such.
Yet that is exactly how every god of every religion is described. Most modern religions claim an all-knowing ever-present all-powerful deity, but even the ancient gods were far-seeing, far- and fast-roaming, and very strong.
Theologians offer all sorts of obfuscatory excuses on this subject, with an entire field of “study” devoted to it: “theodicy.” In common language, it’s the “problem of evil,” or, “Why do good things happen to bad people?” But the official discussion leads far astray from the reality of everyday life, getting tangled up in obscure questions of “freedom of the will” or placing the blame on an ancient ancestral maternal progenitor who procured culinary counseling from a speaking serpent.
(Isn’t that last bit a wonderful description of Eve? “… ancient ancestral maternal progenitor who procured culinary counseling from a speaking serpent.” Goren often writes like that in his regular comments, and I love it. But back to the matter in hand!)
The main example Goren used was that of the appalling abuse perpetrated on children by religious leaders, and how those children are threatened with eternal torment in hell if they tell anyone of the suffering being visited upon them.
What thousands of children go through because of the failure of a supposedly loving God to intervene is unimaginable. Because of the religious brainwashing those children go through, it’s likely most of them are perpetually praying to that same god to help them and stop what’s happening to them. If the abuse stops, that has nothing to do with the child’s prayer or any unsought intervention by a loving god who sees a child in need. And even if it was, why didn’t that god stop it happening in the first place? Was he perhaps too busy making sure some sportsperson won the competition they were taking part in? Or that an actor got that role they desired?
Those of you who follow US politics may remember a candidate for the senate in the 2012 election called Todd Akin (R-Missouri). He made the following comment during an interview:
“It seems to me, from what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare,” Mr. Akin said of pregnancies from rape. “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something: I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be of the rapist, and not attacking the child.” (Source: New York Times)
What he means by “attacking the child,” is terminating the pregnancy. He apologized for the comment, but continued to hold the opinion that rape wasn’t a valid reason for a termination – babies come from God, and so abortion is never an option. (According to Politico, via the Washington Post, Akin has since said he should never have apologized in his book called Firing Back: Taking on the Party Bosses and Media Elite to Protect Our Faith and Freedom, released in 2014.)
That whole controversy got me so riled up, I was inspired to join Twitter. Here’s my first ever Tweet*:
I had no followers at that stage, and still managed to get a retweet! 🙂 The controversy carried on with several GOP candidates making revolting comments about women. Another who got it badly wrong was senate candidate Richard Mourdock (R-Indiana) with the remark, “I think, even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.” That prompted a couple more tweets:
I understand that many people are opposed to abortion, and for most of those it’s also a fundamental part of their religious faith. There is, of course, absolutely nothing wrong with that. The problem comes when they want to force their belief on others. Abortion is a legal medical procedure. Too many anti-choice activists act as if pro-choice people deliberately get pregnant in order to have an abortion, use abortion as a form of contraception, or want to make abortion compulsory in certain circumstances. The emphasis is on the word “choice.” I find it ironic that the political party in the United States that is all about individual liberty and has a strong libertarian bent, spends so much time interfering in the personal lives of others when it comes anything related to sex.
The attitude that women are second-class citizens is endemic in most religions. In the Bible they are considered the property of their husband or father. As much as modern Christians like to insist women are treated equally, the reality is they aren’t. This is exposed most often when it comes to matters of contraception, pregnancy and childbirth.
Several Christian denominations have no problem with the idea of forcing a woman to to continue an unwanted pregnancy. In the United States they are constantly lobbying state governments to reduce the availability of abortion. Especially in those states controlled by Republicans, they have been very successful. In North Dakota it was even made illegal to terminate a foetus with Downs syndrome two years ago, and Ohio is currently considering doing the same. The governor of Ohio, John Kasich, is one of the stronger candidates in the 17-strong Republican field for presidential nominee. He has passed several laws making termination more difficult since his election, including the requirement that all women obtain and view an ultrasound before going ahead. (He hasn’t yet stated his position on the latest Bill.) Clearly, prayer isn’t going to help any of these women.
But why should prayer ever be expected to help anyway? The Christian God has a plan. Everything that happens is according to that plan. Christians are told He knew them before they were born, and they’re going back to him when they die. So whatever is going to happen has already been decided – why would God change the whole deal just for some women in the process of being impregnated during a violent rape, no matter how plaintive and heartfelt her cries, and how deep and sincere her belief?
In fact, as believers like Richard Mourdock pointed out, God wanted that violent rape to happen so the woman would get pregnant. He’s up there watching and enjoying it as she begs for His help to save her. Governor Scott Walker (R) has given his opinion on such situation too – he’s opposed to terminations in the case of rape. He says they’re just not needed because women forget about the rape in the joy of the progression of the pregnancy.
When I was a kid I went to Girls’ Brigade. I didn’t like it very much. I wanted to join the Girl Guides, because they did more fun things. But Girls’ Brigade was held in the Methodist church hall just around the corner, so we could walk there without adult supervision. We started off with prayer, and the equivalent of a sermon, then we split into groups according to our ages. I don’t remember much of it – it was all pretty boring – but there’s one occasion when I was about eight I still remember quite clearly.
We went off to our group in a side room and had a leader we’d never had before. I don’t remember her name, but she was something to do with the Methodists, as most of our leaders were. (We went to a Presbyterian church and Sunday School, and the general idea was that us, the Methodists and the Anglicans were pretty much the same.) There were six of us, and the leader gave us a puzzle – she asked us to show her what we’d do if the walls started closing in, and the door and window were locked. “If they don’t stop,” she said, “you’ll be killed.” All of the others started pushing on the walls, I started moving furniture to try and brace them. “It’s not working,” she said, “the walls are still closing in, you’re going to die if you don’t stop those walls.” We just kept doing what we were doing.
Eventually we were allowed to sit down and stop our attempts. The leader told us she was very disappointed in us all. Why? None of us had got down on our knees and prayed. I clearly remember thinking what a waste of time that would have been and what a stupid idea it was, and I really wanted to say so. But the ingrained respect for my elders wouldn’t allow me to, so I kept my mouth shut.
She went on a bit about our failure to put our trust in God, and I was getting more and more annoyed – I could see some of the other kids were getting pretty upset. Eventually, I couldn’t take anymore. I was scared to answer her back but I managed to mutter, “God helps those who help themselves.” It wasn’t quite what I wanted to say, but it stopped her in her tracks. She looked down her nose at me (or maybe it just seemed that way because I was so small) and said, “Well, yes, He does.” A couple of the other kids looked at me so gratefully. When I look back with adult eyes, the whole thing had obviously affected them quite badly.
The Presbyterians, Methodists and Anglicans are some of the more moderate churches in New Zealand. I don’t feel like I suffered because of my childhood experience with religion. In fact, it’s given me a lot of knowledge I’m not sure I’d have without it. However, my not suffering probably has more to do with the luck of having an eminently practical and sensible mother than anything else. There are plenty of children who have parents more like the leader from Girls’ Brigade who wanted us to pray when things went wrong.
There are plenty of religions where the situation is much worse. Those of you who have read Jerry Coyne’s Fact vs Faith will remember some of the horrific stories he recounted of parents who relied on prayer when their children were ill. It’s also a subject he’s written about on his website, Why Evolution is True. There are plenty of believers who’ll tell you that prayer works, that they have “proof.” None of them have empirical proof, all they have is belief – “belief in belief” as Daniel Dennett said.
Here are some more accounts of children who have suffered because of a reliance on religion and prayer:
There are at least thousands of children who suffer like this every year – because the parents who are meant to protect them have been brainwashed by religion to believe they can do that through prayer.
Goren finished his article thus:
And that, at last, brings us to the question that nobody from any religion can satisfactorily answer — at least, not if at least one of its gods (however many there are) has enough awareness and ability to answer the simplest of prayers—or, for that matter, merely has a cellphone and the compassionate instincts of even a young child.
Why doesn’t Jesus ever call 9-1-1?
I can only endorse the sentiment.
Well, I thought I could only endorse the sentiment.
A fly has settled in the proverbial ointment …
While I was writing this an item on the TV in the background caught my attention.
According to Yahoo News, Police departments in several US states including Texas, Missouri, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia, have started putting “In God We Trust” decals on their patrol vehicles. The Freedom From Religion Foundation say they have received dozens of complaints about the situation, but they’re having trouble finding people who are prepared to make a complaint against the police.
Let’s just hope that the police in these jurisdictions don’t rely on prayer in the face of an armed assailant.
* You can find your own first tweet by going: here.
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