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November 16, 2007


Any God that would set up a world in which there were devastations aplenty, and only by pleading in the correct lingo could one avoid them, if said God were in the right mood, and on your time schedule, might you avoid them---and kept sending/allowing such devastations (tsunami in Indonesia anyone?)
---does not deserve to be worshipped. Nor one that demands worship. Nor one that demands human sacrifice (see: Abraham, and Jesus).

I could go along with the Deius Absconditus folks, a world set in motion then left to its own devices, much more than one where "there but for the grace of God go I" or "it was a miracle, our house was spared but not the neighbors'" actually described actions by said God. I could not respect a God who played such favorites, or used horror to stroke his ego by getting us to plead for help. I know I'm not the nicest person on the planet, but I'm nicer than that. Am I nicer than God? (Can God create a human who is better than God?)

Nowadays, the randomness of the universe feels the sanest, most fair setup.

Cain slew Abel, Seth knew not why
For if the children of Israel were to multiply
Why must any of the children die?
So he asked the Lord
And the Lord said:

Man means nothing, he means less to me
Than the lowliest cactus flower
Or the humblest Yucca tree
He chases round this desert
'Cause he thinks that's where I'll be
That's why I love mankind

I recoil in horror from the foulness of thee
From the squalor and the filth and the misery
How we laugh up here in heaven at the prayers you offer me
That's why I love mankind

The Christians and the Jews were having a jamboree
The Buddhists and the Hindus joined on satellite TV
They picked their four greatest priests
And they began to speak
They said, "Lord, a plague is on the world
Lord, no man is free
The temples that we built to you
Have tumbled into the sea
Lord, if you won't take care of us
Won't you please, please let us be?"
And the Lord said
And the Lord said

I burn down your cities-how blind you must be
I take from you your children and you say how blessed are we
You all must be crazy to put your faith in me
That's why I love mankind
You really need me
That's why I love mankind

- Randy Newman, "God's Song"

I feel negativity toward people who think that I can't be properly moral because I don't believe. Because atheism has such a bad name in that respect, I think it's important to hash out the moral implications of atheism, and how they differ from those of religion.

the only 'bad name' atheism has comes from people who want to keep believers believing.

do you suppose Limbaugh listeners think liberalism has a 'bad name' when it comes to dealing with war (for example) ?

Oh God said to Abraham, "Kill me a son"
Abe says, "Man, you must be puttin' me on"
God say, "No."
Abe say, "What?"
God say, "You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin' you better run"
Well Abe says, "Where do you want this killin' done?"
God says, "Out on Highway 61."

Whaddya think of the new movie about you, Bobby?

Funny thing about the whole idea of praying for things, is that there's little if any justification for it in the Bible. G-d intervenes of His own accord, for Her own purposes. That intervention redounds to the benefit of some people and the harm of others. Generally, the more faithful and humble the person, the more likely he is to be on the right side of an intervention, but those people generally don't have to ask for it, G-d just steps in when She feels it's time. The narrative text and some of the people talk about G-d hearing people's cries or seeing their suffering, but it's not at all clear that these people cried out to G-d in particular, as opposed to just screaming.

Nor does G-d say to ask for things, except forgiveness. The prophets demand that people "return," before G-d will forgive and restore the land or restore them to the land, but not that they pray for that result. There are prescribed prayers/sacrifices in Leviticus and Numbers: sin offerings, wave offerings, holiday offerings -- but no "gimme that" offerings.

The only exceptions I can recall offhand really just prove the point. There was the mother of Samuel, who successfully prayed for a child -- but she had to bargain to give him up to the priesthood as soon as he was weaned, so that advanced G-d's purposes, and amounted to giving up her own wish in favor of His. Abraham's slave successfully prayed for a sign, but not for success, and the same for Gideon. Prophets occasionally worked miracles, but not by prayer. The people of Nineveh, in Jonah, prayed for forgiveness, which was granted, but that was after G-d invited them to do so by sending a prophesy of Her Wrath. Similarly, the High Priest asked yearly for forgiveness for the people, but G-d told him to do that. Job berated G-d, but did not ask for anything -- and yet was restored.

I'm less familiar with the Christian New Testament, but I don't recall Jesus praying, except at the end when he was ignored. When he was incarnate, he sometimes granted requests, but more to make a point than out of mercy. It's impossible to believe, for instance, that after he revived Lazarus more widows didn't come to him, but those pleas are not even recorded, much less answered.

Of course, I may be forgetting some incidents. But certainly the Bible does not in general suggest that prayer is an efficacious way of getting things.

Perhaps Governor Perdue thinks Georgia's tribulations were sent on the people as punishment for sins, and, like Ninevah, Georgia needs to plead for the punishment to be averted. But probably not, as he's not asking for a day of atonement -- fasting, ashes, sackcloth, tithing, that sort of thing. Perhaps he should try that.

cleek - I'd like to think it isn't a widespread thing. But when I read about the University of Minnesota study, I started to worry a little more.

I don't have any cites on the "liberalism = weak on security" narrative, but wouldn't you say that the idea was sold pretty successfully to the public at large?

"Perhaps Governor Perdue thinks Georgia's tribulations were sent on the people as punishment for sins"

Or a modern-day version of it:

Perdue said after the event that Georgians have not done "all we could do in conservation" and that the drought was an attempt by God to "get our attention."

"Hopefully we will be better conservators of the blessings God's given us as he gives us more [rain]," the governor said.

Interestingly, Purdue says "as" rather than "if". But otherwise, it's classic stage-three bargaining.

There is a lot being said by or about well-behaved believers in this thread. Most of my reactions have been already said.

A couple of points remain. First, trying to understand God -- seeing Him/Her as a super-powered human doesn't work. Since there are a lot of God songs in this thread, I'll quote part of one of Leonard Cohen's best, which portrays God differently.

"When I am on a pedestal,
You did not raise me there.
Your laws do not compel me
To kneel grotesque and bare.
I myself am the pedestal
For this ugly hump at which you stare.

You who wish to conquer pain,
You must learn what makes me kind;
The crumbs of love that you offer me,
They're the crumbs Ive left behind.
Your pain is no credential here,
Its just the shadow, shadow of my wound."

Second, Christianity is becoming much less Anglo or European as its demographics shift toward Africans and South Americans.

As others have touched on, prayer is more about surrender -- accepting that the one praying is helpless in a situation -- than control.

All of this makes me once again glad that I don't look to the numinous for any more perfection than I look for in physical reality.

"But it doesn't lead to a real sense of responsibility, in the context of your analogy or in any other context I can think of."

The intent of my analogy was to highlight the silliness of those saying (and I'm simplifying here) "bad things = mean God." I didn't say anything about prayer teaching us responsibility. I WAS saying that it is just as logical to assume there is something to be learned in the "bad things."

To answer your question about prayer gets a bit personal, and I hesitate because I don't like to wear my religion on my sleeve, but your question is sincere. It all boils down to what you are praying for and why. Here are the things I pray for (and I expect a lot of believers pray for the same things): 1) To know the will of God about what I should do in a situation; 2) Praying for the welfare of others; 3) Praying for my own welfare; 4) Praying that I might meet my stewardship professionally (not let people down); 5) Praying about my relationship with my wife; 6) Praying for understanding of scriptures/doctrine, etc.; 7) And yes, sometimes praying for something I want (but always subject to God's will). I find that if I am praying as I should my mind is necessarily drawn to my various responsibilities. If nothing else, it makes you focus on your areas of responsibility by its very nature including our responsibility towards our fellow man.

I know many non-believers and most of them are moral. I too think it is patently offensive to say that if you don't believe you can't be "properly" moral. The interesting question is why most of those that eschew an absolute source of moral truth nonetheless support moral behavior not all that different or even the same as my own. Please don't take this the wrong way, but I personally believe that is your divine nature, being one of God's children. We all have that sense of right and wrong.

bc - Understood. I was drawing out your analogy as something relevant to the argument I was trying to make. You were talking about allowing life to be tough, not about prayer as a solution.

I can see a little better from your examples how prayer can relate to responsibility. Even if you're asking God for something, you don't want to ask gratuitously. There's a sense of giving up control in almost all of your examples that I would find personally difficult, but also a sense of retaining control, through God, of things that an atheist would have to say are simply beyond *anyone's* control. That last part, I think, is difficult for everybody, not just me.

I agree -- We *do* all have similar senses of right and wrong. Our only difference on that score is that for you it's divine, while for me it's merely an amazing but natural development.

"There's a sense of giving up control in almost all of your examples that I would find personally difficult, but also a sense of retaining control, through God . . ."

Good point! I'm sure many are guilty of praying and not taking action one could take. Prayer is no substitute for actually visiting the sick, doing what you can do, etc. However, I look at prayer as an "in addition to" element of my life (not an afterthought, but at the same time/in conjunction with/etc..) In addition to thinking, analyzing and otherwise exploring an action I will pray about it (if it's important enough). In addition to doing my best at work, I will ask for help as I sometimes feel inadequate (no substitute for doing what I can do to become adequate). That sort of thing. So those that don't do what they can do give up control as you suggest. I can see where an nonbeliever could see that as reflecting rather poorly on prayer.

And yes, it does give me a sense of control when I find myself in the foxholes of life.

As someone who may have been snarky and hostile before, let me say what I do believe: the parts of religion that are true are the parts that are common to all religions. God doesn't make the cut -- some religions have many, some have one, some have none at all.

But prayer does. I'm talking about prayer in the meditative sense, prayer like several Christians have described it on this thread -- not petition-the-Lord prayer or pray-for-rain prayer. But prayer or meditation is common to any religion I have ever heard of. I do it myself, even as an atheist.

As far as Christianity goes, I expect it has been an overall positive influence on the billions of individual Christians that have lived over the past couple of millennia, and that continues today. But the Church as an institution has a different history, and I will continue to use it in opposition to those who want to make the USA into a Christian country.

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