Monday, December 25, 2006

an atheist celebrates

I try to keep my religious view (atheism) out of educational lists but it is hard when others introduce them there. To respond is likely to cause offence but to ignore it, to not challenge it, seems like complicitly in mythology and also wrong. Atheists have as much right to propagate their world view as Christians. I'll compromise by posting to my blog rather than the list.

Recently, some educators have asked me to pray for the recovery of Seymour Papert, who was seriously injured in Hanoi, Vietnam, when hit by a motor cycle.

I didn't pray. Fortunately, Seymour is now making a slow recovery. I hope that those who have been praying don't claim the credit because in all likelihood Seymour is an atheist. I don't know that for sure and it's really up to him but I would be very surprised if a pioneer of AI was not an atheist. Certainly, his close collaborator Marvin Minsky has attracted hate mail for describing the human brain as a "meat machine"

I think the flowers for Seymour project is much better way to go. Check out the fractal fern, done with logo.

At any rate I was inspired by Daniel Dennett, my favourite living philosopher, who also had a recent near death experience and said this (Thank Goodness!) about those who prayed for him:
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?")


Tony Forster said...

Thanks Bill
I have not been praying but I take no offence from those who have been suggesting I do. I have however sent a flower as you suggested, an Australian native Greenhood orchid.

Graham Wegner said...

Bill, there are many bloggers who post about their religious views and their commitment to their particular choice of faith. So I really appreciate your openness in expressing your beliefs - I'm not sure that I could describe myself as atheist (just a Skeptic might be better) but I know that I found myself concurring with all that you wrote or quoted. I'm looking forward to your Connectivism conference contribution.

Bill Kerr said...

thnx for atheistic and skeptic support, guys

graham, check out the learning theory evolves wiki for more information