I was interested to read some of the comments to my recent post On a Mission. I thought my approach was very tempered and a good way to open a dialogue. Nothing feels less comfortable to me than never addressing a major issue. I know there are times to address it and ways to approach things respectfully and lightly but never? Never, ever? That just feels wrong. So while I appreciate the idea that I should just leave things alone and the sentiment behind it, that ain’t me. I feel too strongly about this to just sit back and watch someone I care about become a morg. :)
The good news is, I got a great response from my BIL. I didn’t really think he would take it badly but I guess you never really know until you try. I won’t repeat verbatim what he wrote because I feel like that would be bad form but basically he agreed with me that credit should be given to doctors, technology, science etc. but that crediting God is also important because for many, it really is their faith that keeps them going. Fair enough I suppose.
He maintains that he has seen prayer at work (and gave me an example of a woman in his mission who has been trying to get pregnant and only a week after receiving a priesthood blessing, found out she was expecting. Oh, and the missionary correctly predicted it would be a girl) and that it is the greatest outward expression of inner faith. He wasn’t the least bit offended and so I am happy that I have started a discussion at the very least.
It is too easy for myths and stereotypes about atheists to persist when we fail to identify ourselves as such. So, in my reply to his email, I thanked him for his response and told him I thought it was well-considered and respectful (which it was) and that as an atheist, prayer is likely not something we will ever agree on but that there is always value in trying to understand the people you love. Baby steps.
The example of “prayer in action” that he gave me is so typical and so pervasive. To be able to see the example for what it is requires a lot; an acceptance of true coincidence, an understanding of basic statistics and probability, an appreciation for the human brain to create what it wants (“If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” – Mark Twain) and the maturity to recognize that a lot of stories, are just down right lies. How do you effectively deconstruct this example in a way someone of faith can grasp where you are coming from? I mean, I know that there is only one way to end a drought (whether it be of the moisture or the baby variety) and so a prediction like that will almost always be true with time. I know that there are only two options for a baby and that predicting it’s a girl is not statistically relevant – not even close. I know that people tend to count the hits and ignore the misses and that it’s just as likely that the missionary told her she was going to get pregnant several times before she actually did, or that the story was revised to be even more faith-promoting with each repetition. I know that by no means does this example prove that prayer works and yet, for some, it does.
I feel lucky to have a strong background in science and I credit that largely for my atheism. I studied neuroscience with some very impressive people with wicked minds and an almost universal lack of belief in God. I learned how to think, deconstruct, spot the faulty assumption or premise and apply the scientific method to the world around me. It is not realistic to think that everyone could (or would want to) have that kind of experience. So, how do you teach basic critical thinking to young people in a way that isn’t threatening?
This could be a whole other post, but I’m a big believer that this should be taught to every student in the world. At least it would be a start.
Will keep you updated on BIL.