Most of us live in a religious world.1 Whether people take it seriously or just give it lip service, religion is all around us. In spite of the fact that some religious groups love to play the minority and persecution card, religious overtones and sentiments are everywhere, from the “god bless you” after a sneeze to the “you’re in my prayers” whenever life gives you lemons. They are part of society’s vernacular, whether the non-religious or atheist likes it or not. We can accept it, fight it, be offended by it, or ignore it, but we can’t get away from it.
I’ve been confronted by the truth of this by recent events in my life. Roughly 6 months ago, my wife was diagnosed with Stage 4 Oral Cancer. It’s been a crazy ride since then. We’ve had outpourings of support and concern from family, friends, and acquaintances, both religious and non-religious. Most of my friends know I’m an atheist but my wife is a devout Christian (a story best left for another time). So how does someone respond to a person in crisis given very disparate world views not only between my wife and me but also between many of my religious friends and family? I’ve been asked by believers and atheists, how I feel when a person said they would pray for us. To date, I’ve been silent on the subject, but I think it is a question that deserves a response. Other atheists may disagree with me, so I am not speaking for a group. I am just giving my feelings on the subject.
First, my wife is a believer, so she relishes the support received when someone says they are praying for us/her. She actually believes something tangible happens when someone prays, so praying people are encouraging to her. I may believe that prayer does nothing tangible; but, frankly so does the sentiment of “You’re in my thoughts” often expressed by non-believers. While in one sense both are not going to change the outcome of this cancer, in another, both are genuine responses from people who are showing that they care and are doing what they can to be supportive, encouraging and empathetic. In this, I am deeply grateful for the outpouring of caring people. Whether they are offering prayers or thoughts, doesn’t really matter to me. What matters is that they have taken time out of their busy lives to express their concern. I am not in the least offended by the prayers offered by religious family and friends. I simply put them in the same category I do with anyone showing concern. I’m grateful that they took the time to show that they care.
Having said that, there are negatives that I feel. These negatives aren’t directed toward anyone praying for us, rather they are directed at the religous system that seems to blind people to the implications of their belief. I’ll be touching on several of these.
Is God Sovereign or Not?
The biggest problem with this whole issue of prayer is whether god is sovereign or not. If you believe he is sovereign over all things, then everything that happens is according to his will. In this case what is essentially happening is that god gives you cancer so that he can heal you and everyone gets to say how great and wonderful he is. If god doesn’t heal you, everyone still gets to say how great and wonderful he is and how he works in mysterious ways! “God” wins no matter what happens. Yes, it is stated crudely, but in fact, if god is sovereign this is exactly what is happening. Of course, if he is sovereign, then everything is happening exactly as he wishes it too, including all the pain, suffering and evil in the world. Frankly, this is the act of a caprious, psychpathic entity. However, if god isn’t sovereign, well, why bother praying because he is essentially impotent to help or his help may or may not be effective.
Is Prayer a Numbers Game?
Is prayer a numbers game? Does it matter how many people are praying? The more the better? Are believers trying to force the hand of god and wring out a cure from him?2 Is prayer just how god works out his plan? If prayer is a numbers game, than pity the poor believer who has few friends or a small prayer chain. If it is a numbers game, what a cruel caprious god. “Well, I would have healed you but you were short one prayer!” If it isn’t a numbers game then all the prayers in the world, won’t change a thing. It’s a sharp double-edged sword.
Theodicy (The Problem of Evil)
Related to the sovereignity of god is the whole issue of the problem of evil, as Epicurus is thought to have said:
Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God? (Epicurus)
The Christian answer is that man sinned and fell from grace and so all the pain and suffering in the world is mankinds fault, not god’s. This is a pitiful excuse. If man did fall, it’s because that is exactly how god made him and if god is omniscient then he knew, in advance, that this was the outcome of his grand “experiment”. Only a caprious psychopath would create a world knowing all the pain and suffering that would be in it AND blame the creature for acting the way he made them. It would be like a programmer writing a program that does Point of Sale being upset that it doesn’t do DNA Analysis. If there is a god then evil, suffering, pain and, yes cancer, are there because of him. I couldn’t call such an entity good or benevolent in any sense of the word, especially when he uses his creation as a scapegoat.
The Tyrannity of Why?
One of the worst things a believer goes through during intense suffering, for no apparent reason, is the question of why? Why has god allowed it? What does he want me to learn from it? Did I do anything to deserve it? Is it sin in my life? Is it a test, like Job? Is it to build character and to learn something? These questions add to the pain and agony that a suffering believer is already going through. That anquish, in some ways, can be worst than the actual disease and if one is not healed, the why is even more burning. Did I not pray hard enough? Was I that bad? What is the purpose of dying after all the struggle and pain? The why guestions go on and on as one searches scripture and prays for an answer. There is no comfort in the Book of Job, where Job was suffering essentially because of a bet between god and satan – wonderful – suffering over some cosmic bet. That’s one sick god, especially since an omniscient god would know the answer in advance and should have no need to prove it to anyone.
As an atheist, I have none of these questions. Basically, we are biological organisms and sometimes we just don’t work right. There is no entity causing it. There is no cosmic reason why. (There is a biologoical reason!) Shit happens. The world isn’t out to get us or cause us pain. Anything we get out of suffering is what we choose to get out of it. Anything we learn from it is what we decide to learn from it. There is no cosmic answer and I’m fine with that.
Is Suffering Good?
Last in this list, is the question of whether suffering is good for anything. Sure, it can change our lives and make us more sensitive and caring to those who are also suffering. On the other hand, we all know people who have gone through “the valley of the shadow of death” and returned grumpier and naster than ever. The book of Job is the Christian’s guidebook on suffering, where a righteous man was toyed with by god over a bet. In a sick bet, where Job lost his wife, family, servants, livestock and his health, his suffering was to bring glory to god. This is a truely sick story whose moral is essentially that god can do anything he wants to his creation because, well, he is god. I know I’ve used the term several times before, but psychopath is the only term that comes to mind:
Psychopathy (/saɪˈkɒpəθi/) (also known as, though sometimes distinguished from sociopathy /ˈsoʊsiəˌpæθi/) is traditionally defined as a personality disorder characterized by enduring antisocial behavior, diminished empathy and remorse, and disinhibited or bold behavior. (Psychopathy on Wikipedia)
The other big example of suffering in the Christian belief system would be the suffering of Christ, who supposedly died for our sins because god couldn’t forgive us without the pain and suffering of a perfect sacrifice. Yet a few hours of suffering, as bad and horrible as it may be, is relatively insignificant compared to weeks, months, years and even a lifetime of suffering many people undergo. This is especially true if you know it is all temporary and you will be raised in glory in a few days and because of it the world will be saved! I saw my wife suffer for months and, let me tell you, it is extremely difficult to see someone you care about be in pain and suffering and not be able to do anything. However, god doesn’t seem to have an iota of compassion, at least compassion enough to lift a hand, say a word, and heal. So much for an omnibenevolent god.
It’s too early yet to know whether this cancer has been beaten and all the trauma and pain of treatment was worth it. I do know that regardless of what happens, many will be praising god. He will either be praised for healing her or be praised for working in a mysterious way as a justification for a lack of a healing. Unfortunately, many will ignore the many men and women, doctors and scientists, who worked hard to wrought out a cure. It’s pretty amazing that god’s healing ability seems directly proprotional to scientific and medical advances! The men and women who have devoted years of their life to understanding, studying and treating cancer are the true heroes of this this story.
Additional Posts on Similar Topics:
- I understand that there are countries that are more secular than religious but in the “world” I find myself in, the United States, religiousity is the norm. ↩
- The Parable of the Persistent Widow in Luke 18:1-8 seems to indicate that pleading with god for answered pray, at least for justice, works. Reality tells us – not so much. ↩