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Pascal’s Wager

Piling one irrationality onto another, the town fathers in the Sicilian town of Ficarra have collectively invested in Italy’s $165 million lottery:

”We chose numbers which were connected with the town’s patron saint, the Virgin Mary of the Assumption,” Mayor Basilio Ridolfo said. “It is our hope that, with her blessing, we will hit the jackpot.”

The Virgin Mary did not come through for last week’s drawing—but neither did any other saints.  Other towns are reportedly following Ficarra’s lead, which could lead to some heavenly protocol issues. 

Why is it considered more advanced to ask for a windfall through prayer,  rather than through a quid pro quo like a nice burnt offering?




God on Campus

Religious readers of this site periodically rebuke me for misunderstanding the nature of prayer.  Prayer is a way of communing with God, they say; no informed believer would ask or expect God to intervene on their or others’ behalf.  Thus, I am wrong to be puzzled by the self-centeredness of believers who credit God with curing them of cancer, say, seemingly oblivious, if not indifferent, to the fact that hundreds just like them die every day from the disease; contrary to all appearances, no believer really thinks of God as a Friend (as Michael Novak puts it) in High Places who can, if he chooses, protect the believer from the vicissitudes of fate.  I am also wrong to wonder at believers’ lack of interest in trying to understand systematically which prayers God responds to and which not, why he rescues some children from natural disasters and not others, because no one would ever say that he does so respond to human need. 

I have no doubt that prayer is often a communion and not a petition, an expression of gratitude and not a request for help.  But I have never been persuaded that believers do not in fact also look to God for assistance and, when the thing hoped for arrives, attribute that development to God’s empathy.  The attribution of positive events to God’s intervention is simply too standard a trope in religious rhetoric.  

And now here is Joseph Bottum describing the semester’s end at Notre Dame University:

All across campus, the flowers have begun to bloom, their dull Indiana roots stirred by the spring rain, and the grass is almost green again at Notre Dame. Beneath a 16-foot statue of the Blessed Virgin, the main administration building sits, as always, its gold dome sparkling in the warm spring sun.
. . .  The Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes flickers with candles, lit by anxious students as they prepare for final exams.

If anyone would be doctrinally correct, you’d think it would be Notre Dame students, but they mustn’t have gotten the message about prayer and God’s power on earth, either.




The conundrum of prayer

Last Saturday, the New York City Police Department  experienced the worst misfortune that can befall a police department: one officer mistakenly and fatally shooting another.  The loss of Officer Omar Edwards to friendly fire is an unbearable tragedy, for which the entire city grieves.  (Despicably, New York’s race hustlers, including the New York Times, are trying to turn the incident into a racial one, as I describe here.)  In the wake of Edwards’s shooting, New York Daily News columnist Michael Daly discussed another friendly fire incident in  2006, in which an off-duty NYPD officer with a gun was also shot by his fellow officers:

On learning that [Officer Eric] Hernandez had been shot, the entire [precinct] football team assembled at St. Barnabas Hospital. They kept a vigil day after day, but all their prayers could not save him.

Daly is using a commonplace expression, of course, but one that in its very frequency carries ponderable significance. Isn’t it the least bit puzzling to believers why some prayers get answered and others don’t?   Theology and metaphysics are serious disciplines, we are told, worthy of deep study.  Surely the divines can explain what distinguishes the moments when prayers do save someone from those when they don’t.   Is it the targets of prayers that are distinguishable, or the people doing the praying?  Perhaps someone could keep tabs and analyse the results, in the spirit of scientific inquiry.  Or does God just have priorities wildly different from ours?  But who can possibly imagine a reason why God wouldn’t respond to prayers to save an officer’s life, but would respond to the petitions that we are regularly told have produced a divine affirmative—to get someone out of debt, say, or to cure someone of illness? 

I take it that believers do not ascribe such inconsistent results to capriciousness on God’s part, but rather to their own limited capacities to understand God’s ways:  “Thy Will be done.”  But why continue directing any psychic energy to a being so lacking in sympathetic correspondence to human needs and values.  It will not do to say: “God does respond to our prayers, but in ways that we cannot fathom.”  Saving a child from cancer and letting a child die from cancer cannot both be a sympathetic response to prayer; if we had wanted a stricken child to die in order to secure an earlier entry to heaven, we would have said so.  And if premature death from cancer is such a boon, why doesn’t a loving God provide it to one and all?

It is humans who work with passion and commitment every day to try to save their fellows (and a range of other creatures)  from suffering and sorrow.  Emergency room medicine is constantly evolving to try to ensure that gun shot victims and people crushed by cars survive.  Doctors and hospital staff work frantically throughout the night to try to revive a failing heart or a shattered brain.  They do so out of love and compassion, while God, who could restart an exhausted heart in an instant, demurs.  The only source of love on earth is human empathy.  Transferring our own admirable traits onto a constructed deity just obscures the real human condition: we are all we have, but that is saying a lot.




Blessing the subway

Earlier this month, the new Catholic archbishop of New York, Timothy Dolan, visited a subway construction site in Manhattan to offer his blessing: “Bless this tunnel, those who are constructing it, and those who will use it.”

Such an act has at least two possible meanings, as I see it, one dubious, the other admirable and worthy of emulation.   If Dolan’s blessing was intended or understood as a shield against accident, why isn’t he blessing the entire city or even the world?  And if Catholics do believe that a priestly blessing can have a protective effect, have curiosity and the passion for knowledge ever led them to try to measure when such effects occur?  Or are they happy to simply take it on blind faith that God pays attention to such gestures?   I don’t want to hear that no one ever prays with the intention of calling forth a divine response and intervention; such prayers are the daily currency of belief. 

But Dolan’s blessing could have another meaning as well—simply the expression of such precious human sentiments as gratitude and good will.  And here again I’m led to wonder how the positive social functions of religion can be replicated in a secular context.  Do we need a designated religious figure to express thanks for the labors of our fellow men and the creativity of the human spirit?  If not a priest, who can channel our appreciation and wonder?  Blessing is a noble performative utterance that ought to be separable from a belief in God, but it’s hard to see what non-religious figure would play the official blessing role without looking ridiculous.  Government officials engage in ground-breaking and ribbon-cutting ceremonies; perhaps that is the closest we can get. 

Religious leaders are convenient spokesmen for human emotion.  When the Pope visits the earthquake zone in L’Aquila, he’s not bringing God’s mercy—if God had any, He would not have allowed 200 adults and children to die in the first place—he is bringing human sympathy.  That is a vital function.




The Terminator in desperate straits

California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger found time to attend a Sacramento prayer breakfast last week in the midst of California’s budget crisis.  Last year, he assured the Catholic Health Assembly in San Diego that he would call on God’s power to get health care reform in California: “ Every day, I will be on my knees praying the 20 rosaries, but we are going to get the job done.”

He must have gone back on his word since 2008, given the lack of health reform results so far.   Maybe this latest petitionary effort will be more successful, but I’d rather see him take on the unions and at least confront the health care, education, and law enforcement costs of illegal immigration.



The Pope visits L’Aquila

The Pope finally made it to L’Aquila today, the epicenter of an earthquake that killed 295 in Italy’s Abruzzo region on April 6.  Driving rain, cold, and mud continue to beset the occupants of the tent cities established for the 65,000 homeless victims. 

On the day of the quake, the Pope said that he was praying “especially for the children” killed in the tremors.  Two days later he assured the survivors that the “Pope prays for all, imploring the Lord’s mercy for the deceased.”  Today, in the medieval village of Onna, where the death rate was highest, he “encourage[d] everyone, institutions and businesses, to see that this village and this region are reborn.”  Later today, under a blue canopy in L’Aquila’s town square, with the green mountains of Abruzzo rising above, the Pope invoked a local saint and recalled his Easter Mass, performed after the L’Aquila earthquake.  The Italian news channel RAI raved about the Pope’s interactions with occupants of one of the tent cities: “We’ve never seen him so close to the people before,” said a reporter.  “He had a word for each person.”

The Pope is undoubtedly a caring, generous man who has brought much-needed solace to the stricken survivors of the earthquake.  Still, nonbelievers will be eternally puzzled by the logic of praising and praying to a God after a natural disaster that he could have averted.   If God is sensitive enough and powerful enough to respond to prayers now, why didn’t he intervene before?  And we know that he can intervene: see, e.g.,  the Bible and the daily priestly practice of asking for God’s protection against a whole host of human ills.  The Pope may pray to God to show his mercy to the dead children of Abruzzo.  Wouldn’t it have been more useful for God to have shown his mercy before they were killed?  Presumably, believers see proof of God’s love in the survival of quake victims rescued from collapsed buildings, leaving unexplained why other quake victims were not so blessed.  

But the need to feel protected by a supernatural power is so strong that it overcomes any logical difficulties entailed by the idea of a loving, just God who supervenes over the daily slaughter of the innocents.  And the belief in such a God provides people with strength in the face of unbearable loss. 

What does a non-religious world-view have to offer in place of irrational faith?  A celebration of human compassion as the source of every triumph over natural randomness and injustice.  An awareness that human ingenuity is all we have to save us from undeserved tragedy, but a knowledge that that is saying quite a lot.  Nonbelievers feel as much sorrow for the victims of the quake as any believer, but they look exclusively to human efforts to help them.  Since the earthquake, the Pope and the local archbishop have lauded civic solidarity, and rightly so.  The workers who have tried to help the victims have done so out of human empathy.  Most every engineer would do anything he could to prevent all loss of life from earthquakes; the same can’t be said of the divine engineer.  The rebuilding of L’Aquila, which the Pope called for, is already occurring, thanks to the Italian civil authorities.  It sure as heck isn’t God who’s rebuilding it. 

A secular perspective on suffering does not promise an afterlife, but it does focus our attention on the true source of the virtues which can lessen and sometimes overcome suffering.   For many people, that will not be enough and they will continue turning to the idea of a God.   The nonbeliever joins with them in their desire for a more just world.




Faith-based financing

I almost thought there must have been a typo in this Miami Herald headline–Obama thanks Crist for support of stimulus plan–since the stimulus proposal bears so uncanny a resemblance to God.  It is a projection of human needs and desires, based on the magical thinking that if it would be pleasant if something existed, it must therefore exist.  The idea that federal spending can spur consumption and investment in carefully calibrated ways—much less do so without stripping funding from entrepreneurial enterprises or crippling the country with added debt–is as much a creation of wishful thinking, devoid of empirical evidence, as the belief that we are overseen by a loving God who pays attention to our every thought and who offers us a heaven where we will live forever.

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Oleaginousness watch

William Kristol reports that at least one conservative pundit has already extended to Obama the blessings of his faith.  At the much commented-on dinner that George Will hosted for Barack Obama last week, Kristol says that he

overheard one of my fellow conservatives say softly to the president-elect, “Sir, I’ll be praying for you.” Obama seemed to pause as they shook hands, and to thank him more earnestly than he did those of us who simply — and sincerely — wished him well.

Obama’s politeness is admirable; I can imagine another response to the revelation that your interlocutor is contacting God on your behalf.


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