Missing the point

PZ Myers is disappointed. There’s a massive oil gusher in the Gulf of Mexico, BP is incapable of stopping it, as is the federal government, and the Gulf Coast from Louisiana to Florida (and soon on to Georgia and the Carolinas) are being coated in a chocolatey rainbow of crude oil. This is bad, and there’s nothing that people who live in these areas can do about it, so there’ve been occasional calls for folks there to get together and pray.
Now it’s indisputable that PZ is unhappy with all of that, but he seems somewhat more vocal in his unhappiness with the people praying than he is with the oil, BP, etc. I find that odd, but here’s his explanation for being against calls for Gulf residents to pray:

A few people have written me saying I should go easy on those Christian praying for the Gulf — it’s harmless, they say, it’s just building social bonds, etc., etc., etc. Well, la-de-dah — they’re delusional. I don’t just mean the people praying, but also those making excuses for them. Somehow, it’s OK to pretend that the Baptist getting down on his knees begging God to stop the oil isn’t really asking God to stop the oil…he’s just engaging in a social ritual to soothe his psyche, and we shouldn’t disturb his emotional equilibrium.

Now all of this is kinda indisputably true. There’s good evidence that, while prayer does nothing for a person being prayed for, it does reduce stress and have positive physiological effects on the person praying. It’s indisputable that coming together as a community is an important way that people react to collective tragedy, and a call to collective prayer is the way that our society has traditionally urged people to come together. And it’s hard to dispute that times of tragedy are not moments where people are looking for innovation in how they’re urged to join together.

Thus, while a call to prayer does nothing specifically for me, I appreciate the call for collective community action, and I understand why (given the lack of any effective physical action for the community to take) prayer is the action urged. It won’t stop the gusher and it won’t stop the destruction of Gulf wildlife, beaches, and economies, but it will ease some of the heartache and give communities some relief from the strain they’re feeling. And that’s a good thing.

But what does PZ say about all that?

Bunk. Believers believe. Quit pretending that they’re all really just faitheists, because they’re not.

Now I don’t know what people wrote to PZ, but nothing I said above has anything to do with theism, faitheism, or whatever else. It’s about how people in a society deal with collective tragedy. And yes, part of the reason that a call to collective prayer is the default way to bring folks together is that a vast majority of Americans are theists, and think prayer might somehow have some physical benefits.

They’re wrong about that last bit – based on all available evidence – but it is psychologically beneficial to them, and won’t do any additional harm to the Gulf. So why not let them pray in peace? Why make a fuss over it?

If the objection is that they should come together as a community, but not to pray, then that’s a fair point. But a) I don’t see any harm in their praying, b) beating up on the victims of BP’s avaricious indifference seems like misdirection, c) I don’t see PZ suggesting an alternative way to call them together. The last, of course, is the most unfortunate.

You’re Not Helping has been on a roll lately about that latter point, rightly criticizing various folks who criticize such calls for prayer without offering any alternative. While I think YNH has lately become less helpful than they used to be, their highlighting of the work being done by Mississippi Atheists, and of opportunities to donate to ongoing Gulf efforts by groups including the Audubon Society and Unitarian Universalists, certainly do help. If you want to help folks out in the Gulf, those are good places to start.

There’s a broader point here than just beating up on PZ or whoever. Most people attend church for a lot of reasons, and many of those reasons are self-reinforcing. Someone who goes to church with no particular views on theism (pro, con, or agnostic) could well keep attending church because they enjoy the community, want to take part in the volunteer activities organized by the church, want to take advantage of the church’s daycare and other social services, etc. They may adopt some sort of theism in order to fit in. Over time, they associate theism broadly and the church’s brand of theism in particular with the good works, generous friends, and deep community ties that they’ve found in the church.

If atheists want to wean society away from religion, there needs to be an alternative pathway. There need to be communities of non-theists who are as generous with their time and friendship, as committed to building ties and supporting the larger community, as selfless, as church communities can be. Churches play a huge role in the community lives of smaller towns, and of many neighborhoods within big cities. People might join for reasons with nothing to do with theology, and unless there’s a nontheist structure that can parallel that role, nontheism will have a hard time replacing or even making headway against, theism.

If the best that national nontheist groups can muster in response to the Gulf Gusher is “don’t pray about it,” I fear for the message that sends. Churches, synagogues, mosques, and other religious organizations are all happily sending aid and volunteers to help the Gulf cleanup, to support out-of-work fishing families, etc. That outreach doesn’t speak for or against theism philosophically, but it’s a great way to bring people into the fold of religion, or at least to keep them there. Local nontheists are certainly doing their part, and I’d be surprised if their members weren’t participating in community prayer gatherings. They know that the gatherings are about how the community will survive the crisis they’re facing more than they’re about prayer. If only nationally prominent atheists could get on that same page.

Comments

  1. #1 Rob Knop
    June 26, 2010

    One of these days, we’re going to wake up and realize that we should pay no attention to anything PZ says about anything related to religion. It’s no more valuable than listening to a creationist talk about evolution.

  2. #2 Ed S.
    June 26, 2010

    I believe this post is accurately titled.

  3. #3 01Jack
    June 26, 2010

    I agree with Ed.

    And is it really the job of nontheists to provide the “alternative pathway” the “structure that can parallel that role” of religions? Or else what, be quiet?

  4. #4 Janicot
    June 26, 2010

    PZ of course isn’t saying that people should be prevented from praying. Near the end of his rant he sarcastically asks:

    Like the fact that BP has been making failed attempts to stop the leak interferes with everyone’s ability to pray; as if none of these believers has been praying right along with the real-world engineering efforts; as if failure means now is the time to give up altogether and close our eyes and beg a ghost in outer space to fix our problems.

    I think his point is (and if so I agree with him) is that praying is about the least practically useful thing people can do to help the gulf. The more time people spend ‘praying’ for the problem, the less they spend ‘working’ on the problem.

    If people are incapable of contributing without wasting (tithing?) a significant part of their effort I won’t turn down any help they do give — but I certainly won’t praise them for the wasted parts.

  5. #5 Zachary Voch
    June 26, 2010

    Ok… all of this stuff aside… (In a nutshell, Ed’s comment)

    I can’t believe that you’re citing “You’re Not Helping” as `on a roll’ about stuff. Have you been reading their blog lately? Have you seen how they represent New Atheists? Aside from “PZ Myers and his commentators say mean stuff,” the blog is a list of lies. Start here (found via Greg Laden):

    http://thebuddhaisnotserious.wordpress.com/2010/06/19/the-curious-case-of-the-youre-not-helping-blog/

    But look at any of their posts and compare it to the blog/article that they were presumably criticizing with it. Please.

    Also, read Greg Laden’s post about the “Do-Nothings”:

    http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2010/06/youre_not_helping_has_melted_d.php

    Might I add one more thing: there is a distinction between prayer as a community for comfort and prayer as a political tool. Which do you suppose is at work in these highly-publicized prayer-a-thons? This is Phariseeism.

  6. #6 Marion Delgado
    June 26, 2010

    PZ’s certainly no stumbling block to that sort of community-building and outreach.

    I would say, however, that Michael Shermer is. He insists anyone who doesn’t agree with a completely atomized, isolated, socially divided, greed-based radical individualism is “thinking weird things.” He attacks anyone who would oppose the heavily organized interlocking corporate structure with their own organizing. And he opposes altruism, civic duty, etc.

    If you want the market to be the only moral agent in your world, and enfoce that, religion is going to look pretty good in comparison.

  7. #7 Zach Voch
    June 26, 2010

    I agree, Marion.

    Shermer and the Randian crowd (this is not to slur Shermer, as his article on Objectivism was instructive) form an outlier group of atheists. Objectivists in particular take self-interest (more accurately, laissez faire) as the sum of morality.

    Yep, that would make religion look quite good in comparison. Fortunately, the modern secularist crowd is no more Randian than it is Stalinist.

    This goes toward a question also (I think) hinted at by Josh in his post: what are the alternatives to religion for community organizing?

    The problem here is one of multitude more than anything. America could use more participation in politics, for one. There are interesting correlations between religiosity and democratic politization (inverse), but that might be incidental as the key cases here are European. If it’s a question of generating false condolence, then I’m afraid that I can not recommend any system, but the positive effects Josh mentions from community, belief, and support can be achieved through secular means.

    Might I recommend a “day of help your local charterman” in place of a “day of prayer”?

  8. #8 Marion Delgado
    June 26, 2010

    s/enfoce/enforce

    My only point above is that to the degree the public face of atheism or skepticism is people equating radical capitalism with science and reason, it’s going to fail.

  9. #9 Zach Voch
    June 26, 2010

    I agree, and I was expanding on your post within mine, though I should have demarcated more clearly. I apologize if it came across reading-in a whole slew of other related items.

    To the extent that any religious/philosophical position identifies strongly with a political one, it will attract serious trouble. This has long been a concern of progressive religious groups reacting to the modern “Religious Right”. And IMO, nothing increases “public” atheism more than politicized religion.

    So far, I haven’t identified any major tendency in the New Atheists to constantly stress any given fiscal politics, at least not in a unified way. Mostly, they’re of varying strands of economic center-left (value judgment, but this works for shorthand). But I do think it’s something we should actively guard against.

  10. #10 J. J. Ramsey
    June 27, 2010

    Janicot: “I think his point is (and if so I agree with him) is that praying is about the least practically useful thing people can do to help the gulf. The more time people spend ‘praying’ for the problem, the less they spend ‘working’ on the problem.’

    That presumes that the time they spend praying would take away time that they would spend working, which is hardly a given at all.

  11. #11 apuleius platonicus
    June 27, 2010

    One should really back way up and ask about the underlying assumptions in the declaration that non-Christians should strive to be “as generous with their time and friendship, as committed to building ties and supporting the larger community, as selfless, as church communities can be.”

    For Christians, and also for Muslims, “charity” is simply a cynical tool for the propagation of their ideology. The best way, in my opinion, to unburden oneself of the illusion that this “charitable” work is a model to be emulated is to study the extensive charity work of Hezbollah.

    My point is not that people should not engage in “good works”, but rather that they should not adopt the Christian/Muslim/Communist model of using such “assistance” as a propaganda tool.

    Christians descend on those in need like the spiritual vultures they are. Their primary goal is to add more souls to their ghoulish tally. This kind of “charity” should be exposed for what it is: the exploitation of human suffering in the most cynical possible manner.

  12. #12 Ophelia Benson
    June 27, 2010

    To be fair (which is slightly hard for me at the moment, given Josh’s endorsement of a set of posts that repeatedly called me a liar while claiming I said things I didn’t say), it wasn’t

    “the underlying assumptions in the declaration that non-Christians should strive to be “as generous with their time and friendship, as committed to building ties and supporting the larger community, as selfless, as church communities can be.”

    It was

    “communities of non-theists who are as generous with their time and friendship, as committed to building ties and supporting the larger community, as selfless, as church communities can be.”

    Two important differences – not non-Christians but non-believers, but especially, not just non-believers, but communities of non-believers. The point is that churches and synagogues and mosques create obvious communities and that at least some of them really are generous with many things, and there’s no obvious non-believer equivalent. There are secular groups – MSF and many more – but they’re not also neighborhood buildings and gathering places, they’re not part of everyday life that’s parallel to jobs etc. MoveOn is maybe getting to be like that, and maybe will get to be more so.

    And to be fair again, I don’t think it’s true that charity is just a tool for all Christians. I think a lot of people who are attracted to religion are attracted because it seems to give them a way to be good. Not that it makes them good, but that it’s a place for good people to channel their benevolence energies. For some, it is inseparable from the dogma, but for others it’s not.

    It helps to avoid overstatement…

  13. #13 Deepak Shetty
    June 27, 2010

    . And yes, part of the reason that a call to collective prayer is the default way to bring folks together is that a vast majority of Americans are theists, and think prayer might somehow have some physical benefits.

    The vast majority is not equal to all. Why exactly are you encouraging a practice that is discriminatory?

  14. #14 Ophelia Benson
    June 27, 2010

    Ditto to Deepak’s point. I wanted to say that myself yesterday, but didn’t have the energy. But quite. Majoritarianism is not automatically benign, Josh, as surely you realize. You shouldn’t deploy it so glibly. No it’s not okay to urge everyone to pray merely because the majority prays, any more than it’s okay to invoke the Christian god merely because there are more Christians than there are non-Christians. Those reasons are not sufficient.

    Also, the majority isn’t as vast as all that. The vastness of that majority has been much exaggerated.

  15. #15 J. J. Ramsey
    June 28, 2010

    FYI, the link to the “You’re Not Helping” blog now goes to a “Protected Login” page, no doubt to the the meltdown of the YNH blog documented in the first link of comment #5 by Zachary Voch. Kind of a shame, too. The blog had some genuine points only to shoot itself in the foot with sock puppetry and its own distortions.

  16. #16 Zach Voch
    June 28, 2010

    FYI, the link to the “You’re Not Helping” blog now goes to a “Protected Login” page, no doubt to the the meltdown of the YNH blog documented in the first link of comment #5 by Zachary Voch. Kind of a shame, too. The blog had some genuine points only to shoot itself in the foot with sock puppetry and its own distortions.

    Yeah, the documentation by Oedipus Maximus tells the disappointing story well. I agreed with the authors about this: at times, PZ Myers is unnecessarily rude and some of the commentators at his blog can be disgusting. So, opposing this trend while discussing accommodation and related topics was certainly a worthwhile blog pursuit. But had become clear, rather quickly, that aside from the sock puppetry, the blog would be expanding into personal attacks on New Atheists broadly, resorting to dishonest tactics and conflation in doing so.

    Apparently (though I did not see directly as I only heard about it after the blog went private), several commentators were still commiserating with the authors after the confessional post (which was more a martyred, self-righteous sneer than expression of genuine guilt). Though it is possible that they were sockpuppets, experience teaches me that it is quite likely that the authors had genuine support.

    I’m more interested in what certain blogs will have to say about their support and praise of what should have been a very clearly bad source, sockpuppetry aside.

    We could all do to actively avoid liking and handshaking sources just because they agree with us, so it’s a very common and human error. The question is whether or not this dilemma will be honestly faced.

  17. #17 Deepak Shetty
    June 28, 2010

    @JJ Ramsey, Zach
    I keep hearing that there are genuine points being made by accomodationists which seem to be
    a. Vulgarity/Profanity used is detrimental
    b. *Tone* (Ive split this from the above because this seems to include sarcasm)
    c. The opinion that some form of Dont ask Dont tell policy is better when dealing with the religious
    d. Religious people can be good scientists(which is a strawman since no anti-accomodationist ever makes this specific claim)
    e. Proclaiming that religion and science are separate magisteria will somehow cause the religious to stop interfering in science.

    Is there something Im missing?

  18. #18 Ted Herrlich
    June 28, 2010

    I don’t always agree with PZ Myers on his stand on religion; but even you, Josh, should see the irony in a State that is busy damaging science education make an appeal to ask the ‘best and the brightest’ scientists to help with the Gulf at the same time asking for the world to pray for them.

  19. #19 Norwegian Shooter
    June 28, 2010

    “but he seems somewhat more vocal in his unhappiness with the people praying than he is with the oil, BP, etc.”

    Where do you get your seeming evidence? One short blog post? What if PZ thinks it quite obvious and unremarkable that he is still very pissed about the oil, BP, etc., but that being vocal about it isn’t helping anymore? (man, bad timing with that one)

    Do you know what else can “reduce stress and have positive physiological effects on the person”? Exercise, volunteering, sex, etc. Wouldn’t those things be better to do than pray, which is less likely to have even this effect and has no additional benefits like the others. Of course praying does no harm per se, but everything has an opportunity cost. Praying is certainly less worthy than many, many things that people could be doing.

    And you ignored the possible negative effects of praying as a community as well. Community-wide praying seems the best way to entrench a fatalist view of the oil spill. It serves as a vehicle to reinforce feelings of powerlessness. It saps energy from the community for a long-term solution to the dangers of deep water drilling. If the prayers keep going, they are very likely to attract spiritual vultures that prey on hopelessness. I can see somebody stepping to the mike to blame teh gays. Did you think about those possibilities?

    “many of those reasons are self-reinforcing”. As are the reasons to feed an addiction. Self-reinforcing reasons are the ones we need to be on the lookout for.

    “If atheists want to wean society away from religion, there needs to be an alternative pathway.” What alternative pathways were available in Europe over the last 50 years?

    “Churches play a huge role in the community lives of smaller towns, and of many neighborhoods within big cities.” So do grocery stores. So do bars. So do local papers. So do youth sports teams. The unique thing about churches is their supernatural beliefs, not their ability to form relationships with people.

    “the best that national nontheist groups can muster in response to the Gulf Gusher is “don’t pray about it,” Name a national non-theist group that fits this sentence.

    “it’s a great way to bring people into the fold of religion, or at least to keep them there.” How do you know this? I would argue that nobody joins a church to do “good works” and certainly nobody leaves because they aren’t being done. The reasons people join or leave a church seem to be about theological issues, don’t you think?

    “I’d be surprised if their members weren’t participating in community prayer gatherings” Why? Any evidence or reason?

  20. #20 Zach Voch
    June 28, 2010

    I keep hearing that there are genuine points being made by accomodationists which seem to be
    a. Vulgarity/Profanity used is detrimental
    b. *Tone* (Ive split this from the above because this seems to include sarcasm)
    c. The opinion that some form of Dont ask Dont tell policy is better when dealing with the religious
    d. Religious people can be good scientists(which is a strawman since no anti-accomodationist ever makes this specific claim)
    e. Proclaiming that religion and science are separate magisteria will somehow cause the religious to stop interfering in science.

    Is there something Im missing?

    For me, you’re mostly missing emphasis. I agree that name-calling and vulgarity is (usually) unnecessary. However, much is made of PZ and his commentators, but a lot of it is overblown and misrepresents the nature of the discussion on Pharyngula. It also ignores measures that PZ himself has put in place. I think that PZ-style rhetoric has a place and similarly for sarcasm and etc. Occasionally, I think it’s overdone, but IMO, complaining about tone has been far worse than tone itself, at least up to questions about “proactivity” and etc. So no, I don’t think that *Tone* has been so damaging as *Metatone*. This topic has been abused quite frequently by concern trolls and others (e.g. the recently deceased YNH blog), so be careful about how much “validity” you give to this “point” made by accommodationists. If you want to assess overall tone, you can read accommodationist sites as well and find plenty of bad examples. The issue of tone is global, not a property of New Atheists.

    For (c), not necessarily, but if a scientific organization is going to take a stance on religion and science, it should be ready to include non-accommodationists. Otherwise, a neutrality is preferable. I don’t want the NCSE to be a counter-apologetics platform, for example, but endorsing apologetics is another thing as well. I want our organizations to be secular, and I think that my opinion is consistent with the consensus among New Atheists.

    (d) has been labored instantly on. Yep, we know there are many good practicing scientists who are religious. Nobody argues that as far as I’m aware.

    (e) is not so true, and this is one of the main points that non-accommodationists contest. I see religion, like some forms of political ideology, as the motivator of anti-science like ID. And further, for YECs and other less obscurantist creationists, the reasons for rejection evolution are made explicit: Bible says it I believes it. I very much doubt that saying “well don’t consider the Bible a Science textbook!” is going to be convincing a believer who in turn asks “so…. that whole revelation thing… what’s up?”

    What do I say to him? “You could take it as metaphor.”? That’s not compatibility… that’s force-fitting. So as it is, religion and science as non-overlapping magisteria fails as descriptive, and due to the (yes we all know) strong emotional commitments to religious belief and associated community, we can’t expect a prescriptive “don’t make factual claims in the name of revelation” to hold a lot of weight with those who believe in revealed truths.

    There are other problems as well. What are the implications for the problem of evil when we accept evolution and discard a literal Adam and Eve? And further, what are the implications for the doctrines of original sin and redemption without the Garden of Eden? If we accept our disparagingly called “human reason” that forces us to make these claims, what else might we say about the miracles in scripture?

  21. #21 Deepak Shetty
    June 28, 2010

    @Zach
    Oh dont get me wrong. Im anti-accomodationist (in the sense that I dont want any conciliatory rhetoric of metaphor/allegories or other such nonsense) and I haven’t added emphasis or argued these points because it will probably derail this thread. I was just wondering whether broadly there is any other point the accomodationists make since you said that there were some genuine points.

  22. #22 Zach Voch
    June 28, 2010

    I’ve seen other comments by you, and I don’t think that you’re an accommodationist. Sorry if it came across that way.

    However, I didn’t want your full list counted among points that I consider genuine, so I spent a little extra time elaborating.

    The main one is factual (by most standards): PZ is occasionally rude and some of the commentators at Pharyngula are as well. Ok, does that hurt acceptance of evolution? I doubt it, not if you take the influence of PZ as a whole. It’s more of a side note than a “point,” and the emphasis on this has been undue and exaggerated.

  23. #23 Deepak Shetty
    June 28, 2010

    @Zach
    Understood.

  24. #24 Zach Voch
    June 28, 2010

    Allow me to give an anecdote:

    Last year, I used to smoke outside of the library during study breaks. Another regular, who we’ll call Jack, used to be out there quite frequently, so we ended up becoming acquaintances/Facebook friends/etc.

    Jack is a devout Catholic and is studying Medieval literature. We got into a discussion about the Galileo affair and had some mixed agreements. As the conversation developed, anti-Catholicism was brought up as a tangent. After some (apparent) concessions on his part over the child abuse scandal, he brought up his key example of anti-Catholicism in the world: “rabid atheists.”

    Who were these “rabid atheists”? I asked with due sense of dread.

    After correcting him on Dawkins (as disproportionately anti-Catholic), Jack brought up Crackergate as the outrage of the year.

    Jack had some interesting ideas about Crackergate. He apparently wasn’t aware of the prior incident that motivated PZ Myers. Jack seemed to be under the impression that PZ Myers had asked people to intentionally disrupt services.

    After I told him about the background and pressed further, Jack eventually admitted never having actually read the posts themselves.

    Whenever I hear a rant about New Atheists or atheist fundamentalists in person, I’ve yet to find that any of them had actually read the New Atheist about which they had complained (usually Dawkins). Sure, many have both read and complained, but in my experience, this has been the minority.

    With the tone argument, people will find a way of being “alienated” by New Atheists without ever having read them or talked to one.

    *Note: I’m no longer in contact with Jack. He made an FB post defending sodomy laws and complaining about the existence of protestants and I took him to task over it. I have been unfriended D: It’s a shame, because I would like to follow up and see if he’s changed his mind. I doubt it.

  25. #25 Deepak Shetty
    June 28, 2010

    @Zach
    Heh. Yes all they seem to have heard about Dawkins is his quote about the Old Testament God from The God Delusion.
    Major complaints of tone seem to be from non believers. The religious already know that their priests and holy books are far worse.

  26. #26 J. J. Ramsey
    June 28, 2010

    Deepak Shetty: “I keep hearing that there are genuine points being made by accomodationists”

    The “genuine points” that I was talking about had more to do with the tendency of some atheist advocates and bloggers to let their logic slip or have double standards even just go batsh!t. Unfortunately, YNH did many of the things that they railed against, but unfortunately, they also had real material to work with.

    For example, I don’t think it’s unfair, for example, to point out that PZ Myers is being hypocritical when he rightfully decries callous comments made by Tea Partiers about Roger Ebert’s infirmities while condoning comments made by Pharyngulistas that are just as callous.

    (Actually, I’d say that YNH didn’t go far enough on that point, since as their post stood, Myers could argue that he didn’t condone the comments but simply polices his blog with a light touch. They should have pointed out where he sent a “dog whistle” at the very end of one of his posts, giving a winking approval to those defending the guy who said of the Intersection bloggers, “F*ck them all sideways with a rusty f*cking knife.” That’s not merely a hands-off approach to rough commenters. That’s active encouragement.)

  27. #27 Deepak Shetty
    June 28, 2010

    @JJ Ramsey
    If you are pointing out hypocrisy in New Atheists thats a separate discussion.
    Is there any point, broadly, in science-religion accomodationism that I have missed?

  28. #28 truthspeaker
    June 29, 2010

    They’re wrong about that last bit – based on all available evidence – but it is psychologically beneficial to them, and won’t do any additional harm to the Gulf.

    Evidence for the bolded part, please.

    So why not let them pray in peace?

    Who’s stopping them? PZ posted this on his blog, he didn’t stand outside a church with a megaphone.

    Why make a fuss over it?

    To let people on the fence know that there are people out there who think prayer is a waste of time, that gods don’t exist, and that wishful thinking is bad for you.

  29. #29 'Tis Himself, OM
    June 29, 2010

    J. J. Ramsey

    “F*ck them all sideways with a rusty f*cking knife.” That’s not merely a hands-off approach to rough commenters. That’s active encouragement.

    You do know how that comment came about, don’t you? Of course you don’t. You know it’s an anti-PZ comment and so you don’t care how it came about. It’s anti-PZ, that’s good enough for you.

    Anyway, the comment came about because some of the Intersection folks were pretending that someone saying “fuck you” was advocating rape. As soon as this bit of nonsense became known at Pharnygula we quite naturally started playing with it. Even PZ played along, as in the post you linked to. The pearl-clutching prudes at Intersection have had various tizzies about the language used at Pharyngula. It’s just a case of priggishness, something that you seem to be subject to as well.

  30. #30 https://www.google.com/accounts/o8/id?id=AItOawmqD_mcUIrSfOTlK3iGVsnEDcZmI43srbI
    June 29, 2010

    No atheist of my acquaintance has a single problem with people praying in their closets for whatever they wish to pray for.

    What PZ was complaining of – and what I agree with him wholeheartedly about – is that prayer in this instance (and many others) was being offered as a substitute for human action. An ineffectual, self-gratifying-and-coincidentally-self-loathing exercise that does not accomplish one single thing except scapegoat the problem AND the solution on an invisible pink unicorn.

    And what’s the nature of this prayer? Are we to perform acts of contrition? For what purpose? To excuse BP from culpability? “We’re sorry we we so sinful that a major oil producer violated safety rules, killed 11 people and destroyed a gazillion square miles of fragile environment.”? Heh. Fat chance of ME joining in THAT prayer.

    The alternative is to ask for a miracle. “Please god, violate the laws of physics just this once to close the leak and convert the oil into nice clean seawater”? Again, where is the evidence of the efficacy of that approach?

    And then there’s that Abramocentrism to deal with. Which god? Yahweh/Allah? Why? Why not Shiva (who is a god who kicks ass and knows how to get things done)? Why not Zeus? If we were Mayan, would you be arguing that we need a collective human sacrifice to Quetzalcoatl to deal with the Gulf oil spill? So that we can feel better about it?

    What happens if you pray to the wrong god and piss it off? (The correct answer, FWIW, is nothing.)

    Two years ago, the South was mired deep in a drought. And the governor of Georgia, instead of enacting water-conservation measures ALREADY IN THE BOOKS, instead asked the people to pray for rain. And, of course, nothing happened until the weather pattern changed — as weather patterns inevitably do.

    Now, many areas are suffering the effects of floods. Should we now pray for drought? Or get the sandbags? If god can’t even control the weather to our satisfaction, what chance does it have with THIS disaster?

    And oh yes, that “tone”. I’m sorry if calling a spade a spade troubles people, especially in online settings where straightforward plain language appears to be abnormal.

    You may now use the Hurt Feelings Card.

  31. #31 truthspeaker
    June 29, 2010

    PZ’s original post was about a call for prayer coming from elected officials in the affected states – people whose job it is to do something substantial about the oil spill. Maybe they have been doing something substantial in addition to issuing calls for prayer. But just as they have a right to publically invite people to pray for the Gulf, PZ has a right to publically point out that prayer is, at best, useless. Civility does not consist of remaining silent about your views while other people expound on theirs.

  32. #32 truthspeaker
    June 29, 2010

    The point is that churches and synagogues and mosques create obvious communities and that at least some of them really are generous with many things, and there’s no obvious non-believer equivalent.

    Actually there are equivalents, they’re just agnostic with regard to belief. That is to say, there are community organizations, and charitable groups, and service organizations that aren’t affiliated with religion, but they aren’t affiliated with non-belief either. And that’s because community, charity, and public service have jack-squat to do with supernatural beliefs or lack thereof. Just because religion has latched onto those social goods like a parasite doesn’t mean atheism should too. In fact I would argue that it shouldn’t.

    If you want to feel like part of a community, then explore one of the many secular – but not atheist – options for feeling like part of a community that already exist. (Neither my block club nor my former contra dancing group have any religious requirements one way or the other.) You want to give to charity, donate to one of the many, many secular charities that already exist. These options are already out there and have been for centuries if not millenia. There’s no need for us atheists to reinvent the wheel.

  33. #33 tonysidaway
    June 29, 2010

    At this point everybody is talking past each other, but I thought it might be worth saying that both you and PZ make worthwhile points. Your suggestion that religious organization is all that is available to those in the affected area, though, seems to strike a false note.

    They can, and I hope they will, push the state and federal governments to do whatever they see fit to remedy the situation and make sure it doesn’t happen again. This is how we change the world, not by gathering together in prayer.

  34. #34 Roadrash548
    June 29, 2010

    Joshua – Have you applied for a Templeton Foundation grant yet?

  35. #35 debunk
    June 29, 2010

    “There’s good evidence that, while prayer does nothing for a person being prayed for, it does reduce stress and have positive physiological effects on the person praying”

    I don’t particularly WANT those representatives to be less stressed, I’d like to see them MORE stressed and actually DO something besides asking people to pray.

  36. #36 J. J. Ramsey
    June 29, 2010

    ‘Tis Himself: “You do know how that comment came about, don’t you? Of course you don’t.”

    I know exactly where it came from, and even pointed out why it didn’t help. The comment was an echo of another commenter, Cath the Canberra Cook, who understandably said about Bill Donahue, “Fuck that sh!thead sideways with a rusty knife,” when he acted as an apologist for rape and torture. Even then, Cath saw that she had crossed a line and immediately said afterward, “Umm, but only metaphorically. *Draws self heroically back from cliffedge*.” The imitator of Cath not only left out that disclaimer about drawing back from the cliffedge, but aimed his words at a target far less worthy of violent scorn.

    What I find telling is that after Cath and some other Pharyngula commenters blew off steam by expressing that Donahue be forcibly sodomized in creative and painful fashions, PZ Myers stepped in and told them to cool it. Yet when similar invective was aimed at mere accommodationists instead of a rape apologist, he dog-whistled his support for the invective. Pardon me if I find that a bit disgusting.

  37. #37 Steve
    June 29, 2010

    Two possible instructions at work:

    a) “Deliver this report to the boss in one hour.”
    b) “Deliver this report to the boss in one hour.”

    One is advising you about a course of action that will ensure you remain employed. The other isn’t.

    Two possible traffic lights:

    a) “Green. It’s safe to drive.”
    b) “Green. It’s safe to drive.”

    One is accurately informing you about traffic from all directions. The other isn’t.

    Two possible prayers:

    a) “God, please stop the Gulf oil spill while we sit here.”
    b) “God, please stop the Gulf oil spill while we sit here.”

    One author is genuinely appealing to a deity, the other isn’t.

    If you’re happy to arbitrarily assume that people mean something entirely unrelated to what they say, then why not carry the logic to all creationists and call the NCSE’s mission complete? Creationists are religious too, and creationism helps them de-stress too, yes?

  38. #38 truthspeaker
    June 29, 2010

    JJ, go fuck yourself sideways with a rusty knife.

  39. #39 J. J. Ramsey
    June 29, 2010

    Steve:

    Two possible prayers:
    a) “God, please stop the Gulf oil spill while we sit here.”
    b) “God, please stop the Gulf oil spill while we sit here.”

    No, it’s more like this:

    a) “God, please stop the Gulf oil spill while we sit here.”
    b) “God, please be with those helping clean up the oil spill and help us get through this time of trial.”

    The latter kind of prayer is far less specific, and I’ve heard prayers like that before. And then there are prayer get-togethers which are in large part about “giv[ing] people a safe place to come and tell their stories, their grief and their anxieties.”

  40. #40 CW
    June 29, 2010

    Norwegian Shooter I think you hit the nail on the head with your comments on opportunity cost. Sure, as Josh points out there are worse things people could do than pray, but there are also things that would be a lot more productive. Praising elected officials for organizing an official Make Yourself Feel Better About The Catastrophe day seems to be setting the expectations bar pretty damn low.

  41. #41 truthspeaker
    June 29, 2010

    Steve:

    Two possible prayers: a) “God, please stop the Gulf oil spill while we sit here.” b) “God, please stop the Gulf oil spill while we sit here.”
    No, it’s more like this:

    a) “God, please stop the Gulf oil spill while we sit here.”
    b) “God, please be with those helping clean up the oil spill and help us get through this time of trial.”

    The latter kind of prayer is far less specific, and I’ve heard prayers like that before.

    I don’t see anything less specific about b. It’s just asking God to intervene in the material world in a different way. Instead of asking him to clean up the oil directly, it’s asking him to provide emotional support to those people who are working to clean up the oil. They’re requesting two different miracles, both equally implausible.

  42. #42 J. J. Ramsey
    June 29, 2010

    CW: “Norwegian Shooter I think you hit the nail on the head with your comments on opportunity cost. Sure, as Josh points out there are worse things people could do than pray, but there are also things that would be a lot more productive.”

    But that presumes that if they weren’t praying, they would be doing something more productive, rather than, say, staying home or doing garden-variety socializing with friends. If they were motivated and able to help clean up oil, they’d probably already be doing it, and IIRC, a number of those praying are already doing it. Making a donation doesn’t take much time, certainly not enough for praying to take time away from giving money. Realistically speaking, the opportunity cost is probably pretty low.

  43. #43 Greg Myers
    June 29, 2010

    Actually, PZ, and many “new” atheists are working to promote community. They encourage groups, gatherings and conferences, urge charitable giving and ethical behaviour. Rather than bagging on them, why not support non-religious ways of viewing the world? It is inaccurate to pretend that religions are primarily about social or self-help activities. It is primarily about the demands of the deity As you note, prayer does not change things, even if it does sometimes provide psychological and social benefits. You could certainly imagine a church calling people to action in a way that did impact the oil spill (or at least its aftermath). When folks believe inaccurate things, they are more likely to take inappropriate action. New Atheists are essentially pointing out that the emperor has no clothes. Except in this case, the emperor is the voting public, too many of whom have homophobic, misogynistic and other regressive opinions, because this is what they are told they have to believe as Christians. This should be pointed out to them, which New Atheists do. To pretend that all Christians are interested only in the social gospel is simply not accurate.

    By all means, build atheistic communities, by all means, recognize the great work done by many churches. But don’t kill the prophets- and make no mistake, that is the role the New Atheists are filling.

  44. #44 Steve
    June 29, 2010

    From CNN, June 20:

    “Thus far efforts made by mortals to try to solve the crisis have been to no avail,” state Sen. Robert Adley said in a statement released after last week’s unanimous vote for the day of prayer. “It is clearly time for a miracle for us.”

    This was the first call to prayer that we saw, the first of the string to which Josh was objecting. It appears to *abandon* concern for human solutions to the oil spill. I have to infer:

    a) “J. J., it seems that your comment comprises delicious cream cake.”
    b) “J. J., it seems that your comment comprises delicious cream cake.”

    (But don’t worry, I meant the one whose purpose is largely about *not* implying that your comment comprises delicious cream cake. It’s clear which one that is, isn’t it?)

  45. #45 John Pieret
    June 29, 2010

    The funny thing is that the story, entiled “Is It Time To Start Praying for the Gulf?”, that appeared on the same website on the same day as the poll PZ complained about, documents exactly the sort of prayer Josh is talking and is completely different from what PZ insists such prayers are about. And all PZ had to do was a little empiric investigation …

  46. #46 Jez Kemp
    June 29, 2010

    I think PZ just owned you:
    http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2010/06/praise_the_water.php
    and I’d say you’re missing the point more than he is.

  47. #47 Greg Myers
    June 29, 2010

    John, yes, your example is the kind of prayer Josh was talking about – but not what PZ was reacting to:

    “Thus far efforts made by mortals to try to solve the crisis have been to no avail,” state Sen. Robert Adley said in a statement. “It is clearly time for a miracle for us.”

    In fact the meeting at Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Church could have been a town hall meeting with no religious context, and it still would have served the same purposes. Not so the call for God to work a miracle and stop the oil.

    Yes, their are religious folks whose concept of God does not involve a supernatural being interacting with the natural world – but there are a large number of religious folks who think that God can and does “work miracles-” and it is to those folks that PZ was directing his comments.

    Here is another example:
    http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,295857,00.html

    When faced with a problem like the oil spill – or a mechanical problem, it is one thing to turn to rituals or community for comfort and advise… it is quite another to expect supernatural intervention to replace human effort.

  48. #48 Deepak Shetty
    June 29, 2010

    John Pieret
    Please explain why you encourage community building practices specifically designed to not include non – believers? Surely non believers are also affected by the tragedy? And anyone who has community building or providing comfort as his goal should use a secular approach?

  49. #49 andrew
    June 30, 2010

    @Josh: “There’s good evidence that, while prayer does nothing for a person being prayed for, it does reduce stress and have positive physiological effects on the person praying.”

    I think this is missing the point. Maybe we as a nation and as individuals shouldn’t feel good about ourselves. Its not as if this catastrophe was out of human control.

    I would argue that we should feel bad and suffer the consequences until we are willing to do something meaningful to ensure that this doesn’t happen again.

    In your justification for prayer, that it makes people feel good, I find it hard to discern the difference between taking a cocaine to help you overcome depression for a bit. It might work for a little, but until you do something to directly address the depression, you haven’t solved anything.

  50. #50 John Pieret
    June 30, 2010

    Greg Myers:

    PZ was making a blanket statement about calls to prayer being an attempt to get God to stop the oil spill and based his assertion on a poll that was obviously associated with a story about a very different sort of prayer. Of course there are people who want God to fix the spill (and bring rail during a drought, etc., etc.) and there are others who want it to be a solace to believers in a time of troubles. My only point was the irony of PZ using the poll as an example.

    Deepak Shetty:

    Please explain why you encourage community building practices specifically designed to not include non – believers?

    I’m sorry, I didn’t know religious and secular community building were mutually exclusive. Nor did I know I was “encouraging” religious community building by pointing out an amusing aspect of PZ’s post.

    But as a good secularist I know that people should be judged by their actions and not their beliefs.

  51. #51 Mike McCants
    June 30, 2010

    “I appreciate the call for collective community action”

    That’s an inaccurate definition of prayer.

    “who criticize such calls for prayer without offering any alternative”

    I would think that doing nothing is a reasonable alternative to doing something that is not worth anything.

  52. #52 Deepak Shetty
    June 30, 2010

    @John Pieret

    I’m sorry, I didn’t know religious and secular community building were mutually exclusive.

    Look at the context. How is a day of prayer or a gather to *pray* call supposed to be secular(unless you have a very peculiar definition of to pray)? Or what am I supposed to do if I decided to participate in this community building exercise?
    A call to people of all faith (but not those without) is not a secular call.

  53. #53 John Pieret
    June 30, 2010

    How is a day of prayer or a gather to *pray* call supposed to be secular …

    It isn’t … but what’s stopping the secular community from gathering? Just because the religious community does it (and it may do some good in that part of the overall society) is no reason to condemn them … it would be much better to organize secular gatherings to do likewise.

  54. #54 Deepak Shetty
    June 30, 2010

    it would be much better to organize secular gatherings to do likewise.

    Ah now if Josh or yourself restricted your views to this then yes no one would disagree. But

    is no reason to condemn them

    Lets say the group says
    All followers of monotheistic faiths are invited (but not Hindus) – I condemn , You do what?
    All people who are straight are invited (but not gays) – I condemn , You do what?
    All people who are male are invited (but not women) – I condemn , You do what?
    All people who have faith are invited (but not disbelievers) – I condemn , You do what?
    If your answers to the above is Well the women / the gays / the Hindus can organise their own (or attend or organize some non discriminatory gathering) – Then you are consistent , but it should also tell you where your opinions lead you.
    If on the other hand you condemn any of the above, but not the last then you are inconsistent. Which is it?
    Note that we are referring to a tragedy that affects everyone – not a religious gathering organized for some religious purpose

  55. #55 James Sweet
    July 8, 2010

    It would seem this post is in need of an “Update”, given the recent revelations about YNH…

  56. #56 Josh Rosenau
    July 8, 2010

    YNH did unconscionable things, but nothing I wrote depends on that blog’s credibility.