Sunday, May 23, 2010

When do gods (Yahweh) use medicine to Answer prayer?

Growing up, I constantly heard the faithful praying for those who were about to undergo surgery or medical tests. The prayers often included a specific request that Yahweh would "guide the surgeon's hand" and "give the doctors and nurses wisdom." And when the results of treatment were good, all credit and praise was given to Yahweh. The surgeons and other medical professionals were just tools in the hands of Yahweh. Their years of schooling and experience and their dedication and hard work were not the direct cause of the good result. No, they were merely Yahweh's answers to the prayers offered to him. In other words, the doctor’s advice and treatment were the answer to the prayers.

Now we have the case of Angela Wright.

She suffered a heart attack. The prayer chains were activated. She suffered a second heart attack. They prayed on. She had a third heart attack. They prayed on. She had a fourth heart attack. They prayed on. She had a fifth heart attack. They prayed on. She had a sixth heart attack.

As a result of the heart attacks and other pre-existing conditions, her toes are turning black and the doctors are concerned that gangrene will set in and advance and become fatal. They have recommended amputation. Rather than accept this wisdom from the doctors as the wisdom of Yahweh provided via the doctors, the family is opposing the treatment. Their read on the events to date is that the sole reason she is still alive is their prayers. In other words, thought she has been in the hospital receiving round the clock treatment for her multiple heart attacks and other problems, the only reason she is alive is that Yahweh has answered their prayers, presumably by “guiding the doctor’s hands” and “giving them wisdom.” (Either that or Yahweh is a cruel sadistic monster that sat up there and watched these yokels beg and plead for his assistance and all he did was to allow (or cause?) five more heart attacks and the resulting complications that now put her in a dilemma between death or loss of her only good leg – he simply increased and prolonged her suffering.)

It seems to me that if Yahweh exists and listens to prayers and answers them, we have several possible interpretations of these events. Among them:

1. Yahweh has no intention of saving her leg and he has "given the doctors wisdom" to know that amputation is the answer and is standing by to "guide the surgeon's hand" in conducting the amputation. But the family is refusing to accept this answer to their prayers and rejecting Yahweh's will for Angela and themselves.

2. Yahweh has no intention of intervening and has decided to let nature take its course. He has decided the answer to their prayers is : "No. I am declining to intervene on this on. It may seem wrong to you but I am Yahweh and I have my reasons. Trust me. "

3. Yahweh fully intends to intervene and save Angela's life and her leg but only if the family will persevere in their hindrance of the medical treatment and continue to pray until Yahweh, in his own good time, steps in. His answer is: "Keep the faith and pray on my child. Joy comes in the morning if you will but keep the faith and ‘endure unto the end.’"
All of these possibilities are accepted by the theists I know. They agree that Yahweh can answer prayers by using people like doctors. He can answer a request for divine intervention with a no and let nature take its course. Or he can simply wait and see if the faithful will remain faithful and then reward them richly if they do. But it is critical for the faithful to know which is happening on any given occasion. Under the first possibility, the answer is for the praying faithful to allow the amputation and praise Yahweh for providing the doctors the wisdom to know it was needed and guiding their hands through the surgery. Under the second, they need to give up on prayer and make a decision based on natural reality, not the hope of a supernatural intervention that will not be forth coming. Under the third, they must oppose the doctors and keep praying.

But here is the question I would like some theists to answer for me. How do you know which it is? How do you know when it is time to oppose the doctors and when it is time to accept their wisdom as Yahweh's answer to your prayers for intervention?

The way I see it, this family and Angela are in a sad and terrible situation. What they are really struggling with is not Yahweh’s will but Angela’s will in light of a no win situation. Angela apparently is vacillating – telling the doctors to get on with the amputation but telling the family she would rather die than loose her only good leg. She is under heavy medication and in an awful situation and it is not surprising that she tells the doctors go when they explain they think she should and then tells the family things that are interpreted as no when they talk to her. This is a really bad situation in which none of the real answers is a good one that everyone will be happy with this time next year. It is a tough call and my heart goes out to them all. But sadder still is the way in which religion is making this so much more difficult. As indicated by my question above, religion is so malleable that it allows people to think what they want is really what some sky pixie wants. I have no doubt that if these devout people – Angela and her family – were all of the frame of mind that life is the highest priority and that loosing another leg can be lived with because Yahweh has helped her live with the loss of the first one, the amputation would have been done and, instead of thrashing around in this awful emotional pain, they would be thanking and praising Yahweh for pulling Angela through the surgery and guiding the surgeon’s hands. And see the amputation as the answer to their prayers. But since they seem to greatly fear life with a double amputation they are refusing to accept the offered medical treatment as the answer to their prayers. And if they ever realize this fact, they are going to be in even more agony trying to determine what it is their silent sky pixie wanted them to do. Maybe if they had just prayed one more day, the leg and the life could have been saved. Maybe if they had just prayed harder. Maybe if they had actually fasted instead of sneaking that sandwich two days into a three day fast. Maybe if they had not thought those impure thoughts. Maybe their faith was not strong enough. Maybe ………

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Playing God (Yahweh.)

With the recent announcement of the synthesis of an organism by Craig Venter’s research team, the predictable protests have begun. One of the most predictable is the concern that by “creating” synthetic life forms, man is “playing God.” I would like for some theist creationist to explain to me the concept of “playing God.” A good place to start is with a clear definition of “create.” That word comes up a lot in creationist arguments but it seems to be ill defined and subject to shifting definitions.

In this universe, matter and energy cannot be “created” or destroyed. It can only change forms. In that statement, “create” obviously means ex nihilo – out of nothing. Because of the law that matter and energy cannot be created or destroyed, it is impossible for man to “create” ex nihilo. All we can do is manipulate existing matter and energy into different forms. When man “creates” a log cabin, he simply changes the form of some tress by cutting them down, laying them in piles and using other materials to hold them together. When Venter and his team synthesized the bacteria, they were merely manipulating existing matter and energy. They “created” nothing ex nihilo.

So theist creationists, when you say that man is “playing God,” are you admitting that your god did not create anything ex nihilo? Are you admitting that some form of something came before your god and your god simply manipulated it into the universe in which we live? If so, from whence came the pre-existing “stuff” your god manipulated into our universe?

If you insist that your god did in fact create all that exists ex nihilo, then how can man be “playing God” when he merely manipulates that existing matter and energy into a different form?

If you still insist that man is “playing God” when he manipulates matter and energy into a synthetic bacteria, can you explain when man’s manipulation of matter and energy becomes “playing God?” Is the manufacturing of a car “playing God?” Is the manufacturing and administration of a vaccine “playing God?” Is building a sand castle “playing God?”

Is it possible that your real concern is that man, by pushing back the frontiers of knowledge, is wresting power from the priests of the gods and rendering continued belief in their existence and begging for their favor less and less relevant? Since the beginning of human history, the followers and priests of the gods have constantly told us that adverse weather (hurricanes, tornados, forest fires, lightening, etc.), disease outbreaks, accidents, losses in war and business are the result of the gods manipulating weather patterns, viruses, rocks, vehicles and even other people into punishing us for failing to properly worship them. But the more things in our universe that we can understand, manipulate and master, the less need we have to beg for the forbearance of the gods. The less justifiable believe in and submission to the gods becomes and the less power their followers and priests have over the rest of us. Thus we are “playing God” in the sense that we are destroying and replacing him.

I for one am glad that my species is refusing to turn away from the tree of knowledge and, instead, eating regularly of its fruit and drinking deeply of the juice of its fruit. Increasing our ability to manipulate our universe, will free us from the superstition and fear that the followers and priests of gods have been using to manipulate us.

If that is playing god, play on Maestro!

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Government Nuetrality on Religion is Good for Everyone

I had an e-mail discussion with a theist recently sparked by the recent national day of prayer ruling in federal court. It became apparent to me that a large problem in discussions of church state separation issues is confusion between the issue of neutrality itself and the substantive issue of religion. Theists arguing with atheists about neutrality think that if they agree that the government should be neutral on issues of religion, the atheist have won the religion argument. That is not true.

Of course, there can be no neutrality on the issue of neutrality itself, But that does not prevent neutrality on all other issues. Perhaps the following three examples will help clarify the difference:

1. Country A is at war with Country B. Country C is debating whether to get involved. Citizens for A demand that the government of C support A. Citizens for B demand that the government of C support B. Citizens for the advancement of C advocate for taking the opportunity to attack and conquer both A and B. If the government decides to take no action and declare support for neither A or B, which citizen group won?

That question is a non sequiter. No one won on the substantive issue of who should be supported or attacked. The “winner” was a fourth group advocating neutrality. And that group may consist of people from at least two of the other groups. Supporters of A could still think their government should stay neutral and supporters of B could too. They may want A or B to win but they may agree that C should stay out of it.

2. The Christians think we need to pray to Yahweh for guidance. The Muslims think we need to pray to Allah and make women start wearing burqas. The Atheists think praying is a waste of time and energy and we should devote the time and energy to seeking practical solutions. Some Christians, some Muslims and some Atheists together agree that the government should not choose sides by acknowledging, supporting or discouraging any side. Three resolutions are introduced in the legislature:

a. We hereby declare that the guidance and help from Yahweh is our only hope and, therefore call upon the people to pray to Him for assistance in our time of crises.

b. We hereby declare that the resources and energy of the people are being drained and wasted in religious pursuits and we, therefore, call upon the people to cease all religious practice and observance and concentrate on practical solutions.

c. We recognize that our only hope is the assistance of Allah. We therefore encourage the people to pray to Allah for wisdom and encourage our women to wear burqas.

If the legislature passes none of the options who won? Does anyone really believe that passing none of the offered resolutions is a win for the atheists on the religious debate?

3. A nation’s congress is compromised of Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, Pat Robertson, Jerry Fallwell, Billy Graham, Me and an atheist friend. The first question for a vote: Shall the government of this nation be neutral on matters of religion? Of course, Pat, Jerry and Billy vote against neutrality. And guess who votes with them? Stalin and Mao. They certainly were not for state neutrality on religion. Anyone who wants to use government to force their particular view on religion on everyone else – atheist, Christian, Muslim, or other theist -- will oppose neutrality.

The second question is: Which position on religion will we take. Guess how that vote goes? The preachers' votes against neutrality now come back to haunt them. But notice that the vote on neutrality itself was not an “atheist” victory. The atheists were divided on the question. Had the preachers sided with the other half of the atheists on neutrality, the second vote would not have occurred.

Agreeing that the government will not support or attack any position on religion does not mean the atheists win. It means those Christians, Muslims and Atheists who share the belief that the government should be neutral on religion won on the issue of neutrality alone. No one won the religious debate, it rages on among the people unsupported and unfettered by the government.

Why don’t we renew the agreement of our founders that none of us will seek to make the government a party to our religious practices so that all of the people can remain free to practice their religions (or lack thereof) without interference or assistance from the government?