Is Prayer Harmful?

Is Prayer Harmful?
By William Cooney

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When the business portion of our last CVA monthly meeting concluded, former president Dennis Himes led a discussion on what turned out to be quite the provocative topic: “Is Prayer Harmful?” At first blush, one might think that, of course, most Atheists believe prayer is indeed very harmful. It turns out, however, there were many who cautioned against being too “dismissive” or “strident” when it comes to criticizing prayer or people who pray. Not because they believed in its potential for healing or otherwise procuring favorable advantages, but rather because in the service of spreading our secular vision, we should take care not to offend the sensibilities of others. Precisely because there is no more efficient way to drive religious people deeper into their own self-serving world view than to criticize or mock something very important to them, we should refrain from expressing anything that can possibly be characterized as an insult. The fine art of persuasion, it seems, demands a more nuanced approach.

As Richard Dawkins pointed out in his 2006 book The God Delusion, ridicule and mockery can be important tools in the arsenal of criticism, writing indeed, that no one has the right not to be offended by criticism, not the least of all, religious people. The onus is on the one being criticized to grow a thicker skin, and not on the critic to be more accommodating or less offensive—especially in the arena of religious polemics. It was long thought in polite society that one simply did not criticize religion. Why? Well, for no good reason, as it turns out. Religion simply enjoyed a privileged status in social circles—and conversation—if only because it was “the way of things” for so long.

And so it goes with prayer. Where’s the harm in praying for something or someone, so long as it is private and hurts no one? About all that can be said of prayer is that it benefits no one, with the possible exception of the one doing the praying, because they will often say it makes them feel better, as if they had contributed something meaningful in a difficult situation. In this sense prayer becomes a pitiable act of self-congratulatory gibberish. And even that benefit is meager at best. Praying can delude one into thinking, and believing, that one has done something real and positive for the cause of the day. It relieves one of the burden to actually do something substantial, kinetic, quantifiable, and life-changing. Doing right by each other is not always easy; in fact we know it to be difficult. And praying often gives people a reason not to have to do any of the heavy lifting.

To be fair, we must form a consensus around a definition of prayer that lends sensible parameters to this debate. If we can agree—in principle—that active prayer involves the summoning of a deity for the purpose of attaining some favor or outcome, then prayer quickly reveals itself an enemy of reason. And this is where much of the real danger of prayer lies: in teaching our children not to use their intellectual, problem-solving, critical-thinking skills to respond to not only everyday situations, but also to more challenging things like human suffering. To us firebrands of atheism, prayer holds the potential to dehumanize people in their time of need. Pain and hunger, homelessness and despair, grief and loneliness—these things remain abstractions so long as prayer is held up as a viable action plan to mitigate their effects. Praying keeps too many of our hands too clean; keeps too many of us out of the trenches of misery, and just far enough away from the blood, sweat, and tears of the sufferers so as not to soil our blouses. And while we’re at it, perhaps the politicians could stop shamelessly pandering to religious people by telling us how much they all pray and “consult God” about his divine plans for them and their campaigns or offices.

In the long run, prayer is very harmful to humanity because in practice it puts someone other than ourselves at the helm of our predicament. Praying also lends credence to the notion that we are broken beings in need of an overseer to provide us moral tutelage. And finally, prayer is a fictitious conduit to an even more fictitious being who wants us to believe that we are not good enough or smart enough to find meaning and purpose for our own lives.

2016 Will Be Even Better

2016 Will Be Even Better
By William Cooney

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Judging by the continued expansion of secularism here in the United States, it’s safe to say that 2015 was a good year and that 2016 will be an even better one. It may be hard to believe because the religious zealots—especially in the Republican Party—seem to be soaking up all the oxygen in the popular media atmosphere. Let’s face it, controversy sells. Let’s not forget, however, that what’s popular isn’t always what’s best.

Though secular ideas are gaining traction throughout much of the world, it often comes at a high price: atheist bloggers have been hacked to death for criticizing religion and promoting secularism in Bangladesh; Islamic extremists continue to terrorize Western standards of free thought and expression in Europe; and recent attacks in the US suggest that home-grown sympathy for radical Islam may be taking hold here. Despite these troublesome trends, the arc of this moral universe is indeed bending toward justice—to steal a phrase from Martin Luther King Jr. Enlightened principals, including even entrenched adversaries such as Russia and the US, agree that however complex the causes of this uprising may be, terrorism is not justified.

This doesn’t mean that Russia and the US should be let off the hook for instigating strife in the Middle East. George W. Bush and his neoconservative allies have much to answer for when it comes to the caustic cult of exporting democracy by force of arms; President Obama has much explaining to do for his profligate, and sometimes extra judicial, use of drones; and Vladimir Putin needs to decide whether Syria’s Bashar al Assad is a leader truly worth defending in this fight.

What has all this to do with the struggles of atheists you ask? Much, to be sure. Religious sectarianism is at the center of so much of the world’s unrest. But isn’t it also political? It may be, but throughout much of the world, politics and religion are inextricably linked. Israel is not just a secular state in the modern meaning; it is also a religious state. Many of the Middle Eastern states’ constitutions place God—or Allah—at the zenith of both social and governing order. This is precisely why separating church and state is so important. Keeping each free from the influence of the other is the best way to protect the integrity and viability of both. The late Christopher Hitchens offered some poignant analysis when he noted the irony of some of today’s Americans longing for the very thing they were fleeing when our country was founded: religious persecution.

The battle over whether our government’s founding was religious or secular is a battle worth having. It’s funny, but for a supposedly free country it’s amazing just how little freedom some of those who are not Christian enjoy. The Religious Right in America does not want freedom for everyone; they want the continued cultural dominance of their own Christian heritage. It is up to us atheists to lead the assault on this dangerous and tyrannical vision. Ironically, it is the secular perspective that is more conducive to true religious freedom. 2016 will no doubt be even better than 2015 for the cause of atheism.

Religion and Mental Illness: The Perfect Poison

Religion and Mental Illness: The Perfect Poison
By William Cooney

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For some time I have come to believe that religiosity itself is a special brand of poison, one that not only nullifies the ability to reason but also eviscerates one’s capacity to both give and receive love. So many of those possessed of the grand delusion of God lose the potential for empathy. Mired in their own sense of self-righteousness, they become oblivious to the stations and challenges of others as they furiously fan the fires of the malignant monster of narcissism.

Could this all be the result of simply believing in something called God? Is religious faith that insidious an idea at its core? Or is there another ingredient lurking, fouling our recipe for good living?

Perhaps an opportunistic illness lies in wait for those not whole or healthy enough to ward off the effects of serious betrayal and sexual abuse. In which case obsession and delusion—two cornerstones of disease—are free to infect the already struggling mind. Thus, in a cruel and callous conspiracy, religion and mental illness each exacerbate the effects of the other, combining their baleful essence to create the perfect poison: a sickness that stands up to nearly everything.

But all is not lost. Even against this most intractable of maladies, change is possible. And those who say it isn’t are merely affirming a self-fulfilling prophecy, their own words, deeds, and omissions serving to undermine any chance for improvement. Unconditional love and support from family and friends, combined with the competent and selfless care of medical professionals offer the best hope for securing a happier and more healthy existence. Giving up on one another, especially by enabling them, is not only disloyal, it invites distrust and self-loathing.

Hopefully, this is not a bad time for such a sobering assessment. The holidays are, after all, meant to be joyful. But joy is precisely what I seek as I begin to traverse the latter stages of middle age. Let us all re-commit to kindness as we search for the answers to life’s most challenging questions.

“Believe” or “Accept”?

Believe or Accept
By William Cooney

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Whenever anyone asks me whether or not I “believe” in UFOs, creationism, evolution, etc., I am immediately drawn to analyzing the question itself before going on to answer it. As David E. Anderson, PhD, points out in his letter to the editor of Skeptical Inquirer (November/December 2015), a distinction should be made between questions that relate to matters of faith, which one either believes or doesn’t, and things about science, which one either accepts or doesn’t. And this distinction is neither trivial nor just a matter of semantics.

Bearing in mind that within the world of the scientific nothing is ever proved to be completely or absolutely true; the scientific method, properly applied, merely fails to disprove something. Take gravity for example. As confident as we are that leaping from the 20th floor of an office building would result in a disastrous plunge to the pavement below, we still cannot prove with absolute certainty that such a result would occur. In another time and place, gravity might well behave quite differently, granting us an unexpected reprieve. In other words we accept that the theory of gravity suggests the likely outcome, but technically speaking we are not taking it on as a matter of faith—or belief.

Believing in something requires that leap of faith, traversing a chasm of uncertainty so profound that present-day science is helpless to fully explain it. Rising from the dead or being converted from a flattened wafer into a living, breathing human body is beyond the ability of science to account for. Thus, it is left for people of a religious bent to simply believe in such things.

Extrapolating from this idea a bit further, I do not believe in anthropogenic global warming as a matter of faith; I accept it as a matter of scientific consensus. A leap of faith is decidedly not required to accept the general veracity of its claims. I do not believe in creationism because its tenets do not lend themselves to examination by the scientific method; its predictions are not testable. I accept the fact of human evolution because of the near unanimity by reputable scientists as to its rigorous validity. The truth is no scientist worth his salt would preclude the possibility that God does indeed exist. He or she would merely maintain that such a proposition is not amenable to scientific scrutiny, thus warranting its rejection from a rational point of view.

The problem with many religious people is that they resent being referred to as non-rational, or worse yet, as irrational. To which I say, Tough toogies! Believe whatever it is you want, just don’t claim reason as the foundation for your beliefs when doing as much would be decidedly unreasonable.

Confronting Atheist Anger

Confronting Atheist Anger
By William Cooney

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In her 2012 book, Why Are You Atheists So Angry?—99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, Greta Christina contemplates the reality—and mythology—of atheist anger. One question often asked of us skeptics is indeed, “Why are atheists so angry?” Many religious people contend that we atheists are angry with God because in their eyes we experience no redemption, no purpose, and no transcendence. They assume that we wander the world in a vacuum of morality, meaning, and wonder, in so doing resort to anger to palliate the sadness and confusion we must be experiencing.

First off, we are not angry with God. How could we be angry with something we do not even acknowledge to exist? But the perception of a lingering anger haunting our psyches is not totally without merit. It’s just that the things that do anger us are probably things most religious people would not readily comprehend.

For those of us who were raised in a strict religious environment, we are angry with the dogmatic desperados who took it upon themselves to forcibly inculcate us in the ways of faith, doctrine, and superstition. We are angry that our intellectual freedom was stolen from us. We are angry that our instinct to question everything was supplanted by a commandment to simply obey. We are angry that a large part of our childhood was taken away from us. And frankly, all of these are good reasons to be angry.

Despite its good intentions, the problem with anger is that is holds the potential to consume its victims. Angry people must transform this virulent emotion into something constructive and life-affirming, and we atheists believe we have achieved precisely this transformation. By accentuating the positive, we find strength when we look to each other for answers; we achieve a worldly redemption when we cooperate with one another to improve the human condition; we love ourselves and each other more completely when we embrace the humanist values guiding our day-to-day lives. Yes, some of us atheists are angry, but our anger is righteous, and without it the motivation to try and make a difference might be hard to find.

The Brittany Maynard Story: True Compassion?

The Brittany Maynard Story: True Compassion?
By William Cooney

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This article was first published in the inaugural issue of CT COR, the Newsletter of the Connecticut Coalition of Reason, in April of 2015.


The death last year of Brittany Maynard has focused attention on the question of whether anyone has the right to hasten his or her own demise when confronting terminal illness. Facing inoperable brain cancer and a lingering, painful death, Brittany decided she would end her own life when the time “seemed right.” She moved to Oregon, one of five states that allow physician-assisted death with dignity, and on November 1, 2014, ingested a pharmaceutical cocktail prescribed by her doctor that mercifully ended her suffering and her life.

What precisely is at the core of this burgeoning debate? Individual liberty? The sanctity of life? Deference to a supreme moral arbiter? Or answering the call to mitigate human suffering? In our especially diverse culture, it would seem “all of the above.” A spokesperson for the Vatican said Ms. Maynard’s physician-assisted death was an “absurdity” and was “without dignity.” Not only do such remarks serve to perpetuate the convenient construction of highly dysfunctional moral absolutes, they also come from an institution that, through its own heinous deeds, has forfeited the right to dare interpret for others the meaning of dignity. This kind of simplistic reasoning dismisses the reality that life itself is an exercise in moral nuance, moderation, exceptions, and context, where our actions are judged by their consequences. If only we lived in a world where we didn’t have to do the hard work of thinking for ourselves and administering our own evolving morality, life would be oh so much easier.

Moral absolutes are enticingly comforting. They relieve us of the burden to sort out and confront the more complex challenges of day-to-day living. And the religious world view is uniquely suited to this task of ultimate self deception. The “all life is sacred” approach to conundrums such as those faced by Brittany Maynard and others undermines a simple truth, one that tells us quality of life is the greater consideration. Why should anyone, including the Catholic Church, insist that terminally ill people cling to prolonged misery in the face of certain near-term death? Is it as simple as fearing the consequences of disobedience to some omnipotent god creature? Or is it that we fear death itself so much we will go to any length to challenge its ultimate inevitability?

On the practical side, the costs of life-extending care are formidable in the extreme. We may, in fact, be doing more harm than good by denying the resources necessary to help those who actually stand a much better chance at improving both the quality and duration of their lives. Invoking extraordinary life-saving measures for no other reason than to placate our flawed moral sensibilities is not a solution; it is a cop-out. It is also a direct cause of much unnecessary pain and suffering. What is the point of resuscitating someone only to see them live to endure a mere month or two more of unspeakable discomfort at exorbitant expense? We rationalists, atheists, and humanists emphatically do not see the point.

For now only Washington, Oregon, Vermont, New Mexico, and Montana allow mentally competent, adult, terminally ill patients to ask for a prescription from their doctor to hasten death. It is therefore important that those of us who think death with dignity is an idea whose time has come contact our representatives here in Connecticut and let them know we support legislation that would give patients the right to die when faced with a prolonged and painful death experience. And despite what many religious people think, we should walk and talk with confidence in our own moral rectitude whenever we find ourselves defending this position.

In the end, how we lived our lives, and how our lives affected those whom we touched, are much more important than the manner, or timing, of our more or less insignificant deaths.