Theo Hobson on Prayer and Atheism

I don't agree with everything that Theo Hobson writes today in the Guardian's Comment is Free group blog--in particular, I think that we need to stop talking about "militant atheists", and listen with respect to what they have to say. Nonetheless, he captures well, my view of prayer--one that many atheist may not appreciate:

Prayer is a bit like masturbation. It is more widely practised than public discourse acknowledges. Apparently, 42% of us sometimes pray, according to a survey published last week. To the atheist, it's evidence that there's no room for complacency in the war on dangerous superstition. But is prayer either dangerous or superstitious?

To the atheist it's like this. A person acquires the delusion that God exists, and so starts talking to this imagined being, in the hope of influencing its will. He persists in this, despite having no firm evidence that prayer works. Probably the believer is so pathetically lonely that he can't bear to face the irrationality of his habit. He needs the comforting illusion that someone up there's listening.

The atheist account of prayer has very little connection to the reality. The believer does not pray in order to try to influence God's will. Instead, he's trying to influence his own will, to make it conform to his worldview. Prayer is essentially a matter of saying "Help me, God, to be what I should be". The believer acknowledges a conflict between what he is naturally inclined to be, and what he feels he should strive to be. I suppose such a conflict is totally unknown to the atheists, who feel that they effortlessly realise moral perfection in their daily lives.

Also, the believer reminds himself of the worldview he subscribes to. In the case of Christianity, he re-states his belief in the coming of God's kingdom, which is a sort of utopian hope that all will be well. And he acknowledges his own fallibility, the fact that he is part of the problem, in need of radical reform, dangerously prone to evil. And he acknowledges that everything is dependent on God, that he is the absolute authority.

Hobson then makes engages in an argument that I find very interesting. What is the harm of liberal and moderate beleivers like ourselves? Hobson summarizes one argument in response (that our moderate faith empowers the extremists) and gives this response:

I would like to ask the atheists a simple question. What harm does it do that I, and very many other people, pray? Is it the desire for a better world, free of suffering, which is so harmful? Is it the acceptance of personal guilt, and the endless resolve to do morally better?

Judging from what I have read of their attempts at reasoning, the atheists seem to think that prayer reinforces an irrational worldview that has harmful consequences. The more that seemingly harmless religious belief is respected as valid, the more likely it is that society will be plagued by dangerous fundamentalist forms of religion. This line was restated by Sue Blackmore in a recent post on Cif.

. . .

To believe in God, and to pray to him, does not mean that one subscribes to any form of organised religion. I am a Christian with no institutional allegiance.

Read it all here.

I don't know that Hobson really confronts the argument made here by Sue Blackmore and others. The point is not that our own individual religious beleifs are harmful per se, but that our belief itself somehow validates fundamentalism. I think that a better response is to challenge this factual premise. After all, the Enlightenment and secular society arose in a very Christian Europe, and as Mark Lilla and others have argued, secularism has its roots in Christian thought.

What do you think.


I'm not going to comment on Sue Blackmore's ideas or Hobson's either. Instead, I'm going to leave an observation of my own, which I think may be valuable to chew over.

Moderate religionists -- not only Christians -- have a tendency to think of fundamentalists in their own faiths as an unacceptable fringe of "us," while atheists are all "them." This, as you and I have discussed many times, is nonsense. There are many, many areas of common cause, in which most atheists and enlightened theists are "us" and the extremists are "them." Yet, I've read numerous apologias written by tolerant, liberal, educated believers, in which they somehow appear to take sides with the vilest theocrats rather than with the godless heathens who dare to insist that real religious freedom means tolerating and respecting the rights of those who choose not to follow any religion whatsoever. As long as society continues to divide itself into religion-based teams, that kind of strange us-them dichotomy will continue -- and atheists will, justifiably I think, continue to see ourselves as threatened.
Chuck Blanchard said…

I agree. Theo Hobson (and Sue Blackmore) are falling into the trap of using the believer/nonbeliever dividing line as the only relevant line. This is a trap--once you accept that as the relevant dividing line in society than you either align yourself with the most extreme beleiver, or you reject as an ally, a secular leaning believer.
I think some bloggers feel the need to position themselves -- at least in their blog personae -- as being more extreme than they really are. I must admit that I'm sometimes guilty of this myself, although usually only for humor's sake. But you may have noticed that I'm also quite critical of some of the sillier notions that flit around the atheist community.

In any case, I'm happy to report that in my forays into the Atheosphere, at least in the corner of it that I inhabit, I see very few posts that attack believers per se. Yes, there are attacks on specific would-be theocrats, who position themselves as god's spokespeople. (And how audacious is that!) We atheists are an outspoken lot, and extremely opposed to faith as an instrument of government policy. We're also critical of faith, in and of itself. But I don't think anyone, on any atheist blog that I read regularly, has suggested that atheists and believers can't find plenty of common ground. I think -- I hope, anyway -- that you've seen how welcomed you've been when you've left comments over at my place. There are dozens of other atheist blogs at which you'd be greeted in a similar way. I'm not sure I can say that about the reverse situation. Perhaps you can point me to some Christian blogs that would be happy to hear differing views. I suspect there are some out there.

Anyway, maybe there's reason to hope that the dividing line we're talking about here can be erased.

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