Monday, January 24, 2011

Don't tell me you're praying for me

This is a more or less hard-and-fast rule for this blog: anyone who says that they're praying for me or any other "unsaved" person will not have his or her comment approved, depending on what he or she seems to mean by that.

Some "live and let live"-style atheists may even welcome it as just another kind thought that differs from any other only in a trivial choice of religious language, but I am absolutely unable to honestly take it in such a way if I know something else is meant by it, and the distinction is not an idle one I am willing to let slide.

If "I'll pray for you" means "I'll pray that you join my religion before it's too late to save your soul", then I can only take it as an insult and a willful refusal to even try to understand anything you've read here. Of course I can't stop you from praying for me or anyone else in this particular way; by all means, go ahead if you really can't help it. But please don't tell me that you're doing it. Trust me when I say that in showing such restraint, you will be sparing me the kind existential despair one feels when one tries to make a phone call to a living, thinking, responsive human being and instead receives an answering machine message one has already heard a thousand times or more. It would hardly be an exagerration to say that I've heard it all before... and that is not a challenge to come up with something I haven't.

This is harder to explain than I thought it would be, but I will try.

It seems as if it is difficult for many believers to appreciate exactly how insulting and thoughtless such a gesture is. Allow me to explain how it more or less looks from my point of view: I have never seen anything that even begins to suggest to me that any particular religion ever known to humanity is correct. Neither fossil evidence nor historical evidence nor anything else has ever done anything to confirm that anything other than human feelings, speculations, and repetitions of hearsay is needed to account for the existence of religions, nor have I ever felt anything at all like an "inner voice" greater than myself or anything like that. All I have to guide me are my own instincts, my own personal preferences, my own reason, the things I've tried to learn from others, and my own ideas about what kind of world I want to live in, and my best estimates of what the likely consequences may be of the actions that I take.

I feel that torture - let alone everlasting torture - can be nothing more and nothing less than sadism, and that calling such a thing "justice" is not a justification, and that it is special pleading, and that it does not even begin explain anything. I do not accept that burning "morally impure" things is a noble end in itself, and I don't even know what that means. All I know is that torture is a disturbing idea and that I don't want anyone subjected to it - myself, or anyone else; that bringing Hitler back to life just to pour hot acid in his mouth would do nothing to make anyone anywhere happier, more loving, more artistic, better musicians, smarter, better at cooking, or anything else.

I know that the justice system we have in the USA is, in its unrealized, idealistic best form, is not based on vengeance, but on the best interests of general public - that is, an enlightened justice system does not hold "throwing the book" at "evildoers" as its goal, but rehabilitates offenders when possible, keeping them confined and out of the public only because it acknowledges that it isn't so trivial or even consistently possible to rehabilitate. Punishment needs only be severe enough to discourage potential offenders; going beyond the point of diminishing returns on this front would not make anyone's life better, except maybe to satisfy a sadistic itch or two.

It is with complete lack of comprehension that I ponder the idea of human who could earnestly praise a god who would administer torture, especially in response to an "offense" like failing to worship him. He can either torture someone, or he can not; the idea that there is a natural "order" or an abstraction like "purity" or "perfection" that makes burning the "unclean" necessary is just an arbitrary pile of empty abstractions that never makes any sense to me, no matter how often it's all reworded and repeated. A god who tortures people is not a god I want to have anything to do with. If there were such an omnipotent god, and the only way to avoid his torture were to sincerely love him and worship him, then I would have to conclude that the universe itself had gone mad, and that all of humanity were trapped in a frantic race to see Who Will Be Eaten First in a world where madness itself is salvation. I'd like to live indefinitely as much as any other self-respecting vertebrate would like to, but I neither see any reason to think that this god in particular is real, nor would I begin to know how to worship it if I thought that he were.

This is why Christopher Hitchens, who was diagnosed with esophegeal cancer last year, when asked if a deathbed conversion might lurk around the corner, responded, "not while I'm lucid".

When a Believer prays for someone like Hitchens to come around to their religion, these "good thoughts" they are thinking are for a person that in no way resembles the person he or she attempts to pray for. The person prayed for is either some romantic abstraction - at the bottom, a lost little lamb who just hasn't opened his or her eyes yet - or a demented shell of a previous consciousness, worn down by disease, fear, trauma, altered states of consciousness, and possibly even brain damage, all in a perfect storm conjured up by the almighty for the sole purpose of replacing a strong and disbelieving person with a battered, empty, and eager vessel ready to be led around by the hand like a child by the first grownup with a comforting word to say; at any rate, I'm not so sure that such conversions away from an examined position are even the least bit common. The most celebrated cases are spurious.

In either case, I want nothing to do with it, whether your prayer is for an imaginary me who lives only in your fantasies, or an actual me who has been contorted in horrible ways. I do not want to hear about your "good will" in this matter. Do not pray that your god will change me; if you must involve gods in this at all, ask your god whether he really intends to go through with all this hellfire business, or if perhaps he has been misunderstood by one of his human scribes somewhere down the line, or if the religious texts might leave the issue ambiguous enough to be honestly interpreted differently.

What I'd like to hear, if you sincerely believe so, is, "I don't think you're going to Hell." And if you believe that, but what you mean by it is, "I think you'll come around to my religion before it's too late," then I don't ever want to hear it.

I already know that millions of people around the world think that I'm going to Hell at this rate - my parents think so, my grandfather probably thinks so, the first girl I ever kissed very well might think so, at least a couple of my grade school teachers likely think so, each church youth leader who has ever tried and failed to explain to me how you know god is real probably thinks so, now-grown kids whose houses I used to sleep over at think so.

That much I know. And here is the part that I don't know, the thing I can only feebly attempt to speculate about: how do they go along with it? Some of them may not know that I'm an atheist and am unlikely to change that. Others may know. What do they think of this afterlife - will they lose all memory that every unbeliever they had ever known had ever been? And then will they live together forever blissfully even though their happy family tress are missing so many links in the generational chains, but no one notices or bothers to comment or pay any mind to their whereabouts? Or are they perfectly well aware of who's missing and where they are and what's happening to them, but their bliss will be impenetrable to such concerns? Or are they simply assuming that the night is young and that we'll all get saved eventually - except, maybe, for just a few lowest of the lows? Or do they simply think it's all part of The Plan and try not to think about it, meditating on how much better it is to "lean not on your own understanding"? I honestly don't know how a believer could take the thought experiment of Heaven and Hell seriously and get out with their faith intact, if they go through the trouble of thinking of people they actually know and claim to care about in the scenarios, both the tortured grimaces of the damned, and the radiant smiles of the Chosen whose bliss can't and won't ever be punctured by anything that goes on downstairs.

I'm well aware that millions of minds can't and won't be changed on this matter, and I don't expect to have much of an impact. Just don't remind me, and especially don't dress it up as if it were nothing more than a friendly gesture. I can't take it as such; at most, I can try to be polite on the outside, if I'm feeling unusually charitable. All that you can hope to accomplish by reminding me of all of this is to aggravate my pessimism about humanity.

I can't be alone in feeling this way. Some atheists might honestly not be bothered it at all; I do not know to what extent that's really true, and to what extent that is just appearance. But I am bothered by it every time, and for good reason. Such comments will not be approved here.

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