Tanya Luhrmann recommends prayer for atheists

August 4, 2013 • 8:59 am

Shades of Alain de Botton!  First we’re told, as atheists, that we need churches; now Tanya Luhrmann, in a post today’s New York Times, “Addicted to prayer“, tells us that atheists need prayers, too. And she’s not just talking about the physical and mental benefits of meditation: she suggests invoking an imaginary, non-existent God to whom we should pray.

We’ve met Luhrmann before. She’s currently the darling of the “atheist-but” crowd after her recent book, When God Talks Back, about an evangelic Christian sect, became a best seller (see my reviews here and here).   Since then, Luhrmann’s been writing op-ed pieces showing the benefits of faith, even though her own religious beliefs remain obscure. (See here and here for two of her pieces.)  Funded by Templeton for her work on the book, her activities are turning her into a latter-day Elaine Ecklund and a staple of the liberal faitheist media. Here are some bits from her column.

As evidence accumulates about the many health benefits of religious practice, prayer is looking better and better. Some atheists have even gone public with their own prayer-for-health’s-sake practice.

Take Sigfried Gold, the subject of a recent article in The Washington Post. He’s a thoughtful, articulate man who lives in Takoma Park, Md., and turned 50 yesterday. He is passionate about philosophy and long ago decided that there was no stuff in the universe that was not physical — no supernatural, no divine.

But he also smoked too much, and more than anything else he ate too much. He was worried that his weight — a good 100 pounds of excess fat — would kill him. So he joined a 12-step program to control his food addiction. One of the steps is to turn your problem over to a higher power. So Mr. Gold created a god he doesn’t believe exists: a large African-American lesbian with an Afro that reached the edges of the universe. (Those who find this ridiculous, if not offensive, should read “The Shack,” by William P. Young, in which the Holy Trinity is a black housekeeper, a Hebrew handyman and a mystical Asian gardener with windblown hair. “The Shack” was a runaway New York Times best seller.)

Every day Mr. Gold dropped to his knees to pray, and every day he spent 30 minutes in meditative quiet time. These days Mr. Gold, who calls himself a “born-again atheist,” doesn’t smoke. He doesn’t drink. And, at 5 feet 7 inches, he weighs 150 pounds.

So is there a downside? Should we all drop to our knees and pray? In general, I have to admit I’m impressed with the evidence.

To be sure, Luhrmann then admits that there’s a “downside” to prayer addiction, be it spiritual or atheistic.  She claims to have seen evangelical Christians addicted to prayer almost to the point of insanity. Her secular equivalent is the game “World of Warcraft”, which for some reason she sees as an activity analogous to prayer:

The anthropologist Jeffrey G. Snodgrass and his colleagues set out to study this complex social world. They found people who were relaxed and soothed by their play: “Sometimes I just log on late at night and go out by myself and listen to the soothing music.” Others felt addicted: “Once I start playing it’s hard to tell whether or not I’ll have the willpower to stop.”

What made the difference was whether people found their primary sense of self inside the game or in the world. When play seemed more important than the real world did, they felt addicted; when it enhanced their experience of reality outside the game, they felt soothed.

Prayer works in similar ways. When people use prayer to enhance their real-word selves, they feel good. When it disconnects them from the everyday, as it did for the student, they feel bad.

The imagination is a double-edged sword. It is, from a secular perspective, at the heart of what makes Mr. Gold’s god sufficiently real that he treats it as more than himself. But the capacity to make something real is not the same as the capacity to make it good or useful. That’s a caveat to bear in mind for any kind of prayerful life.

What, exactly, is “sufficiently real”? Is that something like Santa Claus? How can something in which you don’t believe be “sufficiently real”? At best it can be “imaginary but efficacious.”  Well, whatever floats your boat. If believing in an African-American lesbian God can help you stop smoking, fine. Just don’t ask us to believe in it, too.  In fact, I find it disturbing that people can actually create something “sufficiently real” that is as ludicrous as Gold’s God. How does that work? And how does Luhrmann know that it wasn’t just the meditation itself, not the black lesbian God, that helped him stop smoking.  And she’s “impressed with the evidence” for the power of secular prayer. What, exactly, is that evidence?

But what’s more disturbing is Luhrmann’s slight and superficial message, which is basically just her take on prayer, lacking any kind of scientific or statistical analysis (she’s an anthropologist at Stanford).  Her message is simply this: “go ahead and pray, even if you’re an atheist, but don’t get too into it.”  Is that really worthy of a column in the New York Times?

Well, the Times, like most liberal media, shows a disturbing respect for religion these days.  But even that paper is supposed to have journalistic standards. Luhrmann’s piece says exactly nothing. It’s as if she wrote a Times piece on how eating donuts can make you feel good—but don’t eat too many or you’ll get addicted. But the difference between donuts and God is that donuts exist.


Professor Ceiling Cat’s Unholy Trio of Famous Female “Believers in Belief”

Tanya Luhrmann
Elaine Ecklund
Krista Tippett

79 thoughts on “Tanya Luhrmann recommends prayer for atheists

  1. The stress of pursuing a regimen of prayer would cause so much stress in my life I’m confident it would send me to an early grave.

    I think this underscores the relativism of the possible good of prayer. If one is predisposed, either genetically or because of one’s life experiences, to think that prayer can help, then it may help.

    To me, this says that if we had a world in which religion and other supernatural stuff was marginalized, then very few if any people would ever find any benefit to prayer.

    One might argue that, if this is all the case, then accepting prayer as a viable form of therapy (which is all it can really be, at best) in the short term, is a legitimate position to take, even if one otherwise works to eliminate superstition from society in the long term.

    I would disagree, though. By accepting prayer, one would directly undermine the longer term goal. I see it as a contradiction.

  2. It looks like another case of “whatever makes you feel good”.

    I sometimes meditate….or as I call it, relax with my eyes closed.

      1. Hehe, spot on. The trick is not to over do it and end up falling asleep.

        I suck at it. 🙂

        1. “whatever makes you feel good”.

          I find falling asleep makes me feel good, and is very relaxing, particularly after lunch.

      2. A little like gaining the power of flight – you just have to throw yourself at at the ground and miss, but not intentionally. Arthur Dent only managed the feat when he was distracted while falling.

  3. When I have difficulties, my Christian friends invariably say that they are praying for me. I now specifically ask them not to pray but to spend the time thinking of something which they might do to help. (I have found that this is a very unpopular request).

    Shall I now find that my atheist friends are starting to pray for me?

      1. I hadn’t thought to ask that. What do they say? I imagine it is something rather vague like that you will find God’s will for your situation.

        Anyway – good idea. I am going to start to do that too.

      2. Sometimes I quote Ambrose Bierce (thus, leaving me out of the equation)

        “As Ambrose Bierce defined it: Prayer: the unworthy requesting the impossible”.

        (I think I’m paraphrasing, but this is the version that seems to work.)

    1. “something which they might do to help”
      Well, this demands effort and so is stressful while praying according to Luhrmann isn’t.

  4. If you read the comments section in the Times, very few people are buying her crap. I especially like: “I cannot imagine praying to an entity who supposedly knows what my needs are but simply want’s to hear me beg!”

    1. That is an excellent comment. Someone else, elsewhere (Bill Maher?) said that prayer is tantamount to telling god that he’s missed something…”Hey, over here..!” when in fact, god is supposed to know all, see all.

      1. Can’t remember who said it, but that reminds me of the quote about how God knows everything about your problems, but he only bothers to do anything about them if you nag him enough.

        1. There was a funny @TheTweetofGod that said something like, “I hear your prayers, I just don’t care”.

            1. Can you imagine hanging out with someone like that in real life?

              You’re in a jam. You yell to your best friend for help.

              Instead of replying, “I’ll be right there” or “I can’t right now because, but as soon as I can, I’ll jump in,” your “best friend” says, “I could help you, but I’m not going to.” And, not only that, but, “I expect you to proclaim my wonderfulness to everyone else anyway, and still be loyal to me, and to kiss my ass.”

              Seriously, how long would you hang around with someone like that? L

  5. “He awoke. He was alive. He wasted no time on prayer or thanks but continued the business of survival.” (Alfred Bester, The Stars My Destination chapter 1)

    1. Now I know the origin of the name “Bester” in Babylon 5! (which is also the name of my Hard Drive – because it always knows when I need it not to crash)

  6. I believe that Luhrmann’s piece was most likely selected for publication in order to give the trolls of this country an opportunity to “find” more crappy evidence to support their ludicrous, mind-numbing claims.

    My local newspaper, in fact, does the same thing. What they’re most interested in is finding more readers and selling more papers. Appealing to mental trolls as a means of accomplishing those objectives is a no-brainer for them.

    My local-yokel newspaper pulls the same crap every freakin’ day. It’s just exasperating.

  7. Atheist prayer? Is that anything like saying fake it until you make it, or more like fake it, you still ain’t gonna make it.

    I use to pray to the Ocean, all I got back was wet.

  8. When I walk around Torquay late at night or early in the morning the unusual people really stand out, they talk to the seagulls, to themselves, sometimes to me. Too many people judge them as crazy, but they always have a smile on their face, something interesting is going on in their minds. Is Luhrmann asking us to be openly and willingly delusional? Crazy people are much happier, thinking through problems and finding rational solutions is too difficult. Having imaginary friends is not just for children.
    I’m going to pretend I’m a manatee and talk to my turtle friends about this.

  9. It shouldn’t be hard to grasp – if you don’t believe in magic you never feel compelled to appeal to magical beings to solve your problems.

    As for life’s stresses, some of us talk things over with people we respect, study the problem at hand to try to come up with a solution, or take time off from stress by reading a good book, spending time with family, going to a show, etc.

    Yes, I can see why this would have less appeal than prayer since it requires active participation on our part. Far easier to pray for deliverance.

  10. “But the difference between donuts and God is that donuts exist.”

    And a donut will never, ever smite you!

    Luhrmann seems to play it pretty fast and loose with what constitutes evidence. I guess at Cambridge “evidence” & “anecdote” are synonyms.

    Her story about the demon hunting girl was interesting. A real-life Buffy who thought about how other people saw her: “you really do wonder whether you are crazy.” That would be “yes”. Yes, you may be crazy. The good thing is, there are lots of treatments out there. Stop hanging around priests and go see a medical doctor.

      1. Yeah but that’s just you using the donut as an instrument of smite. The donut itself is neutral even if it does look all happy and sunny 🙂

  11. I agree that Luhrmann’s approach and anyone who takes a similar tact understands the marketing benefits of having a large mostly under-educated audience that want, need rather, to read something that validates their existing preconceptions.

    I find most atheists to be well versed in the history, doctrine, and practice of many religions and, those of us who write a lot, could produce such nonsense. Any one of us could get rich doing so at the cost of our convictions and possibly our sanity, but I believe it would be possible and not terribly difficult.

    For me, I disagree with de Botton and Luhrmann’s ideas that we have anything positive to learn from the historical practice of religion.

    Empirically, Historically, and Socially, religion has shown what kind of impact it has on individuals and societies. I don’t care if a god did exist, I would still reject these things.

    Knowledge is gained and grown overtime, not inspired or reveled through prayer. If someone needs a mental break, I recommend reading a book. In the spirit of Carl Sagan and Will Hunting from ‘Good Will Hunting’, “its not how many books you read, it matters more what books you read.”

    I have participated in some local atheists groups, and mostly, people sit and make fun of religious practice and doctrine. As fun as that is, it is not necessarily enlightening or productive.

    Sorry, this got pretty long for a comment, but the article and subsequent comments inspired me to respond.

  12. This woman reminds me of another S.E. Cupp. An Atheist in disguise. Says she’s an Atheist. But promotes religion. A contradictory in terms.

  13. < As evidence accumulates about the many health benefits of religious practice, prayer is looking better and better.

    Steven Novella talked about a Cochrane Review here:

    The Review's conclusion:
    These findings are equivocal and, although some of the results of individual studies suggest a positive effect of intercessory prayer,the majority do not and the evidence does not support a recommendation either in favour or against the use of intercessory prayer. We are not convinced that further trials of this intervention should be undertaken and would prefer to see any resources available for such a trial used to investigate other questions in health care.

  14. Something’s missing from this story. Gold did not lose 100 pounds of excess fat by praying to an imaginary goddess. There must have been some other sort of activity involved.

    So why doesn’t this other activity get any credit for improving his health and helping him to quit smoking? Why is it all down to prayer?

  15. When I quit smoking, I imagined something in order to help discipline myself. It occurred to me one day, when I was trying to quit and I was struggling with a very strong desire to smoke, that the desire felt kind of like an uncontrollable alien or parasitic invasion of my body, something with a will of its own in my lungs. So I somehow hit on the idea of visualizing the desire as an enemy different from my body. Rather than thinking “I want a smoke”, I thought “it is trying to make me smoke”. And it worked. I quit in 1992.

    So yes, visualization was helpful as an aid to reign in my desires, as a tool that enabled my long term rational self-interest to gain more control over my short term sensual desires. The short term desires have a way of winning that tells you “oh, it’s only once” or “just a little couldn’t hurt”. Of course this logic becomes cumulative over time.

    So there is no need to engage in something called “prayer”. There is no reason we can’t use our imaginations to visualize helpers or aids or otherwise to train our minds. And we certainly don’t need to believe that a being outside of or beyond ourselves is zapping us with magic rays. We could choose to pretend that, but under no circumstances should we be tempted to think it is actually true.

  16. Mr Gold’s experience “proves” that imaginary gods work as well as real gods, an outcome which is scarcely encouraging to believers in the one true god.

        1. How dare you! Zeus will destroy those that oppose His will!

          I’ve got 5 quid riding on Him so be bloody well better deliver.

    1. So his imaginary goddess was a large african-american lesbian with a huge Afro? Well, if she was good-looking enough I might adopt her too. Gotta be more worship-worthy than some old geezer on a cloud.

      Reminds me of an old joke, what’s the worst thing you can tell a Klansman about God?
      A: She’s black.

  17. When God Talks Back sounds like the title of a parenting guide for the mother of a teenage deity.

    1. (With apologies to Bill Cosby) When God talks back you say: “People brought you into this world, and they can take you out”.

  18. “They found people who were relaxed and soothed”
    That’s exactly why I’m listening right now to Ritchie Blackmore and Ronnie James Dio performing Mistreated live in Munich 1977. And my knees won’t get hurt.

  19. Luhrmann is in the grand tradition of liberal religious apologists who for some reason — aesthetics, nostalgia, family ties or whatever — feel the need to try and lend some kind of intellectual respectability to religious nonsense. And what usually emerges, not surprisingly is obscurantist, incoherent blather. From Luhrmann’s description, Gold doesn’t actually believe his made-up God exists, but the act of praying to this God he doesn’t believe in somehow helps him control his food addiction. So his prayer is actually nothing more than a weird, but supposedly therapeutic, exercise in self-deception. But instead of saying this clearly, Luhrmann insinuates that Gold’s God is in some sense “real” beyond being a product of his imagination.

    1. BTW, Luhrmann links to a NY Times “Room for Debate” piece about whether atheists should pray. The contribution from Rev. Dr. Joy Moore is an excellent example of nonsensical religious apologetics from the other side. I had to laugh at Moore’s academic title — Assistant Professor of Preaching. That’s a new one to me.

  20. There was a piece at Catholic Herald on the pope saying prayers for the Italian bus crash. I couldn’t resist leaving a comment:

    Why pray? If this “god” you speak of has a plan, obviously this tragedy was part of it.

    I later added this:

    It should be clear to any reader of The Catholic Herald that this make-believe activity called “prayer” doesn’t work. Perhaps it makes believers feel better (in the same way meditation would), but prayer doesn’t actually affect the external world. Not only is it ineffective, it is also a very narcissistic practice. After all, why would this god you speak of change his “divine plan” to accommodate any person’s wishes? Oh, and the next time you say a prayer, think of an innocent child somewhere in the world who has died of cancer during that moment. God’s plan? Well, it’s a pretty cruel plan if you ask me.

    For all this I was chastised for not being “honest” about my initial question. Funny.

    1. For all this I was chastised for not being “honest” about my initial question. Funny.

      I’d take it as an indication of honesty being frowned upon.

      Don’t imply big santa ain’t real or too busy to care, ’cause that’s just too real for comfort.

  21. Ms.Luhrmann should write about all the prayers that had no or bad results. How about every deceased or sick person who prayed or was prayed for who died anyway. What good did prayer do for them except for a placebo effect.
    Atheists and agnostics face death bravely without prayers by having a honest belief of their place in nature.

    1. Atheists and agnostics face death bravely without prayers by having a honest belief of their place in nature.

      Thank you. That made me feel particularly brave today. 🙂

  22. Why go to the trouble of inventing your own imaginary god? If you want an imaginary god, why not just go for the already-invented and familiar Christian one. After all, better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know.

  23. T. M. Luhrmann has become the Times‘s “answer” to Andrew Brown: a source of poorly-reasoned twaddle that generates lots of page views. Here, she recklesly or deliberately misrepresents the frequency of prayer (distinct from meditation) among self-described atheists. I submitted the following comment, which is apparently still in moderation:

    I am disappointed that Prof. Luhrmann did not mention the dozens of American parents who, in the last decade, relied on prayer alone and caused the needless deaths of their young children from easily treatable medical conditions. That is what I call really being “put at risk” by “imaginative immersion” in prayer.

    Instead, Prof. Luhrmann devotes a long paragraph to World of Warcraft players. A convenient non sequitur or detour, I guess, for an anthropologist whose “gig” here is to consistently praise the feelgood, positive, group-identity aspects of wishful thinking and self-deception.

    Prof. Luhrmann claims that “some atheists” have gone public about their prayer and its health benefits. She cites one example. She links to a Times article about atheist and former Pentecostal preacher Jerry DeWitt, who leads “secular services,” but that article does not mention “prayer” and does not say that participants in these services pray.

    The Washington Post article about Sigfried Gold asserts that 6 percent of self-described atheists “pray” but doesn’t say what they mean by “prayer” or whether it involves a higher power. The 6-percent figure apparently comes from a table on p. 52 of the Pew Research Center’s October 2012 report (http://www.pewforum.org/files/2012/10/NonesOnTheRise-full.pdf), which lumps agnostics and atheists together. The same table says that 82 percent of the nonbelievers in this group “seldom or never” pray.

  24. I’m not sure I could get a civil, fair hearing here, but if you’d like to know how my ludicrous, made up god actually works, you could try asking me rather than simply assuming that I’m deluded.

    1. I’d hope we would at least be civil. And since the article also says you don’t actually believe your made-up god exists, then (assuming it is correct on that point) I don’t think we could say you’re deluded.

      I’d be intrigued to know how it works for you. (Which is not to say it would work identically for anyone else).

    2. I think people understand how belief works, even if that which is believed is not true. And all humans understand how self-deception works, when one part of our brain wants to prevent another part of our brain from defeating some goal.

      Certainly belief in deities and religious ritual and prayer is one way to effect such psychological techniques of self-regulation. But anyone who thinks that the symbols, concepts, and vocabulary of religion is necessary to apply such techniques has confused form with function. The form doesn’t matter so long as the right psychological functions are triggered. Which is why people think religion “works” to some extent, even though they are wrong in their supernatural conceptions of how it “works”, and also it’s why we don’t need religion. It may be sufficient to some purposes, but it is absolutely not necessary, those same purposes having any number of non-religious means of being met.

      1. In the same way as you personified / demonised your smoking habit when trying to give up, Jeff? (See, we do read your posts ; )

        Not being snarky there, I think we all have a tendency to personalise/anthropomorphise things (for me, my cars all have personalities) and if we can use that tendency to persuade ourselves into doing something difficult, then it’s a win.

        It requires a certain judicious amount of ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ (yes, exactly the phrase my English teacher used about appreciating a novel), it only gets detrimental if we start to believe it’s true.

        1. I don’t see how this could be snarky. It sounds like we agree. What I’m saying here is exactly what I was talking about in my post about quitting smoking. We all know we can psyche ourselves out, that various psychological tools can help us overcome weaknesses in our own will power, weakness that is just a symptom of the fact that our will is not free as we would like it to be. We can’t will ourselves to be as we wish, but if we work at it we can gradually train ourselves to be better, thanks not to free will but to learning and plasticity.

          Meditation, prayer, or self-hypnosis never have related to contact with anything outside ourselves, and have everything to do with exploring the properties of our own brains.

          My comment is just to point out that religious belief and prayer is nothing more than this, is only one of many many ways to try to exercise control over the brain, and has absolutely nothing to do with any powers beyond our own brain, except to the extent that social reinforcement helps.

          Another way to say it is that every religious believer that ever lived has really lived in the atheist world of reality, but just didn’t realize it. But still their prayers helped them in some way to help themselves by reinforcing their own inner resources, even if they never once succeeded in reaching or inviting the intercession of any deity. So it’s not quite fair to say that prayer is useless. It just has no effect in the way its practitioners think, and depending on how it is structured, could have more or less psychological impact on the self.

          1. We do indeed agree. (My comment about snarky was just ‘cos I’m aware of how remarks can be misread on the Intertoobs).

            Certainly if Gold’s ‘prayers’ were akin to meditation and it helped him to visualise his ‘god’ listening – and she’s certainly more attractive than the Flying Spaghetti Monster – I can see how that would work.

            I’m still a little curious about how Sigfried Gold actually does it.

            I could see another advantage of having my own personal god – that the god is going to be compatible with my worldview, and no priests are going to come along and tell me what my god orders me to do. (Not that I have one, I hasten to add, but trying to write that sentence with the impersonal ‘one’ instead of ‘me’ got hopelessly convoluted).

            (As an aside, my wife, who does believe, seems to have adopted that approach de facto – she gives Jesus his orders for the day every morning, but she never goes to church because the preacher always gets it wrong ; )

            1. If you click on his name (#31 above) you will find his website with perhaps everything you want to know and then some…

              1. I did that. I read his short description.

                He has found a religiously-based program that helped him lose 110 pounds – which is impressive. And the way it works is using belief in a higher power as a psychological crutch. He’s trying to keep the benefits of that without adopting full-on religion.
                His method is certainly … unconventional. But if it works for him in his circumstances I can’t criticise that.

  25. Infiniteimprobabilti wrote:

    His method is certainly … unconventional. But if it works for him in his circumstances I can’t criticise that.

    One possible criticism is that he goes too far with the religious metaphors. Inventing a higher power is an abstraction that can give a person the feeling they are not alone and have help with their troubles. Because we are social beings who seek approval and avoid disapproval, this higher power is kind of an ever present praising/shaming mechanism to regulate our behavior, as if we are always being watched by a parent or loved one. But a similar effect might be achieved by imaging one’s ancestors are watching, in which case no higher or greater power is needed, just the omnipresent view of family authorities. The higher power is in a sense overkill.

    One possible danger is to attribute too much power to the imaginary deity. One could start to believe too earnestly. This could lead to overconfidence and error, possibly harmful ones. Unless one retains the habit of saying no to one’s deity, then because the deity is entirely self-created, without review by friends, family, or more knowledgable authorities, it is possible that the attributes of the self-created deity, its desires, goals, etc. might contain the seeds of personal desires that are not constructive, or even destructive, so the deity could end up providing reinforcement that trumps societal feedback, leading to some unchecked bad behaviors. This happens with religious people at times, when they begin to identify god’s will as reinforcing their own selfish desires.

    Another danger is that one is in effect exporting one’s good desires to a proxy you trust to be uncompromising in rewarding positive behaviors and punishing or criticizing bad. Paradoxically, even though the “deity” is one’s own creation, it could create a kind of dependency, a deferring of one’s will to an other, which could weaken the personal will. Our will is dependent on how our brain is structured, but we can exercise and strengthen it through the learning process, which involves the dopamine pleasure response triggering new neural connections to strengthen the goal fulfilling behavior. So there are gradual physical changes to the brain over time, just as with muscles that are exercised. If we are only strengthening our obedience to the deity, but not strengthening our sense of personal will and autonomy, it means that to the extent we have formed the habit of believing the deity has fixed goals beyond our control, we have potentially weakened our ability to adapt and grow.

    For example, in my case of quitting smoking, the only thing I visualized as separate from myself was the negative desire to engage in the objectively unhealthy act of smoking. And it was the fact that I envisioned it as foreign, like an intrusive parasite, something to be defeated, rather than accepting smoking as part of my own desire/pleasure/reward mechanism, that enabled me to resist it. So the strength and discipline was mine, the weakness was exported and slowly denied reality until it disappeared completely. And I was left with the strong will to resist any smoking temptation, and in fact I was left without the desire to smoke, so temptation didn’t even exist any more. Otherwise, if I had exported my will to good behavior to an imaginary deity, I could have been left with a perpetual dependence on the deity.

    So I don’t think all visualization or meditation techniques are equal. Mine was temporary, focused on one goal, and exported the negative rather than the positive desires.

    Another thing I saw on Gold’s site I didn’t like was his discussion of events happening for a reason. He retains this idea that the universe has a will or wants, and that this explains events that otherwise seem to have no purpose. He gives the example of nearly being struck by a car. The atheist, he contends, merely sees this as a random event, a chunk of metal hurtling through space on a course to kill you for no reason, and since there is no reason, no lesson can be learned. If you see events as happening for a reason, as the religious do, i.e. that a deity has planned events independent of what you or the driver has in mind in order to fulfill some purposeful destiny, then you can feel grateful when you are nearly struck by the car because you infer that the loving deity was giving a gift by teaching you to look both ways before crossing. I hope the absurdity of this example is clear, but I will spell out some of what is wrong in more detail.

    The atheist is not consigned to a meaningless world where terrifying objects threaten to kill you with no reason or explanation. Rather, the atheist takes responsibility for learning and understanding the actual reasons behind things by rationally discovering the cause and effect relationships behind events. In the car example, the atheist understands (as do most adults) that what is happening is the driver is operating the vehicle according to his or her wants, and that you are crossing the road for your own independent personal reasons, and the two physical events just happen by coincidence to be heading for a collision at the same time and space. And the solution is easy within the rational framework, as both parties need merely adopt very simple collision avoidance tactics, which our brain allows us to do quite easily. There is absolutely no rational need to assign some elaborate divine plan and pedagogical purpose to such a simple event.

    The religious mode of discerning higher purpose in things can help one at times of terrible tragedy, because saying “the tornado that destroyed my house was god’s will” encourages an acceptance, a stoical response of not dwelling on the tragedy, but moving forward positively and constructively. However, the atheist can arrive at the stoical reaction rationally (as did the actual Stoics) by understanding that there is no benefit in dwelling on events that are entirely beyond your control, and that you can only get on by focusing on those things that are in fact within your control. So again reason provides a simpler and, in my view, superior way of handling tragedies, for it is the religious believer who lives in a frightening universe in which a displeased inscrutable deity can decide at any time to destroy everything for reasons you are powerless to discover. The atheist on the other hand, rather than surrendering responsibility to a deity, takes responsibility to learn and understand means that afford greater and greater control over environmental circumstances, thus gradually reducing the amount of unknown terror that religion has always passively endured by deferring responsibility to God. Of course the religious haven’t hesitated to adopt the advantages of rational discoveries that make life safer, easier, and more predictable, for which they offer misplaced gratitude to God. If left merely to faith and trust in God’s plan, rather than actively engaging in the sin of knowledge and exploring the facts of nature, progress would come more slowly.

    So my impression is that Gold has merely appropriated the trappings of religion without much thought or understanding. He claims to not be interested in money, and even tries to offer some evidence that he has no need of money, yet, as any experienced person could guess where this is heading, he has products on offer at Amazon, for which he insists he is hardly compensated at all. That may be true now, but certainly he must hope that situation can change if he manages to leverage exposure on the Internet into a greatly expanded volume of sales.

    I think Gold is an opportunist who doesn’t have much of value to offer to atheists. But as the apparently growing popularity of Sunday Assembly indicates, there may be atheists, perhaps recent converts, who feel the need for religion-like community activities, and perhaps Gold will manage to tap into a market of unmet need. I hope not though, not because I have anything against Gold, but because I think he is catering to weakness, and pushing ideas that perpetuate weakness, regardless of how well meaning he may be.

    1. I’m more cynical than you. I concur with two of the words in your last graf, “opportunist” and “market.” The most charitable motive I could see would be simply a need for attention. I wondered whether Luhrmann found him or he her.

      IMO, everyone wants their 15 minutes these days, and nearly everyone wants a book deal.

      I have been called “more cynical than it’s healthy to be,” though.

  26. I have to say that the quality of the conversation here is quite a bit higher than what I’ve seen in response to my story elsewhere. Thank you for that. I haven’t read all the comments closely but would like to respond to a few.

    To Diane G: your cynicism is perfectly justified. I’ve got a book to sell. I prefer not to consider myself an opportunist. I’ve got 2 small kids and support my family with a job (that I love) that pays considerably more than I could ever expect to make from a book, but I am going to try. I believe I’ve got something to offer that could help people. And I love thinking about this stuff. My 8-year-old son put it this way: “I don’t think you’ll be content until you have a big accomplishment.” I’m motivated by desire to be recognized as an admirable person with original ideas. In order to achieve that desire, I am willing to suffer financially, which is the likely outcome at this point. (I have still not made a single cent on the Amazon links on my site, by the way. In fact, I’m guessing most of my web traffic in the last week came from you guys here.)

    To infiniteimprobabilit: I have no expectation that my approach would work for others. The reason I think it’s useful to tell my story is not because I think others will or should emulate what I’ve done, but because I think it’s a striking example of spiritual creativity that might inspire others to be spiritually creative in their own ways.

    Jeff Johnson has clearly experimented in similar ways and has clearly thought deeply about how it works. It would be nice if he recognized that I have also thought deeply about it. I don’t think he quite understood my “everything happens for a reason” article, but the fault for that may well be in the writing. I tried to tackle the same issue in this article: http://spiritualnaturalistsociety.org/testing-a-naturalists-faith/, but possibly with no more success. I’m convinced that my ideas about atheist soothsaying — interpreting objectively meaningless events in the universe as if they had an intentional and positive meaning — are worthwhile, but I don’t think I’ve succeeded yet in describing them effectively.

  27. Oh, and to Jeff Johnson’s comment that I don’t have much to offer to atheists: I may be coming around to the same opinion myself. I’ve been interested in atheists for two reasons: 1) because I consider myself one; and 2) because I seem to piss a lot of them off and I thought maybe I could get that book contract I so desperately want by provoking some controversy. But the people who seem to be able to actually benefit from what I have to say don’t seem to be atheists at all. They’re people who may be agnostics or believers or mild atheists, but who are definitely interested in spirituality in some way, but don’t feel comfortable in the spiritual communities they’ve tried. I think the value of what I have to offer them goes something like this: “Look, you’re not sure if you believe or not. You’d like to join some spiritual community, but can’t quite buy all they’re telling you to believe. Well, I’m a complete atheist and I’ve managed to enjoy all the benefits of a very religious 12-Step program by doing everything they told me to do: pray, ask for guidance, etc. So, if some community has something you want, there may be a way of approaching it that will work for you.”

    This message has genuinely seemed to help a number of people I’ve shared it with. But there’s probably no point sharing it with committed atheists, because they aren’t struggling with this problem that I struggled with of needing a spiritual community but not being able to believe what seemed to be required.

    1. That analysis makes sense to me. I suspect you would find a ready market in just the demographic you discuss–the atheist-but-spiritual crowd. (And you’re quite right that that doesn’t describe us.)

      Thanks to you, as well, for your non-inflammatory posting style.

  28. Oh, one more thing about how I do it and the question of whether my God “orders” me to do anything: no, She doesn’t. I imagine Her and pray to Her, but the strongest response I ever get is a feeling of peace or a little twinge of conscience. I want to address Jeff’s point about assigning my better impulses to a non-self part of myself, but I don’t have time right now.

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