Sunday, February 03, 2008


God, the micromanager

The church that I pass on the way to work, the one with the marquee-style sign, has recently set its sign to the first cutesy message for the new year:


I think they’re reusing them; I’m sure I’ve seen that one before.

And it reminds me of one of the two hardest things for me to swallow about religion: the idea that God listens to and answers your prayers.

I get the need to explain the unknown. I don’t really get the need to make up fanciful stories to do so, but I suppose I see why people do it. And so maybe the Great Bear kicked a giant snowball into the sky, and it became the sun. Maybe Apollo pulls the sun across the sky on his chariot. Maybe there was a great warrior who became the sun when he died. Maybe God created the sun on the first day. They can all make for good folk tales, and they all are, except for the Great Bear and the snowball, which I just made up now.

But the idea that the all powerful, all knowing, all seeing, all singing, all dancing creator of all this wonder around us... the idea that such a being would be hanging about taking care of the day-to-day minutiae of it all is rather silly. The idea that such a being will intercede in deciding which team wins a football game this afternoon (because, admit it, if you’re an American who prays, that’s one of the things you’re praying for today, isn’t it?) is silly. The idea that the wondrous omnipotent creator is listening to Barry, and will tweak things to suit me just ’cause I ask him to is silly.

To the extent that prayer is comforting, it’s a fine thing. To the extent that a positive attitude helps one through life and helps heal one in times of illness, it’s a fine thing.

But if there be a God, he/she/it is not a micromanager. God would have set things up to be completely automated, and long, long ago would have gone off creating other universes somewhere where we can’t imagine. God didn’t even leave a receptionist. There’s no one sitting around answering knee mail, and it’s amazingly vain to think that there is.


Thomas J. Brown said...

Not only are churches reusing their reader sign puns, but I can swear that I've seen the same one on several different churches. Is there some booklet of these that gets sent out? Is there a newsletter of awful puns for which churches can sign up? Or are they all so unoriginal that they just keep driving by other churches and ripping each other off?

I read a great article about how praying for heart patients actually hurt them instead of helping them.

Barry Leiba said...

When I've mentioned this sign before, either Maggie or James (I forget which) speculated that there's some kind of booklet or newsletter, because they've seen some of the same sayings (another popular one is about coming in for a "faith lift").

lidija said...

For an atheist, you're very opinionated about god :)

Barry Leiba said...

Can't really help it, what with all the exposure the non-atheists are giving it. I think of this as sort of my "Sunday Sermonette".

Jim Fenton said...

Could the same comment be made about writing a letter to one's congressperson? Rarely does a single letter cause great things to happen, but a mailbag full of them sometimes does. If one believes in a deity that doesn't (or can't) micromanage, one might believe that prayer (or rather, many prayers) work in a similar way.

I'm often amused by prayers that seem superficial, like prayers for a certain team to win. But it's their prayer, not mine. On NPR this morning, a nun who is a football fan said that when she prays for her team, she prays that everyone will play their best. I agree that's a lot more meaningful prayer.

A Google search for "knee mail" is definitely worth a try. You can even get a free kneemail account from!

Barry Leiba said...

Thanks, Jim... that's why I post this stuff: discussion is good.

And yes, that's a lot of it for me: while I don't believe in any prayer (because I don't believe in any god), conceptually it's the individual prayer and the trivial prayer that I find the most puzzling. The idea that collective prayer might be valuable makes rather more sense.

And I like the nun who prays for a good game, rather than for a good outcome., I love it! One can find anything on the Internet, eh?

lidija said...

Prayer is an activity I can understand and relate to very well. For a non-religious person, I pray a lot. That is, sometimes, when I have no control over a situation, I sit, and think "Please, let there be this or that." Not - Please, somebody - just - Please. It's quite natural, I think. Praying to god for a game outcome may feel extremely formal and far-fetched to us, the non-believers, but not to those who think god is with them all the time. Well, believing in god just may feel funny to us, just like worshiping extra-terrestrials does to Christians. But there is nothing funny about fervently wishing for a certain outcome.

So... (with my eyes closed)... please, please, please... let it be Hillary.

Thomas J. Brown said...

Sunday Sermonette? That sounds a bit like my own Secular Sunday, which I really should do more frequently. I just need to stop being such a procrastinator.

Also, less than an hour after reading this entry, my wife and I went to the grocery store, where I saw this while in line at the check stand.

A sign from God? -)

Barry Leiba said...

Hm, Deus ex Archie...
What a concept!

Maggie said...

Well, as you know, I loves me an atheism post.

Usually I see those signs and I groan, occasionally I chuckle, and sometimes I'm appalled by the values reflected, or saddened. It was either James or I (sometimes we're interchangeable) who pointed out that there are books of clever sayings for your church sign. I'm pretty sure if you searched on Amazon you'd find them.

I'm amazed that people think prayer makes a difference, since the most horrible things happen here on earth. I know they don't think that people didn't pray for those horrible things not to happen, so why pray? There was a girl at my daughters' elementary school who died of brain cancer. It took a long time. They were Catholic, as most of our area is Catholic. I'm quite certain a lot of people prayed for her life, and for a long time.

Now if we don't understand God, and God has a plan, again, why are we praying? If God made us, and God knows everything, I think he knows how much you care if your child dies of brain cancer. Oh, god, I'm sorry, this is just the stupidest line of thought, and painful to even discuss. But, it's like prayer is a mini sacrifice, I guess. We're too advanced to make a real sacrifice, but it's a little token to let God know what we care about. I don't know. I'm going to move on.

There's no answer that makes any sense to me in the framework of religion.

As far as the other, why people are really praying, yes I think it's obvious. We need desperately to have control. We perceive the future and in some cases we can have an effect on outcomes in the future, so in the cases where we can't, we try something else. It gives us a way not to feel helpless. I myself am not sure what to say in the sort of situations where people say, "I'll pray for you." Obviously that's a social situation where you're not close enough to the person to actually do something material, and yet you have the sort of relationship where the person is in your thoughts. You can say, "I'll keep you in my thoughts," but that probably sounds as useless to them as the prayer thing sounds to me. (In fact, yes, as thomas j. brown mentions, go ahead and pray for me, but please don't tell me, or I might get worse! I love that study, not only because of the outcome, but because the "believers" wanted so fervently to have some scientific evidence. That's some belief, people.)

lidija, I think my prayers are going to cancel out your prayers. At least we can vote. :-) Maybe we can agree on, "please... not the Republican."

Barry Leiba said...

Well, on "I'll pray for you"...

If people say it to me, I thank them. Because what they're really saying is, "I wish you well," and I welcome that[1], whether or not I share the spiritual views of the well-wisher.

If it's a time when I'm "expected" to say it, I say, "You have my best wishes." Nothing more than that is needed, and I've never had anyone object. That's even worked when someone's said, "Will you pray for me?"[2]
[1] Yes, there's always the person who means to pray for you, that you'll see Christ and convert, or some such. I let that roll off, and don't even object to that. In an odd (to me) way, even that is an attempt to wish me well.

[2] Yes, there will be the occasional person who will demand that you agree to "pray", and will accept nothing else. Oh, well. One can't make everyone happy.

Maggie said...

Oh yes, I know what people mean when they say, "I'll pray for you," and I just thank them. Although most people know I'm an atheist now and some of them will even say something like that and then giggle uncomfortably. I'm not sure if they're waiting for me to sprout six heads and eat them, or if they just are uncomfortable about the automatic thing they said to a person who is so incomprehensibly (and sometimes inconveniently) different. :-)

I have to find a thing to say that feels natural to me. Like to my friend, whose mom has ovarian cancer, when her mom takes a bad turn. We're good friends and I've done little favors for her, but it's hard to know what to express. The truth is that we are mostly helpless and there's not much to express except acknowledgment of a friend's suffering.

I've never had anybody demand I pray! What a fascinating idea, that a religious person would insist on an atheist praying with them.