Around that time, I had started noticing the puzzling logic of petitionary prayer. What was the theory of God behind prayer websites, for example: that God is a democratic pol with his finger to the wind of public opinion? Is the idea that if only five people are praying for the recovery of a beloved grandmother from stroke, say, God will brush them off, but that if you can summon five thousand people to plead her case, he will perk up and take notice: “Oh, now I understand, this person’s life is important”? And what if an equally beloved grandmother comes from a family of atheist curs? Since she has no one to pray for her, will God simply look the other way? If someone could explain this to me, I would be very grateful.
I also wondered at the narcissism of believers who credit their good fortune to God. A cancer survivor who claims that God cured him implies that his worthiness is so obvious that God had to act. It never occurs to him to ask what this explanation for his deliverance says about the cancer victim in the hospital bed next to his, who, despite the fervent prayers of her family, died anyway.
As I was pondering whether any of these practices could be reconciled with rationality, the religious gloating of the conservative intelligentsia only grew louder. The onset of the Iraq war expanded the domain of religious triumphalism to transatlantic relations: what makes America superior to Europe, we were told by conservative opinionizers, is its religious faith and its willingness to invade Iraq. George Bush made the connection between religious beliefs and the Iraq war explicit, with his childlike claim that freedom was God’s gift to humanity and that he was delivering that gift himself by invading Iraq.
I need not rehearse here how Bush’s invocation of the divine gift of freedom overlooks the Bible, the persistence throughout history of hierarchical societies that have little use for personal autonomy, and the unique, centuries-long struggle in the West to create the institutions of limited government that underwrite our Western idea of freedom. Suffice it to say, the predictable outcome of the Iraq invasion did not convince me that religious belief was a particularly trustworthy ground for political action. ~Heather Mac Donald
The remarks about prayer and claims of divine healing or grace are stunning to me. These are the kinds of objections college freshmen come up with in their religion classes in the first few weeks before they learn that they don’t know anything. If man is free, prayer must exist. God is always seeking to draw us to Himself, but He does not, would not compel us to draw nigh. Likewise, He is willing to provide for us in many specific instances, but will not do so unless we ask it of Him. There are occasions where God, in His infinite wisdom, will refuse our petition because what we ask for is not what we actually require for our edification and sanctification. There are other occasions when God may approach us unbidden, but it is only through the practice of prayer and the habits of mind and spirit that this practice establishes in us that we are prepared to receive Him.
Imagine, if you will, a man on an island in the middle of a wide and deep river. On the far shore there is a fisherman casting his nets. The fisherman has a boat and has a large catch of fish, and could bring the man food or even take him over to the shore if the man were to ask it of him. The man has no nets and nothing else on the island with which to fish, and he has no other means of sustenance. In the course of time, the man will gradually starve if he does not humble himself and ask for help from the fisherman. If Ms. Mac Donald were there to advise him, she would tell him that he should not say anything to the fisherman. He should not have to ask the fisherman, because he should already know that the man is in need and should provide for him without any word from the man. Perhaps Ms. Mac Donald would be more satisfied if everyone spiritually starved in their own autonomy rather than engage in something so irrational as prayer.
Indeed, it would be even more absurd, according to Ms. Mac Donald, for other people on the shore with the fisherman to ask the fisherman to intercede on behalf of the man. Ms. Mac Donald would interrupt: “What possible difference could that make?” (Of course, the number isn’t really what matters, but the spirit in which the prayer is offered and the purity of the petitioner’s intention.) All that it might take for the fisherman to answer could be one petitioner, but supposing that there were more than just one the fisherman would see the love that these petitions represent and would probably hasten to fulfill the good desire of so many people. Beseeching the fisherman on behalf of the man is part of the fulfillment of the Christian obligation to love one another, and it is at least partly to instill in men love for one another that we are called to offer up prayers for others. On this point, I would borrow an idea from Lewis’ apologetics and frame the question this way: “How much worse might a person’s suffering be without others praying on his behalf? How much better might his condition be because others have prayed for him? ” If the atheists’ grandmother is truly beloved, does Ms. Mac Donald think that this love is in vain? Presumably not, or she would not have brought it up. If it is not in vain, but is indeed truly love, how is it that God will ignore this beloved person, since all love comes from Him and participates in Him? Will Ms. Mac Donald be grateful for this response? I am somehow doubtful.
A cancer survivor would credit his survival to God out of humility and gratitude for having been spared a painful death and shortened life. I literally cannot imagine anyone who gives thanks to God in such a case offering up this praise with the sense that he was saved because he was worthy. In Christianity, at least, the presumption of wretchedness and unworthiness of all of God’s gifts is strong (this is one of those parts of the Faith that really grates on people, especially those who are pretty pleased with themselves and think that they would be worthy of God’s special attention) because of the recognition of two things: man is fallen and sinful and God is nonetheless merciful and does not treat us according to what we deserve. If Thou shouldst mark iniquities, O Lord, O Lord, who shall stand? (Ps. 130:3) As Fr. Rutler once put it simply (I am paraphrasing a little), “The question is not why bad things happen to good people, for the Lord said, There is none good save My Father in heaven. The question, then, is: why do good things happen to bad people?” Secularists and atheists, and probably a few Christians, groan when they hear statements like this, not so much because they find the argument lacking but because they don’t like the implications. The first implication is that we may not ever understand the reasons for why two people suffering from the same disease have entirely different fates. These people don’t like this because it means there are things they will never know, which reminds them of their finitude and limits. The second is that God wills, or in this case permits, different things for different people according to their needs. If one cancer patient lives and another dies, God has provided for both what is most fitting. Does that make such a loss any easier to bear? Often, no, it doesn’t, but it is nonetheless true.
Was religious belief really the ground for Mr. Bush’s War? It certainly suits some people to think so. Nothing would satisfy secular conservatives, who made up the overwhelming majority of the policymakers and pundits who vociferously backed the war, more than to be able to pretend that this war was not the outcome of incompetent policy wonks pushing a senseless conflict based on poor assumptions about human nature, culture, history and politics that have more to do with Ms. Mac Donald’s beloved Enlightenment than with anything found in the Gospel. Secular conservatives would love to be able to pin the war on religious conservatives, many of whom foolishly trusted the President and lent him their support out of a (misguided) sense of patriotism but almost all of whom had no role in the pushing, planning or execution of the war.
This line of criticism is to treat Mr. Bush’s references to God giving the world freedom as the source and foundation of the drive to invade Iraq, when I propose that it was at best some platitudinous religious window dressing for what was an avowedly secular, revolutionary campaign that Mr. Bush justified precisely in terms of bringing the fruits of liberal modernity to the Near East. That his policy instead produced mass theocracy and sectarianism is par for the course, but let us not confuse the undesired results for the goals of the administration. Let us also not confuse the icing of saccharine religiosity for the cake of democratic revolutionarism and projecting U.S. power for what was supposed to be our hegemonic control of the region (that it turned out to advance Iran’s hegemonic control of the region is again par for the course).
Ms. Mac Donald also said:
I need not rehearse here how Bush’s invocation of the divine gift of freedom overlooks the Bible, the persistence throughout history of hierarchical societies that have little use for personal autonomy, and the unique, centuries-long struggle in the West to create the institutions of limited government that underwrite our Western idea of freedom.
No, she need not, because I, benighted Christian that I am, had already said very much the same thing in protest against the foolish, unorthodox and dangerous idea that God bestows political freedom on humanity.