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.
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