The Mormans Try for a Mitzvah

Thanks to everyone who weighed in on last week’s Santa Claus debate.  I was very amused by how many other people had also tried to test Santa’s existence as children.  As always, if you’d like to respond to a Monday Call to Arms in longer form as a guest blogger, please email me at leah (dot) libresco (at) yale (dot) edu.

The debate over whether Christians should pray for Christopher Hitchens in his fight against cancer has been raging across the blogosphere. Prayers seem to fall into two categories: prayers for his recovery from cancer and prayers for his recovery from atheism, and everybody wants to know what atheists make of the whole business.

I had a personal encounter with this question, when I once found out a conservative Christian friend occasionally prayed for me to cease to be bisexual. I was a little discomfited, and joked about getting my more theologically liberal friends to counter-pray to balance out her efforts. Ultimately, of course, I did nothing of the kind, since I don’t believe that prayer does anything.

It makes no sense for atheists to be intimidated by rituals we believe are empty. The ridiculous debaptisms conducted by an atheist provocateur only bolster the other side. You can only profane something you believe to be holy. When atheists embrace blasphemy for the sake of blasphemy, it merely reinforces the idea that whatever we are mocking is something truly powerful.

This is why I remain baffled by the behavior of everyone in what must be one of the most theologically bizarre conflicts of the 20th century: the controversy over Mormons baptizing Holocaust victims in absentia. Do Jews believe the baptisms will take? The only danger seems to be that the Mormon Church’s bizarre practice of baptism by proxy will continue to be held up to ridicule, possibly further damaging Mitt Romney’s 2012 chances. This is a concern for Romney, not the Jews.

Look at it the other way. If a Wiccan friend told me that she planned to put a hex on me, I wouldn’t start stocking up on rock salt and other forms of magical protection. I don’t believe she can make good on her threat, so I don’t need to be worried about the consequences of her magical actions. What does worry me is the attitude that this threat reveals. Whether or not my friend has a connection to the Lord and Lady, it’s clear she has a problem with me that needs to be patched up.

The same goes for concern expressed through prayer. My boyfriend, unsurprisingly, prays for my conversion, as well as strength for me whenever I’m going through tough times. As I would in the Wiccan case above, I take his actions as they are meant– an expression of love.

The only reason I am ever put off by prayer is if it is taken as a substitute for action. Prayers for the poor ought to be coupled with donations to charitable organizations or political advocacy groups pushing for necessary reforms. If prayer is viewed as sufficient in itself, it is an analgesic numbing us to our own ability to act and do good.

Are other atheists in agreement?

How do you react when someone says they will pray for you?

Does a simple ‘thank you’ for their intentions connote tacit approval of their faith?

How should people of all beliefs work to avoid accepting prayer as a substitute for other action?

One final note: for me, the strangest thing about Mormon proxy baptism has always been the way it completely subverts Pascal’s Wager. Mormonism is the one religion you absolutely shouldn’t bet on, since you can always course-correct after death. The whole practice seems demeaning to the practice of Mormonism on Earth. Any thoughts?

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  • I mean, the reason I would be offended if I was a dead Jew being baptized by Mormons is the blatant lack of respect for my religious sovereignty. They're welcome to pray for my soul, but I'd like to stay a Jew until *I* decide otherwise, thanks.*release of Jewish persona*Also, why is "should I pray for a person suffering from a debilitating disease" even a question for Christians? I mean, it's pretty clear: "Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you." That doesn't cease to apply when someone has cancer.I mean, I guess the real question is, when is it okay to disrespect someone else's wishes regarding religion? And the only real answer I have to that is "when Jesus tells me to." Which is good enough for me, for now.

    • In Mormon belief you *do* stay a Jew until you decide otherwise. The proxy baptism doesn’t become effective until the deceased individual accepts it.

  • Anonymous

    I used to be very anti-prayer, almost to the point of going out of my way to point out how useless it was. Of course now that I've started to go to Mass I am rethinking it, sometimes I feel like I can completely reconcile my atheist self with a new Christian self, since the vast majority of my atheism was towards a God it turns out most serious, intellectual religious folks don't believe in anyway… and vice versa.As for the pascal's wager comment it would presuppose that one can both genuinely believe AND cynically take the wager as a hedge against damnation. Although I do agree that I have a hard time seeing why anyone was anti mormon baptism by proxy, since for it to have any power you would have to accept the mormon belief, at which point you would be a mormon!

  • Logan

    I'd actually very much like all religions to act as the Mormans do in this matter. If baptism were all that mattered for salvation, I would like every religion to baptise me as one of their own after my death so that I'd have the best chance. It would be Pascal's on a massive scale.On the whole, though, I agree with your point. If you don't believe in the power of something, than you shouldn't care about it happening.

  • I agree that aspect of the wager is baffling, Anonymous. I think Pascal got around it more of a "Oh Lord, help my unbelief" way, but it's still strange. My favorite takedown of the wager comes from Terry Pratchett's Hogfather:"This is very similar to the suggestion put forward by the Quirmian philosopher Ventre, who said, 'Possibly the gods exist, and possibly they do not. So why not believe in them in any case? If it's all true you'll go to a lovely place when you die, and if it isn't then you've lost nothing, right?' When he died he woke up in a circle of gods holding nasty looking sticks and one of them said, 'We're going to show you what we think of Mr Clever Dick in these parts…'"

  • Part of me hopes prayers don't work to try to get believers to even be open to god not being real. I am still partaking in a Christian couples small group during this time of "questioning" and have been prayed over several time. I have volunteered to be prayed over "just in case I have a demon." I even let a friend and his wife and my wife sing hymns in our living room, pray over me, wash my feet to show me the "real Jesus" (because since I am doubting I must not have experienced the "real" form of Jesus), and then ask me what I wanted to ask god and then provide a response, presumably "in persona Christi."I have little hope that a continued deconversion will shake anyone else's faith as unanswered prayers tend to simply be reinterpreted with ad hoc justifications.I tend to think that "thank you" is simply easier than some other inflammatory remark or the at least avoids an emotion-filled 1 hour debate or hurt feelings.Re. the last question… I don't know many that actually believe in prayer enough to not take action. I hear anecdotal references to parents who pray for healing rather than go to the doc, but the overwhelming majority of experience in my circles suggests that people will serve (say at Feed My Starving Children) and pray that their actions will be used by god to bless others or pray that god works through the doctors/surgeons to heal little Jimmy, etc.

  • Max Silva

    Nice post, I generally agree. I wanted to put a another version of these questions up:My family used to be friends with another family, but they moved to a nearby town and we drifted apart; the only times my mother heard from theirs in the past several years were through one chance meeting, a quick coffee arranged during that chance meeting, and then an invite to a daughter's wedding. We don't feel that close anymore, and it's not that bad because at times their born-again devotion was alienating.In any case, when my mother was having coffee with theirs, she told them I was gay, and although their mother was generally supportive and positive she ended by saying (in a slightly reluctant tone of voice), "Well, you know, in my religion homosexuality is a sin, so I will be praying that Max can work his way past this."On the "take it as it's intended" theory, would this be an insult sufficient to let us feel okay not expending much effort to be close with them? Or can prayer be a way of getting your lip service hours done? Should I be glad that they have chosen a useless method to vent their disapproval, and otherwise act in a pretty respectful manner?

  • Yikes, Max.It’s a good question, and I suspect that it would end up centering on how much of a relationship you had with these people outside of their Christian identity. If you know them only vaguely anyway, I think there’s no reason you should be compelled to seek them out, when you know that you have such a profound and personal disagreement.I think you’re right that this is one of the kinds of cases where private prayer may provide comfort to the Christian friend of a atheist/homosexual/etc. If it serves as a release that allows the two people to have an otherwise friendly and positive relationship, I suppose that’s the best of the available outcomes. Certainly superior to endless badgering.

  • Anonymous

    What an interesting blog. I never understood atheists. I'll be reading more often. One of my favorite blogs that I recently discovered is An ex-atheist who intellectually choose the catholic church and blogs about how it affects her life. She often compares the two views. Perharps, you'll find it interesting also.

  • @Anon: I wouldn't call Conversion Diary a prime example of one who "intellectually chose" Catholicism… did you read her story? She, in essence, respected her grandfather, figured that the great theist scientists must have had proof of god, and summed up most of her conversion causal factors in this:"There was no big "come to Jesus" moment, and even few times that I could say I "felt" that God was there, but it was as if some deep, powerful magnet had been activated within me that began pulling me in one direction"This is followed by saying that doors "opened and closed" (situations occurring which resulted from prayer?) and that life just made sense.That's really about it. I read both parts I & II and thought they would be more impressive, frankly…

  • Hendy, I have to admit I was not moved by Jennifer's description either!But I have been reading orthodoxy by Chesterton and find it far more compelling, it boils down to "wouldnt a supernatural world just be more fun than a non-super-natural one?" though 🙂

  • @Charles: I've started Orthodoxy like 5 times and never finished it (as a believer). He has great wit!We should perhaps email dialog sometime as from your posts it seems that you are an atheist exploring Catholicism and I'm a Catholic probably on the way out? I'd be interested in hearing your "story."jw [dot] hendy [at] gmail [dot] comShoot me an email; I'd be happy to summarize my experience as well!

  • @AnonymousThanks for stopping by. I've been reading Conversion Diary for a while now, and I quite enjoy it. It was a large part of what inspired me to start this blog.Like Charles and Hendy, I didn't find the conversion story posts to be the most compelling part of the blog (particularly after I read The Case for Christ, which I hated). However, I love the way she talks through her questioning of church teachings and her gradual entry into church life. It gave me a portrait of engaged religious life that I had never before seen. Her site gave me a sense of how religious teachings could shape someone's life beyond a mere list of taboos to hew to. It helped me get interested in my apologetic readings and have better convos with my boyfriend about these ideas.

  • @Charles and HendyI was a big fan of Orthodoxy stylistically (and I loved The Man who was Thursday) but I feel that Chesterton is frequently making a very emotional, aesthetical appeal. When reading it, I frequently felt like I was in an argument where every time I pointed out a flaw or contradiction, Chesterton responded by exclaiming, "YES! The exquisite confusion of the paradoxes and mysteries are the very proof of Christianity's TRUTH!!" And then I would get a headache and need a bit of a lie down before I could continue.

  • Oh, paradoxes and mysteries are the coolest things about Christianity, bar none. They're most of what continue to interest me about it. ("Interesting me" and "demanding a profession of faith" are naturally different things.)

  • Chesterton takes some getting used to, but I agree, it is precisely his ability to deal with the fact that reality is paradoxical and complex that makes me love him so. If we are going to deal with reality at all, we have to deal with stuff like "You must lose your life to save it." As Chesterton points out, forget spiritual applications. It's the sort of instruction you could find in a manual on Alpine climbing or a book on entrepeneurial investment. It reflects a basic pattern of life in the real world and is, like much of Christian teaching, as descriptive as it is prescriptive.

  • NFQ

    Leah, I agree with you completely! I was just talking with a friend about almost exactly this the other day. We were discussing Mormon baptisms for the dead and the joke debaptism ceremonies, though I forget which one came first in the conversation.I guess I see why you might want to do the debaptism thing if you want to assert your ability of self-determination. Mostly, it's just a novelty, a humorous thing that some people have done a couple times for the giggles and maybe for the shock value. (Maybe like buying your own bag of communion wafers and snacking on them in a movie theater or a park, just because you can.) Jews being upset at the Mormon thing seems weirder to me, because it seems like an acknowledgment that religious rituals you don't even believe in still have some magical power. But my friend and I concluded that most of the angry reaction there is just because it's a really rude and disrespectful thing to do, not because it actually achieves anything.

  • Does baptism for the dead completely undercut the case for the practice of Mormonism in mortal life? In sooth, I trow not.

    I. Proxy baptism for the dead is not obligatory on the dead. Ah, you say, but why would anyone in the afterlife being exposed to the evident truths of Mormonism not accept entry into the Mormon faith?
    …A. Mormons don’t necessarily believe that the dead have a clear and evident understanding of the truth of Mormonism after they die. Mormon scripture and folk belief both suggest a separate ‘location’ for the souls of the dead on their decease, where believing souls can preach to the non-believers. While it would be difficult to be an atheist in such a condition, its not obvious that Mormonism would be obvious. On a related note, Joseph Smith taught that in the Millennium (a period of roughly a 1,000 years at the end of time where Christ personally rules the earth, which has become a paradise, and humanity lives in a utopian existence) there would be Catholics and Protestants and Jews who would persist in their own beliefs for a time.
    …B Mormons believe in part that the point of this mortal existence is for you to form your character and become a particular kind of person. The process of change and becoming does not end with death. But embodiment makes it much easier, and its much harder after death. Further, change is not always possible. There are some people whose will to godliness has become so strong that the eventual end point of their process of change and becoming is certain (this is known in Mormonspeak as ‘the Second Comforter’ or ‘having your calling and election made sure.’ Conversely, there are some people who have become so strongly attached to some sin that it can be known that they will never progress out of it. So it is by no means certain that someone who knows the truth of Mormonism in the afterlife will necessarily accept baptism. And being the kind of person who is indifferent enough to holiness that they are willing to put off the question until some much later date, especially when that attitude is hardened by death, seems like being the kind of person who would still stubbornly or fearfully or sinfully reject baptism in the afterlife. On a related note, there is an affecting passage in the Book of Mormon where sinners are allowed to approach God and then flee his presence because their sinfulness is too painful to them.

    2. Mormonism, and most religion, isn’t really about an external weighting of costs and benefits. Pascal’s Wager is silly. Heaven is a wonderfully appealing place, but only to the virtuous. If your response to the offer of salvation is ‘what’s in it for me?’ you are far from being able to be saved, even if you were convinced that it would be lucrative.