Comment round-up.

This week’s comment came from just last night.  On my post comparing prayer to magical thinking Jeremy Forbing said

Wow. For a new blogger on a site encouraging respectful dialogue between faiths and belief systems, you’re really pissing the bed.

Do this for me, Jeremy.  With the exception of my post condemning some other atheists who were being outright horrible people (that was the whole point of the post), go back through my posts as far as you’d like and try to find an instance where I used a personal attack on someone.  Go on.  You’ll see plenty of me talking about how particular ideas suck and how they are beneath the people holding them, but it’s actually pretty rare I go with an attack on an individual as if that will carry an argument.  I’m not saying it’s never ever happened, but I will say it’s exceedingly rare.  On the occasions when I do say someone is stupid or a monster, or anything similar, I always first make the case for why those things are so, and generally only do it to make a greater point.

But ideas are a different story.  They’re fair game.

Saying prayer doesn’t work, that it’s a waste of time, and that good arguments would be more effective than praying for me isn’t a personal insult, you just don’t like to hear it.  Now, is it disrespectful to prayer and Christianity?  Yes.  Absolutely and without reservation.  I have no respect for belief in god and all the accoutrements of the various faiths.  There’s an easy solution to this: convince me I’m wrong.  Provide some evidence or reason why I should adopt the view that prayer works or that god exists.  In short, engage in the dialogue you tell me you crave.

Demanding I be respectful towards ideas you’ve yet to defend is much easier than making an argument for them, but it’s not how dialogue works.  Without reasons or evidence for why I should adopt the view that prayer works, you’ve given me no real motivation to change and haven’t even nudged me toward the conclusion that prayer actually deserves respect.  It seems obvious to me, as obvious as gravity, that prayer is an entirely masturbatory gesture, and I’ll at least pay you the respect of telling you precisely how I feel.  If you want me to placate other believers by treating them like they’re too fragile to stand in the presence of their beliefs being criticized, like they can’t distinguish between disdain for an idea and degrading a person, that’s fine, but let’s not pretend like that’s the same thing as respect.  Hell, let’s not pretend it isn’t the exact opposite of respect.

So many believers want to portray everything they don’t like to hear as a personal put down, often so they can play the victim card.  This is sad because it hobbles the conversation about ideas by making some of them off limits.  Take your comment, Jeremy.  You offered up no argument for why prayer is somehow better than magical thinking.  You didn’t advance any evidence for your position.  You just demanded I not say such things while using a hint to the supposed displeasure of my bosses here at Patheos to get me to stop, as if implied threats are a greater weapon to your position than argument (which tells me loads about the defensibility of your position).  At least, at this point, you know part of my position on prayer and why I don’t believe it works.  I know nothing of yours.  One of us is effectively communicating in the dialogue on faith and beliefs systems.  One of us hasn’t even stepped into the ring.

And lastly, let’s not imagine that saying prayer is equivalent to magical thinking is anywhere near as close to a put down as Christians have made of the phrase, “I’ll pray for you.”

Here’s a great assessment of prayer by Dan Barker, with an up-tempo beat to give you smiles! :)

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • Gordon

    Nothing fails like prayer.

    • otocump

      Not true, random chance sometimes conveniently lets a random prayer come ‘true’. Then again praying to a jug of milk is equally likely to work. I’d suggest ‘Nothing fails like thinking ‘god’ answers prayer’ might work better, but not quite as meme-lisious.

      • KirikaSena

        Eh, the actual act of prayer still fails, as it has nothing to do with the result. Let’s say I was certain that shooting an extremely low-powered laser beam at an elephant would kill it. During my one-thousandth attempt, the elephant just happens (completely due to coincidence) to have a heart attack, with ends the elephant’s life. Due to the whole correlation / causation thing, my laser beam attack was still an utter failure, just like prayer.

    • kagekiri

      Nah, didn’t you hear? Prayers are ALWAYS answered, 100% of the time, every time.

      God just seems to say “Yes/No” in a pattern completely indistinguishable from random circumstance, and in a way indistinguishable from the expected statistics of chance.

      “If a theory can explain every possible outcome, it cannot predict anything.”

      That matter of falsifiability was a huge change for me when I deconverted from Christianity. I used to think God being able to avoid all proof against him via rationalizations, whether through many unanswered prayers or a total failure to speak to me when I begged him, was a point in his favor.

      I was horribly wrong.

      God is a magical dragon in the garage, just like Carl Sagan described. Every objection can be dealt with by post-hoc rationalizations, but in the end, the invisible/intangible/undetectable dragon in a garage lacks any differentiating factor from an empty garage. As such, Occam’s razor neatly trims off the God character like the pointless addition to explaining the universe that he is.

  • anteprepro

    Prayer is Serious Business.

  • Loqi

    That’s all it takes to get peoples’ ires up around these parts? Oh man, this is going to be fun… *sinister hand rubbing*

    • John Horstman


  • Rufus

    Let me get this straight: basically rather than saying “your arguement is unconvincing because it is a large steaming pile of elephant guano with a side order of condescension”, you need to follow the model most frequently seen in dealing with superior officers in the (UK) armed forces: “with all due respect, your arguement is unconvincing because it is a large steaming pile of elephant guano with a side order of condescension, sir”.

    Is that what Jeremy is saying?

    • Randomfactor

      I believe the accepted form of disagreement is “that turns out not to be the case.”
      Of course, the “other side” can still suggest that our disagreement is worthy of being fixed on the spit of an Eternal Shawarma

  • flugelhornjesus

    Belief, n. An idea you’re not supposed to criticize.

  • Glodson

    I’m just going to listen to Carlin and pray to Joe Pesci. He gets shit done.

  • Jeremy

    Ok…new favorite quote ever: “Prayer is an entirely masturbatory gesture”

    • John Horstman

      Bah, that’s insulting to masturbation, which has a much better payoff.

  • Makoto

    Prayer is an activity wherein a lot of people spend a lot of time trying to believe that they are actually changing the real world, but in reality are just wasting their time – in effect, a net negative effect, since they could’ve spent that time actually helping, by feeding the poor, working on housing, and so on.

    Every time someone says “I’ll pray for you”, I respond with “Why not use your hands or money to help someone else instead?”

  • Lee Harrison

    Prayer – how to do nothing worthwhile and still feel as if you’ve helped.

  • Jeremy Forbing

    I did not say what I said to imply anything about the security of your job. I wouldn’t know anything about that. I said what I said because I thought you came off like a dick.

    • UsingReason

      Kind of like you, now; by ignoring everything JT said in this article?

      • Jeremy Forbing

        Nothing in the article seemed relevant to my comment.

        • Drakk

          You mentioned “respect”, JT addressed “respect”, and you think it’s irrelevant.

          Alright then.

    • Cubist

      Okay, you thought JT came off a dick.
      Why did you think that?
      Was it because JT actually was being a dick… or was it because you *really* didn’t like what JT said about the invisible-friend memeplex you’ve bought into? Personally, I suspect it was the latter. Not because I know anything about you in specific, Mr. Forbing, but because you’re a Believer, and you Believers, as a group, have a remarkable tendency to regard *ANY* CRITICISM OF RELIGION *WHATSOEVER* as “dickish”. This tendency is *so* bleeding common, and plays out in *so* bleeding many different contexts, that by now, I regard it as the default explanation whenever *any* Believer makes noise about how rude/militant/impolite/aggressive/unmutual/etc an atheist is.
      We’re here, Mr. Forbing. We’re godless. Get used to it.

      • Jeremy Forbing

        I don’t know anything about you, and it’s none of my business what you believe. I sure as hell have no idea what a “memeplex” is supposed to be. And you don’t know anything about me either, so I’m not much interested in the non-existent motives of whatever imaginary version of me you’ve made up.

        • Cubist

          “I sure as hell have no idea what a ‘memeplex’ is supposed to be.”
          If you have any interest in learning about it, here’s a couple of relevant URLs for you:

          “And you don’t know anything about me…”
          I know what you wrote in your comment. And given your words, plus the auxiliary assumption that you wrote those words in a sincere attempt to communicate your thoughts to the readers of JT’s blog, I can make (possibly inaccurate) deductions about you and what you think.
          From where I sit, JT just *isn’t* a jerk; he’s a guy who is very clear that he regards religion as a Very Bad, No Good, Horrible Bad Idea. So when you call JT a jerk, the most parsimonious explanation is that you’re a Christian of some flavor who is offended to your deepest core by JT’s criticism of Christianity. If you aren’t a Christian, the next most parsimonious explanation for your calling JT a jerk is that you’re one of the many people, Believer and otherwise, whose mind has been colonized by Christianity’s “thou shalt not criticise Christianity” meme. And if neither of those explanations is accurate in your case, the third-most parsimonious explanation is that you were just trolling JT’s blog when you called him a jerk.

  • anteprepro

    With his comments here, I’m seeing a consistent pattern:
    Mr. Forbing is ignorant and thinks that’s just peachy. Logic doesn’t matter, facts don’t matter, JT’s points don’t matter. The only thing that matters is how words make Mr. Forbing feel. And that we are all awful human beings for using words that make Mr. Forbing feel sad. It doesn’t matter that JT didn’t attack anyone personally, his words about prayer made Mr. Forbing sad and therefore if JT doesn’t admit he is a horrible person, Mr. Forbing will become even more sad, and will therefore win whatever passes for an argument among people who become offended so easily.

  • Jeremy Forbing

    No. This article completely misrepresents the point of my comment, and the comments on this article are even more clueless. The point of my comment was this I think glib, simplified dismissals of ideas– such as the kind embodied by two-sentence blurbs over photos– do not encourage any kind of rational debate. Instead, since they merely serve to alienate and antagonize the people who are invested in those ideas, they do the opposite. That is discouraging, not fostering, respectful discussion, and the fact that JT did not directly say “You are an asshole” does not actually change that.

    My comment was not intended to suggest JT’s place at Patheos might be in jeopardy. I don’t know how that would work, and to be honest, that didn’t even occur to me. I also have no desire to debate the merits of prayer. But neither did JT in that post. He just wanted to squirt his little bit of belittlement out there into the world and move on. I call bullshit on that.

    • RuQu

      JT posts a lot. Lately, more than once a day. Some posts are long, some are short.

      If all he ever posted was that image, I’d agree with you. However, he has posted, and continues to post, much longer discussions about the futility and dangers of prayer and magical thinking. Taken in context, that image is a single joke among pages of discussion.

      On top of that, in this response to your comment on the image, JT has specifically stated that he is open to a discussion on the merit of prayer, and open to being convinced of its utility if you (or someone else) can provide evidence that it works. That evidence doesn’t exist, but that is beside the point. That he is open to reviewing it belies your point in this comment.

  • RuQu

    JT, I take issue with this line:

    “It seems obvious to me, as obvious as gravity, that prayer is an entirely masturbatory gesture”

    This is clearly disrespectful to masturbation, which has long-established piles (puddles?) of evidence for its efficacy.