Here is an excerpt from a chapter in my recent-ish anthology of chapters from writers here at Patheos Nonreligious (Not Seeing God: Atheism in the 21st Century) [UK here]. This chapter is by Kevin Davis, with his blog “SecularVoices”. It is not the whole chapter, but gives you a taste.
Please grab a copy of the book – it’s great!
The following letter was posted to SecularVoices on May 27, 2015—exactly one month after my youngest son, Grayson, was unexpectedly born 3 months early, at 27 weeks, weighing 2 pounds, 7 ounces. Grayson would ultimately spend over 2 months in the neonatal intensive care unit, making steady progress with just minor setbacks along the way, as close to a best-case-scenario as we could have hoped for, but still testing our mental and emotional strength while inspiring us at the same time. After sitting next to Grayson’s bed in the NICU every day during the first month, the emotional roller coaster my wife and I found ourselves riding was beginning to calm down and I began using this time watching over him as an opportunity to think about what we’ve been through as a family, reflecting on our relatively unique situation—atheist parents with a sick child, surrounded by believers offering their prayers. This was something we found little value in aside from a nice gesture of verbal support. As more and more of Grayson’s progress was attributed to a deity rather than the well-trained and skilled doctors and nurses assigned to him, my frustrations grew and I decided to use my blog as a way to loosen the release valve and allow some steam to escape. What I didn’t expect was the widespread attention the piece would draw, as well as the reactions I would observe from both the atheist and religious communities.
An Atheist’s Open Letter to Those Praying for His Son
As many of my readers have noticed, I haven’t posted anything in about a month. That’s because on April 27, my life got exponentially busier, when my wife went into preterm labor and delivered our son 12 weeks early. Grayson now lies in the local neonatal intensive care unit, where he’s been since he was born. He’s doing well and continues to grow and gain weight, but the experience has been draining—physically, emotionally, and financially. As things normalize and he comes home, activity on the site will resume and most likely increase, since the field of GOP presidential hopefuls is an ever-expanding source of church/state separation editorial fodder. I don’t normally post personal stories such as this, but since I’ve found myself in a situation that has caused monumental frustration—with my only true sympathetic outlet being my wife (who is probably tired of hearing my rants by now)—I’ve decided to turn to the loyal audience of my blog. I hope that you’ll read this, and more importantly, share it with believers, so they better understand what goes through an atheist’s mind when we hear, “Sending you prayers,” or something similar.
The following open letter may upset you. You may feel insulted because when it comes to matters of faith, people are more apt to take criticism personally and react defensively when their religious beliefs are brought into question. Please know it is not my intent to offend, because, as I said earlier, I am truly grateful for the offers of support and kind words from family and friends. But sometimes we’re faced with emotional situations that escalate to a boiling point. I’m at that point, and it’s time to open a vent.
I’d like to open this letter by acknowledging and thanking those who have shared that they’re praying for my son, who was born prematurely and since then has resided in our local neonatal intensive care unit. I realize your intentions are good and that you believe your prayers are helping him grow stronger. By appealing to a deity that you believe exists and listens to your pleas, you feel you’re offering your support and contributing to my son’s cause in some way. Because I realize you believe you’re helping, I thank you for doing what you feel will help my son get healthy and strong.
However, my wife and I are atheists. We don’t believe in the supernatural, and we have good reasons for that, but that’s a topic for another day. We have placed our trust in science and modern medicine, and we are absolutely amazed at what is possible, thanks to medical research and man’s advanced understanding of biological sciences. In fact, if we had not placed our trust in medicine, or lived in different times, or belonged to a religion that frowns upon fertility treatments or medically assisted conception, we would not have any children at all.
If we left it to a god to decide, our 4-year-old son, Ryan, would not exist. He would not have been conceived without modern science and fertility doctors. And if we had become pregnant on our own, he very well could have died in childbirth without the intervention of doctors and nurses, as my wife had to have an emergency C-section after a difficult attempt at childbirth that put Ryan at risk. If we left it to a god to decide, our 4-week-old, Grayson, would not exist. He also would not have been conceived without modern science and an IVF procedure. And if we had become pregnant on our own that time, he would have died shortly after being born prematurely, without the intervention and constant care of doctors and nurses. Thanks to medical breakthroughs, not miracles, we have two children and get to experience all of the joy, pride, love, and everything else that comes with raising them—all of which would have been replaced with sorrow and heartache had we left it to a god to decide. We would have had no children, and like many of the religious, would have attempted to rationalize this in an attempt at comforting ourselves by saying it was god’s plan, or that everything happens for a reason.
So should you be appealing to that same supernatural entity to help protect my son—a child that he never wanted to exist? Does that make sense to you?
There’s a reason that the sick go to hospitals full of doctors and nurses when they need healing, instead of seeking out faith healers or priests, or staying home to pray as their only means of treatment. It’s because most believers realize that prayer isn’t an effective cure for anything. Even so, the religious are so quick to thank their god when they or loved ones recover from illnesses rather than show their gratitude to the men and women who made it their life’s work to treat the sick. Let’s be honest, if an all-knowing, all-powerful and all-loving god wants to heal the sick or let them die, what’s your prayer going to do? Aren’t you just telling him something he already knows? Aren’t you asking him for something he already knows you want? Isn’t your god going to do what he wants despite your pleas? Isn’t that your rationale when your prayers aren’t “answered”… that it was “God’s will”? So really, what’s the point? And that’s IF (a monumental IF) a deity exists and you’re praying to the right one, out of the >2000 that have been worshiped throughout human history.
So now you’re thinking, “So what? What does it hurt that I want to pray for you?” It’s not that it hurts anything or anyone directly. Your prayers are your prerogative. By telling us you’re praying, you’re saying to us that you want to do something to help, and that’s appreciated. But the avenue of assistance that you’ve chosen is one that we feel is an ineffective one. You’re telling us, “I’m going to do something for you that has no value to you. I’m really doing it to make me feel like I’m helping.” If you want to help a religious person who believes that prayer actually does something, then by all means, pray until you’re hoarse. But if you want to do something in your power to help a family who places their trust in the doctors, nurses, medicine, and technology that heals the sick and is the reason my son is alive and sleeping in my arms as I type this in the NICU, then do something tangible. Donate to families in need or medical research. Contact your representatives when a vote comes up that might inhibit scientific advancement. Call a friend or family member who’s in crisis and be a compassionate ear. Volunteer with a local group without an underlying agenda (like preaching to those benefiting from their good deeds). There are so many things you can do that are infinitely more effective than talking to a god who already knows what you’re going to say and will do what he wants anyway.
So when you tell me you’re praying for Grayson, I’m going to be gracious and say thank you. But know this—your gesture does more to make you feel better than it does to comfort me or help my son fight for his life in his incubator. Everything does not happen for a reason, and my two children are anything but god’s plan. I feel grateful every single day for mankind’s scientific and medical advancements.
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