"A lot of merit all by themselves…"

Or not.

Over at JT Eberhard’s excellent WWJTD? blog, we’ve been having a fun game of “feed the Christian to the lions.” A devout believer sent him a prayer, which she hoped he would pass along… and about which she said, quote, “I just thought the words had a lot of merit all by themselves…”

JT posted the prayer. Very kindly, I thought. His reputation as a hardass, confrontational, take- no- prisoners firebrand is clearly undeserved. And he asked his regular atheist readers to, shall we say, comment on this prayer, and discuss whether they did, in fact, find any merit whatsoever to the prayer. More specifically, he asked his readers to take at least one paragraph from the prayer, and eviscerate… er, examine it, and explain why we did or did not find it beautiful.

The lions are having a very tasty meal.

I’m not posting the whole freaking prayer here. JT has a stronger stomach than I do. But I thought y’all might enjoy my response to this challenge.

*

“I just thought the words had a lot of merit all by themselves…”

Really? You thought these words had merit, even without the assumption of God’s existence that pervades them?

What merit would that be, exactly?

Let’s do as JT requests, and take a sample paragraph:

“Please keep me safe from all danger and harm. Help me to start this day with a new attitude and plenty of gratitude. Let me make the best of each day to clear my mind so that I can hear from You.”

Here’s how this atheist views this paragraph:

There is no magical creator protecting me from danger and harm. And assuming that there is one would make me less likely to act on my own to protect myself from danger and harm. If I am to be protected from danger and harm, I want to rely on myself, and on the people in my life who have shown themselves to be worthy of my trust.

I value both new attitudes and gratitude. I endeavor to keep my mind and heart open, to see the world with fresh eyes as much as possible. And I feel intense gratitude towards the people who have worked hard to make life better. But I assume you mean that I should feel grateful to your god — and I don’t, since I don’t think he exists. And I don’t need help from an invisible magical creator to feel either gratitude or newness. These are emotions and experiences generated by my brain.

I find it useful to clear my mind from time to time. But there is no magical creator speaking to me when I do so. And when I do clear my mind, pretending that the ideas and feelings my brain comes up with are actually coming from an infallible magical being… to me, this is an extremely dangerous concept. It would make me less willing to question these ideas and feelings — even when an overwhelming body of evidence contradicts them. I do not want to deceive myself into thinking that my brain is perfect.

Seriously: What part of this did you think had merit without the assumption of God’s existence? What part of this did you think an atheist would agree with?

*

If you want to play, too, go read the whole prayer on JT’s blog… as well the other responses to it. And if you post a response there, please do me a huge favor and post it here, too. (And vice versa as well — if you post a response here, please post it at JT’s blog.) Have fun, lions!

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"A lot of merit all by themselves…"
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14 thoughts on “"A lot of merit all by themselves…"

  1. 1

    “I thank you for this day. I thank You for my being able to see and to hear this morning. I’m blessed because You are a forgiving God and an understanding God. You have done so much for me and You keep on blessing me. Forgive me this day for everything I have done, said or thought that was not pleasing to you. I ask now for Your forgiveness.”

    Paraphrase:

    I thank you that I was not among the 63% of all conceptions that are naturally aborted.

    I thank you that I was not among the 3 million babies stillborn each year.

    I thank you that I was not among the 18 children who die every minute.

    I thank you that I do not suffer any of the large array of genetic disorders which would have prevented me from even knowing about you.

    But I have a question: “what did those others do that you couldn’t forgive them for, and so had to eliminate them, even though you are a loving God?”

  2. 2

    “I pray that every eye that reads this knows there is no problem, circumstance, or situation greater than God.”

    This reading eye agrees wholeheartedly with one thing in this prayer — as long as there are people out there waiting for some imaginary being to solve their problems or rescue the helpless, or believing that the hurt we cause one another can be absolved by asking that same imaginary being to cleanse us through the shedding of blood, then there is certainly no problem greater than “God” in this world.

  3. 3

    I took the prayer and turned it into a sort of secular meditation or affirmation. It may flow kind of awkwardly at parts because I was trying to remain true to the original. It felt like I was translating from Christian to godless. The new version is somewhat inspirational and has a number of beautiful thoughts in it.

    I am thankful for this day. I am thankful for being able to see and to hear this morning. I’m blessed because my loved ones are forgiving and understanding. I have so much going for me and I expect continued blessings in the future. I hope that those I have wronged forgive me, and I shall openly seek to earn their forgiveness.

    I hope to be kept safe from all danger and harm and I shall work to maintain my safety. I start this day with a new attitude and plenty of gratitude. Let me make the best of each day to relax and clear my mind.

    Let me not whine and whimper over things I have no control over. Let me continue to see sin and acknowledge it as evil. And when I sin, let me repent, and confess with my mouth my wrong doing, and receive the forgiveness of those I have wronged.

    And when this world closes in on me let me slip away and find a quiet place to clear my mind. It’s the best response when I’m pushed beyond my limits.

    I share my blessing with others. I help the weak. I offer words of encouragement to others. I help those who are lost and can’t find their way. I help those who are misjudged and misunderstood.

    I believe that people and circumstances can and do change in unexpected ways. I love all my sisters and brothers and every family member in their households. I hope for peace, love and joy in their homes that they are out of debt and all their needs are met and I shall help them in any way possible.

    I hope that every eye that reads this can find the help they need to lead them through whatever problems, circumstances, or situations that causes them to suffer. Every battle is in our hands for us to fight. I hope that these words be received into the hearts of every eye that sees them and every mouth that confesses them willingly.

  4. 4

    (cross posted to WWJTD)
    “I believe that God changes people and God changes things. I pray for all my sisters and brothers. For every family member in their households. I pray for peace, love and joy in their homes that they are out of debt and all their needs are met.”

    So much that is not beautiful in this prayer that others have already touched on. I’ll have a go at this one.

    “God changes people” is perfectly indistinguishable from “people change themselves”.
    “God changes things” like what exactly? The weather, like hurricanes? The tectonic plates? The seasons? The quantum foam? [Whistling]Here God of the gaps…. come here boy. Sit. Good god..

    “For all my sisters and brothers. For every member in their households.” I assume the sisters and brothers are metaphorically either “every human” or “every Christian” If every human, then the second part is redundant. If every Christian, then how quaintly tribal–“I’ll pray for everyone like me, but you nasty muslims can fuck off.”

    “I pray for peace love and joy…” How’s that working out? Divorce gone? Foreclosures gone? Domestic violence gone? How does a prayer make someone out of debt? Chapter 7 bankruptcy gets a person out of debt–is that what you’re praying for?

    The whole thing was just so colloquial and self-righteous and nauseating. Here’s a more effective “prayer”:
    Dear friend, I hope you’re doing well. You are important to me. Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.

  5. 5

    This is what I posted over there…

    So, rather than tear down, I tried building up – what could I find that I liked/agreed with?

    I liked, “Go forth my friends and enjoy this day”. So, half a sentence – I tried finding something else to hold up, even a part of a paragraph, as something I would say to a friend or to myself… About halfway through i did also manage to find, “Let me not whine and whimper over things I have no control over.”, which is not a bad thing to keep in mind, although I think a little venting and whining is ok now and again (as long as I don’t let it become a habit).

    That was it.

    If I went to a slightly deeper level of meaning, I could get behind the sentiment of, “Keep me strong that I may help the weak.. Keep me uplifted that I may have words of encouragement for others. I pray for those who are lost and can’t find their way. I pray for those who are misjudged and misunderstood.”, if I may rewrite it as:

    I will use my strength to help the weak. I will share words of encouragement with those around me. I will help guide and comfort those who are struggling to find their way. I will try to understand and show justice to others and actively work to avoid abusing my privilege and allowing my prejudices to drive my thoughts.

    Not the change from a vague appeal to an outside force to give me something to a more active decision to do something.

    Similarly,the sentiment of caring shown by, “I pray for all my sisters and brothers. For every family member in their households. I pray for peace, love and joy in their homes that they are out of debt and all their needs are met.” can be rewritten as:

    I will keep in touch with my family, and work to support their needs both emotional and physical. I hope that their lives are filled with peace, love, and joy.

    Although, I might want to extend that caring beyond my family and friends to cover as many people as I am able – especially to hope that *everyone’s* lives are filled with peace, love, and joy.

    I really couldn’t get behind the rest.

  6. 6

    Dear Lord, I thank you for this day. I thank You for my being able to see and to hear this morning. I’m blessed because You are a forgiving God and an understanding God. You have done so much for me and You keep on blessing me. Forgive me this day for everything I have done, said or thought that was not pleasing to you. I ask now for Your forgiveness.

    Okay, now that’s just not nice. What about people who can’t hear or see? Inclusive much?
    Doesn’t look up from there either. I’m happy because I am not blessed, my life is my own and no sky daddy is looking on to give me an unfelt guidance which has no discernable impact, yet still requires my gratitude and groveling. Yes, groveling, what else can one call a sentence with so broad a topic as forgiveness for every slight you may have performed at another. Be specific, tripe isn’t comforting.

  7. 7

    Cross-posted from WWJTD

    Dear Lord, I thank you for this day. I thank You for my being able to see and to hear this morning. I’m blessed because You are a forgiving God and an understanding God. You have done so much for me and You keep on blessing me. Forgive me this day for everything I have done, said or thought that was not pleasing to you. I ask now for Your forgiveness.

    The entirety of this paragraph is basically saying that people do terrible things continuously and are in need of forgiveness by default, and implies that we do not deserve to be alive or possessed of hearing and sight, etc. How would anyone who doesn’t share the idea that humanity is by nature depraved and sinful find merit in this?

    Let me not whine and whimper over things I have no control over. Let me continue to see sin through God’s eyes and acknowledge it as evil. And when I sin, let me repent, and confess with my mouth my wrong doing, and receive the forgiveness of God.

    The spirit of this paragraph is that we are incapable of seeing sin as evil unless we do so through God’s eyes. Which either means humans are incapable of recognising evil by themselves, or that sin isn’t actually evil, just something God dislikes. In either case, it’s an abandoning of your own sense of right and wrong for someone else’s.

    And when this world closes in on me, let me remember Jesus’ example — to slip away and find a quiet place to pray. It’s the best response when I’m pushed beyond my limits. I know that when I can’t pray, You listen to my heart. Continue to use me to do Your will.

    And this is just a declaration of giving up, of abandoning your own will for someone else’s and not facing problems but just hoping they’ll go away.

    Continue to bless me that I may be a blessing to others. Keep me strong that I may help the weak.. Keep me uplifted that I may have words of encouragement for others. I pray for those who are lost and can’t find their way. I pray for those who are misjudged and misunderstood. I pray for those who don’t know You intimately. I pray for those who will delete this without sharing it with others. I pray for those who don’t believe. But I thank you that I believe.

    I don’t disagree with wanting to be strong to protect the weak, etc., though I don’t think prayer is the way to go about it. It’s the the second half of the paragraph that I object to, where the author equates those who don’t believe, etc. with those who are lost, misunderstood and whatever. It’s condescending, not beautiful.

  8. 8

    “Forgive me this day for everything I have done, said or thought that was not pleasing to you.”

    Why I am supposed to find this a beautiful or inspiring thought is utterly beyond me. Why, yes, I am simply charmed at the notion that an invisible tyrant is living inside my head, monitoring my every fleeting thought — which I can’t even control. And whose forgiveness I have to beg on a regular basis to avoid eternal punishment.

    Suppose one of those wicked thoughts pops into my mind, and then I step off the curb and get killed by a car before I get a chance to confess? It’s no good saying that God will understand what was truly in my heart and will forgive me anyway. Because if that’s the case…then tell me again why I have to go through this business of formally praying for it in the first place?

  9. 9

    It’s actually hard to believe that this was sent deliberately to a known atheist in the honest expectation that he’d like it. If I found out that Ms. Lopez didn’t know JT was an atheist after all, I’d think “oh, that explains it” – though the fact that she felt the need to make an excuse implies she did know. I suspect she was caught up in the chain-letter-ish memetic triggers, and went against her better judgement.

    I have to say, some of the prose does sound pretty nice. I’ve always admired the intensity of feeling in some religious art. On the other hand, the meaning of the words… well, here’s my chosen paragraph:

    Let me not whine and whimper over things I have no control over. Let me continue to see sin through God’s eyes and acknowledge it as evil. And when I sin, let me repent, and confess with my mouth my wrong doing, and receive the forgiveness of God.”

    It may be hard for a Christian to understand how disturbing the concept of “sin” is to some atheists. Some people consider it to mean the same thing as “wrongdoing” or “crime,” which would be fine since those are useful concepts. But my understanding of “sin,” as it’s usually used by believers, is a thing that’s wrong just because God says so, a violation of divine law. The concept of sin is almost always backed up by the threat of hell, which is a horrifying psychological manipulation designed to hack one’s moral reasoning with the threat of an infinitely negative value.

    It might be tolerable if sinful actions were always actions that I could confirm were wrong my own moral judgement and values. But in fact they don’t match. Good things are labeled sinful (like making love,) bad things are labeled non-sinful (like faith) and some of the rules are just bizarre (like the requirement to execute witches – is it logically vacuous, or encouraging violence toward the mentally ill?)

    The whole “sin” concept is downright Orwellian. Usually when I encounter it I just dismiss it as an obsolete ethical system and go on with my day. When I seriously engage with it, though, I do not find that it has value, and I am neither uplifted nor inspired to do good. I am disturbed, creeped out, and generally uncomfortable.

    If Ms. Lopez, or indeed any believer, is reading this, I hope you’ll take this as an example of the differences that can exist between theists and atheists. If you want to convert me, you have the right to try, but if you want to make me feel good, you should be aware that your religious values may be negative and upsetting to someone who rejects religion.

    On the other hand, the line about things one can’t control was a good thought, if a bit harshly phrased.

  10. 10

    And I feel intense gratitude towards the people who have worked hard to make life better. But I assume you mean that I should feel grateful to your god — and I don’t, since I don’t think he exists. And I don’t need help from an invisible magical creator to feel either gratitude or newness. These are emotions and experiences generated by my brain.

    I don’t think you go far enough.

    I too am grateful for many things in my life. All of those things have come to me through the efforts of myself or other real people. If I reserve some of that gratitude for a non-existent entity, am I not in some way cheating those who truly deserve it?

    That’s not just false, it’s downright rude!

  11. 11

    I posted the following on JD’s blog:

    No one stands as tall as a Christian on his knees

    Christian women slouch when they pray? Or is the use of “his” just because English doesn’t have a “his and/or her” pronoun? Regardless, that’s just a minor quibble.

    Prayers seem to come in two flavors, often intermixed as in the example above. One flavor is “God, I want you to do this.” The other flavor is “thank you, God, for doing that.”

    At least the thank you flavor is polite. It’s like our mothers (well, most of our mothers) told us to say please and thank you. The problem I have with thank you prayers is often the wrong person is being thanked. “Thank you, God, for curing my cancer” doesn’t say anything about the oncologists, surgeons, nurses, and all of the other health professionals, as well as family and friends, involved in actually getting one healed. These people might be mentioned in passing, as assistants to the sky pixie, but the main emphasis is on God.

    It’s the demands on God I truly find annoying. “God, let me find my car keys” or “God, I need my boss to have a heart attack before she discovers I screwed up the work sitting in her in-basket.” I suspect the “no atheists in foxholes” canard came about because goddists are taught from early on that (a) God loves them and (b) if they pray hard enough then God will save their worthless butts. So the “Oh God, I’m in deep do-do and I need you to save me” prayer comes naturally to them. Whereas atheists know they have to save themselves from whatever deep do-do they find themselves in. Too many goddists forget Ben Franklin’s words: “God helps them who help themselves.”

    So I don’t see Christians as standing tall when they’re on their knees. They’re either thanking a non-existent deity for something that has a different cause or they’re whining about needing something they think is difficult or unattainable.

  12. 12

    The sentiments are not totally horrid – here’s what I did with the words. The original author would probably recoil in horror, though, and I not remotely enough of a spam artist to send it to total strangers.

    And crap, I worked hard to underline the bits I added, in addition to the bits I deleted, only to discover the lack of an underline tag. Sigh. Maybe JT will allow underlining tags.

    * * * *

    Dear Lord, I thank you I am grateful for this day and I thank You for my being able to see and to hear this morning. I’m blessed with because You are a forgiving God and an understanding God. YouOther people and beings have done so much for me and You keep on blessing me. I hope they will [f]orgive me this day for everything I have done, said or thought that was not pleasing to youethical. I hope I will have the courage to ask now for Yourtheir forgiveness.

    Please keep meI hope that I will be safe from all danger and harm. Help me I will seek to start this day with a new attitude and plenty of gratitude, to Let me make the best of each day andto clear my mind so that I can hear from You see and understand reality.

    Let me not I will try not to whine and whimper over things I have no control over. Let me continue to see sin through God’s eyes and acknowledge it as evil consider the effect of my behavior on other people and on the environment and recognize how I may cause harm. And when I sin, let me behave unethically and cause harm, I will try to repent, and confess with my mouth my wrong doing, and receive the forgiveness of God. admit how I have harmed others, and seek to make amends.

    And when this world closes in on me, let me remember Jesus’ example the experience of wise people who have gone before me — to slip away and find a quiet place to pray sit calmly and focus on the present moment. It’s the best response when I’m pushed beyond my limits. I know that when I can’t pray, You listen to my heart. Continue to use me to do Your will. remain focused and aware of the consequences of my behavior, I still affect others. I hope that I will affect others for good even in those times.

    Continue to bless me that I may be a blessing I hope that I will continue to receive what I need to help and support others. Keep me strong that I may I hope that I can use my strength to help the weak, Keep me uplifted to remain optimistic that I may have words of encouragement for others. I pray for hope that I can help those who are lost and can’t find their way, I pray for those who are misjudged and misunderstood, I pray for those who don’t know You intimately recognize what Dawkins has called the “magic of reality.” I pray for those who will delete this without sharing it with others. I pray for those who don’t believe. But I thank you that I believe. I hope I or another freethinker can help those who do not accept reality as it is. But I am grateful that I am able to try to do this.

    I believe that God changes people and God changes things. people and things change. I pray hope for good for all my sisters and brothers. For every family member in their households. I pray hope for peace, love and joy in their homes, that they are out of debt and all their needs are met.

    I pray hope that every eye that person who reads this knows there is no problem, circumstance, or situation greater than God. Every battle is in Your hands for You to fight. that there are many problems, circumstances, and situations that are beyond the power of any individual or group. I hope that everyone who reads this will experience peace despite this fact. I pray that these words be received into the hearts of every eye that sees them and every mouth that confesses them willingly.

    This is my prayer.
    These are my hopes and intentions.

  13. 13

    OK, here’s my de-godded version, without the strikeouts and edited a bit more.

    I am grateful for this day and for being able to see and hear this morning. I’m fortunate to have received forgiveness and understanding from other people. I have received so much from my friends, community, and world – I hope these good circumstances will continue. I hope other people will forgive me this day for everything I have done, said or thought that was not ethical. I hope I will have the courage to ask for their forgiveness when appropriate.

    I hope that I will be safe from all danger and harm. I will seek to start this day with a new attitude and plenty of gratitude, to make the best of each day and to clear my mind so that I can see the world as it really is.

    I will try not to whine and whimper over things I have no control over. Let me continue to consider the effect of my behavior on other people and on the environment and recognize how I may cause harm. And when I behave unethically and cause harm, I will try to repent, admit how I have harmed others, and seek to repair the harm I have caused.

    When I feel overwhelmed by my circumstances, let me remember the wisdom of people who have gone before me — to slip away to a quiet place, sit calmly and focus on the present moment. It’s the best response when I’m feel pushed beyond my limits. I know that when I can’t remain focused and aware of the consequences of my behavior, I still affect others. I hope that I will affect others for good even in those times.

    I hope that I will continue to receive what I need to help and support others. I hope that I can use my strength to help the weak, that I remain optimistic so as to have words of encouragement for others, and that I can help those who are lost and can’t find their way, those who are misjudged and misunderstood, those who don’t recognize what some call the “magic of reality.” I hope I or another freethinker can help those who are not yet able to accept reality as it is. But I am grateful that I am able to seek to accept reality as it is.

    I recognize that all people, circumstances, and things change. I hope for good for all my sisters and brothers. For every family member in their households. I hope for peace, love and joy in their homes and that all their needs are met.

    I hope that every person who reads this understands that there are many problems, circumstances, and situations that are beyond the power of any individual or group. I hope that everyone who reads this will experience peace and well-being despite this fact.

    These are my hopes and intentions.

  14. 14

    Cross post with quotes corrected

    Dear Lord, I thank you for this day. I thank You for my being able to see and to hear this morning.

    And lets not mention the blind and the deaf, because seriously, eff those guys /sacrasm.

    I’m blessed because You are a forgiving God and an understanding God.

    So, basically you are blessed because God isn’t currently making your life suck for all the shit you have pulled? I mean how does God’s basic inaction (forgiveness being not being willing to press an issue he is pissed at you for) count as a positive blessing? If he was a helpful God maybe, but forgiving?

    You have done so much for me and You keep on blessing me.

    Translation: I haven’t been caught stealing from my employers yet. Thanks God!

    Forgive me this day for everything I have done, said or thought that was not pleasing to you. I ask now for Your forgiveness.

    Doesn’t this strike you as something a pathetically abused puppy would say? Appologising for simply thinking things which might not be pleasing to your master? This is disgustingly servile, and any god who would be pleased by such as prayer is by extension disgusting.

    This prayer is hideous.

    And it gets worse.

    Please keep me safe from all danger and harm. Help me to start this day with a new attitude and plenty of gratitude. Let me make the best of each day to clear my mind so that I can hear from You.

    Dear God, please brainwash me so that I can be your loving little android instead of a scared little sheep.

    Let me not whine and whimper over things I have no control over. Let me continue to see sin through God’s eyes and acknowledge it as evil. And when I sin, let me repent, and confess with my mouth my wrong doing, and receive the forgiveness of God.

    Dear God, please let me be a judgemental little asshole to my neigbours. Let me mutter that the gay people down the road are abominations, let me silently call the Muslim family next door “heretics” and the Catholics across the road “Satanists”, and on the other side, let the Silvermans get the full brunt of my passive agression because they killed Christ.

    And let me give lip-service to this whole repentence bit about how guilty I am that I am busy stealing from my employer. (See Para 1). He’s an atheist by the way.

    And when this world closes in on me, let me remember Jesus’ example — to slip away and find a quiet place to pray.

    Can you unlock the door to the clock-tower?

    It’s the best response when I’m pushed beyond my limits.

    Because as we have already established, actually being upfront and dealing with the situation that causes me stress, and standing up for myself so that those who are pushing me beyond my limits may correct their behaviour or at least explain it, doesn’t really suit my passive agressive tendencies.

    I know that when I can’t pray, You listen to my heart. Continue to use me to do Your will.

    Because you are a creepy stalker dude that makes Edward from Twilight look not at all like a 100 year old guy who sneaks into teenaged girl rooms because he likes the way they smell.

    Continue to bless me that I may be a blessing to others. Keep me strong that I may help the weak.

    “Help” being of course briefly praying for them, and then voting to cut benefits for those welfare queens.

    Keep me uplifted that I may have words of encouragement for others.

    Because shit knows I am not actually gonna do anything. If I was into that I wouldn’t be praying, I would be doing it.

    I pray for those who are lost and can’t find their way.

    For example, the waiter with my order.

    I pray for those who are misjudged and misunderstood.

    You know, the people just like me. Hint hint.

    I pray for those who don’t know You intimately.

    Wait, I thought wanking was agains the rules?

    I pray for those who will delete this without sharing it with others.

    Blessed be the spammers for they shall inherit the internet.

    I pray for those who don’t believe. But I thank you that I believe.

    Yeah, could you brainwash them or something? They keep on cheating by using facts and evidence to point out how my arguments are bullshit. Thanks God!

    I pray that every eye that reads this knows there is no problem, circumstance, or situation greater than God. Every battle is in Your hands for You to fight.

    In other words – if they go through this line by line mocking it – is it too much to ask that you show them your smiting hand and smite them smitely?

    I pray that these words be received into the hearts of every eye that sees them and every mouth that confesses them willingly.

    My grasp on biology is questionable. Also, that whole thing on the blind and the deaf? Add mutes there too.

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