Irradiated by LabRat
Apologies for the light content of late, but save for the Monkeysphere thing- which was a downright PLEASURE to write, because I’ve been trying to write something about evolution and socialism for a long time but couldn’t get the puzzle pieces to click together before- we’ve been slammed-busy and stressed, which doesn’t tend to leave either one of us in a creative mood.
Most of the latest bits of news du jour haven’t left me with much more of an opinion than could be summed up with a thumb gesture- or an opinion that others have already written much better. But, for some reason, the latest kerfuffle at Rachel’s sparked one of my This Is Only All That Important To Me hot-buttons.
For those who are not Rachel Regulars, the kerfuffle started thusly: there was a tragic accident in her family, and while she was writing about it, she titled a post “There are no atheists in foxholes”, since it was times like this that led to her discarding full atheism in favor of the belief that there is something, something maybe not closely described by any major earth religion, but something out there. For some reason it got linked at an atheist discussion forum, and a number of the more obnoxious residents decided to come over and make asses of themselves.
Now me, I had a brief flicker of “hey, that’s not true” when I saw the post title, because I’ve been through some pretty shitty stuff, and seriously pondering the idea that maybe I was wrong and there really was a God offered me no comfort whatsoever. Nil. The idea that there was an ultimate planner arranging all this wasn’t comforting in the sense of “there is a point to this and He wouldn’t give me something I couldn’t handle”. This is because, as I’ve blogged about before, in my own wrestling with these issues, one of the biggest personal sticking points for me is the assumption that a posited supreme, omniscient, and omnipotent God as generally accepted in the West is the idea that its intentions and disposition are loving. It might be easy to be comforted by a God you automatically think of as loving during your hard times, but if you suspect that if He exists, He may not like you very much (or, easier to imagine for an entity that encompasses all of reality and beyond, is indifferent), it gives you a rollicking case of the existential creeps. Personally, I think it’s more comforting to be alone in the world (as alone as you can with more than six billion other thinking beings, anyway), than to look up and see someone in a lab coat, with a clipboard and an expectant expression*.
I didn’t say any of that, because unlike the forum-dwelling atheists who took it upon themselves to right this injustice, I was capable of realizing in the next second that this was not about me. Not REMOTELY. ALL that the boundaries of decency gave me the right to comment on was to be supportive and concerned for Rachel’s family- besides, I know her, and I know damned well she only meant it applied to her personal situation. That’s what common expressions are good for- distilling a complex situation into a one-line platitude. The only reason any of that ever ran through my head in the first place is that we tend to relate *everything* to ourselves first as a matter of reflex.
I didn’t wade into the comments. Rachel has a base of bright, diverse commenters that are about as helplessly incapable as the Marine Corps, and they were doing a fine job of folding, spindling, and mutilating the jerks. I didn’t even *finish* the comments, as I was having a busy day and it was a busy discussion and the two focuses were not compatible. I did, however, manage to read enough from one of the obnoxious atheists to get my Pet Peeve pacing and growling on the end of its chain. (I call it “Bitey”.)
Specifically, what irritated me about this guy was how he kept snidely referring to prayer as “magical thinking”. Now, if I had my priorities in line, that would piss me off primarily because it’s such a pointlessly cruel way to describe something that brings people comfort during a tragedy, especially DURING THE TRAGEDY, but that’s not the main reason it irritated me. No, of course, it made me clench my teeth because it’s factually wrong.
Magical thinking is extremely pervasive within humanity, to the point that it can be considered one of those things that’s more wired in than learned. It’s even part of human development; you start out as an infant and as the center of your own tiny universe, and gradually learn first that the other entities you interact with are actually individuals of their own and not extensions of your will, and then- over time- that you are not only not the center of the universe, but that you are a very small part of it and far from the most powerful one. A lot of people never quite finish, or never do in all areas of their lives.
The most basic aspect of it can be witnessed simply by watching the most available toddler: they all go through a stage where they have to learn not only how to ask for things, but also that they must accept a “no”- in short, the distinction between a request and a demand, or on a deeper level (since we’re talking about people who haven’t finished mentally separating themselves and other individuals), that asking for something or demanding it- verbalizing- is very different from actually causing that something to happen. A toddler who never gets a “no” may genuinely believe, on some level, that asking for juice is basically the same as pushing a button on a soda machine. Mom just doesn’t require coins, though she may occasionally require a swift kick and some verbal abuse the same way the machine does. Even my dogs sometimes behave this way- they get visibly annoyed when I fail to produce a treat in response to a well-followed command, even though with their senses they can easily tell I don’t have one on me. (They most CERTAINLY know when I DO, and suddenly want to know what they can do for me.) This is a signal that I need to remove treats from training whatever that behavior is.
If you want a more sophisticated real-world example, observe Congress attempting to determine energy policy. You can’t tell me that some of those people aren’t acting in the sincere belief that writing a law mandating energy efficiency or low emissions (and that this all be cheap and clean) is the exact same thing as actually causing these things to happen. Even otherwise sensible humans fall very easily into this pattern of thinking, especially when they are used to having the power to dramatically effect the world around them, even moreso when they experience few or no consequences of a drastic mismatch between mandate and outcome.
THIS is magical thinking: the idea that you can affect everything, that forces that might seem to be beyond your control can be bent to your will, or be subject to demands, or even be subject to negotiation. All of these imply that there is basically no such thing as a force truly beyond not just human control, but you, the all-important individual.
Prayer is not magical thinking. Prayer is a request made with the full understanding that the answer may be, or is even likely to be, “no”, and that the feelings, wants, and perceived importance of the petitioner are mostly irrelevant. Note that it’s very easy for prayer to become magical thinking, just as working for the possibility of a treat can easily slide into “dammit, I did the trick, where’s the treat”, but there’s nothing inherently magical about it… just a difference in opinion about whether there is anyone interested on the other end of the request.
Conflating all belief in any possibility of the supernatural with “magical thinking” is very dangerous for whoever does it, because we’re ALL very prone to it… and never more so than when believing in all sincerity that you have removed yourself from the source of the influence.
*This bit is STRICTLY about how the idea of God in a tough time affects me on a personal, psychological level. I’m quite aware that my feelings have absolutely no bearing whatsoever on whether or not God exists, and if so, what God is like. This post is not meant to be a field for that debate.