All Praise And Blame Be To God

You know what really grinds my gears? Thanking God for miraculously saving someone from harm. Under what conceivable theology does God deserve thanks for miraculously saving someone from harm, but not also blame for failing to act miraculously and preventing the harm from ever occurring in the first place?

A friend (currently a med student) updated his status on Facebook with:

Was just nearly killed on I20 by a police officer not paying attention, but I was miraculously saved from any harm. Thank you God for saving me!

Note: for saving me and my dear wife

I responded, trying to remain polite yet antitheistically contrarian:

I'd blame God (and the police officer) for putting you in that situation to begin with. Glad you are safe, though :D

At this point, I would expect the theistically inclined to respond with some sort of apologia about the free will of the police officer, as if the police officer and God cannot both be held jointly liable: The officer for choosing to be negligent, and God, for choosing to miraculously create the circumstances leading up to this outcome, and/or failure to miraculously intervene and prevent one or more of these contingent circumstances from happening.

My friend responded with more detail and a possible justification:

3 people were injured, including a pregnant woman.

I try to be optimistic, because it could have been so much worse had several things not conspired in our favor.

I'm not sure if optimism is offered as serious justification, but I just don't see how it's relevant here, other than as a confused post-hoc rationalization. Being thankful that things turned out fortuitously is great, but its not a thanks that God deserves, unless God also deserves blame from the three injured people, as well as blame from all those who were needlessly scared by an event that God could have easily prevented, just as easily as God miraculously saved those involved from even greater harm.

My latest response:

Optimism is great, but I see no reason to thank God for saving you unless you are also willing to blame God for creating all of the factors that led to this incident, in which case the net thanks/blame God deserves is unclear. The fact that 3 people were injured, including a pregnant woman, leads me to believe that God deserves net blame, not thanks, if we are attributing the outcome of events to divine intervention. The world would have been better off had this event never happened.

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I feel a song coming on!

Fo Sho!

The longer you talk to the guy, the more dumbfounded you will become. It's a pointless exercise in futility.

I've run into similar things on facebook. For example, one of my buds thanked God for his extended sobriety after being an alcoholic for X amount of years. I didn't say anything. I'm happy for the guy.

Usually with trauma you'll see a perfectly good nut, turn into a flat-out nutball with the God thing. In your example, I think it was guilt that motivated his declaration. Guilt that he wasn't hurt but others were.

These days I just silently observe the devout, and have little to say.

Listen to ThePenileFamily.

Listen to ThePenileFamily. Back when I used to debate theists, I had a guy claim as proof of the existence of god several miracles he had experienced. Most were, not surprisingly, of the "I almost died in a car accident but didn't" variety, although my favorite was a relative's future recovery from addiction. That's right, said relative was *currently* an addict, but our theist was so sure that God would heal him that he was counting it in his miracles column.

A belief in God could be

A belief in God could be harmless and is likely to be harmless. A lot depends on what sort of baggage goes along with it - stuff you're supposed to do, stuff you're not supposed to do, and how you're supposed to deal with unbelievers. And an equivalent amount of baggage can easily be found among many atheists.

A fair point.

I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that all the girls in high school were secretly lusting after me, but I was simply too shy to act on this information. Who cares if this idea is accurate? It gives me satisfaction to imagine it was true, and can’t see how I, or anyone else, could possibly benefit if I received information disconfirming my beliefs.

And in other news, some guy on Facebook seems to evidence an attitude of gratitude. He is able to interpret the events of this life in a manner that gives him satisfaction, a sense of meaning. If his effort to articulate a basis for his feelings doesn’t persuade me, so what?

Self-delusion is altogether too common to combat. I try to save my ammunition for fighting harmful self-delusions.

It gives me satisfaction to

It gives me satisfaction to imagine it was true, and can’t see how I, or anyone else, could possibly benefit if I received information disconfirming my beliefs.

I doubt long term self-delusions can exist in isolation, without somehow interfering with other aspects of life. The causes of the delusion might still exist, and flare up in other situations, leading to poor decision making and/or belief formation, particularly beliefs one creates about one's own sense of worth and value in the example you gave.

There's nothing wrong with expressing an attitude of gratitude; sometimes it takes a traumatic occasion to recognize how much one appreciates and loves their family and friends - a near loss makes us appreciate what we might have otherwise taken for granted.

But one does not need to believe in magic or fairy tales to get satisfaction from life or a sense of meaning. By attributing everything good that happens to God, we deny ourselves and each other credit for what we as humans do to make the world a better place. And we violate reason when we only thank God for the good but do not also blame Him for the bad.

Concrete example

I doubt long term self-delusions can exist in isolation, without somehow interfering with other aspects of life. The causes of the delusion might still exist, and flare up in other situations, leading to poor decision making and/or belief formation, particularly beliefs one creates about one's own sense of worth and value in the example you gave.

I suspect this is a matter of balance.

I confront this issue on a not-quite-daily basis. See, I’m one of those dads that carry a video camera to all their kids’ events. And when my kids were younger, they were pretty much thrilled to see themselves on video. As they get older, they’re less thrilled. Yes, they feel some performance anxiety if they know they’re being filmed. But I suspect there are larger issues at play.

First, I suspect they hold images in their heads about how a given event unfolded, and in particular about their own role in the event. The video always displaces the images in their own minds with the images on the screen. Thus, by viewing the video they lose something, much like seeing a movie of a book deprives you of the images your own mind generated when reading the book.

Second, the video images are not necessarily as flattering as their mental images.

No, this realization hasn’t stopped me from videoing. But I have greatly reduced the occasions when I show my kids recent videos of themselves. I let the tapes ripen for a year or so before we pull them out.

Constant, I'm just focusing

Constant,

I'm just focusing on the issue presented here, not on the net utilitarian value of belief in God generally.

Here is where I see the problem; ThePenileFamily gave one example of it.

one of my buds thanked God for his extended sobriety after being an alcoholic for X amount of years

So we have here a case of a former alcoholic, who chose to become - and succeeded in becoming - sober for a number of years, which is no small feat, thanking God for doing something that he actually did himself, through his own hard work and perseverance. Perhaps if pride was a problem for this fellow, I could see the benefit of toning down one's own accomplishments, but I suspect that most alcoholics suffer from a lack of self-esteem, not too much of it. Denying one's own accomplishments does not strike me as harmless.

In the case I was thinking of, after my father had a heart attack a few years ago, he fell into a coma for weeks, and the doctors were unsure whether he would make it, and if so, whether he suffered brain damage from extended oxygen deprivation. Fortunately, he came out of his coma and made a complete recovery. My mother thinks it is a miracle that he lived, but I view this as an insult to reason (for if God saved my father from death, God could have certainly saved him and all of us from the horror of the entire experience instead by preventing the hearth attack entirely) as well as an insult to the doctors, medical equipment engineers, EMTs, and other constituents of the Modern Western Medical Industrial Complex™ who contributed to his survival.

Part of what surprised and shocked me about my friends Facebook posting is that he will presumably be a doctor one day, and doctors often council patients on dealing with difficult decisions and outcomes. Belief in divine intervention and medical miracles on the part of doctors can be extremely dangerous when we are dealing with resource scarcity (i.e. the world in which we live) and when care, attention, and money are spent on long shot Hail Mary passes that could be better spent saving the lives of the more likely to recover. This kind of theism interferes with triage.

It may be that AA's approach

It may be that AA's approach is not genuinely helpful, but a close friend, who was alcoholic and made several attempts to overcome it, has now been sober for many years and his sobriety coincides with his adopting the AA approach. That approach, as you may be aware, involves such things as admitting that one has no ability to control the disease of alcoholism, and turning over control to a higher power. As a psychological device for dealing with alcoholism, it at least seems plausible, and my friend's sobriety coincides with adopting that device. I, for one, am not certain that this is mere coincidence. Alcoholism was killing my friend, literally. For all I know, my friend is alive now because of this psychological device of believing that a higher power is assisting. You write:

Denying one's own accomplishments does not strike me as harmless.

But denying his own accomplishments, by assigning them to a higher power, may have saved my friend's life.

My mother thinks it is a miracle that he lived, but I view this as an insult to reason

Maybe so, but I am interested in results, not insults.

Belief in divine intervention and medical miracles on the part of doctors can be extremely dangerous when we are dealing with resource scarcity (i.e. the world in which we live) and when care, attention, and money are spent on long shot Hail Mary passes that could be better spent saving the lives of the more likely to recover.

Do you have examples, and if you do, do you have reason to think that these examples are representative of a significant problem? For my part, I tend to think it is not much of a problem, especially among trained professionals, in part because I have known various religious scientists. Most recently, Steven Landsburg has explained the point. Landsburg observes that belief in God fails to affect decisions as one might have expected it would if the belief were genuine. He concludes that the belief is not genuine. I don't follow him all the way to that conclusion, but I find that his observation - that religious belief has a curiously minimal effect on behavior - rings true, is consistent with my experience. (See "What do believers believe?" in "The Big Questions", by Steven Landsburg.)

Do you have examples The

Do you have examples

The Terri Schiavo case.

do you have reason to think that these examples are representative of a significant problem

Ethics, and bioethics in particular, are filled with cases like the above. I'd list some other famous ones, but I gotta go do some work. Back later.

I view the AA's approach as a mixture of bad with good. I'd like to see some actual evidence that an addiction recovery program involving "turning over control to a higher power" has a better success rate than an addiction recovery program without that plank. I suspect that this plank is at best unnecessary, and at worst actively harmful to the success of an otherwise beneficial program. That beneficial program may be beneficial in spite of that plank, not because of it, just as the market is beneficial to its participants in spite of the welfare state, not because of it.

A husband eager to get rid of

A husband eager to get rid of an inconvenient wife, and parents reluctant to pull the plug on a beloved daughter, does not strike me as terribly religious on either side.

Did somebody use religion as a basis for making an argument about Terry Schiavo? But I warn against making too much of people who use religion to support their opinions. For example, the Declaration of Independence states that,

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

The writers are here appealing to belief in a Creator to support their assertion that men have rights. But the belief in a Creator is inessential. This is a religious rationalization for a belief which has other origins and better reasons. It seems obvious to me that people have perfectly good earthly reasons to want to be free. They may appeal to a Creator, but it is not religion that makes them want freedom.

Do people have perfectly good

Do people have perfectly good earthly reasons for wanting to keep the irrecoverably comatose on indefinite, expensive life support? Or is this a belief that only be "justified" through irrational faith?

I do not need religion to

I do not need religion to help me to understand why parents would be inclined to remain hopeful even after everyone else immediately involved lost hope, or why parents would be willing to devote vast resources to the indefinite support of their child. Nor do I need religion to help me to understand why people do not entirely trust the claims of experts.

Note that I didn't mentioned

Note that I didn't mention religion in the post to which you were responding; I mentioned irrational faith. And I'm not asking whether this kind of irrational faith in medical miracles is understandable on some level, but whether it is justifiable - that is, whether we have "perfectly good earthly reasons" for believing it.

If you don't trust the claims of the experts, why are you bothering to take your ill family members to the hospital in the first place? It seems suspiciously selective to trust doctors when it comes to taking their advice on how to make someone better, but ignoring their advice when what they are telling you is an unpleasant truth: that there is nothing left to do for your loved one, and that indefinite life support is not only a tremendous waste of resources, but often unpleasant and disrespectful to the patient's own interests.

Note that I didn't mention

Note that I didn't mention religion in the post to which you were responding; I mentioned irrational faith.

I was assuming you hadn't changed the subject. I have a tendency to stick to an argument that I started with and assume the other guy is sticking to it. My first comment was this:

A belief in God could be harmless and is likely to be harmless. A lot depends on what sort of baggage goes along with it - stuff you're supposed to do, stuff you're not supposed to do, and how you're supposed to deal with unbelievers. And an equivalent amount of baggage can easily be found among many atheists.

What I am saying here is that atheists are often as irrational as, or more irrational than those who believe in God, in ways that matter.

However, it so happens that I don't think the parents are necessarily irrational. What they are certainly not is utilitarian. Reading your earlier discussion of triage it seems that you were implicitly applying utilitarianism in your assessment. This is a case where what utilitarianism demands is not the same as what the genes demand. Genetic selfishness is always at the expense of competing genes. The success of one allele - an increase in its fraction of the population - is always at the expense of the success of some other competing alleles, since for the fraction of one allele to increase it is necessary that the fraction of some other alleles at the same locus decrease.

The result is that human beings are selfish with respect to unrelated human beings. They will prefer themselves and their families to unrelated others. They will, then, not want to relinquish medical care for their family in order that some stranger have more medical care available. I think this deserves to be considered rational (though I don't think it's the only sort of thing that deserves to be considered rational; I am an advocate of considering any desires whatsoever, including genetically unselfish ones, as valid goals of rational behavior) and it is not utilitarian. So it is un-utilitarian rationality.

If you don't trust the claims of the experts, why are you bothering to take your ill family members to the hospital in the first place?

Oh, that's easy. There is some probability the doctor is wrong and doesn't know what he's talking about. Suppose that the probability that the doctor (indeed the whole medical profession) is wrong is 20%, and then let us see what is the rational behavior that results from this.

Suppose that your daughter falls ill and you are deciding whether to take her to the doctor. Your probabilities might be something like:

  • 80% that the doctor can correctly diagnose the illness
  • 20% that the doctor cannot
  • If correctly diagnosed, 80% that the doctor can successfully cure it, 20% that he cannot.

80%*80%=64%, so the probability that the doctor can diagnose and cure your daughter is 64%. So you take your daughter to the hospital. This answers your question, "why are you bothering to take your ill family members to the hospital in the first place."

So you take your daughter to the hospital, and your daughter falls into a coma and your doctors tell you that your daughter is truly brain dead and has no chance of recovery. Your new probabilities are:

  • 80% that the doctor is correct and your daughter has no chance of recovery
  • 20% that the doctor is incorrect and your daughter can recover at some future time.

Now you are going to decide whether to pull the plug. You are not going to have any more kids. Are you willing to spend the money for a 20% probability that your daughter will recover? Rationally, you very well might. All the more so if the cost of treatment is not actually coming out of your pocket currently. If insurance or taxpayers are paying for this then there's all the more perfectly rational reason to prefer to keep your daughter alive despite the doctor's diagnosis.

By the time of her celebrity, of course, it may very well have been possible for her parents to keep her alive indefinitely on their own dime by selling Terry Schiavo-related merchandise to well-wishers and those keenly interested in their story (I'm thinking books).

If you are offended by the notion of keeping Terry Schiavo alive, then one thing you might want to choose to direct your anger at is a system that potentially allows the Schindlers to keep Terry Schiavo alive at taxpayer expense. You might instead advocate a system in which people pay for their own medicine, so that the cost of care is internalized. In a system in which somebody else pays, perfectly rational, self-interested people have an incentive to spend arbitrarily large amounts of wealth on themselves.

If you want to blame religion

If you want to blame religion for something, then treat it as a mind virus and blame it for the ways in which it sacrifices the genetic interest of the host in order to spread and maintain itself. Holy war and religious charity arguably spread the religion at the expense of the host. You might also blame it for the requirement to marry inside the faith, since that arguably sustains the religion at the expense of the genetic health of the offspring. Blame it for celibacy and blame it for honor killing.

I can and do blame it for all

I can and do blame it for all those things, as well as the less obviously bad but still harmful aspects such as the example presented here.

the problem is called "theodicy"

Google it when you have much time to kill.

There is no objective test to differentiate between "God" and "always was." "God" is my null condition and he has bailed me out to many times to deny him.