Friday, 29 July 2011

The Importance of Being a Bastard

I upset an old friend this week. She posted a FB status about someone in hospital, and in addition to asking for general emotional support, she called for prayer and positive energy. I objected to the latter, which caused some froth of defence from her other friends (mostly along the lines of, "You have no right to say that prayer doesn't work!") before my post was deleted.

Thing is, this isn't just a grouchy atheist being skeptical for skepticism's sake. I had good (I think) short- and long-term reasons for addressing it right then and there. In the short term, I understand her urge to do something, but sometimes we face problems that we literally can't do anything about. If your reaction to that is to abandon all rationality, abandon your principles and start relying on magic wishes instead, then there are necessarily going to be negative consequences. I reckon they include:
1. Should things go badly, you take on guilt unnecessarily, because you "didn't do enough" (ignoring the fact that you shouldn't have assumed you could do anything in the first place).
2. The pressure to do enough of this nonsensical stuff while you still can will only add stress unnecessarily.
3. In the long term, publicly encouraging others to share this nonsense with you will only spread the nonsense further. And we needn't look further than the hyper-religious parts of the US or most islamic countries to see where the harm is in that.

It's also important to note that it isn't just my opinion that prayer and other such wishful magic is bullshit; we have fairly conclusive evidence. Either it doesn't work, or the deity in charge was enough of a dick to let hundreds of random people die, just to prove a point about testing faith.

On a grander scale, though, I think it's important to stick to our principles in times of crisis, or what good are they? It's easy to be a fair weather rationalist, long before and long after there's trouble, and easy to panic and invoke every crazy, impossible hope when things go bad. But it takes some courage or determination or blunt stubbornness to stick to your principles when they start to seem a bit inconvenient. To be clear, I'm not advocating never, ever changing your principles - I've been wrong too many times to believe that - but there's a difference between dropping a belief on a whim (or cramming in lots of contradictory beliefs), and being convinced that it was wrong and something else must be right.

Does this mean we must all be completely stoic and Vulcan in the face of tragedy? Of course not, we're Human and we have emotions, and these are as important and as they are unavoidable. But if we let our emotions rule us completely, we're in trouble. But as necessary as our emotional side is, it's the rational side that'll see us through trouble, and so we need to learn to defer to it when we absolutely least want to. And we need to remind each other of this, even/especially when we're too emotional to want to hear it. It's not nice, but it's important.