The worth of belief

Yesterday a friend of mine posted a link to a blog post on the American Geophysical Union (AGU) website entitled “Praying for Oklahoma is worthless“.  The author appears to assert that praying is worthless because, logically, it cannot change the outcome of a tornado ripping large chunks out of the American Mid West.  Using logic, one should not waste one’s time praying as it will not save lives, heal the wounded, find lost dogs, or any other thing that one might pray for.  To quote Callan Bentley, the author of the blog:

As far as I can tell, those who prayed added nothing of any value.

Which he then attempts to clarify following some feedback in the comments:

…the act of prayer alone adds nothing of any value, so far as I can tell (please prove me wrong). I make no claims beyond that, and certainly don’t want to make any statements about the people who practice the act of prayer, beyond pointing out that they are likely wasting their time.

And following some further discussion in the comments, which leads onto what I wanted to talk about, he says:

…the comfort of praying is an act of self-soothing, not distantly efficacious. A secular version could be termed meditation or reflection… Making ourselves feel better by indulging in reflection, meditation, or prayer is fine, but we shouldn’t think it does anything beyond the confines of our own minds.

I’m not intending to rip apart Callan’s blog, so I won’t, but it raises some interesting things.  Firstly, that in times of crisis, prayer is not a logical thing to do.  And secondly, that the act of praying confers no benefits beyond one’s emotional well-being.  I don’t think that I agree with either of those points, for the following reasons…

Firstly, whether an act is logical or not is down to opinion.  Opinion is informed by belief so what you believe in will influence how you behave; whether your actions are logical will depend on who is making that judgement!  So in Callan’s blog, to him the act of praying is not logical, because his set of beliefs is based on scientific reason, the testing of hypothesis, evidence based fact, and so on.  In this set of beliefs the existence of a spiritual connection or deity to whom you would pray is illogical (and probably irrational), as there is no scientific proof.  Ergo, praying has no worth as it will not achieve anything.  [EDIT: Actually,  the first part of this paragraph is incorrect – logic is not opinion, it is the process of arriving at a conclusion based on the evidence to hand.  Opinion is whether you believe the logical conclusion that has been drawn.  In this case, Callan’s opinion is that praying is worthless because to him, the evidence doesn’t exist to drawn a logical conclusion about its value.  I would argue that, logically, praying does work.]

But if one’s belief system does not hold to scientific reasoning, testing, evidence, etc., then is praying a logical thing to do?  Well, possibly it is!  Although I am a scientist I recognise that people have beliefs which aren’t logical by my belief system, or others who have similar beliefs (or faith).  That doesn’t make one ‘right’ and the other ‘wrong’, and it certainly doesn’t make one more valuable than the other, as is implied by the article.  And so I don’t agree that praying is illogical, at least not for those who believe in the act of prayer.

Secondly, and following on from that thought, while praying (or meditation etc.) may not have any worth to someone who doesn’t believe in its value, that does not mean that it has no value to another person.  Say, for example, you were lying buried under your recently and violently disassembled abode.  Your survival may depend on your mental fortitude to overcome hours or days without essential food, water and warmth.  And say that fortitude comes from the belief that your family, friends, and congregation are praying for your safety… if you survive, can it be said that your belief in prayer or some spiritual strength is worthless?  No, of course you can’t!  And on the flip-side, if you are praying for a trapped family member, you are conferring to them some sort of strength.

Whether you, I, or Callan believe in something like that makes no difference.  People do gain great mental strength from prayer, meditation or a spiritual connection and if it helps them to survive, then why should they be criticised or judged or told that what they’re doing is worthless?

I was raised a Catholic.  I went to church, was an altar boy, gave readings, played in the church band.  I don’t believe in God, despite (or because?) of all that, but I think we all have a spiritual connection to something.  A few summers ago I visited a Neolithic stone circle called the Ring of Brodgar on the Scottish island of Orkney.  Despite not being religious, and with a healthy skepticism of religion, I could not help but feel the power of the place.

Some of the stones in the Ring of Brodgar, on Orkey, Scotland.
Some of the stones in the Ring of Brodgar, on Orkey, Scotland.

The Ring’s true purpose is not known, but for a site such as that to have survived for so long (~4,500 yrs), it surely exuded its power to all generations before our time.  I think that there must have been a belief that the stones were there for something spiritual, more than mere function.  Here again, spiritual belief has value, since it has preserved this circle for the benefit of others.

So some of my arguments above are typical of internet nit-picking and pedantry, and I somehow shoe-horned an old holiday snap in too.  But I think the basic message of my thoughts stand: praying for Oklahoma is not worthless.  To those who believe in the act, praying can confer benefits to people whether you believe it or not, and I believe that you’d have to be pretty daft to criticise, or worse stop, others for walking this particular path.

4 thoughts on “The worth of belief

  1. Kurt Thursday 23rd May, 2013 / 11:13 pm

    “whether your actions are logical will depend on who is making that judgement”
    That statement is wrong on so many levels it’s laughable.

    • Kit Carruthers Thursday 23rd May, 2013 / 11:16 pm

      I’m all ears if you’d care to explain!

    • Kit Carruthers Friday 24th May, 2013 / 12:01 am

      Actually, thinking about it, you’re right. If the arguments are laid out and followed then a logical conclusion is drawn, regardless of opinion. Whether the arguments are correct is opinion. I’ll amend the blog, thanks!

      • Kurt Friday 24th May, 2013 / 2:42 am

        Sorry, Kit. My comment was way too harsh. Something I need to work on.

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