Jan 27, 2013


I hardly remember my grandfather, but I’ve come to suspect that certain values common to all his children and grandchildren may be the reflections of lessons he learned in his own life. Without exception, each of us graduated from college, for instance, and there are other commonalities that can’t be traced to genetics (as far as I know). I can recognize echoes of my father’s life in mine, too.
I don’t want to live forever, and when I die, I have no illusions about an afterlife, and that’s okay with me. It’s a comfort, though, to think that– maybe– the lessons I’ve learned the hard way might echo along in someone else’s life, and make their lives a little easier.
Thank you, Grieving Atheist, for stimulating these thoughts by your excellent writing.

Dec 1, 2012

"A good moment for us"

On November 14, 2012, New York Police Officer Larry De Primo was walking in Time Square, when he saw a homeless man leaning against a building asking people for change.  Panhandling is illegal in Time Square, but DePrimo was more concerned by the fact that the man was wearing no shoes.  The  25-year-old officer’s own feet were cold, even though he was wearing two pairs of winter socks inside winter boots. 

DePrimo went into a nearby shoe store and returned a few minutes later.  He knelt next to the man and told him he had some size 12 boots and some socks for him.  “Let’s get these on you and get you taken care of,” the policeman said.  They shared a smile, and he helped the man put on his new socks and shoes.  Declining DePrimo’s offer of hot coffee and a sandwich, the homeless man went on his way.

Unbeknownst to the two of them, their picture had been taken by an admiring tourist whose father had also been a police officer.  The picture ended up on NYPD’s Facebook page, and quickly received half a million “likes.” 

Why did this random act of kindness mean so much to so many people? Knowing the context, it’s hard to look at the picture and not be moved.  Reporters have been trying to squeeze every ounce of emotion out of the story, but I think they’re missing the point.

We look at that picture, and we catch a glimpse of a way of life we often forget is possible.  Life doesn’t always have to be a competition, with winners who are virtuous and strong, and losers who are lazy and immoral.  Sometimes, if we don’t look the other way, we can make life just a little bit better.  We can decide that we’re not leaving anyone behind.

And it’s not a matter of giving in order to get back. DePrimo made it clear that he knows this, by the way he described the shared smile he had with the man on the street.  “It was a good moment for us,” he said. 

Whatever happened to the Americans who used to believe in “Us?”

Nov 27, 2012

The end of APE

November 28, 2012

Six weeks later…

I hadn’t intended the October 17 entry to be my last one during the Atheist Prayer Experiment, but this is the first I’ve returned to post on the site. I did continue to comment on the APE Facebook page, and I very much enjoyed the people I met there. 

I did, in fact, continue praying until the 40th day, though from day 1 to day 40, I probably missed five or six days.  If I got up late in the morning, and  I told myself that I was going to pray later in the day, sometimes I never got back around to it.

At the close of the project, Justin Brierley, the host of Unbelievable, emailed out a list of questions to everyone; it was his means of gauging the impact of 40 days of prayer in the lives of the participants.

I answered those questions from Justin in a telephone interview, parts of which were used for the second Unbelievable episode on the APE,  broadcast on November 17, 2012.  The podcasts for the twoUnbelievable APE episodes can be found at this link or at iTunes.  The sound file of my individual interview can be heard or downloaded at this link.

I haven’t decided what to do with this blog now that the APE is over. My other online writing is in a forum that is more targeted toward specific subjects, and it is less suited to editorial comment or, for that matter, candor.  I can be more candid here, but that doesn’t free me from the obligation to focus this blog in a particular direction.  As my sister told me recently, “you write well, but you haven’t found your voice.”  It didn’t take much soul-searching to realize that she’s right. 

For now, I thought I’d conclude my work on the APE, for those who may have read parts of the project this far.   More to come.

Oct 17, 2012

What a frigging miserable month...

Statistically, it made sense that at least one of the seventy people who started this project was going to find that it was a miserable month for doing something like this.  Without exaggeration, I can say that this has been one of the most difficult months of my life.  

Some of you know that two days after I emailed Justin to request signup for this project, my father died.  A week later, one day before the project started, I returned home from after three weeks away to find one of my cats dying.  Give or take an hour, I found myself at the vet’s hearing the same language about my cat that the hospice people had used about my father.  “It’s for the best… a better place…suffering is ended….take as much time as you want…”

A(n obscure) national council on which I serve met this week.  Of the 18 people on the Council, three of our fathers and one partner have died in the past six weeks.  There’s no causal connection between these deaths.  Each happened for a different reason to someone in a different part of the country.

I haven’t been looking for coincidences, folks.  I dare say that had a string of positive coincidences happened like this in my life, some of you would be telling me it was a sign.

Oct 10, 2012

What we want to believe doesn't always matter

Today, Justin Brierley posted a link to a website from Jeff Cook, a man who considers Blaise Pascal to be a wise man.   The linked blog entry asks the question “Could believing in God harm your soul?” Cook’s claim was that the most important thing to Jesus is that we WANT to believe.

Pascal’s Wager has always seemed asinine to me, because it only works for those who don’t care what the truth is.  It’s the same thing with “wanting to believe.” The idea here is that if you only WANT to believe badly enough, you will. 

It’s a twist on the blame-the-praying-person concept, which says “If you don’t believe you’ll receive a revelation, you won’t get one. “ In this case, if you don’t WANT to get a revelation, you won’t get one.   Here’s the problem in the form of a question: since when has what we WANTed to believe ever made that thing real?

It isn’t that we don’t TRY to believe what we want. Changing our minds on an issue involves a certain amount of internal strife as the old ideas go to war with new ones.  For that reason, we try to stick with the information that confirms what we already believe. We will filter out conflicting information and receive confirmation with open arms.  That isn’t the same, however, as actually believing what you want to believe.

I know from experience that WANTing to believe doesn’t always matter, at least not if you care about the facts.  I was a believer, and now I’m not.  I had invested a lot and sacrificed a lot for my faith, and I certainly didn’t want to believe the claims of my religion were untrue.  I didn’t want to lose most of my friends and part of my family;  I also didn’t want to have to admit to myself that I had been so wrong.  

To people of faith, I was worse than unsaved.  And even if I had met any atheists, they would have  thought I was an idiot for believing so fervently in the first place.  It was years before I found anyone who could relate to my experiences.

Why go through all of that?  Because the facts were clearly against what I wanted to believe, and it bothered my conscience more to embrace a lie than it did to leave my faith.

I’m not saying there are no sincere believers. I know better, because I was one.  I’m not saying that we don’t sometimes delude ourselves.  I’m just saying that what we WANT to believe doesn’t always matter, especially if we care about the facts. 

Day 23: I prayed the usual prayer today. No signs, signals, or revelations so far.

Oct 7, 2012

How much belief before it counts as “prayer?”

Is it possible for skeptics to pray?  Regardless of whether you’re a believer or a skeptic, this is not a simple question. 

From the skeptical perspective (perskeptive?), there may or may not be anyone there to receive the message.  Must communication take place (i.e., a sender and a receiver) for it to count as prayer? If there is a receiver, does it make a difference to them how fervently the praying person believes someone is listening?

My sense is that most believers think prayer doesn’t count unless one has faith (believes) that there’s a god up there listening.  By this definition f someone prays who is 100% sure that there are no gods,  it would be impossible for that person’s action to be counted as “prayer.”

To what degree is belief necessary, therefore, before it can count as prayer?

To my knowledge, no human being thinks that the act of believing occurs with the flip of a switch.  We don’t immediately accept or reject every new idea that comes along.  New ideas that fit our expectations are easier to accept, but when a new idea creates dissonance, it will take time to sort out.

An example of this might be a time that a trusted friend tells a story we probably wouldn’t normally believe.  Cognitive dissonance ensues.  We may “take it on faith” pending further information that the friend is telling the truth, but we will still have  questions that demand answers, if only in our subconscious.  Is the story true?  Did the friend have some sort of psychic break?  Do they have reason to lie? Was the friend never as trustworthy as we once thought?

It goes without saying that the act of prayer creates cognitive dissonance for a skeptic.  He might say in his mind, “I’m doing something that has no purpose and no meaning. This is silly.”  Is there a slight chance that the prayer “microphone” into which we speak is active and broadcasting to a listening audience capable of respondining?  If so, what percentage of likelihood must we believe in order for our prayer to be a prayer?

From the believer’s perspective, the question is just as valid, but for different reasons.   Believers often behave as if unbelief is both a choice and a sin.  A believer whose doubt overcomes his or her belief has not just changed his mind, he has failed.  Even in the Bible, we have the man who beseeches Jesus, “I believe Lord. Help my unbelief!”   Clearly, disbelief is something to be avoided, being in and of itself a bad thing.

To such a believer, one must not just pray, but they must “pray believing” that the prayer will be heard and answered.  The same question applies: what percentage of likelihood must we believe in order for our prayer to be a prayer?

Oct 5, 2012

Day 19: Still praying

 I’m still at it, and I’m surprised to be nearly half-way through.  I haven’t seen any signs that I’ve recognized, and I haven’t heard audible voices, and I haven’t even been sure the frequency was open. 

I pray out loud, because it’s what I would do if I were trying to talk to any other person I didn’t know.  Sure,

For most days, I’ve prayed a something like the prayer I prayed on Day 6.  I pray that if they’re the sort of supreme being or god(s) who communicate with human beings, then:

·      I want to hear from them.
·      Even if I don’t like what they have to say, I’d rather have hard facts than a pleasant illusion.
·      I recognize that I may have misunderstood everything about how the world actually works, and
·      I’m willing to change my views if I get an explanation that makes sense given the evidence, and that doesn’t require me to ignore what I know about how easily the mind can be fooled.

Then I listen for a few minutes.

I pray out loud, because that way I know there are at least sound waves bouncing around with my prayer on them.  If I pray in my mind, it feels an awful lot like daydreaming, and then I might have a hard time remembering if I’d actually prayed on a given day.  So far, I think I’ve missed two days.  In both cases, I didn’t pray in the morning, so by the end of the day, I was distracted.