Saturday, May 24, 2008

Our Demon-Haunted World

I was channel surfing past an episode of Oprah this week when I was once again reminded that this is a world infested by the foul demons of ignorance. Yes, once again it featured "The Secret" and had a whole panel explaining how "the universe" is all about making the mildest dreams of middle class suburban families a reality. I just had to change the channel when one of those "secret teachers" explained that "physics now tells us" that we actually "create the things we want out of energy". Clearly me and this woman did not just watch the same clip! Because she apparently saw a housewife "creating" the stove of her dreams out of energy. All I saw was someone who liked a particular stove, had the money to buy it, went to the store and then bought it!! And for the record, physics tells us no such thing. May Zombie Einstein beat anyone who misuses E=mc2 in this way to death with their own shoes!

Of course Oprah and her shrieking hordes are not the only purveyors of bullshit. Spend enough time on the internet and you are bound to run into hollow earthers, conspiracy theorists (of all flavours), moon landing hoaxers, alien worshipers, basically believers of every kind, simply far too many to list. Trust me, there is no idea that seems to be too ridiculous. I kid you not. Think of the most insane, implausible thing you can and I bet you will find people online who will buy into it. The worst part is that its not just the crazies on the internet that believe in nonsense, its even people in positions of power! From school boards trying to ban real science in favour of young earth creationism to the (South African) health minister who doesn't think traditional healers (aka witchdoctors) needs to be tested with this all this silly western "science" malarkey. In short, our world is drowning in bullshit and something needs to be done!

Now as much as I hate bullshit I'm hardly what you would call a crusader against it. I have no plans to join Anonymous in the war against Scientology (although I happily provide the links should anyone want to know more). If anyone I know needs medical help and decides to forgo medical care in favour of "alternative" medicine (there really is no such thing, if it works it's medicine, if it doesn't its "alternative medicine") I would most certainly speak up, but I have no plans to start protesting at my local homeopath. In a similar vein, while The Secret infuriates me to no end (and I will bash it to all who would listen for as long as I can) I'm not going to set any bookstores on fire either. But this brings me to the one thing I can do - the fact that I can inform. I can talk about it with my friends, I can post on discussion boards and I can blog it. It may not make much of a difference but I certainly find it preferable to passively accepting the downward spiral our society seems to be taking back into the superstition of the dark ages. In a world where charlatans like mediums and psychics get serious treatment from mainstream media and big companies hire dowsers and astrologers, everyone who is able to ought to stand up and speak out against this rolling wave of unreason that is threatening to drown us all. Just in case you think I'm being too harsh here and that these things are no big deal and doesn't harm anyone, please take a moment and visit - putting your faith in nonsense can cost you VERY dearly indeed!

So then, in the spirit of shining a light in the darkness, here is a brilliant extract from Dr Carl Sagan's book The Demon-Haunted World. It describes a toolkit you can use to separate the facts from the fairytales. Then it goes on to list some of the most common logical fallacies. Much to my embarrassment I have to admit that until very recently I didn't even know what logical fallacies were! (I'm going to blame that one on Apartheid) I certainly learned a lot from Dr Sagan and I hope that you will gain something from it as well.

Banish the demons of ignorance wherever you find them!


The following is an extract from The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan (pp 196-204)[1]

In science we may start with experimental results, data, observations, measurements, 'facts'. We invent, if we can, a rich array of possible explanations and systematically confront each explanation with the facts. In the course of their training, scientists are equipped with a baloney detection kit. The kit is brought out as a matter of course whenever new ideas are offered for consideration. If the new idea survives examination by the tools in our kit, we grant it warm, although tentative, acceptance. If you're so inclined, if you don't want to buy baloney even when it's reassuring to do so, there are precautions that can be taken; there's a tried-and-true, consumer-tested method.

What is in the kit? Tools for skeptical thinking.

What skeptical thinking boils down to is the means to construct, and to understand, a reasoned argument and, especially important, to recognize a fallacious or fraudulent argument. The question is not whether we like the conclusion that emerges out of a train of reasoning, but whether the conclusion that emerges out of a train follows from the premise of starting point and whether that premise is true.

Among the tools:

  • Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the "facts".
  • Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
  • Arguments from authority carry little weight -- "authorities" have made mistakes in the past. They will do so again in the future. Perhaps a better way to say it is that in science there are no authorities; at most, there are experts.
  • Spin more than one hypothesis. If there's something to be explained, think of all the different ways in which it could be explained. Then think of tests by which you might systematically disprove each of the alternatives. What survives, the hypothesis that resists disproof in this Darwinian selection among "multiple working hypotheses," has a much better chance of being the right answer than if you had simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.
  • Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it's yours. It's only a way station in the pursuit of knowledge. Ask yourself why you like the idea. Compare it fairly with the alternatives. See if you can find reasons for rejecting it. If you don't, others will.
  • Quantify. If whatever it is you're explaining has some measure, some numerical quantity attached to it, you'll be much better able to discriminate among competing hypotheses. What is vague and qualitative is open to many explanations. Of course there are the truths to be sought in the many qualitative issues we are obliged to confront, but finding them is more challenging.
  • If there's a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work (including the premise) -- not just most of them.
  • Occam's Razor. This convenient rule-of-thumb urges us when faced with two hypotheses that explain the data equally well to choose the simpler. [simpler = the conclusion which relies on the least number of unsupported propositions]
  • Always ask whether the hypothesis can be, at least in principle, falsified. Propositions that are untestable, unfalsifiable are not worth much. Consider the grand idea that our Universe and everything in it is just an elementary particle -- an electron, say -- in a much bigger Cosmos. But if we can never acquire information from outside our Universe, is not the idea incapable of disproof? You must be able to check assertions out. Inveterate skeptics must be given the chance to follow your reasoning, to duplicate your experiments and see if they get the same result.

The reliance on carefully designed and controlled experiments is key, as I tried to stress earlier. We will not learn much from mere contemplation. It is tempting to rest content with the first candidate explanation we can think of One is much better than none. But what happens if we can invent several? How do we decide among them? We don't. We let experiment do it. Francis Bacon provided the classic reason:

"Argumentation cannot suffice for the discovery of new work, since the subtlety of Nature is greater many times than the subtlety of argument."

Control experiments are essential. If, for example, a new medicine is alleged to cure a disease 2o percent of the time, we must make sure that a control population, taking a dummy sugar pill which as far as the subjects know might be the new drug, does not also experience spontaneous remission of the disease 20 percent of the time.

Variables must be separated. Suppose you're seasick. and given both an acupressure bracelet and 50 milligrams of meclizine. You find the unpleasantness vanishes. What did it- the bracelet or the pill? You can tell only if you take the one without the other, next time you're seasick. Now imagine that you're not so dedicated to science as to be willing to be seasick. Then you won't separate the variables. You'll take both remedies again. You've achieved the desired practical result; further knowledge, you might say, is not worth the discomfort of attaining it.

Often the experiment must be done "double-blind", so that those hoping for a certain finding are not in the potentially compromising position of evaluating the results. In testing a new medicine, for example, you might want the physicians who determine which patients' symptoms are relieved not to know which patients have been given the new drug. The knowledge might influence their decision, even if only unconsciously. Instead the list of those who experienced remission of symptoms can be compared with the list of those who got the new drug, each independently ascertained. Then you can determine what correlation exists. Or in conducting a police lineup or photo identification, the officer in charge should not know who the prime suspect is, so as not consciously or unconsciously to influence the witness.

In addition to teaching us what to do when evaluating a claim to knowledge, any good baloney detection kit must also teach us what not to do. It helps us recognize the most common and perilous fallacies of logic and rhetoric. Many good examples can be found in religion and politics, because their practitioners are so often obliged to justify two contradictory propositions. Among these fallacies are:

  • Ad hominem -- Latin for "to the man," attacking the arguer and not the argument (e.g. The Reverend Dr. Smith is a known Biblical fundamentalist, so her objections to evolution need not be taken seriously).
  • Argument from authority (e.g., President Richard Nixon should be re-elected because he has a secret plan to end the war in Southeast Asia -- but because it was secret, there was no way for the electorate to evaluate it on its merits; the argument amounted to trusting him because he was President; a mistake, as it turned out).
  • Argument from adverse consequences (e.g., a God meting out punishment and reward must exist, because if He didn't, society would be much more lawless and dangerous – perhaps even ungovernable. Or: the defendant in a widely publicized murder trial must be found guilty; otherwise, it will be an encouragement for other men to murder their wives).
  • Appeal to ignorance -- the claim that whatever has not been proved false must be true, and vice versa (e.g., there is no compelling evidence that UFOs are not visiting the Earth; therefore UFOs exist -- and there is intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe. Or: there may be seventy kazillion other worlds, but not one is known to have the moral advancement of the Earth, so we're still central to the Universe.) This impatience with ambiguity can be criticized in the phrase: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
  • Special pleading, often to rescue a proposition in deep rhetorical trouble (e.g., how can a merciful God condemn future generations to torment because, against orders, one woman induced one man to eat an apple? Special plead: you don't understand the subtle Doctrine of Free Will. Or: how can there be an equally godlike Father, Son, and Holy Ghost in the same Person? Special plead: you don't understand the Divine Mystery of the Trinity. Or: How could God permit the followers of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam -- each in their own way enjoined to heroic measures of loving kindness and compassion -- to have perpetrated so much cruelty for so long? Special plead: you don't understand Free Will again. And anyway, God moves in mysterious ways).
  • Begging the question, also called assuming the answer (e.g., we must institute the death penalty to discourage violent crime. But does the violent crime rate in fact fall when the death penalty is imposed? Or: the stock market fell yesterday because of a technical adjustment and profit-taking by investors -- but is there any independent evidence for the causal role of "adjustment" and profit-taking; have we learned anything at all from this purported explanation?).
  • Observational selection, also called the enumeration of favorable circumstances, or as the philosopher Francis Bacon described it, counting the hits and forgetting the misses (see footnote) (e.g., a state boasts of the Presidents it has produced, but is silent on its serial killers).
  • Statistics of small numbers -- a close relative of observational selection (e.g., "they say 1 out of every 5 people is Chinese. How is this possible? I know hundreds of people, and none of them is Chinese. Yours truly." Or: "I've thrown three sevens in a row. Tonight I can't lose.")
  • Misunderstanding of the nature of statistics (e.g., President Dwight Eisenhower expressing astonishment and alarm on discovering that fully half of all Americans have below average intelligence!).
  • Inconsistency (e.g., prudently plan for the worst of which a potential military adversary is capable, but thriftily ignore scientific projections on environmental dangers because they're not "proved". Or: attribute the declining life expectancy in the former Soviet Union to the failures of communism many years ago, but never attribute the high infant mortality rate in the United States (now highest of the major industrial nations) to the failures of capitalism. Or: Consider it reasonable for the Universe to continue to exist forever into the future, but judge absurd the possibility that it has infinite duration into the past).
  • Non sequitur -- Latin for "It doesn't follow" (e.g., our nation will prevail because God is great. But nearly every nation pretends this to be true; the Germans formulation was "Gott mit uns"). Often those falling into the non sequitur fallacy have simply failed to recognize alternative possibilities.
  • Post hoc, ergo propter hoc -- Latin for "It happened after, so it was caused by" (e.g., Jaime Cardinal Sin, Archbishop of Manila: "I know of ... a 26-year old who looks 60 because she takes [contraceptive] pills." Or: before women got the vote, there were no nuclear weapons).
  • Meaningless question (e.g., What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object? But if there is such a thing as an irresistible force there can be no immovable objects, and vice versa).
  • Excluded middle, or false dichotomy -- considering only the two extremes in a continuum of intermediate possibilities (e.g., "sure, take her side; my husband's perfect; I'm always wrong." Or: "either you love your country or you hate it." Or: "if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem").
  • Short-term vs. long-term -- a subset of the excluding middle, but so important I've pulled it out for special attention (e.g., we can't afford programs to feed malnourished children and educate pre-school kids. We need to urgently deal with crime on the streets. Or: why explore space or pursue fundamental science when we have so huge a budget deficit?).
  • Slippery slope, related to excluded middle (e.g., if we allow abortion in the first week of pregnancy, it will be impossible to prevent the killing of a full-term infant. Or, conversely: if the state prohibits abortion even in the ninth month, it will soon be telling us what to do with our bodies around the time of conception).
  • Confusion of correlation and causation (e.g., a survey shows that more college graduates are homosexual than those with lesser education; therefore education makes people gay. Or: Andean earthquakes are correlated with closest approaches of the planet Uranus; therefore -- despite the absence of any such correlation for the nearer, more massive planet Jupiter -- the latter causes the former).
  • Straw man -- caricaturing a position to make it easier to attack (e.g., scientists suppose that living things simply fell together by chance -- a formulation that willfully ignores the central Darwinian insight, that Nature ratchets up by saving what works and discarding what doesn't. Or -- this is also a short-term/long-term fallacy -- environmentalists care more for snail darters and spotted owls than they do for people).
  • Suppressed evidence, or half-truths (e.g., an amazingly accurate and widely quoted "prophecy" of the assassination attempt on President Reagan is shown on television; but – an important detail -- was it recorded before or after the event? Or: these government abuses demand revolution, even if you can't make an omelette without breaking some eggs. Yes, but is this likely to be a revolution in which far more people are killed than under the previous regime? What does the experience of other revolutions suggest? Are all revolutions against oppressive regimes desirable and in the interests of the people?)
  • Weasel words (e.g., the separation of powers of the U.S. Constitution specifies that the United States may not conduct a war without a declaration of Congress. On the other hand, Presidents are given control of foreign policy and the conduct of wars, which are potentially powerful tools for getting themselves re-elected. Presidents of either political party may therefore be tempted to arrange wars while waving the flag and calling the wars something else -- "police actions", "armed incursions", "protective reaction strikes", "pacification", "safeguarding American interests", and a wide variety of "operations", such as "Operation Just Cause". Euphemisms for war are one of a broad class of reinventions of language for political purposes. Talleyrand said, "An important art of politicians is to find new names for institutions which under old names have become odious to the public").

Knowing the existence of such logical and rhetorical fallacies rounds out our toolkit. Like all tools, the baloney detection kit can be misused, applied out of context, or even employed as a rote alternative to thinking. But applied judiciously, it can make all the difference in the world-not least in evaluating our own arguments before we present them to others.


My favorite example is this story, told about the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, newly arrived on American shores, enlisted in the Manhattan nuclear weapons project, and brought face-to-face in the midst of World War Two with US flag officers:

So-and-so is a great general, he was told.
"What is the definition of a great general?" Fermi characteristically asked.
"I guess it's a general who's won many consecutive battles"
"How many?"
After some back and forth they settled on five.
"What fraction of American generals are great?"
After some more back and forth, they settled on a few per cent.

But imagine, Fermi rejoined, that there is no such thing as a great general, that all armies are equally matched, and that winning a battle is purely a matter of chance. Then the chance of winning one battle is one out of two, or 1/2; two battles 1/4, three 1/8, four 1/16 and five consecutive battles 1/32, which is about three per cent. You would expect a few per cent of American generals to win five consecutive battles, purely by chance. Now has any of them won ten consecutive battles ..... ?

[1] Sagan, C. 1997, The Demon-Haunted World, Headline Book Publishing, London.

Thursday, May 22, 2008


Recently, while reading through the JREF archives I came across an amazing letter. I wish I had a teacher like this. Unfortunately I had more or less the opposite. The Christian National Education system of the old Apartheid era government was not about questioning the status quo and it was definitely not about questioning authority - EVER! The basic tenets were:
  • Do what you are told
  • Believe what you are told
  • Don't question authority
  • This is for your own good (because the blacks and the communists will destroy us otherwise)
It sounds crazy and looking back it really was, but unless you were there you could never really understand. However I truly wish I could have grown up with teachers like these:
(Article taken from here. Comments in red are by James Randi)


From reader Ted Smith comes this excellent article written by David Owen and published in Life Magazine, in October, 1990:

The Best Teacher I Ever Had

Mr. Whitson taught sixth-grade science. On the first day of class, he gave us a lecture about a creature called the cattywampus, an ill-adapted nocturnal animal that was wiped out during the Ice Age. He passed around a skull as he talked. We all took notes and later had a quiz.

When he returned my paper, I was shocked. There was a big red X through each of my answers. I had failed. There had to be some mistake! I had written down exactly what Mr. Whitson said. Then I realized that everyone in the class had failed. What had happened?

Very simple, Mr. Whitson explained. He had made up all that stuff about the cattywampus. There had never been such an animal. The information in our notes was, therefore, incorrect. Did we expect credit for incorrect answers?

Needless to say, we were outraged. What kind of test was this? And what kind of teacher?

We should have figured it out, Mr. Whitson said. After all, at the very moment he was passing around the Cattywampus skull (in truth, a cat’s), hadn’t he been telling us that no trace of the animal remained? He had described its amazing night vision, the color of its fur and any number of other facts he couldn’t have known. He had given the animal a ridiculous name, and we still hadn’t been suspicious. The zeroes on our papers would be recorded in his grade book, he said. And they were.

Mr. Whitson said he hoped we would learn something from this experience: teachers and textbooks are not infallible. In fact, no one is. He told us not to let our minds go to sleep, and to speak up if we ever thought he or the textbook was wrong.

Every class was an adventure with Mr. Whitson. I can still remember some science periods almost from beginning to end. One day he told us that his Volkswagen was a living organism. It took us two full days to put together a refutation he would accept. He didn’t let us off the hook until we had proved not only that we knew what an organism was but also that we had the fortitude to stand up for the truth.

We carried our brand-new skepticism into all our classes. This caused problems for the other teachers, who weren’t used to being challenged. Our history teacher would be lecturing about something, and then there would be clearings of the throat and someone would say, "Cattywampus."

If I’m ever asked to propose a solution to the crisis in our schools, it will be Mr. Whitson. I haven’t made any great scientific discoveries, but Mr. Whitson’s class gave me and my classmates something just as important: the courage to look people in the eye and tell them they are wrong. He also showed us that you can have fun doing it.

Not everyone sees the value in this. I once told an elementary school teacher about Mr. Whitson. The teacher was appalled. "He shouldn’t have tricked you like that," he said. I looked the teacher right in the eye and told him he was wrong.

Ted – and David Owen, if he’s still around – I’ve been fortunate enough to have had several Mr. Whitsons in my life. Mr. Henderson – I don’t think any of us knew his first name, and we students were always similarly addressed by him, as by all of our teachers, as "Mr. Zwinge," or whatever was called for – was one of those teachers. He delighted in giving us mathematical puzzles just before he dismissed a class, and thoroughly expected us to have an answer when we sat down to class the following day. Mr. Tovell, who taught us physics, would mischievously sketch out a somewhat plausible perpetual-motion machine on the blackboard, then ask us to return the next day to explain why we thought the machine would – or would not – work. These were problems that stimulated our imaginations, made us eager to get to the next class, and I feel sure are not the sort of thing that modern teachers become involved with. Our history teacher was a Mr. Grow, who would occasionally drop in an obviously false comment or two while giving us an account of some event with which he hoped we’d become familiar. And, occasionally he fooled us all and then was able to show us how he had done this to our young minds.

Those were teachers…!

Sadly, teachers like these are few and far between and our critical thinking capabilities are suffering for it. Maybe if our current minister of health had a teacher like this we wouldn't be trying to treat AIDS with garlic and beetroot!

However all is not lost. After all, I was probably one of the most obedient kids ever and I never questioned what my teachers taught me and yet, in time I learned to think for myself. If there was hope for me, there is hope for us all!

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Why a prayer and a shovel is better than a prayer alone

"The hardest thing in this world is to live in it"
Buffy the Vampire Slayer

It’s not easy to be both a Christian and a skeptic. There just doesn’t seem to be much common ground sometime – Christians don’t like skeptics and skeptics don’t like Christians and each side claims the other is blind to the truth. Being a skeptical Christian seems like the ultimate oxymoron sometimes. Normally, it feels like the world’s best example of doublethink*. Of course that’s just normally – then there are the times this uneasy relationship gets strained to breaking point.

Remember Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter? Turns out instead of seeking medical help, his mother sought spiritual help and arranged for an exorcism for him. Bad idea you say? Well isn’t that exactly what you are supposed to do according to Biblical example? In a similar vein, I recently read an article regarding a girl named Madeline Kara Neumann who died an agonizingly slow and completely avoidable death because her parents trusted in God to heal her instead of taking her to a doctor. Crazy, right? And yet that is 100% in line with what the Bible tells you to do. There isn’t one verse in the Bible that instructs sick people to see a doctor. However the Bible does say things like:

Matthew 7:7 Ask, and it shall be given you.
Matthew 21:22And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive.
James 5:15The prayer of faith will heal the sick.
John 14:14 (quoting Christ) – If ye shall ask any thing in my name, I will do it.
John 15:7 (quoting Christ) – If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you.
John 16:23 (quoting Christ) – Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it you.
1 John 3:22And whatsoever we ask, we receive of him…

And this is just a small sampling. Someone like Kenneth Copeland can sell you an entire audio tape/CD filled with scriptures on healing. In fact I used to own one. See I grew up in a Pentecostal Christian church, so while I utterly disagree with what Seung-Hui and Madeline’s parents did, I can’t fault them according the teachings of Scripture. They did exactly what I was taught to do from the pulpit all my life - they believed every word in the Bible was literal truth and they obeyed it, disregarding all evidence that it wasn’t working, probably dismissing it as a test of their faith. I must have heard the same thing preached countless times – don’t believe the doctors, don’t believe the experts, don’t believe the symptoms, don’t believe reality, its all lies. Just believe in God and He will fix everything in the end, no matter what it may look like right now.

And yet, here we are. Madeline is dead and Seung-Hui Cho murdered 32 people. It would seem faith was not enough. Prayer was not enough. Being obedient to Biblical teachings was not enough. In fact, the reason why we don’t see more cases like this is because most Christians are not that faithful. They might go stand in a prayer line on Sunday but they will most certainly also go to a doctor on Monday. I guess when you get right down to it, I’m not that alone in being both Christian and skeptic!

This is not an easy thing for me to write about as this topic is intensely personal to me. When my mother’s kidneys started failing her, all items with possible links to the occult in our house were burned, prayers were prayed all over the place, demons were rebuked and yet, she died. When my father got the first indications of the heart attack that would kill him a few days later, he didn’t go to the doctor but instead spent time praying in tongues. Even now, as I write this I am in danger of suffering the consequences of my own misplaced faith. Two weeks ago I found out I am in very real danger of dying and that I need urgent surgery – which at this point is also a risky procedure. I have a swelling (not sure what) in my neck that I have left untreated for almost 8 years – partially because I don’t have medical aid and state hospitals in Africa are scarier than any horror movie and partially because I dread hospitals because I subconsciously associate them with the death of my parents, but mostly because in all this time I was stubbornly waiting for God to heal me. Well, I was not healed despite years of prayer, the laying on of hands, getting anointed with oil, having demons rebuked and not looking at porn. Yes that’s right I said porn. According to a “word” from a girl at a prayer group long ago, the problem was caused by porn “coming in through my eyes and getting lodged in my throat”. I kid you not. Best part is that I wasn't even near any porn when the problem started!

Now I’m not relating all this because I need someone to blame. I fully realize that I am in my current predicament because of choices I have made. I don’t blame God or my parents or the church or even charismatic Christianity and all the flakiness it brings. This was me, ignoring the obvious and hoping and praying that the problem would go away instead of taking action. I am not alone in this however and that is the reason I am writing this. Atheists make fun of Christians sometime because of our tendency to modify our reality to fit with our faith. I think the atheists have a point. For me to still believe in God and prayer and the Bible after all of this must seem rather schizophrenic I admit, but it needn’t be the case. I don’t think reason and reality needs to be the enemies of faith. I think that the problem comes in when we try to adjust reality to fit our faith. I think it would work better the other way around. To some of my Christian brethren, this must sound like the biggest blasphemy since Galileo. I disagree. Here is why.

Firstly I don’t believe the Bible to be invalid. However, it is not a document floating in space, disconnected from all things. Rather it was written by people, for people in a very specific piece of space and time. Like it or not, the culture, science and beliefs of the time played a role in what was written. This doesn’t imply that the Bible has nothing to say to us today, merely that we need to understand what it said to its original audience first and why before we can learn from it today. Lets face it, praying for the sick was probably a better option until just a century or two ago! Most of the time, the doctors of old were more dangerous than the ailments they were treating. As for mental illness, we only started treating that with success in the last couple of decades.

Secondly, I don’t think low self esteem is holy. Why is there this idea in the church that we are helpless, useless, directionless beings who need constant help and guidance? When did we decide that to please God we needed to be like toddlers – unable to do anything for ourselves or to make any good decisions, instead only able to make a mess and always requiring divine help to clean it up? Does the Bible not say that we are gods (Ps 82:6; Joh 10:34)? That we are created in His image and likeness with dominion over all the earth (Gen 1:26-28) and that we are a little less than Elo├»m (God) Himself (Ps 8:5 – it is translated “angels”, but check the Hebrew)? Furthermore, does our world not show that this is true? We build, we make, we create, we bring light into the darkness and order into the chaos and we turn dreams and ideas into tangible reality. Clearly God did not destine us to be eternal infants! The evidence is all around us, we have the potential for greatness. All we need to do is grow up and grasp it. After all, the successful people in the Bible did.

Look for instance at King Hezekiah (2 Kings 18-20). When the Assyrians invaded, yes he prayed, yes he asked God to save Jerusalem BUT he also had a water tunnel dug (that stands as an engineering marvel to this day) so that the city would have water enough to survive a long siege. Though he trusted God totally, he made sure that he had done all he could too. And it worked! Though all the other fortified cities of Judah fell, Jerusalem was saved. Doesn’t this just fly in the face of the whole “pray and wait for God to fix everything” attitude? Is it really that blasphemous to suggest that God didn’t make us as His slaves but as His Family? That maybe God wants us to work with Him rather than for Him? After all, this is Earth, not Heaven. This is our place in the universe, our house and its up to us to run it. I’m not saying I don’t believe that God will help us because I do. I am not against prayer either. I am however against the attitude of giving up all personal responsibility and waiting for someone higher up to come make everything better. We are better than that and I think no one knows that better than God.

Why does prayer only seem to work for some and not for others? Honestly, I don’t know and I am the first to admit it. I don’t know why some people get miracles and some get tragedy. What I will suggest is that sometimes we are the answer to our own prayers. When someone is drowning right next to you, would you pray that God miraculously delivers that person or will you try to save him yourself? I really think that sometimes we are looking up for the Hand of God while ignoring the two very capable hands at the end of our own arms. I fully believe that God helps us but I also believe that in many cases He has already helped us, by giving us the strength, the intelligence, the resources and the resourcefulness to help ourselves. After all, we call God our Father and what would make a parent more proud, a child with the abovementioned qualities making his/her way in the world or a middle aged baby that refuses to leave the house and insists on still being waited on hand and foot?

*"Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them." 1984 George Orwell

† For an excellent discussion on this topic check out Nooma video 19 "Open"