Divine Intervention

I strive to rid my life (and the lives of others) of superstition. This means that God is not going to save us. This means that miracles do not occur. This means that prayer has no power to change events except in the purely psychological way of making us calmer if we believe it has nonpsychological power. Thus, superstition itself has power …  not only to calm us, but also to deceive us and to harm us. Since I believe the latter outweighs the former in their impact on our lives and society, I try to get rid of it. 

            Here are a couple of examples of the nonsense becoming dangerous: 

In his testimony before Congress a month after a meteor had exploded over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk, injuring hundreds, then-NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said, “This is not an issue that we should worry about in the near term,” but that if we did know that an asteroid or a comet was heading our way with very little advance warning, he would advise us to pray. I watched him say these things, and my impression was that by the latter remark he was intending to convey, not the idea that we should make ready to meet our maker, but rather that God would come to the rescue if we prayed sincerely.


            That is not an attitude I want the NASA Administrator to have. I want him or her to feel the urgency of doing whatever is necessary to forestall an impact that could threaten us at any time. In part his complacency may be due to a faulty understanding of the meaning of statistics as predictive rather than just descriptive. But – again this is my sense of his testimony – Bolden seemed to be injecting a religious superstition into the conversation.

            There is a science fiction novel that contains a similar element. In Calculating God by Robert J. Sawyer, we are indeed saved by some sort of intervention having a divine aura about it. Although I enjoyed the novel, I find this kind of attitude in real life to be noxious in the extreme. Anyone who leaves planetary defense against asteroids and comets to divine intervention at the behest of prayer (or not) is asking for us to go the way of the dinosaurs. At the very least we might expect that God helps him who helps himself. That too is superstition, but at least it’s redundant and hence fairly harmless.

            Another example, which is in the newspaper as I write, is Pope Francis’s decision to visit Iraq to bolster the minority Christians there. AP reports as follows:

Francis described his decision-making process en route home from Iraq amid concerns that his four-day visit, which featured oftentimes maskless crowds in packed churches, singing, could result in the spread of infections in a country with a fragile health care system and a sustained surge in new cases.

“I prayed a lot about this. And in the end I took the decision freely,” Francis said. “It came from inside. I said ‘He who makes me decide this way will look after the people.’”

“I took the decision this way, but after prayer and knowing the risks,” he said.

I could see some sense in a calculation that had a premise like this: “There will be fewer deaths and injuries in Iraqi society over time by my taking this dramatic step to forge interfaith dialogue than if I don’t go.” Even so, that is highly speculative, since his visit might just as well inflame sectarian opposition to the Christian presence by fanatical elements, and even if his surmise were plausible, why now before the pandemic has been curbed? But Francis seems to be saying simply that he’s relying on God to protect the Iraqis who come out to hear him (and those who come in contact with them) from Covid-19. Puh-lease.


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