Questionable Motives

October 15, 2010

Why does a ‘miracle’ look just like human ingenuity?

So here’s the thread of the religious thief making the rounds these days after the 33 Chilean miners were rescued:

Once feared dead, 33 trapped Chilean miners began to emerge Tuesday night after more than two months underground. Among the necessities that sustained them 2000 feet down were food, vitamins, supplemental air and, according to many reports, their faith. (Elizabeth Tenety, The Washington Post)

Prayers and well wishes from around the world reached the miners. Pope Benedict prayed for them after a mass in August, and the Vatican sent blessed rosaries “as a sign of the Pope’s closeness with them.” Priests and ministers visited the site in the predominantly Catholic country. The Baptist Press reported that two miners “accepted Christ” during their ordeal. The Seventh-day Adventists sent mini-bibles down to the crew, highlighting Psalm 40: “I waited patiently for the Lord; and he inclined to me, and heard my cry. He also brought me up out of a horrible pit … and set my feet upon a rock, and established my steps.”

So let’s see: how exactly did any religious knowledge help in this rescue? Other than perhaps raise flagging hopes with the absurd notion that some supernatural deity would intervene on their behalf, the miners were able to survive because of human preparedness that stocked a safe area with food and water, which allowed them to survive long enough for other humans to dedicate the necessary resources to solving the engineering problem of gaining access to a small area 2000 feet lower than the surface through layers of different kinds of rock to resupply them with food and water while a larger transit tube was built for their eventual removal. And it all worked.

So should we praise god for human ingenuity?

The truth of the matter is that we have no evidence that any god played any part in the success of the rescue mission. But rest assured that we will now we get to sit back and watch various religions try to steal the credit due solely to the hard work and dedication and tremendous effort of people like the engineer who led the Chilean rescue efforts Andres Sougarett and the international aid and expertise of other mining engineers who are the only ones who made manifest this successful conclusion. God didn’t transport these miners to the surface: Andres Sougarett and his team did. To say otherwise steals directly from their proper due

But that’s what fuels religious belief: thievery of favourable natural processes, thievery of favourable human endeavors, thievery of favourable and beneficial outcomes. It’s all owed to god, we are told, and is our just reward for believing in magic and invisible superpowers and specific kinds of superstition.

And where is this same argument – this same justification for evidence of god’s favour – when the natural processes are brutal and indifferent to the human suffering it causes? Where is god when human endeavors are disastrous? Where is god when bad luck and unfortunate timing yields pain and death? Oh… well… umm… we can’t allow god to be mature enough to accept both ends of the responsibility spectrum, you see… bad for the image, don’t you know. No, we must allocate to god only success and benevolence to match up with our claim that god is all-powerful, all-knowing, everywhere at all times, and – of course – benevolent. And any evidence against this template is simply dismissed because, well, you know… it’s god. (Now imagine how well we would serve ourselves if we practiced that same delusional and apologetic thinking on behalf of British Petroleum or President Obama or Prime Minister Netanyahu or Osama bin Laden.)

Let’s take a moment and appreciate just how neolithic is the human urge to grant power to superstition and divine agency when faced with adversity and helplessness:

The ninth man to emerge from the mine was Mario Gomez, a 63-year old who, CNN reported, “became the group’s spiritual leader and requested a crucifix and statuettes of saints so the men could construct a shrine.”

A shrine. Yes, that’s the ticket home.

Although it may be of psychological benefit to pretend that our actions curry favour from deities when we can do nothing else but sit back and wait, what rescued these miners was in no way supernatural; it was man-made, designed and empowered by a method of thinking that yields practical and consistent results. It enables knowledge to be gained and built upon, and then successfully implemented, and we should not for a single moment give thanks to Ooogity Boogity, nor pretend that religious belief has any right to ‘celebrate’ this human achievement in its own name rather than humanity’s. We should celebrate this shining example of human ingenuity – not religious hocus pocus – which again proves to ourselves that this method of thinking rationally – what is called methodological naturalism – has the potential to save lives when we use our ingenuity wisely. And the wisest way is to first get over the infantile belief that supernatural interventionist benevolent deities will act on our behalf if we pay proper homage to them. That kind of thinking stops ingenuity dead in its tracks and returns us to the wishful thinking that accompanies the shivering and hopeless cave-dwellers we once were, that these miners were without any means of escape. We have moved on, and we all have access to this escape tube built by man’s method of gaining natural knowledge. It’s high time more of us escaped our self-imposed caves and altering the associated thinking we carry with us from that distant and ignorant past. We move out of the cave when we abandon our willingness to accept ignorance. It’s time to leave the shrines behind in the caves where they belong.

Let’s grow up enough to start to trust ourselves and our abilities. It is time to stand up to those among us who wish to steal our achievements in the name of their religion. Each of us needs to choose either to stay in the comfort of the cave with our beads and bone rattles, our magical chants and body paints and funny hats, or choose to drop the pretense of what we merely believe may be true for what is probably true, likely, accurate, and correct in order to explore what lies beyond our beliefs. We don’t need any imaginary hand-holding by our invisible Sky Daddy to undertake this scary but thrilling ascent. We really are brave and capable enough to go it alone. And the rewards are worth it.

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