“Let Us Pray.” Not, God Forbid, “Let Us Think.”

Faith thrives when curiosity doesn’t

I welcome being called a firebrand atheist, but even so I try to behave on social media. On Facebook, for example, I never visit Christian pages or groups to advocate atheism. It would be a waste of time and keystrokes, but it would also be akin to my walking into a church on Sunday morning to argue with the preacher. Bad manners. I don’t want to be a firebrand troll.

But on the Facebook page for my book, Christians show little restraint. They drop in to vent and, sad to say, spew hate. The subtitle of my book, “A Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith”—combative, yes, intentionally—draws their spleen. They are stunned, moreover, at the suggestion that there are any problems with their faith, let alone ten.

Recently, however, a Christian displayed concern for my eternal soul. This was our exchange:


“I always have one thought for all unbelievers, and that is, ‘What if you are wrong?’ A real ‘What Have I Done?’ moment!”


“You are aware, I assume, that this is a version of Pascal’s Wager, which has been discussed endlessly; its fallacies have been well established. The thought for all believers should be: “What if you believe in the wrong god, or your beliefs about God are erroneous?” I grew up in a small town where the Catholics were confident that the Protestants were destined for hell because we had it all wrong. And let it be noted that Islam, Judaism, and Christianity have different gods. Their concepts of God are so different; it can’t be the same god. Please, no fuzzy thinking about ‘we all worship the same God’—if that were true Christians would enlarge their Bibles to include the Qur’an and the Book of Mormon.

“What if confident believers are seriously OFF the mark in what they believe? What kind of moment will it be for them? And is it really true that a compassionate God will pack people off to hell for having a wrong belief? Or, for lack of evidence, being unable to believe at all?

“Will there be a ‘What have I done moment’? I sure hope so, because I would ask God why he has allowed so much confusion about what to believe. Christians have fought endlessly about how to interpret the Bible, and are now split into some 40,000 denominations, divisions, sects, factions, cults, etc. because they disagree profoundly, sometime violently, about that God is like, what God wants. And, following the example of Steven Fry, I would ask God, “Bone cancer in children, what is that about? How dare you.” I would turn the ‘What have I done moment?’ into a ‘What have you, God, done?’ moment.”


“I am just a simple guy who believes in the simple gospel of Jesus Christ. Obviously I don’t have the intellect to compete over my head…May God bless you.”


“Don’t sell yourself short. None of the points I mentioned should go over your head. Just requires some serious homework.”

At that point in the thread, someone else jumped in with a comment:

“Better worship Thor to hedge your bets. Seriously, you didn't think about this very long, did you?”


“Begone Satan!”

Thus ended the discussion. Well, this was a challenge: “You didn't think about this very long, did you?” Why are we not surprised that our “simple guy” Christian concluded that it was Satan who was prodding him to think? It would seem that God prefers the folks who don’t think—or sense that it’s too dangerous. I’m sure many lay people have been clobbered by doubts about this or that, and have gone a little way down that trail, only to recoil in fear; they have experienced the corrosive effect of thought on piety.

There are three popular aspects of theism that wither under close scrutiny. They’re part of the religious landscape that believers take for granted, even though, in most secular situations, they take a common sense approach to life. There is no desire whatever to think things through. Or maybe there is no confidence: “I don’t have the intellect to compete over my head.” It doesn’t take much intellect to spot the fallacies of these three items.

1. God’s Adversary

Isn’t it amazing that the ‘simple guy’ Christian appealed to Satan to get out of a jam! Why shouldn’t he believe in Satan, after all, since Jesus did? Jesus even had a conversation with him. But the gospel writers, in spinning their Jesus tales, had succumbed to the bad theology that prevailed at the time. Theologians had been vexed: How could so much evil and suffering be explained if God is powerful and good? All the havoc must be the work of a powerful force opposing God. This amounts to believing in another god, one with enough clout to thwart the god-in-charge.

The concept is incoherent. It’s a theological maneuver to get God off the hook, but it doesn’t work—at all. Why would a powerful, good, competent God permit a powerful adversary to exist for even a moment? You can blame Satan, but ultimately the blame rests with the one who does nothing to stop Satan. Maybe that’s part of the mystery of God, which means that the divine mystery itself becomes incoherent. When causation is not understood, when science education has been abandoned or ridiculed, it’s easy for believers to assume that the Bible was right that demons and devils are at play in the disasters that afflict us.

Blaming Satan is also a way evading responsibility for one’s own actions. Our simple-guy Christian wants to push the blame onto someone else for his cowardice: it is Satan who wanted him to think, but it’s an evil trap.

Blaming Satan is also a way to camouflage bigotry. This headline recently caught my attention: “Catholic priest who works with kids says Pride flag was made by Satan.” You have to be well ‘stocked up on crazy’ to come up with that.

In fact, the Gay Pride Flag was designed by Gilbert Baker in 1978, but No, the priest, Jerome Lavigne of Calgary, Canada, is convinced that the rainbow flag is “way too ingenious…no one is that smart. There is only one who twists the truth to this level, and his name is Satan.” Well, for sure there is someone here who is not that smart. How handy, evoking Satan to excuse one’s ignorance and justify a mean-spirited attack.

I am so tired of hearing about the comfort that religion gives people. Gay people who are brutalized find no comfort in the words of this avenging priest, and I feel no sympathy whatever for people who are given sanctuary in their ignorance and bigotry by the church’s official homophobia. But kudos to the Calgary Bishop William McGrattan who issued a reprimand, saying that the church “…advocates that we live together in an atmosphere of peace, safety and respect for the dignity of one another regardless of age, ancestry, body image, culture, sexual orientation and religion.”

Krisopher Wells, who is identified in the article as an “an associate professor at MacEwan University who specializes in sexual and gender minority youth, education and culture,” spoke of the consequences of the priest’s assault: “These kinds of comments make it open season on LGBTQ youth, saying it’s okay to openly discriminate against them...these are the kinds of comments that breed hatred and violence.” Satan has not been at work here in any capacity; church-sponsored homophobia—and carefully nurtured ignorance about human sexuality—are to blame.

2. Take it to the Lord in prayer

What’s going on inside our skulls? Here’s a description of the physical matter:

“The adult human brain weights about 3 pounds and the cerebrum accounts for about 85% of the brain. The brain is composed of 40% gray and 60% white matter. The gray matter is made up of about 100 billion neurons that gather and transmit signals while the white matter is made of dendrites and axons that the neurons use to transmit signals. The brain is composted of about 75% water and is the fattiest organ in the body, consisting of a minimum of 60% fat.”

Despite this mundane account of what’s in our heads, we marvel at what human brains have accomplished. Just off the top of my head—so to speak—I can cite the creative triumphs of Galileo, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Mozart, Einstein, Hubble. Unfortunately, there have been broken brains as well, as the history of human evil attests.

But here’s a legitimate question: are the three pounds of gray and white matter in our skulls capable of communicating with gods? Can our brains channel, make direct contact with, the God that supposedly manages the Cosmos? For prayer to be a reality, we need reliable, verifiable data that the human brain can actually do that.

For early humans, it was obvious that great powers resided in the sky. It was the most natural impulse in the world to appeal to those powers, eventually personified as gods. Prayer was a natural impulse; the gods were near enough for humans to get their attention.

Now we know we live on a pale blue dot, lost in space. It would take 160,000 years for the Space Shuttle to reach the nearest star beyond the Sun, 4.5 light years away. Our galaxy, 100,000 light years across, is one many billions of galaxies. So God is no longer, as our ancestors assumed, just a few miles overhead. Do our mammalian brains have the wiring to send signals to the God of the Galaxies?

Theists who are desperate for a Yes answer suggest that God is a spiritual being that is everywhere. How do they know that? It’s a timeworn and threadbare assumption; so far they have failed to provide the reliable, verifiable data to back up that claim. Some have spun eloquent theobabble about God residing ‘outside space and time’ (a stab at exonerating God for failing to act in the world); how does the human brain, stuck inside our skulls, break such barriers to get signals to God?

Prayer is magical thinking. Which means that there is no known way that it could work. In the world of magical thinking, Hogwarts students can run their luggage trolleys at a brick wall and pass through to Platform 9 ¾ at King’s Cross Station; Professor McGonagall can transform herself into a cat to sit on a wall near Number 4 Pivet Drive. There are no known mechanisms for such things to happen, but they’re great fun in fantasy novels; prayer fits right in.

For those who fail to think it through, the other incoherent aspects of prayer don’t matter either. Why does God have to be reminded to do things? If he can be prodded by prayer marathons to cure cancer (and there are Christian who brag, “It worked!), how can he not be guilty of criminal negligence for not curing all cancer? The contradictions pile on.

According to one apologist, “prayer is a conversation with God.” Well isn’t that special; aren’t you special. It would be hard to top this colossal arrogance. Why would God—any god—want to have conversations with you? How do you rate? Maybe only those with severe faith brain damage—who embrace magical thinking—are granted the privilege.

How gullible do these prayer champions think we are? We just have to trust them that they’re having conversations with God? A therapist friend remarked to me many years ago, “Reality is what goes on outside the patient’s head.” By the way, there is a way to prove, beyond any shadow of doubt, that the claimed conversations with God are fake. Theists have not yet—as far as I know—accepted the challenge.

3. And Praise the Lord!

One of the beloved hymns of my distant youth was Blessed Assurance, which includes this lyric: “This is my story, this is my song, Praising my Savior all the day long.” One of the most popular hymns today is How Great Thou Art. This impulse to praise the Lord should prompt another think-it-through moment: Just what kind of god expects, demands, to be worshipped? Well, for starters, it would be expected of the god of the Old Testament, who is famous for terrorism:

“When they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen shook it. The anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah; and God struck him there because he reached out his hand to the ark. And he died there beside the ark of God.” (2 Samuel 6:6-7)

In the ancient world, with gods hovering nearby, capable of causing a lot of damage, keeping them happy was part of self-preservation. Fawning and praise were part of that formula.

That was then, this is now. Especially during the last century, theologians have indulged in endless games of redefining God, aiming desperately for sophistication; that God who killed Uzzah on the spot just wouldn’t do. It would seem that the petty God of the Bible cannot be in the same league as a God who has oversight over billions of galaxies and, no doubt, even more billions of planets. Does this God insist on an endless flow of adulation and praise from countless intelligent species that may be scattered across the Cosmos?

How great thou art! “That’s right, you groveling mammals on Earth, how great am I! Please keep reminding me. Sing songs to me. Keep building churches for my glory.” How can a good God, devoid of imperfections, be needy and narcissistic? Never mind that the quarreling theists on this planet cannot agree at all on how God wants to be worshipped. What a mess and waste of time. Think it through, Christians. Worship must now rank as one of the silliest of theistic preoccupations.

Even if there is a Force, a deity of some kind that ignited the Cosmos, at this point we have no data whatever regarding its nature. The contradictory jumble of ideas about God in the Bible don’t count at all, conjured as they were by ancient priests who had no clue about the Cosmos. Maybe there are lots of gods—one for each galaxy? —maybe an Ultimate Force isn’t even aware of planets, civilizations, species, let alone individuals. If you want to go with the god thing, that’s the state of our knowledge.

What is the state of our grasp of reality? George Carlin was raised Catholic, but he was lucky; his brain had a built-in bullshit detector: “This is a wonderful fairy tale they have going here, but it's not for me.” Our simple-guy Christian, on the other hand, doesn’t have that kind of brain; he is not wired for curiosity and its consequences. Religious bureaucrats thank God—they praise their savoir all the day long—that there are millions of simple-guys who don’t want to rock the boat.

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was recently reissued by Tellectual Press, with a new Foreword by John Loftus.

The Cure-for-Christianity Library © is here.