Friday, December 22, 2006

Bogus insurance

Two days ago a friend lost her baby. During an ultrasound on the day she was about to go on vacation down under in land of Kiwis, she and her doctor were shocked to discover the 8-week old fetus showed no heartbeat at all. The week prior the tiny critter was doing just fine and developing normally, even as it began its journey with a rather poor heart rate.

I don't know what procedure her ob-gyn performed but according to my friend the doctors had to do a "forced abortion" while she was knocked out. Must've been something pretty routine since 24 hours later she was onboard the plane to her destination (with her doctor's approval, of course). But I don't think it's going to be the planned joyous Christmas vacation with her family. It's going to be a mournful holiday for her.

Much as we're good friends, religion-wise we growing poles apart. While I haven't moved, she has. She used to be a lukewarm Catholic with only one foot in it. I remember her telling me a year ago that she could no longer see the point of reciting the Apostle's Creed--it had become too difficult to buy into. But several months ago, she experienced a revival of sorts in her faith. That was after her trip to Malaysia where she and her relatives met a female Christian minister who, among other things, prayed for them and laid her hands on them. Soon after the laying of the hands, her uncle claimed that the chronic pain in his knee diminished substantially. My friend relates that after their encounter with this pastor (they bumped into her a couple more times) she felt "lighter" and noticed that her problems didn't emotionally affect her as it did before. Upon returning home she made it a point to go to church/Mass every Sunday. Born again? Sort of I guess.

Vis-a-vis her reinvigorated faith, I find it instructive that an implicit reasoning error has occurred. Just because the pastor and her words/actions had a positive psychological effect on her (and even her uncle) doesn't necessarily imply that the theology and supernatural beliefs she preaches are in fact true and real. I give my friend the benefit of the doubt, though. Maybe she does know this, but then desires to sustain the "high" and make it last (who wouldn't, right?) so she tries to preserve as best she can the conditions that triggered it. Sensible enough.

On the night she was in the hospital she sent me the following text message (SMS): "Hope I'll be ok to leave tomorrow. Please pray even if you're an atheist, for friendship's sake. " No, that wasn't tongue in cheek. She meant it.

Send a telegram to the invisible man above even if I don't believe? Hello?! The last clause sounds very much like arm-twisting: If you're really my friend then you're going to pray for my quick recovery. Well, had I been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer and had asked her to light a couple of sticks of incense and to pray to the goddess Kuan Yin would she as a Christian--a monotheist--do so? For friendship's sake? You know what? I think she would! Inconsistency doesn't really bother too many people.

There's allegiance to ties and human relationships. And then there's superstitious beliefs such as the power of petitionary prayer and ritual. Well, some want to have their cake and eat it too: It won't hurt if you pray to this other deity, even if you don't believe in that god. Just as it won't hurt to hang a pat kua above your door, just in case there really are evil spirits. Just as it won't hurt to forward to everyone in your address book yet another chain letter even if your brain tells you these emails really belong in the trash bin.

Well, unfortunately for my friend she wasn't able to coerce any supplications from me. This time I wasn't going to be coerced into committing the sin of hypocrisy again.

Be that as it may, it did cross my mind to pray, but for the very opposite thing, asking the gods to curse her or something (q.v. when Randi was in the hospital). I'm so so baaaad! But you see how superstitiousness is so ingrained that we would rather not do this and judge it crass when reality is that it has the same physical effect as offering "positive" prayers--none? It should really not matter whether we (skeptics/nonbelievers) resort to voodoo and black magic or meditate and visualize white light cleansing and protecting our friend's body and soul. If we in fact have shed off our superstitiousness, then our putting a hex on loved ones should not elicit anything psychologically different from our praying to Osiris for their health. If we feel differently when we send out "negative prayers" then we ought to examine whether there could be vestiges of superstitiousness left in us. Of course, it would be wise for us to keep the person we're casting a spell on in the dark. If my friend ever finds out that I even entertained the idea of praying for her nonrecovery she probably won't talk to me for a decade! There are very palpable psychological effects in those who believe.

Was it Dawkins who said that rather than pray let's think of ways of addressing the problem? My friend wanted a magical solution to her situation. Too bad. During our phone conversation I didn't even bring up that request of hers but instead offered her questions she may want to ask her doctor regarding her capacity to go on with her planned trip, including any emergency medication she should take along during her 12-hour plane ride should complications (such as bleeding) occur. Brainstorming the situation is far more productive than taking out an insurance policy from Religion Inc. (You can probably hear the rejoinder: "But it won't hurt to do so." It isn't far-fetched to imagine my friend using that as her justification.)

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