Monday, April 18, 2011

In Defense of Sarah

Sarah Hippolitus posted an interesting essay on Responsible Atheism. There were several people who criticized her for not providing evidence to support her case. They cited claims such as "Believing in a power infinitely stronger than you, and offering this power some kind of dominion over your life, is emotionally unhealthy." When I read this my thought was, of course this is the case. When others read this they thought she is providing no facts to back up this claim and there was no reason to accept this and other claims made by Sarah.

Let me start by saying that I am profoundly confident that Sarah can defend herself on this and related points. My title reference above really has less to do with defending Sarah than my desire to look at the issues that arise when considering the criticisms of her essay. What evidence is relevant and what should a person writing to a blog assume about the audience reading an essay?

I recalled a story about a couple of deeply religious Christians working in Afghanistan who got captured by the Taliban. Coalition forces found where they were imprisoned and a firefight ensued. The two Christians reported that when this happened they “prayed furiously.” They presumed that an infinitely powerful force controlled their lives and imploring help from this force could protect them.

In the same context I would have been thinking about where the bullets were coming from, what solid objects could shield me and if perhaps getting closer to the floor might be safer. Taking charge of my life would obviously allow me to best protect my own health in that context. I also recalled back when I was very young, 8, 9 or 10 year old, I would put enormous effort into praying. I had been told that prayers were answered and for a while I believed it. When I figured out that this did not work I was outraged. All that time and effort had been wasted. Obviously attempts to invoke magical supernatural actions is a waste of time that is a needless burden on a person's life. All such burdens of necessity reduces a person's ability to pursue healthy goals in life.

In short I had extensive data from news reports and my personal experience to document how and why Sarah's claim was valid. The people people criticizing Sarah almost certainly had a similar variety of common knowledge which they could use to evaluate this particular claim. Similar detailed analyzes could be made with all of Sarah's claims. Somehow her critics chose to not invoke the knowledge which would support this type of understanding.

What did they want? Did they want carefully controlled studies with empirical evidence concerning the degree of power allocated to a being with dominion over the person's life correlated with metrics of mental health? Perhaps that is what they might prefer but Sarah was doing something else. She was doing a very thoughtful analysis of extremely common religious assumptions and the probable implications in people's lives.

Any blogger must of necessity define a scope for a given post. If all implications and threads of evidence are covered a post on any complex subject it would have to have the length of an encyclopedia volume. Just before posting this essay I noticed that Sarah commented that she would be posting followup essays with supporting evidence. I very much look forward to those posts.

There were also that there were a couple of comments noting that religion also had positive effects. To be fair and balanced we need to look at and understand the positive elements of religion. I hope to post some thoughts on that issue if time permits.


rwahrens said...

I would rather that the commenters talking about such positive affects post THEIR proof. What is good for the goose is good for the gander.

Sarah Hippolitus said...

Don, I just saw this! Thank you so much for this. I just posted my follow-up today. I look forward to hearing what you think. Thanks again.