Belfast Telegraph

God help atheists miffed by prayers for hero Dawkins

Richard Dawkins
Richard Dawkins

By Eamonn McCann

My mother had a good word on Hitler. Nobody is totally bad, she'd maintain. He was some loving mother's son, which must have left a faint tinge of goodness even as he descended into nightmarish evil.

And who are we to say that he didn't repent at the very last minute and earn a place in Purgatory rather than Hell?

And, anyway, how could we know the mind of God as He pondered his judgement on the Nazi monster?

She might make these points to override our objections to including Hitler in the list of sinners to be prayed out of Purgatory on All Souls' Day. Nobody was beyond God's mercy, she'd declare.

All Souls' Day began in pre-Columbian Mexico as the Aztec festival of the Goddess of Mictecacihuatl. In the 1960s the Mexican Government made Dia de los Muertos a national holiday in a conscious attempt to unite indigenous and Hispanic traditions.

All Souls' Day falls on November 2, adjacent to All Saints' Day. Say your prayers on the day with right ritual and motive and you could earn the recipient of your entreaties a surge of sanctifying grace guaranteed to deliver his/her soul into paradise.

Likewise, any Christian who died while fighting for God's Church against blasphemers earned sanctifying grace and would be catapulted into a state of eternal happiness. The Crusaders, for example, were assured as they set out to massacre Muslims, Jews and Cathars without pity or discrimination across southern Europe, Asia Minor and the Near East that martyrdom would earn them instant, endless ecstasy. Radical Islamists have recently adapted this doctrine.

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The other reason my mother remembered Hitler was that his sin-stained soul would surely have few others to offer orisons on his behalf.

I was reminded of this as I listened on Monday to a Christian on Talkback explaining why it made sense for the Anglican Church to pray for the recovery of celebrity atheist Richard Dawkins, struck down by a stroke at the weekend. Praying for Dawkins demonstrated the universality of Christian compassion.

The only adducible evidence on the efficacy of prayer suggests that it doesn't work. The largest study - a 2006 meta-analysis of 14 control-sample studies - suggested that there was no difference in outcomes between those who were being prayed for but didn't know it, and those who knew they were not being prayed for.

The third group - those who were being prayed for and knew it - fared worst. And not a bit of wonder.

If you woke up in intensive care and discovered half your extended family gathered at your bedside pleading with God to let you live you'd likely conclude that you were at death's door, with negative psychosomatic implications for your wellbeing.

Similarly, if you were told that an entire convent of particularly devout nuns was storming Heaven on your behalf, you might think: "Holy God! I'm a goner."

It's a fact, not a slogan. Prayer doesn't work. Which makes the protests of some New Atheists against benediction being bestowed on Mr Dawkins somewhat silly.

The New Atheists have damaged the atheist cause. Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and others appear to believe that religion exists not only in antagonism to, but independent of, material reality; that it consists of a free-floating cluster of fantastical notions, to be defeated by relentless, rational argument.

If that were the only basis of religion, we'd have gotten rid of it long ago.

Mr Hitchens, in particular, appeared in his last years to have forgotten everything he'd learnt from Marx in his younger days - that religion expresses a yearning for personal meaning in a class-torn society which stunts the imagination, that it's the soul of soulless circumstance, the heart in a heartless world.

The form religion takes at a particular time and place is mainly determined by the contours of surrounding material conditions.

In God Is Not Great, Hitchens related that the most dangerous people you could meet in Belfast are Christians coming from Church. These were likely to be hyped-up and fervent and, therefore, particularly prone to violence. A nonsensical view.

Religion can be combated only by seeking to end the conditions in which it is generated. Fighting it as a series of abstract beliefs is futile. Lenin said: "Religion is like a nail in a piece of wood. The harder you hit it, the deeper you drive it in."

Vladimir Ilyich was well ahead of those who fulminate today against Christians who presume to practise prayers for Richard Dawkins.

My mother might have allocated him a whole decade of the Rosary. And what harm?

Belfast Telegraph


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