Jon, Ron, and the wages of sin 
Another entry written in Cafe Isolabella, this one riffing on blog entries written by two of my colleagues. They seem related without actually talking about the same thing, so here is a bit of conceptual connect-the-dots.

Jon comments on a study finding that praying for patients seems to have no positive effect on outcomes. As commenters note, the study presumes that the effect of prayer to look for is an effect on the thing prayed about. This views prayer as a kind of divine technology, invoking God to convert the supplicant's faith into worldly outcomes. An alternate view of prayer would direct us to effects on the person praying. Commenters recount being taught the latter view in their Catholic upbringing, and it is the view of some moderate protestant denominations. Studies may observe an effect of this kind, but such an effect does not require a supernatural explanation. It is prayer as divine technology that would be spooky action-at-a-distance.

Ron comments on a study showing that atheists are the most distrusted minority in the US. The religious complaint about atheists is that-- because they don't believe in God-- they cannot comprehend the demands of ethics.

For some, I suppose, this might be a metaphysical conclusion: If there were no God, then nothing would be prohibited. Not everyone sees this as a reason to be religious; cf. Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, Sartre. And the conclusion seems to presume the bankrupt divine command theory of morality; cf. Plato. I do not want to kvetch about the metaphysical argument, though, because I think that most people see it as a matter of moral psychology rather than metaphysics. The promise of an afterlife is supposed to motivate good behaviour and discourage bad behaviour. The wages of sin are death.

Mill comments that this vision of the afterlife is barbaric, noting the contrast with ancient Greeks who thought that one might want to do what was good even without threats and promises. Even so, it is easy to see how the vision is motivated. It is disheartening that virtue is not uniformly rewarded and vice uniformly punished in this world. An afterlife would remedy this obvious flaw in the actual world.

The divine technology view of prayer is even more barbaric. It forgets that vice often brings profit and virtue none at all, pretending instead that God will reward believers in this world and just in the way that they want to be rewarded. The divine technology view, were it true, would make an afterlife redundant. If the virtuous thought to ask, final judgment could be apportioned in media res.

Sadly, many of my compatriots believe in both. As the T-shirt says: Dear lord, please protect me from your followers.

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