Friday, December 16, 2011

Week 11 - "Christopher Hitchens"

Earlier tonight I found out some sad news. One of the greatest Anti-Theist speakers and activists of our time, Christopher Hitchens, died today at the age of 62. He died from pneumonia, a complication of the oesophageal cancer he was suffering from, at a Texas hospital. This man was one of the people who helped shape me into the atheist I am today, he was one of the first authors/activists I discovered when I started my journey on learning more about life without theism. I can still remember the first video I found on him on youtube, at first I thought he was just a comedian like Bill Hicks or George Carlin, but I watched it anyways. I was pleasantly surprised at how intelligent and eloquently he spoke, in that 5 minute video alone I had learned so much more. Here's the video, it's part 1 of 8 of a speech he gave at D.G Wills Books in California.

I'm therefore dedicating my post this week on Christopher Hitchens, a short biography, videos, achievements, and quotes. He was an amazing man, I am who I am in part because of him, among others, and it's the least I could to to honor his memory. I don't usually get very sentimental about people's passing, but I feel very passionate about this.

Firstly I'm going to post a news article featuring his death earlier today, the complete article can be found at
"British author, literary critic and journalist Christopher Hitchens has died, aged 62, according to Vanity Fair magazine.
He died from pneumonia, a complication of the oesophageal cancer he was suffering from, at a Texas hospital.
Vanity Fair said there would "never be another like Christopher".
He is survived by his wife, Carol Blue, and their daughter, Antonia, and his children from a previous marriage, Alexander and Sophia.
Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter described the writer as someone "of ferocious intellect, who was as vibrant on the page as he was at the bar. Those who read him felt they knew him, and those who knew him were profoundly fortunate souls."

Mr Hitchens was born in Portsmouth in 1949 and graduated from Oxford in 1970. He began his career as a journalist in Britain in the 1970s and later moved to New York, becoming contributing editor to Vanity Fair in November 1992. 

He was diagnosed with cancer in June 2010, and had documented his declining health in his Vanity Fair column.
In an August 2010 essay for the magazine he wrote: "I love the imagery of struggle. I sometimes wish I were suffering in a good cause, or risking my life for the good of others, instead of just being a gravely endangered patient."
Speaking on the BBC's Newsnight programme, in November that year, he reflected on a life that he knew would be cut short: "It does concentrate the mind, of course, to realise that your life is more rationed than you thought it was."
He wrote for numerous publications including The Times Literary Supplement, the Daily Express, the London Evening Standard, Newsday and The Atlantic.
He was the author of 17 books, including The Trial of Henry Kissinger, God is not Great, How Religion Poisons Everything, and a memoir, Hitch-22. A collection of his essays, Arguably, was released this year. 
Radicalised by the 1960s, Hitchens was often arrested at political rallies and was kicked out of the Labour Party over his opposition to the Vietnam War.
He became a correspondent for International Socialism magazine."
Now for some quick cut and paste information on him from wikipedia, before getting on to the more relevant information, that being his lifetime work and achievements. You can find more information, and where I got the information below, by following this link .

"Christopher Eric Hitchens (April 13, 1949 – December 15, 2011) was an Anglo-American author and journalist whose books, essays, and journalistic career spanned more than four decades. He had been a columnist and literary critic at The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, Slate, World Affairs, The Nation, Free Inquiry, and became a media fellow at the Hoover Institution in September 2008. He was a staple of talk shows and lecture circuits and in 2005 was voted the world's fifth top public intellectual in a Prospect/Foreign Policy poll.

Hitchens was known for his admiration of George Orwell, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson and for his excoriating critiques of, among others, Mother Teresa, Bill and Hillary Clinton, and Henry Kissinger. His confrontational style of debate made him both a lauded and controversial figure. As a political observer, polemicist and self-defined radical, he rose to prominence as a fixture of the left-wing publications in his native Britain and in the United States. His departure from the established political left began in 1989 after what he called the "tepid reaction" of the Western left following Ayatollah Khomeini's issue of a fatwā calling for the murder of Salman Rushdie. The 11 September 2001 attacks strengthened his internationalist embrace of an interventionist foreign policy, and his vociferous criticism of what he called "fascism with an Islamic face." His numerous editorials in support of the Iraq War caused some to label him a neoconservative, although Hitchens insisted he was not "a conservative of any kind."

Identified as a champion of the "New Atheism" movement, Hitchens described himself as an antitheist and a believer in the philosophical values of the Enlightenment. Hitchens said that a person "could be an atheist and wish that belief in god were correct," but that "an antitheist, a term I'm trying to get into circulation, is someone who is relieved that there's no evidence for such an assertion." He argued that the concept of god or a supreme being is a totalitarian belief that destroys individual freedom, and that free expression and scientific discovery should replace religion as a means of teaching ethics and defining human civilization. He wrote at length on atheism and the nature of religion in his 2007 book God Is Not Great.

Hitchens on Religion:
Hitchens often spoke out against the Abrahamic religions, or what he called "the three great monotheisms" (Judaism, Christianity and Islam). He said: "The real axis of evil is Christianity, Judaism, and Islam". In his book, God Is Not Great, Hitchens expanded his criticism to include all religions, including those rarely criticized by Western secularists such as Hinduism and neo-paganism. His book had mixed reactions, from praise in The New York Times for his "logical flourishes and conundrums"\ to accusations of "intellectual and moral shabbiness" in The Financial Times.\ God Is Not Great was nominated for a National Book Award on 10 October 2007.\

Hitchens contended that organized religion is "the main source of hatred in the world, [v]iolent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism, tribalism, and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children", and that accordingly it "ought to have a great deal on its conscience". In God Is Not Great, Hitchens contends that:

    above all, we are in need of a renewed Enlightenment, which will base itself on the proposition that the proper study of mankind is man and woman [referencing Alexander Pope]. This Enlightenment will not need to depend, like its predecessors, on the heroic breakthroughs of a few gifted and exceptionally courageous people. It is within the compass of the average person. The study of literature and poetry, both for its own sake and for the eternal ethical questions with which it deals, can now easily depose the scrutiny of sacred texts that have been found to be corrupt and confected. The pursuit of unfettered scientific inquiry, and the availability of new findings to masses of people by electronic means, will revolutionize our concepts of research and development. Very importantly, the divorce between the sexual life and fear, and the sexual life and disease, and the sexual life and tyranny, can now at last be attempted, on the sole condition that we banish all religions from the discourse. And all this and more is, for the first time in our history, within the reach if not the grasp of everyone.
His book made him one of the four major advocates of the "new atheism", and an Honorary Associate of the National Secular Society. Hitchens said he would accept an invitation from any religious leader who wished to debate with him. He also served on the advisory board of the Secular Coalition for America, a lobbying group for atheists and humanists in Washington, DC. In 2007, Hitchens began a series of written debates on the question "Is Christianity Good for the World?" with Christian theologian and pastor, Douglas Wilson, published in Christianity Today magazine. This exchange eventually became a book by the same title in 2008. During their book tour to promote the book, film producer Darren Doane sent a film crew to accompany them. Doane produced the film Collision: "Is Christianity GOOD for the World?" which was released on 27 October 2009.

On 26 November 2010 Hitchens appeared in Toronto, Canada at the Munk Debates, where he debated religion with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, a Roman Catholic convert. Blair argued religion is a force for good, while Hitchens was against it. Preliminary results on the Munk website said 56 per cent of the votes backed the proposition (Hitchens' position) before hearing the debate, with 22 per cent against (Blair's position), and 21 per cent undecided, with the undecided voters leaning toward Hitchens, giving him a 68 per cent to 32 per cent victory over Blair, after the debate.

In February 2006, Hitchens helped organize a pro-Denmark rally outside the Danish Embassy in Washington, DC in response to the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy.

Hitchens was accused by William A. Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Liberties of being particularly anti-Catholic. Hitchens responded, "when religion is attacked in this country [...] the Catholic Church comes in for a little more than its fair share". Hitchens has also been accused of anti-Catholic bigotry by others, including Brent Bozell, Tom Piatak in The American Conservative, and UCLA Law Professor Stephen Bainbridge. In an interview with Radar in 2007, Hitchens said that if the Christian right's agenda were implemented in the United States "It wouldn't last very long and would, I hope, lead to civil war, which they will lose, but for which it would be a great pleasure to take part." When Joe Scarborough on 12 March 2004 asked Hitchens whether he was "consumed with hatred for conservative Catholics", Hitchens responded that he was not and that he just thinks that "all religious belief is sinister and infantile". Piatak claimed that "A straightforward description of all Hitchens’s anti-Catholic outbursts would fill every page in this magazine", noting particularly Hitchens' assertion that U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Roberts should not be confirmed because of his faith.

Hitchens was raised nominally Christian, and went to Christian boarding schools but from an early age declined to participate in communal prayers. Later in life, Hitchens discovered that he was of partially Jewish ancestry. According to Hitchens, when his brother Peter took his fiancée to meet their maternal grandmother, Dodo, who was then in her 90s, Dodo said, "She's Jewish, isn't she?" and then announced: "Well, I've got something to tell you. So are you." She said that her real surname was Levin, not Lynn, and that some of her ancestors had the family name Blumenthal, and were from Poland.His great-great-grandfather was Nathan Blumenthal of Kempen, Prussia, who emigrated to Leicester. In Hitch-22, Hitchens detailed his Jewish ancestry: his matrilineal great-great-grandmother had converted to Judaism before marrying Nathan Blumenthal. According to Hitchens, in 1893, his maternal grandmother's parents were married in England "according to the rites of the German and Polish Jews. My mother’s mother, whose birth name was Dorothy Levin, was born three years later, in 1896." Hitchens' maternal grandfather converted to Judaism before marrying Dorothy Levin.

In an article in the The Guardian on 14 April 2002, Hitchens stated that he could be considered Jewish because Jewish descent is matrilineal.

In February 2010 he was named to the Freedom From Religion Foundation's Honorary Board of distinguished achievers."

He appeared in many television shows since 1984, speaking on his views and opinions about politics, religion, domestic policy, wars, and his work as a journalist. Some TV appearances include (but are not limited to): Frontiers, Everything You Need To Know, Tracking Down Maggie: The Unofficial Biography of Margaret Thatcher, Princess Diana: The Mourning After, Dennis Miller Live (4 episodes), The Trials of Henry Kissinger, Real Time with Bill Maher (6 episodes), Mel Gibson: God's Lethal Weapon, Newsnight (3 episodes), The Daily Show (4 episodes), Penn & Teller: Bullshit!, The Al Franken Show, Confronting Iraq: Conflict and Hope, Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism, Hardball with Chris Matthews (3 episodes), American Zeitgeist, Blog Wars, Manufacturing Dissent, Question Time, Discussions with Richard Dawkins: Episode 1: "The Four Horsemen", Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, Collision: "Is Christianity GOOD for the World?", and Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune.

He's published 17 separate books, however he's also co-written, co-edited, and assisted in prefaces, introductions, and forwards for dozens of other books. The list is as follows, and you can find more information on them by following this link
 Sole author
 1984 Cyprus. Quartet. Revised editions as Hostage to History: Cyprus from the Ottomans to Kissinger, 1989 (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) and 1997 (Verso).
 1987 Imperial Spoils: The Curious Case of the Elgin Marbles. Chatto and Windus (UK)/Hill and Wang (US, 1988) / 1997 UK Verso edition as The Elgin Marbles: Should They Be Returned to Greece? (with essays by Robert Browning and Graham Binns). Reissued and updated 2008 as The Parthenon Marbles: The Case for Reunification, Verso.
 1988 Prepared for the Worst: Selected Essays and Minority Reports. Hill and Wang (US)/Chatto and Windus (UK).
 1990 The Monarchy: A Critique of Britain's Favorite Fetish. Chatto & Windus, 1990.
 1990 Blood, Class, and Nostalgia: Anglo-American Ironies. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Reissued 2004, with a new introduction, as Blood, Class and Empire: The Enduring Anglo-American Relationship, Nation Books, ISBN 1-56025-592-7)
 1993 For the Sake of Argument: Essays and Minority Reports. Verso, ISBN 0-86-091435-6
 1995 The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice. Verso.
 1999 No One Left to Lie To: The Triangulations of William Jefferson Clinton. Verso. Reissued as No One Left to Lie To: The Values of the Worst Family in 2000.
 2000 Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in the Public Sphere. Verso
 2001 The Trial of Henry Kissinger. Verso.
 2001 Letters to a Young Contrarian. Basic Books.
 2002 Why Orwell Matters, Basic Books (US)/UK edition as Orwell's Victory, Allen Lane/The Penguin Press.
 2003 A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq. Plume Books. Originally released as Regime Change (Penguin).
 2004 Love, Poverty, and War: Journeys and Essays. Thunder's Mouth, Nation Books, ISBN 1-56025-580-3
 2005 Thomas Jefferson: Author of America. Eminent Lives/Atlas Books/HarperCollins Publishers, ISBN 0-06-059896-4
 2006 Thomas Paine's "Rights of Man": A Biography. Books That Shook the World/Atlantic Books, ISBN 1-84354-513-6
 2007 God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Twelve/Hachette Book Group USA/Warner Books, ISBN 0446579807 / Published in the UK as God Is Not Great: The Case Against Religion. Atlantic Books, ISBN 978-1-84354-586-6
 2010 Hitch-22 Some Confessions and Contradictions: A Memoir . Hachette Book Group. ISBN 9780446540339 (published by Allen and Unwin in Australia in May 2010 with the shorter title: Hitch-22. A Memoir.) ISBN 978-1-74175-962-4
 2011 Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens. Twelve. UK edition as Arguably: Selected Prose. Atlantic.
Sole editor
 2007 The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Non-Believer. Perseus Publishing. ISBN 9780306816086

Co-author or co-editor
 1976 Callaghan, The Road to Number Ten (with Peter Kellner). Cassell, ISBN 0-304-29768-2
 1988 Blaming the Victims: Spurious Scholarship and the Palestinian Question (contributor; co-editor with Edward Said). Verso, ISBN 0-86091-887-4. Reissued, 2001.
 1994 When Borders Bleed: The Struggle of the Kurds (with Ed Kashi). Pantheon Books.
 1994 International Territory: The United Nations, 1945-1995 (with Adam Bartos). Verso.
 2002 Left Hooks, Right Crosses: A Decade of Political Writing (co-editor, with Christopher Caldwell).
 2008 Is Christianity Good for the World? – A Debate (co-author, with Douglas Wilson). Canon Press, ISBN 1-59128-053-2.
 2008 Christopher Hitchens and His Critics: Terror, Iraq and the Left (co-author, with other contributions edited by Simon Cottee and Thomas Cushman). New York University Press.
 2010 The Best American Essays 2010 (co-editor with Robert Atwan). Mariner Books.
 2011 Hitchens vs. Blair: Be it Resolved, Religion is a Force of Good in the World (co-author with Tony Blair). House of Anansi Press.
 2000 Vanity Fair's Hollywood, Graydon Carter and David Friend (editors). Viking Studio.
 2005 A Matter of Principle: Humanitarian Arguments for War in Iraq, Thomas Cushman (editor). University of California Press, ISBN 0-520-24555-5
 2008. Christopher Hitchens and His Critics: Terror, Iraq and the Left (co-edited by Simon Cottee and Thomas Cushman). New York University Press.
 2011 The Quotable Hitchens: From Alcohol to Zionism, Windsor Mann (editor). Da Capo Press.
Book introductions, forewords and prefaces
 1997 In Our Time: The Chamberlain-Hitler Collusion, Clement Leibovitz and Alvin Finkel (Authors). Foreword to Paperback Edition. Monthly Review Press.
 1999 A Handbook on Hanging, Charles Duff (Author). Introduction. New York Review of Books.
 2000 Scoop, Evelyn Waugh (Author). Introduction. Penguin Classics Edition.
 2000 Safe Area Goražde: The War in Eastern Bosnia 1992-1995, Joe Sacco (Author). Foreword. Fantagraphics Books.
 2000 1968: War & Democracy, Eugene J. McCarthy (Author). Foreword. Lone Oak Press.
 2000 Vanity Fair's Hollywood, Graydon Carter and David Friend (Editors). Introduction. Viking Studio.
 2001 Kosovo: Background to a War, Stephen Schwartz (Author). Foreword. Anthem Press.
 2001 The Mating Season, P. G. Wodehouse (Author). Introduction. Penguin Classics Edition.
 2001 Orwell in Spain, George Orwell (Author), Peter Davison (Editor). Introduction. Penguin Classics Edition
 2002 Machinery of Death: The Reality of America's Death Penalty Regime, David R. Dow and Mark Dow (Editors). Foreword. Routledge.
 2002 From Russia, With Love, Dr. No, and Goldfinger, Ian Fleming (Author). Introduction. Penguin Classics Edition.
 2003 Animal Farm and 1984, George Orwell (Author). Introduction. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
 2003 The Adventures of Augie March, Saul Bellow (Author). Introduction. Penguin Group.
 2004 Orient Express, Graham Greene (Author). Introduction. Penguin Classics Edition.
 2004 Hons and Rebels, Jessica Mitford (Author). Introduction. New York Review of Books.
 2004 Brave New World, Aldous Huxley (Author). Foreword. HarperCollins.
 2005 House of the Spirits, Isabel Allende (Author). Introduction. Everyman's Library.
 2007 Our Man in Havana, Graham Greene (Author). Introduction. Penguin Classics Edition.
 2007 Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia, Rebecca West (Author). Introduction. Penguin Classics Edition.
 2008 Everyday Drinking: The Distilled Kingsley Amis, Kingsley Amis (Author). Introduction. Bloomsbury USA.
 2008 God: The Failed Hypothesis- How Science Shows that God Does Not Exist, Victor J. Stenger (Author). Foreword to Paperback Edition. New York: Prometheus Books.
 2008 Infidel, Ayaan Hirsi Ali (Author). Introduction to Paperback Edition. Simon and Schuster.
 2009 First in Peace: How George Washington Set the Course for America, Conor Cruise O'Brien (Author). Introduction. Da Capo Press.
 2009 Ancient Gonzo Wisdom: Interviews with Hunter S. Thompson, Anita Thompson (Editor). Introduction to Paperback Edition. Da Capo Press.
 2009 Certitude: A Profusely Illustrated Guide to Blockheads and Bullheads, Past and Present, Adam Begley (Author), Edward Sorel (Illustrator). Introduction. Crown Archetype.
 2010 Against Religion: The Atheist Writings of H.P. Lovecraft, H.P. Lovecraft (Author), S. T. Joshi (Editor). Foreword. Sporting Gentlemen.
 2010 Civilization and Its Discontents, Sigmund Freud (Author). Introduction. Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
 2012 Diaries, George Orwell (Author). Introduction. Liverlight.
Hitchens became famous for his scathing critiques of public figures. Three figures — Bill Clinton, Henry Kissinger, and Mother Teresa — were the targets of three separate full length texts, No One Left to Lie To: The Triangulations of William Jefferson Clinton, The Trial of Henry Kissinger, and The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice. Hitchens also wrote book-length biographical essays about Thomas Jefferson (Thomas Jefferson: Author of America), George Orwell (Why Orwell Matters), and Thomas Paine (Thomas Paine's "Rights of Man": A Biography).

However, the majority of Hitchens's critiques took the form of short opinion pieces, some of the more notable being his critiques of: Jerry Falwell, George Galloway, Mel Gibson, Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, Michael Moore, Daniel Pipes, Ronald Reagan, Jesse Helms, and Cindy Sheehan.

Some people, most notably Religionists, speculated that Hitchens may have ended up having a sort of "Death Bed Conversion" like Charles Darwin was (falsely) claimed to have had. In order to fight off the rumors that this may occur, Hitchens made a very clear statement during one interview shortly before his death. You can watch it here:

Some of his best works can be found in his book God Is Not Great: Why Religion Poisons Everything, which can be found in my own personal library collection. He has, however, produced many other solitary quotes, more specifically on religion and (a)theism, such as:

"What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence."

"A true believer... must also claim to have at least an inkling of what that Supreme Being desires. I have been called arrogant in my time... but to claim that I am privy to the secrets of the universe and its creator — that’s beyond my conceit."

"Faith is the surrender of the mind; it's the surrender of reason, it's the surrender of the only thing that makes us different from other mammals. It's our need to believe, and to surrender our skepticism and our reason, our yearning to discard that and put all our trust or faith in someone or something, that is the sinister thing to me. Of all the supposed virtues, faith must be the most overrated."

"Why, if God was the creator of all things, were we supposed to "praise" him for what came naturally?"

"If Jesus could heal a blind person he happened to meet, then why not heal blindness?"

"Religion is man-made. Even the men who made it cannot agree on what their prophets or redeemers or gurus actually said or did."

"The person who is certain, and who claims divine warrant for his certainty, belongs now to the infancy of our species. It may be a long farewell, but it has begun and, like all farewells, should not be protracted."

"Human decency is not derived from religion. It precedes it."

"Religion ends and philosophy begins, just as alchemy ends and chemistry begins and astrology ends, and astronomy begins."

"Name me an ethical statement made or an action performed by a believer that could not have been made or performed by a non-believer."

My post could honestly span for days, this man has accomplished so much in his short lifetime. The world has lost one of the greatest Atheist Activists of our time. He was a true inspiration and role model, and continued to be one in the face of death. His steadfast affirmation in his beliefs regardless of knowing of his terminal illness is something we Atheists can forever be proud of him for. His legacy is definitely a great one. Cheers to one of the great men who shaped who I am today.

“The only position that leaves me with no cognitive dissonance is atheism. It is not a creed. Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell. Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more.” ― Christopher Hitchens

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Friday, December 9, 2011

Week 10 - "Random Videos"

This week I'm going to take a break from writing up a lengthy post and just share some videos I've collected recently. Enjoy.

Priest laughs when questioned about his money-making scheme ruining the lives of children

London UK news channel: Jesus Christ has returned! God is on Earth

Priest says Hell is an invention of the church to control people with fear

New Law Protects Christians Who Bully Gay Kids 

 Rick Perry: Strong

Rick Perry defends anti-gay ad 'Strong', says people should not have 'freedom from religion' 

Why Religion causes brain damage

Response from my mom, Week 9 on "The Great Prayer Experiment."

No response from my mom this week.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Week 9, "The Great Prayer Experiment."

Since I don't have very much time to write another blog post right now, I'm going to keep this one short and sweet. This is an excerpt taken from Richard Dawkin's book, "The God Delusion." It discusses in detail, an experiment taken a few years ago in Britain, measuring the actual usefulness of prayer on a scientific level. I'll touch more on prayer and why I personally find it arrogant, selfish, lazy, and pointless, later on when I have more time to write.

"As amusing, if rather pathetic, case study in miracles is the Great Prayer Experiment: does praying for patients help them recover? Prayers are commonly offered for sick people, both privately and in formal places of worship. Darwin's cousin Francis Galton was the first to analyze scientifically whether praying for people is efficacious. He noted that every Sunday, in churches throughout Britain, entire congregations prayed publicly for the health of the royal family. Shouldn't they, therefor, be unusually fit, compared with the rest of us, who are prayed for only by our nearest and dearest? Galton looked into it, and found no statistical difference. His intention may, in any case, have been satirical, as also when he prayed over randomized places of land to see if the plants would grow any faster (they didn't).
More recently, the physicist Russel Stannard (one of Britain's three well-known religious scientists, as we shall see) has thrown his weight behind an initiative, funded by - of course - the Templeton Foundation, to test experimentally the proposition that praying for sick patients improve their health.
Such experiments, if done properly, have to be double blind, and this standard was strictly observed. The patients were assigned, strictly at random, to an experimental group (received prayers) or a control group (received no prayers). Neither the patients nor their doctors or caregivers, nor the experimenters were allowed to know which patients were being prayed for and which patients were controls. Those who did the experimental praying had to know the names of the individuals for whom they were praying - otherwise, in what sense would they be praying for them rather than somebody else? But care was taken to tell them only the first name and initial letter of the surname. Apparently that would be enough to enable God to pinpoint the right hospital bed.
The very idea of doing such experiments is open to a generous measure of ridicule, and the project duly received it. As far as I know, Bob Newhart didn't do a sketch about it, but I can distinctly hear his voice:

          "What's that you say, Lord? You can't cure me because I'm a member of the
          control group? ...Oh I see, my aunt's prayers aren't enough. But Lord, Mr. Evans
          in the next-door bed... What was that Lord?...Mr. Evans received a thousand
          prayers per day? But Lord, Mr. Evans doesn't know a thousand people... Oh,
          they just referred to him as John E. But Lord, how did you know they didn't mean
          John Ellsworthy?... Oh, right, you used our omniscience to work out which John E.
          they meant. But Lord..."

Valiantly shouldering aside all mockery, the team of researchers soldiered on, spending $2.5 million of Templeton money under the leadership of Dr. Herbert Benson, a cardiologist at the Mind/Body Medical Institute near Boston. Dr. Benson was earlier quoted in a Templeton press release as "believing that evidence for the efficacy of intercessory prayer in medicinal settings is mounting." Reassuringly, then, the research was in good hands, unlikely to be spoiled by skeptical vibrations. Dr. Benson and his team monitored 1,802 patients at six hospitals, all of whom received coronary bypass surgery. The patients were divided into three groups. Group 1 received prayers and didn't know it. Group 2 (the control group) received no prayers and didn't know it. Group 3 received prayers and did know it. The comparison between Groups 1 and 2 tests for the efficacy of intercessory prayer. Group 3 tests for possible psychosomatic effects of knowing that one is being prayed for.
Prayers were delivered by the congregations of three churches, one in Minnesota, one in Massachusetts and one in Missouri, all distant from the three hospitals. The praying individuals, as explained, were given only the first name and initial letter of the surname of each patient for whom they were to pray. It is good experimental practice to standardize as far as possible, and they were all, accordingly, told to include in their prayers the phrase 'for a successful surgery with a quick, healthy recovery and no complications.'
The results, reported in the American Heart Journal of April 2006, were clear-cut. There was no difference between those patients who were prayed for and those who were not. What a surprise. There was a difference between those who knew they had been prayed for and those who did not know one way or the other' but it went in the wrong direction. Those who knew they had been the beneficiaries of prayer suffered significantly more complications than those who did not. Was God doing a bit of smiting, to show his disapproval of the whole barmy enterprise? It seems more probable that those patients who knew they were being prayed for suffered additional stress in consequence: 'performance anxiety,' as the experimenters put it. Dr. Charles Bethea, one of the researchers, said, 'It may have made them uncertain, wondering am I so sick they had to call in their prayer team?' In today's litigious society, is it too much to hope that those patients suffering heart complications, as a consequence of knowing they were receiving experimental prayers, might put together a class action lawsuit against the Templeton Foundation?
It will be no surprise that this study was opposed by theologians, perhaps anxious about its capacity to bring ridicule upon religion. The Oxford theologian Richard Swinburne, writing after the study failed, objected to it on the groups that God answers prayers only if they are offered up for good reasons. Praying for somebody rather than somebody else, simply because of the fall of the dice in the design of a double-blind experiment, does not constitute a good reason. Bob Newhart satire, and Swinburne is right to make it too. But in other parts of his paper Swineburne himself is beyond satire. Not for the first time, he seeks to justify suffering in a world run by God:

          "My suffering provides me with the opportunity to show courage and patience.
          It provides you with the opportunity to show sympathy and to help alleviate my
          suffering. And it provides society with the opportunity to choose whether or not
          to invest a lot of money in trying to find a cure for this or that particular kind of
          suffering...Although a good God regrets our suffering, his greatest concern is surely
          that each of us shall show patience, sympathy, and generosity and, thereby,
          form a holy character. Some people badly need to be ill for their own sake, and
          some people badly need to be ill to provide important choices for others. Only in
          that way can some people be encouraged to make serious choices about the
          sort of person they are to be. For other people, illness is not so valuable."

This grotesque piece of reasoning, so damningly typical of the theological mind, reminds me of an occasion when I was on a television panel with Swineburne, and also with our Oxford colleage Professor Peter Atkins. Swineburne at one point attempted to justify the Holocaust on the grounds that it gave the Jews a wonderful opportunity to be courageous and noble. Peter Atkins splendidly growled, 'May you rot in hell.'
Another typical piece of theological reasoning occurs further along in Swineburne's article. He rightly suggests that if God wanted to demonstrate his own existence he would find better ways to do it than slightly biasing the recovery statistics of experimental versus control groups of heart patience. If God existed and wanted to convince us of it, he could 'fill the world with super-miracles.' But then Swineburne lets fall his gem: 'There is quite a lot of evidence anyway of God's existence, and too much might not be good for us.' Too much might not be good for us! Read it again. Too much evidence might not be good for us. Richard Swineburne is the recently retired holder of one of Britain's most prestigious professorships of theology, and is a Fellow of the British Academy. If it's a theologian you want, they don't come much more distinguished. Perhaps you don't want a theologian.
Swineburn wasn't the only theologian to disown the study after it had failed. The Reverend Raymond J. Lawrence was granted a generous tranche of op-ed space in the New York Times to explain why responsible religious leaders 'will breathe a sigh of relief' that no evidence could be found of intercessory prayer having any effect. Would he have sung a different tune if the Benson study had succeeded in demonstrating the power of prayer? Maybe not, but you can be certain that plenty of other pastors and theologians would. The Reverend Lawrence's piece is chiefly memorable for the following revelations: 'Recently, a colleague told me about a devout, well-educated woman who accused a doctor of malpractice in his treatment of her husband. During her husband's dying days, she charged the doctor had failed to pray for him.'
Other theologians joined NOMA-inspired skeptics in contending that studying prayer in this way is a waste of money because supernatural influences are by definition beyond the reach of science. But as the Templeton Foundation correctly recognized when it financed the study, the alleged power of intercessory prayer is at least in principle within the reach of science. A double-blind experiment can be done and was done. It could have yielded a positive result. And if it had, can you imagine that a single religious apologist would have dismissed it on the grounds that scientific research has no bearing on religious matters? Of course not.
Needless to say, the negative results of the experiment will not shake the faithful. Bob Barth, the spiritual director of the Missouri prayer ministry which supplied some of the experimental [prayers, said: 'A person of faith would say that this study is interesting, but we've been praying a long time and we've seen prayer work, we know it works, and the research on prayer and spirituality is just getting started.' Yeah, right: we know from our faith that prayer works, so if evidence fails to show it we'll just soldier on until finally we get the result we want."

Thursday, December 1, 2011