"Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride"

Greta Christina

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Giving God the credit

O.K! This is an unashamedly trivial post on a trivial point about the way many genuinely decent religious believers betray their (often unconscious) double standards when it comes to the influence of God in their lives.
I caught an episode of the I.T.V game show Tipping Point in which contestants win money by answering multiple choice questions for tokens which are then played in a giant “Penny Falls” machine. Each token that falls out of the machine being worth £50.
The game is played in two rounds; the first where contestants compete to gain the highest amount of money, and a second jackpot round where the winner plays for a £10,000 token. Overall the game is a good combination of skill, strategy, general knowledge and dumb luck.
On the show I watched one contestant was introduced as a lay preacher and he quite convincingly won the first round. The host congratulated him on getting through to the jackpot round to which the contestant responded that he must have benefited from some “divine intervention”, pointing heavenwards as he did so.
I thought at the time that he was holding something of a hostage to fortune as there was no guarantee that his luck would hold out for the rest of the show and I wondered how he would explain that if it happened, given that he had publicly credited God with his success so far. I must also confess to the rather uncharitable hope that his game would indeed fall apart so that my curiosity could be satisfied.
Well, as things turned out his jackpot round was disastrous; he failed to answer most of his questions (including one in the religion category, ironically) and the tokens he did win refused to fall in his favour in the machine so that although he came out of the game with a reasonable cash prize the £10,000 jackpot eluded him
So what was his reaction? It was priceless: “I guess my brain and luck deserted me,” he said. Well of course it had, but where was his divine intervention? Had God deserted him at the final moment, or decided he had won enough? Maybe Yahweh was narked at being casually associated with the earlier success or just possibly some other god’s noodly appendages were upon him. But that is not really the point of this.
You can of course do a lot of theological hand waving about what a putative god’s role in all this would be for a true believer participating in a game show, but the telling point is this lay preaching contestant’s response: God is credited a hand in his successes but failure is down to random forces and personal inadequacy, which is an all too typical example of the cognitive dissonance of theists generally.
I even doubt whether this was a conscious distinction on the contestant’s part and whether he even connected his two statements at the time (although if he watched the show back I would hope it would strike him the same way it did me) because to exercise rational thought about “divine intervention” exposes believers to awkward questions that sophisticated theologians have conspicuously failed to answer (to anyone’s satisfaction but their own) for millennia.

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