Thank "goodness," for sure, but stop and ask yourself how the goodness might have come about.
I have to say that at the Salk Institute "Beyond Belief 2006" conference, I was most moved and impressed by the philosopher Dan Dennett's contribution. It was phoned-or I guess emailed-in, because the poor guy was flat on his back in a hospital bed recovering from a dissecting aortic aneurysm.
That's one of the worst things you can have happen to you this side of death. A weakness in the wall of the aorta causes its layers to separate, the blood flows between them, gets trapped, blocks that largest artery in the body, backs up the blood into your heart and lungs, and kills you in short order.
It can be excruciatingly painful or, especially in an older person, not all that bad subjectively. Dennett's case was in the latter category, and as he said in his public letter to the conference, an alert doc saved his life by figuring out what he had and getting him into an operating theater. He knew he had had an extremely close call, and he was grateful.
But to whom? Not God, clearly. The letter (again, it was meant to be public, or I wouldn't be talking about it) was called "Thank Goodness," and its theme was that he owed his life to the goodness of people, not God.
With his characteristic crisp eloquence, he thanked the goodness of the doc who made the pickup, the surgeon who fixed the dissection, the nurses who were at his bedside almost ‘round the clock, the pharmacists, phlebotomists and orderlies, even the people in the laundry who cleaned his sheets.
Loudly, clearly, and graciously, he thanked them for their goodness-preparing for their roles, honing and maintaining their skills, working conscientiously and hard to converge on what for him turned out to be a matter of life and death.
I was very touched, and at some point in the meeting I recommended that everyone there be sure to read his letter. I also suggested to the organizers that someone read it aloud, which did happen later.
Of course, although the letter was full of gratitude, it also had an ironic message: I'm saying Thank Goodness again and again because as a rationalist philosopher I can't and won't thank God. How can I when God doesn't exist? So I'm going to the heart of the matter and thanking goodness—the goodness of those responsible for saving my life, kind and decent human beings every one.
I had no trouble with this message and thought I might even have written something like it myself, if I had my wits about me after a life-threatening illness. So I was a bit surprised by my wife's reaction when I read it aloud to her after returning from the conference.
She was furious. She is only what I would call very mildly religious, but she threw the letter across the room.
"Doesn't he realize that all those people believe in God? That they get up every morning and get past the pains of their own lives to help others because they get strength from their faith? That they pray every day for the wisdom to do the right thing, for God to guide their hands? Doesn't he think that might have something to do with their goodness?"
As I thought about this little tirade, I realized she had sliced through the wise philosopher's knot with one stroke of her own good mind. (She's a psychologist, so I fear she had the better of him in this particular argument.)
In one survey, sixty-one percent of physicians said they believe in God. I am sure that the number is much higher for all the other folks who devote their lives to the healing professions. So it's a good bet that Ann was right about most of the people who helped save Dan Dennett's life. I'm not saying that atheists can't be good docs and nurses; I'm saying that most, in this country at least, are people of faith.
So does that prove God exists? Of course not. What it proves is that the influence of faith in people's lives is a whole lot more complex than it seems in the diatribes against religion fielded by Dennett and others. And that influence, oddly enough, can be a huge boon even to a resolute non-believer.