Who’s Delusional? 2

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.


  1. Jack Davis says:

    The problem with your wife’s argument is that she doesn’t know: 1. whether the doctors and nurses do in fact believe in God, and 2. how much they draw strength from that belief if they do. Religion in America, as Steven Weinberg has said, is much wider than it is deep. I believed in God until a few years ago, but it never provided me much encouragement—I simply believed because I had been told to do so. I went to Yom Kippur services out of obligation as much as true belief.

    Jack D.

  2. Truant says:

    Statistics can, as I’m sure you are aware of, be misleading.
    The fact that a lot of people believe in a deity of some kind is not proof of anything than tradition, a very effective indoctrination system and a powerful meme.
    In order to test that hypotheses (practically impossible, but theoretically interesting) you would have to do a number of tests to see if these people would act the same way with or without their beliefs. Not something that is easily done, but still enough of a blind spot to at least put a question mark at those kinds of opinions.

  3. Mel Konner says:

    Dear Jack,

    You rightly ask whether and how much the people Dennett thanks in his letter are truly religious or truly motivated by their religious beliefs to do what they do, or whether and how much they draw strength from it. This is exactly the kind of question that we need more research on. It is not helpful for atheists like you and me to assume we know the answers without first doing the research.

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