More thoughts on the Psalms

On December 20, 2004, Edward T. Babinski wrote:
Subject: further thoughts from Bruce and myself

From Bruce To Ed: Hi Ed, Just a couple of quick thoughts on the Psalms debate you and Dave Armstrong have been having:
Dave has a valid point when he notes that the Psalms need not and should not be pressed literally on every word because they are poetry and homilies that try to say something about life experiences in general for devotional purposes, they are not narratives trying to state historical or scientific truth for every individual. The Psalm addressed a community and its promises concerned the experiences of the community, not of every individual within the community. This is true of all of the so-called Deuteronomistic or retribution-theology literature. So itʼs true that one cannot say that the hopeful promises of Psalm 91 are falsified by the fact that personal tragedy struck one individual who happened to believe in what this Psalm has to say.
Even so, what sinks Daveʼs argument, and ultimately the claims of Psalm 91 and other biblical passages like it, is the fact that there are in the world many other cases like that of your friend Becca. One example of a person of faith suffering tragedy may not disprove the claim that people of faith benefit from Godʼs protections and blessings; but when such tragedies are commonplace in the world and affect large numbers of people of faith — to the point where it can be said that people of faith are no less likely to experience tragedy and suffering than non-believers — then the claim has been decisively falsified. The reality of the world is that injustice, suffering and evil hit all of us in way or another, and people of faith enjoy no observable advantage over unbelievers in this respect. For every example of a person of faith who enjoys a long, happy life that Dave can cite, you and I can cite a counter example. This simple proves what should be readily obvious to everyone with an open mind and a grasp of reality: suffering and pain is totally indiscriminate with respect to who is affected by it and who is not. Faith in God is no more a protection against this than is eating vegetables.
So the claims of Psalm 91, far from being strengthened by emphasizing its “universal truth”, are in fact more easily discredited by this approach because looking at the big picture (the state of the world and the sweep of human history) simply makes it that much more obvious that people of faith are no less prone to suffering and tragedy and no more likely to have a long happy life than anyone else. I simply donʼt know how anyone can argue with a straight face, given the realities of this world and of human history, that faith in God improves oneʼs chances of a long happy life. Itʼs a patently ludicrous idea. And even many of the better theologians and religious philosophers will admit this (which is why they tend to emphasize the importance of justice in the world to come — i.e. the eschatological age or in some sort of afterlife)
More thoughts on the Psalms

Edward: I agree. The priestly Deuteronomistic theology of earthly blessings in this life, as represented by the author of Psalm 91, is ethnocentric hyperbole and patently absurd, even in the corporate sense, i.e., given the history of Israel.

It is enough to note what happened to the nation “blessed by God” according to the Bible:

The God of Israel tried to kill Moses (and failed); struck dead two sons of Aaron; commanded “brother to kill brother” leading to the deaths of 3,000 Israelites (right after He gave them the commandment, “Do not kill”); opened up the earth and buried alive “wives, sons and little children;” sent a fire that consumed 148 Levite princes; cursed his people to wander in the desert for forty years and eat 40,000 meals of quail and “manna” (talk about a monotonously torturous diet—and when they complained about it, God killed 3,000 Israelites with a plague); had a man put to death for picking up sticks on the Sabbath; denied Moses and Aaron entrance into the “promised land” because Moses struck a rock twice with his staff instead of talking to the rock; delivered to his people a “promised land” that was parched, bordered by desert, and a corridor for passing conquering armies; sent fiery serpents among Israel, killing many; wanted to kill every Israelite and start over with Moses and his family (but Moses talked God out of that plan); drove the first king of Israel to suicide; killed someone who tried to steady a teetering ark of the covenant; murdered king Davidʼs innocent child; sent plagues and famines upon his people that killed men, women and children; ordered the execution of 42 children of the king of Judah; “smote all Israel” killing half a million men of Israel in a civil war between Israel and Judah; “delivered into the hand of the king of Israel” 120,000 Judeans massacred in one day along with 200,000 Jewish women and children; gave Satan the power to kill Jobʼs children and servants (in order to win a bet); let the Babylonians conquer the holy city of Jerusalem, and then the Greek forces of Alexander the Great, followed by the Romans; and finally left the Jews homeless and persecuted by Christians and Moslems for nearly 2000 years. Furthermore, the large number of laws in the Hebrew Bible concerning the treatment of lepers and those with sores, demonstrates that the Israelites were far from being blessed with unparalleled good health. And archeological evidence indicates that in ancient Israel the infant mortality rate was as high as fifty percent.

[See the Bible for all of the references above, except for the archeological evidence concerning ancient Israelʼs infant mortality rate. For the latter see, Drorah O’Donnell Setel, “Abortion,” The Oxford Guide to Ideas and Issues of the Bible, ed. by Bruce Metzger and Michael D. Coogan
(Oxford University Press, 2001)]

Another Nation that Invoked “Godʼs Blessing”: the South

After the states of the South seceded from the Northern states in the U.S., the Confederacy drew up its own separate Constitution and made sure it contained an invocation to God: “We, the people…invoking the favor and guidance of Almighty God”

Learning what the South had done, a few legislators in the North drafted bills to have a Divine invocation added to the Constitution in the North, but all such bills were voted down. To this day (2004), the U.S. Constitution does not mention “God” nor invoke “Godʼs favor and guidance.” It does however, guarantee “freedom of religion.”

[See The Confederate Constitutions, compiled by Charles Robert Lee, Jr.]

Speaking of which, consider some of the earliest mathematical studies that questioned the effectiveness of prayer, like those of Francis Galton who examined the longevity of clergy. He reasoned that clergy should be the longest lived of all since they were the most “prayerful class” of all and among the most prayed for. When Galton compared the longevity of eminent clergy with eminent doctors and lawyers, the clergy were the shortest lived of the three groups. In this study of the clergy, he cited a previous study by Guy (Galton wasnʼt the first to think of analyzing prayer statistically but usually gets the credit) where Guy found prayer did not protect royalty, who were much prayed for, when compared to other members of the aristocracy. In analyzing the data on royalty, Galton concluded: “Sovereigns are literally the shortest lived of all who have the advantage of affluence.”

Galton looked for other statistical data. He examined the insurance rates for ships. He reasoned that ships carrying missionaries and pilgrims should have lower rates since frequent praying by the occupants should decrease the number of accidents. He found that the rates were the same; ships carrying missionaries and pilgrims sank just as often as other ships.
Following up on Galtonʼs statistical studies on prayer, Rupert Sheldrake, a 20th century Cambridge-trained plant biologist, did one of his own, examining the effects of prayer in India. Most people there prefer having a son, and a tremendous amount of praying goes into the effort to produce one. Sheldrake examined statistics of live male births in India and used data from England as a control where the preference for sons was less strong. He found that in both England and India there were 106 males to 100 females, just as in every other country. He stated, “if this enormous amount of psychic effort and praying of holy men were working, you would expect on average the percentage of live male births to be higher.”

Also on the topic of the effectiveness of prayers, I might mention that recently over a hundred children were taken captive in a schoolhouse hostage situation in Russia (2004), which included several children of Baptist missionaries, who died in the final act of that hostage tragedy. Prior to the childrenʼs deaths I had recʼd an email begging for prayers for the children sent out by the Baptist World Alliance (I am on their email list). I also read about a year ago in the magazine, Christianity Today, that four American missionaries went to Iraq and no sooner were they off the plane and driving through town than they were gunned down, all four dead. The article further explained that it was not the fact that they were missionaries that got them killed, but they had lost their way in the streets and simply driven into the wrong side of town and were gunned down simply for appearing to be Americans. I am sure those missionaries did not arrive in Iraq without many prayers having been said for them. In another case, a few years ago, on the television news show, 20/20, a South American missionaryʼs small airplane was gunned down with the missionary inside by a military jet aircraft who mistook the tiny missionaryʼs plane as a drug-runnerʼs plane. In Pucuro, Panama, three missionary men were taken away from their families in 1993. After eight long years of praying for the safe return of the men, their families recently learned that they had been killed by their captors five years previously.

On the opposite hand, what about people who have actively opposed “prayer?” Sure, there was “Mad” Madeline Murray O’Hair, the atheist who opposed prayer in schools, and who wound up murdered decades later. However O’Hairʼs court case was not the only one dealing with mandatory prayer in schools. Consider the case of someone who opposed mandatory Bible readings in public schools: “Supreme Court state/church victor Ed Schempp, 95, died in New Hampshire on Nov. 8, 2003 surrounded by the beauty of nature,” writes his son Ellery. The father/son pair launched the landmark lawsuit, Schempp v. Board of Education, ridding public schools of devotional Bible readings. In 1956, Ellery protested the mandatory Bible reading by reading from the Koran. After he was reprimanded, his father filed suit. Ellery was dropped from the suit after he graduated from high school. Madalyn Murrayʼs similar case out of Maryland was joined with the Schempp case before the Supreme Court, with the high court reserving the bulk of its opinion for the Schempp case. The Supreme Court issued an 8-1 ruling on June 17, 1963, barring mandatory Bible reading in public schools, which followed its 1962 decision barring prayer. Ed was a longtime member and honorary officer of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and was featured in the FFRF film, “Champions of the First Amendment.” A native Philadelphian, Ed took over his fatherʼs hardware business as a young man, and later worked in electronics. He was active in Unitarianism and peace groups. Ed Schempp is survived not only by the enduring legacy of his major court victory, but by his wife of 69 years (!), Sidney, and their children Ellery, Roger and Donna. Speaking of longevity: Freedom From Religion Foundation member Clara Carlson of Washington State is 96, and her husband Ralph is 100. The Peninsula Daily News recently ran a feature story about the long-lived couple, who have been married for more than 75 years. When asked her secrets to longevity and a long marriage, Clara replied: “Drink lots of champagne, eat lots of chocolate, and laugh a lot.” “Everything we do is a partnership,” Ralph told the newspaper. Clara also credited the “miracles of modern medicine” with helping Ralph survive four cancers, two heart attacks and two bouts with pneumonia. They have three daughters, nine grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren. Both have longevity in their genes, and stayed physically and mentally active after retirement. Home health and chore service workers have enabled them to keep living at home. Clara remains active in freethought, humanist and feminist causes. She had planned to travel to a recent FFRF national convention, but had to cancel the trip to help celebrate her daughterʼs 50th wedding anniversary (!)

Other famous overachievers in todayʼs news (who are not religious) include: Bill Gates, and Lance Armstrong (bicycle racing champion).

The benefits claimed by the most ardent advocates of the healing properties of prayer continue to produce relatively meager differences experimentally and statistically speaking, and the overall interpretation of the results remains controversial. You get far more significant results from simply taking vitamin and mineral supplements, watching your diet and weight, and by lowering your risks via rational means, like not driving with bald tires in the rain, or not driving too fast when trying to get to church or a prayer meeting on time. *smile*

I would like to end on a more amicable note, and agree that there are many beautiful passages in the psalms as well as in non-Biblical literature throughout the world. But I do not see why the psalms as a whole should be considered “holy writ” while all the rest of the earthʼs poetry, hyperbole, religious writings must necessarily be viewed as “less inspired.” Nor does it appear to me that the imprecatory psalms are much more than one personʼs wish to call down evil on another. A witch doctor could write curses like those. (Note, I am not “questioning God” but simply questioning how certain portions of the Bible might appear to anyone with a heart and head who has read similar passages outside of the Bible.)

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