21 November 2013

The atheist heroin addict who got schooled, why prayer is stupid, and my psychic connection to The Simpsons

You may have spotted this viral video being spread around social networks: a 30-year-old man struggling with his faith, addicted to heroin and who had hocked his son's toys for drug money, receives a generous monetary gift the day after praying for help. It was too good to be a coincidence – it must have been God. Here's the vid:



Years ago, my local Fox affiliate used to run reruns of The Simpons twice a day, five days a week. With the new episodes airing Sundays, that made for eleven episodes of the show each week. I watched them all. I was – and still am – a huge fan of the show.

But a funny thing would happen. Sometimes, I would think of a random joke from a random episode. It'd just pop in my head. And then the next day, that would be one of the episodes that aired. Well obviously, when you're watching eleven episodes a week, certain ones are bound to repeat. But it happened with such frequency that it freaked me out for a while, and then eventually I just stopped being surprised by it. The episode would come on and I'd think, Of course this is the episode they air today – I was just thinking of that joke.

Flash forward many years later. I no longer own a TV. I still watch The Simpsons on Hulu, but not reruns. One night, because I'm a goofball that way, I had the thought of announcing on Facebook that I was going to change my name to Bill Plimpton. I dunno, I just thought it sounded funny. But before I wrote it, I had the thought that maybe there was someone out there actually named Bill Plimpton, so I Googled it. Sure enough, there is a Bill Plympton, who is an Oscar-award-winning animator.

A few days later, I logged on to Hulu to watch that week's episode of The Simpsons. The couch gag was really weird, and quite long, with a very distinct animation style. At the end of the gag, a signature draws itself on the screen: Bill Plympton. My jaw dropped. No. Freaking. Way:



Now, I'm not a superstitious person. Those really are just freaky coincidences. Such things do occasionally happen, after all – probability dictates that improbable things do happen from time to time. But I think that both my "prediction" of episodes and my improbable encounter with Bill Plympton are far more remarkable than the Christian charity depicted above.

One of the biases associated with psychic phenomena – and, I should emphatically add, prayer – is that people tend to dismiss the misses and only count the hits. Billions of people pray for all kinds of things every day. The vast majority of time, nothing happens. A friend of mine just posted on Facebook that a friend of hers needed prayer because her son has cancer, and while it had gone into remission it was now back with a vengeance. I've seen such things before, like the tragic story of Layla Grace. So God can give some deadbeat heroin addict a hundred bucks, but he won't help a kid with cancer?

George Carlin famously summarized the stupidity of the whole endeavor:
Pray for anything you want. Pray for anything, but what about the Divine Plan?
Remember that? The Divine Plan. Long time ago, God made a Divine Plan. Gave it a lot of thought, decided it was a good plan, put it into practice. And for billions and billions of years, the Divine Plan has been doing just fine. Now, you come along, and pray for something. Well suppose the thing you want isn't in God's Divine Plan? What do you want Him to do? Change His plan? Just for you? Doesn't it seem a little arrogant? It's a Divine Plan. What's the use of being God if every run-down shmuck with a two-dollar prayerbook can come along and fuck up Your Plan?
And here's something else, another problem you might have: Suppose your prayers aren't answered. What do you say? "Well, it's God's will." "Thy Will Be Done." Fine, but if it's God's will, and He's going to do what He wants to anyway, why the fuck bother praying in the first place? Seems like a big waste of time to me! Couldn't you just skip the praying part and go right to His Will? It's all very confusing.

This is all just confirmation bias. But another problem is that people tend to be really bad at estimating probabilities. One of my favorite YouTube users (who's been disappointingly quiet for a long time), 'Qualia Soup', did a fantastic video on this phenomenon:




There's yet another problem with the video, though: atheists can't pray – at least not with a modicum of sincerity. You can't pray to something you do not think actually exists. An atheist would see prayer as futile, and could only engage in it cynically. I can accept that this guy had felt disconnected from his religion, but he clearly had some degree of religious faith. And the fact that some guy gave him a small amount of money the next day really is just a friggin' coincidence, just like my discovery of Bill Plympton was not evidence that I have psychic powers.

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