Mr. Shermer is editor in chief of Skeptic Magazine and has written many books including one that I have read titled ‘Science Friction Where the Known meets the Unknown .’
Bike Crashes, Divine Intervention, and the Nature of Evil
An Open Letter to Larry Taunton
On my cycling training ride today, which is when I do most of my deepest thinking (unless I’m riding with the Young Turks who like to go fast, in which case there’s no blood in my brain and I’m doing no thinking at all), I had an idea for a debate we could do on theodicy, the nature of good and evil, why bad things happen to good people, and why things happen at all (chance, law, or design), starting with your near-fatal bike crash, recovery, and the credit for it. As your friend and occasional debate partner, and especially as a fellow serious cyclist who has had a few run-ins with cars in my days on the open roads of America, this got my attention and got me thinking…
In your twitter feed following your bike crash and recovery, you thanked God for the “miraculous” nature of your return to health and acknowledged those who prayed for you. Of course you are grateful for being alive given the alternative (although in your case, given your Christian beliefs about the soul and the afterlife, the alternative isn’t such a bad thing, right?). But how do you know it was God and prayer that enabled your recovery? Assuming your tweets were not of the generic gratitude for being alive sort, along the lines of what anyone might mean when they say “thank god for such a beautiful day” or “thank heavens our company didn’t go under this year,” your gratitudinal gestures indicate that you believe divine intervention is what saved you. To wit:
My physicians say that I am a walking miracle. If this is so, it is due to the many prayers offered on my behalf to a mighty God.
And from your office twitter feed:
Update: Oct 10 Larry was hit head-on by a car while cycling. He’s at home now recovering. He’s grateful for your prayers & glad to be alive.
Good news: Larry’s condition has been downgraded. He’s been moved from ICU to Trauma. He values your prayers as he recovers.
Larry‘s body is broken, but not his spirit. He trusts in God’s sovereign plan and is humbled by your many prayers on his behalf.
Pray for Larry. He was hit by car cycling and is in intensive care in serious but stable condition.
And from your friends:
@LarryTaunton May God comfort and fully restore you, our General in the faith. I agree your greatest days are ahead, hence the attack.
Again, I do not doubt your appreciativeness to your friends and well-wishers for saying nice things—we all like that, of course—but if you also attribute your recovery, at least in part, to divine intervention, then a few questions come to mind.
- If God can intervene in the natural world in general and in our lives in particular, to the point of apparently being able to reach inside your body to repair broken bones and damaged organs and tissues, then why didn’t God intervene to steer the car to miss colliding with your bike, or steer your bicycle to avoid the automobile in your path? That is, why would God allow the crash but not allow the fatal consequences of it?
- You thanked many people for their prayers in your recovery. If they had not prayed would God have not intervened because these prayers were the only way he could have known about your injuries? Or, since God is omniscient, he surely knew you collided with the car, but did he then wait to intervene until enough prayers came in to reach a tipping point for divine action for your recovery? And does it matter who prays? For example, do spouses and family members have more prayerful influence than, say, co-workers and friends? What about the clergy? Surely clerics have more bandwidth for celestial communication than parishioners, or the proverbial stranger on the street, no?
- According to the Centers for Disease Control’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System, from 1975 to 2012 a total of 29,711 cyclists were killed in collisions with automobiles, for an average of 782 per year. According to a 2014 Pew poll 70.6 percent of Americans describe themselves as Christians. Unless cyclists are inordinately atheistic in nature (and I know of no data to so indicate), this translates to 552 Christian cyclists who die each year in automobile collisions. Why doesn’t the Christian God intervene on their behalf as he did in your case? How does God choose who lives and who dies?
- Despite this staggering number, many cyclists, in fact, do recover from crashes, especially if they are wearing a helmet. You are a case in point. As is my friend Steven Pinker, the Harvard psychologist who is also an avid cyclist. In late 2015 he too was in a serious bike crash caused by loose sand and gravel in the road. Although he was wearing a helmet he nevertheless incurred a concussion serious enough to cause amnesia of both the accident itself and for the rest of the day. He only knows what happened from eye witnesses who described it. Although Steve is Jewish by cultural heritage, he is an outspoken atheist. He has fully recovered from his bike crash. Why? What’s the difference between Pinker’s bike crash revitalization and yours? You attribute yours to divine intervention. How do you explain Pinker’s recovery?
- This leads to a more general question: what’s the difference between events (e.g., bike crash recoveries) that happen by divine intervention and those that happen by chance or natural law? Given the body’s remarkable ability to heal itself, how do you know your recovery wasn’t due to its natural healing capacities, instead of the deific providence to which you ascribe it? Alternatively, what’s the difference between divine events that turn out well (e.g., recovery from a bike crash after prayer) and those that do not turn out so well (e.g., the death of 552 Christian cyclists per year who presumably are prayed for by their loved ones)? You know first hand how concerned your family and friends were about your life, and you can easily imagine how they would have felt had you died. Now, project those feelings into the heads of all the family and friends of the 552 dead Christian cyclists every year. This is a figure we can estimate to be about 82,800 people, given that each of us knows around 150 people fairly well (according to anthropologists, sociologists, and Facebook), multiplied by 552. Think about that: 82,800 people, every year, suffering and agonizing in almost unbearable pain over the loss of dead Christian cyclists in the U.S. Extrapolate these calculations to the 33,000 people who die in automobiles each year (and their 4,950,000 family and friends), or to the 589,430 people who died of cancer in 2015 (and their 88,414,500 family and friends), and so forth. It soon becomes clear that nearly all of us will be touched by the death of a loved one, sooner if not later. How do you explain this, beyond the generic “well, God works in mysterious ways”?