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Last Saturday – the 6th of February, 2016 – Professor Richard Dawkins, world renowned ethologist, evolutionary biologist, creator of the concept of the meme, and champion of Capital A Atheism (or New Atheism), suffered a minor stroke. He is, I am pleased to report, currently recuperating in his home and is expected to make a full, or near full, recovery. [1]

Yesterday, when news of Professor Dawkins illness broke, the Church of England Twitter account posted:

Prayers for Prof Dawkins and his family

[followed by a link to a report on his stroke in The Independent newspaper] [2]

At the time of writing, the CofE’s Tweet has received 1.3K retweets and 925 likes.

The tweet has caused some controversy, so much so that a statement entitled #PrayForDawkins has been posted on the Church of England Communications tumblr. [3] Many people, it seems, felt that the CofE was not merely wishing Dawkins a speedy recovery, rather having some kind of dig at him. In the statement Reverend Arun Arora, Director of Communications for the Archbishops’ Council, wrote the following:

The prayer tweeted on Friday evening was for Richard Dawkins. It’s hardly surprising that I don’t agree with all of his views (viz his most recent tweet on Dan Walker). But there is a danger of reducing him to a one trick pony. His views are more nuanced that both supporters and detractors would usually acknowledge. At the end of last year Prof Dawkins publicly voiced his support for the Church of England when our “Lord’s Prayer” advert was banned by cinemas in the UK.

Any suggestion that Christians do anything other than hate Professor Dawkins utterly confuses those who think in binary terms. Few would appreciate that the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, hosted Richard Dawkins and his wife at a party at Lambeth Palace in 2007. “There’s something about his swashbuckling side which is endearing,” said Archbishop Williams, saying of Richard and Lalla “they were absolutely delightful.”

I wish Professor Dawkins well. I hope he makes swift and full recovery and wish him the best of health. I will pray for him too. It is the very least I can do.

I am not a Christian and I imagine that there are many things Reverend Arun Arora and myself would not agree upon, but to me his statement seems clear and concise and without a hint of malice or snark. He does not agree with Dawkins on many things, but he does not wish the man harm.

There is no hint in the statement that Dawkins brought his ailment upon himself because of his Atheism, or that only God can help him, or anything of that nature. That’s not really what the (fairly) moderate CofE is about – that is more the domain of the American Religious Right. Yes, the Church of England is guilty of many things as an organisation – their failure to openly condemn ludicrous and offensive ‘Christian Gay Cure’ therapies is just one of many recent examples – but they are not the Westboro Baptist Church. Just as all Muslims are not terrorists, all Christians are not slavering lunatics relishing the idea of their enemies, or anyone who vaguely disagrees with their interpretation of “God’s Word”, burning in Hell.

So, is it offensive for the Church of England to offer “Prayers for Prof Dawkins and his family“? It depends on your interpretation really. Are the CofE really saying “If we pray hard enough it will definitely make him better because God is magic“? Many atheists (capital A or otherwise) seem to have taken it as such. For my own part, I can’t really see that.

A man praying at a Japanese Shinto shrine  Kalandrakas (カランドラカス) from Kanagawa,

Most Christians I know are rational, normal people who – so far as I can tell – seem to have reasonable expectations of what God can, or will do for them. Miracles genuinely do happen – people spontaneously recover from terrible things, [4] survive against the odds, etc – but if you’re not religious, you probably don’t call them miracles. And miracles, by their very definition, happen only on very rare occasions. A prayer is a hope is a wish – its a completely natural thing that all us humans do. If you are religious you direct the prayer at a God or Gods, if not you direct your wish, your hope, out at the world at large.

Professor Richard Dawkins is a man of faith. He has absolute faith in science and that faith will aid him – is already aiding him – in his recovery. The word placebo is something many people associate with being duped – it’s a trick that works on children or the gullible – but the placebo effect is a proven scientific fact known to the medical community since the 1950s. People given treatments without active medical components can have their bodies “tricked” into getting better because their brain believes that they are receiving treatment. While many of the findings of Henry K. Beecher’s pioneering 1955 paper The Powerful Placebo have since been disputed, it is now accepted that simply believing oneself to be receiving effective treatment can alter levels of hormones, endocannabinoids, and endogenous opioids [5]. Dawkins’ positive outlook will help him to recover more quickly and fully than someone in the same situation who was doubtful, or pessimistic, about the quality of care they were receiving and the power of medicine and science in general. His faith in himself and what is scientifically possible will drive him to push himself further and harder and faster along the road to recovery. His faith will heal, or at least help to heal, him.

It could be argued that this is mere semantics, that I’m wilfully abusing and twisting meaning to make religious faith the same as faith in science or in oneself. Yet, when the Church of England offer “Prayers for Prof Dawkins and his family“, and people read that as a slight or a swipe at the Professor, aren’t they twisting the meaning further than that? Even if there is no God, and prayer holds no power, where is the harm in someone offering their prayers for someone who has been taken ill? Haven’t they as good as said “I hope”, or “I wish that that person will get well soon”? To me it feels like even Professor Richard Dawkins should struggle to take offence at that.

I, for one, wish him a full and speedy recovery.

REFERENCES

[1] http://www.sydneyoperahouse.com/whatson/richard_dawkins_2016.aspx
[2] https://twitter.com/c_of_e/status/698249409663000577
[3] http://cofecomms.tumblr.com/post/139239114452/prayfordawkins
[4] http://www.noetic.org/research/projects/spontaneous-remission
[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Placebo#Mechanism_of_the_effect