Hi Dr. Hurd,

I have faith. I have faith in myself. I have faith in other kind, empathetic human beings. As for faith in a supernatural being, color me agnostic (at best).

Faith in an invisible, omnipotent deity can be dangerous.

Henry was a devout Believer, and when the river started swelling, he prayed

to God not to let the water reach his property.

Well, the water did reach his property and quickly filled his basement.

Two men in a four-wheel-drive vehicle pulled up to Henry’s house and told him to get in and they’d take him to safety. Henry answered, “No thanks. God will protect me.”

As the water continued to rise and started to flood the first floor of his house, Henry prayed to God to keep him safe as he moved up to the second floor.

Some people came by in a boat and told Henry to get in. He responded, “I’ll be OK. God will take care of me.”

There was no stopping the water, however, and Henry had to move onto the roof of his house as the water flooded the second floor and began lapping at the edges of his sloped roof. Again, he prayed to be preserved.

Shortly afterwards, a helicopter flew up and hovered over his house. A voice bellowed through a megaphone telling Henry to grab onto the rope ladder that dangled from the helicopter. Henry shouted back, “Go away! Go save someone else! God will look after me!”

Well, unfortunately, Henry drowned. Fortunately, though, he went to heaven. When he met God, he asked, quite upset, “Why didn’t you save me from the flood, God?”

And God replied, “You idiot! Why the hell didn’t you get into the four-by-four, the boat, or the helicopter that I sent to rescue you?”

Dr. Hurd replies:

Your humorous parable says it all. To replace reason with faith is absolutely dangerous.

About twenty years ago, I went to a newly opened restaurant near where I lived. The food was truly fabulous, and it was a type of cuisine that has since caught on but at the time was rather innovative. My co-diner and I complimented the owner, who had just been favorably reviewed in The Washington Post. She was a middle-aged black woman, obviously very religious and she replied. ‘Oh, thank you for that, but it was the Lord who made this all possible.’

Myself and my co-diner responded with friendly but pointed questions such as, ‘Didn’t you have anything to do with this success? Aren’t you the one who gets up early, finds the right kind of staff to make sure everything is properly cooked? Aren’t you the one toiling in the kitchen, smiling at the customers and making everything perfect?’ She smiled but remained insistent, ‘No, no, no, it was the Lord. That’s what my faith tells me.’

Not much more than a year later, I read that the restaurant had closed. I have no idea why, especially given its initial success and favorable, high-profile media coverage. But I wondered if this was a result of the owner’s faulty thinking, somehow turned against herself.

It’s not my habit to push atheism on people who don’t want to hear it. I frankly don’t care much whether people are atheists or not. It’s more important to me that someone give themselves credit for what they accomplish, and for the fact that it was reason, rationality and objectivity — fueled with the passion of emotion and motivation, to be sure — that brought it all about. When I hear someone say, ‘God did it all,’ it troubles me just as much as if someone said some person did it all, knowing full well they didn’t.

My one question of a deeply religious person is not usually, ‘How do you know there’s a God?’ More often, depending on the circumstance, my question is, ‘If you insist there is a God, doesn’t God help those who help themselves?’

That’s what comes to mind in your story about Henry. Henry failed to live up to the most basic responsibility of all, to take care of himself. Rational self-interest, first and foremost on the level of self-preservation, is the proper moral standard objectively required of all human beings. To depart from that for even a moment doesn’t make much sense, whether you consider yourself a religious person or not.

(The question was sent in by Jerry Steinberg, founding Non-Father Emeritus of NO KIDDING! The international social club for childless and childfree couples and singles. See www.nokidding.net for details. The club has no position on faith, religion or atheism one way or the other.)