Friday, September 11, 2015

Applied Blasphemy

"Monty Python and the Holy Grail" is one of my favorite films, though "The Life of Brian" is better.

It's not every atheist who has the privilege of experiencing an authentic Miracle of God, you know, the kind they canonize saints over. I mean, you would think that God would reserve them for believers. Certainly, he wouldn't bestow them on someone who has so often mocked him, in person and in print.

Of course, I don't think my survival from kidney and lung failure, multiple strokes on both sides of my brain, and a six-week coma was a miracle. Unlikely, yes, but not a miracle, unless you mean a miracle of modern medicine. You can read about how my doctors bought my body time to begin healing itself in my Skeptical Inquirer article "Covert Cognition: My So-Called Near-Death Experience."

But this is not what my religious friends, who were praying for me during my coma, and many others believe. It doesn't matter if I've laid out, step by step, how the actions of my doctors slowly turned the tide. To them, ultimately, God did it (by ensuring that my doctors followed the standard lifesaving procedures?). Indeed, I've been told my recovery was a miracle so many times that I've referred to myself as Miracle Girl. Knowing me, my friends must've known that I was joking, but they couldn't have understood how deeply ironic it that moniker was. I didn't fully "come out" until my work starting appearing in the secularist press. But my religious friends provided invaluable support for me during my long and difficult recovery, and my attitude about these types of prayers changed. Yes, I still think prayer is pointless, but I now see that this was their way of supporting me in a way that was deeply meaningful to them, at a time when my doctors seemed impotent to save my life. After all, my friends truly believed prayers work. To them, praying for me was the most effective way they could help me.

I've made it plain that I don't believe in miracles, but I don't call people out when they claim I experienced one. And when, after hearing my story, strangers tell me that I must have something important left to do on earth, I swallow sarcastic rejoinders like, "You mean like my Skeptical Inquirer article? Or maybe my humanist essays for Free Inquiry?" Instead, I just smile.

A case in point is my essay, "Without a Prayer of a Chance," which is in the current issue of Free Inquiry. My second FI essay,"Sympathy for the Devil-Believers," tentatively scheduled for their February/March issue, details how I came to this attitude after my completely secular upbringing and despite my generally anti-religious beliefs. My exposure to believers and the kind support I received from some of them began to soften my biases. Yes, it works both ways.

The theme of the October/November issue of Free Inquiry is blasphemy, and they've labeled a series of essays, including mine, "Applied Blasphemy." I love that! But coupled with the Washington Post's quote about my Skeptical Inquirer article, "Funny, frequently profane and adamantly atheistic," I sound like the perfect profile of a New Atheist. Actually, I don't at all approve of the New Atheists' tactics. In fact, I've joked that I may be the only atheist who has strengthened the faith of more believers than Richard Dawkins. You don't win a lot of converts by insulting them. And frankly, I couldn't care less if people want to believe in a great big genie in the sky...as long as they don't try to cram their religion down my throat.

This attitude is among the reasons my essay became the "it's okay if they want to pray for me" side of the applied blasphemy theme. As they put it in their blurb for my essay, "I don't credit God for my extraordinary recovery from illness, but I won't begrudge my friends the satisfaction they got from praying for me." A contrasting essay takes the opposite tack, "Please stop praying for me."

That's exactly where I was before my coma. Nearly dying has to change you. In my case, among other things, it made me more forgiving of other people's well-meaning magical thinking...especially when it shows how much they care.

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Coma Girl

Coma Girl

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In July of 2013, I fell into a six-week coma and nearly died. When I awoke from the coma, I could barely lift my head. It has been a hard road to recovery. The doctors advised my loved ones to give up all hope for my full recovery, but while they were shining lights in my eyes to gauge my level of consciousness, I was telling them grumpily to leave me alone because I was trying to get back to sleep...in my coma-dream. I was experiencing covert cognition, and the coma-dream was my version of a near-death experience. I'm a skeptic, so I saw surreal images instead of spirits or dead loved ones. According to my research, as many as one in five people with consciousness disorders have covert cognition.

Not a miracle recovery, but a miracle of modern medicine

In 2013 I fell into a six-week coma and nearly died after I contracted legionella. The Legionnaire's disease was in turn triggered by immunosuppression caused by the prednisone I was taking for my rare autoimmune disease, dermatomyositis.

I suffered a series of strokes on both sides of my brain when the sepsis caused my blood pressure to plummet. I fell into a deep coma. My kidneys and lungs began to fail, as my body was began dying one organ at a time. My doctors told my loved ones to give up hope for my full recovery. They expected me to die, and even if I somehow lived, I would remain a vegetable or at best left so hopelessly brain-damaged that I would never be same. But unbeknownst to them, while they were shining lights in my eyes and shaking their heads, I was telling them in my coma-dream--my secular version of a near-death experience--to leave me alone because I was trying to get back to sleep. I was experiencing what is known as covert cognition, the subject of my Skeptical Inquirer article "Covert Cognition: My So-Called Near-Death Experience," which appeared in their July/August issue.

But it wasn't a miracle--despite what so many continue to believe--that I recovered so fully. I owe my life not to God, but the miracles of modern medicine, as well as the nature of the watershed-area brain damage I suffered, as I detailed in my article and in this blog.