In God We (Do Not) Trust

By Colin Flannery

“In God We Trust” appears on every denomination of U.S. currency. To trust in something or someone is to rely on them in circumstances where, if they let you down, you will suffer an adverse consequence.  Every time I get on an elevator, plane or ski lift, I trust the engineers who designed and built the machine with my life. Likewise, whenever I let a plumber into my house to work unsupervised, I trust him with my household goods. If my trust is misplaced, my television may disappear.

If, on the other hand, I let the plumber in, but pay a security guard to watch over him, I am not putting trust in him. Far from it, I am taking independent steps to assure that, regardless of the plumber’s honesty or dishonesty, nothing will be stolen. I likely do so because I do not trust him.

In this sense, very few people today ever trust in god. Very few people ever voluntarily put themselves in a position where, if their prayers are unanswered, or if god otherwise fails to act, they will suffer a physical or financial harm. Sure, they will pray, but it will always be in addition to doing whatever common sense, or science, tells them to do. This renders the outcome of the prayers completely irrelevant, as surely as the presence of the security guard renders irrelevant the integrity of the plumber.

For example, whenever anybody is sick, they would unlikely be so foolhardy as to put their money on god in lieu of medical science. They may pray on the side, as a harmless, cost-free way of doubling down, but no way in hell would a rational person ignore their surgeon in favor of just prayer. Such rational people do not “trust in god.” His existence or nonexistence is rendered irrelevant by the medical advice they follow.

However, Carl and Raylene Worthington are among the few people in America who can honestly say “In god we trust.” The Worthingtons are members of the fundamentalist church “The Followers of Christ” based in rural Oregon. Their newborn daughter, Ava, had a cyst on her throat. In a rare case of actually trusting in god in lieu of science, the Worthingtons refused the help of modern medicine, and decided instead to rely solely on prayer to cure their daughter, even as their prayers went unanswered and Ava’s condition worsened.  

Their own prayers appearing ineffectual, the Worthingtons eventually called in fellow members of the Followers of Christ to help them pray for god’s help. As Ava’s health nevertheless continued to deteriorate, they anointed her with oil, fed her diluted wine and laid their hands upon her, the whole time and praying she would recover. What the Worthingtons did not do was call a doctor.

The toddler eventually died, after the (easily curable) cyst grew in size and shut off her windpipe. Carl and Raylene were criminally charged with manslaughter and eventually convicted of the lesser charge of criminal mistreatment. In other words, they trusted in god and ended up with a dead baby and a criminal record.  

In a small, perverse way, one has to admire the poor simpletons. At least they put their money where their mouth is. They “anted up” and actually trusted in god. They sent the security guard home. While I might admire them a little more if it were their own lives that they bet on the existence of this most improbable of beings, I do not for a moment doubt their sincerity. By all reports, they were loving parents and the emotional pain they would feel on the death of their child is a good enough ante to convince me of their bona fides.  Committed religious beliefs can be a powerful and dangerous hallucinogenic.

To be candid, this is one case where, as an atheist, I would not want to see them lose their faith.  Imagine the guilt they would feel if they woke up one morning free from the obfuscating fog of their religious superstition and realized, with the clarity of a freethinker, that they had just sentenced their beloved child to a slow, agonizing death based on a primitive sky superstition. The humanist in me would never sentence anybody to such a hell. I believe it is better to allow them to wallow in their myopic beliefs. They have been punished enough.

Another group that, in a less dangerous way put their trust in the Christian god, is Harold Camping and his followers. These are the people who convinced themselves that the world was going to end on May 21, 2011. They put up billboards all over the country to warn people and frequently broadcast warnings of the upcoming rapture on their radio station, Family Radio. Many of them quit their jobs, liquidated their assets and drove around the U.S. in camper vans to spread the word.

Now, if you think it through, the only difference between this group and mainstream Christians is that this group set a date. Virtually every other aspect of their belief—the existence of the Christian god, the supernatural powers of Jesus, the impending end of the world with the second coming and the rapture of the faithful—are  fundamental tenets of Christianity. It’s easy to claim the world will end, but you don’t know when, because you cannot possibly be proved wrong. Actually trusting in your faith to the extent of setting a date—and risking financial ruin and public humiliation if you are wrong—is  putting your money where your mouth is.  

Soon after the non-event, Camping himself suffered a stroke and it was disappointing to see the vicious alacrity with which other Christians (and many atheists) attacked this old man, many theists declaring his stroke divine retribution and that Camping “deserved what he got.” One cannot help but feel that at least a part of the Christian wrath came from the fact that Camping said something inevitably disprovable, something any self-respecting theist knows to avoid at all cost. I actually felt sympathy for the poor delusional old fool. Despite the fact that he was pilloried in the press as only being “in it for the money,” I think he honestly believed what he said. He certainly appears to have trusted his faith and invested a lot in (what he believed) was helping others, as misguided as that may have been.

The larger point is that when people do trust in god or any other superstition, they are let down. They always have been and always will be. They will be let down with the same mechanical regularity as Charlie Brown’s place kick. Or, more precisely, their fate will be exactly what it would be have been had they not prayed/chanted/meditated. Indeed, this is tacitly acknowledged when we prosecute people like the Worthington’s. It is tantamount to the state saying, “Sure, it looks great on a coin, but come on you idiot, it’s not as though this god stuff actually works.”

Going back to the Worthington’s for a moment, after young Ava died, the family was devastated.  Devastated, but not shaken in their faith. The parents of Raylene Worthington, Jeff and Marci Beagley, who had just see their infant granddaughter killed through the medical neglect of their daughter, again put their trust in god. They refused medical help to their 16 year-old son, Neil (Raylene’s brother) for a routine urinary tract infection. Instead they prayed, chanted, used magic oils (or “holy oils” if you prefer) and laid hands upon him. The usual stuff.

Surely god would not let them down again. Surely he would see this as an even bigger display of their faith in light of young Ava’s fate and reward them with a cure.

Neil is now dead and the Beagleys have been sentenced to prison for criminally negligent homicide. His death, like little Ava’s, was horrific—slow, painful and drawn out. A simple course of antibiotics, discovered by medical science in the 1930s, would have saved him. Alas, it seems god was busy moving in mysterious ways again. It is little wonder the number of people who actually trust in god in more than a theoretical sense has been in steady decline for years. These guys are a text book example of self-effectuating eugenics.

God is a great placebo for those who feel the need to do something in addition to what the doctor tells them, or a great promise for those who wish to confidently predict the end of days without ever having to deliver, but I sure as hell wouldn’t trust him with my television.  

Colin Flannery was born in Australia, but now lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. He is a lawyer by profession and an admitted science nerd by choice.