Monthly Archives: November 2017

Why Do We Still Pray?

 

 

On October 19, 1991, a massive firestorm swept through the Oakland hills where we lived. Twenty-five people were killed and 2843 homes were destroyed.  Due in part to a good Samaritan, the fire stopped just before our home.

 

When I learned the next day that our house had not burned, I remember standing on the sidewalk, going nowhere in particular and repeating over and over: Thank You! Thank you! Then I stopped and asked myself: Whom are you thanking, you numbskull? You don’t believe in God!

 

When waiting for the result of a test, something in me prays: please let it not be cancer. When the plane I am in shudders and shakes I pray: please don’t crash!

 

Is the need to pray an inherent part of us? Is it built into our genes? Is it an atavistic vestige of the past no longer needed like an appendix but still working? We have made great scientific advances. We know the answers to many previously obscure questions and we are answering important new questions more and more quickly. We are no longer groping in the dark. We know that there is no God who cares about us individually and can alter things for us and yet we still pray for this favor.

 

The ultimate curmudgeon Ambrose Bierce wrote, “To pray is to ask the laws of the Universe to be annulled on behalf of a single petitioner.”

When I lived in Beirut   the word “Inchallah” often cropped up in conversations: The doctor would say:

“Tomorrow, Inchallah, you will feel much better.”  I translated it as “hopefully”, but it literally means “God willing”

When the late Christopher Hitchens was dying of cancer he asked: “Don’t trouble a Deaf Heaven with prayers for me.” And on September 3, when the President declared

a National Day of Prayer for the victims of Hurricane Harvey, Richard Dawkins tweeted” Yes, God will now feel free to come to the rescue. Er…why did he send the hurricane in the first place?”

Is it possible that we cannot live by reason alone?

 

How Things Get Their Names

 

Buenos Aires

Long before it was discovered that malaria was transmitted by mosquitoes breeding in stagnant waters, people believed that the disease was caused by bad air, hence it was named mal aria (bad air.)

A myth about good air is at the origin of the name of the city of Buenos Aires in Argentina. It was said that the origin of its name was the good air it enjoyed atop a hill.

Another legend has it that the city was named after a Sicilian saint: Nuestra Senora la Virgen Maria de los Buenos Aires who is credited with having helped conquer the place.

Amerigo Vespucci

 

And that is how names stick long after their origin has been forgotten. Venezuela’s name also boasts of a legend. The area around Lake Maracaibo supposedly reminded the navigator Amerigo Vespucci of the City of Venice, so he named it Piccola Venezia (Little Venice) or Venezuela.

 

Amerigo Vespucci was also the man who, in 1501 proclaimed that Columbus had not found Asia’s eastern side but a totally different continent, in fact two continents. He had deduced this from noticing the different constellations and observing indigenous customs and habits. In 1507 it was suggested that the continents be named North and South America in his honor. We are lucky that his first name was used in this naming or we would be known today as the United States of Vespucci.