The Atheist’s Thumb
January 29, 2011 § 49 Comments
I want to tell a joke about an atheist. Hopefully, no one will take offense—my goal is not to mock atheists, but to ask whether or not there’s any grain of truth behind the story. It’s not really even that great of a joke, but for what it’s worth, here it is:
An atheist and his friend are doing a woodworking project at the atheist’s house, and the atheist accidentally bangs his thumb with a hammer. After a few choice words of immediate response, the atheist says, “Hey, now I can do my ‘homework.’ I’m taking part in a study of pain relievers, and I’ve got a bottle of pills upstairs.” So he takes the pill and sure enough, within minutes the pain in his thumb is gone. Following the instructions on the bottle, he waits 30 minutes, then calls the research lab, and reports his results. After a short conversation, he returns to his friend, picks up his hammer, and very deliberately hits the same thumb (and repeats the same choice words as before).
“What did you do that for?” asks his friend.
“The lab told me the pill was a placebo,” replies the atheist, “and I know placebos don’t really do anything, so my thumb is supposed to still be hurting.”
Ok, like I said, Leno’s career is in no danger from me. But I still want to ask the question. Do you think there’s any grain of truth in the story? The mental context of the joke is the oft-repeated question believers ask: “If there is no God, what’s the harm in believing that there is?” Can religion play a useful role as a kind of experiential relief, even if it’s only a placebo effect? Are atheists going too far in rejecting what they know to be false, and thus depriving themselves of beneficial effects? Can you know a thing is a placebo, and still appreciate the fact that the pain is no longer afflicting you?