Choosing Tylenol and God

By Barbara Bradley HagertyNPR’s Religion Correspondent I would like to say I left the faith of my childhood for exclusively … Continued

By Barbara Bradley Hagerty
NPR’s Religion Correspondent

I would like to say I left the faith of my childhood for exclusively noble reasons. While it is true that I made the final break with Christian Science because I was drawn to a simpler, “mere Christianity,” as C.S. Lewis described it, what initially beckoned me from the faith was Tylenol.

As a Christian Scientist, I had been taught that prayer and disciplined thinking had the power to alter my experience, whether that was my wracking cough or my employment status, my mood or my love life. I had witnessed many physical healings as a child, and by the age of 34, I had never visited the doctor (except to set a broken bone) never popped a vitamin, never swallowed an aspirin or taken a swig of cough medicine.
But on one frigid winter day in 1994, I came down with the flu. I slipped in and out of consciousness all afternoon, but in a moment of lucidity I envisioned the medicine cabinet above the bathroom sink. At that moment, what flashed in my mind’s eye like a blinking neon sign was Tylenol, Tylenol, Tylenol. A friend of mine, I recalled, had left some Tylenol during a visit.

I slipped out of bed and staggered to the medicine cabinet. Before I could stop myself, I downed one tablet, closed the cabinet, and stumbled quickly back to bed. Five minutes passed. My teeth stopped chattering. Another minute or so, I began to feel quite warm, no, hot, hot, what was I doing under all these covers? I felt the fever physically recede like a wave at low tide, and thought, Wow, I feel terrific!

It would take me another 16 months before I would leave the religion of my childhood for good for theological reasons. But I lost something – namely, a way to prove God. Christian Scientists believe that the ultimate evidence for God lay in answered prayers and physical healings – but I no longer counted that as evidence. After all, science has shown the mechanism by which a person’s thoughts can affect his body – it has the felicitous name, psychoneuroimmunology, and it has no need for God. Others are looking to quantum mechanics to explain – oh so controversially – why one person’s prayers might have an effect on another person’s body. God’s presence is not required there, either.

Three years ago, I took a year’s leave of absence from National Public Radio to research a book on the emerging science of spirituality. At bottom I nursed a nagging concern that perhaps this God business is just a ruse, self medication in the face of certain death, and that science would prove that all mystery, all numinous experience, can be boiled down to brain chemistry and genetics. I traveled to Canada to don the God helmet, to see if exciting my temporal lobes would unleash an encounter with the “divine.” I attended to a peyote ceremony (although, like our former president, I barely ingested) and visited Johns Hopkins University in search of a chemical that would manufacture a mystical experience. I spent endless hours with near death experiencers and their debunkers, to ferret out hard piece of evidence for a spiritual realm.

I’m not going to tell you what I found. You’ll have to read the book. But I will tell you about a seminal moment for me. It was morning of June 15, 2005. Nine other journalists and I had arrived at the Cambridge University for a two-month fellowship about science and religion, funded by Cambridge and the Templeton Foundation. We fidgeted in our seats. We were anticipating the Fight of the Century.

John Barrow, a brilliant Cambridge mathematician, was speed-walking us through the hypothesis of a “fine-tuned” universe that is exquisitely and astonishingly calibrated to allow for life. He explained the concept of “multiverses,” which posits that we live in one of 10,500 universes. Then he said, almost as an aside, “I’m quite happy with a traditional theistic view of the universe.”

He might as well have dropped an anvil on Richard Dawkins‘s foot. Dawkins is a renowned evolutionary biologist at Oxford University, and possibly the world’s most famous atheist. Two days earlier, Dawkins had delivered a talk that he believed would prove the impossibility of God (later published as “The God Delusion”). He had remained in Cambridge to hear the lectures of other researchers, particularly the world-class John Barrow. When Barrow, who turned out to be an Anglican, mentioned his belief in God, Dawkins began roiling with frustration like a tea kettle about to blow.

“Why on earth do you believe in God?” Dawkins blurted.

All heads turned to Barrow, who replied: “If you want to look for divine action, physicists look at the rationality of the universe and the mathematical structure of the world.”

“Yes, but why do you want to look for divine action?” Dawkins demanded.

“For the same reason that someone might not want to,” Barrow responded with a little smile.

And I thought – there you have it! God is a choice: We can look for – or exclude – the action of the divine. William James considered the dichotomy between “materialism” and “spiritualism” 100 years ago, in his book “Pragmatism.” He argued that both are internally logical. He asserted that a material worldview that excludes a Creator and a spiritual worldview that includes one can both explain natural phenomena, such as the motion of the planets, or the evolution of the universe and life. You can believe either explanations for life and leave it at that. It is when you look toward the future that you see how differently the two views play out. Materialism – in today’s language, scientific reductionism — holds that eventually, our sun will die, earth will be destroyed, the universe will collapse on itself, and everything we hoped or dreamed or achieved or learned will be for naught. But a spiritual world view means “the affirmation of an eternal moral order and the letting loose of hope.” It leaves room for the possibility that all we are, all we love, all we accomplish will be preserved for eternity.

So God is a choice, an internal witness that there is a purpose to existence and that there may just be more than this material world. Given the choice, I’ll cast my ballot for God.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty is NPR’s Religion Correspondent. Her new book is “Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality” (Penguin/Riverhead).

  • vandruten

    What is the appeal about preserving accomplishments for eternity?

  • acebojangles

    God is a choice? How meaningless. Or perhaps unintentionally meaningful. You wouldn’t say that the chair I’m sitting on is a choice. Why? Because it exists.If you want to believe that there is a purpose to life, please do. But please find a better reason than your yes vote on god.What’s special about preserving accomplishments for eternity is that it assuages the fear of oblivion implied in personal destruction and the eventual destruction of the universe.

  • vandruten

    acebojangles: “What’s special about preserving accomplishments for eternity is that it assuages the fear of oblivion implied in personal destruction and the eventual destruction of the universe.” I had no fear before I was born. Why would eternal oblivion cause me fear after I am dead?Now HELLFIRE for eternity is nasty. That is what I would fear if I believed in it for me or for other people.

  • Alene


  • vandruten

    Alene, you describe finding out the truth of whether or not there is a god as an “irritating rub.” That is not at all true for me. If I die and there is no god, there will be nothing after death, so there will be no irritation.Now, if I die and find out that your God is real, well, that’s when it gets really interesting. I will be far from irritated. If it’s your version of God, I assume God and I can converse, and I will be able to find out all sorts of cool stuff. My first question would be why the need for silence during the 20th century? Why did You give evidence of Your existence 2000 years ago, but not today? Why give us reasoning skills but keep evidence of Your existence from us? How do You feel about the good life I’ve lead without having to believe in You? How did that fit in with Your plan? That above scenario assumes that your God wants to talk to us eternally dead people. But why would He? He won’t talk to us and concretely prove His existence while we are on earth, so why would anyone assume He would talk to us and concretely prove His existence in heaven?

  • frankbd

    So God acts like a drug?Funny, Sam Harris said that was his experience, too.

  • ashleybone

    Ms Hagerty,You “cast your ballot for God”, but you don’t seem to entertain any idea of what this god is like. What if it’s a giant wanker? Would you cast your ballot for ANY god?Also, having seen video of Dawkins debating a couple of times, I’m fairly suspicious of your stereotypical depiction of him as the steaming, angry atheist versus Barrow’s godly serenity. Was the event recorded? It would be interesting to judge their dispositions for myself.

  • CCNL

    Hmmm, there are drug pushers, then there are book pushers????

  • abhab

    I believe in a super power that got the universe started on its present journey. Those who wish to make me change my worldview have to convince me by scientific means the material bases for the many supernatural phenomena such as near death experiences, out of body experiences, ghosts and premonitions. Some would deny any of the above phenomena, maybe because they had not encountered any such experiences. This challenge is not directed at them.

  • vandruten

    How did the “super power” come to be? The super power theory just creates another layer without adequately explaining the original.And why the “super”? DNA a great power, but I’m guessing that’s not what you mean. By “super” do you mean supernatural, so that this power is not bound by the laws of nature? But then why would it create something that is bound by the laws of nature?

  • prayerwarrior4Jesus

    Welcome to my world, Barbara Hagerty! May God guide you every step of the way. And to all those cynics out there: give God a chance. You never know what plans He has for you!

  • vandruten

    PrayerWarrior,Whom are you warring against? Would Jesus approve? Why not “turn the other cheek”?Aren’t you a cynic to all the other gods? How did you decide on Jesus?

  • prayerwarrior4Jesus

    To Vandruten: You wouldn’t believe me if I told you, and yes, Jesus wholeHEARTedly approves, and you do not want to turn the other cheek to that which can destroy not your body but your soul. All the other gods do not matter one whit, and, most importantly, Jesus loved me before I loved Him.

  • vandruten

    The “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you” defense is not much of an argument.No one but you can destroy your soul. You are in charge.Good luck to you! I wish you the best.

  • CCNL

    If god exists, this singularity only exists in our consciousness if Professors Lanza and Berman are correct in their recent reasoning.From their new book, An excerpt:”However, the Grand Canyon or Taj Mahal are only real when you get there.” p. 160.”Third Principle of Biocentrism:The behavior of subatomic particles- indeed all particles and objects- is inextricably linked to the presence of an observer. Without the presence of a conscious observer, they at best exist in an undetermined state of probability waves.” p. 93. “So the table has been set in the public mind for biocentrism’s jump to the reality that its all only in the mind, that the universe exists nowhere else.”

  • abhab

    Vandruten asks me:By “super” do you mean supernatural, so that this power is not bound by the laws of nature? But then why would it create something that is bound by the laws of nature?Moi: Yes! I mean supernatural. The Crator is not bound by the natural laws. Neither was the universe before the Big Bang and even after that explosion and up until the constants that programmed the natural laws came into being. The phenomena I had mentioned earlier such as ghosts, out of body experiences etc. are not bound by natural laws either.

  • Nosmanic

    “God is a choice.” If most American believed that I believe most disbelievers would be happy. Including myself.

  • member5

    I walked Across the entire state of Oklahoma bleeding through the holes I wore in the tony lammas my father gave me…. every step of the way… I had to bath in brake fliud to kill the insects that invaded my feet from sleeping in a culvert, ate berries to keep moving, drank ditch water to keep alive,used super glue to close the cuts too deep to ignore…15 years and a thousand hardships later, I am still winning, still living…took some tylenol? Are you Kidding me? I dont know who or where god is but we all know what you are.

  • Frank57

    “So God is a choice, an internal witness that there is a purpose to existence and that there may just be more than this material world.”Hehe — so which ‘god’ are you referring to? The christian one with the blond-haired blue-eyed Jesus? The Hindu one(s) with multiple appendages? The Islamic one where ten thousand virgins await those who happily kill in ‘his’ name? The murderous, conceited, spiteful, vindictive, selfish monster that the Jews worship? Let me guess — it’s the god that lovingly tends and blesses the flock of the white Anglo-Saxon, middle-class, spoiled, pseudo-intellectual, self-centered, bigoted, dolts. The god who ordered Joshua to slit the throats of all the people of Jericho — except virgin girls which can be kept as slaves — (and so on ad infinitum)? That the god you mean?.

  • lany

    Vandruten: God proves his existence to you everyday. The reason you don’t see it is either because you haven’t searched deeply enough (your questions have already been answered so many times), or because you just don’t want to. I can’t tell from your post, but in the case of many atheists, the latter tends to be the case.

  • vandruten

    Lany says the reason I don’t see it is because I haven’t searched deeply enough.This is the same argument a stalker gives the object of his affection. Attempting to shame somebody into believing what you believe is intellectually dishonest.

  • jerryo2

    Standard ludicrous nonsense by a person unwilling to face the actual choices of the real world.

  • squarf

    The God question is hilarious. “You wanna believe – believe! No wanna believe -no believe!” The need for miracles, mystery, and authority reflects the immaturity of our species, and attempts to calm our fearful and superstitious nature. Self delusion creates a pseudo friend to defend against things that go bump in the night. The remedy? Turn on the light — Lo and behold! — all the demons disappear. It’s a miracle!

  • jchenn

    I don’t think I can buy into this God as a choice thing. It’s pretty much an ‘is’ or ‘isn’t’ question. It always surprises me the degree to which the ‘isn’t’ crowd gets into the argument. I find it oddly reminiscent of the purple-faced pro-abortion leagues who shout at the top of their lungs, “they aren’t babies!” Methinks thou doth protest too much.

  • vandruten

    jchenn says, “I don’t think I can buy into this God as a choice thing.” You clearly do not understand what choice means. On this planet believing in gravity is not a choice. Liking the Beatles’ music is a choice. Until your god makes itself known to all of us and distinguishes itself from all the other gods, your god is your choice.If I did feel the need to believe in a god without evidence, I would be hard pressed to decide between them all. What qualifications did you have when you selected your god?

  • colinnicholas

    To believe in a god is not exactly a choice. I do not believe a god exists. That’s not a choice that I made; it’s more like a realization that I came to, or a conclusion that some part of my brain settled on as making the most sense.As nothing is actually KNOWN about the existence of a god, or gods, the default position has to be that there really aren’t any.

  • WmarkW

    “God is a choice: We can look for – or exclude – the action of the divine.”Yeah. Or you can choose to fly an airliner into a skyscraper because God will reward your martyrdom.

  • spidermean2

    Three ways of becoming a believer :1. God manifests Himself to a person and so the person becomes a believer. 2. Man observes nature and sees so much intelligence present like trees bearing fruits and insects and birds flying (in which man’s science can’t duplicate). He is constantly bothered by the fact that all these can’t exist without the hand of a VERY INTELLIGENT CREATOR.3. Man reads the Bible over and over and finally realizes that the Author can’t be a man. It’s full of metaphors pertaining to current events as if he is present in the future as well as the past.Conclusion : To be an atheist, you’ve got to be DUMB.

  • spidermean2

    Aspirin is a NATURAL substance found in a bark of a ceratin tree. Man only copies what nature does.The invention of a RADAR comes from observing bats ears and how it works.Science means understanding nature. Nature is an intelligent creation while man’s science copies that intelligence.Athesist idiots can’t comprehend that.

  • vandruten

    spidermean2,1. God manifests HimselfThat will be so cool. He appeared 2000 years ago. He is overdue for our generation. But I will convert as soon as He shows up.2. Man observes nature.I think Darwin answered this for us.3. Man reads the Bible over and over and finally realizes that the Author can’t be a man. It’s full of metaphors pertaining to current events as if he is present in the future as well as the past.So do you go around stoning doctors and nurses who work on the Sabbath? The Author of the Bible tells you to do so (among other things). I guess you figured the author was a guy living 2000 years ago. I figured so too.

  • spidermean2

    vandruten wrote “But I will convert as soon as He shows up.”He won’t until you seek for Him.”I think Darwin answered this for us.”What answer? Can he make a bee fly? He can’t even draw a bee and yet he knows what it is made of or how it formed? He’s not even a biologist. He hasn’t even heard of the term DNA. Can you tell us how DNAs evolved? Please explain. Next explain how your brain was wired. Maybe it needs some rewiring.”So do you go around stoning doctors and nurses who work on the Sabbath?”Christ worked on a Sabbath day. You are clueless what’s the importance of Sabbath. No surprise coz atheists are clueless in EVERYTHING.

  • CalSailor

    Ashleybone:Since I believe we cannot know God except as he/she opts to reveal himself/herself, then the only understanding I can have of God is as I understand those who bear witness of him. And the God of the Bible, for me, is as he is revealed in his Son. Therefore, I have nothing to fear from him/her. So, I’m not going to worry about it, and look forward to the next stage of life…the one after death.Pr Chris

  • aussiebarry

    The house I live in, one day will be a pile of dust, knowing that does not stop me maintaining it or enjoying having friends over to it etc. The garden I plant will die , that does not stop me enjoying the beauty now, my life will come to an end, that does not stop me appreciating the ride and the wonderful luck for the billions to one chance of me being me, now.I make my life as meaningful as I can, because I know it is all I will have.I certainly do not think that my life is for nought, even though I was not put here for any purpose.I think everything we hoped for built or achieved will be long gone by the time the universe ends- so what , as long as we enjoyed the hoping , building and achieving.It does seem a bit presumptious to think that any thing we do is worth preserving for eternity, and it is a bit sad that people are not satisfied with the time pure chance gives them.

  • mmyotis

    “So God is a choice, an internal witness that there is a purpose to existence and that there may just be more than this material world. Given the choice, I’ll cast my ballot for God.”After all the reported investigations that the author claims to have made into this issue, this conclusion sounds like an suprisingly facile cop-out to me. Due to the lack of verifiable evidence for or against the existence God (definition not given) I’ve come to realize that God is a choice and because one view (no God) allows the likelihood that our essence is finite, while the other (God) allows the possibility of everlasting life, I choose to believe the latter.I worry about the reasons people choose their beliefs. Do they choose them because their beliefs, like a drug, make them feel better and ease their way into the future, or do they choose them because experience has shown that their beliefs are the right without regard to any benefit to themselves? What I would like to know is how the author’s “choice” has influenced the her way of being with the world. Has it helped insulate her from fear, or has it made her a fuller participant willing to risk fear in order to do the next right thing?

  • ashleybone

    aussiebarry,Beautifully stated.Calsailor, you said:”Therefore, I have nothing to fear from him/her. So, I’m not going to worry about it, and look forward to the next stage of life…the one after death.”That doesn’t sound much different than your average atheist’s perspective, including mine. I don’t know what’s after death, so I don’t spend time worrying about it (or, as Ms Hagerty seems to, about what’s going to happen to humanity when the sun explodes billions of years from now).

  • CCNL

    As we evolve, we get smarter and more things related to the gods/religions and their foundations become mere myths and/or embellishments.The current status for those eyes that have not seen:1. Abraham is the reported founder of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Based on all we know now, Abraham was at best a combination of three separate individuals with 1.5 million Conservative Jews no longer believing he existed at all. (ditto for all the characters in the OT).references: National Georgraphic review on Abraham and 2. The founders of Christianity and Islam were both illiterate. i.e. neither one proof-read or approved the NT or the koran so we are taking the word of scribes and embellishers with their own agendas.references: NT exegetes from the last two hundred years, Karen Armstrong’s reviews of Islam and 3. Christianity is based on the whim of Pilate, the false prophesy of the imminent second coming, and the sword of Constantine. references: NT exegetes and their conclusions/books from the last two hundred years5. Hinduism (from an online Hindu site) – “Hinduism cannot be described as an organized religion. It is not founded by any individual. Hinduism is God centered and therefore one can call Hinduism as founded by God, because the answer to the question ‘Who is behind the eternal principles and who makes them work?’ will have to be ‘Cosmic power, Divine power, God’.”The caste/laborer system and cow worship/reverence are problems when saying a fair and rational God founded Hinduism.” Current crises: The caste system and cow worship/reverence/reincarnation.6. Buddhism- “Buddhism began in India about 500 years before the birth of Christ. The people living at that time had become disillusioned with certain beliefs of Hinduism including the caste system, which had grown extremely complex. The number of outcasts (those who did not belong to any particular caste) was continuing to grow.””However, in Buddhism, like so many other religions, fanciful stories arose concerning events in the life of the founder, Siddhartha Gautama (fifth century B.C.):”Archaeological discoveries have proved, beyond a doubt, his historical character, but apart from the legends we know very little about the circumstances of his life. e.g. Buddha by one legend was supposedly talking when he came out of his mother’s womb. Bottom line: There are many good ways of living but be aware of the hallucinations, embellishments, lies, and myths surrounding the founders and foundations of said rules of life.

  • info58

    These articles always attract armies of athiest dung beatles to spoil the party. Its no wonder that homosexuals and athiests are common bedfellows in the agenda of cultural marxists. Attack anything white or religious, and, most of all, sound really smart and lawyer like demanding evidence.Atheism is nothing more than a belief system itself. So whats the big deal.