The skeptical side of me often wonders how much of our mystical experiences that we have are actually ordinary things that we interpret as mystical because we want to have those types of experiences. A lot of religious thought was started as an attempt to explain things that our ancestors had no scientific basis for understanding.
A few days ago I saw a small dog with a very large abdominal tumor. We decided to euthanize her because she was unable to eat or drink or walk. So relatives were called in to witness and say good-bye to the dog. Gathered around this dog were her three people, my assistant, and me. The dog weighed about 4 pounds. Probably 25% of that was tumor if not more. She was extremely dehydrated. I gave her a sedative to relax her. But the side effect of the sedative is that it depresses her blood pressure so that veins that were tiny before disappear now. This is a problem because the next injection needs to go IV.
I try one vein – no luck. I try another and get in but when I start to inject the vein blows. I’m telling this to the dog’s people but by this time I’m caught in the middle of a tent revival. “Go to God! He’s holding his hands out to you!” “Don’t fight it! She’s fighting it! Tell her it is ok to go and release her spirit. She doesn’t want to leave us. She doesn’t want to die!!!” All of this is shouted in this small room. I very much want to yell back, “She’s not having an existential crisis! She has horrible veins! If she had a competent vet you wouldn’t be shouting in my ear!!!!” My assistant said later that she badly wanted to tell them that “She was trying to go to God but you kept calling her back by yelling her name over and over.”
I find a better vein and the injection goes smoothly. They seemed slightly surprised that she actually did “decide” to leave them after all. I’m sure the story of how their dog fought hard and resisted death because she wanted to live for them will become legend in their family. It is a better story than ‘she was so sick by the time we took her to the vet that her veins were collapsing and it was hard to inject her’ so I didn’t try very hard to disabuse them of this notion.
So maybe prayer is thought to work because someone was praying as a tiger was chasing them and then the tiger fell in a hole. Did the prayer make him fall or was it natural? Is it cause and effect or just coincidence? Does it matter if the person who survived the chase believes that the prayer saved him? These are the basic questions of faith all demonstrated by a very sick little dog and three people with very good sets of lungs.