Sam Harris asks1 why we should respect George Bush for saying that he talks with God in the privacy of his bedroom. If he said that he talked to God using a magic telephone, then people would think him mad. So, asks Harris, what difference does the absence of a telephone make?
This isn’t the unanswerable question that he thinks it is. The difference is that the magic telephone offers a strictly private revelation. When the lunatic hands his magic telephone, to someone else, the recipient hears nothing. Prayer’s not like that. People who pray do tend to hear things, at least some of the time; and they do agree that they are, or ought to be, hearing things from the same source.
Harris objects: why is a shared delusion preferable to a private one?
Because it can be criticised and made less delusional. It can be integrated into the other knowledge of the group. You cannot tell a schizophrenic with a magic telephone that the voices aren’t really telling him to kill someone. He knows. But people who pray are some of the time different. What’s more, they are committed to the belief that they are different. Hearing God is a social activity. Protestantism, or modern semper reformanda Islam is much closer to lunacy in this respect. But the cure, however incomplete and partial, is more likely to be better religion than an attempt to abolish it: “God said this but he meant that” is a more productive way to do things than “God never said that, you stupid greedy hick hahahaha”. See the entire history of Judaism for examples.
1 I read it earlier this week, but buggered if I can find where.