God (cont.)

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And this raises another issue related to the problem of suffering: the fact that both suffering and well-being are so indiscriminate in whom they affect. Whenever there’s a natural disaster, the average death rate among religious people is the same as among non-religious people. Whenever there’s a plane crash, the average proportion of believers who survive is the same as the proportion of nonbelievers who survive. People who pray for good fortune win the lottery at roughly the same rate as those who don’t; people who pray for good health are killed by deadly diseases at roughly the same rate as those who don’t; people who pray for happy marriages get divorced at roughly the same rate as those who don’t; and so on.

If there really were a God who intervened in earthly affairs, and if praying to him actually worked, you wouldn’t expect to see this – especially if you were talking about the biblical God. After all, Jesus repeatedly emphasizes throughout the Gospels that any believer who asks anything of God through prayer will receive it. He’s extremely specific about this; he doesn’t just say that God will hear your prayers – he says that God will grant them, full stop. And he stresses this point again and again; in Matthew 21:21-22 and Mark 11:23-24, for instance, he says, “What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them.” In John 14:13-14, he says, “If ye shall ask any thing in my name, I will do it.” In John 15:7, he says, “Ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you.” In John 15:16 and 16:23, he says, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it you.” In Matthew 7:7-8 and Luke 11:9-13, he says, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” In Matthew 18:19-20, he says, “If two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.” And just in case there was even a trace of ambiguity left, he makes a blanket statement in Mark 9:23 that “all things are possible to him that believeth” – adding in Mark 16:17-18 and Luke 10:19 that “these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover. […] Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you.” The granting of prayers isn’t a matter of needing to have a superhuman amount of faith, either; according to Matthew 17:20 and Luke 17:6, even someone whose faith is as miniscule as a mustard seed can bring about any result they want simply by praying for it: “Verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you. […] If ye had faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye might say unto this sycamine tree, Be thou plucked up by the root, and be thou planted in the sea; and it should obey you.”

These statements are about as unambiguous as it’s possible to get. What’s more, if they were actually true, they’d be trivially easy to confirm; any believer could simply pray for whatever they wanted, and they’d receive it. At the very least, if there were any validity to the idea of intercessory prayer whatsoever, you’d expect that people who prayed regularly would have things generally go their way in life more often than people who didn’t. And yet that’s simply not the case. When people pray for good outcomes, they tend to receive them about as often as those who don’t pray. When evangelical churches take to heart those verses about being able to safely handle venomous snakes, and they adopt the practice as a part of their services (as some have), the result is over a hundred people dying from snakebite. And when a religious foundation spends millions of dollars studying the effects of intercessory prayer on thousands of medical patients, the results show that the patients who know they’ve got people praying for them fare no better than the patients who don’t have anyone praying for them. (In fact, the 2006 study showed that they fared slightly worse, “perhaps because of the expectations the prayers created.”)

In a way, it seems strange that the idea of intercessory prayer should even exist in the first place. After all, if God is omniscient and knows all of our thoughts and desires, there’s no reason to think that prayer would tell him anything he doesn’t already know. And if he already has a master plan and only causes things to happen that are in accordance with his will, there’s no reason to think that praying would have any effect anyway. If something is part of his plan, he’s going to do it regardless of whether anyone prays for it; and if it’s not part of his plan, he’s not going to do it.

Intercessory prayer might have made sense in a pre-Christian world, where the individual gods were less in control of everything, and a request for earthly intervention might have actually brought some new information to their attention or caused them to take some action that they wouldn’t otherwise have taken. But with an all-knowing, all-powerful deity, it doesn’t make as much sense.

TheraminTrees recounts his own process of working through these implications as a believer:

At church [one] Sunday, during tea and biscuits after the service, I put the question to some of the congregation. One woman spoke about prayers healing the sick. I asked: […] What about when the person we pray for dies? She paused and said that it was just their time. I pointed out that if it was already determined whether or not it was someone’s time, that made prayer pointless. An awkward smile from her. And the beginnings of panic in me. My critical thinking was spilling into my religious thinking – and, like prayer and predestination, they didn’t mix well. I tried to make the predestination argument work. Could it be argued the predestined prayers worked because they were predestined to be heard by Yahweh? But this made a nonsense of Yahweh’s omniscience. This demanded that he would have to pretend to himself that he had a different plan for people, knowing all along that he would then hear a predestined prayer that would change his mind.

Of course, there are other ways of rationalizing away these kinds of questions. Usually, the go-to response when prayers fail is just to say that “God works in mysterious ways” and to stop thinking about it. Another common response, though, is to say that “God does answer all prayers – it’s just that sometimes the answer is no.” This aphorism has a lot of appeal because it’s worded in such a snappy and clever way, so it feels like it must be saying something important. But like a lot of snappy-sounding aphorisms, the cleverness of the wording distracts from the fact that it doesn’t actually provide much insight at all. If you’re trying to figure out whether there really is someone up there listening to your prayers, the concept of a God who sometimes allows things to go your way and sometimes doesn’t is fundamentally indistinguishable from things just going your way sometimes and not going your way other times due to sheer coincidence. A God who “works in mysterious ways” is indistinguishable from the ordinary vagaries of chance and circumstance. True, you might occasionally experience some extraordinarily improbable stroke of good fortune right after praying for it – and after such an occurrence, you might easily convince yourself that God must have answered your prayers – but the crucial point here is that it’s just as common for people who haven’t prayed at all to experience equally improbable strokes of good luck. The fact that you prayed was just coincidental; considering that you probably pray for thousands of other things throughout your life as well, it’s just a matter of statistical probability that some of the things you pray for will happen to come true, even if they’re extremely unlikely in a vacuum. Winning a few rounds of metaphorical roulette, in other words, doesn’t mean much if you had to spin the wheel thousands of times to get those wins.

Evid3nc3 illustrates the point:

So given the extent to which intercessory prayer so often fails, Kaye asks a multiple-choice question:

A great sadness has come into your life which you feel you cannot bear. A friend informs you of a free counseling service which has never failed to aid and comfort many others. You call the counselor; the phone rings and rings with no answer; you finally hang up. What is the most likely explanation?

  1. The counselor is sitting by the phone but not answering in order to test your faith in him
  2. The counselor is fully qualified and able to help you, but just doesn’t feel like it right now
  3. The counselor will not answer because he wants you to profit by the spiritual strength that only comes through suffering
  4. The counselor is not home

It might feel nice to imagine that somebody really is up there listening to your prayers. But without any indication that this is actually the case, it’s probably not a good idea to actively expect that your prayers will be granted, any more than you’d normally expect them to come true without prayer.

Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s impossible to ever get any kind of value out of prayer. If your preferred method of praying, for instance, is to simply imagine it as a kind of therapy session with a silent, invisible therapist, and you’re not asking for anything or expecting anything in return, then prayer might be helpful for your psychology in the same way that meditation can be helpful for some people trying to get their thoughts in order.

That being said, though, if you’re actually pinning your expectations on the belief that God really is up there listening to your prayers, and you’ve convinced yourself that he’ll intervene on your behalf if you just believe hard enough, then prayer can be decidedly harmful to your psychology when it inevitably fails. As Loftus describes the experience:

We are told God is under no obligation to answer the prayers of someone who doesn’t believe he will (Mark 11:24; James 1:6-8; 5:15). This faith must show itself to be persistent and earnest (Matt. 7:7; Luke 11:5-8; 18:1-8). Jesus talks as if all you need is faith in order for God to intervene for us. He makes it sound easy. All you should have to do is say to that mountain to move over there, and it shall be done. But it doesn’t move. So you blame yourself. Something must be wrong with your faith. Then that failure is remembered, causing you to avoid stepping out so far on the limb next time. And when you fail in faith again, you hesitate to step out on that limb again. This happens until you find yourself clinging to the tree trunk for fear of stepping out on faith much at all. So you feel guilty about this all over again. Then you hear a good sermon and try again, and when your faith fails again, you’re back to the tree trunk. So you feel guilty again.

It’s simply impossible for adults to have childlike faith because they are no longer children. They’ve had too many experiences that temper their faith – too many tragedies, too many unanswered prayers, too many setbacks. And all these things have taught them that faith doesn’t always work. So they simply don’t believe like they think they should. So they feel guilty and struggle some more. And they feel guilty some more for struggling, and so on.

This goes on until all that believers can do is offer up nonfalsifiable prayers, which can’t be tested to see whether or not God actually did anything as a result of prayer (“God, be with them,” or “Help them.”), and/or self-fulfilling prayers (“Give me strength,” “Give me wisdom to know what to do,” “Please encourage me,” or “Help me stay on the narrow road that leads to you.”). I blame the Christian faith for causing this guilt and for these lame, modern, nonfalsifiable, and self-fulfilling prayers. My [non-religious] view doesn’t produce guilt because I no longer have such expectations.

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