Prayer Works and This Drives People Mad

Prayer Works and This Drives People Mad September 6, 2017

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During tropical storm Harvey, we prayed. Prayer works, but evidently, that statement of fact drives some people quite barmy. Here is a comment I got for some reflective (not philosophical) pieces on surviving this horrible tropical storm. The first sentence is worth the read. Such larks!

“What abject nonsense and gibberish. Self delusional lunacy.”

This is hard to do, but evidently, I did it: not just nonsense, but abject nonsense with gibberish thrown in to cover for redundancy! Self-delusional lunacy may fit my Fantasy Football draft (where I keep picking Aaron Rodgers too high), but it seems a bit incoherent. “Prayer works” may be wrong, but that it can be wrong means it cannot be gibberish. The string of letters “81a*387@^^^sll,dfm” is gibberish. 1a*387@^^^sll,dfm cannot be wrong.

One cannot hear: “81a*387@^^^sll,dfm” and think: “No. That’s quite wrong.” You can speak in gibberish or you can be wrong, but you cannot be both simultaneously.

Let’s assume that I am just wrong: prayer does not work. How are we supposed to know this is true?

Our friend quotes me:

“My belief in God does not depend on God’s response to this particular set of prayers. Faith is, at least, a rational trust in a divine, indubitable experience. Anybody who tells you faith is belief despite the evidence is a fool, an existentialist, ignorant, or a liar.”

He responds: “Nothing fails like prayer. Nothing.”

This seems an overstatement. I can think of a good many things that fail more often than prayer! Nobody has ever run an atheist state without killing hundreds of thousands of people. That strikes me as a serious failure. On the other hand, Handel prayed and was inspired to write The Messiah. Prayer might be a failure in general, but if it kept George Washington Carver going, as an African-American scientist when people hated the idea, then prayer cannot be the worst failure in humankind’s sad history.

I might start with National Socialism, from the atheist Hitler, or the Soviet Union under the atheist Stalin and work backward.

In any case, having proclaimed prayer worse than atheist North Korea, our critic goes further:

“Every scientific double blind study of this infantile wish thinking has demonstrated that prayer is worse than a sugar pill.”

This is wrong. Some studies show prayer works. Some do not. It is, of course, difficult to get the parameters of such a study right as there are many variables. The science is not settled by any means. I don’t claim it is, but an atheist should not do so either!

“Billions and billions of “prayers” have been offered up to 10,000 different deities through the ages begging for everything from rain to cancer cures…all for naught. All self deluded nonsense.”

An argument from insult is never very effective. Shouting “self-deluded nonsense” may gratify the desire to shout something at the foe, but thinking it effective could be described as a self-delusion, though not as nonsense. We understand what is being said, so it cannot be nonsense, though thinking it effective argumentation is delusional.

People pray. People also overwhelmingly see what they believe is answered prayer. This might be wrong. Let’s keep studying. I have seen people pray and be immediately healed. At Lourdes rigorous tests are applied before one can say a miracle has happened.  

The trouble is that some people are not skeptical enough. They apply test after test to straightforward requests from one person to another when one of the people is God, but they never apply such tests to requests between two humans. After all, science cannot explain human consciousness. Do human agents exist? Do they have free will? Are any requests granted by free agents or can this all be explained away by biochemistry and brain science?

If your view of reality is dubious that we exist, then naturally you are going to find it hard to prove that God exists. Yet my critic goes on to complain:

“You “believe” in spite of evidence and against all evidence.”

This would be bad. Of course, everybody has to believe despite some evidence. Few beliefs are so obvious that they could not possibly be wrong. Still, nobody should believe anything against all the evidence.

People should never get so nasty that they think disagreement is intolerable.

What is belief in prayer?

“This is willful delusion. Infantile wish thinking and entirely contradictory to the passage you lunatics love to quote “thy will be done” which implies that nothing you could beg your celestial dictator matters!”

I do not want to be deluded. Let’s all agree that to be deluded, infantile, believing anything because we wish it, is bad. Of course, I might be all those things, but perhaps we should judge that based on the evidence presented. Here the critic has made an argument:

  1. God is a celestial dictator
  2. We pray “thy will be done.”
  3. Therefore: prayer is self-referentially incoherent.

This is not a very good argument against prayer. Assume for a moment that God is, in fact, a celestial dictator. The good news is that God loves us and is all good, all knowing, and all powerful. We pray for what we wish, but we know that God knows best.

“Aha!” says the critic. “Why pray?”

There are at least two reasons.

Why should you pray?

First, prayer is good for us. We are expressing what we really want, even if it turns out that what we want is not best for us. Honesty is good in any relationship. I say to the beloved: “I would like this.” She says: “No.”

Excellent! She knows what I wish and I now know her desires. We move forward!

Second, we want God’s will, but that does not mean that God has a particular will for every circumstance. Some choices are between several permissible outcomes. We ask God for our preference and in such a case can get it. God can have a general will about the cosmos and even a particular will about many things and still leave us options as free will beings.

Think of a parent. We do not give our children the choice to put a fork in an electric outlet no matter how much they beg. We do let them choose vanilla or chocolate ice cream. We pray: “If there is only one good choice, help me make it. If not, please grant this request.”

This critic is not satisfied since faith is bad:

“‘Faith’ is THE most dishonest position anyone can hold. IT IS “belief” without evidence the very definition of gullibility and credulity.”

I suppose one could mean this by faith. If so, then faith is bad. Recently I got to talk to leading skeptic Dr. Michael Shermer about the nature of faith. We both agreed that belief without evidence was bad, but that not all forms of religious faith were “belief without evidence.” Some Christian someplace may believe in this bad definition for faith, there are billions of us after all, but no thoughtful Christian this side of Soren Kierkegaard does! Faith can and should be reasonable. 

My angry man goes further:

“ALL “beliefs” ALL “faith” must be considered equal meaning that “faith” in Allah is as just as “faith” in Thor and “faith” in Yahweh.”

First, God is not a god like Thor. They are different kinds of beings. There are different types of persons that seem alike, because we use the same English word for their very different sorts of beings. Thor is super-human . . . God is totally different.  Allah is more complicated. Some versions of Allah (a word used by Christians long before Islam) simply point to the being that must be God.

“All “beliefs” without evidence are the same…pixies, jesus, the loch ness monster…all justifiably the same and ALL just as ridiculous and infantile.”

We should not believe anything without evidence. The weird idea that Jesus, a figure of history, has the same level of justification as a pixie is odd. I don’t know of any decent evidence pixies exist, but there is a great deal of evidence Jesus existed. We are once again warned against what this critic fears most: being ridiculous and infantile.

“Ridiculous” is what people say about beliefs that are either wrong or that frighten them. I don’t mind trying out such a belief to see if the evidence will support it. As for being “infantile,” at 54 this is impossible for me to do. I am stuck doing logic, thinking, and reading hard books!

Every so often one meets a person who thinks pop-atheism is smart and they had better become an atheist to be on Team Clever. This kind of comment is normal for folk atheism.* If it bugs you, then be bothered. If you think about it, then you will relax.

Best choice is to go pray a blessing on this angry person . . . almost surely white, male, and mad.

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*Atheism is a sensible position. I do not agree with it, but I appreciate thoughtful atheism. This is like TV evangelism to mainstream Christianity: sad, but there. One way to know a nutter atheist site: most of the content is against theism and not for anything.


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