What do you do when your preferred definition of an important religious word clashes with reality—a fundamental word like miracle, prayer, faith, or good? A popular Christian tactic is to dilute the definition so that they can still use the words, but this tactic has consequences.
How do prayers work?
Patheos evangelical blogger John Mark Reynolds wrote “Prayers amid Hurricane Harvey” a few days after that hurricane hit Houston, Texas in August, 2017. He writes of being huddled (with his family, I presume) in an interior closet in his house, which makes sense when you remember that Harvey made landfall in Texas as a category 4 hurricane. It killed 106 in the U.S. and tied with Katrina as the costliest U.S. natural disaster ($125 billion).
How did he respond to this frightening experience? He begins, “Prayer is the best action one can take in a storm” but soon admits, “We prayed to be spared this test, but God said ‘no.’ ”
God said no? Did Odin say no, too? Why pray to God if Odin (or even a jug of milk) delivers the same results? And if you say that praying to God produces better results, show us. Give us evidence.
Here’s where wishful thinking about prayer gets tripped up by reality. Instead of getting what you pray for (what Jesus promised) and instead of prayer at least improving the probability of getting what you need, prayer must be redefined. Prayer is now asking for something and then reframing the result so that God looks good whether you got what you asked for or not. God is sensitive, you see, and must be treated like a baby.
We see more rationalization when he says:
Hurricane Harvey came despite our prayers—and that is good. It is good for us to ask, and God helps as He can.
God helps as he can? This world is the best that he can produce? I must have a higher estimation of what omnipotence can do.
We asked that the storm would pass over us.
Do you ask that for every hurricane? Or only the ones that hit the U.S.? Or only the ones that hit you? And who does the disaster hit if God nudges it to avoid you?
Taking a step back, what’s prayer (even this watered-down version) good for? You aren’t telling God something he doesn’t already know, and you can’t be so arrogant as to ask God to change his perfect plan (more).
God can’t lose
To avoid the Problem of Evil, Reynolds needs to rationalize why God would allow a hurricane Harvey.
[God] is all powerful, but He is also good. He will not do a superficial good for us today at the cost of greater evil tomorrow. . . . If He who can does not, it must be better so.
This is an empty and meaningless claim. Without evidence, we’re supposed to accept that Harvey was a net good? Give us examples of what might have offset the cost of $125 billion and 106 lives.
Here again, I have a higher estimation of what omnipotence can do. A hurricane was as surgical as God could be? He couldn’t precisely fix the problem with magic and avoid the collateral damage?
Sure, a god might exist who used a hurricane for a good that we can’t yet understand, but why imagine this? Where’s the evidence pointing to this? Why is this anything more than a rationalization to help Christians maintain their unevidenced beliefs?
Don’t give us a hypothetical—support your claim with a specific situation where God allowed (or caused) harm to prevent a worse harm later. Can’t do it? Then you’re making the Hypothetical God Fallacy.God continues to be a solution looking for a problem. It’s a hypothesis that complicates the picture while answering nothing better than the naturalistic explanation (which is: nature is a mindless force, and sometimes people get hurt).
I want to give Reynolds the benefit of the doubt—surely he acknowledges the value of prayer in the here and now. Is that what he’s focusing on? Not really—he says, “This is not just a meditation technique” as he doubles down on prayer as an actual conversation with an actual person who actually delivers. But, of course, any error is his, not God’s: “Just as I can misunderstand any person, I can and do misunderstand what God is saying, but still, He is there and is not silent.”
Does the dictionary say what you think?
He moves on, only to trip over yet another common English word.
Government may fail me. Community may be sundered and cold waves wash over me, but God never fails.
Government is what provided the hospitals, rescued people in peril, and got the power back on. When you compare government and God, you’re right that only one came through for you, but it wasn’t God. If you say that the government help was imperfect, I’m sure you’re right, but God’s help was nonexistent. God “never fails” only if you carelessly redefine words to suit youself.
Let’s return to that quote—government may fail, but God never fails—to see if that word is used consistently. What would “government fail” mean? Presumably it means that incompetence might get in the way of a prompt response, shortsightedness might have postponed necessary infrastructure maintenance, and so on. You expect it to do something (maybe that it promises to do something), but then it’s not there for you.
Isn’t that exactly what God does? The Bible promises that prayer works, but where is God when disaster strikes? Didn’t he fail you in being indistinguishable from nothing? Remember that this isn’t a human-caused disaster such as murder. A hurricane is an “act of God.”
Is even the word fail a problem word that you must redefine? What does it say about your fragile worldview that you must redefine so many words to maintain your beliefs?
Who inspired the Bible? Could it be . . . George Orwell??
Reynolds concludes with this optimistic line: “Thank God prayer works.” And, sure, prayer “works” if you redefine away definitions that get in your way. “Answered prayer” no longer means what you’d think it means. Whatever happens is now “answered prayer.”
It’s like George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, where 2 + 2 = 5 and war is peace. Christianity has already enshrined “Big Brother is watching you” and thoughtcrime (such as thinking lustful thoughts = adultery). By giving itself permission to redefine troublesome words, it’s now adding doublethink.
I’ve responded to John Mark Reynolds several other times:
- “Would God Want You to Tell a Gunman, “Yes, I’m a Christian”?”
- “Stalin Was a Mass Murderer, And I’m Not Too Sure About Myself”
- “Don’t Vote for Atheists—They Like to Kill People!”
Concluded with a Christian attempt to redefine “miracle” in part 2.
Think of the one thing you would do
to improve the world if you were God.
Now realize that he hasn’t done it.
— seen on the internet
Image via Daniel Lobo, CC license