Thursday, February 24, 2011

On a wing and a prayer


Here's my problem with prayer. From the human perspective, it either appears to work, or it doesn't. And there are religious explanations for both. And those religious explanations are subject to interpretation. So really, no matter what does or does not happen, there is a nice religious explanation for it, so you really need to have no expectation either way, because the religious system works well enough in its explanation that it can make prayer seem to work sufficiently well enough either way, in hindsight. Prayer just seems more like something religious people do, rather than something from which they actually expect results.

i) Well, that oversimplifies the issue. I expect prayer to affect the future (or even the past) some of the time. Due to prayer, some things will happen (or not happen), which would not obtain absent prayer.

ii) However, it’s unpredictable because:

a) God doesn’t answer every prayer

b) Not every answer will be evident to the supplicant.

iii) That doesn’t mean the outcome makes no apparent difference one way or another. For some answers to prayer will be evident. But not necessarily for every supplicant.

And keep in mind that these aren’t makeshift caveats. These caveats apply even if prayer is still efficacious on occasion.

Incidentally, I love this statement you make. "While answered prayer has evidential value, that’s a fringe benefit of prayer. That’s not what prayer is for." This makes the case against prayer better than I have done already, though implicitly. So, making prayer requests to a deity and receiving answers to those prayers are not the actual purposes of sending prayer requests? What then is the key purpose to prayer, if not to plead for the deity's response in some way? If that does not argue implicitly against the use of prayer as a means for divine action, but rather as a religious activity (with supposed spiritual benefits), then I am misunderstanding you somewhere.

i) That’s not what I said. I said the purpose of prayer is not to prove the existence of God. Prayer is not designed to be a theistic proof. While answered prayer has apologetic potential, that’s not what prayer is for. Rather, that’s a bonus point.

ii) One purpose of prayer is to make us acutely aware of our utter dependence on God. How helpless we are to control the things we most care about.

iii) Moreover, I wouldn’t expect a one-to-one correlation between prayers and answers. Prayer is not a vending machine in which you make a mental selection, input the specified amount, input the code number, and out pops the goody.

Prayer is not a mechanical, cause-effect transaction. Rather, prayer is a transaction between two (or more) personal agents, involving personal discretion.

a) To take an obvious comparison, good parents don’t give their kids everything they ask for. That’s because kids often lack the foresight to ask wisely. For one thing, kids often lack a long-term perspective on the consequences of what they desire. They live for the moment, with a view to the near future.

b) It’s not even possible for God to answer every prayer, for one outcome may not be compossible with another outcome. Farmer Joe prayers for rain to irrigate his parched crops.

Across the street, old Aunt Betsy prayers for dry sunny weather so that she can submit her prize-winning mincemeat pie at the country fair, hoping to beat out old Aunt Maude, who won last year.

(Just between you and me, Betsy doesn’t think Maude won the prize fair and square. She darkly suspects it was Maude’s new dress, with the pretty floral pattern, that beclouded old Judge Harlan’s better judgment.)

Well, it can’t rain and shine at the same place at the same time. So both prayers aren’t answerable.

In addition, God may think Farmer Joe needs rain more than Aunt Betsy needs sunshine.

iv) And, of course, answered prayer is not the only evidence we have for Christianity. There’s a larger context in which we evaluate unanswered prayer (or apparently unanswered prayer).

You state that there's "a strangely self-absorbed quality" to my objections "as if the only relevant evidence for Christianity is limited to the confines" of my personal experience. I feel that this is an unjustified criticism, and wonder why you make it.

I make it because that’s exactly how you chose to frame the issue, and how you continue to frame the issue.

I cannot help but relate my own personal experiences as they relate to Christianity, as being those I am most intimate with and knowledgeable of, except when I am seeking to talk about general things which can be verified or debated objectively. It's not that the experience of other Christians do not matter, but they are not my experiences, and I can know no more about them than you do, which is to read or hear about them and try to understand and analyze them as a third party with limited knowledge of those experiences and few insights to the actual thoughts involved.

That’s true of testimonial evidence generally, yet you rely on testimonial evidence every day of your life. Even if, in principle, you could verify testimonial evidence, you and I lack the resources to do that systematically. We can’t personally investigate every ostensible eyewitness account which we depend on to make daily decisions. So why do you think prayer is an exception to the rule?

I could flip that around and ask, why do the experiences of skeptics matter so little?

Because, as I already explained, events and nonevents, experience and inexperience, are evidentially asymmetrical. A boy in Alaska is used to seeing snow every year. A boy in Hawaii never sees snow where he lives. Does the snowless experience of the Hawaiian boy weigh against the snowy experience of the Alaskan boy? No.

If skeptics say they have no experience of answered prayer, or miracles, in what sense does their inexperience counter the experience of those who do (or say they do)? Inevidence is hardly equivalent to counterevidence. 

Why should I be as concerned with the experiences of Christians as I am with my own which seem to witness against Christianity and with which I am more familiar?

Your experience is not the problem. Your interpretation of your experience is the problem. Your interpretation is predicated on false expectations. Unreasonable expectations.

It’s not as if the Jews who wrote the Bible expected God to answer their every prayer. For he didn’t. In their experience, he didn’t.

And since you don’t believe in God, you don’t think God ever answered their prayers. So what the Bible says about prayer can hardly hinge on the standing presumption that God gives us everything we ask for.

Just because someone has a positive experience with prayer, or even that many people do, why should that convince me if it contradicts my own experiences and I cannot duplicate theirs?

Your experience doesn’t “contradict” theirs. Your experience is merely contrary to theirs, just as the experience of the Hawaiian boy is contrary to the experience of the Alaskan boy.

And it is not that I am unwilling to be convinced by experiences that contradict my own, but that I need more than simply recounting experiences that could be explained just as well by circumstantial chance and convenient coincidence.

i) Whether or not they can be explained just as well by dumb luck or coincidence will depend on the specifics of each particular case.

ii) Moreover, whether or not any particular event can be explained on naturalistic grounds only pushes the question back a step, for Christianity doesn’t deny that God ordinarily works through providential second causes. But is that self-sufficient?

In that light, not receiving answers to simple requests repeated faithfully over a length of time…

Well, what you’ve described seems to concern impediments to sanctification. But the struggle with sin is a means of sanctification, not an obstacle thereto. As a writer once said, what makes a saint saintly is not his virtues, but his vices. How he copes with his areas of weakness.

Really, a lot of what you go on to say about prayer and the general life of the believer on the surface seems to explain things very well. It could just as well be that Christian theology has developed to the extent that, along with the Scriptures themselves which apparently recount real and often terrible and trying experiences for believers, explain too much. There is simply an explanation and a form of theology for everything, which is exactly what you would expect from a religious system formed over 2000 years of time and developed theologically. The system of theology becomes equal parts explanation, comfort, and utility, all without requiring any visible activity on the part of its deity, such as visible answers to prayers, especially difficult ones.

Well, that’s rather duplicitous. On the one hand you complain about unanswered prayer. On the other hand you have now devised an escape clause for every ostensible answer to prayer. So even if God appeared to answer all your prayers, you can always explain that away by appealing to dumb luck or coincidence.

Even the Scriptures seem to reflect this, such as in Joseph's life in Egypt fulfilling prophecy, where God prophesied something, then disappeared out of the picture, only to have it fulfilled exactly down to the letter as divinely predicted. That's not quite so amazing when the whole thing was probably written after the fact, according to the circumstances required.

I didn’t cite that example because I expect you to accept the account at face value. I cited that example to illustrate a principle: how an answer to prayer or prophecy or promise is realized may be rather convoluted, and deliberately so. Moreover, apparent setbacks are actually the very way in which the prayer or promise is realized, immediate appearances notwithstanding. That’s the irony. And the irony is intentional.

It cultivates a habit of faith. Patient faith. And it serves to demonstrate the overruling providence of God. God creates obstacles to knock them down, so that we may appreciate his wisdom and power.

I'm not completely close-minded to possible refutations of skepticisms concerning bible inerrancy and miracles and such. The problem is, judging from one of your other blog posts, unless I'm misunderstanding you, it seems that you are trying to shift the burden from the one making an extraordinary claim to the one who is denying that an extraordinary claim should be believable or accepted without extraordinary proof.

There is no fixed burden of proof, for what counts as ordinary or extraordinary is a value-laden judgment which is contingent on your worldview.

Oh, that reminds me, why shouldn't I complain about animals being killed in a global flood. I called them sinless, and it's not merely sentimental bathos, because there's no real need for their suffering.

It’s sentimental bathos when you presume to complain on behalf of animals although there’s no reason to imagine they share your disapproving viewpoint. That’s your anthropomorphic projection.

Here you have an omniscient, omnipotent deity, and the best way to take care of humanity's sin problem is to bring about a global flood that also wipes out all land animals that had nothing to do with causing or supporting the original problem in the first place?

That misses the point. No doubt the God of Scripture could do many things far more efficiently, if economy of motion was the goal. He could fulfill Joseph’s dream more efficiently. But he fulfills the dream in a very roundabout fashion because he has a different objective. The principle of least action is not his priority.

The entire lead-up to Jesus has many zigs and zags along the way. But there’s a reason for that. (And given that precedent, it’s not surprising if church history follows the same general pattern.)

If I'm right, then Christianity is delusional, and not being saddled with delusion or deriving false comforts and hopes from a religion without truth, is to be preferred over activity within and trust of that religion.

Actually, that’s not preferable. If atheism is true, and Christianity is false, then you’re left with two losing options rather than one. You “win” a losing prize.

That’s not a reason to be a Christian. But that is a reason to ignore what you know to be a losing option (atheism), and focus on the other option which, if true, offers you something worthwhile in return.

That’s not the same as saving faith. Rather, that’s a prudent policy (or research program) which a doubter should pursue as he examines Christianity, and does what he can to cultivate faith.

…simply because I did not realize that life can still be lived and enjoyed personally…

The life of an atheist can still be lived and enjoyed as long as you live in the moment, suppressing the nihilistic implications of your position.


  1. Steve, first of all I appreciate the friendly tone of voice and that actually interact with what I am saying. But I feel like we could go back and forth for ages and not get anywhere. The reason I expect prayer to operate differently than everything else in life (well, other than religion) is that prayer involves an omniscient, omnipotent deity who has acted miraculously in the past, so believers claim, while other activities in life, such as purchasing cereal at the grocery store, presumably don't. Incidentally, I do not claim that it is impossible for God to exist. I simply do not believe in the Christian God currently, though I have Deistic moments. But, back to prayer. Our positions on this really should be reversed. I should be the believer in this scenario arguing for the efficacy and trusted witness of prayer, while you take the skeptical position and try to convince me (much as you're doing despite your apparent intentions) that prayer should operate no differently than would observing the results of blind chance and coincidence, interpreted religiously. So I give up.

    I would direct you to one of the latest posts by John Loftus at Debunking Christianity, which says it all better than I ever could.

    Christians demand that I must show their faith is impossible before they will see that it is improbable.


  2. Actually, you're the one who's moving the goalpost. I didn't demand that you prove Christianity is impossible.

    Rather, I cleared the underbrush by showing that many of your basic objections flounder on false, unrealistic, unreasonable expectations.

    I also pointed out that you fail to draw a proper distinction between evidence, inevidence, and counterevidence. Inevidence is not a type of counterevidence. Inevidence is neutral.

    Finally, I didn't attempt to make a positive case for Christianity, or address every ancillary objection. I've done a lot of that elsewhere.

  3. No, actually all you did was give some good definitions of evidence, inevidence, and counterevidence, explain their relationship to each other, then proceed to offer your opinion on which terms applied to my personal account and how well according to your own personal opinion. And there's nothing wrong with that. But terms with such objective definitions don't apply so neatly to subjective discourses of personal experience, especially when your own opinion contradicts the one recounting the personal experience first-hand. This could best be seen in action when changes in perspective could easily define the resulting interpretation using your own terms from individuals with different value systems (since we are judging subjective experience after all). For example, all that experience of believers you reference could be interpreted radically different using the very same defined terms you offered by skeptics, but you'd probably discount that, just like you discount my own personal experience. Just out of curiosity, are you as critical concerning evidence from Christian believers in support of the Christian religion as you seem to be with personal experience that seems to contradict that religion? Somehow I doubt it. We are all biased, especially towards our value systems and world views. And I understand you are not specifically trying to defend Christianity or answer every possible objection to it. Yet I am amazed at what you manage to dismiss apparently without a second or third thought. I want to mention one more thing about objections to believing in the inerrancy of Scripture, as well. Again, I am not completely close-minded, but defenses of Scriptural inerrancy seem overly generous in their assumptions and allowances, compared to how any other text is treated, especially one critical of our own beliefs (or lack of beliefs). It's not that I've made up my mind to dismiss any explanation out of hand, but that those explanations have to be not only well thought-out and reasonable, but also more likely than the opposing explanations which generally is not the case. That ties into the last bit of our discussion here. You accuse me of moving the goalposts and trying to give you a moving target, but actually all I am doing is trying to find ways to translate "unlikely", "improbable", and "disappointing" into whatever language you would be willing to accept as valid, and I have failed to do so. Whatever, I guess. I don't even have to prove that Christianity is impossible. All I have to do, or so I thought, was try to explain why I feel that it is unlikely or improbable, but apparently I had higher standards than your own expectations.


    "...especially when your own opinion contradicts the one recounting the personal experience first-hand."

    For reasons I've given, your personal, firsthand experience doesn't contradict the Bible.

    "Just out of curiosity, are you as critical concerning evidence from Christian believers in support of the Christian religion as you seem to be with personal experience that seems to contradict that religion? Somehow I doubt it."

    That's an IOU, not an argument.

    "...defenses of Scriptural inerrancy seem overly generous in their assumptions and allowances, compared to how any other text is treated, especially one critical of our own beliefs (or lack of beliefs)."

    That assumes the very point at issue–is it comparable to just any other text?

    "...apparently I had higher standards than your own expectations."

    What you have are confusions rather than standards.

    "I am amazed at what you manage to dismiss apparently without a second or third thought."

    You have nothing original to say. Nothing that hasn't been said before. So, yes, it's easy to dismiss.