Sunday, July 17, 2016

The problems of unanswered prayer

A topic in Christian apologetics and atheism is "the problem of unanswered prayer". I put that in quotes because there are at least two (alleged) problems of unanswered prayer, and it's useful to distinguish them for clarity of analysis. 

i) The existence of God

An atheist will say the reason God doesn't seem to answer prayer more often is because God never answers prayer, and that's because there is no God to answer prayer. God only seems to answer prayer sometimes is because believers confound coincidence with answered prayer. They remember the hits but forget all the misses. Answered prayer is an artifact of sample selection bias. What's left over when you ignore all the misses.

A basic problem with that explanation is that an atheist must shoulder an astronomical burden of proof to make good on his claim. The onus is on him to show that every purported answer to prayer is sheer coincidence. 

As a practical matter, it's simply impossible for an atheist to directly discharge his burden of proof in this regard. He could barely scratch the surface. In the nature of the case, most purported answers to prayer go unreported. These are private incidents that happen to unknown believers. In the vast majority of cases, there is no public record to assess. An atheist must dismiss it out of hand without ever examining the evidence. 

The best an atheist could attempt is to discount answered prayer indirectly by disproving God's existence. However, that's viciously circular inasmuch as instances of answered prayer would count as evidence for God's existence. 

ii) The fidelity of God

The issue here is whether certain prayer promises in Scripture are true. Does God keep his promise? Can God be trusted to do what he says he will do in answer to prayer, or is there a glaring discrepancy between the scope of promise and the scope of performance? 

That's something I've discussed on different occasions from different angles, so I won't repeat myself here. I'm just disambiguating the issue. 

Of course, calling this the "problem" of unanswered prayer is, itself, somewhat prejudicial or question-begging. It's a conventional designation, like the "problem of evil". Whether it's truly problematic is the very issue in dispute. 


  1. >"A basic problem with that explanation is that an atheist must shoulder an astronomical burden of proof to make good on his claim. The onus is on him to show that every purported answer to prayer is sheer coincidence."<

    Not quite. Prayer is a religious practice that cuts across religions and cultures and history. Furthermore, it is structurally similar to many superstitious practices (e.g. asking a god or rubbing a rabbit’s foot to magically influence a future event leaves behind the same amount of evidence that the asked for event and petitioned entity are causally connected).

    Unless one posits that all these gods, religions, and superstitious are true (which cannot be because most are mutually exclusive) then the default and parsimonious explanation is one of confirmation bias.

    Therefore, the onus is on the one that maintains that one form of prayer actually works (e.g. petitions made to the Christian God by those in good standing toward Him). It seems they are left with one of two rather insurmountable tasks:


    A) explain why the Christian God answers prayers made to Allah and Shiva and any number of other gods if confirmation bias is not the best explanation of seemingly answered prayers, or

    B) produce some heretofore never before produced evidence in the entire history of the world that causally connects a psychically transmitted petition to a god that effects an event.

    1. Typos: superstitions, third paragraph. Affects, last sentence.

    2. You're reheating stale leftovers. They don't improve with repetition. I've already addressed your objections. If you have nothing new to add, nothing to advance the argument, if you refuse to acknowledge my prior replies, any further comments by you will be deleted.

      A few quick points:

      i) It would be perfectly consistent for the Christian God to sometimes answer prayers addressed to false gods. Every Christian has heathen ancestors. The very existence of the Christian depends on God providing for his ancestors. Sometimes that means answering their pagan prayers.

      ii) What do you even mean by "a psychically transmitted petition to a god"? Is that simply a fancy way of describing silent prayer? Or are you suggesting that in Christian theology, the efficacy of prayer depends on a psychic energy transference from the supplicant to God? If so, that's a paradigm drawn of physics.

      iii) If you're alleging that there's no evidence for answered prayer, you're in no position to draw that conclusion. In the nature of the case, most answered prayers go unreported. Most Christians (or Jews) aren't famous. You'd have to hang around enough Christians to get a sampling.

      iv) Confirmation bias can't explain outcomes that defy coincidence.

    3. T.A. Lewis, the Triabloggers (including Steve and Jason) addressed this and similar topics in the Triablogue archives. I've collected links to some of them in my blogpost:

      Links on the Subject of Miracles in the Context of Craig Keener's Recent Book

      I've collected some of Steve's blogposts on Cessationism which you might find useful since the arguments of cessationists often parallel or overlap with atheistic atheological apologetics.

      Steve Hays on Cessationism

      Some video lectures on modern miracles by Craig Keener

  2. Steve, I see you went with (A). I wonder how many other theologians and paranormal believers of whatever stripe explain "answered Christian prayers" as really instances of their "true" supernatural agency? At the very least, you must honesty recognize that your explanation violates parsimony?

    Furthermore, I'm not simply speaking of past instances. I'm pointing to current ones. If the Christian God had to answer pagan prayers in antiquity of the ancestors of Christians, it doesn't explain the equivalence of evidence for answered contemporary prayers to "pagan" gods and the Christian God.

    Are all cases of "answered" pagan prayers today evidence that that person will have a Christian in the family in the future?

    1. "At the very least, you must honesty recognize that your explanation violates parsimony?"

      You haven't shown how it violates parsimony. In fact, invoking divine agency is very parsimonious: one ultimate cause for diverse phenomena.

      "it doesn't explain the equivalence of evidence for answered contemporary prayers to 'pagan' gods and the Christian God."

      You haven't provided any actual evidence that that's happening. Rather, you've postulated a hypothetical scenario. You're at liberty to do that, but it's not as if that confronts me with evidence I must overcome.

      Indeed, you yourself deny there's any actual evidence answered prayer, whether in the case of Christians or pagans. Your contention is premised on an assumption that you yourself reject. Moreover, that's not entailed by Christian theology, so there's no reason I myself should credit your assumption.

      It's not as if you provided concrete evidence of the comparative rate at which pagan prayers are answered in relation to Christian prayers.

      "Are all cases of 'answered' pagan prayers today evidence that that person will have a Christian in the family in the future?"

      Irrelevant. You indicated that the alleged equivalence is inconsistent with a Christian theology of prayer. To rebut that, I only need to propose a possible reason to show why that might be consistent. Like the logical problem of evil, my burden of proof is trivially low whereas yours is astronomically high.

    2. There's nothing parsimonious about your alternative. Given multiplied billions of purported answers to prayer, an atheist must separately explain away each individual case.

  3. Christians believe that God, in his grace, can answer non-Christian prayers, despite the fact that they don't have a covenant relationship with Him that makes them acceptable to Him like Christian do through the New Covenant established by the death of Christ on the cross.

    Even John Calvin wrote:

    There is one psalm which clearly teaches that prayers are not without effect, though they do not penetrate to heaven by faith (Ps. 107:6, 13, 19). For it enumerates the prayers which, by natural instinct, necessity extorts from unbelievers not less than from believers, and to which it shows by the event, that God is, notwithstanding, propitious. Is it to testify by such readiness to hear that their prayers [i.e. non-Christians'] are agreeable to him? Nay; it is, first, to magnify or display his mercy by the circumstance, that even the wishes of unbelievers are not denied; and, secondly, to stimulate his true worshippers to more urgent prayer, when they see that sometimes even the wailings of the ungodly are not without avail. [Calvin's Institutes third book, chapter 20 section 15]

    Also, Christianity teaches that some apparent miracles and answers to prayers are accomplished by demonic power/activity. So, just because something is supernatural doesn't entail that God was directly involved or happened with God's approval/sanctioning.

    Also, the principle of parsimony/Occam's razor don't tell us which hypothesis is actually true. It only tells us which is to be preferred all things being equal. Sometimes the more complex explanation is actually the true one and has the greatest explanatory scope and explanatory power. Also, you beg the question by assuming a non-Christian epistemology. IF Christian ontology and epistemology is true, then then appeal to God to explain (at least some) answered prayer is the parsimonious hypothesis.

    1. The apostle Paul told pagans at Lystra:

      16 In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways.17 Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness."- Acts 14:16-17

      Many pagan worshipped their false gods and petitioned them to answer their prayers for material blessings (e.g. good weather, harvests etc.) and in God's graciousness the true God of Israel (and of the Church) often answered their prayers positively despite the fact that they worshipped false gods who were very different in nature and character than the one true God.

    2. T.A. Lewis wrote: Are all cases of "answered" pagan prayers today evidence that that person will have a Christian in the family in the future?

      That doesn't follow at all since God could have other providential reasons for answering the prayers of non-Christian individuals and groups. Providence is God's sovereign control over history in its general sweep as well as its particulars. For example, one can easily imagine God answering the prayers of a pagan mother for healing so that her son will accomplish a destiny that God planned for him. Think of how history would be totally different if Cyrus or Alexander the Great died in infancy. That would have immensely affected Christian history down the line. Part of the success of the early and quick spread of Christianity was due to the fact that Alexander the Great previously spread Greek culture and (especially) the Greek language throughout the then known world. Koine Greek as the lingua franca of the time enabled the Christian message and Scriptures to be understood by a wide range of peoples. To head off a potential objection, yes, God had a providential plan in allowing Adolf Hitler to survive past infancy.