Wednesday, May 13, 2009

On Prayer

Why do people pray? What is prayer? What is a person doing when they are praying? Does prayer succeed? Does it fail? Or both? Or neither?

Friends and family (Christian) have been saying (typing) to me recently, that they are praying that I will come back to god. The have told me that Jesus can fix my headaches, and that wherever two or more are gathered.... so I'm being prayed for. I am glad that people respond in such a way when they hear of my interpretedly spiritual decrepitude. It makes me feel good knowing that there are people who feel afraid for me, because of the life path I am on. I am not gladdened that these people think I am wrong and headed for trouble, that part actually saddens me, and so I return the favor to them by feeling bad that they are so happily misguided. I am happy that these people are concerned with my well-being. That is a nice thing to have, outside concern. My family is the most concerned, obviously, and I have known that for a while. Even though I have thought my way through my beliefs to a conclusion, they seem to think that (because of their beliefs) if they pray to god hard enough or long enough, he will cause me to see the error of my ways, and return to the fold. They have been and are praying for me to be saved (again). They love me, and are afraid for me. They think I have chosen poorly (as though there were ever a choice to be voluntarily made) and as a consequence I will be going to hell. I'm not sure if every member of my family thinks this part about hell. I am simply basing my assumptions on my knowledge that most of them have stagnated in their religious stance for the past 30 years. To be fair, perhaps some of them have softened on the whole lake of fire business, but I really don't think so.

In earlier blog posts I have discussed the fear factor involved in religion, and nowhere does this element seem more clearly illustrated than in the conviction my family has about the need for their prayers for my soul.

I am an adult. I will never return to being a child. I am also A-theist. I will never try to believe in god again. I don't know there is no god, just as I don't know that I will wake up tomorrow. I do however have reason to trust that I will wake up. I take care of my body, I am nowhere near the end of my average male life expectancy and I have no debilitating diseases or chronic syndromes. These are some of the reasons how I can trust that I most likely will wake up tomorrow, alive and well. I don't have to pray that I will wake up; I just rely on the reasons I have squirreled away to come through once again for me. However, I have no reason to trust that there is a god. For all practical purposes, god has always been an invisibility. He no longer walks in the cool evening breeze amongst the flora and fauna of the garden as he did according to the author of the book of genesis. We (no one) has ever seen god. No one has ever heard god, no one has tasted him, touched him or smelled him. The only thing people have ever been able to do about god is think about him. There is no argument to be made about the physical existence of god. He simply has not been here. Which is why we have to "Believe" in him in the first place. If he were here, then belief would be a redundancy. We don't "believe" in gravity, we experience it. We don't "believe" in viruses, we experience their flourish (unpleasantly to say the least). We have never physically experienced god so we have to " believe" in him or not. Having no physical reasons to think god exists, I also have no reasons to think that prayers to him will either succeed or fail. I'll get back to the whole success or failure thin in a moment, but for the time being understand my family and to a lesser extent friends think otherwise.

To them the belief in god, en-masse, is itself a reason to believe he exists. Because the vast majority of all humans who are living or have ever lived, have also believed in some sort of supernatural creator/overseer being, my folks say he must exist, indeed no doubt in their minds about his existence is warranted in light of this fact. Superficially, this is a reasonable position to take, superficially. Everyone believes the sun will burn you if you stay out in it too long with no protection, but how many of us have ever seen an ultraviolet light photon (I say photon not ray, because this is the smallest amount of light that exists). None of us have ever seen one without the aid of a spectrometer, but there's the rub. With the aid of a spectrometer, we can see one (or billions). With the aid of a telescope we can see the rings of Saturn, something the New Testament authors could not do. The problem with such thinking is that there have been many issues over the millennia that have been believed by the vast majority of living folks, the most obvious example being the earth being flat, that have been outright wrong. Just because everybody thinks something, doesn't make it true. If the claim is ridiculous, like the claim made by Copernicus that the earth was not at the center of the universe, then either the claimant must be exiled or the claim itself must be meticulously investigated. Luckily for us, Copernicus' claim was validated, as were Newton's, Einstein's and Planck's. But, at this point we have to ask, well "why do people think something is true if it's possible for it to be untrue?". What do you think? My thoughts are:

1. There are varying degrees of human intellect, governed by genetics and environment, which give rise to varying degrees of depth of insight about metaphysical issues, such as the existence of god i.e. some people are smarter than others, or at least have proven to be so far, and as such have been able to delve deeper than most into philosophical questions.

2. Most people are of average intelligence and have little to no interest in asking deep questions, they simply want to live life.

3. Many "truths" about the big questions were formulated by people living pre-dark ages, pre-enlightenment, in fact just post-iron Age.

4. Those who have subsequently dug into the big questions have perpetuated for most everyone else the "truth" about life.

5. Curiosity didn't kill the cat, it made the cat realize it wasn't a cat, it was a bulldozer.

6. Time has ingrained in the minds of most people, incomplete data sets about the world, sets gathered by folks woefully unaware of much important but unattainable information (germs, molecules, radiation, neuroplasticity, geological deposits, the speed of light and it's inviolability, etc...).

7. The longer intellectual apathy remains, the more difficult it is to replace with new information.

There are many other reasonings I have about why people think untrue things, even in the blinding light of their untruth, but for now I'll go on to prayer. Prayer is something that many people hang their religious hat on as being evidence of god. So I ask, what is the purpose of prayer? When someone prays, they are asking for something from their god. If they are not asking for something then they are not praying, but praising. You can either ask god for something or tell him he's great, that's about it. So when people pray they are asking for something. The point of prayer is to receive something. It doesn't matter what, just something. You can pray for anything you mind can come up with. You can pray for impossibilities, like the destruction in a supernova of our own sun next week, or trivialities like your awaking the next day to find that you are happy again. or you can pray for things in the middle of these two extremes, things like your dog's leg will get healed from the fracture he sustained, or you'll find a job soon, or the weather will cooperate while you're on vacation. There are varying degrees of difficulty about prayer request subject matter, some are more improbable than others. but the thing about prayers that seems to get glossed over is that while we all (well I used to pray) pray so that our prayers succeed (I know of no one who deliberately prays for their requests to be denied) and result in our getting what we are praying for, they most often fail miserably. Adherents of prayer never seem to accept this reality. They do however have an endless supply of excuses for why things didn't turn out the way they wanted; things like " god works in mysterious ways, or sometimes the answer is no" and so on.
The things is, prayer is designed to work for our benefit. It does nothing for god. According to the religious, god owns everything, so for him to give stuff away is not the same as it is to parents down here. For us, the joy of giving our kids stuff can be precisely attributed to the fact that we have a limited supply of such stuff, and although we may get a little smug about ourselves and how hard we had to work to get this stuff, we do know that our kids will enjoy it even if only for a brief time. The sacrifice we made, does make us feel good, since we did it on behalf of our kids, and it was truly a sacrifice. So when we pray for something to happen, or to be given or granted, and it doesn't happen, those prayers have in fact failed, haven't they? For something to fail, effort must be made. With prayer, no effort is made, so no failure can take place. If god is capable of answering prayers, and all the Christians I know believe so, then he is incumbent to do so. Since it is obvious that prayers are regularly unsuccessful, then it stands to reason that there is no god up there, hearing those prayers at all.
A familiar refrain comes to mind now, one that harkens back to the earlier stated " sometimes the answer is no" that is, " Just because we don't get what we think we might want when we pray, doesn't mean god hasn't heard our prayer. It just means that god has something different (and the implication here is better) in mind for us. This is why many prayers go unanswered". I respond to this by asking that you think about this situation: A person who has contracted the Ebola virus by simply living in a region of the world that this virus thrives (Eastern Rift Valley, Congo) prays to the Christian god for healing for themselves. This person dies within two weeks, after suffering through ever-increasing agony as his internal organs are rapidly liquefied. he progressively gets worse, eventually coughing up the lining of his stomach, which is now purely black. The disease destroys his body exponentially, but everyday he prays for healing. His body not only is destroyed but it becomes a harbinger of the deadly virus, which turns him into an Ebola factory. Simply simply breathing it in can spread the virus, and so our praying victim's body is now a spreader as well. His prayers are not answered. He dies. So the question is, what greater purpose did god intend for this person, such that he had to endure the utmost agony prior to his premature death? We as a society gained no more information about how to prevent this disease through his infection, we did not suffer a global epidemic because efforts WERE made to contain the virus (mind you the man was not praying that god would spread the word about the virus, he just wanted to not die). Obviously the man suffered and died, so his immediate prayer was unsuccessful. I have no guess as to what possibly better or more valuable answer god could have been delaying for this man. By the way, if you'd like to read a real author's account of this incident, which did actually take place, read Douglas Preston's The Hot Zone. Also, I'd recommend reading Dr. Bart Ehrmann's great expose on the problem of suffering, God's Problem, how the Bible fails to answer our most important question; why we suffer.
For prayer to work, there has to be someone or something on the other end. We have no idea if there is, so at best prayer is wishful thinking, EVEN IF WE GET WHAT WANT. There is no way to verify that prayers have been answered because there is only an open dial tone at the other end. Inexplicable healings of cancer do not point to god's existence or the efficacy of prayer. They point to inadequacies of our understanding of pathogens. God has no interest in our knowing more about diseases and how to prevent them, and subsequently god's children don't have any real interest in knowing more about this stuff either; they are content with wishing on a star. By praying for respite, Christians and (other praying folk) are testifying to their own willful and preferred ignorance of the real causes of suffering in the world. A great website to make you think is The basic premise of this website is god has never regrown an amputees limb, ever. How is that to be explained outside of the familiar responses of mysterium and "quit arguing with me". Prayer doesn't work, because it can't work without god. God simply doesn't exist. If you think he does, you are mistaken. You might be comforted by the thought that there is something more than ourselves watching out for us, but that doesn't make it so. You might also be comforted by the thought that your prayers will be answered, but you are mistaken. Even if the outcome you hope for eventually comes to fruition, you will have no reason to authoritatively say it was because you prayed for it. I know my friends and family are distraught that I am no longer of their faith, but for them to think that by praying that my mind will be changed/opened/ softened or whatever is simply to misunderstand the person I am. There is no way I could ever believe in a god now. I see too clearly how he is creation of ourselves. If you are reading this, and you are one of the ones praying for my salvation, thanks, but no thanks. Why don't you instead go for a walk in nature, or help feed a hungry person, or teach some child to read, something, anything that would be constructive. While I appreciate the concern, you should know that no amount of prayer for me would/could never work, because your prayer's are unheard by anyone but you.


Dan Mattson said...

I find your posts enjoyable to read, and intellectually stimulating. I'm one who happens to believe in the "Truth of Rational Thought too," but who has arrived at a different conclusion, through his power of reason. I think you and I could enjoy a beer about some of this stuff.

Two thoughts come to mind regarding what appears to be naïve and irrational thinking of people who “excuse” unanswered prayers by saying that “God’s answer is no,” or that “God has something else in store.” It is often caricatured by atheists as being absurd, as well as being inconsistent with a God who said, “Ask and you shall receive whatever you ask for in my name.”

It all runs into the example of Christ, who for any Christian, obviously needs to be the example and source of all thinking on prayer. As you know, when he was asked by the disciples how to prayer, the fundamental request was, “Thy will be done.” All other requests, in the Christian tradition, have this single caveat above all considerations.

When you look at the most poignant prayer that Christ prayed as well, we are confronted with unanswered prayer: “May this cup pass, but thy will be done.” Christ, the self-proclaimed Son of God’s petitional prayer was not answered, but his overarching prayer was, i.e.,, "Thy will be done," so why should the belief that God sometimes says, “no,” be absurd or naïve, in relation to determining whether or not Christianity is true or not? It may be absurd, but it is no case against Christianity since his example is clearly the Christian ideal, and contained within that ideal is unanswered petitional prayer. In his case, it’s clear that the answer was “no,” and it is also clear that God had something better in store, namely the redemption of the world.

It has always seemed strange to me when atheists attack Christian beliefs in prayer because their experience with it is completely consistent both with what Christianity has always taught, and secondly, that it consistently follows the very example that Christ showed in the Garden of Gethsemane. It seems that usually, atheist attacks on prayer stem from arguing against what atheists think prayer should be, if it means anything at all, rather than on what Christendom, stretched out over 2,000 years has always believed and taught about prayer. It seems to be the case in your post as well.

As to suffering, in the prayer that Christ prayed in Gethsemane can be found the answer to suffering that alluded Bart Ehrmann in his book, particularly in his chapter on Redemptive Suffering where he finds the belief that “others might need to suffer for my salvation” as personally repugnant. What he doesn’t get, despite his lauded position at Princeton Theological Seminary, is that “redemptive suffering” has nothing to do with others and their suffering for me, it has everything to do with my personal response to suffering, and what my suffering can do for others. The view of redemptive suffering is an invitation to the sufferer to find a purpose and a dignity in his suffering. He has flipped the entire history of the Church’s teaching on suffering on its head, and so of course it seems absurd to him and his expose against suffering is against something other than the Christian view of suffering.

Christ suffered for the redemption of the world, so the Christian answer is the best and only answer to the question of suffering that has ever vexed the world: out of suffering can come the greatest good, and the only surety that this can, and will happen, is contained within the heart of the sufferer, which in the Christian tradition, as you know, calls the sufferer to unite his suffering with Christ’s. Being a “living sacrifice” entails suffering, so within Christianity, even a man suffering from Ebola virus can rejoice in the very suffering he endures, for the redemptive good that can come from it, for others he loves, just as Christ willingly endured the travails of the Cross out of His love for us.

Just a few thoughts this afternoon...fwiw.

Dan Spencer said...

Great comments Dan. Thanks for reading the blog and responding as you did. I would certainly enjoy a brew and discussion sometime.
I'd rebut a few things if you'll so allow.
I heartily agree that the overarching pryaer of christ is god's will be done, even over mine. I think the new testament is quite clear on that point. Your example from the garden of gethsemane is apt. However, the question I have is the motivation of a god to say no, not that we would ask something and be denied. As I see it prayer is the ultimate in risk-taking. Yourun the risk everytime you pray for something, to be denied. Again, back to the ebola guy (BTW, I have no idea if the guy actually prayed for healing or not, but he certainly suffered and died as I described), His prayer would have been for healing, for what individualistic purpose would god deny this request. I understand the overarching possible need for denial, i.e. the god who knows best argument, but prayers are always issued at the personal level, intentions being selfish. An all-powerful god would know this is the case. For him to simultaneously deny and also offer no solace for the denial to individual praying seems to me to be incongruent with a personal loving god. I never tell tim no without telling why I said no. As a lst point on this part, I say i fully understand the consistency of the christian ideal containing non-answered prayer. I make no claim that unanswered prayer is the sole reason for christianity's falsehood. it is merely, in my opinion a piece of the puzzle, when combined with the many other pieces, leads inexorably to there not being a god to begin with.
The second point about redemptive suffering being a journey of outward response to it, is I think exactly what troubled erhmann in his book. For someone to suffer on the account of another may very well be a fantastic way to change the mindset of the non-sufferer, it nevertheless has a direct effect on the one who is suffering. I don't see how it is possible to ignore this effect. I see how to some it may be a secondary concern, but to say it has nothing to do with the actual act of suffering and only to do with the response to it, is really to deningrate the sufferers experience. I'm sure a loving god who was all powerful and all concerned COULD have found a way to save his creation from an eternity of suffering, without resorting to self-lasceration. Whioch brings up another point, that being, the suffering sinners will supposedly endure at the end of time, has nothing to do with redemption, it is suffering for suffering's sake. Since this type of suffering is the end game kind, what's to make a person think the suffering experienced in this life is really any different, or at the least reserved for differing purposes. Sometimes a duck is just a duck and sometimes suffering is just that. Anywhoo... Thanks again for the comments, good debate.