Friday, January 17, 2014

The power of prayer: prayer and the problem of evil

The Power of Prayer: prayer and the problem of evil

Huffington Post's ran an article yesterday "Half of Americans Say God Plays a Role in Super Bowl Winner: Survey". The content is as cringe inducing as the headline indicates -- half of Americans believe the supernatural is at work in sports -- and more or less nicely summed up in the following Public Religion Research Institute graphic:

http://big.assets.huffingtonpost.com/prri.jpg
(Click for larger version)

Not noted in the graph form is another point that is worth noting if only because of how closely it echoes the increasingly popular notion among evangelicals that success is a measure of God's love (it's not for nothing that the "party of God" and social conservatism is also the party of big business...):

Just as they were divided on whether God has a role in sports games, Americans also were divided on whether God rewards religious athletes with health and success. Forty-eight percent of Americans said God does reward athletes this way, but 47 percent disagreed. The belief that God will help religious athletes was most prominent among white evangelicals (62 percent) and non-white Protestants (65 percent). A little more than one-fifth of the religiously unaffiliated held the same view.

But consider the big picture for a moment. Half of our country believes that gods are mucking about in football games. Now, there's not a damn thing in the Quran, the Bible, the Torah, or any of the other holy books about gods and football. That's all, 100%, egocentric, wishful thinking. "I care about my team, therefore God cares about my team." (And theists claim atheism is an arrogant world view...) The presumption involved to suppose that a deity concerned with the matters of the universe is out there rooting for your team...it's really mind boggling.

It particularly highlights a deeper problem within Christianity. If not a sparrow falls but that God knows it, that means that God is fully cognizant of kids starving to death, being sold into slavery, and otherwise being abused and killed all over the world. Now, the Christian will agree that saving kids is the right to do; they'll agree that only a monster would, if given the option, let a child starve to death. But they'll say, "Ah, but we have free will, and it is men -- not God -- choosing to starve, brutalize and kill those children. God doesn't interfere, because that would thwart our free will, and then all bets are off." Alright, fair enough. That is the answer to the problem of evil. Not a great answer, but at least a logically consistent one inside of its framework (if you start thinking outside of the box, you can poke holes in it...but that's beyond this discussion). God can't stop evil because he can't interfere with our world.

What happens to that idea when God, like a Valkyrie of yesteryear deciding who goes to Valhalla that day, determines passes and intercepts? Well, quite frankly, it blows a gaping hole in your theology. If God is interfering in our world, he can; if he can and does but chooses not to save kids from starving to death, well he's an asshole (the only solution to the problem of evil thus shredded). And every holy book out there tells you that he's not. Which means either he isn't just or he isn't deciding football games.

And half of Americans believe that he is deciding those. And probably more than that think he's protecting them when they're afraid. And helping the family get home safely in that blizzard. And helping her ace a test. And making sure that cute girl in bio notices him. And the list goes on...

The fact is, when pressed on the question of evil, Christians will excuse themselves from facing the difficulty with a disclaimer about God's inability to interfere, a note that humans are responsible for their own actions, etc. Which, really, renders prayer and the notion of "ask and you shall receive" utter nonsense. But the moment difficulty arises, that same Christian who professes that interference is impossible (and thus the problem of evil is ours, and not God's) will pray for exactly what they said was impossible -- God's interference. If God is deciding football games, that means he is either hampering someone's decision making and/or abilities, or enhancing someone's decision making and/or abilities. In other words, their free will is being circumvented; they are no longer solely responsible for their actions. Someone is benefiting because God directly intervened on their behalf -- and someone else is suffering for it, either because they were personally caused to err in their own playing or because God enhanced an opponent's playing. In other words, one team is playing at best on their own, possibly with a divinely imposed penalty, and the other is playing with the aid of an almighty being.

One student is acing his test because God helped him remember all those biology terms, while others have to struggle on their own
One person avoided going into the ditch because "Jesus t[ook] the wheel," while another receives no such protection
One person got a job (while a lot of other deserving candidates didn't) because God decided so

God then, in the minds of many American Christians not only can, but does, actively interfere; and not only in events outside of free will (i.e. sparing someone from a natural disaster), but in events that demand that he co-opt free will (i.e. overruling one student's hard work and dedication to give another a desired internship).

If prayer is effective, we do not have free will and humans are not ultimately responsible for everything that happens. (At best, we have partial free will, and we are partially responsible.)
If God can and does interfere in our world on people's behalves, then he can but chooses not to prevent suffering, even the extraordinary suffering of innocents.
Thus, if prayer is effective, God shares at least some blame in the suffering of innocents. Conversely, if God shares no blame, prayer is ineffective.

As a Christian, the problem of evil never bothered me very much because I accepted the typical solution: it's our fault (something that, as an atheist, hasn't changed...we are responsible for our own actions). But the "power of prayer" was something I struggled with since childhood: if God didn't intervene because he couldn't, within the limitations he'd set up, prayer was useless; only if God can intervene, which belies the notion of those limitations, could prayer be effective. And yet, Christianity teaches that prayer is not useless, and we're encouraged to pray because it is effective. When both concepts are given equal weight, it is a logical contradiction that even a child can spot. The power of prayer is that its effectiveness renders God a monster; and its lack of effectiveness a myth.

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