Prayer? Cheese! Ah, that’s power!

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(This is part 4 of a 10-part reaction to The Alpha Course. Part One: Twisted history; Part Two: The cruel illogic of substitutional atonement; Part Three: Faith makes mountains of of molehills.)

This week’s Alpha Class was on the power of prayer. This was a particularly… interesting.

But before we get into it, some preliminary info: As you may know, uber-blogger Friendly Atheist mentioned my blog recently! In the comments, someone mentioned a much better British atheist blogger who chronicled his own Alpha Course experience: Stephen Butterfield’s “Alpha Course Reviewed”. If you’re here to read a non-believer’s reaction to Alpha Course, go read his! He’s a better writer and actually had dialog with other attendees. If you’re here reading this because you know me, still go read Stephen’s — it’s better and he writes with a sexy British accent. ūüôā I’ve only read the first few posts of his; I want to be able to write my own reactions unaffected by a better one.

And now, before I discuss problems with prayer, another interlude:

A’Campin’ We Will Go!

Later in the month, the Alpha Course group will be going on a retreat to a Christian camp for a day. Basically, it’s a few more Nicky videos, lots of discussion, and some of your regular religiousy activities. Wife and I are going ahead and going; I’m intrigued. And, I think, it’ll be a good opportunity for me to actually discuss stuff, and hopefully with the more open-minded people of the group who aren’t immediately offended by questioning. (Although, after reading some of Stephen’s posts, I’m encouraged to make opportunity to start talking out in small group more.)

Another reason I’m interested in going is because it’s at the Christian camp I attended years ago as a teen, and I’m kinda of curious to see it again. Hey, I may not believe any more, and I may even look back on that period of the most religious time of my life with chagrin and¬†embarrassment¬†— but it was still one of the best times of my life with great memories, regardless. I can look back on that time and not feel threatened about who and what I was then, and just enjoy the nostalgia.

I’m not worried about being re-converted — they’re Methodists; evangelism and strong-armed “encouragement” isn’t one of the qualities of Methodism. A few years ago I went to a Promise Keepers weekend, and that is a hard sell! (But then, Promise Keepers are mostly evangelical Baptists and Assemblies of God and the like.) If there was any message of that “retreat” is “Kill the atheists! Kill the feminists! Kill he¬†socialists!” Well, not literally that message, but that was the feeling imparted! Very scary experience. This Alpha retreat should be relaxing/annoying at worst, and fun at best.

In a way, my camp experience, particularly the one of the summer before my senior year, was the instigator of my path toward eventual atheism. That was the peak of my belief: I was extremely active in my youth group, I’d performed dramatic interps for my church, wore “Christ Rules” t-shirts to school, I felt I was full with the spirit. That last church camp, I won awards for memorizing the most verses (no Old Testament stuff, of course, they gave us the nice ole letter to Romans to study), and I had been told I was “quiet but whenever I said something, it was wise.” (Yeah, this was teens saying this about another teen. OK, then. But I sure took it seriously back then.)

All this instilled in me a burning desire to become a pastor! I knew that had to be my calling. I’d visited a couple of religious colleges, I’d requested admissions and scholarship info, I knew what God wanted for me!

And then, naturally, I did what was entirely logical: I decided if I was going to study and interpret and preach the Bible, I should finally read all of it. How’d that go? Well, let me give you a clue in the words of Isaac Asimov:

“Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived.”

And in the words of Mark Twain:

“It ain’t the parts of the Bible I don’t understand that bother me, it’s the parts that I do understand.”

Actually reading the Bible cover-to-cover didn’t immediately deconvert me! But it did start some very serious questioning and doubting and searching that would culminate in my finally taking off the God-Goggles some 10 or 15 years later. Serious enough seeds of doubt that I ended up not pursuing that education and career in the ministry. Reading “God’s Word,” all of it, turned a very passionate Christian youth on a mission into a half-hearted young Christian adult with a permanent nagging feeling that Something Is Wrong Here.

So, prayer. This is apropos, as during that time of extreme belief turning into doubt, I did a lot of praying, for wisdom, faith, strength, and understanding. I wonder, wouldn’t that be a perfect opportunity for a god to have answered those prayers? He could have answered them, and then he’d have one more warrior bringing more and more people to his belief. Instead, it can only be assumed by the believer that God saw fit to not answer my sincere and earnest prayers and result in someone who very possibly may contribute in others’ deconversions. If God were real and answered prayers, does that make sense to you?

So Nicky began his section on How and Why Do I Pray with a joke about the atheist who is clinging to the side of a cliff. He calls out to anyone to save him. A voice, God, tells him to trust him and let go. The atheist considers, then calls out “Is there anyone else who can save me?” Cute joke, I chuckled; it’s just a joke… at atheists’ expense, designed to show how stubborn and pig-headed atheists are… OK, now I’m offended. ūüėõ But seriously, it’s just a silly joke but it does help contribute to this image that atheists have that even if presented with adequate evidence, we’ll refuse to accept and believe — nothing can be further from the truth.

We’re atheists (especially we deconverted ones, and life-long ones who have stopped to examine the issue) exactly because we’ve carefully looked at the evidence and have found it less than compelling. Ask an intellectually honest atheist if there’s anything that could convince them to believe in (a) God, and they’ll say “Sure” and give you examples of what kind of evidence they would find compelling. I have two answers to this question:

1. This sounds like a¬†flippant¬†answer, but it’s actually the most sincere one: If there is an all-knowing God, he would know exactly what it would take to convince me — more than even I know myself.

2. And this list could go on forever, as long as my imagination holds out, but for example, the words “I am Yahweh, the God of the Bible, and I exist” could be formed out of the very stars in the sky and be seen by the whole world. That would convince me. (Should be nothing for a God who supposedly created the universe, “stopped the sun in the sky” (?!) so Joshua could fight all night, and perform laws-of-nature-violating miracles for all the world to witness left and right millenia ago.

But, no, no amount of personal anecdotes, voices from God, single-person experienced events will convince me any more than they would convince a Christian that the god a devout and passionate Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist or Sikh or Moonie or Raelian would convince a Christian. I require the same amount of rigorous evidence that it would take to convince me of alien visitation, ghosts, ESP, etc. As Carl Sagan said: “Extraordinary¬†claims require extraordinary evidence.”

The¬†existence¬†of an omni-everything god that refutes everything we know about science, the existence of original sin, salvation through Jesus, etc., is about the most extraordinary claim that can be made — so I’m going to need a lot more evidence than a book written during Bronze Age by people steeped in myth and superstition, and individual personal feelings that look suspiciously like the feelings and personal stories of anyone from any other religion and belief system.

But, I can be convinced. This is different than a lot of believers I encounter who will even say outright “Nothing you say can convince me different from what I know in my heart.”

But, back to Nicky and prayer.

Nicky states that prayer is the most important thing a Christian can do, “it’s what we’re made to do.” Well, if the premise of a personal god who answers prayers is true, then I can’t disagree with that statement. But let’s just jump right in to the login here:

a. Why does an all-knowing god need to hear prayers? Wouldn’t such a god already know what’s going on and what’s needed?

b. If everything goes according to God’s plan then what does prayer accomplish? Was God going to make things go one way, but will change his mind based on prayers he receives? Is he involved in the world at all times or not?

c. Why must people pray continuously? And in groups or have multiple people pray for the same thing? Does God not care until enough people perform the ritual of prayer? Your child’s a drug addict performing crimes to support his habit and is on a self-destructive path. Does God not care, or not even know, until the parents pray X number of times for their kid to be saved? If the girl with leukemia dies despite all the prayers of family and friends and church-goers, does that mean God didn’t get enough participants on the prayer petition?

Nicky says “God always answers prayers,” and the Bible supports this claim:

  • Matthew 7:7¬†¬†“Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. Or what man of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”
  • Matthew 17:20¬†¬†“For truly, I say to you, if you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you.”
  • Matthew 21:21 ¬†“I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”
  • Mark 11:24 ¬†“Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”
  • John 14:12-14¬†¬†“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I go to the Father. Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it, that the Father may be glorified in the Son; if you ask anything in my name, I will do it.”
  • Matthew 18:19 ¬†“Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”

Read that? God/God’s son/God’s greatest prophet/etc. says in no ambiguous terms that you only need to have a little faith, and whatever you want in his name you’ll get. No equivocation, no “except…”, no “however…”. No, what is claimed in the Bible is: “Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it, that the Father may be glorified in the Son; if you ask anything in my name, I will do it.”

But of course, we all know that that isn’t true. So, what do apologists like Nicky do to try to explain why the results of prayer seem to look suspiciously like random¬†occurrence¬†or the results of human effort to fulfill? He has to come of with a list of caveats and conditions that Jesus never said anything about:

  • God won’t grant wishes, sorry, prayers that “go against his nature.”

I’m sorry, what? What’s against his nature? According to the Bible, he’s raised the dead, will move mountains, has stopped the movement of the sun (?!), and¬†committed¬†genocide. Seriously, what’s against his nature??

  • He won’t grant prayers if there’s problems in your life (?!), in your relationship with God, or on a path of rebellion.

This is classic “If it didn’t work, it’s your fault, you must have done something wrong” that you find in all religions, superstitions, witchcraft, majik, The Secret, every woo. Despite the fact that Jesus supposedly said you only need a bit of faith and you can have a mountain moved. Go fig.

This rationalization for why a prayer won’t be answered is incredibly cruel! You’re a child being raped on a regular basis by a family member, and you pray every night for the horror to stop, but because you’re not perfectly righteous God isn’t convinced to answer the prayer? Your mother is suffering from¬†Alzheimer’s and dying a slow and terrible death, but because your faith isn’t at least the size of a mustard seed, he ignores the prayers? Millions of people are dying painful and slow deaths from starvation despite the prayers of millions, including, I’m sure, at least a few truly selfless and full-of-faith people, but God is ignoring these prayers because someone among them is on a rebellious path?

If you follow Nicky’s (and standard apologetic’s) logic to their natural conclusions, these must be the case. Which has to reveal one of three conclusions:

1. Nicky and other apologists are utterly wrong about how prayer works, in which case, all their “answers” about God are suspect at best.

2. This Yahweh is a real cruel bastard not worthy of worship.

3. The god of the Bible doesn’t exist.

Occam’s Razor, anyone?

Plus, these rationalizations: God won’t answer if you don’t have enough faith or on a rebellious path or your relationship with God isn’t “right,” that kind of contradicts the testimonies of people who were supposedly on the edge, have hit bottom, were “wretches” and utterly unworthy but call out to God is¬†desperation. According to Nicky, God’s not inclined to answer prayers under those conditions. So, if he does, that also shows:

1. Nicky doesn’t know what he’s talking about; or,

2. God is capricious and fickle and can’t be trusted.

3. Oh, or, the god of the Bible doesn’t exist.

And Nicky’s third rationalization as to why the result of prayer is unpredictable, untrustworthy, and¬†apparently¬†random:

  • God won’t¬†answer¬†prayers for the wrong motive.

See many of my examples above and test for whether the motive to stop rape and molestation, terrible suffering from disease, and mass death from starvation, include bad motives. And yet all those things, and more, and worse, continue for so many people despite earnest and sincere prayers.

The world looks like it operates under one of two principles:

1. Yahweh exists but must be truly evil and deplorable. Or,

2. The world moves along exactly like it would if there were no involved god who interferes in the world.

Occam’s Razor….

Nicky tells this story of a close friend who died of a heart attack, despite Nicky’s (and¬†presumably, the friend’s family’s!) prayers for him not to. Nicky’s rationalization as to why God didn’t answer the prayer? Because, basically, things would have been different if things happened differently, is his explanation. Uhm, yeah, pretty much. And there’s no way we could know, and disprove that, is there? Convenient. If the friend had lived, maybe he’d have died a slow and terrible death from¬†Alzheimer’s¬†so, the heart attack was a mercy? Maybe the friend wouldn’t have enjoyed his daughter’s college graduation? Maybe he would’ve gotten ill during he and his wife’s anniversary cruise vacation. Who knows how things could have been different if different things had happened.

Which implies another horrible cruelty inherent in the idea of prayer, and unanswered ones: Despite the fact the Bible says God will grant any, any prayer, God uses unanswered prayers in which horrible death and disease and destruction happens in order to teach other people lessons. He kills one person in order to let a survivor see the valuable things in life? How is that at all fair to the person who suffered and died? And to their family? Nicky can feel better about learning a valuable life lesson, but the friend’s family is now husband-less, father-less, so that Nicky could learn something.

God lets millions die from starvation so that we could feel thankful for what we have? Thousands die and thousands homeless after an earthquake or a tsunami, so that some survivors could learn a life lesson? ¬†Really? That’s the way a wise and merciful god would work things out? Really?!

Looks more to me like things happen because we’re in a universe where there are laws of nature and no overbeing is at the wheel.

Then Nicky goes into this long and tedious story about a friend who got a divorce he didn’t want, found God, then his ex-wife finally agreed to go see Billy Graham with him, and she found God, and now they’re back together. Nice story, I suppose. Assuming the two aren’t co-dependent and terrible for each other and it’d be better for them to move on. I dunno. If things happened differently, things would be different. But it sounds to me more like these individuals are responsible for their own actions. The guy kept acting, doing things, to stay in touch with the ex-wife and reconnect. Kept showing effort. She made the decision to see him again, and in a place of extreme emotional manipulation (the Billy Graham thing). I blame/credit the individuals for answering their own prayers.

Group Session

The first question asked in group was: Did you used to think of answered prayers as coincidences? (Something like that.) That actually made the group a little uncomfortable, I think, as some answered, yes they used to. I’m making a gross assumption that if this were asked in a Baptist group, there’d be almost unanimous “No, everything is done through God’s will!” But this group is a little more thoughtful (than my imaginary Baptist group), and reasonably contemplates coincidence. But, as usual, evangelical literalists tend to follow the logic of their religion better than thoughtful people: If God always answers prayers, including intentionally not granting them as a means of answering, then coincidence is indeed quite impossible. God is in control of all blessings and all pain and suffering. …including when he “let’s things happen.”

Imagine a father of children, and one of them has an accident and is terribly hurt. In fact, she’s bleeding to death! But you, as her father, decide not to answer her cries to take her to this hospital, you ignore her even though you’re perfectly capable to taking her to the hospital in time. You have the ability. But you want to teach the other daughter a lesson about playing in trees. You let the hurt daughter die needlessly.

Questions: Is that a glorious and praise-worthy act, or cruel sadism? Would we consider this man a good and wise father, or an uncaring psychopath?

Someone in group mentioned that we are not worthy, none of us are worthy, of answered prayers and salvation. “We don’t deserve it; none of us deserve it. But God gifts it to us anyway.” (I think it was the¬†authoritarianist lady who had previously said the clay is unworthy to question the potter breaking it last week. She has issues.) Again, according to Nicky, if this is true, God wouldn’t¬†answer¬†any prayers.¬†Wish people would agree on their dogma. Anyway, how cultlike, Marine corp, wife-abusing of an outlook that is? You’re not worthy, you’re wretched, you’re flawed. No one can love you. Except our god, and only of you believe like we say you should. Tear you down and then make it so you have to depend on our belief in order to have any semblance of self-worth. That’s really sick and twisted, in my opinion.

Fortunately, not all Christians, like Wife, (consciously) believe this. But then, I don’t see how a person can be surrounded by people who do believe this, listen to hymns and contemporary Christian music that’s saturated with this message, read material that encourages this message, and not internalize it. Let is sit in the subconscious. It’s a pernicious and powerful message.

The group also talked about some of the topics above, but not very deeply. Some of the last comments included “God gave up a child” for us (really? But I thought Jesus was God, and no one gave up anything! He had a really, really bad weekend — though not near as bad as some people have suffering from cancer for months, or what the Inquisition put many non-believers through — and then he got his life and body back, and then ascended right on to heaven to be/be-next-to God. Nothing was given up. At all); and that hated “Never gives you more than you can handle,” which is a complete lie people tell themselves to feel better. If that were true, there’s be no Christians killing themselves, turning to drugs, or turning against God or becoming non-believers (for emotional reasons, as opposed to¬†evidential¬†reasons).

But, those happen all the time.

And finally, at the end of the evening, a quiet fellow spoke up and testified how God quite literally saved his life. He spoke very emotionally and¬†impassioned¬†about how his life has turned around thanks to his faith. A couple of weeks earlier he’d mentioned how he had taken actions to turn his life around and be a different person after he “accepted Jesus,” but people tend to conveniently forget that they made the change, they made different decisions, to have a different and better life.

But naturally I feel for this guy. He had a crappy life as a young adult, was on a road to self-destruction, until he stopped and now is so grateful for his different path. This is why I can’t speak up in this environment. If I challenge or question or doubt the very¬†existence¬†of his believed cause for his “salvation” in this life, he will understandably feel attacked, insulted, defensive. I’m in their “house” calling them self-deluded (even if I’d never use those words!) I am, for no other reason than to suggest things aren’t the way they may think they are, an a-hole jerk.

But the terrible irony is, in my estimation, I’m praising and complimenting these people exactly because it is they who changed their lives! No capricious god did it for them, they made better decisions and changed their behavior and made better lives for themselves! They’re capable and strong, and it really saddens me to see people who went through such life-changing redirections to give themselves no credit for their accomplishments and yet all of the blame for the bad things in their life.

In conclusion, I want to provide a link to think about:

Why won’t God heal amputees?¬†http://whywontgodhealamputees.com