Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Reality-Based Theists and Petitionary Prayer: Replies to Some Replies

So far I've gotten a handful of replies to my essay Reality-Based Theists and the Efficacy of Petitionary Prayer. I'm hoping (in a way which is perhaps unfitting for a reality-based boy like me) that some more might still roll in, but in the meantime, I thought I'd discuss a few of the replies I did receive. (Note that I posted the essay in two separate places -- on my blog, here, and on, here; I will be responding to comments from each site.)

I should mention that while I appreciate all of the comments I got agreeing with, or even amplifying, my point, I am going (for all the obvious reasons) to restrict my comments to those who disagreed with me -- although perhaps I will make an exception to plug Sandy Knauer's piece, the posting of which (she said) was prompted by my essay. This means that I won't be responding to the speculation from self-proclaimed theists atheists (for example in the comments of Heather T.) as to why theists pray, although of course I'd encourage anyone interested to go read what they have to say; I just don't have much to say about them.

So on to the replies from theists.

I think there have been, roughly, three sorts of responses to my essay. The first sort of response grants my central claim -- that petitionary prayers clearly don't work -- and then go on to give reasons why they offer them anyway. A second sort of response denies by central claim by ditching one of its central premises, namely, that the believed-in God is omnipotent. The third sort of response... well, the third sort is a bit muddled, actually, so I won't attempt to characterize it until I deal with it in full.

First let me discuss those who agree with the notion that petitionary prayers don't seem to work, but who offer them anyway.

Janinsanfran replies with what I described in my original piece as the one reply I could think of -- which I described as "a frank recognition that it doesn't work" -- but continues to offer such prayers anyway for a reason that I didn't think to add (I listed two). She writes:
I think I qualify as a "reality-based" theist. At least I hope so. And I find your discussion of the futility of petitionary prayer completely persuasive. But I still do it, more as I engage more deeply with my faith. Why? Because this omnipotent/omniscient God/Person/Force I have come to believe in tells me to "ask." Makes not the slightest sense to me, but this exchange goes on in the realm where I've found truths I didn't find in other realms, so I do it. Since a very large part of what some traditions would call my practice is a non-attachment to outcomes, this is not even terribly inconsistent. Though a little mystifying.
As I said, I didn't think to add that reason to my list of reasons why one might offer petitionary prayers despite a recognition that they don't work, but I really should have: while Janinsanfran is -- as her blog proclaims -- an Episcopalian, it nevertheless sounds, at least to my Jewish ears, like a very Jewish answer: God said to do it, so I do it; heck if I know why. And, of course, it is a perfectly valid reply, a reason to offer petitionary prayers that doesn't rely on their efficacy (and can frankly recognize their lack of it). So that is one completely convincing reply that I heard -- although, as I said in my original piece, I find it hard to imagine it being an emotionally satisfying answer, however intellectually sound it is. But this is, to me, clearly the best reply by far.

Another flavor of reply seems also to fall into the "frank recognition" category, or at least close to it, this time in one of the two categories I foresaw, namely, a frank recognition combined with a claim to only offer non-petitionary, or at any rate only unverifiable-petitionary, prayers. There have been, in fact, two responses which fall into this subcategory, one by Wm H., and one by Gisela S. (These are, respectively, the second and seventh comments on the gather post; scroll down -- and hey, gather, you need permalinks for your comments!) Both Wm and Gisela say that they only offer petitionary prayers which are, by their nature, unverifiable. Wm., for example, writes:
I do not subscribe to any particular religion, so speaking only for myself, I only pray for such things as " the wisdom to make good decisions." These "requests" fall into the [unverifiable] realm.
Similarly, Gisela says:
I personally will pray for people to find the strength within themselves to deal with whatever situation they find themselves in. It has always struck me as somewhat [presumptuous] to request Divine intervention.

I basically buy that both of these prayers are unverifiable. I was tempted to counter-claim that, unless one thinks one has been particularly wise in one's decisions (Wm's variation), or that one's friends have had particular strength in dealing with the situations they find themselves in (Gisela's), this counts as verified in the negative.* But this gets us into the question about how one knows how wise or strong someone has been -- hopelessly vague, really -- and certainly opens up the "hidden harmony" answer in the free will defense to buttress the notion that one might have been wiser or stronger than it seems at first glance. So yes, with a few reservations, I'm willing to call this unverifiable.

Then we get to the second category, namely, a denial of the premise of God's omnipotence. This idea comes from two separate comments by George McNaughton (again, scroll down). To my mind, he isn't totally consistent on the point -- here and there he says things which seem to go in various other directions -- but so far as I can tell this is his central reply. This idea was hinted at in his first comment, both in his suggestion that believers should "de-emphasize this notion of omnipotence and omniscience" and in his metaphor of a friend who "was away somewhere else", i.e. was incapable of responding to you. But it was most clearly and directly stated at the end of his second comment, when he says that "In looking at that question -- I was willing to be satisfied with a God who was all good, and not require Him to be all powerful." In other words, God doesn't answer prayers because he can't.

This, of course, answers my challenge, as indeed it answers the problem of evil. (A denial of God's omnibenevolence would do both as well, although George doesn't himself raise this.) But it's simply not the image of God that most theists hold (although I'm aware that some do). As I mentioned in a footnote in the original piece, I was talking only about reality-based theists who have the most common conception of God -- an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent being. For those who don't accept this view, however, there isn't an issue, any more than there is one for Manichaeans, polytheists or atheists.

George says a number of other things, as I mentioned, some of which -- such as his comments about "we also have people who do the opposite, when something really really looks supernatural we insist on coming up with natural explanations no matter how absurd they sound and if we cannot come up with a natural explanation then we deny that the phenomenon occurred at all" -- lead me to wonder if he falls into the category of reality-based theists as I would define it (though he does as he would define it, since he calls himself one).** Other comments of his -- such as the implication that God answers some prayers, just not all -- seem to indicate to me that he has not dealt (whether by refutation or acceptance) with my central argument at all.*** But since there is a perfectly valid reply to my argument in what he says, perhaps I shouldn't push too hard on the thoughts that (to my ears) seem to wander off in different directions.

Then we get to the final category, represented by a brief reply by Julie B. She, too, goes in two different directions in her reply, leaving the whole a bit muddled, at least to my ears -- perhaps because it was a brief note quickly written, or perhaps (as I imagine Julie might say) because I am looking at it through atheist eyes. In any event, Julie writes:
If I pray for my friend in need and it does not "work," I have not lost anything. If, on the other hand, there is any chance that God might hear my prayer for a friend in need and I choose not to pray because I'm unconvinced that God will answer the way I want him to, then I have lost a chance - however small you think it might be - to help my friend. We play the lottery because there's an improbable chance we might become millionaires. Is it such a stretch to think that we pray because there's a chance, however small (some would argue it is a certainty) God will hear us and answer?
I found this reply somewhat frustrating because my whole point was not that I thought that the chance of a reply was small, but that any reality-based theist looking honestly at the situation would themselves agree that either God does not answer such prayers, or answers them so rarely as to be statistically invisible. To hint, as Julie does, that one might realistically think that it is a certainty that "God will hear us and answer" evades the issue. It seems to me you either need to argue as to why that is at all plausible, given, well, all of human history, i.e. argue why my premise is wrong, or you need to explain why you might pray even though the chances of it "working" are at best extraordinarily small. So it seems like Julie is not confronting my argument, at least in what she wrote. (I should note parenthetically that believing that God hears all our prayers is an evidence-proof notion; it's the idea that God answers our (petitionary) prayers in any meaningful way that strikes me as impossible given the evidence of the world.)

Now Julie does offer a partial argument about why one might pray even though the odds of it being answered are vanishingly small -- namely, that if one does one has lost nothing, but if one doesn't, one's lost that vanishingly small chance, which (one would have to argue) may be so small as to be statistically invisible, but which is not zero. And this is a plausible argument, a variation of sorts on Pascal's famous wager. I would have to say that I think that I find it hard to imagine that this, too, is emotionally satisfying if one genuinely and frankly admits the smallness of the odds one's playing here. And, alas, Julie's bit about the certainty of an answer leads me to feel that she is not really confronting the odds -- that she is, in fact evading the issue, namely, what I claiming to be the undeniable fact that petitionary prayers are either not answered or are answered so rarely that they might as well not be answered (though I suppose that, however rare, one might still make the Pascal-style argument).

One final comment on the issue of odds. Playing the lottery is, indeed, a fool's bet, given the long odds against it. But they aren't so long that we can't name any actual winners -- nor is the mechanism so furtive that we have to confront the suspicion that what looks like long odds successfully played is, in fact, mere sampling bias. But in the case of answered prayer there are no such "winners". Of course one can pick out people who prayed and got better, but that's just cherry-picking the data unless one can give some reason to think that they were more likely to get better if they prayed -- and that involves finding a statistical difference which (I am claiming) it is clear from the entire !@#$% world does not exist.

Of course, one might argue that such a difference does exist -- that prayer can really reliably, or at least better-than-placebo-ly, heal. Christian Scientists and faith healers would argue this, for example. But here I think that I'd have to say that, to my mind, anyone who claims this has distinctly left the realm of reality-based faith and has entered the realm of reality-defiant faith -- unless you've got some hard, non-anecdotal evidence you'd like to share (bearing in mind that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence).

...Just as I was about to post this, I saw that Julie had added a second comment to my earlier piece. I haven't fully assimilated it yet, but a few preliminary thoughts. First, I agree with Julie that thinking good thoughts/creating positive energy is probably indistinguishable from prayer (at first blush -- if there's a distinction I'm not seeing it.) And I certainly agree with her that whether or not one offers prayers doesn't have much to do with whether or not one helps in more Earthly ways.

But I especially wanted to reply to her suggestion that only evangelical Christians fall into my category of reality-defiant theists. That certainly isn't true by my lights (although, once again, we won't reach general agreement on the application of these terms, even if everyone accepts them (which they won't)). A few examples. Anyone who denies the reality of evolution is a reality-defiant theist in my book, and I know that some Muslims and some Orthodox Jews fall into this category. Also, any Orthodox Jew who believes that the Torah was given letter-for-letter at Sinai is probably a reality-defiant theist. Most Mormons would probably count as reality-defiant theists, given the utter lack of historical evidence for any of the events of the Book of Mormon and the frank historical evidence against a great deal of it (e.g. horses in the pre-Columbian Americas, the genetic evidence on the origins of the Native Americans, etc.). Christian Scientists are clearly reality-defiant theists -- probably, in their case, avowedly so, since their whole theology is based on the idea that reality is an illusion. And so forth. So no, at least in my mind, I certainly didn't mean only evangelical Christians. (I also don't know whether all evangelical Christians are necessarily reality-defiant; it's quite possible that a Christian could fall into the category of reality-based as well as the category of evangelical -- although here I frankly don't think I know enough to be sure.)

So those are the replies I've gotten thus far. Anyone who wishes to offer rebuttals to my replies, i.e. anyone addressing the specific answers I gave to these specific replies, should feel free to leave such in the comments here. Anyone who wishes to offer a fundamentally different answer to my original piece I would encourage to do so in the comments there -- either on my blog or on I can't guarantee I will always reply with this level of detail, but I will unquestionably read, and hopefully reply to, any new answers (or any rebuttals to my replies).

* It's not the case that one can compare the person to someone who didn't pray for wisdom/hadn't been prayed for regard strength, since of course the real comparison ought not to be someone who wasn't prayed for but the same person as they would have been had they not been prayed for -- which is definitely inaccessible to evidence, obviously. In theory, one could do a larger collective study, which would, again in theory, iron out the problem of different amounts of natural wisdom/strength -- but here the lack of metrics, indeed lack of coherence in the question, has already reduced the entire notion to a reductio ad absurdum. So, yeah, no way to test this.

** For instance, the notion that God answers some, just not all, prayers can be heard in the phrases that "he did not feel it was right for him to intervene" and "there are a myriad of reasons why it [i.e. prayer] may not work." But the notion that it is reasonable to say that prayers sometimes work and sometimes don't is precisely what I was denying. I was claiming that any reality-based theist should admit that petitionary prayers do not work -- since there is clearly no difference in the outcomes of prayed-upon and not-prayed-upon situations. Both at times go well, both at times do not. To say that prayers sometimes work is an attempt to apply the standard "hidden harmony" rebuttal to the problem of evil (I am again borrowing James Morrow's (somewhat eccentric, I think) terminology) to the problem I am raising. Now, the hidden harmony defense -- basically, God has his reasons which are beyond are ken -- is a classic answer to the problem of evil. (It's also as close as poor old Job ever got to an answer.) But I don't think it solves the issue that I raised, namely, how does one confront the fact that petitionary prayers clearly do not work.

*** As I said in my original piece, who counts as a reality-based theist, and who as a reality-defiant theist, is a complicated issue, and we're never going to agree as to how to classify all cases -- maybe any cases. But the end of George's first reply, cited above, sounds to mean like it means that if one looked hard at reality one would see real miracles -- and, a claim of miracles, i.e. what Bierce called the annulling of the laws of the universe, is enough to qualify as a reality-denying theist in my book. Obviously many people -- including George, perhaps -- will disagree; I doubt we'll come to any agreement about this.

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