Monday, July 17, 2006

Reality-Based Theists and the Efficacy of Petitionary Prayer

Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend
With thee; but, sir, so what I plead is just.
Why do sinners’ ways prosper? and why must
Disappointment all I endeavour end?...
Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.

-- Gerard Manely Hopkins

As anyone who has read the last several posts on this blog knows, someone very dear to me was just placed into jeopardy by the recent events in Lebanon. And while she seems -- kenina hara*, perhaps I should say, fully aware of the irony given what I am about to write -- to be out of danger for the moment, these events have crystallized in my mind something I have been meaning -- in some vague, inchoate way -- to express.

I'm not quite sure if what follows is an argument or a question -- or perhaps it is simply somewhere between those two extremes. Let me say then that this is intended as a very specifically provisional argument: it is an argument that I have never seen put forward before in this form (although of course I have seen very little), but one to which I would be quite genuinely interested in answers to. I am not putting forward this argument with certain defiance, intending to demolish any possible answers; I am putting forward this argument with curious uncertainty, wondering what responses it might generate. (Warning: this essay is rather long, as blog-posts go; if there is sufficient interest, I will make it available as a pdf file.)

The issue at hand is how any reality-based theist could possibly believe in the efficacy of petitionary prayer.

I suppose that, first, I should define my terms, in particular the term "reality-based theist". During the recent cultural wars over religious issues, it's often seemed to me that while the sides are commonly divided into two (for metaphysical purposes, atheist - theist; although, as has been endlessly pointed out, for political purposes the relevant (and quite distinct) dichotomy is secularist - theocrat), they really should be divided (again, for metaphysical purposes) into three: atheist, reality-based theist and a third category that I really shouldn't define (since I am opposed to them and it is ungracious to define a group one opposes), but that I shall refer to here as "reality-defiant theists".

Atheists we all know about: they don't believe in any God or gods (which does not mean, frequent assertions to the contrary notwithstanding, specifically disbelieving in any God or gods, although the latter is a subset of atheists sometimes referred to as "strong atheists") and therefore -- at least in principle -- get their beliefs from the various ordinary sources of evidence we all use: experience, experiment, tradition, hearsay, common sense, and so forth. Beliefs of this sort are, or at any rate ought to be, open to change given new evidence.

But it seems to me there is a distinction -- although, as I shall discuss momentarily, rarely a clear distinction -- between reality-based theists and reality-defiant theists. Both of these groups believe in God**, of course, and generally have a variety of other beliefs which attach to that: a belief that God spoke to Moses or Jesus or Mohammed, say, or is morally against bearing false witness, or whatever. Some of these beliefs (most crucially the central one, that God exists) can't even in principle be contradicted by any available evidence. What divides reality-based from reality-defiant theists is what they do when confronted with evidence that does contradict their beliefs. Do they alter their beliefs, saying something to the effect of 'I suppose my image of God must have been mistaken' or 'I suppose my interpretation of my holy book must have been in error'; or do they in one fashion or another defy the evidence, claiming that it does not show what it plainly (to all those without prior contrary epistemological commitments) shows?

The reason that this is a hard distinction to make clear in practice is that (interestingly, importantly and tellingly) theists quite rarely simply proclaim their disbelief in the evidence on faith-based grounds. It is quite rare to hear someone say: the evidence does show such-and-such, but I do not believe it, because I have faith in a different truth. Oh, it's not unheard of: a good example might be creationists who do not deny the evidence that exists for evolution is what it appears to be, but claim it was placed there by God as a test of faith. Such an argument is unanswerable through evidence-based reasoning, although it does tend to lead to a theology that appeals to very few people. Nevertheless almost no one does say anything like this. Generally they deny the evidence, twisting and turning to explain it away or cast doubt on it or in some way escape what it seems to say to others. Probably the most blatant example of this is young-earth creationism, which denies not only the overwhelming scientific evidence for evolution but also the overwhelming scientific evidence as to the Earth's age. Anyone who believes that the earth's age is properly measured in the thousands of years rather than the billions of years is, in my reckoning, a reality-defying theist.

But other cases are harder to judge, and doubtless vary from religion to religion and believer to believer. Some people who will accept the available evidence in the case of evolution will resist it in other issues, such as the authorship of Torah. Some issues might legitimately be open to question on purely evidentiary grounds (such as whether the Jews were really slaves in Egypt, which (I believe) there is no extra-biblical evidence for, but which there is no evidence against either (save for the absence of positive, extra-biblical evidence)), and whether someone who believes strongly in one direction on such an issue is a reality-based or reality-defiant theist seems to me an open issue -- perhaps one that will inevitably remain one unless hard evidence is found in another direction. In any event, these are complex matters with many facets, and I certainly do not propose that this division can be made in any hard and fast way, nor that there is any definition which will satisfy all parties (or even, say, everyone that the definition itself claims to be reality-based, which would be a good standard if such a thing could be devised). People are simply too eager to claim non-faith, evidentiary grounds -- or at least plausibility -- for their beliefs. It is an interesting question as to why so many reality-defying theists try to argue for their beliefs in ways which appear to be evidentiary, but it's a separate question and one I won't go further into here.

Nevertheless, if my Noble Readers will go along with me here and imagine for themselves a subset of theists who they might call reality-based -- if nothing else, I imagine that some theists would describe themselves in something like those terms, if not precisely those words -- then I can get to my main question, namely, how can reality-based theists possibly believe in the efficacy of petitionary prayer?

Because they all seem to, or at least seem to seem to (which is not the same thing). People who would never deny the reality of evolution, or that the Torah was written by multiple individuals over many centuries and only later combined into the work we know today, or anything like that, will talk about prayer as if it might actually make a difference.

Now, to be clear, I'm not talking about all prayer here. There are clearly some categories of prayers -- prayers of thanks, for example -- in which it doesn't matter if it makes a difference (or in which there isn't particularly a "difference" to be made), and others -- prayers of repentance -- in which the question of whether it makes a difference is metaphysical and not answerable by ordinary evidence. I'm not talking about those. There are even be petitionary prayers whose effect would be in the real world but whose efficacy isn't decidable by evidence, at least practically speaking ("May His great name be blessed forever and to all eternity"). All I'm talking about are those prayers which are asking for something, specifically something in which one can eventually figure out, by ordinary, mundane means, whether it happened or not: prayers that a sick person get better, say, or that some crisis in the world -- such as the current one in the Middle East -- come swiftly to a peaceful resolution. (The "swift" is important there, because without it the question becomes undecidable -- it might always happen later.) These are the prayers which give rise to the saying that there are no atheists in foxholes, and to Ambrose Bierce's cynical definition of "to pray" as "to ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner confessedly unworthy".

There are, it seems to me, a lot of such prayers. Not so many that one can't imagine a theist who never offers them. One can well imagine a theist who offers only prayers of thanks and repentance and praise, say, or even only those plus requests so general that they can never be evidentially refuted ("thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven", say). But I would venture to guess that the vast majority of theists -- even of strictly reality-based theists -- offer up such prayers.

My question is: how can they possibly believe that they might work?

There is simply too much evidence that they don't. If you are praying that a sick person be healed, you have to know that uncountably many sick people have been prayed for and died anyway. If you are praying for some world crisis not to end in disaster, you have to know that there have been indescribably many wars and massacres and genocides and terrors in history, and most with a great many prayers to stop them. In other words, if you are a reality-based theist, you have to know that there is every reason to believe that such prayers don't work. (A reality-defiant theist would have no such trouble -- they might, for instance, cherry-pick evidence to show that the pattern I mentioned does not exist (although there is not only historical, but even strictly biblical -- e.g. Job -- evidence that it does, so perhaps this question applies even to some of them as well.))

Now, I don't mean to get into the whole problem-of-evil. All theists, I imagine, have to come their own answer to this question (or turn into either dualists or atheists) -- although many, I'd wager, don't come to any answer, and instead simply shut off the line of thought in any way possible. Nevertheless, let us assume that a thoughtful, reality-based theist will have come up with some answer which satisfies them -- the free-will defense, the eschatological defense, the hidden-harmony defense, whatever.*** The point is, whatever matter one is praying over is subject to the precise same conditions that allows evil to exist alongside an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God at all. To believe in God, one has to believe in some condition that allows evil to exist anyway -- fine. Let's take that as given. The point here is that evil does still exist anyway -- and that there is every reason to believe (if one is a reality-based and not reality-defiant theist) that this evil happens equally whether one prays or does not. So that if one's typical answer to evil is (let's say) that God has a plan, and ways beyond our ken, this must be equally true of the sick person one prays for or the terrible conflict that one prays about, just as it was about all the others that ended badly. There is no reason to think God will make any difference -- in this example, if He has a plan, it will work itself out regardless of whether or not you wish someone to recover or a country to be spared a catastrophe. It may be His will, but that just means that your prayer won't help.

I don't see how one can look at the world, including its history, and not see that, even if one believes in God, any prayer that makes a request is nevertheless quite clearly futile. Perhaps this is where the question-and-not-assertion aspect of this comes in. Any reality-based theists -- who, in this instance, might be helpfully defined as those who won't deny that, as often as not, "the way of the wicked prosper" -- want to weigh in on this?

I can imagine one ready answer to the question, and perhaps it is one that some -- most? all? -- reality-based theists will offer; I just can't imagine that it's a remotely satisfying one. The answer that I imagine would be a frank recognition that it doesn't work -- with either a concordant claim that the only prayers offered are non-petitionary (plus such petitionary ones which are beyond evidence, such as "thy will be done"), or with a claim that one offers up such prayers for emotional reasons despite a rational recognition (on some level, even only if when pressed) that they can't be expected to do any good.

This answer, particularly the latter half of it -- that one says them emotionally despite a frank recognition of their futility -- is not quite so unreasonable as it sounds. People do do these sorts of things -- we are not wholly rational creatures. I suspect that most of the proverbial foxhole theists' prayers fall into this category. The "kenina hara" I said at the beginning of this essay certainly does: I don't believe, rationally, that it will do any good, but it makes me feel better, so I say it anyway. (Indeed, if it makes me feel better, then it arguably does do some good -- in the right circumstances, it might even make a crucial difference -- just not the sort of good it purports to do.) Or, as Niels Bohr said (in the probably-apocryphal tale) when challenged as to why he hung up a good luck charm, "I don't believe it, but I heard it works even if you don't believe it."****

So that's one style of answer. Maybe it's the only answer, I don't know. But given what I have seen and read and heard, I don't believe that everyone who can be called a reality-based theist -- or even everyone who might willingly self-describe as a reality-based theist -- believes this. Simply put, I don't think that most, or at any rate many, of the petitionary prayers are offered in that spirit. Too many of them seem sincere, not simply in the sense of expressing a sincere emotion, but sincerely hoping that they might be heard and answered.

Perhaps they only seem to seem sincere, and their seeming sincerity is a product of my misunderstanding, or is a necessary incidence of their being offered in emotional duress but without serious rational intent, or is part and parcel of a particular theist's evasion of the problem of evil, or is even a deliberate attempt at deception to hold up pretenses. In fact, I'm sure there are some cases in which each of these descriptions hold. But I can't help thinking that there are prayers which I am not misreading but which are not simply futile emotional cries but sincere pleadings. By reality-based theists who know full well that God has let such prayers remain mere words as often as not.

So why do they do it?

This sort of point is raised often enough by atheists as a component of the problem of evil: if you praised God when so-and-so was healed, why won't you proclaim God's role when someone else was not? -- that sort of thing. But those are addressed, as it were, after the fact: what do you do with the evil you have seen in the world, whether historically or in your recent personal past? The question I am asking is subtly, slightly different. I want to know what a reality-based theist says to themselves as they sit down to pray -- not after the fact, as an answer to why there is evil, but at its start, when they go to ask for there not to be, knowing full well there is no reason to think that those prayers will be heard.

How do reality-based theists manage to ask God for anything?

And let me add once again that this question -- unlike the emotional outbursts I mentioned above -- is sincerely meant. I do not ask it rhetorically. I am curious to what people's answers are. Feel free to comment, or to email; or, if you write an answer elsewhere, please leave a link in the comments.

I have some hope that, unlike God, some of you might really answer.

(Update: Added a link & made minor edits for clarity.)

(Update 2: I've put up a post replying to some of the replies I've received; check it out if this essay interested you.)
* "kenina hara" = Yiddish for "avoid the evil eye". Roughly equivalent to knocking wood.

** I'm dealing with religion as it is most familiar here in the west, and by "God" will mean an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God, and by "theist" a believer in such a being. Obviously one who believes that God is either not omnipotent or not omnibenevolent (or, I suppose, not omniscient, although how one could be omnipotent but not omniscient escapes me) won't have this problem. I am referring to the subset -- the majority, by all indications -- of theists who believe in an all-powerful, supremely good God.

*** I'm drawing these categories from James Morrow's fine novel Blameless in Abaddon, since I happen to have just recently read it, but if they don't seem good to you the substitute your own; the point is that there will be some answer or other, and what I say applies to all of them.

**** I have this anecdote from Isaac Asimov's wonderful essay, "Knock Plastic!", which you can find in the collections Science, Numbers and I or Asimov on Science.


janinsanfran said...

Stephen -- 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.

Thanks very much for posting your sister-in-law's letters. I too have people I love in Lebanon.

Kevin said...

Hi Stephen

Thank you for commenting on my blog. This is a great site - I will visit often.

Boelf: how do you know you are not glossing over the failures and only remembering the successes of prayer? I agree with you that we are all prone to confirmation bias of this type. To solve this, we employ statistical methods to test propositions. Unfortunately, these tests show that prayer has no affect.

All the best

Memoirs of an ex-Christian

Anonymous said...

The things I would most like to say have already been said, and have even been anticipated by you.

1. The question of "does prayer work?" is teleological. So the question underlying this whole discussion is: what is the purpose of prayer? And questions of purpose either belong to a world of subjective values that does not allow for genuine dialogue - OR - such questions are answerable only by God, who alone understands the purpose of human existence.

2. I agree that, according to the testimony of God herself, one of the functions of prayer is to influence or alter the course of events, in Jesus's words, to move mountains. Obviously, the idea persists partly due to the sheer authority of God, and partly due to answers to prayer that manifest themselves in various people's lives (aka anecdotes).

3. The paradigmatic "unanswered" prayer is Jesus's prayer to be spared the crucifixion. What we actually mean by "unanswered," of course, is that the petition was not granted. We neglect the fact that in no model of earthly authority does the failure of a certain number of petitions dispel the idea of authority.

4. The paradigmatic answered prayer? Maybe the resurrection? Or any of Jesus' miracles? ("Why couldn't we drive out the demon?" "This kind can be driven out only through prayer.") The point is, a miracle is a narrative event. It is only visible to someone observing the story who can testify to a disruption of expectations. Miracles do not happen with statistical regularity. You can't find some other innocent men and get them crucified to see if they rise again three days later. And you can't bring a new demoniac by Jesus every day for a week to see if he can repeat the feat. Why should it be any different today?

5. Your discussion is substantive and germane. It would indeed be ridiculous if Xians arrived at petitionary prayer through an analysis of their basic situation. As it happens, Xians have been commanded to pray and specifically to bring petitions to God. So questions of whether or not we understand why this is so important are secondary.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing such a thoughtful and intellectually generous post. Since you seem to be looking for perspectives from reality-based theists, I have a couple of comments that I could make.

1) Talking about whether prayer 'works' is a bit misleading. You have to remember that the three Abrahamic religions believe in a personal God. We don't think that prayer is magic. Magic (like applied science) is always supposed to work, so long as you have the ingredients and conditions right. Prayer, though, is a request that we make to a person. Think of a child asking a parent for something. A child knows that sometimes she will get what she asks for, and at other times she won't, because she's interacting with a person.

Of course, this then raises the problem that you mentioned wanting to avoid for the purposes of this discussion, namely the problem of evil. And it is indeed a mystery to many theists why a God whom we believe on other grounds, and based on other evidence, to be fully good, allows such evil to be done (mostly by some human beings to others, but also as part of the natural order). But this, for reality-based theists, is a mystery created by the evidence, not held in spite of the evidence. It's a bit like a paradox in physics: some evidence seems to show x and some seems to show y - can we reconcile them right now, or are we still missing some further piece of evidence?

At any rate, assuming, as you do, ex hypothesi, that there is some solution to the problem of evil, it is quite possible that a good God might refuse to answer prayers that would seem likely to have alleviated some evil condition in the world.

2) Why are you so sure that it is obvious to any reality-based person that prayer 'doesn't work'? Since even we don't think God will always grant what we ask, the question isn't whether it always 'works', but whether it ever 'works', i.e. whether God ever answers our petitions affirmatively. There are certainly lots of people who can describe incidents in which they prayed for something to happen and it did, even quite extraordinary things.

Of course this raises a further question. How do we know that what happened wasn't just going to happen anyway? Well, often we don't. In that sense those who argue that prayer never 'works' are arguing something of a non-falsifiable position (not their fault that they are, of course). If the prayer is refused, they can say it 'didn't work', but if it is granted they can see some of the causes by which it was granted so then they can claim it would have happened anyway, so prayer still 'doesn't work'. In fact, what these people seem to be asking for is not just an answered prayer but (in the technical sense) a miracle.

A miracle, at least in Christian theology, is a event which seems to have no preceding causes in the natural world. We believe that they do occur, but very, very seldom. (The watering down of the word 'miracle' to mean 'amazing event' is a bit unfortunate.) A miracle is an instant and arbitrary intervention in the natural world by the God who brought it into existence. Most affirmative answers to prayer are not miracles, in Christian theology.

Theologically educated Christians (since at least Augustine around 400 AD/CE, but probably earlier) have generally acknowledged that God exists outside of time and is not bound by it. Thus, God can answer today's prayer yesterday, so to speak. And in fact, many things involving the physical world may have to be answered at the very beginning of the chain of causation in our world. God answers these prayers, we believe, through the natural order. So a prayer for unseasonable and unpredicted sunny weather, say, will still show causes, for any interested meteorologists, after the fact.

3) Of course, we also just come back to janinsanfran's point. As weird as it may be, God seems to have told us to ask. We can guess at why and I've heard some interesting guesses. But however it's explained, it's quite mystifying that an omnipotent, omniscient God would - how to put it? - 'take requests' from created beings.

4) As a sidenote, in fairness, couldn't you have four categories, the fourth being reality-defiant atheists? Your 'reality-based'/'reality-defiant' dichotomy really seems to refer to the way in which people form and then hold or modify their opinions, and that question is separate from the question of which opinions they happen to hold. Do you really think that theists are the only ones who suffer from the very human tendency to ignore evidence that contradicts their cherished views? To make a minimal argument (assuming the truth of atheism for the moment), since we all know that there are people in the world who decide what they want to believe and then stick to that belief no matter what evidence they see, isn't it probable that at least a few of those people might, by good luck, have happened to select atheism as the view that they wanted to believe? (I think I know some such people, actually.)

Thanks again for writing such an intelligent and inquisitive post, and for being so reality-based.

Best wishes,