Let Us Pray
(The Skeptical Review)
Not only Christianity, but most religions, urge prayer. Prayer is a practice that cannot survive the harsh spotlight of logic.
The three most often cited reasons for prayer are worship, confession, and petition. (Differences exist. Choose your experts.)
The most popular form of prayer, petition, poses some complicated problems. At first glance, asking a god to do something or other seems perfectly logical. Who better to ask? But the only way that such asking makes sense is if there is a chance that you might receive a positive response. What would be the point of having billions of prayers offered beseechingly to a god who never intended at any time to answer a single one of them?
A more pointless, time-wasting, soul-draining exercise is difficult to imagine, and a god who would demand such a practice would have to be sadistic. Such bait-and-switch tactics are difficult to attribute to any god, even the one who sent the Flood. On the other hand, if prayer is encouraged because there is a chance that requests will be granted, you run headlong into the unavoidable requirement to explain the seemingly capricious nature of some of these boons.
For example, a high-school student prays that he will pass a math exam even though he hasn't studied for it, and when he does pass, he attributes this to God's intervention. Most religious leaders would agree with this. (Differences exist. Choose your experts.) But if it is true, we are faced with a god who answers a single petition from a single person in the matter of a 10th-grade algebra test, but who chose to ignore the millions of prayers for liberation from concentration camps during World War II. There is a selection process at work here that is extremely difficult to grasp.
According to the "Lord's Prayer," people are supposed to ask, "Give us this day our daily bread." Why? If you ask, will it be done? If it won't be done, why should you ask? Since war and famine have brought death by starvation to many True Believers, this asking for daily bread seems pointless. If starvation happens to those who ask as well as to those who don't, then the explanation for starvation must lie in factors wholly unrelated to the asking. In other words, asking God for your daily bread has nothing to do with whether or not you'll get it. So why are you supposed to ask for it?
Likewise, prayers of thanksgiving intrinsically impute to God complete control over your well-being. If you thank God for the food on your table, you are saying that he put it there. A necessary component of this premise, the other side of this coin, is that if there is no food on your table, God is responsible for that, too. The power to give necessarily includes the power to withhold. When you thank someone for a gift, it is because you understand that he or she had the choice of not giving it to you but chose to do so anyway. Thanking God for your food, then, is the same as saying thank you for not withholding food. You are offering thanks for not being allowed to starve.
Just as it would make no sense to thank your neighbors for a much needed rain shower, since they could not have played any role in producing the rain, so it would make no sense to thank God for the food on your table unless he definitely plays a role in getting that food to your table. And if he does, we are presented with the vexing question of just how he chooses to feed some while starving others. If the choice to put food on your table is God's, then the choice not to put food on someone else's table is also God's. So, then, why doesn't God feed all of us?
Starving babies are an awkward consideration on Thanksgiving Day, as we sit down to sumptuous turkey dinners, but if God puts the turkey on your table, he withholds it from countless others. Why? If God feeds only "his own," that would mean that the babies of those other than his own could starve without his caring, a heartless proposition. It would also mean that his own have never starved, which is certainly not true. Nor can it be said that all atheists starve
So how does God decide whom to feed? This question of God's priorities cannot be sidestepped if his participation in daily events is posited. If God has the power to feed all of us but chooses not to, his reluctance must be explained in a way that is compatible with his purported omnipotence (all-powerfulness) and omnibenevolence (all-goodness). No one has yet managed to proffer such an explanation.
Trying to explain starvation by saying that "God helps those who help themselves" is a cruel, callous way to regard victims of crop failures from floods, drought, or pestilence. And what about the babies? How can babies help themselves?
Likewise, trying to explain starvation by saying that we just can't understand the ways of God is a contradiction of all the rest of Christian doctrine. Christians claim to know precisely how God wants his "children" to worship, how they should pray, how they should dress, what they should eat, how they should address their elders and so on, implying quite clearly that God's ways are indeed understood. But questions about the terrible reality of starved-to-death babies are met with vague shrugs as if such trivia did not need to be understood.
But someone must accept responsibility for the haunting specter of starving children. If food production and distribution on this earth are solely the result of human activities, with no participation by God, then giving thanks to God for food is a misplaced, meaningless gesture. He has done nothing to deserve thanks, and we alone must answer for the cruel inequities. If, on the other hand, God does participate in the process, then you should give thanks to him for your chocolate bars and imported cheeses, and he has a lot of starving babies to answer for.
All this talk of starvation is of course representative of and interchangeable with all human conditions. Whether you are considering illness, injury, persecution or whatever, if you pray for deliverance from any of them, the results will be the same as with starvation--random and inexplicable.
So let's consider again prayers of supplication. Ending world hunger, a most admirable request, has yet to become a reality, in spite of countless prayers. So people are encouraged to pray, instead, for more easily achieved goals, like having Aunt Helen get over her cold soon, or for the kids to do well in school, or whatever. Football players actually get on their knees and thank God for touchdowns. In a world that contains starvation, disease, murder, and rape, such mundane considerations trivialize the role of a supposedly omnipotent god. For every "miraculous" recovery by a seriously ill person that is attributed to God, there is a seriously ill person who is prayed for but dies anyway. Soldiers are prayed for and die, and soldiers are not prayed for but live. Bad things happen to good, prayed-for people, bad things happen to bad people, good things happen to bad people and good things happen to good people. In other words, the laws of probabilities are quite clearly in control here.
All things are not made well for those who trust in God, and life can be very pleasant for those who do not. If judged only by the results that challenge the laws of probabilities, then the power of prayer is nil.
(Judith Hayes is a granddaughter and great-granddaughter of Lutheran ministers. She became a freethinker after reading the Bible as an adult, and she believes that a thorough reading of the Bible is the surest path to atheism. Ms. Hayes is a regular columnist in Freethought Today. Her articles alone, which usually examine religious doctrines and practices from a logical point of view, are worth the subscription price. Freethought Today is published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, P. O. Box 750, Madison, WI 53701. Ms. Hayes' address is P. O. Box 77, Valley Springs, CA 95252.)
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