Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

The Arrogance of Prayer

The science/religion debate isn’t about creationism, but divine intervention
Jeremy Sherman
This post is a response to Gods, dogs, blogs: We want to talk even if they're not listening by Jeremy E. Sherman, Ph.D.

Forget the distance past, whether the universe is 14 billion years old like scientists say or 6,000 like the followers of the bible say. And forget whether God created it all in one fell swoop or whether it has been evolving gradually.  Forget whether we descended from apes or were crafted by the hand of God. Those aren’t really the issues. They have very little bearing on how we live today. 

What’s really at stake in the science/religion debates is something much more practical and pressing, at least as concrete as the difference between having, say, a thousand dollars in the bank or a billion, or between having no connections or ear of the most power leaders on earth—indeed more powerful.

The business end of God is not the past’s effect on the present, but the present’s effect on the future. Can you appeal to God to intervene in the workings of the world? If you pray just right, or behave just right, or come from the right tribe does the almighty, Yahweh, Allah, God, the higher power, or spirit put His thumb on the scales tipping the balance your way? 

In other words is there divine intervention?

Think Tim Tebow, on his knees praying for God to intervene in a football game.  That sort of thing.

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A mother prays that her daughter’s cancer vanish, a Muslim prays that the infidel is vanquished, you pray that you get that promotion, a father prays for a source of income so his kids don’t starve.  A tribe prays that the genocide against them ends. An evangelical prays for money to buy a new car.

However big or small, worthy or unworthy the cause, does prayer ever work?

The question comes down to practical metaphysics, practical in that it determines your chances of getting what you pray for, metaphysical in that it depends on your assumptions about unseen forces. 

Let’s say there are two approaches, the religion and scientific to whether divine intervention happens.

The religious approach:  The burden of proof is on science to show that divine intervention can’t happen, and to defend the alternative, which is that science explains all behavior.  If science can’t predict with 100% accuracy how everything happens then there’s no ruling out divine intervention.  After all, who’s to say that what science doesn’t predict is produced by the hands of God. 

Besides, we have evidence that miracles do happen, uncanny cases of prayers answered, impossible to explain as mere coincidence.  And our sacred texts reveal clear cases of divine intervention.

The scientific approach:  Science cannot predict all behavior, but it’s not as though you can chalk up any unpredicted behavior to divine intervention.  Divine intervention means some supernatural being deliberately overrides nature either for His own reasons or on behalf of someone who prayed for Him to do so.  The burden is on religion to provide evidence of a single case of it occurring, a case that matches the standards of evidence we all apply everywhere else when the stakes are high and we have to be vigilant. For example:

Not just hearsay:  The evidence of divine intervention can’t just be reported by a few people who claim to have seen it. 

Unambiguous: The evidence of divine intervention can’t be explained by any other means.

Truly impossible by scientific standards:  Though science can’t predict everything, it can rule out many things as impossible. Divine intervention would make the impossible possible.  The Red Sea really parting—that might be divine intervention, since that would be otherwise impossible (Though of course it’s hearsay).

Religion says the burden of proof is on science and science says its on religion.  What would you say?  Who has to prove what?

The scientists have a point.  On practical high-stakes questions all of us, the religious included gravitate toward scientific standards of proof.  A devout religious leader buying a new temple is not going settle for hearsay that the temple’s rafters are solid and won’t fall his congregation.  So maybe the burden is on religion to meet science’s standards. 

Still, there’s another way to decide where the burden of proof should rest: Those with the most at stake bear the most burden. If scientists would be most crushed to discover that divine intervention doesn’t work, then the burden is greater on them to prove that it doesn’t.  And if religious would be most crushed to discover that it doesn’t work, the burden is greater on them.

Let’s listen in on an imaginary conversation between two people, science and religion, about what each other has at stake regarding divine intervention:

Religion:  Science has the most at stake.  Divine intervention undermines science’s entire mission. It makes the world fundamentally unpredictable.

Science:  Not really. Science long ago abandoned the idea that we could predict everything with exactitude.  We’re into probabilities, narrowing in on the kinds of things that might happen, not on what exactly will definitely happen.

Religion:  But face it, if divine intervention were real, it would mean that there are supernatural forces that are beyond sciences’ reach, now and forever. You’d be ruined.

Science:  I suppose it depends on how often divine intervention happened. If it were happening constantly everywhere then, yes I guess it would mean that there would be no benefit to scientific research into how things happen. We’d all have to throw up our hands and say it’s “God’s Will” as though everything were always inexplicable.  But that doesn’t seem to be what you’re really arguing.  You mostly seem to be saying that every once in a while prayer changes God’s mind about something and that in his omnipotence he overrides natural laws to make certain things happen.  Like the parting of the seas or Tim Tebow’s touchdowns, which brings me to what’s at stake for you. 

On the one hand, I can imagine that it would be something of a relief for the religious to discover that there’s no divine intervention. I mean we all hate it when our best laid plans are undermined by some unforeseen intervention. 

But on the other hand, I don’t bet that the confusion divine intervention causes is what comes to comes to mind first for you.  The way you talk about it you seem much more interested in the ways divine intervention could give you leverage.  You seem to give no attention to the clusterfuck it would create. Almost all religious stories about divine intervention have the hero getting what he or she wants by praying, no the hero undermined by someone else’s divine intervention.  We have a word for divine interventions we like.  We call them miracles.  We don’t have a name for divine interventions we don’t like. Acts of God?  Not really.  It’s a euphemism for acts of nature or else a miracle, as when an Evangelical says that a tornado is God’s miraculously good intervention to punish heathens.

Truth is, the religious and scientific have equal practical stake in the predictability of nature. Science goes down, so does planning your new temple.  The margin of stake falls squarely with the religious.  You treat divine intervention like having friends in high places, and we in science says, “prove it.”

Religion:  You make prayer sound arrogant and egotistical, which shows you really don’t understand.  Prayer is humble. We pray for virtue to prevail. Arrogant prayers aren’t answered.  Prayer is holy.

Science: Well, good, in which case show us one case of prayer working that isn’t hearsay, ambiguous and impossible to explain by scientific standards and you’ll have made your case. But while we’re on the subject of virtue can we talk about that a minute?  I don’t doubt that much of what gets prayed for is virtuous, but I do question the virtue of assuming one has privileged access to friends in high places who think you’re preferences are so important that He’s willing to intervene into physics to bring about your will. 

It seems to us humbler to defer to the laws of nature and work within them than to try pulling strings to change them when we really want something.

Besides if it what you pray for really is virtuous and God, working in mysterious ways, was ultimately beneficent, it seems pretty arrogant to feel like you have to give his omniscience a heads up on an opportunity to do the right thing.  If God is benevolent, does He need you to say “God, please make good things happen.”?

Religion:  Prayer is good for the soul.  It is a meditation on what we value. It is our way of expressing and declaring what we want.

Science: That, I’m not arguing. That’s a separate question.  We’re talking here not about whether it changes the person praying but whether it changes the cosmos, causing God’s to intervene altering nature either because the person praying wants something or because the person praying gave God a useful heads up about a place God could do some good. 

To us, that’s a crock, and frankly the crux of your creationism and intelligent design arguments, not doubts about dinosaurs, ape-ancestors and cavemen.  You want intelligent design because you want intelligent re-design, the ability for God to intervene whenever you decide it would be intelligent for him to do so.

Indeed the same arrogance shows in your attitude toward science.  Never mind whether God will override the laws of nature on your behalf, you’ll do it for Him.   In your daily life you rely on the laws of nature as much as the next guy.  It’s why you can doze off feeling safe on a jet, under a surgeon’s knife or driving a car, relying on reliable natural law.

But whenever science gets inconvenient to you, you claim to be the voice of God Himself, and intervene not to override science’s discoveries but to deny them.  That’s a direct extension of your arrogant hopes and prayers, the sense that either God speaks for you or you speak for God and can line-item veto the laws of nature whenever you want, and rely on them like the rest of us the rest of the time.

As a meditation or source of self-soothing, as a form of therapy prayer makes perfect sense.  Think of it like talking to your pet fish.  You might get some benefit out of thinking you’ve got a dialogue going on, even if the fish doesn’t understand a word you’re saying.

Or like blog writing.  It’s often useful to feel like you’re having a dialogue even if no one is listening.  Why, I’ve done it for years. ;-)

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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