Praying_IsraeliteUndoubtedly, many readers have had the following thought (or something similar in its logical structure): "Every time that I am in the shower, the phone rings." Of course, there are three other possible events that your brain is not systematically coding: (1) you are not taking a shower and the phone rings; (2) you are not taking a shower and the phone does not ring; (3) you are taking a shower and the phone does not ring. Hence, you end up overestimating the association between taking a shower and the phone ringing because you ignore the probabilities associated with each of the three other events. This is a classic decisional error that individuals commit. I shall next demonstrate how this logical/statistical error arises when evaluating God's ability to answer our prayers.

As "proof" of God's omnipotence, believers often proclaim something to the effect: "My aunt was sick. I prayed for her recovery and miraculously she is now in perfect health." Of course, the specific content varies across anecdotes but the general structure of the "evidence" is always as follows:

      I prayed => my prayers were answered => God answers prayers.

Logic 101 suggests that believers are ignoring all instances when they prayed to God but He was too busy to answer their prayers. For argument's sake, let us suppose that an individual has prayed to God another 99 times without having had his/her prayers answered. I venture that this is a gross underestimate of the actual number of times that most believers engage in personal prayers (i.e., seeking God's intervention in some personal way). Accordingly, this implies that God has at best a 1% response rate!

I am already hearing the believers huffing and puffing that many of our prayers are too "inappropriate" for God to bother answering. For example, perhaps if you pray to make enough money to purchase an Aston Aston_Martin_DB5Martin DB5, this is a vulgar wish that God does not entertain. Fair enough. However, the history of humanity is replete with innocent individuals who prayed to God when facing imminent death, and regrettably He remained absent. One of the most personally poignant examples of God's absence (given my religious heritage) took place during the Holocaust. Rabbis proclaim that God heard the prayers of the doomed millions but refused to intervene, as Jews had not stayed true to their covenant with Him. Hence, the five-year old boy who was about to be gazed at Auschwitz was being punished for a Divine contract that had been entered to between God and His chosen people several thousand years earlier. Talk about guilty by association! Sorry kid. Your ancestors should not have "signed" the contract if they were not going to keep Shabbat. To those readers who might post comments that I am being anti-semitic, I'll remind you that I am Jewish (although atheist by conviction).

Bottom line: Before you get all excited about God's power to answer your prayers, make sure not to commit this statistical error in reasoning. If you actually use all of the relevant statistical information, you'll quickly realize that God is always absent (and when He appears to answer you, it should be attributed to random chance).

Follow me on Twitter @GadSaad.

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About the Author

Gad Saad

Gad Saad, Ph.D., is a professor of marketing at Concordia University and the author of The Evolutionary Bases of Consumption and The Consuming Instinct.

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