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A Logical Examination of Prayer and Free Will

Updated on July 7, 2013

I recently witnessed a ritual that, in recent years, I had forgotten about: prayer for the sick. A small group of people gathered around a hospital bed praying for a friend of mine who had just undergone surgery. As I heard the words being prayed, I was astonished at how familiar they were and at something else that I had never noticed; people pray to their expectations.

The prayer offered for my friend was for a speedy recovery and strength. As I stood there, with my head bowed out of respect for the believers, I was shocked that all these Christians were asking for was essentially what would happen ninety percent of the time anyway. If you serve an all-powerful God, why not ask for instant healing? Ask that the patient be raised up immediately and healed instantly! That is what Peter or Paul would have done. Don’t Christians today serve the same God they did? Has that God changed or become weaker?

I began to realize that almost all prayers for the sick that I have heard in my life (and I have heard a lot of them) were very similar. Christians pray to their expectations. They don’t pray for instant healing for anything other than headaches and bruises. Only a crazy person prays for limb regeneration or organs to be restored. Why not pray that God will heal your hangnail? The Bible says that God is mindful of every little sparrow and every flower so why not ask God to perform tissue regeneration the next time you cut yourself and need stitches? Why are you ever going to a doctor if you serve the all-powerful God of the Bible who could heal blind eyes and raise the dead?

The reason Christians don’t pray for things like that is because they don’t believe that it will happen, and rightfully so. If a Christian went into a hospital with those expectations, they would leave in a straight jacket.

I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian church and spent 28 years of my life in church at least twice a week. I witnessed hundreds of people prayed for, and never one time did I see anything that resembled a miracle happen – nor do I know anyone who ever witnessed a true miracle. I’m sure I will get comments from readers telling me how they have seen miracles in their life, but let’s actually examine what a miracle is. lists this as the first definition for miracle: an effect or extraordinary event in the physical world that surpasses all known human or natural powers and is ascribed to a supernatural cause. According to this definition anything that happens that has no explanation can be called a miracle. A few centuries ago the tides were a miracle, but now they have been explained. Unexplained phenomena may - and very likely will - be explained in the future.

That definition leaves things open to personal interpretation. Let’s look at another idea about miracles and how to tell if something is a miracle. David Hume in his Of Miracles said, “When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle.”

David Hume is basically using what is known as Occam’s razor, a logical method for getting to the truth. Occam’s razor essentially says that the simplest answer or the answer that makes the fewest assumptions is very likely to be the correct answer.

This is a very good test to put to anything that is told to you that, as David Hume put it “is a violation of the laws of nature.” I have heard Christians disagree with this argument, but I see no good reason why they should. If you ask yourself this question when presented with an account of the miraculous, “Is it more likely that this person is lying to me or that if I take these pills I will actually stop aging?” or “Is it more likely that this person is mistaken or that or that the earth actually stopped turning?” you will be far less likely to be deceived and taken advantage of. Miracles, quite simply, do not stand up to Occam’s razor.

Even if miracles were a daily occurrence, why would anyone pray for them? Whenever someone prays and does not get the requested results, they were asking for, it is deemed to not be God’s will. If they pray and their petition is granted, it is also then deemed to be God’s will. If it is true that, no matter what you pray for, God is going to do His will, then why pray? Can you change God’s mind? If that is true, then He is not all-knowing. You can’t change your mind if you know the future (on a side note God cannot be all-knowing and all-powerful because if He is all-knowing he cannot change His mind which means He is not all-powerful).

The Bible says God knows your needs before you ask Him. Then why does He make you ask? Does He just need to hear you acknowledge how helpless you are? Does it make Him feel powerful to have you beg Him for favors? If you knew someone who treated their children that way what would you think of them?

In the same vein, why is it that Christians start prayer chains or turn in prayer requests? Is God hard of hearing and only hears the prayers offered to Him en masse? The Bible says that the prayers of a righteous man are effective and produce results, so why would more than one person need to pray? Is it because no one who is praying is righteous, and so you keep asking other people to pray with you until finally a righteous man joins the prayer circle and God hears his prayer? If enough people pray, can they change the mind of God? God cannot change His mind because He is infallible, so why does anyone pray? Are they praying that God will perform His will? He would with or without their prayers; just how arrogant are these people who would prevail upon an all-knowing being as if to change His mind or alert Him to a situation that He might not know about. These people seem to be very confused about what all-knowing and all-powerful should look like.

I have asked a lot of questions, but to me, they are all rhetorical. I already have a very good explanation for these questions. God is a construct of the human mind - that is why there are so many contradictions in the Bible including the concept of prayer. The sixty six books that were selected by men (there were many other books that were once considered scripture but were later rejected by yet other men) to make up the collection that is now called the Bible were also written by men and they are the ideas of men. These books were then copied by other men and copied thousands upon thousands of times. Then, these books were translated from Hebrew to Aramaic by men. Other books were written in Greek and translated into Latin, and then, all of them eventually were translated into English after many, many more men copied them by hand.

If they Bible we now have available was ever divine, it has long since been tainted by the handling of hundreds of thousands of translators and scribes who attempted the tedious task of copying it word for word by hand. There is very little chance we have even half (this is a very generous number) of the original texts intact, and according to leading textual critics and historians only eighteen percent of the four gospels are considered to be accurate.

When I apply Occam’s razor to the Bible I ask myself, “Is it more likely that the Bible was written by men and is the opinions of men or is it more likely that the Bible is the infallible word of God?” The divinity of the Bible doesn’t withstand Occam’s razor.

I am sure that Christians will read this and some will be angry, and others will be upset. Some will contend with me and tell me why I am wrong, but they will not change my mind. My advice to you Christians who read this and are upset with me is to pray for me; pray that God will change my mind. If it is His will that I serve Him then He will definitely change my mind and I will convert back to Christianity.

Of course if it is His will that I serve Him why did He allow me to become an atheist in the first place? I already know the knee-jerk Christian response: “God gives us free-will. He doesn’t make us puppets on a string.” This argument falls flat very quickly. If God created the universe and everything in it and knows everything and is in control of everything (e.g. God created the laws of gravity to hold the earth in its orbit), then God is the ultimate puppet master.

The argument of free will also assumes that God had to give us the ability to choose evil. God certainly could have given us the ability to have free will and never allowed evil to arise on earth. This would mean we would have been able to choose from several good options but since evil wouldn’t even have existed then we could not have chosen it. The fact that evil and other imperfections actually exist in the universe are evidence that there is no perfect creator.

The only way a perfect being creates something imperfect is to do so consciously. If evil exists, then the universe is not perfect, and therefore God either desires for evil to exist or is powerless to stop evil from existing. The Christian version of how evil came to exist is that Lucifer (the angel that was closest to God) wanted to be higher than God and so therefore committed the sin of pride (there is something to be said here about the insecurities of a supreme God and how He can’t stand for anything to be held higher than Himself). Evil did not exist before Lucifer and so we can’t blame evil on God. Or can we? If God is all-powerful why didn’t he just erase Lucifer from existence? Is God not powerful enough to destroy Lucifer with the snap of His almighty fingers or even just by batting an eye?

Is God all powerful or not? If God is all-powerful then evil exists only at His allowance; therefore He is malevolent. Even if this God did exist, (which for an all-powerful God who craves attention He certainly is camera shy), I would have no interest in serving the deity whose complicity created evil.

I would like to take a moment to also define evil for the sake of clarity for my readers so there is no confusion about my meaning. Evil is usually considered to be war or human cruelty, and although, when I see those things my heart breaks this is not the true extent of evil. Evil is a four year old girl lying in a hospital bed dying of leukemia. Evil is the thousands upon thousands of starving children all over the world, slowly dying as their body cannibalizes itself beyond repair. Evil is all suffering and pain that occurs on this earth. Every time some disease takes someone before they have a chance to live their dreams, that is evil; and your God allows all this to happen because of free will? Your God is a monster!

If your God exists, He is worse than any despot who has ever loosed his madness upon the earth. Anyone who has the power to stop this evil without even so much as blinking, and yet allows it to remain, is complicit with that evil. The evil on the earth would serve some purpose for this theoretical God, or He would not allow it to exist. I do not believe in any god, because I have seen no evidence for them, but of all the gods that people have invented, the Judeo-Christian god is definitely the most terrifying.

“If God exists, I hope he has a good excuse.”
Woody Allen


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