<<WARNING: requires an objective reader --
this is not an attack on a particular religion>>.
-Pantheon emailed me:
Here's my annual contribution for Reality Cracking.
It might be a little on the "weird religious" side, It might not even
worth publishing, but it was fun to write, and is an interesting look
particular logical oversight in modern[?] religious thought." Why do people see images of the
Virgin Mary in their fridge? Why do people pray - and why don't they
do other, equally effective things, like rubbing a small stuffed animal?
Religious followers would have an hard time explaining
why THEIR God is the
One True God, while all the world's others,
and there are zillions of them, are
phony and bogus.
The problem is that theists do not dare to flatly
claim that everyone else in the world is just plain wrong because
they 'feel' that such arguments are suicidal. Besides, I doubt that
advertisement allows Free Will.
The Cosmic Pyramid Scheme
Philosophical problems with a popular omni-benevolence paradigm
Visit alt.philosophy.debate on any given day, and you'll likely see a flame war raging
between some troll and someone of a particular faith on the existance of their particular
deity. This is a point without any possible satisfactory resolution (and hence is not
nearly worth the sheer amount of effort that is put into it). I introduce this point to
clearify that I am not furthering that tired subject.
As I walked home one day, I began to ponder a phrase I had seen in a headline about the
"power of prayer". Somehow the notion that my personal desires could effect the
intercession of an omni-powerful being on my behalf struck me as odd -- so I decided to examine
why the concept did not sit well with me. To critically examine the topic, one must adopt the
paradigm and reason from within its constructs that it is correct or incorrect. Enter the four
There exists a being we will refer to as god.
(Not any particular god, thus the lower-case 'g')
God is omni-present
God is omni-powerful
God is omni-benevolent
There is no apparent contradiction yet. What else is posited in this paradigm that could account
for my unhappiness with the power of prayer? Aha!:
Humans possess Free Will
Human free will has been used by many religions to address the problem of "the existence of
sin". (E.g. how could an omni-benevolent god let bad things happen? Simple: he gave us
free will, and we do the bad things.) I will ignore any philosophical problems with this assumption for
now, and assume that free will is in fact present in the universe.
At first glance, there is still no problem. I pray and god adjusts the universe to make me happy
because it/he/she is omni-benevolent and knows how happy it would make me. The problem arises when you
consider the specific things that people believe prayer can do. E.g.:
"Please pray for my brother, he tried to kill himself."
"Pray for the Manhattan Firefighters, that they can do their jobs well."
"Pray for my husband to find a job..."
"Please,god, make this robber go away without killing me."
The first of these translates roughly to "god, can you please change my brother's will". Positing an
anti-diety introduces an alternative interpretation: "god, can you remove the anti-deity's infleuence
on my brother...". I will ignore the anti-deity case because it already rejects Free Will in that
the anti-deity can infleuence it. My goal is to preserve Free Will, and find a consistent explanation
for the power of prayer, if possible. The second case is asking for some modification of the awareness
of another person. The third asks for one of several possibilities: "Let someone quit a good job", "Let
an employer like my husband better than those more- or equally- qualified", "Let my husband lower his
expectations and accept a job" etc. Lastly, and perhaps most interestingly, the case of the robber: "God
, please force this other human being to do something other than his/her original plan".
Granted, there are other possible interpretations of these, but I think most people would agree
that they've heard prayers with similar intents to what I've mentioned. Notice, in each of the above cases,
that the prayer specifically asks god to preempt another's free will for the sake of imposing their own.
Now we have a problem. Certainly, most people believe that the fourth example is a vaild use of
the power of prayer, but we can now see how it violates [the robber's] free will. A first reaction is that
"god protects the good, there is no problem with violating the free will of the evil". This is contradictory
to the premise that god is omni-benevolent -- it would require that god run a meritocracy instead. (E.g.
you need to earn your favor with god, which is not consistent with the typical doctrine of these religions).
For consistency's sake, let's assume that god ignores requests which violate free will. This is the
only way to reconsile our major premises with the possibility that prayer does work. (I.e. god acts as a
moderator for requests before they reach the cosmic foundry.) What implications does this have? Well, mainly
it means that prayer cannot force another person to do anything. If prayer is to retain its power in situations
like those above, who can it affect? The answer is surprising: prayer can only affect those who wish to be
affected. Who wishes to be affected? [Enter the controversy] Those who say "god, I volunteer myself to your
Here comes the hate-mail: Given the premises above, prayers can only be fulfilled by god
remote-controlling its/his/her followers (or changing inanimate conditions). Thus the power of prayer comes
with an expensive price-tag. Consider the number of prayers vs. the number of followers. For every prayer of
yours, you could be subject to millions of other people's infleuence. This is like the financial pyramid
schemes that are illegal in many countries. As long as there is exponential growth of the participating population, everyone is happy --
you pay your dues upfront and reap only benefits afterwards. When growth stops, the benefits immediately cease
This seems a forboding situation for participants once the world reaches its capacity for supporting humans.
What will be left is a population that has waived its Free Will. Each member subject to the collective wishes of
the group. Majority rule of the individual will.
Stepping back out of that paradigm, and considering the implications, I arrive at the following conclusion:
Either there is no such thing as power of prayer, or if there is, I would rather retain my free will than
participate in it.