Selective action and prayer’s incompatibility with free will

"Prayers to Heaven Balloon Launch"
“Prayers to Heaven Balloon Launch”

I discuss the incompatibility of prayer with free will and difficulties Christians face in arguing for God’s selective action.

Last month, in a piece titled ‘Prayer and the false cause fallacy,’ I argued against common reasoning Christians provide to argue for the efficacy of prayer – that because an event happens following a prayer we can be justified in believing prayer was responsible. I briefly hinted at the incompatibility of prayer and free will in the light of moral evil — harmful actions humans inflict upon other humans — and shall now expand on my reasoning in this post.

Atheists often object to Christian claims about the efficacy of prayer as follows – ‘Why doesn’t God intervene to stop mass murderers – perhaps even slightly, without notice — by altering humans’ thoughts? Since this does not happen, and God is supposed to be an all-loving, all-knowing being who can effortlessly stop heinous acts, we can be justified in disbelief of God.’

A typical Christian response is such that if God intervened in human affairs [at least to stop mass murderers] free will would be infringed upon. Free will is of utmost importance — trumping all other concerns — and may not be infringed upon lest we be agents unable to exercise meaningful choice thus God does not intervene.

For purposes of this post, I shall take this argument for granted and demonstrate that even if we accept this line of reasoning, Christians face significant difficulties if they contend that prayer has efficacy in situations involving a group of individuals.

Suppose a Christian prays for, like in this example, someone to love them – that Jane prays for Bob, despite his leaving Jane following relationship difficulties, to reenter into a relationship with her. The mechanism by which success was achieved is often unstated by the Christian, but the result is often emphasized. Might God have bestowed a boon upon Jane – instilling her with special knowledge and advice? Might God have intervened upon Bob – causing him to enter into a relationship with Jane?

In either case, and likely every case by which a Christian would describe the transformative nature of prayer, free will is compromised. Before the prayer there existed a state in which Bob, exercising his free will, decided not to remain in a relationship with Jane…but suddenly after the prayer Bob entered into a relationship with Jane. Free will would be infringed upon in this case because an already determined choice had been altered in some way because of God’s supposed interference.

If the Christian maintains that prayer instead led Bob and Jane to meet somewhere, for instance, and ultimately rekindled a romance there would still have to be a ‘divine rearranging’ of events by which Bob and Jane had met; God in some way had to have changed decisions of Bob and Jane so that they met. If the Christian would maintain that Bob and Jane met by accident, for instance, without the intervention of God, it is not, then, the case that God had intervened to begin with (and thus efficacy of prayer can’t be argued for in this case).

"Prayer Wall"
“Prayer Wall”

What about ‘financial blessings’ such as these? Surely if someone receives a check in the mail because of prayer/God’s intervention it is the case that God had influenced the actions of people so that a check would arrive. If the Christian maintains that the check arrived without influence from God, efficacy for prayer could not, then, be argued for.

Even other mundane requests such as help for passing an examination would involve, at the very least, God intervening in human affairs although free will might not be infringed upon in all cases (perhaps it could be argued that others may be placed at a disadvantage and thus were not able to actualize their choices which would have — absent prayer — have yielded a higher test result in a curved grade situation)?.

The Christian, then, next faces an atheistic objection concerning natural evil — why would God not intervene to stop deadly natural disasters, birth defects, etc — while maintaining that God intervenes in some areas in life but not in others. How could an all-loving, all-powerful, and all-knowing God intervene to help someone pass an examination but not intervene to stop hundreds dying because of a tsunami?

Christians who argue that God intervenes in some circumstances — whether infringing upon free will or not — but not in others face tremendous difficulties in explaining why God would act in some situations [often quite mundane] and not in others [involving gratuitous suffering]. Saying God doesn’t intervene because he wants to preserve free will yet maintaining prayer worked in some situations in which free will was infringed upon places Christians in an even deeper morass.

For more of my thoughts on the problem of evil, see this category.

As always, feel free to comment below.

 

Justin Vacula

Justin Vacula hosts the Stoic Philosophy Podcast; serves as co-organizer and spokesperson for the Northeastern Pennsylvania (NEPA) Freethought Society; and has hosted monthly Stoic Philosophy discussion groups for the Humanist Association of Greater Philadelphia.

He has appeared on and hosted various radio shows and podcasts; participated in formal debates and discussions; was a guest speaker for college-level courses; was featured in local, national, and international news; and has been invited to speak at various national, local, and statewide events.

Vacula received bachelor’s degrees in Philosophy and Psychology, a minor in Professional Writing, and the distinguished W.A. Kilburn Memorial Award for Philosophy from King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He is currently living in the Scranton, PA area attending Marywood University’s graduate-level Mental Health Counseling program and has worked with the Arc of Luzerne County’s Transition to Community Employment program as a teacher’s assistant and job coach alongside adult learners with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

He also plays poker; volunteers as a member of the website and media team for the Greyhawk Reborn Dungeons & Dragons campaign while playing at events in the Eastern United States; and enjoys metal music.

  • August Berkshire

    I enjoyed the article, but there is a typo: “If the Christian maintains that the prayer arrived without influence from God, efficacy for prayer could not, then, be argued for.” should be “If the Christian maintains that the check arrived…” Feel free to delete this comment once you have corrected the typo.

  • Maxon Bruno