Prayer and the false cause fallacy

Three banners hang on 5/12/14
Three banners hang on 5/12/14

Just because you prayed for something to happen and later saw a result does not mean prayer was responsible.

Appeals to intercessory prayer — a request to God from one person aiming to better another’s life — as evidence of God existing are spectacularly weak, plagued by a fundamental error in informal logic known as the false cause fallacy.

The false cause fallacy occurs when one supposes that because one action (an initial action) had taken place before another (a result), the initial action must be the cause of the result [when this is actually not the case].

A Christian, for instance, may pray to God for a person to recover from a sickness. Upon recovery, the Christian may conclude that prayer was responsible for the recovery while falsely attributing prayer to the recovery. The fact that prayer alone happened before the recovery does not necessitate that prayer had caused the recovery; one would have to provide a very good explanation for why prayer had led to the recovery.

Humans are apt to find many ‘patterns’ among random events and draw conclusions when believing links between events exist. Some slot machine players, for instance, are especially superstitious and — although there is no good evidence to suggest certain superstitions are true (and plenty of evidence to suggest they are not) — believe that events wholly unrelated to a long or short-term outcome are responsible for winnings.

For instance, some slot machine players believe that hitting a button at a faster pace will lead to a better result (not just more spins per hour). Some slot machine players will believe that removing a player’s card, switching machines at certain frequencies, or rubbing a machine will lead to better results.

A slot machine player might, immediately following rubbing a machine (or even long after doing so) may believe that machine-rubbing was responsible for the positive outcome when it is actually the case that over the long-run — regardless of any rubbing — slot machines have random algorithms and pay schedules which lead to, in almost all cases except for rare lucrative casino promotions, the casino having an edge over slot players.

The Christian who believes that a prayer lead to recovery from sickness behaves similarly to the slot player who believes machine-rubbing lead to a jackpot winning; both detect patterns and wrongly attribute an initial action to an outcomes when there is no good reason to do so.

The prayerful Christian, too, uses similar thought processes as adherents to other religions; many religious individuals believe their prayers lead to divine intercession. Can a thought process be considered justified if similar thought processes lead to different results? The Muslims, Hindus, and Christians who claim that prayers lead to positive results cannot simply all be right…but they could all be wrong. Is the Christian believes the Muslim is wrong about Muslim appeals to prayer, and they both use a similar thought process, why should the Christian appeal be privileged?

As always, feel free to comment below.

More pieces on prayer — particularly in light of the ‘free will defense’ Christians often use to explain why God doesn’t intervene in human affairs to stop ‘moral evil’ — may be upcoming.

‘Take it up with God’

I published a short video responding to the response of ‘take it up with God’ religious individuals offer when facing challenges to their religious beliefs. Rather than authoring a lengthy blog post — considering that I favor blog posts near 500 words — I opted to record a spoken word clip for YouTube.

Enjoy and, as always, feel free to comment.

‘God changed my life’

I respond to religious believers’ claims that God, rather than human actions, improves individuals’ quality of life.

I often hear religious believers, rather than personally taking credit for improving their quality of life, giving sole credit to supernatural forces; people will say they God changed their lives rather than saying they took steps to become a more fulfilled individual.

Personally, I am somewhat saddened when I hear religious people — even after my inquiries asking about whether they would or did take credit for any improvement — failing to acknowledge their own efforts toward improvement. Further, a theologically complex situation is created when God is glorified although an egregious amount of suffering — having nothing to do with human actions — is permitted and/or otherwise caused by, according to a religious framework, God.

The stories I hear are so numerous… Jane or John were addicted to drugs/alcohol, involved with prostitution, were degenerate gamblers who were playing with no positive expectation, and — according to the stories — ‘tried everything’ to help themselves and only improved when they ‘found God.’ Rather than positing a supernatural explanation for improving one’s quality of life, more plausible explanations exist: joining a supportive community helped change one’s life, dedicating oneself to rigid religious standards may have helped someone (note: this can happen whether or not a god exists), and one finally (whether a god intervened or not) had the willpower to improve.

Returning to the theological situation I mentioned, I find believers to be quite — for lack of better words — self-centered and myopic when they say God intervened in their lives while so many other religious believers are in much worse situations. Why would God intervene in Jane’s behalf, compelling her or otherwise leading her to finally abstain from abusing alcohol, while God does nothing to prevent diseases, natural disasters, deadly birth defects, etc? Shall we presume God, then, if he is willing to intervene to improve the quality of ‘Jane alcoholic,’ is not an omni-benevolent being because he fails to improve others’ lives and does nothing to prevent more egregious disasters elsewhere? I think so.

It’s great that the Jane and John Does of the world can tell stories about how their lives improved. Increased human flourishing is a wonderful thing. However, taking no personal credit for accomplishments and claiming that God is responsible — or even partially claiming God is responsible — leads religious believers in an irreconcilable state; if God exists and will intervene on behalf of Jane and John Doe, why does he not intervene on behalf of others – especially other religious believers?

Religious believers are also faced with the problem of other religions – specially religious believers of other creeds/denominations claiming that the being they believe exists improved their lives? Does the Christian god intervene on behalf of Hindus? Who is right – the Hindu or the Christian? How can we know? Someone has to be right and someone has to be wrong. If a similar thought process leads to different conclusions skeptical red flags arise in my analysis. Perhaps it is most plausible, then, if multiple claims are being made by religious believers, that human action — rather than supernatural action — is responsible for change.

As always, feel free to comment below. I shall strive to keep my posts to fewer than 600 words although these issues can indeed be complex!

Are libertarians science deniers?

Conference hall of ~1200 attendees at 2014 Amaz!ng Meeting
Conference hall of ~1200 attendees at 2014 Amaz!ng Meeting

A response to Donald Prothero’s speech ‘The Mind of a Science Denier’ presented at the 2014 Amaz!ng Meeting

Throughout my experience at The 2014 Amazing Meeting, I had few major disagreements with the information presented during panel discussions, speeches, and presentations. Read my thoughts, typed while in flight, here. Most of the major disagreements involved Donald Prothero’s speech ‘The Mind of a Science Denier.’

Some major points of contention I had with his quite partisan speech — much unlike other speeches which did not seem to have much discussion of politics or political leanings (although to be fair Michael Shermer seemed to echo some of his libertarian perspectives) — were rejecting the notion that ‘woo’ exists within both ‘the right’ and ‘the left’ and the claim I will discuss in this piece – that libertarians are [overwhelmingly] science deniers who reject the notion of [human-caused] global warming.

From my experience, libertarians do not overwhelmingly deny [fields of] science — rejecting the ideas that humans are contributing toward global warming and that global warming is happening — but rather object to particular government policies/business regulations which are aimed to be an effective response to climate change.

Objecting to a government program or policy is simply not equivalent to science denial; one can oppose a policy or program and still believe global warming is happening. Libertarians often get undeserved reputations due to their opposition toward particular government programs. From my experience, people often jump to unfair conclusions — delving into the mind of libertarians – as a result of libertarian opposition to government policies and programs.

Just because a libertarian opposes measures implemented by the TSA, for instance, does not mean that they have no regard for safety and security in airports. Just because a libertarian opposes government funding for a social program or agency does not mean that they hate people who are destitute, racial minorities, flood victims, etc. Just because a libertarian opposes business regulations put forth because of global warming does not mean that they are a science denier.

Libertarians may oppose government spending because they think government responses are not effective responses to societal problems. Libertarians may think government officials are spending too much money and private organizations should instead tackle challenges. Libertarians may support a government initiative, but find minor problems with it, thus leading to opposition until there is some revising.

Sure, some libertarians, motivated by political ideology, may both reject government responses to global warming in the form of business regulations and not believe global warming – contributed to by humans — is happening.

Prothero, though, in his speech, from what I remember, made no distinction between libertarians who deny global warming and libertarians who believe global warming is happening but oppose government regulations responding to global warming. Prothero also did not even, unless I am forgetting something, present statistics which identified libertarians who reject the fact that global warming is happening [and oppose government sanctions intended to offset global warming] – but rather glibly dismissed libertarians as science deniers – again, overlooking the disctinction between opposition to policy from people who are not ‘science deniers.’

Personally, I don’t identify as a libertarian. I would rather not use political labels for various reasons including association with perspectives I do not endorse and the limiting nature of labels. I instead prefer to talk about issues on an issue-by-issue basis rather than using a label and being pigeonholed. Additionally, I have no opinion on government sanctions responding to global warming, but do accept the fact — deferring to scientists who are experts – that global warming is happening and humans are contributing to it. My personal stances, though, are irrelevant when considering my objections to Prothero’s speech.

I would appreciate feedback from Prothero and others. Perhaps I missed some nuance in Prothero’s presentation or it is actually the case that libertarians overwhelmingly both oppose government sanctions responding to global warming and reject the fact that global warming is happening. Still, neglecting to recognize that libertarians may oppose environmental government sanctions but accept the fact that global warming is happening is a huge oversight. I expect better at a skeptical conference.

As always, feel free to comment below.

2014 National Day of Prayer protest experience

Photo with members of Restored Chruch who attended the National Day of Prayer event
Photo with members of Restored Chruch who attended the National Day of Prayer event

I recount my experiences protesting the 2014 Circle the Square With Prayer event on Public Square in Wilkes-Barre commemorating the National Day of Prayer.

Due to the unprominent and late placement of the Freedom From Religion Foundation ‘Nothing Fails Like Prayer’ banner, this piece recounting my experiences — namely discussions — at the Circle the Square With Prayer event commemorating the National Day of Prayer was delayed.

I spoke with a newspaper reporter about my protest with members of the NEPA Freethought Society (read about the published article and my other, unpublished thoughts here). Thanks to NEPA Freethought Society members Rodney Collins and Erik Dickerson for accompanying me at this event.

Side view of scaffolding structure showing NDOP banner facing event and FFRF banner text out of sight
Side view of scaffolding structure showing NDOP banner facing event and FFRF banner text out of sight

I approached the Circle the Square With Prayer event with a foamboard sign and, rather than engaging people in discussion, allowed people to engage me. The first person who engaged me in a discussion told me she believed the Christian god exists because she prevailed through depression. She explained that ‘nothing else worked,’ but after she prayed to God she was cured. It’s too bad that she won’t take personal credit for her improved health.

I asked the woman if she had a support system of family and friends to help her. She explained that a support system, medication (she voluntarily disclosed this without my asking, and ‘everything else’ did not work. I asked her, then, how non-religious persons prevail through mental health issues and she didn’t provide an answer to this. I also noted that people of different religious beliefs prevail through mental health issues [and claim that deities they exist helped them].

Protesting 2014 Circle the Square With Prayer event recognizing the government-sanctioned National Day of Prayer (front of sign)
Protesting 2014 Circle the Square With Prayer event recognizing the government-sanctioned National Day of Prayer (front of sign)

Belief in specific deities cannot be warranted through religious experiences – at least when people claiming different things about different gods are using similar thought processes to arrive at different claims. The Christian who uses religious experience to arrive at a conclusion that God exists faces the Hindu who uses religious experience to arrive at a conclusion that Ganesh, for instance, exists. Both Ganesh and God cannot exist.

At least three individuals engaged in the ‘people would not die for a lie’ reasoning – pointing to martyrdom and people willing to die for Christian belief as evidence for the truth-value for Christianity. I explained that people of many different religious orientations are willing to die for their beliefs and indeed die for their beliefs. The fact that someone dies or would die holding a belief does not demonstrate that the belief is true, but rather shows that a person likely feels sincere and fervent. Read more of my thoughts on this here.frontsign

One person told me that compassion is not consistent with the atheistic worldview – that an atheist has no reason to treat others with compassion [and only in a Christian worldview may compassion be logical]. After explaining that atheism is not a worldview (it is a label for someone who lacks belief in any gods – nothing less, nothing more), I explained that there are many reasons people exercise compassion including a want to help others; the benefit of feeling happy after engaging in good deeds; and a realization that other humans are like us and have similar wants, needs, and desires. A god belief is not required for one to exercise or explain compassion.

A man speaking at-length about the Shroud of Turin was arguing that since the image on the Shroud of Turin cannot be [re]created by humans, and there is no natural explanation for the Shroud of Turin, the Shroud of Turin is proof for God. Taking advantage of my smartphone after identifying the ‘mystery therefore magic’ fallacy, I found an article from Nature explaining that the shroud was a medieval forgery and another article reporting on an Italian scientist recreating the shroud. After the man said something like ‘you cannot trust what scientists say because they are lying to you about evolution’ I exited the conversation.

Banners are equally prominent on 5/5/14 - days after the 5/1/14 National Day of Prayer event
Banners are equally prominent on 5/5/14 – days after the 5/1/14 National Day of Prayer event

One person told me I have faith just like Christian have faith in God because when I turn on a lightswitch I have faith that a light will turn on. I explained that my belief isn’t like Christian faith because I have, throughout my life, seen lights turn on when I turn on a switch. When the light did not turn on, I modified my belief and reasoned that something was wrong. I have a justified true belief, then, that lights will turn on when I flip lightswitches that I have seen work before.

Pascal’s Wager also propped its head into discussions…

Overall, I was not impressed with the level of conversation at the event because it was not very challenging or thoughtful. One pastor at the event — someone who asked to lay his hands on me in prayer (watch the video below) — however, brought more thoughtful discussion and offered to have a conversation following the event. We’re currently having an e-mail exchange after speaking on the telephone about the possibility of a future live, open-to-the-public discussion similar to the discussion I had with Pastor Dan Nichols.

Thankfully, although Pastor Michael Brewster was arguing that my hanging of the ‘Nothing Fails Like Prayer’ banner [was seen as] offensive and disrespectful (I will respond to this in a future piece), almost everyone I had conversation with was respectful. I plan to protest and hang a banner in response to the 2015 Wilkes-Barre National Day of Prayer event.

At the end of the day, people were educated on matters of atheism and separation of church and state (although most people didn’t want to talk about separation of church and state). Throughout the event, people — most of them Christians — told me that they have read my content, listened to my discussions with pastors, and thought that I was respectful and well-educated. It’s nice to leave a positive impression on people and dispel the notion that atheists are cynical curmudgeons.  This is a success.