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.

 

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.

NEPA Freethought Society to deliver secular invocation at June 12, 2014 Wilkes-Barre City Council meeting

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE June 1, 2014

Media Contact: Justin Vacula, justinvacula [at] gmail.com

NEPA Freethought Society to deliver secular invocation at June 12, 2014 Wilkes-Barre City Council meeting

Wilkes-Barre – The NEPA Freethought Society — a social, educational, activist, and philosophical coalition of atheists, agnostics, humanists, secularists, and skeptics predicated on support and community which upholds the separation of church and state and promotes critical thinking — will deliver a secular invocation at Wilkes-Barre City Council’s 6:00 PM June 12, 2014 meeting.

Justin Vacula — NEPA Freethought Society Spokesperson and Co-organizer — will deliver a secular invocation as an alternative to the Judeo-Christian government-led prayers offered by Councilwoman Maureen Lavelle at each council meeting.

Vacula has voiced objections to council’s prayers and council’s refusals to include alternative perspectives to prayer, both religious and non-religious, during several council meetings. Councilman Tony George, at a May 29, 2014 council meeting, although refusing time for Vacula to speak during openings of meetings, permitted Vacula to provide a secular invocation during five minutes of the public comment section.

Vacula, on June 1, explained his rationale for providing a secular invocation, “Wilkes-Barre City Council continues to exclusively provide government-led Judeo-Christian prayer during its meetings despite objections. Since council will not allow citizens to speak during openings of meetings, the proper response is to offer a secular invocation during the public comment section as a form of protest and an inclusive model which council can utilize.”

The secular invocation will not denigrate believers, critique religious belief, or rebuke members of city government Wilkes-Barre Mayor Thomas Leighton described as “people of faith” at a May 2013 council meeting, but rather will provide an inclusive message which council members and citizens can reflect upon to inform their thought processes and discourse. A voice for non-Christians delivering an alternative to Judeo-Christian government-led prayer, for what might be the first time, will be represented at Wilkes-Barre City Council meetings.

Members of the public — both religious and non-religious — are also encouraged to attend the June 12 council meeting and future council meetings to offer invocations of their own as alternatives to Judeo-Christian government-led prayers. Prospective attendees must arrive prior to start of meetings (preferably 15 minutes) to complete a provided speaker form lest they are not permitted to speak.

More information about the NEPA Freethought Society can be found on their new website located at www.meetup.com/NEPAFreethoughtSociety.

Vacula’s website can be found at www.justinvacula.com.

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Council somewhat approves my secular invocation request

Justin Vacula addresses Wilkes-Barre City Council during May 29, 2014 meeting
Justin Vacula addresses Wilkes-Barre City Council during May 29, 2014 meeting

Wilkes-Barre City Council approved my request to provide a secular invocation at a future meeting, but is only allowing me to do so during the public comment section.

I addressed Wilkes-Barre City Council during its May 29, 2014 meeting asking permission to provide a secular invocation in place of the traditional government-led Judeo-Christian prayer led by Councilwoman Maureen Lavelle.

I also aired grievances related to improper treatment regarding the hanging of the 2014 Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) ‘Nothing Fails Like Prayer’ banner on Public Square, objected to recent government entanglement with religion, and encouraged Wilkes-Barre officials to remain neutral on matters of religion in their governmental capacities.

Watch a video of my speech, including a rough partial transcript, and listen to my exchange with council below.

Councilman Tony George responded to my speech saying,

“I don’t think we say the prayer. We ask the Lord for making the right decisions. We’re not forcing that on anybody. […] We’re not asking you to have faith in him. We’re asking him to give us the right decision to make our decisions. We’re not making you petition the Lord. I have a right to petition the Lord if I want to and when we say a prayer we’re asking for the right decisions to make policy. If you have five minutes, if you want to use your secular prayer for your five minutes, you can do what you want with that five minutes.”

George’s response was awkward. He first claimed that council doesn’t say a prayer, but rather is ‘asking the Lord to make the right decisions’ and then said that council offers prayer…even though my speech was, unlike my June 2013 speech before council, not asking council to remove their Christian prayers. Petitioning the Lord, anyway, might as well be the definition of prayer – at least within a Judeo-Christian framework.

I then, in response to George’s comments about using the public comment section of the meeting to deliver a secular invocation, again asked to use the opening portion of the meeting to deliver a secular invocation.

George replied, “When it’s your turn to speak you can say your prayer,” again refusing me to open council meetings — following the Pledge of Allegiance — with a secular invocation.

Why is it that a city council refuses citizens who which to offer an alternative message in place of government-led prayer? Wilkes-Barre City Council unfortunately, failing to represent a diversity of viewpoints within the city, refuses to let anyone apart from council members to provide an opening invocation.

Although I am not able to open a Wilkes-Barre council meeting with a secular invocation, I will use my five minutes of public comment time at a future Wilkes-Barre council meeting to deliver a secular invocation. Stay tuned during the first week of June 2014 for a press release to be issued on behalf of the NEPA Freethought Society which will be released on this website.

Bill Wellock, writer for the Wilkes-Barre based newspaper The Citizens’ Voice, also has reported on this issue and other happenings at the May 29 council meeting. Feel free to post in the comment section which partially includes people informing me that I am going to Hell.

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.