Quote of the Day: Nothing Fails Like Prayer by Valerie Tarico

valerie-taricoArguing that an invisible god works inexplicable magic producing undetectable effects is the theological equivalent of a desperate child saying that the Tooth Fairy ate her homework. No parent or teacher or scientist can prove she didn’t. That said, it’s important to remember that humanity’s interest in prayer stems from a desire to get what we need and want. Actions of supernatural beings that have no discernable impact on actual lives are, from a human standpoint, simply irrelevant. Prayer persists because people believe that prayer affects this physical world and their own lives.

In the mind of atheist neuroscientist Sam Harris, prayer apologists had cut themselves too much slack long before they began arguing that prayer is uniquely exempt from the scientific method. He says that even before the double blind randomized trials we had a mountain of evidence that prayer requests don’t work, and Christians have tacitly adapted to what they know but won’t admit: “Get a billion Christians to pray for a single amputee. Get them to pray that God regrow that missing limb. This happens to salamanders every day, presumably without prayer; this is within the capacity of God. I find it interesting that people of faith only tend to pray for conditions that are self-limiting.”

A God Should Do Better; So Should We

God the Almighty shouldn’t operate at the margins of statistical significance. He shouldn’t be most evident when the evidence itself is of the poorest quality, fading into invisibility as the light of scientific rigor becomes brighter. He shouldn’t need defenders who are willing to tie their reputations to expensive research that they then dismiss as irrelevant when results are disappointing. God shouldn’t need defenders who engage in rabbit hole reasoning, who insist that he moves in our world and in our lives, but only as long as we aren’t looking; or who insist that despite all evidence to the contrary bad is actually good because it must be good, because by definition God is good and he’s in charge.

Since the year 2000, the U.S. government has spent over $2 million on prayer studies without producing any result that is remotely congruent with the bold claims made by the authors of the New Testament. And yet those bold claims are a reasonable set of assertions to make about an all-powerful and all-loving, interventionist deity.

Our ancestors put forward their best set of hypotheses about how the world works, who is in charge, and how we can get what we need.  They did so without the benefits of enlightenment philosophy or the methods and discoveries of science, without the global flow of information and the freedom to debate ideas. They had no way of knowing that their hypotheses would fail when examined in the light of modern knowledge and analytic capacity. But at least they knew not to simply accept and repeat whatever their ancestors had said 2,000 years earlier. Maybe we could try living up to that bar.

— Valerie Tarico, Alternet, What the Bible Says about Prayer Versus Reality, November 21, 2016

4 Comments

  1. Geoff

    Good post, and I’ve read your article on the subject on Alternet, together with the largely supportive comments.

    My main objection to the claim of the power of prayer is that there is no prayer I can think of that is entirely benign, in the sense that it has benefits which flow in one direction only. If I’m going on holiday and pray for a better exchange rate for going abroad, then visitors to my country suffer in exact reverse to my benefit. If I pray for a new job, then many other applicants are disappointed. Even praying for a healthy heart donation involves the death of someone else.

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  2. Brian

    Help me, Jeebers! Geoff, you know that Jesus is here, there and everywhere, now, then and later too. Jeebers is not just Stevie Seagal trained in Akido, he is almighty and does not lose his strength like Thor if he drops his hammer somewhere on a blackout bender. So, crying out to Jeebers is entirely benign indeed because Jeebers isn’t even using a bezillionth of his umph to hear you whine or bring you back from the dead. You just don’t get it;-)
    ‘Prayer changes everything’, has been a popular saying in the evangelical world because it is true. Prayer does change everything. It is the human being on the knees and begging the empty alone to let up, to help and not be complete abandonment. This is done for self first and then for others too in like fashion. All this does change things, forever. So, today’s catechism: Just play dead. J eebers won’t have much fun with you then and will move on to a more flippy fish. Just play dead: All glory to God on high. Here endeth the lesson.
    By the way, (offense follows, unlike the above gentle snarkery), when I prey now as an unbeliever pagan challenger, it goes like this and usually in a moment of emotional inflation: Jesus Christ son of a bitch bastard creep God! Fuck you and your legions of woo!
    You see how my preyer works and changes things? No? It is really benign too because I do it out of earshot so others do not have to share my therapy. It changes things, howling into sky. It truly does. I feel. I feel better. I become more fully human even in cursing!
    There is another sort of wishful idea use that might be benign too, the hoping for somebody else that they will recover from a mishap or illness, that they will enjoy breathing and being alive. The thought, I mean. It does nothing actively in the world of action except that it is a wish expressed internally on behalf of some other person. I guess one could say that this wish plays both ways too, that it sates a certain human need to care and help as well as wishing (?looking) for some way to assist another? There is always some self-interest involved in our lives and that is part of the package. Would God be as all-powerful if he had eaten his son instead of hanging him up as he did so he could blame me for doing it?

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  3. K

    Well I happen to know there is a God and just because he doesn’t answer your prayers doesn’t mean he isn’t real. I mean, my kids ask me for crap all the time and when they say it in an unkind way, I ignore them. And just because they ask nicely for something doesn’t mean I give it to them. Can u imagine if your 5 year old said “mommy, can we please smoke some crack?”
    Prayer is not asking God to present you with a bathroom in the next 5 miles, or to find the love of your life, or to win the lottery. Prayer is asking for guidance, courage, and wisdom to be the best person you can be while serving him and for asking for forgiveness.
    Valerie, u sound bitter. I was there once so I get it. You will be remembered in my heart. I hope you find what you are looking for.

    Reply
    1. Astreja

      If you know there’s a god out there, K, then kindly share the testable, falsifiable data set that led you to this conclusion. Until you can do that, what you have is belief — not knowledge.

      It is entirely possible that you’re imagining the hand of a god when something goes right in your life, but that doesn’t mean there actually is a god helping you out. One does not need a divine friend in order to find guidance, courage or wisdom. And why would I ask this alleged god for forgiveness? If I do something wrong, I apologize to the people I’ve wronged.

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