One Christian's response to our prayer article
One of the really odd birds in New Zealand politics is a species called Ian Wishart. He is one of the creationists, Christianist conspiracy-mogering, antigay folk that inhabit the lunatic fringes of the Religious Right. What makes Wishart a real oddity is that his species, thankfully, is endangered down under. Very few of his fellow Kiwis buy into his agenda. He publishes a magazine called Investigate. And he has decided to respond to one of our readers who sent up our posting on the purposelessness of prayer. His response was passed on to me by our reader.
The thesis of my piece was that prayer is "without purpose except perhaps to make the believer feel good." I said that prayer can not tell a god anything he doesn't already know. Nor can it get such a deity to change his/her/its mind as he/she/it would already know precisely what will happen. Thus the only possible function it can have is to make the believer feel better. Of course some actually think they can change the intentions of such a supernatural being. Now in this case I was arguing from a borrowed premise --- that is from a premise I do not hold --- that such a being exists. Using my premise the entire thing is nonsense and about as efficacious as incense, crystals, Tarot cards, chanting, spell-casting, sacrificing, etc.
Wishhart said, in response "The act of praying establishes a line of communication with God. Those who genuinely pray find their prayers are usually answered, far more often than not." Tell that to people who starve to death, die of cancer, lose their children to disease, etc. Now the weasel phrase here is "genuinely pray". I have seen this vicious term inserted often in the diatribes of religionists. It is meant to take the burden off their deity. If people starve to death, in spite of their prayers, it is because they didn't pray genuinely. Yet who would not pray as genuinely as possibly under such circumstances? Or they resort to the idea that their god answers the prayer with a "no" preferring, for some divine purpose, to have children die, people to suffer cancer, etc.
In fact when scientific tests of the results of praying are conducted it turns out that there is no difference in results at all. Believers who are ill, and prayed for, don't get better in higher numbers than those for whom no prayers are offered. In my years in religion I never saw Christians getting better results out of life than others. In fact there is plenty of evidence to show that they are worse off. They are worse off because the less intelligent in life tend to get attracted to religion and those who are really intellectually challenged tend to be fundamentalists. And life is a game of intelligence like it or not. The less intelligent simply tend to be worse off than the more intelligent. Fundamentalist Christians have a history of being poorer than average, less healthy than average and even more crime prone. It is not because they are religious. Their religion per se neither makes them better off nor worse off. But their religion like their poverty, health and criminal tendencies come from the same source --- their lack of intelligence. This is not to say there are no religionists who are intelligent. That would be a daft statement. Of course there are.
But as one goes down in IQ one tends to increase in religiousity. As one goes up in IQ one tends to be less religious and definetly less orthodox. Fundamentalism of any kind appeals to the least intelligent.
In the next sentence, following the one I quoted above, Wishart says: "This isn't because God necessarily changed his mind, He already knew you would ask the prayer, so he could have manipulated future events to give you the outcome you sought." Can human wants supercede those of this deity? Can man actually force a god's hand? If a deity is sovereign and his will is done then nothing that is not his will can happen. And if the deity has perfect knowledge then he knows his will and the outcome long before they happen. Nothing we do can change that. It couldn't be that such a being tinkers constantly with the future changing his mind as people inundate him with requests. For him to change direction, tinker with results, swap conditions, etc., implies a lack of perfect knowledge. Now if Wishart wants to posit an omnipotent deity with imperfect knowledge that would be a different case but it would not be the orthodox Christian position.
Now I will quote Wishart at length to keep the context before responding.
More to the point however, it builds faith. Those who pray, and learn to truly pray to Christ, find that step of faith is rewarded over and over, which in turn generates fresh prayer and worship.
It is a little bit like teaching kids good manners. Once they get the hang of please and thank you, they realise they get what they want more often.
Prayer is not for God's sake but for our sake. It teaches us how to ask from the heart, and it strengthens faith when those prayers are answered.
It is not about making us feel good, it is about helping us re-establish contact with the deity....."
At this point Wishart has resorted to magic. Tribesmen believe that if they perform rituals they can manipulate reality. They hold a sacrific-a-virgin-to-stop-a-volcano view of the world. Wishart holds something similar. He says "Once they get the hang of please and thank you, they realise they get what they want more often." God can be manipulated. Prayer is a mechanism by which the believer manipulates the deity. If you simply have the right formula and practice it enough you "more often" get what you want.
Now the "please and thank you" analogy doesn't work well for one reason. When we speak to one another courtesy works. It works because we are humans with feelings who can be pricked and pained. We lack a pefect understanding of the world so etiquette is used to minimize misunderstandings. God can't misunderstand, not if he has perfect knowledge. He can't get your intentions confused. He must know them completely and perfectly.
A child who says: "Mommy, I'm thirsty" may be told to ask politely for water with a please and a thank you when finished. But what mother would let the child thirst if it were missing? A good mother gives drink to the child while teaching at the same time. It's not as if the child can drink more often if using these words. The purpose is to help the child in the future because he will be dealing with imperfect people who can take requests as orders and who can feel insulted. God can't make these mistakes. He doesn't need the ritual and neither does man. But Wishart thinks that man can control the deity with these rituals. Do it right and you are more likely to get what you want. This is that old black magic thinking that ritual can control existence. It is only slightly more sophisticated than those used by sangomas and shamans.
He says that it strengthens faith. Ritual reinforces beliefs. That is one reason that primitives the world over use ritual. So there is no doubt it reinforces faith. All rituals do that. There is nothing unique to Christianity in this regard. The Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Jew, and Mormon all have rituals and they all will say it reinforces their faith. Wishart would have to concede that rituals such as prayer reinforce all faith whether real or not. He does not concede that all religions are true hence when the Hindu says his faith is reinforced by offering food to the gods, or the Tibetan monk says faith is reinforced by spinning his prayer wheel, Wishart would have to say that false faith is reinforced. It is not true faith like his own. But I argue it is precisely like his own. Faith is merely beliefs that people hold because they want to hold them, because they feel good holding them.
And I am sure that engaging in faith enhancing rituals makes them feel better. In Wishart's case it obviously gives him the illusion of believing that he manipulate the creator of the universe. It is a means by which he can get more of what he wants. That is what he said. Personally if I were the god to whom Wishart prayed I would find that a bit insulting.
Imagine the child who is over heard telling another child "Say please to mom and you can get what you want." The purpose of the please and thank you is not to get more things but to respect the other person. A deity so easily manipulated is hardly a deity in my mind. Of course I don't think such a thing exists. I don't think prayer communicates with anyone. It is air talking. It does make the believer feel better. It may even make them think that they have a greater likelihood of getting what they want. That has to make one feel good. But then that was my point.