Monday, September 28, 2009

Jesus, take the Wheel

In discussions, to explain God, we often see theists use a parent/child analogy. I have seen the problem of evil explained, using the analogy of a parent allowing their child to touch a hot stove, in order to learn to not do it. (Granted, I wondered at the time if the person had children…and how far they would go. Do you allow them to be bitten by a pit bull to learn to ask first, prior to petting a strange dog? Do you toss them over a cliff to understand the concept of heights?)

In my last blog it was suggested God has people pray so they feel as if they are involved, or to give them more faith.

Is that important?

As parents, we teach our children to allow them to discover abilities, and to cope with the world as they grow.

I am in the process of repairing my deck. My son (12) and daughter (10) thought it would be smashing fun to help. So I had them pounding in a few nails—1 ½ inch (4 cm) in length. My son couldn’t help himself, and he started to mock my daughter, “Why is it taking you so long to pound in the nails?” I switched him to the 3 inch (7.5 cm) nails. He discovered those are much harder to nail in!

This is what we do with our children. We don’t start them off building elaborate dressers, operating table saws. We start them off with birdhouses, and simple tool boxes. We let them hammer and nail before working a drill. We teach them at age appropriate levels to do things within their ability.

If you want to teach your child to cook—do you start them off with lasagna? No!—you start off making a sandwich, or helping to frost a cake. Do some mixing with you. As time progresses, you help them do harder and harder tasks. To learn.

Further, some things we teach our children so they can deal with life. No one teaches their child how to do laundry because they think the child exhibits some special attribute for it! Thinking the child may someday become a professional dry cleaner. No, we teach them laundry because they will need the ability when they move out.

We teach them how to unplug toilets, how to repair holes, how to vacuum, how to change a light bulb—not because we expect them to gain great joy in doing so, but rather to address such situations when they move on--so they aren’t calling us all the time.

One of the suggestions for why God has prayer is so that the Christian is involved. But is a Christian supposed to be thinking they had some part of the solution? Is a Christian supposed to start thinking, “Good thing I was involved, or this situation wouldn’t have resolved itself”? Is a Christian supposed to start thinking it was his or her prayer that put God into action?

Christianity prides its difference from other religions by being a belief without the requirement of works. If God is having a Christian “being involved”—haven’t we interjected works right back into the religion?

Now I could almost see this as a reason…if prayers worked. The problem is that prayers are so hit-and-miss. In fact, as there is no god, it is as if the person didn’t pray at all! (I am excluding the self-benefit of prayer; concentrating on the results for others.) How does a person explain the situation when nothing extraordinary happens?

Take the most common prayer request—for health. The Christian prays for the sick person, and they get well in record time. God apparently wanted the Christian involved. What happens when the sick person doesn’t get better? Or even dies? Was the prayer a nuisance? How was the Christian’s involvement beneficial?

I realize, because of confirmation bias, the Christian will always focus on the hits, and ignore the misses. Still, from an outside perspective, I would ask, “What happens when you pray for that amputee and their limb doesn’t grow back? Is God saying He doesn’t want you involved?”

The other suggestion was that prayer was to allow a person to grown in their faith. Grow towards…what? I thought the end goal was heaven, where faith will no longer be necessary!

Growth, in learning, requires the ability to differentiate between correct and incorrect solutions. As you learn in school, you take tests. Wrong answers demonstrate where you need further focus—they explain how your thinking went awry and where to correct it. If every answer was “Maybe that’s right; maybe it isn’t”—we could never know how the learning process was progressing.

How many of us, in doing a project, learn what NOT to do in the future? I had the opportunity to build a deck. I now know (somewhat) what not to do, if I did it again, and what to do. It is the experience of realizing, “Ah, I should have done that 2 steps ago—which would make this current step much easier.” It is the experience of learning what tools to buy, what tools to ignore, and what tools are imperative.

The ONLY way we learn this, though, is by trial-and-error and learning what pragmatically works, and what does not.

How does this apply to faith and prayer? Christians pray for everything. They pray for rain when it is dry. They pray for no-rain on their vacation. More snow (Christmas); less snow (January – March). They pray for people to get well. They pray for new jobs, better jobs, promotions, and re-locations. They pray for peace, for converts, for governments. They pray and they pray and they pray.

Yet the world continues unfazed by the Christians’ prayer. It rains on vacations; sometimes it does not. Some people get well, some do not. Peace comes through negotiations, at times it does not. Unblessed food tastes amazingly the same as blessed food.

Where is the learning process? Where is the growth? How does the Christian obtain information as to how to pray, or what to pray for on any basis other than ad hoc? The only way the Christian knows if the prayer was the correct one, was to wait for the specific event to occur. If they pray for peace and it doesn’t happen—it must not have been the right one. If they prayed for a parking spot and one appears—it was the correct prayer.

But what happens the next time the Christian wants peace? Do they think, “Hmm…last time I prayed for it, I did something incorrect. I should have prayed in Olde English”? No—they pray the exact same prayer they did before, and again wait out the results. Does the Christian learn the magic secret formula prayer to precisely repeat in order to obtain parking spaces? No—they pray the exact same prayer they did before and again wait out the results.

There is no growth in prayer because there is not determining factor as to how one is doing it correctly or incorrectly. Christians simply repeat the same prayers over and over and over, and when results roughly align with the prayers, they proclaim, “It was the prayer that did it!” and when the results do not, they forget it and repeat the prayer tomorrow.

As anecdotal evidence only—it has been my experience (with a few very rare exceptions), the reverse is true. Christians don’t “grow” in faith over time; they regress.

What I saw were new Christians “on fire” for God. They thought they could take on the world. A simple prayer and they were ready to storm a biker bar for Jesus! Preach to the inner-city without fear, because they had faith. God was on their side. Give over-generously to just about any ministry, because of their faith that God would provide their needs.

Yet over time, God didn’t set the world on fire as the new convert pictured. Biker bars remained biker bars. No one was converted at the inner-city mission. No matter how much the new convert gave, the ministry wanted more. More time, more money, more commitment.

And older, wiser Christians—mature Christians—start using words like “discernment” and “stewardship” and “wisdom.” Words meant to explain why the world continued on its course despite the new convert’s faith. Older, wiser Christians explain how God works at God’s pace, and all our prayers will be to no avail if it is against God’s will. How faith is important, to be sure, but if faith is in the “wrong principle”…well, then…it isn’t any good, is it?

The new convert cools down. Starts to understand their job is just to pray; God’s job is to do whatever the hell God wants to do. And if God happens to do what the convert prayed for—voila; the convert did it right. God let the convert be a part of God’s solution.

Prayer teaches Christians one thing; when utilized correct (i.e. only remember the hits and ignore the misses) it provides outstanding confirmation bias.

There must be a God—they prayed to find the lost car keys and after an hour of searching, were successful. How can a non-believer possibly say there is no God in the face of such over-whelming proof of the power of prayer


  1. "The ONLY way we learn this, though, is by trial-and-error and learning what pragmatically works, and what does not."

    "Older, wiser Christians explain how God works at God’s pace, and all our prayers will be to no avail if it is against God’s will."

    Yeah, I learned that lesson over time in order to deal with confirmation bias. And confirmation bias even can work to account for unanswered prayer. We are to believe that God wants us to grow in perseverance, "...ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you." So unanswered prayer is held up itself as God teaching us a lesson.

  2. A great and well-reasoned post as always!! And rather humorous too. :D

  3. Great post. It was this flakey treatment of prayer that directly led to my wider doubting and research.

    I kept getting backed down to the position you describe and then I could not resolve why I was required in the process at all since I know SO little about what is needed and how it should be done, especially in the long-term. Why would God need my help knowing that a sick "child" of his needed healing? Then the confirmation bias kept piling on and I reallized it was all a song and dance.

  4. I see this a lot: Christians will make some moral analogy, which is totally weird when you examine it even a little; the situations are just not analogous. The analogy of "clay on the potter's wheel" springs immediately to mind: clay of course does not have desires, intentions, feelings or even the hint of sentience. Indeed it's completely immoral to treat a sentient being like a piece of clay, the ultimate in dehumanization and exploitation.

  5. **I have seen the problem of evil explained, using the analogy of a parent allowing their child to touch a hot stove, in order to learn to not do it.**

    And say that God does behave this way ... how could this type of God ever be trusted to keep one safe? Or just trust God, period?

    That is rapidly becoming one of the more frustrating things in dealing with Christians who pray that I might be saved -- how the whole thing falls about from a moral standpoint.

  6. Doesn't prayer demonstrate partial reinforcement? I think that's the fact that people will keep trying something if it "works" PART of the time. And ofcourse you could never tell a Christian that God didn't answer a prayer. No matter what the outcome, they've got it covered with his answer being "no, wait, not my will, etc.,etc."

  7. IOW: billions of people are literally incapable of outsmarting a pigeon.

  8. Trying to post from a Mac computer (upstairs didn't go too far).

    There are two blogger blogs that I can't post to from my laptop. Yours is one of them. Who knows why.

    Anyway, great post. I particularly like the de-construction of God's teaching method. Really good!

    Not having children I probably would've never thought of it.

  9. The biggest advantage for prayer, is that it makes the prayer feel good! In a helpless situation, praying about it at least makes you feel like you did SOMETHING!

    That's one thing I miss in my new existence as an agnostic. I've got a couple of dark situations in my life right now, one with a son and one with a car. In my old life I would have prayed with my wife about both situations. These days, however, I just have to sit down and think hard and rationally about how to improve these situations. Maybe not as immediately satisfying as praying, but I am probably going to get results a little more quickly!!

  10. Scooter: This is an issue common to all substances and habits of thought that directly stimulate the pleasure/reward centers of the brain. For some people, being happy is enough. Others want a good reason to be happy.

    "The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one." -- George Bernard Shaw

  11. DagoodS,

    Some of us were having trouble posting at this guy's blog, too. But he changed the comment interface to a different option and now I have no problem.

    This comment came from our Mac computer, upstairs. I can't post comments here from my Windows laptop.

  12. Lorena,

    I don’t know what else to change. I have comments wide open; you may note for the first time ever, I am even allowing Anonymous comments. I turned off word-verification. Changing over to wordpress seems like too much hassle. I’m getting too old to learn new tricks. *grin*

  13. **Starts to understand their job is just to pray; God’s job is to do whatever the hell God wants to do. And if God happens to do what the convert prayed for—voila; the convert did it right. God let the convert be a part of God’s solution.**

    This is actually very close, if not exactly true. Prayer is not something God needs, but something we need to increase our dependence on God which is something we're definitely going to need one day. You [accidentally] stumbled on this point when you wrote, "some things we teach our children so they can deal with life". Well said. ;-)