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May 19 2010

Why prayer is nonsense – part 2

1 – First, define prayer

This is part 2 in a series of posts on prayer. Please use the links at the top and bottom of each post to navigate through the parts.

know your deities

In the monotheistic religions that make up the bulk of religions in the Western world, the variety of qualities ascribed to deities are so diverse as to populate the complete spectrum from the deist’s “the entire universe is God” (replacing nature with deity), to “God created everything exactly as suggested by my holy book and all the accounts therein of his intervention in history are absolutely true”. As there are as many postulated gods as there are people who believe in gods, one cannot argue against so many deities without letting a few slip through the cracks. Therefore, instead of breaking things down by deity, it will be far more useful to break things down by the properties postulated for the specific gods people happen to believe in.

In concert, some of these properties are mutually exclusive. Unsurprisingly, those couplings also cause the most grief when it comes to figuring out whether praying to your particular deity is worthwhile. Many of the properties that are suggested by humans for their particular flavor of deity are impossible in the scope of the universe we understand today. Many are redundant and require you to believe some very narrow views of the universe to accept their possibility. Many outright refute the body of evidence we humans have collected so far. For the purpose of this series, I will by and large ignore these problems, taking the special pleading arguments necessary to resolve such issues for granted, with one caveat — I will absolutely use the fact of the problems to argue against prayer in the matrix planned for part 5: “So why pray?”.

Some particular properties which might be ascribed to your deity:

Omniscience
A deity that is omniscient knows everything about everything, including every thought and desire of every human being on the planet. Depending on whether this omniscience transcends time, this deity already knows everything you could possibly pray to it, and how it will all play out with or without his intervention, and is okay with things as they stand, so any prayer to such a deity is grossly redundant. If you ascribe any human-like properties to this deity, patience had better damn well be among them, or such a deity would have known how trifling humankind would be and would have had the good sense to not make us. Prayers this deity would receive and potentially answer include prayers for guidance and Ouroboros prayers, though not necessarily prayers for direct intervention. Redemptive prayers are called for in the event that you sinned, but genuine contrition is a prerequisite, as this deity knows if you’re being disingenuous.

Omnipotence
An omnipotent deity can do anything at all. It can set up reality in such a way that it doesn’t have to follow the rules of physics that it does now, or such that reality follows different rules in different circumstances. The universe of an omnipotent deity is rife with paranormal and supernatural events, creatures and causes. Such a deity could answer a prayer by rearranging the universe such that the need for the prayer never existed, and can do so for every being under its care simultaneously by creating an alternate, perfect universe for each, wherein the person’s universe is the best possible for that person. Or it could create a single, perfect, harmonious world where there is no strife and no drama. If anything is possible, anything goes. This is not the deity that nudges probabilities — this is the deity of Disney’s Fantasia, shaping the world at its whim. Theoretically, any prayer should work with this deity, as long as other properties don’t contraindicate. This property is directly incompatible with omnibenevolence, since the universe is as we see it presently as opposed to being arranged so that each being is maximally happy. Sycophantic prayers are probably very necessary if the deity is both omnipotent and jealous.

Omnibenevolence
An omnibenevolent deity wants every single creature to live the best possible life with the least suffering possible. Not only suffering, but damnation — no omnibenevolent deity would have cast down one of his creations from heaven, creating hell, and consigning creatures’ eternal souls there for all eternity for having made some perceived slight offense. An omnibenevolent deity would never answer an imprecatory prayer, but is too milquetoast to punish the pretentious person that tried. Nor could an omnibenevolent deity also “have a plan”, wherein innocent children suffer in any way, as we see in this universe. And as mentioned before, such a deity can’t also be omnipotent, or suffering would not exist. This deity would desperately desire to answer every prayer for guidance or interventionary prayer, if it is in its power, and would be quick to forgive even the grossest violations of its laws via redemptive prayer. Unless its property of omnibenevolence is capricious or fleeting, it is the safest deity to deal with.

Omnipresence
This deity is everywhere in the universe simultaneously. Considering how mind-bogglingly vast the universe is, and how much life must be in it, an omnipresent deity can’t possibly care about every single creature in it equally, or there would be fewer injustices and imbalances of power; and what problems we do have, would be dwarfed by the vast number of civilizations wherein this deity has almost infinite shots to get things RIGHT. Omnipresence indicates that this deity could effect changes anywhere, but does not necessarily imply omniscience — it might have to pay attention to specific things at specific times. An omnipresent deity would not require active praise in the sense of the universe we understand. Prayer to this deity would be unlikely to reach any level of priority unless the deity also has omniscience and transcends time, but the worst that will probably happen is that the prayers get ignored. Redemptive prayers are largely redundant as with omniscient deities, as this deity was there; though it may require the contrition doubly so because it was a witness.

Is larger than the universe
This goes one step beyond omnipresence and assumes that the universe is a subset of the deity — e.g. deism-plus. This could also imply “is more complicated than the universe”. Unless this larger-than-the-universe deity is actually larger than the geocentric universe, and everything firmament-outward is just an illusion, as with omnipresence, humans can’t possibly be a priority for this deity. Any deity that puts priority on lying about the nature of the universe to humans can’t possibly be “pure good”, so if this deity is larger than the universe because the universe is smaller than we think, then this property is incompatible with being “pure good” in any meaningful or recognizable meaning of the word “good”. As with omniscience, praying to this deity would net you little unless this deity was actually somehow interested in human events, or created the whole of the universe for the sole purpose of bringing humans into existence (e.g., probably because it requires active praise). In the case of a specially created universe, this deity would be very big on redemptive prayer.

Being pure good
This is a separate and distinct property from omnibenevolence in that it is not merely that the deity has the best intentions for every creature — in this case, the deity is also the paragon of goodness and every property of the deity is at its maximal in positiveness. Depending on the specific deity you’re talking about, this could mean that some very unsavoury character traits (e.g. jealousy, vanity, wrath) are considered somehow maximal good, and if you aspire to be good, you’d have to exhibit these traits as well. Such a deity, if coupled with omnipotence, could theoretically wipe out all evil, instantly converting them to perfect beings. This deity, if omnipotent, would also be able to eliminate outright the “competition” and restructure the entire universe to match its nature — maximal good, and probably maximal order, with no second-guessing from the peanut gallery on what is good and what is evil. In fact, the only universe it would create is a maximally good one. In the event you find yourself in a maximally perfect universe, praying to this deity would only temper this attempt at creating order and good in its own image if it saw you as sympathetic somehow. In those cases, you might receive guidance on how better to serve it, though don’t expect it to fight your battles for you unless your battles are directly conflicting with its desired order. And depending on what properties it has that are maximally good, dependence on prayer might be seen as a weakness of character in the beings doing so.

Has a plan
This is the “fate” deity, where your every hair is numbered — where every jot and tittle of your life, your children’s lives, your animals’ lives, and even the very motes of dust floating in the air are predestined to do exactly what they will do. No prayer will change its mind, because everything is already set in stone. The only reason to pray to this deity is to flatter it, or to reassure yourself that you really are talking to a deity at all. And even these actions are predetermined — this deity already knew that you were about to flatter it, or that you were about to withhold flattery in some attempt at depriving it of the foreknowledge of what you were about to do. Is there any point to pray to this deity aside from reassuring yourself that it will all turn out okay, even in the face of mounting evidence that it won’t?

Requires active praise
A deity that requires active praise has, at least, motivation for creating humans, as opposed to most other properties. It is the deity of the creation myths, the deity whose manna batteries are charged by the praise of humans (think the Greek gods in Clash of the Titans). This property obviously conflicts with “being pure good”, since vanity is definitively un-good — it is usually even defined as such in most holy books. This poses a problem with most kinds of prayer, in that any prayer for intervention is tantamount to questioning this deity’s divinity — even if you lay on the praise good and thick before daring to say “but I still think you should do this for me because I love you so much”. Even sycophantic prayer itself, this deity’s bread and butter, is problematic, insofar as if you do it wrong, you’re hellbound — and you don’t even get real-time feedback to figure out if you ARE doing it right. Your salvation is contingent on guessing correctly.

Is “alpha and omega”
The deity that claims to be both the beginning and the end of the universe is, de facto, transcendant of time itself. It is also taking credit for the eventual final state of the universe, so it is not a fire-and-forget kind of deity, e.g. one that merely started the chain of events that led to the universe’s creation and let it wind down on its own. This implies that it is a “has a plan” kind of deity, but not necessarily — it could just be the kind of deity that built the universe as a laboratory experiment and decides when to cull it when the experiment has run its course. If a scientist, then prayers regarding intervention or guidance would spoil the experiment; if a plan-making deity, intervention is grossly unlikely anyway. Such a deity would not also encompass the entire universe but exist extra-universally. It is also unlikely to require active praise or it would never end the universe, unless it could somehow store up that praise long enough to destroy and recreate it.

Reveals himself to believers unequivocally
This final property belongs to the deity that can today only reveal itself in a slice of bread, or via voices in religious folks’ heads, or via an angel that visited them while they were totally alone and where nobody else could corroborate their story. Somehow something drastic must have changed between the time of revelation, where skeptics are silenced by the sheer overwhelming evidence for this deity’s existence, and a time later on down the road when skeptics are met with an absolute absence of evidence but a virtual throng of believers. This deity is the best one to pray to for guidance or for proof of its existence, because it’s the only one that seems to actually answer these kinds of prayers. When combined with omnipotence, this universe’s skeptics cease to exist.

There are also some deities that are basically just super-heroic humans — generally immortal, in possession of great power, only really vulnerable with respect to one another, but otherwise very human. These deities are the classical Norse, Greek, Roman and Egyptian ones, as well as more modern pantheons like the superheroes of the Marvel and DC comics franchises. These exist outside the scope of the monotheistic deities on which I’ve focused, and I’ve ignored them in this series, as the interplay between multiple deities severely complicates any analysis of prayer’s efficacy. And don’t forget, because these deities are far more human than the Big G God, you’re as likely to benefit as be struck down by these gods. Cross-reference Persephone and Medusa.

With all these deities, the Ouroboros prayer has an effect regardless of whether any coincidental event gets classified as an “answer” via selection bias. That effect is to reinforce certainty in the existence of the deity to which you’re praying, and in fact such prayers make up a component of pretty well every religious prayer. Take it as a given that, as with meditative prayer, this prayer will have effects with or without deities.

I hope you can see how any intellectually honest believer in a religion must grapple with these paradoxes and problems and must generally resolve them in the special pleading that their god somehow manages to be both mutually-exclusive properties simultaneously. And beyond this, once you’ve decided that your deity somehow has multiple traits that clash, how prayers to a deity with multiple clashing properties ALSO present issues for prayer.

I strongly suspect I haven’t even come close to plumbing the depths of the divine side of this equation, however I’m sure you’ll all assist me with that endeavour in the comments!

3 – But everyone knows prayer works!

1 comment

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  1. 1
    George W.

    In an effort to make their God “ass-kickingly awesome”, many religions are only too happy to ascribe any super-human property to their deity. Even if the properties are mutually exclusive and require thousands of years of mind-fucking assaults on logic.
    I have tried to understand some of these theological debates, only to find my brain slowly suffocating under the sheer force of logical entropy.
    Calvinism makes a strong case against Arminianism until you realize what a clusterfuck Calvinism itself is.

    Near as I can tell, the only quality I can proove with 100% certainty for any God that might exist would be omniimpotence. I’m not sure that any religionists are describing their God as such.

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