Proof #1: Try Praying

A response to proof #1 of God is Imaginary.

Understanding Red Herrings

A red herring is an irrelevant distraction from the issues at hand. Red herrings have the potential to distract one’s mind from cool, calm rational reflection. Fortunately, you can train your mind to spot red herrings and avoid the distractions.

Here’s an example. At the end of proof #1, the author says that Jesus was lying when he said "Nothing will be impossible for you." We know he was lying, he says, because there are lots of things you plainly cannot do no matter how much you pray. He then concludes the reason God doesn’t answer prayers is simple: God is imaginary.

This is just a distraction. The idea that Jesus was a liar is provocative but distracting. Even if he was a liar, it doesn’t follow that God doesn’t answer prayers; and no evidence was given for thinking God doesn’t answer certain prayers in certain contexts.

Besides, the context of Jesus’ statement in Matthew 17 actually makes it abundantly clear that Jesus was talking about casting out evil spirits: thus, no obstacle (or “mountain”) blocking that goal is impossible to remove. He’s not saying we can turn our favorite number into a flower. I think this should be clear to a careful reader from any generation. But all of this is irrelevant, anyway. Suppose for the sake of argument that only someone familiar with first-century idioms could understand what Jesus meant. Would it then follow that Jesus was mistaken about prayer, or that God is imaginary? Of course not.

The author takes us off course when he declares that a perfect being would not use first century idioms. That’s an interesting proposal, but it’s off course because it’s irrelevant to the issue at hand. The issue on the table is whether God answers prayers, not whether a perfect being would use idioms.

To make this clear, suppose that a perfect being wouldn’t use idioms, and suppose that Jesus did use idioms. What follows is that Jesus wasn’t perfect. That’s a very provocative conclusion to Christians, which is why it is so easily distracting. But it has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not Jesus’ statements about prayer were accurate or whether or not there is a perfect being. That’s what’s at issue.

But while we are distracted, there is a ready-made response to the proposal that a perfect being would never use idioms: it’s that for all we know, a perfect being might package some truths in the form of idioms to motivate people to cultivate the habit of seeking truths. To see the truth, sometimes you must avoid simple answers and search deep.

Let’s think carefully about proof #1 and see if succeeds in showing that god is imaginary. If it does, that’s big news; we’d have found out something very interesting. We may express proof #1 succinctly as follows:

  • Premise 1: According to the Bible, if we ask for all cancer to be cured, it will be.
  • Premise 2: But, if we ask for all cancer to be cured, it won’t be cured.
  • Therefore: The God of the Bible is imaginary.

Let’s start by thinking about the logic of this argument. Suppose its premises are true. It then follows that at least some of the Bible’s statements about prayer are mistaken. But now notice that the conclusion says more than that. It says that the God of the Bible is imaginary. How does that follow from the premises? To reach that conclusion, we need an additional premise—something like this:

  • Premise 3: If some of the Bible’s statements about prayer are mistaken, then the God of the Bible is imaginary.

Now it’s worth pointing out that the author of proof #1 doesn’t even discuss anything like Premise 3. It appears to be a background assumption. But for the proof to succeed, Premise 3, or something like it, needs to be demonstrated. Otherwise, the argument is logically invalid: the conclusion doesn’t follow from its premises.

My sense is that the vast majority of people would find Premise 3 implausible. After all, it seems perfectly possible for a morally perfect, all-powerful, all-knowing being described by the Bible to be real whether or not the Bible itself makes mistakes. So, Premise 3 is questionable (to say the least).

Someone might reply that perhaps “the God of the Bible” just means “the God that would exist if the entire Bible were true.” In that case, Premise 3 would be axiomatic. However, then the conclusion would be compatible with there being a perfectly good, all-powerful, and all-knowing being. And certainly any argument that’s compatible with there being a perfectly good, all-powerful, and all-knowing being is not an argument that God is imaginary.

So, if proof #1 is indeed an argument that God is imaginary, then it relies on a dubious premise; therefore, proof #1 fails to establish its conclusion. It seems, then, that reflective truth-seekers wouldn’t be moved by it.

We could stop here. The proof fails to establish what it claims to establish.

But the proof fails in more ways than one. According to this proof, the Bible’s statements on prayer imply that God would cure all of cancer on account of our prayers. But the proof fails to rule out (or even consider) the following possibility: background conditions on prayer are implicit in the text.

Consider that according to Matthew’s account, Jesus says, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me.” He goes on: “not as I will, but as you will” (Matt. 26:39).

And elsewhere, he says, “This, then, is how you should pray: Our Father in heaven… your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:9-10).

It appears that Jesus thinks prayers must be possible to answer (so, no asking for square circles). And prayers must accord with God’s will.

Why, then, does Jesus say that “everyone who asks receives”? A standard answer, which proof #1 fails to address, is that background conditions on prayer are implicit and would have been understood by his audience.

Indeed, that’s exactly what Jesus’ earliest followers thought: the Johanine text says that we know that we have what we ask for if we ask according to his will (John 5:14-15).

Now it certainly does seem good for all cancer to be cured. But the crucial question is this: could God instantly cure all cancer without thereby forfeiting a higher good? That’s a difficult question, and proof #1 doesn’t even attempt to answer it.

For all that proof #1 says, it may be that our fighting against cancer with mental and physical energy forges courage, compassion, and unique and special relationships between everlasting beings. What if some cancer allows us to become heroes in loving others? More generally, what if a finite stage of suffering can act as a means to certain everlasting bonds of love that far outweigh that suffering?

These are admittedly complex and difficult questions, with many books and articles devoted to them. So, if someone claims to prove that suffering cannot act as a means to outweighing goods, he better have a carefully spelled out argument to back that up; otherwise, reflective truth-seekers won’t be moved. Proof #1 offers us nothing of the sort; therefore, it fails in to establish its premises.

A Real God isn’t a Magical God

Jesus compares faith to a seed, not a magical wand. Seeds grow with time to produce fruit. There’s a process. And some methods of cultivation are more effective than others.

Truth is often complicated. Therefore, when a perfect being speaks truth, this being should sometimes speak about complex matters. What he says should sometimes baffle the simple-minded, while being discernible to the wise.

The scientific studies we have on prayer are actually compatible with a “realistic” interpretation of the biblical statements on prayer (contrary to what GII says). The only catch is this: some types of prayers appear to be more effective than others. The least effective ones seem to be prepackaged, one time prayers, from a distance for people one doesn’t know or care much about. A famous 2006 study indicates this. But when people pray fervently for people they care about, then the statistics change: such prayers have a statistical effect. Truth-seekers may wish to investigate studies referenced here and here.

Proof #1 is too simple. Its view of God is too simple. Its interpretation of Jesus’ statements is too simple. In a nutshell: it fails to address the possibility that a perfect, rational being might reveal complex layers of truth that truth-seekers may grow in their understanding of.