The moral consquences of believing your prayers may be answered

The combination of beliefs in the power of petitionary prayer – by which I mean the idea that God will sometimes answer requests to intervene by working miracles when he would not have done so had the prayer not been made – and the use of the word “good” to describe God is one that I particularly object to.

I start from the belief that the most plausible alternative to atheism is dystheism – I think that Epicurus’s paradox has not been successfully resolved in the intervening two millenia, and that if there is a supreme being who could intervene to prevent $awfulthing but chooses not to, then they have a lot to answer for, just as a human who could prevent $awfulthing at no cost to themselves would1, and “good” is not a word I would use to describe them.

But, of the possible defences, I think that the idea of a deity who created the universe – which, clearly, does a lot of good, for all its flaws – and then left it spinning of its own accord for us to get on with things, and will sweep up the mess afterwards, is one of the ones I think is, at worst, flawed only in a sophisticated and non-obvious way, and which I am not as confident in my refutation of.

When you add miracles to that worldview, though, and say that God sometimes, but not always, intervenes to prevent $awfulthings, that defence becomes a lot harder and less persuasive – you have admitted that God is perfectly capable of intervening to stop $awfulthings even under their own rules, but sometimes there are reasons why they choose not to. And at that point, if you want to argue that God is good, you’re implicitly claiming that there are reasons why not intervening to prevent $awfulthing was the right thing to do. And for some values of $awfulthing, those reasons must be pretty damn mysterious – there’s a reason Dr Pangloss is a satirical figure.

But when you add petitionary prayer – miracles worked as a result of someone asking for them, that would not have been worked if not for that request – you lose even the option of saying “those reasons are mysterious”, because you’re stating a non-mysterious reason God works miracles. You *can’t* have “God did this because I asked him” without “If I had not asked him, God would not have done this”. In other words, if you accept that God answered a prayer to save a baby’s life, you’re implicitly stating that God let some of those other babies over there die because their parents didn’t ask nicely enough.

And at that point I think it’s pretty hard to defend not using the word “evil” (except perhaps on grounds of self-interested thunderbolt-avoidance).

Obvious necessary admission: there are an awful lot of awful things I, personally, could prevent at relatively light cost to myself and don’t; I am emphatically not claiming to be non-evil myself, merely that an omnipotent supreme being must not be either. If you want to prevent awful things, https://www.givewell.org/ lists what are probably among the more efficient places to start.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s