Let us pray

Last September at my brother's wedding in Los Angeles, which was an especially religious ceremony, many prayers were said thanking God for bringing my brother and his wife together, for bringing all the families together in "fellowship", etc. etc. I have many religious friends on Facebook, and I've noticed that whenever someone is sick, injured or dying, the immediate reaction is, "I'll be praying for you." Ultra-conservative republicans have been holding "prayercasts" in the hopes that God will strike down health care reform, and there are numerous Facebook groups with names like "Pray for Haiti", many with tens of thousands of members.

What strikes me as odd about this sort of behavior is the implicit assumption that God is in control of all things, and that he may choose to help someone if it is in accordance with his will. Since no one knows what God's will is, people pray. But if God is just going to do what he wills anyway, and if no one knows what that will actually is, how is praying to God any different than praying to... well, to nothing at all?

I also find it truly bizarre that this all-powerful God would make sure my brother met his wife and that our families and friends could get together for steak dinners and an extravagant wedding, yet ignore the pleas of the 75,000 homeless people in Los Angeles. And whenever someone talks of praying to God for his aid in healing injuries, terminal diseases, or relieving the suffering of victims of natural disasters, I can't help but ask, simply, why these tragedies happened in the first place.

Marc Hauser, Harvard professor of psychology and evolutionary biology, in his excellent book Moral Minds, explains that we have a favorable bias toward acts of omission versus acts of commission. Consider, for example, that the American Medial Association forbids euthanasia – ending another's life to relieve their suffering – even when the patient wishes it. However, the AMA does not forbid the termination of artificial life support. In the first scenario, we are taking an explicit action to end someone's life; in the second scenario, we are neglecting to take actions within our power to preserve someone's life.

People seem to give God a similar kind of pass. When God, who supposedly is both all-powerful and does not wish for us to suffer, simply neglects to relieve someone of their suffering – or, better still, prevent them from suffering in the first place – even though he can, we act as though God is not to blame. We make it no fault of God's that people die of cancer, famine, disease, or natural disasters. The implication is that God didn't actually cause these disasters, even though it was well within his power to prevent them. It's certainly more palatable to believe that God is complacent rather than malicious, but believers should ask themselves why they don't hold complacency in equal contempt.

Comments

  1. I agree with you about the whole cause/allow distinction. An example I often use is this:

    Suppose I'm sitting on my front porch with a shotgun, and an unarmed man approaches my house with the intent to enter and rape my children. Even though I could easily prevent the man from entering my house, I allow him to do so and have his way with my children. Now, even though I didn't directly cause the harm to my children, am I (especially as their "loving" father) not at least as culpable as that man for allowing him to do so when I could have prevented it?

    As far as praying for God's will goes, most christians usually end up speaking out both sides of their mouth on that. On the one hand they will assert that God is in control of everything, but when pressed, will often assert that it depends on humans praying and allowing God to have His way. So which is it? Is God ultimately in control or are we? It can't be both ways right? If it's the former, then God has a lot of 'splaining to do. If it's the latter, and God's will ultimately depends on the free will decisions of every person, how could He possibly ever have His will done? Is it a combination of the two? Does God sometimes assert control and other times relinquish it? How can we ever know the difference?

    Such a can of worms.

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