Why God Doesn't Listen To Your Prayers
God does not answer prayer.
There, I've said it. I know for some my assertion is scandalous, while for others it is mere common sense. But before you summon the inquisitor to prepare the rack or brand me a heretic or rush to my defense, hear me out.
I used to believe that God answered prayer. Being raised a Christian I was taught that I had an invisible, magical and wish-granting friend named Jesus who cared about all of my problems, however big or small. All I had to do was pray in his name. And if I didn't get what I asked for there was a good chance it was because I wasn't praying hard enough. This idea was so central to the Christian faith I was taught that never was I allowed to question the presupposition that God played favorites via a divine competition for "his" attention.
It took many years before I began wondering about the implications of God intervening in the world to answer prayer. I must admit, however, that in my youth I never had made an earnest effort to understand the logic behind prayer. Like many Christians I had a superficial understanding of my religion. I never read the Bible or studied the history of my tradition. And in high school I was too busy skipping Sunday school and getting high behind the Church to care about theology. One of the few times I did attend I remember listening to former WWF wrestler Jake the Snake Roberts with boa constrictor in hand give his testimony about how Jesus saved him. With an old spandex clad wrestler as a primary source of my understanding about the Christian faith I definitely had some learning to do.
As a result of my superficial upbringing as a Christian I was ignorant, Biblically illiterate and theologically naive. Rather than thinking for myself I simply accepted what I was told; God answers my prayers, Jesus saves and that all of those non-Christians are damned (among many other doctrines). This ignorance and obedience to Church leaders (most always men) is commonplace in conservative Christianity. Less than 10% of Christians have read the entire Bible and a large amount have never read any of it. Many still believe that Moses wrote the Pentateuch (despite his description of his own death) and that we descended from Adam and Eve. Most have no idea that for much of Christian history common people never read the Bible. In fact the Church authorities either killed or persecuted those who first translated the Bible into vernacular. But looking back I now realize that maintaining this ignorance was all part of the agenda. Most conservative Christians despise theology and refuse to teach it to their members. Questions are dangerous. History is suppressed and lies are told about other religions. The hypocrisy here is glaring as the leaders of any given Church have probably gone through seminary and have read theology, studied some philosophy and know the complex history of Christianity. But the same process of investigating and doubting is readily denied to lay people by conservative Christians. Worse yet it is often framed as the work of the devil. Much can be said about the ignorance of Christians and need for more thorough education but this essay is about prayer so I digress.
Got prayer? The Nazis certainly did. The belts of their troops read "God with us." And lets not forget about the close relationship between the Nazi Party and the Catholic Church. The Confederates believed God was on their side. The Crusaders prayed for victory. Muslim extremists prayed for success when flying the planes into the World Trade Center. And of course Americans believed God was on our side in WWII. The Union was praying just as hard as the confederates and people in the Trade Center and on the airplanes prayed. Which group got their prayers answered? Which side has God intervened in history for?
If one is a theist and believes in an omnipotent God that can intervene in the world, one is faced with the dilemma presented above. Whose side is God on? Each group claims divine favoritism and will explain history to their own liking. If God was on the side of America why did "he" allow millions of Jews to be killed? Were they not praying hard enough? If God answers some prayers why not others?
The standard defense against theodicy or why evil co-exists with an all-powerful, loving and interventionist God is that we simply can't explain it. The argument is, God is so awesome that we simply do not know "his" true purpose or will as to why "he" selectively intervenes or answers some prayers and not others. The next question that is usually raised is, if God is all-powerful, why doesn't God simply make everyone do good? The theist claims that God cannot simply make us automatons doing good all the time because it would violate our "God given" free will. But rest assured God does have the power to intervene and does so according to "his" own agenda.
I find the traditional understanding of prayer and answer to theodicy extremely disturbing because I don't believe in a God that plays favorites. The standard response given to this theistic understanding is to simply point out that it is immoral for God to help someone find a parking space (which believers often claim) while ignoring a child dying of cancer. Let alone all of the atrocities that God could have prevented. If God is making conscious choices on a daily basis that allow such incredible suffering God is in the least both good and evil. God cannot be only good because God is morally responsible for evil things occurring. Good is a human concept based on human morality that connotes certain things like stopping unnecessary death if one has the power to do so. Thus, because this interventionist God may do things that lead to both life and unnecessary death it would distort any meaning of the word good if we were to apply it to this God. At least that's what you would think.
The disturbing reality of viewing all of God's plans, prayer requests and interventions as good and perfect is revealed in a debate between Dan Barker and the evangelical pastor Douglas Wilson. Wilson has recently been known for his debates with Christopher Hitchens and other atheists, one of which has been turned into a DVD called "Collision." Like many other Christians Wilson is a Biblical literalist which means that he believes the Bible is the word of God and is an accurate portrayal of history. In other words everything in the Bible actually happened and did so according to God's plan. In the debate Wilson is asked by Barker if it is good that God ordered the killing of the Amalekite men, women, children and babies in the Hebrew Bible (1 Sam 15:3 NIV): "Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys." His response is scary, but granted it is consistent with his ethic that everything God does is good:
Barker: You think it was right?
Wilson: The people of God were blessed by this when they were conquering the enemies of God. And the one who took the children of the enemies of God and bashed them on the rock was blessed by God. That's in the Bible and I have no apologies for it.
Barker: Do you think that's good morality? Do you think that's not a cruel thing to do? Do you think its a good thing to do?
Wilson: God is the definition of good. We begin all our reasoning from this position. We reason from what God says to our morality.
Wilson has also tried to be morally consistent in respect to other aspects of the Bible. From " The Controversialist" in Christianity Today:
But when I asked what he thought of the death penalty for homosexual acts suggested in Leviticus 20:13, he did not shy away from the theonomic hard line that disturbs many Christians. "You can't apply Scripture woodenly," he says. "You might exile some homosexuals, depending on the circumstances and the age of the victim. There are circumstances where I'd be in favor of execution for adultery. ... I'm not proposing legislation. All I'm doing is refusing to apologize for certain parts of the Bible."
The same distortion of the word "good" by Wilson is what is required if we are to believe that an interventionist God who answers prayer is good.
If the response of claiming God cannot only be good isn't satisfactory I have another. It's a response that I've never heard asked, despite many years of watching people debate about God whether conservative, liberal or atheist. And of all the times I've asked theology and religious studies professors, believers and humanists I've never heard an answer. It is simple and goes like this: God answering prayer violates free will. Theists, whether Christians or otherwise claim that God intervenes in the world but simultaneously state that God can't make us do good because this violates free will. But doesn't any intervention by God into human affairs constitute a violation of free will? Why in one case can God affect and/or control human behavior without violating free will but in another case God's action does? Is there a limit to how much God can intervene in human affairs before it becomes a violation of free will? Five percent of the time? How about ten? To me it seems a clear double standard that is in need of an explanation.
If one abandons the notion that God can intervene in the world to answer prayer God all of a sudden looks much different. Gone is the notion that the Holocaust could have been prevented and was part of God's divine and "awesome" plan. Gone is the immense power for God to take sides in war as illustrated in the Hebrew Bible. Gone is a God that plays favorites. No longer can God be omnipotent as previously understood because God lacks the power to act in the world. For many who begin to interpret the divine in this non-theistic new light, God then becomes synonymous with love, creative energy and relatedness. Just because the theology of yesterday is insufficient for our modern standards doesn't mean we need to abandon God, religion or appreciation for the divine.
Believers who hold to an omnipotent and interventionist God will struggle with my line of reasoning because it upsets the foundation of their reality. I know because I went through a process of existential struggle and crisis when examining the nature of God. In a world of chaos and cruelty it felt good to know that someone was in control. It lessened my fear and provided comfort. And for these reasons I understand why believers will take issue with my line of reasoning. I'm ok with this. But that's why it is too much to expect -- as Christopher Hitchens and the new atheists do -- that believers simply abandon God or discard the omnipotent interventionist God overnight. Reflecting on the nature of God requires a difficult process of soul searching. It's as if I were to ask one of them to stop loving their father. Thus, I completely understand believers who find my reasoning faulty and dangerous. It is not just a mere experiment with logic but rather a reevaluation of morality, a new way of seeing existence and the experience of losing a loved one. Without this recognition true dialogue is difficult. But as painful as it was for me I've abandoned this way of interventionist thinking. However, it took time, thoughtful independent analysis and the support of other people who went through a similar process. I simply want to share my experience and let people decide for themselves.