21 May 2013

Praying for Oklahoma is worthless

Posted by Callan Bentley

I’m dismayed at the news yesterday out of Oklahoma – the violent storm that ended lives.

This morning on Facebook, I noticed that many of my pious friends were letting the rest of us know that they were praying for Oklahoma, or more specifically, for the victims of the storm. At the same time, the hashtag #prayforoklahoma is trending on Twitter with all sorts of people dropping that phrase into their communiques, including the official White House account.

It perplexes me why anyone would think prayer would do a bit of good when it comes to tornadoes, physical phenomena that occur in certain areas under certain conditions with a high level of predictability. Meteorologists identified this storm as being dangerous, then saw (via physical instruments) the tornado form, and predicted where it would go with accuracy. They warned people in the path, and many of them heeded that warning and sought shelter. Science works well in dealing with physical phenomena like storms. But what about gods?

When it comes to the influence supernatural deities have on storms, there are three possibilities of which I can conceive:

  • The god cannot control or influence the storm. In other words, the god finds it impossible to ‘reach across the void’ and perturb the physical world.
  • The god can control or influence the storm, but is indifferent as to its effects. In other words, the god can’t be bothered to mess about with the physical world, for instance for the sake of saving human lives, though it is in the god’s power to do so.
  • The god can control or influence the storm, but opts not to, intentionally. In other words, the god takes a ‘hands-off’ approach to the physical world out of principle, or the god intentionally sent the storm for some purpose.

If a storm is bearing down on you, and you are praying, which of these options is it you’re looking for? Certainly there were prayers being desperately generated by the people of Moore, Oklahoma, as that monster tornado was bearing down on them. Some of those who were praying were lucky enough to survive. Some were killed outright.

Another possibility occurs to me. That is that the prayers of one person or group of people worked. These prayers were effective enough to push the storm on a different track, and divert it from the humans who generated the effective prayers. Perhaps it was the strength of the prayers in a location a half-mile south of the elementary school that diverted the tornado over the elementary school instead. Is that how the power of prayer plays out? That is, it saves the pious prayer-makers, but kills innocent children instead? Or does it just not work at all?

Praying for survivors in the aftermath of a storm like this is even weirder. Now that the damage is done, what role would prayer have on influencing the outcome? Again with my three possibilities:

  • If the god cannot control or influence the aftermath due to a natural / supernatural barrier, the prayer is worthless.
  • If the god can control or influence the aftermath, but is indifferent, then the prayer is worthless.
  • If the god can control or influence the aftermath, but opts not to out of intentional pursuit of some godly goal, then why would a devotee think their entreaties could change the god’s mind? If the god has intentionally chosen to kill a group of innocent people, is prayer the day after really going to convince that god to switch up their lesson plans? It seems astounding that a person could convince their god that the god’s murderous actions should be changed. If I were the god of such a devotee, I’d probably find that galling. Maybe the person’s prayer isn’t “worthless” per se in this scenario, but it certainly seems presumptuous. It implies that (a) the person who is praying thinks that they can change the god’s mind (i.e., that they know better than their omniscient deity), and that is worthwhile to attempt “making the case” via prayer because (b) their god is really into killing people, including elementary school children. This is a tacit admission that they are worshipping a murderous god.

Either prayer is worthless, or  else the aim of the prayers is to get the god to stop acting like Adam Lanza. Either way, that’s pretty bleak.

Scientists watched for the tornado, spotted it, and raised the alarm. Those scientists saved lives. The members of the media who communicated their message saved lives. As far as I can tell, those who prayed added nothing of any value*. The prayers may well have made those who whispered them feel better, but that’s a self-indulgent delusion, and it appears to be logically incoherent that the prayers would influence the physical course of events in any positive way.

* This sentence appears to be causing some consternation and accusations of me using this blog to denigrate those who pray, so let me clarify: the act of prayer alone adds nothing of any value, so far as I can tell (please prove me wrong). I make no claims beyond that, and certainly don’t want to make any statements about the people who practice the act of prayer, beyond pointing out that they are likely wasting their time.

If you want to help the survivors in Oklahoma, they can use some money. Money can buy them food, water, shelter, and materials to start putting their lives back together. Two places where you can donate to relief efforts are the Red Cross or the Foundation Beyond Belief. If you want to influence events so they save lives, write to your elected representatives and encourage them to fund NOAA’s National Weather Service as fully as possible. Encourage your local politicians to invest in disaster preparedness. But when it comes to influencing your preferred god, it seems to me that you’d be better of saving your breath.