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The Kittycat Lounge in Pahrump, Nevada calls itself a gentlemen’s club, but to you and me, it’s a brothel. Here in rural Nevada, prostitution is legal.

Business was good, and the owner of the Kittycat bought a second building for expansion.

When the Christian and his antagonist switch sides

A local non-denominational church felt that this proposed second location was too much, and members of the congregation protested in the city council to slow the project. But building permits were granted, so the church moved to plan B. They rented a storefront in a strip mall across the road from Kittycat 2. Prayer teams took shifts in the makeshift church, targeting the renovation across the street.

Enthusiasm flagged as the weeks wore on, but just days before the planned opening, lightning hit the nearly completed brothel. The building was destroyed. The business didn’t have insurance to cover the damage, and it seemed that the Kittycat was no more.

The members of the church felt that their many hours of prayer had brought them, not just success, but a literal act of God. There was much crowing of the “No Jesus meek and mild in this town!” sort in the local news and on the windows of their storefront church.

If we believe what the Bible records about Jesus, prayer works just like your car or cellphone or light switch work.

That cocky attitude changed once the owner of the brothel sued the church on the grounds that the church “was responsible for the demise of the Kittycat Lounge, both as real estate and as a business entity, through direct or indirect divine actions or means.”

The church immediately backtracked, denying all responsibility through every local news channel for what they now called a “tragedy.”

The result? The two adversaries were a brothel owner who believed in the power of prayer and a conservative church that didn’t.

(This is a great story, but it’s just that—a story. Snopes debunks a similar version.)

How is prayer supposed to work?

Let’s move to another example where a conflict between dogma and reality means the Christian doesn’t wind up where you’d expect.

The M*A*S*H television show (1972–1983) was a comedy-drama set in a front-line hospital during the Korean War. In one episode (“Showtime,” first aired in 1973), Father Mulcahy is feeling useless and frustrated. He compares himself with the doctors. They do remarkable good, but what can he point to? Doctors usually know right away whether they were successful, but a priest may never know.

Later, Hawkeye and two other doctors sit around the bed of a patient who’s doing poorly. Hawkeye calls on Mulcahy to stand by to deliver last rites. Mulcahy takes the patient’s hand and prays for his health (@17:25). To the surprise of all, the patient slowly moves his head and opens his eyes.

HAWKEYE (to MULCAHY): What was that about not being sure you did any good?

MULCAHY: It’s not supposed to work that way, you know.

But it is! That’s exactly how it’s supposed to work!

Read the Bible: you pray, you get results. There’s no delay; there’s no face-saving nonsense like “God always answers, but sometimes the answer is No.” If we believe what the Bible records about Jesus, prayer works just like your car or cellphone or light switch work.

Jesus said that if you have faith as tiny as a mustard seed, you will be able to move mountains (Matthew 17:20). Jesus said that prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well (James 5:15). Jesus said that whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours (Matt. 21:22). Jesus said that all things are possible to him who believes (Mark 9:23). Jesus said, “Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it” (John 14:14). No limitations or delays are mentioned. There’s no fine print.

Christians sometimes complain about atheists’ interpretation of Christian prayer. “God isn’t a genie,” they’ll tell you. “He isn’t standing by to grant your every wish.”

But he is. These Christians need to read their Bibles more closely, Father Mulcahy included. The Bible says exactly what should happen when taking a sick person’s hand and praying earnestly to God: “And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up.” Every time.

Like the brothel owner who believed in prayer and the church congregation that didn’t, Mulcahy the Catholic priest is in an odd situation. He believes in a hidden god, a teasing god, a god who slips in miraculous healings that are indistinguishable from good luck. Father Mulcahy knows that prayer doesn’t work the way Jesus promises, and it takes an atheist to point out that he’s forced to worship the nonexistent God of reality, not the powerful God of the Bible who’s always on call.

The pope and the physicist

Let’s look at one final example of Christians torn between reality and dogma.

In 1951, Pope Pius XII celebrated new science that he interpreted as validating the first chapter in Genesis. This new science was the Big Bang.

Decades before, the consensus had settled on a steady-state model with an eternal universe. The new Big Bang theory pointed to a time before which the universe didn’t exist. This fit neatly into the Christian model in which, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”

Science hadn’t been kind to the Church. Copernicus removed our planet from the center of the universe, and Darwin showed that natural explanations were sufficient to explain life. Was science finally on the Church’s side?

Georges Lemaître, a Catholic priest and a contributor to Big Bang theory, didn’t see it this way. He encouraged the pope to avoid the Church saying that science supported Christian dogma. His reasoning was easy to understand: if you point out where science supports Christian claims, you must correspondingly admit where science undercuts Christian claims, and there are plenty of those. Live by the sword, die by the sword.

(While this third story looks to be the only one that actually happened, it may be that it, too, is fiction. While he did meet with the pope, there is no solid evidence for Lemaître pushing back. Nevertheless, this story also illustrates Christianity’s difficult relationship with reality.)

Lemaître’s stance vs. modern theologians

Today’s evangelical apologists rarely have Lemaître’s tough standards. They will typically cherry-pick their science to support apologetic arguments like the Design Argument or Kalam Cosmological Argument and ignore inconvenient facts that undercut their position. And why not? They don’t have any skin in the game. Their Christian faith isn’t built on these arguments. Their goal is a convincing argument, not the best argument. If a prospective Christian nibbles, the argument has done its job even if its errors have been exposed.

Science is a harsh mistress, and Lemaître was careful to stay on her good side. Evangelical apologists want to turn her into a prostitute.

If prayer worked,
911 would connect you to a church.
— seen on the internet

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CROSS EXAMINED After graduating from MIT, Bob Seidensticker designed digital hardware, and he is a co-contributor to 14 software patents. For more than a decade, he has explored the debate between Christianity...