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There are obvious—prima facie—problems with prayer. Prime problems that hit you in the face like a divinely unstopped tsunami. But what is really evocative of the bind that religious believers find themselves in is the idea that they are praying in the first place.

Okay, let’s back it up a little. No, a little bit more. That’s it, right up to God.

What we have here, as you should clearly see through your rear windscreen (did you remember to put your God-goggles on?), is an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving god.

It’s that all-knowing trait that gets him into trouble. A lot of trouble.

You see, if God knows the future—indubitably and without any error—then everything that will come to pass must come to pass. Without fail. What I mean is that if God makes a prediction about the future (God’s foreknowledge causally before creating the universe), then there is nothing that can be done to change this set of falling dominoes. The future, like God, is immutable.

This is because if God tinkers with affairs, changes his mind, alters the variables after setting the dominoes in motion, then God is changing how things were predicted to be back at the beginning when he was thinking (with his predictive foreknowledge) about reality.

But God cannot be fallible. He can never be wrong. Ever. For he has perfect divine foreknowledge, and is perfect (if you believe in this kind of God, and whatever that may mean). His predictions causally prior to making the universe (we call this his knowledge of all counterfactuals—if X happens, then Y happens) simply cannot be fallible.

Not only can the world not “change course,” or be different from God’s perfect predictions, but God’s actions are themselves confined to only a single predicted path. Or, “God cannot act contrary to his own predictions.” You didn’t think you had free will? God definitely doesn’t.

For the record, ignore the nonsensical theology of the Bible where God apparently does change his mind (see his actions concerning Jonah and the people of Ninevah).

Right, come on, let’s get back to where we were.

Prayer.

So here the theist is, looking at the world—the pain and suffering, the war or pandemic—and pleading with God to stop certain things, to change the way things are. Things are terrible. What a mess!

Except, a prayer is not going to change anything. What will come to pass was set in motion, was known, from the beginning of time. Doris from Number 22, on her knees and clasping a crucifix in ritualistic pleading with her sovereign God, is not going to change a thing.

But it is also—and this is my point in this short piece (since I’ve told you all this previous stuff before)—a case that her prayer is pretty explicit acceptance that something is wrong with the world that God has created.

It’s not as if God is going to sit there in the clouds and, receiving her prayer, say, “Oh bugger, good point, Doris. I’d completely overlooked that. I’ll change the universe forthwith to align it with your desires and pertinent observations. My entire plans from the beginning of time were evidently wrong. Shucks.”

Doris’s prayer is pretty explicit acceptance that something is wrong with the world that God has created.

Doris and her prayer will effect no cosmological change of course.

And the prayer shows that there is something wrong with the universe, with its design. Now, rationally, if she accepts God’s sovereign power and wisdom, Doris (just like every other such believer) should not only never implore God to change things (it’s pointless) but should really celebrate God’s judgment.

…Where God’s judgment is malaria, tsunamis, pandemic, cancer, genocide, rape, disability, and every other piece of pain and suffering known to sentient life forms, including stubbing one’s toe.

God, in his infinite wisdom—and who are we mere mortals to question that?—has decreed that all of these should take place and that he will not stop them. They provide, theologians posit (calling them theodicies), a greater good, in some way.

But happen they will, and happen they must. For there can be no gratuitous suffering. None. Not even a stubbed toe or a frustrating whitlow.

Members of the Westboro Baptist Church realize this (complete idiocy). As a result, they go out and shout about God’s judgment when dead soldiers are brought back in coffins from conflict. They celebrate God’s judgment, no matter what form it comes in. It’s an uncomfortable form of logical consistency.

Oh, apart from gays. They don’t celebrate that design feature. Or moral liberalism. Or…

So their logical consistency goes only so far. But you get my point.

Which, just to reiterate, concerns the following things that theists should be doing:

  1. not praying for change.
  2. not whingeing about God’s infinitely wise judgment.
  3. actually celebrating the greatest mind making the greatest judgments possible.
  4. celebrating the divinely unfettered existence of malaria, cancer, war, and rape, since God judges not to intervene.

Doris needs to sort out her theology. There are some serious problems with prayer.

Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...