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What’s the point of prayer? May 17, 2017

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Responses.
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I recently left this as a comment on Wondering Eagle’s blog post about prayer.  Since I haven’t blogged much recently, and I’m pretty pleased with the comment, I thought I should give it its own post.

I’ve always been puzzled about the disconnect between what evangelicals say about god, and what they say about prayer. They say their god is all-powerful, all knowing, benevolent, and has a perfect plan for their lives. Then they spend time telling god things and begging god to change stuff. If god already knows what people need, why spend time telling him what you want? If god has a perfect plan, then why are they asking him to change it, just for them? And why do they think a request to change his perfect plan is more effective if they have more people doing it? Is god not going to “bless America” unless a bunch of christian politicians make sure to ask him to in their every speech? (This is why I laugh at the whole “prayer warrior” idea. It’s just magical thinking.) They say “trust god” and “let go and let god” and then they spend long hours in prayer not trusting him and giving him advice on what to do.

Back when I was a believer, the only kinds of prayer that actually made sense were things like “Help me understand. Help me be strong to do the things that I need to do. Help me cope with what I can’t change.”

Now the way evangelicals pray would make a lot more sense if they were talking about a limited god, like the ones in the Greek pantheon. Those gods didn’t have perfect plans, didn’t know everything you were thinking, and if you sucked up to them enough, and sacrificed enough cattle, they might be willing to take your advice about what to do. Modern evangelicals often sound like they are preaching about YHWH and Jesus, but then praying and tithing to Zeus.

Marking Territory, making a meme October 23, 2014

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Humor, Rants.
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I’ve been playing around with this idea for a meme, but I’m not sure I have the text just right.  I want to give this the right punch, and be clear with the message I am sending.

Here’s what I have so far, and I’d love suggestions if you can think of better captions for this, or any other revisions this needs.


Territorial June 18, 2014

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Humor, Rants, Responses.
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With all the “brave” school officials and legislators insisting on courageously inserting prayers from their overwhelmingly majority religion into every public event, I felt the need to make this meme today.

(Apologies to the dog in the photo.  I’m not implying that he’s christian.)

Don’t say “Miracles are impossible” May 3, 2013

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Rants, Responses.
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Every so often, I hear a discussion or debate between a believer and a non-believer, and the non-believer will begin going on about how the miracles claimed by religion are physically impossible.  How people can’t walk on water because there isn’t enough surface tension, how people can’t really turn into pillars of salt, how water can’t become wine, how people can’t actually come back from the dead, etc.  Even JT, in what was otherwise a very good debate, recently used this argument.

I feel a need to point out that this is a very weak argument against theism, and that it’s an ineffective tactic for use in a debate.  This is because the believer comes back with “Well DUH!  That’s how god shows his power.  If it was physically possible, then it wouldn’t be much of a miracle, would it?”  Rather like the way a child believes in Santa, even when you point out that he really could not fit down the chimney.  “It’s magic, silly.”  If someone believes in magic, then no amount of pointing out how impossible it all is will change their minds.

Now I do think bringing up miracles can be a useful tactic in a debate or a discussion.  But not in the context of “they’re impossible”.  So here’s my version of a more useful discussion of “miracles”.

First, I think we should define exactly what we mean by a “miracle”.  Some people talk about the victory of a sports team as a miracle, or the spontaneous remission of cancer, or their finding just the parking space they need right when they need it.  These events might be very unlikely, but there is enough of a chance that these things would occur that we would expect them to happen every once in awhile.  When I’m discussing miracles with believers, I want to rule out these unlikely but possible things as miracles.  If we take a group of 100 people who have a cancer that has a 99% fatality rate and have all the members of a church pray for those people and one survives, that’s not a miracle.  That’s the statistically expected result.  That one person might feel like they were granted a personal miracle, but the 99 other dead people certainly weren’t.

When I’m discussing miracles, I want to discuss those claimed events that would be in complete violation of all observed natural law.  Religions certainly have enough of those in their ancient books.  A good example of this would be the story of the sun stopping in the sky during a battle.  In reality, if this happened, that would mean the earth had stopped rotating, and then started up again later.  I have not run the numbers, but I think that the amount of energy that would be required to overcome the earth’s angular momentum, and then to put it back again, would cause catastrophic damage to everything on the surface and maybe melt the earth’s crust.  This is the kind of miracle I would want to discuss, literally impossible things, the sort of event where the statistically expected number of times we should ever expect it to happen on its own is “none”.

Biblegod is described as an all-powerful being who is able to do things that violate the known laws of the universe.  He is protrayed as making specific local violations happen, in order to establish his existence or power, reward the faithful, or punish evildoers.  The OT in particular is full of this sort of miracle. Why don’t they happen any more?

There are several possible answers I commonly hear on this:

1.  They still happen, but we aren’t looking in the right way.

2. They don’t happen anymore because Jesus.

3. They don’t happen anymore because Mysterious Ways™

4. They never happened because the bible is a big book of tall tales.

So, my responses to these:

1. ” We aren’t looking in the right way.”  With our  modern advances, we have many more ways of observing the universe than ever before, and also more ways of communicating those results to each other.  If there were genuine supernatual events happening, someone would have measured them by now, written a paper and won a Nobel.  Or at least won the $1,000,000 from the JREF.  But so far, the closer and more accurately we look, the more the miracles are just not showing up.  We study intercessory prayer and discover that it does nothing.   Amputees are never healed.  People who say god talks to them are never given any accurate information that they could not hve gotten another way.   I’ve actually heard believers say things like “Well, if you don’t believe, then you won’t see the miracle.  You have to believe first.”  There’s a name for making up your mind first, then looking for the evidence to back it up afterward: Confirmation Bias.

2. “They don’t happen anymore because Jesus.”  The premise is that god doesn’t need any of that OT stuff anymore because there’s a “new covenant” and now all that’s needed is a personal relationship with Jesus.  No more animal sacrifices, no big showy miracles, bacon is OK now, tattoos are allowed, all of that stuff that was so vital to keep biblegod from smiting you is now not needed anymore (although somehow homosexuality is still bad, go figure).  I have a couple of problems with this.  First, the NT also has miracles.  People had Jesus right in front of them, and they still needed miracles, and even then most of those people did not drop everything to become followers.  Thomas asked for evidence before he could believe, and he got it.  Later the apostles were supposedly also working miracles to demonstrate the truth of their message.  So “not needing miracles” anymore does not fly.

My other problem with this is that biblegod is supposed to be a perfect being.  So, a perfect being who used to show off all the time but now doesn’t?  A perfect being who used to throw temper tantrums if people were wicked, flooding the earth or swallowing them up with an earthquake or a fish, but now he’s apparently had anger management lessons?  Why would a perfect being change?  Why would a perfect being ever need to change the rules?   He used to be all jealous and badass and smitey, and insisted on strange pointless rituals and demanded the smell of barbeque, and now he just wants to live in your heart and help you find your keys?  This makes no sense at all.

3. They don’t happen anymore because Mysterious Ways™.  “God has a plan and we can’t understand it. He’s just so far above us that we couldn’t begin to comprehend him.  We just have to trust.”  This one is a cop-out.  If biblegod is so frikkin mysterious, then how do you claim to understand anything about him at all?  Yet preachers get up and say:  “I know what god wants, he wants you to think a and b and c, never think d or e or f, and you must hate x and y and z because he does.  I assure you that if you believe exactly what I tell you this book says, you’ll be doing exactly what he wants.  He loves guns, he hates gays, he will rain down blessings if you say this particular prayer, and he wants you to give me at least 10% of your money.”  This version of god is not mysterious in the least! If he’s so mysterious you can’t understand him, then he’s mysterious enough that the preachers don’t understand him and the prophets didn’t understand him either.   If you use “Mysterious Ways™” to explain theological problems away, then you need to stop trying to convince people that you understand anything about your god.

4. They never happened because the bible is a big book of tall tales.   People tell impressive stories around the campfire, later other people write them down, and then years later other people think all that stuff was supposed to be real.  Yeah. This is the only one of the options that really makes any consistent sense.

Does anybody else have any other explanations they’ve heard from believers for the absense of modern miracles?

Prayer Vigils! Why???? December 30, 2012

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Questions, Rants.
Tags: , , , , , ,

I’ve seen many blog entries posted about the shooting in Newtown, and most of the things I would say about it have already been well discussed by other bloggers.  But the one thing that kept jumping out at me was that churches would hold “prayer vigils” for the victims and their families.

Newtown Vigil

This is probably a good opportunity for me to discuss my opinions on “prayer” in general.

I see two things going on with prayer: first, what the believer thinks is happening, and secondly, what is actually happening in the real world.

Prayer wheel

Wailing wall


When an individual prays, they often say they are talking to god, or listening to god, or asking for god to do something, or trying to understand what god wants them to do, or connecting with the divine, or some such.  I don’t think any communication with a god is actually occurring, but that does not mean that there is nothing beneficial happening for the individual.  What I see actually happening is that the person is focusing their mind, tuning out outside distractions, and often concentrating on repetitive actions and thought patterns.  In other words, meditation.


I think meditation, in any form, can be helpful.  In our hectic society, it’s great for a person to take a few minutes to still the clamor of everyday life.  It’s kind of a reboot for the brain.  If a person finds that meditating helps them function better, I’m all for it.  As long as they are not pretending that they are causing changes in the world outside their own brain, or using it as a substitute for actually doing things.

But what about vigils?  When there is a tragedy, Christians often respond by holding this thing called a prayer vigil.  They gather in groups for a long period of time, often overnight and usually outdoors.  They light candles, sing songs, and spend lots of time talking to their invisible friend.

From a real-world point of view, I get this.  I really do.  When a random tragedy strikes, we are shaken as individuals and need the reassurance that we are part of a supportive social group.  Having a special gathering, and doing things together like singing and lighting candles can help us feel better.  It’s the same reason I think we gather for funerals instead of grieving privately.  Humans are social animals, and our response to major stressful events is to do group activities that reinforce the strength of our social support network.

What I don’t understand is what believers think they are accomplishing with prayer vigils.  Even when I was a believer, this seemed a totally pointless activity and I never participated when I could avoid it.

If someone I loved had been killed or injured in some disaster or tragedy, and some church miles and miles away said they were going to help me by holding a prayer vigil, would this help me in any way? Certainly not!   I’d tell them to get up off their knees and go do something real instead of the colossal waste of time and energy involved in a “vigil”.

There are real world things that can be done to help, and I’ll use the Newtown shooting as an example.  In that case they could:

  • Donate money to the families to cover medical and funeral costs
  • Donate blood, which won’t help the victims directly, but which may save someone else’s life
  • If they actually knew one of the people affected, contact them and, in addition to offering sympathy, ask if there is anything they could do to help them right now.

And to keep this kind of thing from happening again:

  • Donate time and/or money to push for more sensible gun laws
  • Donate time and/or money to push for better care of the mentally ill.
  • Donate time and/or money to push for better prevention of bullying in our schools.

Prayer vigils don’t do any of this; as far as I can tell prayer vigils don’t actually do anything for anybody except those participating.

So here are my questions for believers:

How is praying outside in the cold with a candle any better than praying indoors?  Why would praying in a group be more effective than the same people praying individually in their own homes? If you pray for longer does god take your prayer more seriously? Does god listen harder when you light candles?  (And, for Catholics, does god pay more attention to the prayers of those who are fiddling with magic beads?)

And – how is it that you think holding a prayer vigil counts as helping???

***UPDATE – Jan 10***

And…here they go at it again:

Please Join the Interfaith Moral Action on Climate in
“A Pray-In for the Climate”
in front of the White House


So what are they trying to accomplish? From a blurb I was sent about this:  “A gathering and vigil to ask the President and the nation to find strength and wisdom to steer us away from the Climate Cliff.”  So they’re not actually asking god to fix the climate problem (which would seem to be the obvious answer if you believe in an omnipotent god who answers prayers), they are gathering to pressure the government into taking action.  So why don’t they just call this what it is:  a “protest”?  Oh, no, this has to be a “vigil” because somehow that’s more effective than a protest.  Sheesh.