Seek And You Will Find

Bordeaux ObservatoryI have been debating on Fallen & Flawed again. This time myself and a couple of other skeptics have become engrossed in a long conversation with guest poster Rob, who has shown considerable determination to answer our questions and protests, despite moving house over the past few days. I expect he is a competent juggler too.

My most recent comment became so long that I thought it worth making an entire post out of it. It’s also a theme that I’ve heard before but never directly addressed. The quote below is Rob touching on a subject of some interest to me, that of divine concealment. (Unsurprisingly we’d deviated significantly from the topic by this point).

I personally find myself not seeking Him more than Him hiding from me. Something about if you seek you will find.

I think I understand what Rob is saying. If he believes something with certainty, it must look like laziness or stubbornness on the part of non-believers not to see what seems so obvious to him. However, I think there are some problems with the claim “seek and you will find”.

Firstly, many atheists have spent a good deal of time seeking and never finding anything more than our own feelings, fellowship of others – nothing that could fairly be called “God”. That’s why we ended up atheists. A few of us have never believed nor tried to, but most have given at least one religion a go. To the believer perhaps this means they “Weren’t truly seeking”, but to me it shows that “seek and you will find” is often false.

Secondly, this kind of justification can be used for pretty much any belief system.

Imagine you’re a Sihk who is doubting their path. Perhaps the Sikh religion is an interesting idea with some worthwhile moral lessons, but also falsehoods and irrelevancies that can put unnecessary divisions between people when they disagree on points of doctrine. Another Sikh gives this advice.

“At the end of the day, Guru, Shri Guru Granth Sahib [Sikh holy book] is the door to Waheguru [God/Wonderful Teacher].”

Muslim woman at prayerWhat if you’re a Muslim who isn’t feeling Allah’s love? Maybe Allah isn’t there at all? No, apparently you’ve just got to take the time to study harder.

Say you’ve tried Buddhism, but you’re struggling with meditation and still experiencing a life of suffering.  Perhaps Buddhism is not the answer to everything? No, apparently you’re just not doing it right. Obviously it’s because you still have an incorrect understanding of your own person and have not yet eliminated the negative actions which are affecting your Karma.

You’re not trying hard enough

The same thing seems to happen with prayer. When it doesn’t work this can’t, for some reason, be counted as evidence against the chosen deity, despite what the Bible says. No, when it doesn’t work it’s not that the god simply isn’t there. It’s because you’re doing it wrong in some way. I’ve already covered why I think intercessory prayer is a ridiculous idea, so I won’t get started on that again.

Now, I’m not saying that the near-universal, “It’s your fault” response to religious failures is necessarily wrong. If there’s anything to these world views it’s perfectly possible that people are just not getting it right.

My point is that it is definitely not the only possible explanation and to suggest otherwise indicates bias.

However, it is a very convenient explanation and, as we’ve seen above, it’s a great way to justify something whenever the evidence contradicts your claim. It’s like a Joker/Get out of jail free card that religious believers of all stripes can deploy when their claims fail.

Faith healing – What evidence would I need?

A Christian friend of mine (No, not that one, another one) recently mentioned in his Facebook status that he’d witnessed miraculous healings at a Christian gathering. Ever the sceptic, I responded by posting a video of James Randi’s investigation of faith healing. In this video, Randi exposes US televangelists Peter Popoff and WV Grant.

He responded to me by asking:

“… Ever wondered what evidence you would need…”

Which is a very sensible and reasonable question. If I couldn’t say what evidence would convince me that I’m wrong about faith healing, I could be accused of holding my sceptical position irrationally, dogmatically, “No matter what”. Adam Lee covered this idea in respect to religious belief in general and the result is his Theist’s Guide to Converting Atheists essay which I’d recommend to everyone.

For me it’s not enough to be able to say, “This could have been a miracle” – not getting rained on when you forgot your umbrella could have been a miracle, but it could just as easily be chance. I’m trying to find something which could only have been a miracle. Recovering from a particularly nasty cold might have involved divine intervention, but this also happens naturally, so we can’t be sure a miracle occurred in that particular case. So I’m not interested in evidence of improbable healings, but impossible healings. Impossible that is, without miraculous supernatural intervention.

The evidence has to be reliable and evaluated in a way that does not allow bias, whether intentional or not, to creep in. To start with, the patients should be carefully assessed to ensure that they genuinely suffer from the claimed illness in the first place. Then we need to be able to judge easily whether or not they have been cured.

Ailments such as back pain, migraines or depression are probably not worth investigating as it is too hard to independently assess them – you can only rely on what the patient tells you.

Ideally we should also be reasonably confident of what caused the healing. If the patient visited mystical healers of all stripes then a few weeks later finds themselves cured, we still have some unanswered questions.

So to summarise, the miraculous healing would need to be something which:

  • Could only occur due to a miraculous healing.
  • Can easily be judged a success or failure by all around.
  • Can be linked to a specific faith healing claim.

A good example of this would be an amputated limb regrowing. If a group of Christians gathered around a multiple amputee and prayed for him to regrow his limbs and it they did indeed regrow then you’d have a very convincing case. I’d like to witness this myself, but also have other independent witnesses there to check I wasn’t hallucinating or missing some sleight of hand (or leg). This idea is examined in detail by the website Why Won’t God Heal Amputees, which says on the subject of healing amputees:

Notice that there is zero ambiguity in this situation. There is only one way for a limb to regenerate through prayer: God must exist and God must answer prayers.

That may seem very stringent and a very narrow way to define faith healing, but I think it’s warranted. It’s the only kind of faith healing we could really be sure about. Furthermore, I’m just an ordinary person and I could easily be fooled. I’ve seen enough stage magicians do tricks I couldn’t explain, heard (and believed) enough tall tales and been swayed by enough anecdotal evidence to know that I’m as gullible as the next guy.

So I think it’s reasonable – prudent even – to ask that these standards of evidence are met. Incidentally, these ideas are by no means exclusive, I’m sure there are other tests which could potentially provide excellent evidence of faith healing. I’m keen to hear other people’s suggestions. If we could agree on a reasonable experiment that could discern real faith healing from false faith healing, I’d be happy to try it out and post the results here.

[BPSDB]

An offer of prayer

I have a colleague who is a big fan of prayer. He’s an Evangelical Christian and regularly makes friendly offers to pray for people’s family and friends who might be sick. He seems completely sincere and I believe the gesture is well-intentioned.

However, many who receive his offers find them… not exactly offensive, but certainly irritating. Perhaps they’ve heard this kind of thing before and are anticipating the little sermon that so often forms part of the package of such offers. One person told me they felt like they were being “sold to”. I don’t know if anyone has actually taken him up on these offers, but I’m sure some were more receptive than those I spoke with.

My first thoughts were along these lines. The recipients of this kind of offer could be crudely divided into two categories:

  1. The ones who believe that intercessory prayer will work.
  2. Those who don’t believe it will work.

Now surely those in the first group would already be praying if they had a sick relative? It seemed strange to me that any god would be unable to hear a single prayer, but a chorus of prayer – well, that’s different, is it? Surely God doesn’t need a critical number of prayers before he’s willing to take action? As for those in the second group, well they’re not likely to take up the offer if they don’t think it will have any effect.

All of which lead me to wonder whether my Evangelical colleague’s motivation was rather more evangelical (small ‘e’). Perhaps he had that sermon up his sleeve ready to spring on a polite and unsuspecting enquirer. On the other hand it could have been an attempt to show (either to us or to his god) what an amazingly altruistic Christian he is.

Perhaps more likely is that he anticipated a third group, somewhere in between the other two. People who were perhaps desperate for the health of their loved-ones and willing to try anything.

So I questioned him about it and we ended up going for a drink and having a long discussion on this and related topics. Well, if I’m honest I mostly listened. Before that discussion I did some reading and thinking and managed to crystallize my thoughts on prayer. The main issue I had is outlined below.

(Disclaimers: IANAL (I am not a logician) and this might be full of holes, but I think my meaning is clear enough. Secondly, it borrows the idea from Ebonmuse’s thorough discussion of the Problem of Evil):

Assumption (1). The patient currently has a medical problem.
Assumption (2). Praying for the patient to be healed can cause miraculous healing of that patient.
Assumption (3). The god to whom the prayer to heal the patient is directed :-

a) Exists;
b) Is all-powerful (omnipotent);
c) Is all-knowing (omniscient);
d) Has perfect judgement;
e) Will only do what is right;

Conclusion (4). An omnipotent being would be able to heal the patient (from 3a, 3b);
Conclusion (5). An omniscient being would already know about the patient’s problem. (from 1, 3a, 3c);
Conclusion (6). Any patient whom the god deems it right to heal will already be healed. (from 3d, 3e, 4, 5)
Conclusion (7). It is not right to heal the patient (from 1, 6).
Conclusion (8). Praying for the patient to heal will not cause miraculous healing of that patient (from 6, 7)

Contradiction : ( 2 & 8 )

So I ask: What makes you think you (in your less-than-infinite wisdom) can change God’s mind about healing this patient?

That’s not the only problem with the idea of praying to a god to ask for things. As Greta Christina points out if a prayer doesn’t work the answer always seems to be:

“You did something wrong. You didn’t pray hard enough. You didn’t pray right, with the right kind of feeling or faith. You didn’t get enough people to pray for you. There’s something wrong with you. It’s your fault.”

Even more perniciously, any unreliable offer of healing can cause those most in need to abandon genuine treatments which might actually help them.

I’m going to continue asking awkward questions and challenging my colleague’s ideas about prayer. He tells me he’s keen to question and test his beliefs, so I’m hopeful I may be able to encourage him to try some kind of formal test or experiment. Maybe I’m too optimistic…