Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Irrationality of Prayer—Pascal's Wager Revisited

Over the past several months, I've experienced a myriad of health problems, which have required various treatments, surgery, endoscopic examinations one of which was invasive , medications, and a trip to the emergency room. Despite a number of scares that the symptoms were indicative of a serious illness, the results turned out favorably. But needless to say, the experience was very stressful.

Yet during this period, not once did I consider prayer as an option, either as a form of consolation or a plea for healing from a (likely non-existent) supernatural being. What is, is. This is not fatalism. Whatever the facts of the matter are, they can't be denied by wishing them away. The outcome of my recovery depended on my doctor's skill and my body's ability to respond to treatment. There is no proof that a supernatural force was involved in the determining the outcome of my condition. This should not be construed as bragging on my part regarding my commitment to the principles of unbelief when the chips were down. It was just exercising common sense.

In the tradition of Pascal's wager, let's say for the sake of argument that there is a supreme being to whom prayers can be directed. If this supreme being/ God is all powerful and omniscient (which by the way may be considered a contradiction in terms), then (s)he has already decided the future of the universe, including of course every one's destiny. Therefore, prayer is just a futile waste of time.

If God has not yet predetermined the future and arbitrarily decides on people's welfare based upon their beseeching him/her for help, then in effect (s)he is a sadist, just by dangling the prospect of granting a supplicant's wish. This all powerful Almighty's message comes down to this: "If you grovel and beg, maybe I'll grant your prayer, but then again maybe I won't, so go ahead and debase yourself. I'll just sit here and watch." That response to the petitioner and the relationship that it implies between God and man flies in the face of humanity's self respect.

That's why if you reflect on that passage "The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away. Praise be the name of the Lord", you can see what a humiliation that is and the violence it does to the dignity of mankind and our ability to reason and create. If there is a "sky daddy" who has that kind of power, then why should man bother to make an effort at self-improvement or at bettering the world? Why bother, period? In the end, man is powerless, and what will be, will be. That is fatalism, and given these conditions, an understandable perspective.

Atheism and nontheism on the other hand simplify life. There's no outside force to reckon with, no otherworldly crutch to lean on whatever the circumstances in which we find ourselves. It is up to us to strive as best we can and take initiative and responsibility to help ourselves and each other. A fully developed human being does a good deed for its own sake and not for the ulterior motive for scoring points with a deity in order to "go to heaven". At the end our lives, the only immortality is a good name by which we will be remembered based on whatever contribution that we made to the world. In that sense, virtue (as in virtuous living) is truly its own reward.

We cannot control the random events that happen to us during the course of our lives such as illness or other misfortunes, but we can control our responses to them. By not wasting time and energy chasing after a phantom "sky daddy" to lean on or to solve our problems, we can be more clear-headed and achieve a more realistic relationship with the world around us.


Christopher X Gerber said...

A thought-provoking post. I think I understand your thesis, and I agree that we can control our responses to the unfolding of events. We have the power to be positive or negative toward anything.

I understand that you are talking about prayer in the sense of, "Help me, I can't help myself," and I agree this can be self-defeating.

However, do you think that prayer is only useful in a cause/effect sense? Can prayer develop patience and wisdom? Can prayer be more of a personal tool than a cosmic force to control our lives?

Just some thoughts, keep up the posting.

Secular Guy said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Christopher. I appreciate the input.

Isn't prayer by its very nature an appeal to a "higher power", whether its for a cause/effect or for the development of patience and wisdom? In seeking the latter I have found inspiration from other people, e.g. authors (and authorities in their fields) such as the late humanistic psychoanalyst Erich Fromm. Another source that I find uplifting is the magazine "Free Inquiry".

If try as I may I can't solve a problem on my own, I would rather get help from these sources, not to mention from family, friends, and if necessary, professionals than from unproven and unprovable supreme being.