Prayer – now with Hurricane-Stopping Power!

…or so a pack of loons in (where else but) Texas (actually, you’d probably also find them in Kentucky, Alabama or anywhere where they speak with a twang, and I’m sure you could find them in Queensland as well) would have us (and themselves) believe.

Via Kelly at the Rational Responders, the official text for their powerful Hurricane Ike-stopping prayer which can be found here. Apart from the usual blathering idiocy & sucking up, it contains this hysterical little gem:

Father, please forgive us for our many sins. Please forgive disobedience, rebellion, unbelief, forms of idolatry, shedding of innocent blood, and the rejection of Your Son, Jesus Christ. God have mercy on the Houston Metropolitan Area.

“O Vengeful One, please spare us, your unworthy & sin-filled slaves, from your Divine & Just Wrath! Please smite some other unworthy people from another local government region in Thy Mercy!”

Utterly laughable. On the one hand, it seems like you lackwits know that you deserve to be punished with a hurricane, Gomorrah-style, for all your wickedness. But on the other hand, you have the gall to think you can appease the Almighty and avoid his wrath with some sucking up! Surely it’s God’s Plan, right? Surely no human has the right to question God’s Plan for the world … right? And here you are, not asking for the hurricane to be stopped and for it to blow itself out, sparing everyone, just for it to be diverted. And how are you going to feel if it misses you and kills even more people down the highway a few miles? Probably pretty bloody pleased with yourselves, I’ll bet. Smug bastards.

From Kelly’s post:

Their church recently held a prayer meeting in order to officially command Ike to cease and desist its approach into the Houston area. Some participants claimed to have calmed Edouard and sent hurricane Gustav into southern Louisiana. No explanation was given for the Almighty’s lack of regard for the residents in that area.

See, that’s the thing. Hurricanes don’t just STOP and cease & desist. Of course, God could choose to just stop them in their tracks and calm the winds instantly – after all, he sent them in the first place … right? So why won’t he just switch ’em off? Whatever the reason, he chooses not to (God’s Plan) and (it would seem, if these loons are right) he just diverts them around whoever prays the hardest, or sucks up the most, or whatever. God help whoever is in the new path of the hurricane, especially if they didn’t pray hard enough.

But what happened to “love thy neighbour”, you twisted Christfreaks? If that hurricane goes around you it’s going to hit someone else! And what happens when it does? Are you going to head down to the affected area, apologise for sending God’s hurricane down their main street and take blankets and food and first aid kits and assist with the cleanup or even just donate to the Red Cross? Well? It’s the least you could do after sending Divine Wrath into their town! Or are you going to sit smugly in your living room, watching it all unfold on TV, safe in the knowledge that your magic spells saved your postcode or head to your church and loudly proclaim how blessed you are that God listened to you and decided to fuck up a bunch of other people? Hey, I guess you could always pray for them.

This leads me to a train of thought: if God is punishing you people with a hugely destructive and potentially fatal hurricane but he can be persuaded not to with a bit of “O God you’re so awesome”, he’s either very easily talked out of his Divine Plan with some simple flattery or your crimes weren’t all that heinous to begin with – which, to be frank, paints this god of yours as one petty son of a bitch. You want to worship a god who can be talked out of punishing you via hurricane with some simple sycophancy? Loan sharks have stronger principles than that for god’s sake.

Texas (and other) Christians, I’m not going to sit here and spout what you might call the usual atheist talking points about how your god is a confused, nasty, contradictory mishmash of “extinct” tribal gods and almost certainly doesn’t & can’t exist. No, what I need is to hear your take on your god’s morality. I need a Christian to explain to me, in simple terms – and without pasting any excerpts from scripture – just how moral it is to first send a hurricane as punishment (which would almost certainly “punish” many, many undeserving people, being that hurricanes are huge, indiscriminate forces of pure destruction), then allow some of those people to change his mind and divert the hurricane away from their town to another area, where it would no doubt do as much damage to a bunch of other, more than likely equally undeserving people. But why divert it? Why let it continue on its path of destruction at all? Why not stop it dead or send the damn thing back out to sea to blow itself out, harming noone at all? If this anti-hurricane prayer is working, why is this omniscient god – whom all Christians seem to believe has a Plan – allowing himself to be talked into changing his Plan at the pleading of a few hundred sinful humans? Who the hell are you people to dare to ask God to change a Plan that he’s probably had in place for (depending on who you talk to) the last ten thousand or four billion years? You people are meant to have faith in God’s Will. You’re meant to trust God. Who are you to think you know better than God? Why should he listen to you? What kind of conceited, self-centred egotist are you to think that YOU talked GOD out of sending you a hurricane? If God wants to kill you with the weather so you can join him in Heaven, you should damn well go gladly and not hit your knees in desperate supplication, begging him to spare you. I thought this life didn’t matter when you had eternity with the Almighty to look forward to! Seriously, I want to hear how this god of yours is so easily dissuaded from his Plan by a bunch of mere humans.

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I’ll pray for you

“I’ll pray for you.”

I see that a lot at atheoblogs. Some Christian commenter takes pity on the poor faith-free blogster during a debate and says, ever-so benevolently, “I’ll pray for you.” I’m going to copy & paste this in future:

Dear Christian,

Thanks for the offer of prayers to your god on my behalf. However, I must be honest and say that I don’t want them, don’t need them and I don’t believe they’ll be heard by anyone but you, much less acted upon. Your pity for me and my beliefs is misplaced, misguided and frankly offensive to my intelligence.

I must say I actually feel sorry for you, that you feel you must implore your gods for guidance or salvation or wisdom; or to bring others around to your point of view or intervene in some other miraculous way. It’s a shame you rely on begging supernatural agents for assistance instead of using your brain to figure out your own problems & find your own solutions and to convince others yourself through the persuasive power of your own arguments. It’s a slap in the face of the creator you worship that you keep coming back to them on your knees with problems and questions, rather than use the great capacity for intelligence you credit that same creator with.

But if you continue to pray for me anyway, despite my objections, rest assured that in return I’ll think for you.

It’s all part of The Plan II

God moves in mysterious ways.
God helps those who help themselves.
God has a plan!

I could list a few other excuses/rationalisations Christians use for when their prayers aren’t answered, but to me those are the top three. When you ask and receive not, it’s not because there’s noone listening, it’s not because if there is someone listening he’s ignoring you, it’s because your prayers don’t fit into his plans! It’s because you didn’t help yourself! You didn’t pray hard enough! You are stained with sin! Your prayer was answered – but you didn’t notice because God works in ways you or I or anyone can’t possibly comprehend, or because your heart wasn’t open to God!

As Christian children (I suppose I was one of those but, thankfully, not because of my parents, who have always remained neutral on the subject, except when poking fun at fundies) we are told that if we pray and mean it and if we’re good, our prayers will be answered. However, when they’re not there’s always a reason there isn’t a brand new slot-car set under the tree or that bully at school didn’t turn up in bits in a crocodile’s belly somewhere. OK, fair enough, asking for new toys and especially vengeful homicides aren’t really things you should trouble God with. How about when one grows up and cares not for such earthly pleasures? How do you know, for example, if God has actually granted you the wisdom to know the difference between things you can change and things you can’t? Hell, what if you’ve gained that wisdom through your own efforts – what if your prayer, as a vocalisation of an internal desire, flicked a switch in your subconscious that set you on the path to gaining a deeper wisdom all through your own efforts? That’s really the subject of its own post, though…

So, if God hears our prayers but doesn’t answer them because he moves in mysterious ways that we can’t comprehend, helps those who help themselves or has a Plan, what exactly are we asking for? Shouldn’t we just concentrate on helping ourselves? Should we look elsewhere for answers if the answers we can expect will arrive in a form we can’t understand – and who would answer you in a foreign language or with riddles or symbolism when you ask a direct question and expect a direct answer anyway? In the end, should we not focus on our own Plan?

Of course, your average Christian, apart from the standard apologetics, might say “Prayer doesn’t work that way, it’s not like tech support/a Santa wishlist and you can’t expect Answer B to Question A.” They may mention that if you pray with the expectation of having it answered that might work against you – you have to pray with a pure heart and the purest of motives and not be selfish. If that’s the case, why do so many evangelicals give so much money to TV preachers according to the prosperity gospel, which states that what you send out will return to you sevenfold, or tenfold, or threefold or some other biblical-sounding fold. That’s about as selfish as you can get – and pretty gullible, as the only person receiving any kind of fold is the damn preacher. If you’re meant to be pure with your question, why do so many people pray for the safe recovery of injured or sick loved ones? Surely if they’re dying they’re on their way to heaven and you shouldn’t ask God to deny them their journey home. It’s the height of selfishness to ask for that life to be spared. If they’re a good Christian they’re clearly going to a better place and you should be glad, even envious, but you’re not – you want them there on Earth with you. Some people ask God for help before a game, a race, a performance – I’ve seen many a backstage/locker-room prayer circle on behind-the-scenes TV shows. I’ve seen footage and photos of priests blessing soldiers and pilots and bombs before going into battle! Is that not the most arrogant, hateful thing you can ask for? Divine assistance in the slaughter of your enemies and preferential treatment of you and your comrades? Why should God spare your life at the expense of a soldier in a different uniform? What if that sniper drawing a bead on you is a better Christian than you? What if he’s a Muslim and his religion is actually the right one? Shit, what if he’s an atheist, a crack shot, there really is no God and he’s concentrating on compensating for the slight breeze that could divert his bullet rather than wasting his mental effort praying for a straight shot? You’re boned, soldier, that’s what.

My belaboured point here is obvious: for God to change things so YOU get a benefit, someone else – maybe lots of someone elses – may well have to suffer to make it happen. We’re familiar with the Butterfly Effect metaphor often used to describe ripples of causality (and to warn of meddling with anything when you travel back in time): a butterfly flapping its wings can start a chain reaction of events that can culminate in a cyclone on the other side of the world. For God to change just one thing to benefit you or your country or your freaking soccer team or dance troupe or platoon, whether he has a Plan or not, could – probably would – affect the rest of the world in ways we could never foresee.

Imagine the billion prayers God would hear a day, just from the various flavours of Christians. Add that to all the prayers from Muslims (who do it five times a day, which makes up for their relative lack of numbers), Jews, Ba’hais, Sikhs and many other monotheistic sects across the world. To grant just one of these would necessarily affect every other person in the world, if in no other way but simply rendering their entire religion utterly, irrevocably false. You’d think if God did exist, he’d make it abundantly and unambiguously clear which sect he’s listening to, if for no other reason than to cut down on prayer-spamming. Surely he wouldn’t entrust the spreading of the One True Word to pre-industrial Bronze-Age shepherds and fishermen and simply leave it at that for the next two thousand years. Would he? If he was deadly, godly serious about needing the world’s love, obedience and worship, would he not present himself in a clear and unmistakeable way to all of us and at regular intervals so as not to have his children constantly destroying each other over disagreements over his desires?

Final questions. First, assume that God (a) exists and (b) hears our prayers. Now, bearing in mind that apologetics such as “God moves/answers prayers in mysterious ways” or “God has a plan” or “noone can know the mind of God” will not cut it (especially that last one because most religions are pretty much based on knowing the mind, will & desires of God through their holy scrolls), riddle me these:

-Who’s God listening to? Whose prayers get heard in the first place rather than being dismissed out of hand and ignored? Naturally, if you’re religious, you’re going to say “Mine, you idiot! I have the Keys to The Kingdom!” That won’t cut it either – you have to show your work!

-Assuming, then, that you are of the Right Faith, what then are the criteria for having the prayer answered positively or denied?

-Are there prayers that God, like Aladdin’s genie, would never, ever answer? Things like “kill my enemy”, “make that girl love me”, “make me rich”? Which ones and why? If he’d help your troupe dance like they’ve never danced before, show where you left your keys, help you get out of Falluja alive or spare the life of your tumour-stricken child, why would anything be off the table?

-What if God hears everybody and grants NO wishes? What then of prayer? Would you continue to do it if that were the case?

-What if God hears everybody but cares not for the concerns of mortals at all and barely even notices our planet because he’s busy elsewhere? If he moves in mysterious ways and has a Plan – he could have a trillion planets worshipping him. Why stop at one planet if you’re capable of creating a whole universe in a week? He could have a trillion universes and we could just be a beta version, forgotten and alone.

-What if the whole concept of God is nothing but a fictional human construct, embodying all the knowledge, prejudices and ignorance of an ancient nomadic tribe attempting to record their mythology, codify their tribal laws and fix them all to a higher power in an effort to provide explanations of the natural world, keep their social order and establish a hierarchy?

Basically, obviously and finally: what if there’s no god and you’re all just talking to yourself?

That’s one question that answers itself.