• God and ebola

     

    In my last post, Try Praying?, I argued for something like the following claim:

    It’s silly to pray for some unlikely-but-by-no-means-impossible event (say, with a probability of 1%) to occur, and then declare that your prayer must have been answered if the event does, in fact, occur.

    I was quite surprised at one of the reactions to this post:  quite a few Christians told me that Christians just don’t do that.  Well, this is simply not true, and we were provided with an example of a Christian doing precisely this just the other day, when ebola survivor Kent Brantly credited God for his recovery.

    According to the article just linked to, someone with ebola has a 10% chance of survival.  Actually, this is just the figure for the most deadly outbreak ever – more accurate sources report a figure of around 36% survival for the current outbreak (see the wiki entry on the 2014 West Africa ebola outbreak), but let’s stick to the 10% figure, for argument’s sake.  This means that out of 1000 people who contract ebola, 100 would survive – and this includes people with no medical intervention.  As it happens, Brantly was the recipient of a blood transfusion from a 14-year-old African Ebola survivor; he was also treated with an experimental drug.  As far as medical professionals can tell, the blood transfusion greatly increases your chances of survival.  We don’t yet know if the experimental drug is effective (it’s still experimental, after all, and the creators of the drug fully acknowledge this – there hasn’t been an opportunity for a proper study yet).  But even if we stick to the blanket 10% figure, it’s just like this:

    You roll a ten sided dice and pray to God that you roll a 10.  Sure enough, a 10 comes up.  You deduce that God must have made the 10 come up.

    I don’t think I really need to explain how silly that is, but…  In order to make that deduction, you need to know not only that the 10 came up, but also that the 10 wouldn’t have come up if you hadn’t prayed, and if God hadn’t decided to grant your wish.  How could you possibly know that?  And in any case, how do you think God might have acted?  Did God bend the laws of physics so the dice rolled in some strange, unnatural way?  Besides all that, if 1000 people performed the same experiment, you’d expect to get about 100 people rolling a 10 – should they all deduce that God made it happen?  Would nobody get a 10 unless God specifically made it happen?  1000 rolls and no 10’s happens with about a

    0.00000000000000000000000000000000000000000001%

    chance.  Why would it be any different if the outcome “rolling a 10” is replaced with “surviving ebola”?

    But anyway, the whole Brantly event got me thinking about prayer again.  What does it mean to say that God answered Brantly’s prayer?  I’ve answered this question in more detail elsewhere, but:  it means that God listened to Brantly’s prayer, as well as the prayers of all the other ebola sufferers; chose to let almost all of the people die (a horrible, painful death); and chose some select few people to be spared (in this case, a guy who had all the medical help he could get).  All while there is a reasonable chance they would have survived without any intervention at all.  (If a Christian wishes to argue that any survival is due to an act of God in the first place, then I suppose they are accepting that it might have had nothing to do with prayer, after all.)

    But even if we grant all these claims – that is, that God really did heal this guy, whether as a direct result of prayer or because he was going to heal him anyway, and regardless of the chances of surviving without any divine intervention – what business does Brantly have to go gloating about it?  “Gloating” is probably the wrong word, as I don’t suspect for a second that Brantly had any malice in making his statements (and I understand that he was in Africa working as a medical volunteer, even if his ultimate goal was to spread his religion), but he was certainly making a big public point about the “fact” that God had spared him.  Let me use an analogy to explain the problem I have with this:

    Imagine your daughter is diagnosed with cancer.  She’s admitted to a hospital, where she shares a room with another girl of the same age with the same kind of cancer.  You’re visiting your daughter one day, and you see that the other girl has recently died; her parents are there, mourning the loss.  Just then, a doctor comes in and tells you that your daughter’s cancer has gone away – she (and you) can now live a normal life.  Would you start jumping up and down, screaming “Yes! Woohoo!”?  I sure hope not!  But even worse would be to say, within earshot of the other parents, that God healed your daughter.  To say so would be to say that God looked at both girls, both of whom he (supposedly) could have healed if he wanted, and decided to heal your girl but not the other.  Even if it is actually the case that God did this, it is an awful thing to do to say it to the other parents.  But far worse if it is not the case (or if you just don’t know if it is the case or not).

    But it all got me thinking about another aspect of it all.  We often see someone, after they survive some illness, declaring that they were healed by God – and, further, declaring that we can know God exists and that he acts in the world because of their survival.  But much rarer is the person who makes such a declaration before the event.  Why didn’t Brantly say “Hey everyone, I’ve got ebola, but I’m going to make a testable prediction – if God is real, he will heal me”?  To do so is to put everything on the line – it’s gutsy (Pastor Mark Driscoll would probably approve).  I’m not saying that Branson’s survival after such a prediction ought to make us all believe in God – don’t forget there’s a 10% chance that he would have survived anyway, even if God doesn’t exist or simply decides not to specifically intervene.  But imagine if every Christian ebola sufferer made the same prediction, and they all survived.  If 100 Christians made such a prediction and then all survived, there’d be a

    0.000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000001%

    chance of it being a fluke.  (OK, I lied – I left off about thirty 0’s to make the number fit on one line.)  I’d take that as pretty compelling evidence of God’s existence.  But things like that just don’t seem to happen.  As I’ve explained earlier, I’m not saying such a thing would have to happen for me to believe, but I am saying it’s something that would make me believe if it did happen (and, of course, if I could be sure that those people really did have ebola, really were healed, etc).  I certainly don’t think someone surviving an illness with a 36% survival rate, after receiving the best medical treatment possible, counts as evidence of God’s existence or activity in the world.  Who on earth would?

     

    Category: AtheismChristianityFeaturedPrayerProbability

    Tags:

    Article by: Reasonably Faithless

    Mathematician and former Christian
    • Tim Chavura

      Hi James,

      You seem to have laboured your point without any consideration of God’s sovereignty
      and immanence.

      The first point I wish to take up relates to God’s immanence.

      You work under the premise that if someone prays and is healed by God then
      God has acted, and if someone prays to God and is not healed then God has not
      acted. (Or perhaps you simply feel that Christians are deluded into engaging in
      an untestable activity – more on that later).

      To attribute healing to God is quite rational within the Christian worldview. To
      attribute non-healing to God is also quite rational within the Christian
      worldview.

      Given that within the Christian worldview God upholds all things and nothing comes to
      pass without his foreknowledge and will it is reasonable to attribute the
      reason for what comes to pass to the purposes of God.

      I agree there is a serious issue with how Christians respond to God’s activity
      following prayer, but it is not as you have perceived it.

      The real problem is that we Christians often feel that God hasn’t answered us when
      things don’t go our way.

      The reality is that we have been instructed to ‘…give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for [us] in Christ Jesus.’ 1 Thess 5.

      This passage indicates a number of points relevant to this issue:

      1. That we ought to give thanks in all situations – not
      just some situations.

      2. That God is immanently involved in his creation (God ‘perpetually’
      wills for us to give thanks).

      3. That there is purpose behind God’s will and activity.

      The first point is significant here as it is the reason why Christians thank God
      after healing. However, they should be thankful regardless of the outcome. For
      God is not obliged to give us anything good, whatsoever. It’s interesting to
      know that Paul had earlier acknowledged the great suffering that particular
      church had undergone for claiming Jesus as Lord. Thus, this point of giving
      thanks is delivered in the context of those who are suffering.

      Those, such as yourself, who view prayer as a possible means of proving the existence
      of God would naturally be disappointed given that Christians ought to attribute
      all activity, not just some, to the purposes of God.

      Within the Christian worldview, one who has a personal relationship with God through
      the atoning work of Christ would naturally attribute to God the purpose behind
      even the mundane. This is simply not testable with the models you employ in
      your blog. Nor is it meant to be! This is why you find it strange that
      Christians make the claims they do.

      The second point I take up is how one responds to answered prayer.

      You state:

      But even worse would be to say, within earshot of the
      other parents, that God healed your
      daughter. To say so would be to say that God looked at both
      girls, both of whom he (supposedly) could have healed if he wanted, and
      decided to heal your girl but not the other. Even if it is actually the case that God did
      this, it is an awful thing to do to say it to the other parents.

      How do you suppose this is awful? The argument that ‘God looked at both girls, both
      of whom he (supposedly) could have healed if he wanted, and decided to
      heal your girl but not the other’ does not indicate injustice or
      malice in God or the parent. If anything, it may possibly indicate a mild
      insensitiveness on the part of the parent of the healed child toward the other
      grieving parents. But this simply means the individual in question should have employed
      grace in her speech.

      Given that is reasonable within the Christian worldview to assert that God had a
      purpose in the other girl dying (thus her death is not gratuitous) God is not
      acting immorally or unjustly.

      These events are very common in the church. Many Christians I interact with are able
      to acknowledge God’s sovereignty without insulting others who have not received
      similar mercies from God.

      Recently, I had the privilege to give thanks for someone who was doing well after having
      a stroke. Those close to the individual attribute the reason for this healing
      to God. I was quite happy to have joy with them and to thank God for what had
      happened despite losing one of my own family members to a stroke.

      The doctrine of God’s immanence is a comfort to those who have a personal
      relationship with Jesus. The teaching that we should give thanks in all things
      makes sense within the Christian worldview if we take in to account God’s
      sovereignty and his immanence.

      • Thanks for your detailed response, Tim – I’m hoping to find some time to properly respond to this over the next few days. Cheers!

      • Hi Tim,

        Sorry for the extremely delayed response – have just got to the end of a conference and now have an afternoon to spare…

        Possibly one day I will try and write a systematic critique of the doctrine of prayer, but it is not what I am doing here. Rather, I am critiquing one particular way some Christians think about prayer – specifically, some (many? most?) Christians work under the assumption that if they ask for X, and then X happens, well then obviously God *made X happen*. I don’t doubt that you think about prayer differently – and I’m glad you do. But some Christians do think like this (including many and maybe even most Christians I have have known). I think it is worthwhile writing posts like this one, that address this kind of silly thinking. But in doing so, I am by no means claiming that this is how every Christian sees prayer (and nor am I claiming that this is the way the Bible speaks about prayer).

        (By analogy, I could write a post critiquing creationism, without implying that all Christians are creationists – and some Christians would still comment to inform me that not all Christians are creationists, so my post misses the mark.)

        You ask how I suppose it is awful for the parent of the surviving child to claim divine healing in front of the parent of the dead child. I’m at a loss to imagine why you wouldn’t think this is awful, but you do indicate that you know exactly why – you say it “may possibly indicate a mild insensitiveness”, and that “the individual in question should have employed grace in her speech”. Well, I would say it *definitely* indicates *gross* insensitivity, and I agree with your comment about grace (though I can’t really think of a gracious way to speak about this – if I was offered a promotion on the day you got fired, I think it would be better for me not to talk about how great it is to have gotten a promotion if I could see you nearby and clearly upset). But I think this again highlights the fact that my post is about silly things (some) Christians do – not that the doctrine of prayer itself is somehow flawed (though I do of course have a view on that – I also note that even if you had a perfectly consistent way of thinking about prayer, there is still the more interesting question of whether there actually is a God, and whether there is a God who answers prayer). I’m glad you say you know Christians who are good at being gracious.

        “[It] is reasonable within the Christian worldview to assert that God had a purpose in the other girl dying” – I find this utterly awful, but that’s a conversation for another day. I’d recommend not telling a parent that her daughter was dead because God really wanted to do something and couldn’t think of a better way.

        I know the feeling of being happy for someone for having some kind of “blessing” even though I have not been so lucky (though nothing as serious as losing a family member as you did). But I think it is much more comforting to think of this from the perspective of “shit happens”, that good things and bad things essentially happen indiscriminately because of the laws of physics, rather than because some Being is out there deciding what will happen. Also, this way of thinking might be comforting for me when bad things happen to me (it is), but I don’t presume that someone else would find this a good way to deal with their grief when a bad thing happens to them.

        Cheers,
        James.

        • Tim Chavura

          Hi James,

          I actually don’t have a problem with: ‘If a Christian asks
          for X, and then X happens, well then God made X happen’.

          As I said: ‘To attribute healing to God is quite rational
          within the Christian worldview. To attribute non-healing to God is also quite
          rational within the Christian worldview’.

          As you said, the real question is ‘does God exist’? But
          there is nothing irrational or silly in the claim ‘God has acted’.

          You said the following, ‘Even if it is actually the case
          that God did

          this, it is an awful thing to do to say it to the other parents’.

          It’s interesting here that you state that even if God
          actually did take one girl and left the other, then it would be an awful thing
          to say it to the other parents. But if God exists (as implied in your
          hypothesis) and has acted, why would it be awful to acknowledge it? This
          probably exposes your disposition to think it awful that God exists and acts –
          an irrational position to hold.

          As I said, it probably comes down to ‘grace in speech’ –
          hardly something to blog about on a sceptic site! You may not be acquainted
          with Christians who utilise grace in their speech (though, I’m sure you are!)
          but they certainly do exist and I’m very blessed to share company with them in difficult
          times.

          Recently, I heard a Christian express joy at the birth of
          her friend’s baby. She was able to do this despite losing her own full-term
          unborn baby a month earlier. It is not necessarily awful, as you have asserted.

          When you have time, I would like you to share your thoughts
          on God’s sovereignty and immanence as outlined in my initial post.

          Lastly…

          James: But I think it is much more comforting to think of
          this from the perspective of “shit happens”, that good things and bad things
          essentially happen indiscriminately because of the laws of physics, rather than
          because some Being is out there deciding what will happen.

          Tim: I’m very interested to know how one can be comforted
          from indiscriminateness. Is it because there is no god involved?

          • “I actually don’t have a problem with: ‘If a Christian asks for X, and then X happens, well then God made X happen’.”

            So what about if you toss a coin? You ask God to make heads come up, and heads come up. Do you deduce that God made that happen? I’m talking specifically about the *deduction* aspect of all this.

            “why would it be awful to acknowledge it?”

            I didn’t say it would be awful to acknowledge it, actually. I said it would be awful to say it to the other parents. There are plenty of occasions where things are best left unsaid – I’m sure you could think of countless examples.

            “This probably exposes your disposition to think it awful that God exists and acts – an irrational position to hold.”

            You’re welcome to theorise about my motivations if you like 😉

            “As I said, it probably comes down to ‘grace in speech’ – hardly something to blog about on a sceptic site!”

            Actually, I think it’s a perfectly fine topic to talk about. However, the main topic of the current blog was the idea that Christians will often “deduce” that God has acted simply because the thing they asked for ended up happening. The coin-toss example is particularly apt, because it seems the likelihood of surviving this version of ebola is around 50%. But grace in speech is certainly a secondary topic that naturally comes up.

            “Recently, I heard a Christian express joy at the birth of her friend’s baby. She was able to do this despite losing her own full-term unborn baby a month earlier. It is not necessarily awful, as you have asserted.”

            I know of similar situations with Christian and non-Christian mothers – it’s a wonderful aspect of human nature that we can share in the joys and sorrows of others. But I don’t understand what you mean by “It is not necessarily awful, as you have asserted” – what is “It”, and what have I asserted?

            “When you have time…”

            🙂

            “I’m very interested to know how one can be comforted from indiscriminateness. Is it because there is no god involved?”

            By way of analogy, suppose you got whacked in the head. What would you find more comforting – that someone did it deliberately, or that it was an accident? Similarly, if a rock fell on my head as I was walking under a cliff, I’d feel much better thinking it was just an accident and ultimately because of the laws of physics than because a person (or God) caused the rock to fall on my head. It’s because there is no deliberate intention involved. Of course this is all at the cost of losing the feeling of comfort that there is a being who could heal you, or make other problems go away. But, as I said, I’m more interested in the question of whether there is such a being. If there is, then I would prefer to know it, and I will deal with it – I used to think there was, and now I don’t. It’s really as simple as that.

            • Tim Chavura

              James: So what about if you toss a coin? You ask God to make
              heads come up, and heads come up. Do you deduce that God made that happen? I’m talking specifically about the *deduction* aspect of all this.

              Tim: This is answerable within a Christian theistic framework.
              For if God is sovereign and immanent over and in the universe, one could attribute the outcome of the toss to him. As I said in my first post, the Christian attributes even the mundane to God – thus, and I made this point earlier, there is a problem with the question ‘Did God make this happen or did (not) God make this happen? Within a Christian worldview, God’s sovereignty rules out ‘(not) God’. Naturally, this point cues a digression on free will, which I don’t think causes any problems for God’s sovereignty.

              As for the deduction aspect, I completely agree that this
              does nothing to scientifically prove ‘anything’ as regards a metaphysical act. However, I don’t think it irrational within a Christian worldview to maintain that God is behind it. As we both agree, the real question is ‘Does the God of the Bible exist’? A Christian would invoke not just the outcome of the coin toss; she would also invoke other arguments and historical events of the Bible, too.

              James: I didn’t say it would be awful to acknowledge it,
              actually. I said it would be awful to say it to the other parents. There are
              plenty of occasions where things are best left unsaid – I’m sure you could think of countless examples.

              Tim: When I said ‘acknowledge it’ I meant ‘say it’ – I wasn’t
              clear enough there. I completely agree that there are plenty of occasions where things are best left unsaid.

              James: But I don’t understand what you mean by “It is not
              necessarily awful, as you have asserted” – what is “It”, and what
              have I asserted?

              Tim: I was referring to your claim: ‘Even if it is actually
              the case that God did this, it is an awful thing to do to say it to the other parents.’

              Personally, I wouldn’t think it always the case that it’s an
              awful thing to do to make the claim to the other parents. In your ‘hypothesis’, God exists and did it. How is it awful to state this to the other parent? It *may* be awful (as I claimed above), but it’s not inherently so. I can’t see your support for it being an ‘awful thing’. Stating a truth with tact is not necessarily awful. I really think this reveals something about your disposition toward God.

              James: What would you find more comforting – that someone
              did it deliberately, or that it was an accident?

              Tim: I’m quite surprised at the analogy you’ve used here. I
              think it to be faulty given that my argument does not refer to a *someone* but to a sovereign being who is immanent in his creation.

              If this being were personal and benevolent, it would be rational within a Xian worldview to find comfort within any situation – pleasurable or painful. This relates to the quote of 1 Thess 5 in my first post. I suppose we’ll have to disagree, given the fact that we both find comfort in alternate views of cause and effect. Though, I’m interested to know how comfort logically follows from the series of events leading up to the rock hitting your head. But perhaps you were referring to the fact that it wasn’t deliberate.

            • Tim Chavura

              Hi James,

              Further to my other reply and to sum up my point…

              I suppose your point was that because one is unable to empirically
              deduce God’s intervention in a particular event, one shouldn’t attribute God’s activity to the outcome of the event.

              However, you have missed a very important aspect to all of
              this: That the Christian’s motivation for attributing the activity of God to
              the outcome is due not to his empirical deductions but to his religion.

              Thus, it is reasonable, within a Christian worldview, to
              attribute the activity of God to the outcome of an event.

              This was the main point in my first reply. The motivation
              behind the Christian’s declaration is key here: Namely, the sovereignty and immanency of God.

    • Ben

      This whole business of treating “silly” as a substantive criticism is reflective of the low standard of intellectual inquiry in atheist-apologetics circles.

      Lest we forget, things that look “silly” can be true, and things that seem the farthest thing from silly can be false.

      For a start, I think it’s worth pointing out that the role of prayer, at least in the Christian faith, is not merely a means of getting what we want, or a means of proving the causal efficacy of prayer. Without even a basic understanding of prayer as intended by the faith-practices in question, how can we even begin to formulate a meaningful criticism?

      • Thanks for reading and for your comment, Ben. Please note that this post is not an attempt to critique prayer systematically. I’m certainly aware that there is a complete spectrum in the ways Christians think about prayer (so that no critique could really satisfy every Christian – even ones with very well thought out positions on prayer). This post is simply about one particular way Christians think and speak about prayer – ie, “I prayed for X; X happened; therefore God answered my prayer”.

        This may not be the way you think about prayer (although the Bible certainly speaks a lot about prayer in the sense of asking for what you would like), but it is most definitely the way many Christians do. In fact, as I mentioned in the post itself, the main reason for this post is that when I have critiqued this particular view of prayer, I am often met with the response “Oh but that isn’t the right way to think about prayer” or even “No Christians think about prayer in that way” (your response here seems to be something like the former). Here, I’m giving a specific example of how this does indeed happen, and a critique of this kind of thinking.

        For more on this, I highly recommend a series entitled “The problem of prayer” (including responses to common objections) by a fellow blogger, Thinkaroo – http://thethinkarooblog.blogspot.de/2012/08/the-problem-with-prayer_1.html