• Pray for Paris…? Seriously? Think about it!

    The Paris mass shootings and bombings have been terrible. It’s a right minefield of religion, politics and sadness. One idea which has routinely popped up on social media has been that Christians should pray for Paris.


    Let’s just think about this for a second.

    1. God could easily have stopped this event from happening, but didn’t.
    2. If God is all-loving and all-powerful, and cannot allow gratuitous evil, then this suffering was necessary for a greater good.
    3. Thus wishing it not to have happened would be a) against God’s will and b) denying a greater good to come about.

    That’s the first part of the issue concerning prayer.

    The second is something which should be pretty obvious. God supposedly has full divine foreknowledge, right? He knows the future. In this way, God is actually constrained. I wrote a piece called “God cannot act contrary to his own predictions” in which I stated:

    It has long been understood that with God’s omniscience, he cannot be contrary to his own predictions. For example, if you were claimed as being omniscient and omnipotent and you predicted beforehand that you would make yourself spaghetti bolognaise for supper on Friday, then when it came to making Friday’s supper, you would have no choice but to make the spaghetti bolognaise. This is because if you decided to be contrary to your own prediction and cook, say, pizza, then your prediction would have been incorrect. This would render your omniscience faulty, and would leave you with the characteristic of fallibility.

    Likewise, God does not have omnipotence, because he cannot do something that would invalidate his infallible predictions.

    So, logically, God can never be contrary to his own predictions. This constrains his free will quite significantly. However, it is far more serious than this. If he is creating the universe and knowing every particular outcome (even if one argues that he is somehow still allowing free will), then he has made predictions about every event that will come to pass. His foreknowledge is effectively one long prediction.

    Thus, from the beginning of time onwards, everything must come to pass exactly as God had predicted at the actualisation of the cosmos. This has far-reaching consequences: God does not have free will, intercessory prayer is pointless, God cannot change his mind, God’s own future and interferences on earth are determined, and the passage in the bible where God changed his mind over the fate of Nineveh is patently false.

    (Jonah 3: 10 “When God saw their deeds, that they turned from their wicked way, then God relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them. And He did not do it.”)

    God cannot change his mind on matters of the course of history (or present, more correctly). It’s not like he’s sitting there, and then hears a prayer and says “Hey, great idea, I never thought about that!” and then changes his mind. This makes no sense. God will always do what is maximally loving, and no prayer will change that, or can change that, unless itself was part of the matrix of variables.

    This renders prayer utterly pointless. There is no need to pray at all, since you cannot effect a change in the mind of God. In changing God’s mind, you would be rendering his foreknowledge and omniscience false. You would be invalidating God!

    So what, exactly, would praying for Paris achieve? As with anything in the real world, direct action, giving money, or some such other tangible thing is far more powerful than prayer and something I would obviously far rather advocate. Think of Haiti, for example. Would all those people who had lost their homes and their livelihood have liked a prayer or some money, or your time, to have helped them? Given that prayer cannot bring about a change in what would already take place, then the other options are far more tangibly attractive. If one would consider all the man hours applied to prayer and think about turning those towards doing something more tangible, then I would claim the world might actually be a better place.

    It turns out that, in reality, prayer is more about the person praying, more about making them feel better, than the people being prayed for. As someone sits powerless, hundreds or thousands of miles away, unable to do anything when reading about such horrors on the internet or in newspapers, then their impotence in the face of such horror is palpable. Prayer gives the illusion that they are able to do something to help, that they are not powerless.

    But it is an illusion. Nothing more.

    Prayer is a comfort to the person praying. In this case, it is no real comfort to those suffering in Paris.

    There is a lot to solve in trying to make right our difficult and fractured world. Prayer simply ain’t the answer.


    Category: PrayerUncategorized


    Article by: Jonathan MS Pearce

    2 Pingbacks/Trackbacks

    • Spek Kio

      Turn down the keyboard-warrioring a moment, you’re sounding like a triggered atheist. Obviously the more tangible results of hashtag activism are just as variable now as they always have been, this new campaign being no different. Plenty of relief efforts are in fact underway, in spite of being seemingly drowned out by rampant social media posturing going on at the moment. That’s how it goes; the majority support the viral flow of social awareness while only a handful actually take up the mantle of responsibility for action. You could make this a blanket issue of religion, but it’s likely just another manifestation of the kind of slacktivism that plagues much of today’s generation.

      • I think you have made a very good point about this being an example of slacktivism. Fits the bill perfectly.

    • Geoff_Roberts

      Excellent points, Jonathan. The concept of prayer always didn’t sit well with me. When two opposing teams in a football game each pray for victory how does this make sense? Does that mean the victorious team had their prayers answered while the losing team did not curry God’s favor?

      Or, the survivors of a horrible tragedy who might have prayed for protection that day and God presumably answered their prayers. But what about those who perished in the tragedy and, yet, they prayed also? So, what difference does it make if one prays? Will prayer somehow change God’s will?

      One more point is the general thinking is that if one says they will pray for such an such, then they must be a really good, caring person. It’s an opportunity for those who want to be seen as good and moral to say they will pray for you.

      Thank you for the sentiments but I would rather have you engage in constructive activities that will really make a difference.

    • Susan Drakenviller

      Let’s just stop and think about this for a minute. More than hundred innocent people die, many of whom are young and some may be religious. Yet you feel to need to seize the moment of their deaths to vent you personal obsessions. What is wrong with people praying? They are showing more sympathy than you.

      • In the same way that I would write something against homeopathy advocates claiming we should help the ebola outbreak with homeopathic medicine.

        This is not opportunistic. If anything, it is answering opportunism from such calls to prayer.

        • Susan Drakenviller

          I think you are taking this call to prayer way too seriously. Sure there are people that think that a prayer has direct effect on events in the world but you can talk all day to these people and swallow a bucket of homeopathic medicine and they wouldn’t listen. Taking this expression of grief and twisting it around is jut bad form. Would be chivarous of you to at least realize that.

          But now that you raised the subject, prayer may help, like meditation, to calm thoughts and emotions, become less aggressive and focus on what important instead. However in that sense it is only a tool and can be used for darker purposes just as well.

      • Geoff_Roberts

        Correct me if I’m wrong, Susan, but isn’t this a skeptic/atheist forum? Personally, I wouldn’t question someone’s faith or prayer face-to-face at a time like this. But I would debate with like-minded skeptics who wouldn’t be offended to discuss the value of prayer.

        What is wrong with people praying? Well, there are certainly worse activities than praying. However, how many other more productive activities are there that should be applauded and encouraged instead of the empty promise of prayer?

        • Susan Drakenviller

          Personally I don’t find debates with like-minded people very productive either, not much of a debate then. And I am far offended from discussing the value of prayer, I am offended however when people seize an event like this to promote their own agenda which to me is similar to the comment of Donald Trump that if people would have been carrying arms in the Bataclan theater, they may have been able to shoot the terrorists and prevent massacre.

          If someone makes a poster ‘Pray for Paris’ it is a methapor and their way of expressing grief and sympathy NOT and advertisement or a scientific thesis on the effects of prayer. This ‘debate’ to me seems much more empty than a call to prayer.

          • Geoff_Roberts

            If a debate on the value of prayer is not appropriate on an atheist site then where, Susan? As I said, I wouldn’t go out of my way to confront someone who was grieving or praying for the victims in Paris. I respect the feelings and beliefs of others especially during an emotional time such as this. But I would discuss these issues with people who wouldn’t be offended by this debate which, generally, would include those on an atheist forum.

            • Susan Drakenviller

              I didn’t say the discussion is inappropriate Geoff, the seizing and warping of this call to prayer image related to the attacks is. Besides its also a very limited caricature of the practice of prayer and the people doing it. For example they may also actually act upon their prayers as well. In that sense the prayer functions as a motivator for THEM (if not for an atheist) and in that sense they DO work. In fact i know several people who besides prayer, have taken in Syrian refugees, raised money in the church communities to reunite families and even in one case died for them. Did Jonathan MS Pearce? I guess too busy making his short-minded point by hacking an rather innocent image. By the way, I am not saying atheist cannot do good acts or nonesense like that.

            • Geoff_Roberts

              We just disagree, Susan. I don’t think Jonathan was making a “short-minded point” or “hacking an innocent image.” In my opinion, he’s bringing up a timely debate topic in an appropriate forum. Of course, you’re free to disagree with that,

            • Thanks Geoff, that was pretty much what I was going to say to @susandrakenviller:disqus

              Just as others have said, all sorts of people are suggesting things to do and not to do in response to this tragedy. Mine is one amongst them in advising what is not so effective. I don’t see people attacking Obama, Hollande and Cameron in acting by saying, “Too soon, too raw!”

              When issues pop up, discuss them, because if they aren’t good options, it’s better to replace them quickly with ones which are.

              FYI, as it was mentioned, Cameron is not doing enough to rehome Syrian refugees here, so there is not much I could do apart from give money, which I have done as a result to both Quilliam and MSF for their work in Syria in providing healthcare. I also lend through Kiva, and have leant to people in Lebanon etc to give some kind of financial assistance, FWIW.

            • Susan Drakenviller

              I am wondering what your response is to my point that prayer (to the Christian) in a broader sense is a motivator that to enables actual positive action being taken and is therefore effective. Also prayer can act as a self-sedative and a way to get more emotional control.

              About people ‘attacking’ you; I don’t get the comparison with Obama, Hollande etc… because a lot of people disagree with how they respond and have responded in the past, it’s just not true. It would be weird however if these guys would react by pointing out that prayer doesn’t work or present a lecture on gun control as Trump did. That would be rather labored and evangelical.

              I wish/pray you a good evening and hope you digest my responses in good humour and spirit.

    • Pingback: Why atheists shouldn’t object to the call to “Pray for Paris” | Randal Rauser()

    • Reynoldsp56

      I see meme’s on Facebook which illustrate the problem with prayers. Often it will be a picture of someone finding their keys or celebrating their birthday or celebrating a sports victory as the top picture. The bottom picture is a picture of a starving child and there is some comment about how people are grateful when God helps them find their car keys but don’t seem concerned that God is not answering prayers in the bottom picture.

      I realize that this is worded awkwardly but I do know that many, many, Christians and others are very concerned about the hungry and the homeless but still, why doesn’t God answer prayers about the hungry and homeless? Maybe, just maybe, he doesn’t exist.

      In the case of Paris what does one say to someone who just allowed over 400 people to be killed, harmed or maimed for the rest of their lives? “Thanks for not harming me.” doesn’t really do justice to those who were actually killed and maimed.

      • As someone said over on Randal Rauser’s blog:

        Most prayers being offered, I suspect, will be of the petitionary kind. But there are indeed other types of prayer such as prayers of praise and worship but this just complicates matters even more. What kinds of praise do you offer to someone who allowed 127 people to die and was able to stop it but didn’t?

        Do you offer prayers of imprecation – basically revenge on the guilty for the deaths of the righteous?

        Prayers of supplications I think are the same as petitionary prayers.

        Which prayers do you think are appropriate to offer to someone who allowed 127 people to needlessly die, many of which spent their last few minutes on earth terrified out of their minds?

        • Reynoldsp56

          Sounds like an incredibly wise person. I see that Randal never did reply to him.

    • makare

      What about pantheists who believe they are sending out positive healing energy into the world in the form of prayer? Or what about any faith that is not Judeo Christian but still involves prayer? It really frustrates me when people who do not have a spiritual faith feel they have the capacity to judge what the faith is or how it is experienced. You have decided there is no God but somehow you have also decided you get to decide what God is? That seems very contradictory.

      • Do you have any evidence at all for the efficacy of such prayers? With so many worldviews being mutually exclusive, they all cannot be true. Really, only one can even begin to approximate the truth.

        See how your quote works back but in reverse:

        It really frustrates me when people who have a spiritual faith feel they have the capacity to judge what the faith is or how it is experienced. You have decided there is a God but somehow you have also decided you get to decide what God is? That seems very much like a bare assertion.

        • makare

          You do not experience faith. You have no tools for judging the experience. You want faith and the results of faith to be an observable quantity capable of being assessed, but it isn’t. That is the nature of faith. It is meaningless to argue that prayer doesn’t work because if it did work it would work a certain way. Every belief has its own opinion on how prayer works, what the effects are, and what they should be expected to be. Really, by deciding how prayer should work you are applying the same logic to belief the same as any religion. I figure you would hate that.

          My point was not about the effectiveness of prayer. My point is that your argument is completely limited to the Judeo Christian view of spirituality. The posts you have seen that say #PrayforParis do not necessarily fit into that mold. Therefore your argument is faulty. Not every faith that applies prayer believes in God or God’s will. If a pagan sends out a prayer as a means of sending out positive energy into the world, it is the act that matters not the result. Therefore, for that pagan, she Prayed For Paris by sending out that energy and regardless of the effect, the prayer was completed.

          I guess what I am really saying is, if you are going to insult religion with your argument, be more inclusive. Make sure to insult all religions not just JudeoChristian ones.

          • I am not insulting religion. I am providing a logical argument, which you have done nothing to address. That you think my intention or result was to insult means you did not understand the rationale or are incredibly over-sensitive.

            I am a philosopher who provides philosophical arguments, this one concerning the efficacy of prayer, particularly in the context of classical theism.

            You may want to create a straw man out of my arguments, but that would be a little disingenuous.

    • Calls to prayer are themselves opportunistic religious pandering, and the only reason religious people take that for granted is because of their own cultural milieu.

      • Spot on, sir!

      • Susan Drakenviller

        Reverse is equally true, it’s a void statement. You don’t like prayer it therefore it’s opportunistic, probably because of you own cultural milieu. To discuss it in this isolated way is very limited.

        • You’re right, it is. But as Jonathan points out, these mass calls for prayer typically occur in the wake of a tragedy. It’s worth taking the opportunity to suggest, hey, maybe this isn’t actually a productive response.

          • Susan Drakenviller

            But it IS productive. Its not an isolated ritual just like in a church a prayer for Paris would be followed by collecting money for a refugee or something like that. It’s not sound to discuss a social phenomenon that way and frankly beneath something I’d expect in skeptical discussion. You are very right that it’s only the cultural milieu and bias that makes this unsolid reasoning acceptable to those that have a thing against prayer or religion. That’s my actual objection to the article, not the ‘thesis’ per se. But well ‘pearls for the swines’ as they say! ;-)

            • That’s not an argument for the productivity of prayer. You’re actually conceding the point: prayer has no effect, so people can and must do other things.

    • Geoff Benson

      When I read Randal Rauser’s post I initially thought perhaps now isn’t the time to bring up the matter of prayers. Let people mourn and sooth themselves and save the discussion for later, in the knowledge that people use the word ‘prayer’ without really thinking.

      Then I thought, if now isn’t a relevant time for the discussion then when is? That was then reinforced when I started reading countless posts and comments about how if guns had been more freely available then this atrocity could have been prevented. Well the US is already awash with guns and, guess what, its daily death toll from guns isn’t that far off Paris.

      • I said pretty much as much on his thread.

        I think my post was a misinterpretation to some degree: it is about the incoherence of prayer, not really point scoring.

        But it is interesting that people are discussing how it could be avoided, and how we should respond, and that is fine. This post is about how we should (not) respond.

    • Reynoldsp56

      Randal has put a second post out on his blog still complaining that atheists (although he doesn’t name any) are still offended at the call for pray for Paris. Never does he say why he expects or thinks atheists should have no problem praying to a God they don’t believe in. Why is he so hung up on this #pray for Paris thing when there are many other ways both believers and non-believers can work together to aid the victims of the attacks? He makes it sound as if this is the only way to aid them.

      “Atheists are still offended.” he writes although he never cites or names any atheist who has said that they are offended at this call for prayer. Not one. Apparently, he needs to create a straw man in order to have someone to argue against.

      Oh, and despite his call for prayer he is still refusing to say what kind of prayer to offer and what to say in it. Why rail against atheist for being “offended” if he can’t or won’t say what prayers could be offered? He should have an opinion on that, after all he is an apologist as well as a seminary instructor.

      • Good luck pinning Randal down on such a clear-cut position. He won’t defend the efficacy of prayer, nor will he explain his own thoughts on what types of prayers should be offered. He’ll make some irrelevant remark about vast sophisticated literature on the subject and then devote the rest of the time to his straw man and indignant posturing.

        Having said that, though, I don’t think he thinks atheists should pray; I think he just wants non-believers to shut their mouths.

        • Reynoldsp56

          He has wanted atheists to pray before. He recently gave the example of an atheist who went to the home of a Jewish friend for dinner. Just before dinner started he (the atheist) was asked to participate in a prayer and that the atheist refused. Randal thought that was so very bad. It was almost like “How dare he! What’s the big deal!”

          I would like to see Randal put in that type of situation. Assume he prays before each dinner I’d like to see him go to an atheist’s home for dinner. Just before the meal is served Randal bows his head to pray and the host tells him, “No, no, Randal. Not here! We don’t pray before meals.” I’m just wondering what kind of a problem he would have with that.

          But I digress…

          He doesn’t really say what his point is. That’s what apologists do, I think. Does he want atheists to pray along with believers? Not going to happen.

          Does he want atheists to not stop believers from praying? No one is stopping them nor would we. They can pray to their hearts content.

          Apologists live in that twilight zone between religion and reality – can’t be too vague but can’t be too clear and concise either. The vaguer he is the less likelihood that anyone can pin him down to one position or another. It has the appearance of sounding intellectual but without all the work that goes into an actual intellectual position.

          • I can’t tell you how many times I’ve pressed Randal, in effect saying to him, “I want to know YOUR position; tell me what YOU think about this.” It’s consistently met with some rabbit trail about epistemology or some obscure philosophical position he claims to hold, a chest-thumping declaring that sophisticated theologians have written vast literature on the subject (the Courtier’s Reply), and/or some complaint about “tone” or “charity”. He wouldn’t know charity if it hit him over the head.

            • Reynoldsp56

              He’s a card-player who wants everyone but him to reveal their hands. Sorry but that is just very cowardly behavior. I thought he’d be above that.

        • Reynoldsp56

          I’m involved now with him in his latest post and it took only 3 comments or so before he starts in with the insults. I think the reason most people insult others is to hurt their feelings. If so, his resorting to insults shows an overall lack of maturity or a lack of confidence in what he professes to believe.

          • He seems to have become more shrill and unreasonable as the years have passed.

            • Reynoldsp56

              IMHO, he wants to sound deep and profound yet most of what he says is fairly vague and open to many different interpretations. In his most recent post regarding gays, he doesn’t say if he is talking about practicing gays or non-practicing gays and when questioned about it he just refuses to clarify his position.

            • Geoff Benson

              It’s difficult to see how someone who writes about heaven, and what it might be like, could ever expect to be regarded as deep and profound.

    • Cygnus

      Randal echoed your post in his blog, but he’s just offended that there are people who are offended by the prayers. Apparently Randal is against atheist mentality that a prayer could hurt. Randal doesn’t understand that atheists may feel dismay about prayers because prayers are totally useless for the victims. Someone who’s not a victim, but wants to be noted, can throw a prayer, it feels good for the one who utters a prayer, it shows “involvement”, especially if one goes around and says “I am praying for you”.

      • Absolutely! He’s a funny one, Randal. Have you had many run ins with him?

        • Cygnus

          I loved when I kicked his Tower of Babble blog he thinks it’s an Ivory tower.
          Now that he banned be, thanks God!, I won’t waste my time replying to his objectionable morality he calls “objective morality”.
          I still enjoy reading the replies of atheists and skeptics, the few that remained after Randal “cleared” those who don’t like to align to his apologetic policy, so he can have a true Christian blog where only those who kiss up to his PhD can wallow in.

      • Thing is, I think it’s such a problematic concept, prayer, but it is one of the pillars of belief, and so to accept the problems is to allow one of the pillars to crumble away.

        • Cygnus

          You meant to say that prayers are the pillars of a religious faith, not of belief in general. And a religious faith crumbles anyway no matter how many prayers are made to the object or the subject of adoration, when the reason gets in.
          I do believe that water boils at 100 degree Celsius, I don’t have to pray to sustain that belief.

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    • Ryan Frost

      When people say ‘pray for Paris’ most people aren’t meaning it literally. The phrase to ‘pray’ for someone now just means wishing them well or thinking compassionately about them. Nevertheless as an atheist, the ‘pray for Paris’ rhetoric might interest you as being an example of how a strong piece of religious culture (the idea of praying) becomes largely devoid of its literal meaning but still has the appearance or connotation of its previous use (i.e. we still use the word ‘prayer’). For instance, I know many people that go to Church on special dates (like Christmas etc.) that if you really pushed them hard on it, would probably say they don’t believe there is a literal God up in the sky and believe all Christian dogma but they still go to Church because its tradition or a good way to link up with community.

      The theme is how artefacts from a previous cultural era lose their real meaning and emerge in later cultures with new meaning but still have the same (religious) appearance (using phrases like ‘to pray for someone’ and going to Church for some people).