Friday, July 29, 2016

Prayer Wishes and Paranoia

Earlier this month over on Triablogue, Steve Hays posted an entry titled What do you do when no one is watching you? in which he tackles what he calls “the problem of unanswered prayer” with respect to a parable concerning a careless servant. (As exhibits, Hays quotes Mark 11:24, in which a promise that prayers will be answered is thrust into Jesus’ mouth, and a parable found in Matthew 24:45-51 - let this be a warning to all you servants out there!)

I guess I’m somewhat caught at a disadvantage here. I realize that fawning servitude is an important aspect of the Christian walk, but I didn’t know there was such a thing as “the problem of unanswered prayer” in Christianity. I thought all prayers were answered. Sometimes, so we’ve been told, the answer is “No.” But “No” is still an answer, right? That’s what many believers have announced to me when this topic has come up. On more than one occasion (okay, many more), I’ve been chided with the usual dose of “you’re so stupid” for suggesting that Christian prayers go unanswered. But now we’re learning that there is in fact such a thing as “the problem of unanswered prayer.” Who knew!

Of course, this view – expressed by many Christians whom I’ve personally encountered over the years – seems difficult if not impossible to reconcile logically with promises attributed to Jesus in the gospel narratives, such as the one which Hays cites in his blog entry (Mk. 11:24). The promises which the gospels put into Jesus’ mouth about granting prayer wishes are all unanimously positive, without qualification, which means that a “No” is not a response option for the Christian god. That is of course, unless the Christian god is the type of god which doesn’t keep its promises.

Notice the setup here allows no moral exemption for the Christian god. The Christian god is supposed to be omnipotent, all-powerful, almighty, able to create entire planetary systems and govern the whole course of history of entire sentient species just by wishing. Its mere thoughts make it so. So unlike human beings, who are constrained by natural limitations that are beyond their control (we cannot wish cavities or the rain away) and may have legitimate reasons for failing to keep promises (“there was a major accident on I-280 right in front of me, so I couldn’t be here when I said I would be”), there would be no constraints restricting an all-powerful supernatural being able to zap entire universes into existence by a magic twinkle. But ironically, Christians systematically hold man accountable for his failings while unquestioningly letting their god off the hook. (Reminds me of Hillary.)

Hays remarks:
The Markan verse is a typical example. There we have an unqualified promise. And it's not an isolated example. The NT contains similar promises.
This is entirely correct. Other examples include the following:
John 14:13-14: "Whatever you ask in My name, that will I do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it.”  
John 15:7: "If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.”  
John 15:16: "You did not choose Me but I chose you, and appointed you that you would go and bear fruit, and that your fruit would remain, so that whatever you ask of the Father in My name He may give to you.”  
John 16:23-24: “In that day you will not question Me about anything Truly, truly, I say to you, if you ask the Father for anything in My name, He will give it to you. Until now you have asked for nothing in My name; ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be made full.”  
Matthew 17:20: He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.”  
Notice how these promises are not couched in layers of unachievable conditions; in fact, no conditions other than the initial action (e.g., asking, commanding mountains, etc.) are even implied. If keeping one’s word is important in the Christian worldview, we must look beyond the Christian god for a model promise-keeper. In fact, if I recall correctly, this was one of the points that Anton LaVey used to make.

Now some believers (while privately asking the question “what’s wrong with me?”) will respond to queries about these and other biblical prayer promises by insisting that these promises were made only to those in Jesus’ immediate audience at the time, such as his band of disciples, and that they were not intended as a bond to anyone alive today. Of course, the passages in which these promises do not say this, and no believer would say that their god is limited in how many promises it can make and to whom. Disclaimers of this sort only suggest that the believer is trying to hide the fact that prayer is in fact ineffectual. In making such statements, believers would essentially be saying that their god, which is supposed to be a loving god, does in fact hear the believer’s prayers, but does nothing in response to them. Sadly, there are many fathers in the world who hear their children’s pleas for warmth and affection, but callously ignore them. Is the Christian god really no better than them?

In fact, Jesus’ moral teaching includes strong exhortations to maintain a vibrant prayer life, and believers today unanimously insist that Jesus’ moral instructions are to be followed by believers today. Why would Jesus teach followers, regardless of when they live, to pray to him and yet withhold any promise of effectual prayer? Or were Jesus’ moral precepts intended only for his immediate audience all those centuries ago, and not for anyone standing today? Tsk tsk! What a tangle we have here!

Hays then admits:
But, of course, in real life, prayer doesn't bat a thousand. Indeed, I doubt the batting average for most Christian at prayer is anywhere near that.
To say that the success rate for most Christian prayer is less than 100% seems a bit of an understatement. However, it is gratifying to see Hays opening up about this. But don’t get your hopes up: the believer is not likely going to examine his beliefs objectively and recognize their wholesale failings. On the contrary, he can be expected to run through the mind-game devices of the biblical devotional program in order to suppress any cognitive dissonance resulting from the fundamental discrepancies between reality and biblical promises in order to squelch any doubts these may lead to. After all, he has a confessional investment to protect.

Hays remarks:
And not just for Christians in general. Do we really suppose the NT writers always got what they prayed for? I doubt it.
Yeah, I have doubts on this as well. But would anyone suppose those who penned verses like Mk. 11:24 might come out and broadcast this? Would they have written “believe that what you ask for in prayer will be yours, and you will surely get it,” and yet at the same time add a footnote, “this never really happens for me”? If a believer is going to heap loads of praise on his god and hyperbolize its imagined goodness with lofty words, what would stop him from suppressing the inconvenient truth that none of it is actually true?

Hays asks:
ii) So why doesn't God answer prayer more often? I've discussed this before, but I'd like to attack it from a fresh angle.
Apparently having weighed in on this topic before was not enough to settle the matter. It keeps nagging the believer’s conscience. Like an itch he can’t scratch.

But here’s the rub: when one’s religious devotion is based on teachings which conflict with the testimony of reality, questions and doubts are going to continually crop up in his mind. A thinker with a keen conscience is going to be fraught with internal conflicts, a syndrome he’ll never be able to outrun. I’ve posted before on the topics of Christians suffering chronic depression (see my entry Believer’s Remorse) and wrestling with persistent doubts (see my entry The Hideous Rigors of Christian Salvation Doubt). The point is that contributing factors to these mental problems can be traced directly back to the Christian worldview’s own explicitly teachings. They surely do not provide a recipe for mental health.

Hays announces:
To begin with, it's a mistake to take certain truths to a logical extreme.
I’ll have to keep that in mind. Especially when apologists presumptuously repeat the deeply confused howler that the logical conclusion of atheism as such entails nihilism, subjectivism, irrationality, insanity, fecal obsessions, runny noses, bedwetting, decreased snowfalls, bad vintage years, poor grades, and other escalations. We’ve all seen the standard playbook before.

Hays qualifies:
That might sound counterintuitive to say. Indeed, I think it's a good thing to take abstract truths to a logical extreme.
I’m supposing that by “abstract truths,” Hays essentially means truths of a general or universal nature. Such as truths concerning prayer as such? Oh wait, does he really want to go there?

Question: How many trials does prayer have to fail before one accepts the fact that nothing fails like prayer? Just asking.

Hays writes:
However, that's not necessarily the case concerning some practical truths.
In other words, it is appropriate to take practical truths to “a logical extreme” (though we might not want to take this supposed truth to “a logical extreme”). Perhaps a relevant example here would be: “My prayers continually fail; maybe there really is no supernatural being listening to them after all.”

Hays continues:
That's because, especially in a fallen world, there's the problem of competing goods. Taking one practical truth as far as you can may lead to neglecting another practical truth. Sometimes we need to balance one off against another. They modify each other. Otherwise, taking two (or more) practical truths to a logical extreme may put them on a collision course.
I don’t think “goods” per se are competing. Rather, I think that people prioritize their values hierarchically. We have to, for clearly some values are more important to us than others, which naturally implies a hierarchy. This may feel like goods are competing, but if one understands the relationship between the values he pursues and the metaphysical basis of those values, he'll recognize that those values do not actually compete amongst themselves. That said, I suppose if one’s moral system is opposed to values and man’s need for them, that this would be a problem. But for a moral system in which the nature of values and the reasons why man needs them are rationally understood, that’s not a problem, but a delicious advantage!

Regardless, it’s not entirely clear what relevance Hays’ digression here has to the present matter. It all strikes me as an attempt to redirect. At any rate, taking the implications of a given truth to “a logical extreme” is typically a hypothetical affair in the first place. If a truth plays out to its logical extreme in a real case scenario, that would simply generate a new set of truths to be considered, and hypothetically so. But seriously, what is Hays really getting at here? Is he trying to hedge the whole issue of persistent unanswered prayer or answers in terms of “No,” either of which directly conflict with biblical promises, with a barrage of qualifications and irrelevancies?

But let’s explore a key element here. By “a fallen world,” I’m persuaded that Hays means essentially a defective world. (It’s hard to see how the believer could hold that the world is “fallen” – a term signifying widespread moral collapse – would be free of any and all defects.) But if we posit that the world was created by a supernatural being, and yet admit that the world is defective, this implicates the supernatural being which allegedly created it in the first place. (For further considerations on this puzzling quandary, see my blog entry Was Adam Created Perfect?) Christianity describes the world as “fallen” in an effort to make the unearned guilt it peddles stick in the conscience of its adherents. But if we’re born into a world that is already “fallen,” then we had no involvement in its fall. If I’m walking down a street and minding my own business and I come upon a store that was robbed last night, I’m not suddenly guilty of the crime. But Christianity says I am. Lights out!
Hays goes on:
iii) Although the parable is about the Parousia, it involves a general principle. How do people behave when they think no one is watching? For instance, you have people who behave differently under the gaze of a security camera. But if they forget about the security camera, or if they think it's off, then they may lose their moral inhibitions.
Hays’ general view of human individuals assesses them as inauthentic by default. If they know they’re being watched, they’ll put on a pretense for show; if they don’t think anyone’s watching, they’ll stoop to the lowest. The estimate of human nature as such underlying Hays’ view of man is pretty hard to miss: man is a squirming immoral turd looking for any opportunity to do wrong and pull the wool over others’ eyes. Hobbes would be proud.

Such an assessment of man can be traced ultimately to the determinism implicit in any subjectivist conception of the world (and explicit when taken to “a logical extreme”). An unavoidable implication of any position which grants metaphysical primacy is that ultimately some form of consciousness determines all nature and causation by force of will.

In terms of moral conflicts, the question Hays raises here can serve to highlight some of the crucial distinctions between the religious model of morality and an objective conception of morality. On the religious model, enforcement of right action must be compelled, and it must be compelled from without the moral agent. On this view, man must be scared out of his wits into doing what is moral, because otherwise he would not be inclined to do what is considered moral. Hence, religion props up a scarecrow before the believer in the context of what Plato called a “Noble Lie,” an untruth or “pious fiction” presented as truth with the intention of encouraging altruistic behavior.

On the objective conception, man is understood as a biological organism possessing a volitional consciousness, and because his choices and actions ultimately have life and death consequences, he needs an objective standard according to which he can guide those choices and actions. Morality is that guide, and since morality on this conception is geared towards those values that he needs in order to live and enjoy his life and he applies its principles by choice, he is naturally self-interested in adhering to moral action, regardless of who observes or disapproves.

Volition, Binswanger points out, is “cognitive self-regulation” (cf. his 1991 pamphlet titled “Volition as Cognitive Self-Regulation”). Volition is the faculty of human consciousness which exercises the power to select between alternatives and manage one’s own choices and non-autonomic actions. This ability, coupled with his conceptual prowess, gives man an entire, unique category of actions. In a key paragraph in his pamphlet, Binswanger makes a crucially important point:
Man’s rational faculty includes not only the ability to conceptualize the world in which he must act, but also the ability to conceptualize his mental processes as such. This gives man an entirely new level of self-regulation: the ability to regulate, within limits, the actions of his consciousness, which in turn regulate his existential actions. It is this capacity for regulating the operations of his own mind that underlies much of what makes him distinctively human: the ability to act long-range against the pull of immediate pleasures and pains, to correct his thinking by means of logic, to correct even automatized, subconscious misevaluations (as in overcoming neurosis), and to forge his own character in the image of his self-ideal. (p. 3)
For present purposes, the question pertains to the degree to which an individual allows observers of his choices and actions to influence those choices and actions. And the degree to which one does allow such influence is itself a choice. So we cannot discount the importance which one’s view of himself generally places on the judgment and approval of others. If the affirming judgment and consenting approval of others are more important to an individual than his own judgments and approval of his choices and actions, he will be motivated to regulate his choices and actions in such a manner that others approve of his choices and actions, even to the point of giving his moral indiscretions a pass or even applauding his willful failings. Indeed, some people prefer the approval of people who are not close to them over that of people who intimately know them. (For some penetrating exploration of this very ripe topic, I happily recommend Kurt Keefner’s book Killing Cool: Fantasy vs. Reality in American Life. “Religious faith,” writes Keefner on p. 192, “isn’t wishful thinking about just one subject, such as the lottery, but about a whole worldview.”)

Ultimately I think questions of the sort Hays raises here (“How do people behave when they think no one is watching?”) boil down to an individual’s orientation to reality, the suitability of one’s moral code to life-based values, and the importance which that code ascribes to producing and preserving values required for survival. A person who has a thoughtful understanding of the nature of reality (beginning with the fundamental recognitions that we must work with reality’s constraints on reality’s own terms, that reality does not conform to wishes, prayers, hopes, imagination, etc.) and the facts that values are necessary for life and require rationally guided action, is not someone who’s going to be trying to “get away” with something immoral – i.e., detrimental to values – when no one’s looking. In fact, a person who ascribes to objective morality will more likely already have a very keen conscience, one which predisposes him to governing his choices and values in a pro-values manner from the outset, regardless of what others see or think.

Contrary to the Christian model, objective morality is not a form of punishment or a set of controls intended to push an individual into a mental straightjacket or corner him psychologically; the purpose of objective morality is not to goad an individual into behaviors desired by others, but to liberate him by providing him with those cognitive tools he needs to govern his life independently of others. Do you seek the unearned? Then you will likely do things that are unethical and thus seek to evade the judgment of others. The fear of other people’s judgment is a strong motivator for concealing one’s own actions from others. But which worldview teaches its adherents to fear other people’s judgment? Consider the infamous threat found in Matthew 7:1:
“Do not judge, or you too will be judged.
Clearly, according to this teaching, the believer is expected to cower in fear at the prospect of others judging him and thus control his own behavior, stifling his own faculty of judgment. Illustrating the proper alternative to this, Ayn Rand famously wrote in her novel Atlas Shrugged: “Judge, and be prepared to be judged.”

Rand observed that “faith in the supernatural begins as faith in the superiority of others” (Atlas Shrugged). A worldview premised on the primacy of consciousness will inevitably encourage its adherents to fear other consciousnesses, ascribing to them powers which they actually do not have. This can easily result in chronic fear of others’ judgments and an insatiable lust for approval.

This fear of other minds typically starts in childhood. Thoughtful children are naturally going to be in awe to some degree of their parents, recognizing that their parents know significantly more than they do and often thinking of them as invincible and maybe even omniscient. With many adults this exaggerated presumptive esteem of other minds never fully goes away, and is even encouraged in religious settings. Pastors, priests, clerics, mullahs can easily fall into the temptation to abuse their pretended superiority over their flocks.

Wouldn’t it be better for one’s life, psychological health and future success to adopt and practice a moral code which is grounded in facts, teaches man how to live and enjoy his life, and does not start out by arbitrarily declaring man inherently guilty by virtue of his very existence as man?

Hays explains:
If God was a hovering presence, many more people would feign to be God-fearing.
Is that so? Isn’t the Christian god supposed to be an omnipresent, all-hovering, all-seeing, all-observing presence actively involved with its creation and creatures to begin with? That’s what apologists are always telling us. Hays’ use of the hypothetical mood here (“if…”) gives away too much. It’s a proverbial wink and nod acknowledging that our leg is getting pulled. Doesn’t Hays actually believe that his god is in fact a hovering presence? Or does he worship something more along the lines of a blind watchmaker?

We’re not talking about a houseplant or a doormat here. We’re talking about something that’s imagined to be the creator of the universe as such. We’re talking about a being whose power is so great that it can only be imagined, a being whose power is beyond anything any human being in the history of the world has actually witnessed. This is a being whose very nature would make it overwhelmingly clear to anyone with an IQ over 25 that its unstoppable, probing awareness would penetrate far beyond any outward veneer (such as “feign[ing] to be God-fearing”), that its peering scrutiny would drill right through the strongest psychological defenses and topple every form of pretense, that its sheer will would – more than any nuclear chain reaction yet known to the western world – irresistibly reverberate throughout men’s consciences. If such a being were in fact real and human beings actually knew of its existence (and not merely “believed” – which works effectively enough in Bernie Madoff schemes), our awareness of its reality would be overwhelming and inescapable. It would be “a hovering presence” by virtue of its nature as an all-powerful supernatural consciousness. To suggest that it is not “a hovering presence” is to give away the game that it’s merely a figment of the imagination.

Essentially, the problem lies in those who have trouble sustaining the fantasy 24/7. The bible itself warns against allowing “the cares of the world” (cf. Mt. 13:22) to occupy one’s awareness in place of the psycho-complex that is god-belief. The world is supposed to take care of its own, and the believer is to focus his mind on “spiritual things.” The world of facts, of constraints, of conditions, a world governed by the primacy of existence – that is all to be ignored and all energies are to be expended on propping up the god-belief fantasy.

This of course requires a lot of effort: You have a family to feed? Don’t worry about it. Instead, pour your efforts into maintaining your relationship with the imaginary; seek actively at all times to inflate the god you’ve been commissioned to worship in your imagination to a position of all-controlling “Lord” over your life. Your family will be fed… somehow. Just don’t forget to pray for the food to be delivered, and when it’s not, consider that to be a test of your faith. You need to pray harder. You need to invest more of your psychic energy, your affections, your guttural stammerings into the theistic fantasy, because the only alternative is being cast into the flames.

I’ve always figured that, if people really thought that the god they erect in their imagination were real, they would behave quite differently from how they in fact do. Many people feign to have a fear of a god, and that’s because they’ve been told to fear their god, typically from a very young age, when they feared the adults in their lives. But when their choices and actions are not consistent with what such a fear would actually entail, they may in fact simply be telling us indirectly that what they claim to fear really is merely imaginary. With all the urgency in religion to “believe,” the real fear translates into a fear of failing to believe, a fear of the consequences imagined for not believing. That’s not the same thing as actually believing.

Hays writes:
Or consider the cliché plot of trusting parents who must take a business trip out of town. They leave their home in the hands of their teenage kids. Of course their kids promise to be responsible in the absence of their parents. But when, due to unforeseen circumstances, the parents return early, they find a party in progress, with alcohol, drugs, hookups, and so on.
This is probably well beyond the time for the parents in such a case to start examining their parenting methods. If there’s any analogy to the Christian god’s relationship to human beings here, that would be it!

But of course, mere mortal parents in such situations are not analogous to the Christian god as Christianity describes it; nor are the teenage kids analogous to believers in the corresponding context. In fact, there really could be no corresponding context since, while human parents can in fact go away and be absent from their children, the Christian god is supposed to be omnipresent, all-seeing, all-knowing, inescapably peering into every nook and cranny of the believer’s private experience, and believers are supposed to believe that this is the case. A rational parent does not seek to inculcate a sense of paranoia in his children, but rather a strong sense of independence, a firm grasp of reason, rational judgment, an eagerness to take responsibility for one’s own choices and actions, pride in one’s own moral achievements, etc. As a parental figure, has the Christian god been successful in imparting such virtues on the human race? Take a look at what’s happening around the world, and then tell me.

Hays continues:
iv) Apropos (iii), unanswered prayer is a test of fidelity.
This of course is the salvage plea we’ve been expecting all along, given Hay’s setup for the breaking the news that the promises put into Jesus’ mouth are not something the believer can actually bank on. While the bible repeats unqualified promises of answered prayer wishes, the believer must confront the blaring fact that his prayers are ineffectual at conforming reality to his whims and preferences. Prayer may alter one’s mood and set one’s attitude into religiously preferred contortions, but whether he realizes it or not, the persistent failure of his prayers brings him face to face with the primacy of existence – the fundamental fact that reality does not conform to conscious activity. So, what can a believer do? That’s right: he can rationalize the failure of prayer in a way to deepen his commitment to irrational beliefs: the failure of his prayers have constituted a test of faith all along!

The claim that prayers can be answered in a manner which cannot be brushed aside as mere coincidence, can be tested. If the believer insists that prayer “works,” the burden is on him to explain with precision exactly what he means, and to produce a demonstration of the efficacy of prayer which can be taken as confirming evidence. Since the Christian god is supposed to be omnipotent and is said to have promised to give whatever believers ask for, what test of prayer could possibly be dismissed as an unreasonable challenge for demonstrable results? According to the gospel stories, Jesus went around performing miraculous healings. So here we have a genre of miracle activity that is well precedented in early Christian literature. Thus believers can demonstrate the power of prayer by praying for a particular individual’s healing. I think an appropriate example would be the curing of my 20/100 vision. Believers can join hands and say their magic words, “in Jesus’ name, amen,” appealing to their god to intervene in my nearsightedness and restore my vision to 20/20, relieving me of the need to don my glasses every morning upon rising.

But for some reason, believers seem reluctant to put their god to such a test. For example, I remember one apologist retorting that “God does not do parlor tricks.” Were the miraculous cures (some of blindness to boot) reported in the gospels examples of “parlor tricks”? If not, then why would the proposal that the believer pray for my ailing eyesight constitute a request that the Christian god perform “parlor tricks”? Sounds like just run-of-the-mill evasion to me.

Then there’s the insinuation that such prayer won’t work because I’m not a believer and thus don’t have faith. This seems to give non-belief great power over the supernatural: don’t believe that the supernatural is anything more than some figment of the imagination, and that’s enough to stop it in its tracks. “No, that’s not what I mean,” insists the believer. He apparently wants to say that his god won’t do something for me because I’m an evil atheist, because it is offended by my lack of faith. Sounds like a rather thin-skinned snowflake if you ask me. Doesn’t seem all that powerful.

But we should keep in mind, as Hays admits, that the promise to grant prayer requests found in the gospels’ sermons are not submerged in layers of qualifications. Believers find it necessary to insert their own qualifications in order to protect their faith.

Hays adds:
Sometimes God plays the role of the absentee master in the parable.
In other words: “Even though I’ve given my Word that I see all and that I’m always omnipresent, that I’m right there beside my flock, like a dutiful shepherd, I’m going to pretend that I’m not around, hide behind the wall of the world, but I can see right through it as I voyeuristically spy on their every move. I never left at all! Then I’ll be able to say ‘Gotcha!’ What a bunch of boobs!”

My, what a loving father figure!

“Let’s see if they forget about me,” even though we’re told that its existence is undeniable.

Hays explains:
If God made his presence conspicuous by routinely answering prayer, that would be like having a security camera running in every room of the house.
But believers have told us insistently that everybody already knows as a matter of incontestable certainty that the Christian god is real, that it is present, that it is more real than our very flesh and the earth itself, and that even if we try to suppress this alleged knowledge, we can’t escape it and are “without excuse.” Now we’re being told that its existence isn’t so conspicuous after all, in fact that it deliberately makes sure its existence isn’t conspicuous, by going back on its promises even.

Hays writes:
To be on your best behavior when you know the cops are watching you says nothing about your character.
Hays conceives of his god as a constabulary agent, making its rounds in an effort to enforce rules and regulate behavior by the ever-present threat of sanctions for the slightest violation. What does this say about the character of Christianity’s moral code? A lot in fact.

Hays adds:
Consider what happens in a blackout or emergency when police are so overwhelmed that looters feel free to ransack stories with impunity.
This shouldn’t surprise anyone. If their view of life and the world encourages them to pursue and accept the unearned, what else would we expect? When generations of people have been taught that virtue is anti-self, they’re naturally going to have a difficult time maintaining anything characterized as a virtue. If they’ve been taught that they are innately depraved from birth, why not live out their destiny as their worldview prescribes it? Moreover, if they’ve been taught that their immorality can be absolved simply by praying for forgiveness, they will more likely be predisposed to taking advantage of situations for short-term gains and ignore long-term costs, such as the damage such practices do to one’s character. It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than it is to get permission, goes the saying.

Hays explains:
God not answering prayer is like the master whose return flight is canceled due to inclement weather. Or so it seems. The security camera is off. Or so it seems.
Well, is it, or is it not? Frankly, it “seems” that believers are simply deluded and that their efforts to explain away the failure rate of prayer, as vacuous as they are, are merely attempts to rationalize the strident dissonances pounding between their faith program and reality.

Hays writes:
Prayer promises are counterbalanced by unanswered prayer, because God's apparent absence is a test of fidelity.
Why can’t this very course of reasoning work to salvage belief in any deity? For example, one could just as easily argue that Blarko’s prayer promises are counterbalanced by unanswered prayer, because Blarko’s apparent absence is a test of fidelity. Insert any invisible magic being in place of Christianity’s god or “Blarko,” and you have essentially the same belief-insulating effect: “I admit my prayers aren’t being answered, but this in itself tries my faith, and faith shall prevail no matter what.”

If faith as such is conceived as some kind of virtue, as the religious view of the world must do, then any rationalization that comes to faith’s rescue will be welcome with open arms. And when it’s a rationalization of a position that is contrary to fact by doubling down on the determination to remain loyal to that position in spite of its baselessness, all the better. Again, I find myself reminded of the DNC and all its shenanigans, whether it’s “climate change” or “social justice” or charges of “racism,” you name it. Facts that disprove the preferred narrative are to be drowned out in an act of wishing.

Hays argues:
If God routinely answered prayer, that would function as an artificial deterrent to infidelity.
So, integrity, loyalty to one’s principles, and keeping one’s promises make an individual predictable, rendering any motivation to cooperate with him “artificial”? This is like saying: If your insurance provider actually came through according to the terms of your policy every time you filed a claim, that would function as an artificial deterrent to letting your coverage lapse. I’m glad I don’t live in Hays’ cartoon universe.

What are the implications such an arrangement has in terms of trust? The believer may pray fervently for something, and if his prayer is not answered (or if he suspects the answer is “No”), he will not be given any explanation for the decision as one can expect in high-quality relationships with equals. Rather, in the case of religious devotion, the believer is left to his own speculations as to why his prayer wishes have not been granted. As Hays himself has offered, one suggestion for ungranted prayer wishes is that the believer’s faith is being tested. How would the believer go about discovering if this is truly the case? What facts does he gather and measure? If the believer thinks that a prayer wish of his has been granted, is he to surmise that his faith is being rewarded? If so, is he being rewarded for choices that he has made? But this conflicts with the overt, volition-squelching determinism inherent in the Christian worldview.

Hays remarks:
You'd be faithful because you knew God was watching you.
This betrays the degree to which Christians’ devotion to their alleged god is fear-based as opposed to love-based. The worry which Hays is reinforcing here aligns entirely with a faith inclined toward the “God’s gonna getcha for that!” rendition of the Christian god. But this falls by the very sword Hays is waving here: if a person claims to love his god simply because he’s scared out of his wits (“I’m a God-fearing man!”), he’d be saying that he loves his god simply because he fears the consequences of failing to love it. But that’s not genuine love. In fact, all authenticity is lost by design.

Hays continues:
You'd know God was watching you due to the regular evidence of divine intercession. But to be faithful when God seems to be absent or indifferent is the acid test.
Let’s be clear here: Hays’ entire point is focused on inward states of the believer – his psychological habits, his fixations, his emotional fluctuations, his ability and determination to maintain approved moods. It is here where Hays thinks the believer needs to come under tighter controls. His essential, underlying point here is that the believer better not relax as he struggles to live out the mind-game of the Christian devotional program. He needs to “work out [his] own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12) at all times, to inflate and maintain the magic fantasy 100% of the time, and to expend all his efforts on going along with the pretense.

But for serious-going believers, when does the Christian god seem to be absent? Apologists insist that their god is undeniably real, that we have a “sensus divinititis” by which we are, presumably, directly and irreversibly aware, not only of the Christian god’s existence, but of its very presence in our lives. Is it only when the believer is not specifically and actively imagining his god’s presence that his god “seems to be absent”? Or is imagining the Christian god standing over his shoulder and inspecting his every thought and move still not sufficient to dispel this nagging feeling?

One of the underlying causes to Hays’ troubles here is the fundamental reversal underpinning the religious conception of morality. Is man supposed to serve morality, or is morality supposed to serve man? On the Christian model, morality is essentially a curse, a form of punishment, a straitjacket that man is supposed to conform to, in spite of his nature as a biological organism, in spite of his physical needs, in spite of the nature of his consciousness. On the religious view, man is innately inclined towards evil (having been created by a perfect, all-good creator, mind you), so morality is fundamentally conceived of as a limiting mechanism to constantly remind man that he is a worthless speck of radioactive guilt who must forever toil to achieve a redemption he can never earn for himself. It is as though man must serve morality, for acting in one’s own self-interest is scorned as inherently immoral (“Don’t be so selfish,” we’ve been told since we were little tots). Morality, then, cannot serve man’s interests.

By contrast, on the objective conception of morality, morality serves man because its very purpose is to address the requirements of his life. On this model, man does not serve morality; morality as such cannot gain from man’s efforts or sacrifices. Since man’s life is conditional – he faces a fundamental alternative between life and death, he needs values in order to live, he must act in order to achieve values that he requires and to avoid those dangers which threaten it, etc. – he needs a system of principles to guide his choices and actions in the interests of his life, his abilty to live and enjoy it. Since the purpose of morality is to teach man how to live and enjoy his life, morality explicitly serves man’s requirements for life. Hence, morality is not a form of punishment (man’s very existence is not a source of guilt), nor is morality predicated on the assumption that man will by default always do evil whenever permitted. As one thinker I knew many years ago aptly put it, “morality is not a chastity belt.”

Why not a moral code that inspires an individual to be the best that he can be, to be the most virtuous that he can be, to pursue the greatest moral achievements that he can achieve? Trying to follow a list of “thou shalt nots” which one is supposed to obey upon pain of eternal death (mind you, a punishment that can only be imagined) is not going to produce such a code. Even more fundamentally, a moral code which compels through threats of punishment as such will never provide an individual the kind of moral inspiration and ambitiousness that a values-driven morality will. The differences here are as stark as the differences between cowering paranoia and hard-earned pride.

Think of a concert violinist (I’m thinking particularly of Sayaka Shoji, but any will do purposes of illustration). Taking aspirations for performance excellence as analogous to moral ambition, would we expect the violinist to play her instrument at her best only when she’s performing in front of a crowd of observers, and not during her private rehearsal sessions? You don’t get to be a concert performer unless you treat every session on your instrument as an opportunity to bang out your finest. Musicians know that when they are performing on stage, they will play what they have practiced, and this is where the deepest sense of satisfaction in their craft can be found: in actual practice, regardless of who else may be listening. A true virtuoso is her own greatest critic – she has to live up to her own standards, not to the standards of some anonymous passerby who can’t possibly know the context of the challenges she faces in her pursuits. It would be extraordinarly odd for a concert violinist to say to herself, “No one’s listening! Now I can sound like crap!” A highly skilled virtuoso doesn’t reach virtuoso status by looking for excuses to underperform; the purpose of her entire practice regimen is to become the best player she can be. Why should our relationship with moral virtue be any different? The purpose of morality should be to make it possible for a human being to live the best life possible. Why settle for anything less?

Kant infamously taught that virtue is its own reward. But if virtue in fact produces rewards, then the need for an all-seeing voyeur-judge is morally superfluous. On the rational model, virtue is the action by which one achieves and/or preserves the values that he requires to live and enjoy a life of non-contradictory joy. By contrast, Kant expects individuals to somehow be contented by simply knowing that they “did the right thing,” which always turns out to involve some form of self-sacrifice (like dying on a cross or denying oneself because he’s been commanded to). The Kantian model can only lead to layer upon layer of pretense, of “look at me, I sacrificed, so I’m morally superior to you.”

But on a rational code, moral achievement is a firsthand sense of fulfillment that cannot be faked through social signaling or pious pretending. This is because rational morality involves the pursuit of real values that one can really enjoy through real effort and only at one’s own expense. Contrast what Christianity fashions as its highest value – i.e., “salvation” – with the incentive of non-contradictory joy that rational morality offers: the former is styled as a “free gift” (said to be bought and paid for at someone else’s expense, namely his death) while the latter is something one can only give himself and cannot be taken away by anyone. An imaginary secondhand “free gift” delivered on the excruciating pain of someone you claim to love can never rival the actual firsthand values one earns through his own choices and actions.

If virtue is understood, not as a punitive measure intended primarily to remind an individual of the unearned guilt he’s accepted as part of a religious con-game and thereby make the enjoyment of life psychologically impossible, but instead as a set of skills which encourage and increase an individual’s abilities to produce values and live an enjoyable life, his orientation to morality as a whole will be quite different from one in relation to a morality that is inherently poised against his nature and his self-interest.

But notice how the temptation to find any opportunity to slack off is built into the very conception of virtue promoted by Christianity. In fact, Christianity teaches the believer to be constantly haunted by temptations. Indeed, any snitch and snatch of pleasure could be characterized as a result of falling into temptation on Christianity’s terms. “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak,” says Jesus according to Matthew 26:41. Man has a built-in weakness for “sin” – i.e., violating virtue, embracing vice, and this is all too easily translated into a ready excuse to slack off and dive into vice. Indeed, Christianity seats its morality on some imagined "personal" authority (which seems to care not a whit when masses of humanity are destroyed in a single stroke) and characterizes man as inherently rebellious against authority. It's almost as if the Christian moral code were coaxing men to buck the system.

What would slacking off look like on the rational model of morality? It would be tantamount to: “Oh, I can’t resist! I’m going to do X to destroy the values I’ve worked so hard to achieve! Won’t that be fun!” But how can an individual who has adopted a pro-values mindset find such action at all tempting?

Christianity conceives of morality as a curse, a form of punishment, a means of slow torture, and condemns all individuals as falling short of the bar, even before they’ve had any opportunity to apply any moral principles. Rational philosophy conceives of morality as a means to life-based values, a firsthanded sense of fulfillment, a life of non-contradictory joy. Rational morality treats happiness, understood as non-contradictory joy, as the proper state of man. Christianity treats morality as awful tasting medicine that gives you a persistent stomach-ache the next morning, making any form of authentic joy impossible.

The difference between the two can be illustrated by the difference between the two attitudes:
Christian: “I have to be virtuous because the Lord says so. Sometimes I slip because I can’t help it. I’m weak and fallen and my default inclination is to slack off. But I’ll try harder hardest to suppress my self and sacrifice as much as I can bear it.”  
Objectivist: “I want to be virtuous because virtue is the means by which I achieve and preserve those values which make my life worth living. Virtue makes me the primary beneficiary of my actions, and those whom I value also benefit when I am virtuous. Through virtue, I can lead a fulfilling life.
So I argue that how a worldview conceives of virtue lies in part on its explanation for why man needs morality in the first place. Religion and Objectivism are diametrically opposed on this very point.

For example, at best Christianity essentially holds that man needs morality in order to assuage his guilt and appease the Christian god: the Christian god finds it pleasing when men obey its will, especially when they suffer (we have the examples of Job and Jesus to back this up); the primary motivators for moral action are guilt, fear, and fantasy: you are guilty from birth and if you aren’t moral, you’ll be punished in an eternal afterlife.

It should be clear to any thoughtful person who takes a critical look at the general trajectory of the history of the world, that what people have been taught is the proper form of morality, simply is not working out. When generations upon generations of men are told that their moral starting point is depravity, that the only pureness they can achieve by their own choices and actions is evil, that they’ve been born with a moral debt they’ll never pay off, and that acting in their own self-interest is the root of their moral deficiencies, we should not be surprised by the results that have played out over the course of human history. Faith and force, Rand observed, are corollaries: if one insists that something is true on the basis of faith, he has already abandoned reason and will eventually resort to some form of force to back it up. As a case in point, “believe, or be damned,” the churchmen tell us. Such imperatives essentially tell men that their rational faculty has no relevance to the content they are to accept as true in their minds, for reason will not lead one from facts which we discover by looking outward to what the churchmen have fantasized in their place by looking inward. “You will believe as I say, or I’ll get the lash!” is a terrible way to raise a human being. When the initiation of the use of force starts out early in life, when we are but children, we are taught through parental modeling that striking others is the proper way to deal with conflict. Peaceful negotiation is off the table at that point. What conception of morality sanctions this? Certainly not a rational code of morality.

It is time for human thinkers to embrace maturity of mind and put down childish things, including every form of mysticism that has been destroying human civilization throughout history like a slow rot that devours a corpse. History itself shows that more religion is not the answer to the world’s woes. It was when the west adopted reason and challenged faith, that modern civilization finally had the firm footing necessary to gain traction and move forward. It was the power of ideas, specifically of rational ideas, not another cobweb-covered fantasy of a supernatural scarecrow eager to feast on man’s sacrifices, that propelled the west to the peace and prosperity which we have tasted and which we now know, with full certainty, is possible to man. In order to “give peace a chance,” we have to give reason a chance. We cannot do this if we hold as our moral ideal a supernatural being choking with contradictions, exemptions, and excuses.

We can, and must, do better.

by Dawson Bethrick


Jason mc said...

This is a pretty devastating critique. And great fun to read. I almost feel sorry for the opposing side. But then I remember that they started it.

So Hays's main point is that unanswered prayer is justified, because if prayers were consistently answered, then belief in God would be a matter of objective, scientific knowledge. Then there would be no room for faith. Faith being something like the volitional acceptance of a belief. It's a matter of free will, and it's a moral issue as it's a Christian virtue. For it to be a meaningful moral test, we need the option to adopt or abandon faith to be open to us.

Now maybe I'm taking things to a 'logical extreme' here, but this sounds hard to reconcile with Calvinism.

I'm reminded of something I saw on Twitter, shared by the Quakers:

This same volitional faith justification is also a solution to the problem of evil. Seems to work better with a non-literalist interpretation of the religion. I don't know much about Quaker theology. I've just followed them on Twitter to add to the intellectual diversity of opinions I'm exposing myself to.


Unknown said...

farNaway toooo wordy, brudda.

Unknown said...

farNaway toooo wordy, brudda.