On Prayer and Fasting

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Atheists laugh at Christians who pray but do nothing. I join them in this mockery. Prayer and fasting without works is stupid. It’s directly contrary to the principle of faith and belief and prayer.

My prayers are generally of three sorts:

  1. Thanking God for the things I have.
  2. Asking God to grant me wisdom or knowledge so that I can know what I need to do.
  3. Asking God to bless my efforts so that I’ll have motivation and ultimately achieve the intended results.

Oftentimes, they are combined together.

After the prayer, then I get busy studying and doing.

I’m going to share with you an example from my personal life. My dad’s heart is not beating the way it should. The doctors really have no idea, precisely, why that is, and they don’t have a really clear idea of what to do. That’s not surprising; medicine is not an exact science. The doctors tell him to do things, which he sometimes does or does not do.

If my dad and I and our family simply relied on works, and never took our time to think about the big picture, and never called on a higher power, I think all of this would be terribly disheartening. I would get depressed, my dad would get depressed, and things would not happen as they needed to.

Praying in thanks for what we have reminds me that I shouldn’t focus exclusively on the things I don’t have but wished I had. This raises my spirits.

Asking God for wisdom tells me that I need to pay close attention to the things around me. God does answer prayers, and only rarely does he answer them directly. I need to seek wisdom in the people and resources around me, which I believe were put there by God for our benefits and use. When I do find something, I hold it in very, very high regard, because I believe it came from the ultimate source of all wisdom.

Asking God to bless our efforts means that I can’t ask for a better result. If I have done everything that needed to be done, and if I ask God to further bless those efforts, what more can I do? Exhausting all the resources, I am left to say, “This is the will of God” and count it as yet another blessing from God for my personal growth.

I think the Atheists completely misunderstand how prayer works in practice versus their kindergarten concept of prayer. To a child, prayer is a magical spell, which, if you say the right words, will invoke the powers of the universe to give you what you want. To an adult, prayer is a conversation of God, a release valve that keeps us sane in this insane world. It takes all the evil in the world and changes it into good. If praying and fasting are not enough, in addition to doing everything within my power, then nothing is enough, and I can know, happily, that I did what could be done.

I think this is where the logical reasoning of Atheism breaks down. If God really is an invention of mankind, then we need to ask, is it good or bad? If it is good, that is, if believing in God and acting according to those beliefs brings good results versus not believing, then wouldn’t you believe in such a God? Then here we are: the Atheist is forced to admit that they are wrong after all; even if the concept of a particular God or religion is man-made, since it delivers positive results, it is better to believe in the fiction than not to. And thus, to the Atheist, if they discover a religion that has good results, they should abandon their Atheist beliefs.

And so, when the Atheist meets the happy Christian, what can they say? “Your religion is stupid and fiction, even though I must admit it makes you happy.” So what? Why are you trying to make him less happy than he is? Why don’t you join them?

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14 Responses to “On Prayer and Fasting”

  1. demo kid Says:

    You make several arguments here:

    1. Prayer allows you to be thankful and lifts your spirits.
    2. God answers your prayers, but sometimes (usually?) in an indirect way.
    3. Often the answer to prayer is to use the resources around you.
    4. If God doesn’t answer your prayers, it is the “will of God”.

    If a prayer gets a river to run uphill perhaps, or clouds or weather to operate in a way that defies physics, then you can provide proof a real, rational benefit to prayer. Heck, even if there is a supernatural force that you can only sway 1% of the time, it would be a great advantage!

    However, any type of evidence of this effect is more left to anecdotal evidence and a misreading of statistics than actual “proof”. I’m sorry, but flipping a coin and saying that heads means that God is doing you a favor and tails means that it was “God’s will”… that doesn’t count as proof that God has a plan for you. It merely shows that belief does not equal a good command of probability.

    Now the shocking part is that in terms of the rest of the benefits of prayer, I would absolutely, positively agree with you! I would be more than happy to state that prayer is a “release valve”, that it provides you with a sense of perspective, and that it allows you to be happy.

    But does this depend on God, or, in fact, does it even depend on saying a “prayer”, per se? Can you get the same benefits from taking a relaxing walk and thinking about life, or praying to Zeus? Nothing in your argument would suggest that any of the other non-supernatural benefits you describe are divinely granted.

    • Jonathan Gardner Says:

      Sometimes a prayer can provide miracles. You may be able to find a rational explanation for those miracles, but they do exist and they do occur. I am witness to miracles I have seen for myself. That is enough evidence for me.

      I think sometimes people approach God the same way a 5-year-old child does, and then get surprised when it turns out he is nothing like the 5-year-old’s imagination says he is. Over time, as you mature, you are ready to learn a little bit more about who God really is. Truly, we’ll never be able to come to a full understanding of who he is and what he actually does, but at least we learn a little on the way.

      One of the divine principles is the principle of delegation. God doesn’t try to do everything himself. He works through other people, even people who aren’t aware they’re doing what God wants done. I can’t give you the full reasoning behind this, although it feels like, to me, there is a grand mystery or secret about the way things really work and the way things really are. I can say that it’s apparent God wants us to follow Jesus, hence, Jesus’ plain command, “Come, follow me.” Well, if Jesus became like God by doing the things he saw God do, then what are we supposed to do to follow him? And that means we go around answering people’s prayers. When we live our life this way, and when we start to see other people as God’s hands in this world, we surely change our perspective of our role and the role of the people around us. It gives a deep, personal meaning to every little kind act you do or see every day.

      I will say this: If you want to pray to invented gods, that’s your business. I cannot say my conception of God is much better than your perception of Zeus, comparing the finite knowledge we have to the infinite knowledge God possesses. What I mean to say is that I know that my current conception of God is maybe closer than the concept of Zeus, but it isn’t wholly correct. I expect some of my deeply personally held beliefs to be shown wrong to me one day, just like I expect aspects of Physics to undergo changes in understanding over time. That is progress, and I believe in progression.

      I know, for a fact, that God will often use whatever state of knowledge you have of the universe as the starting point.

      A story from the Book of Mormon illustrates this. Ammon went down among the Lamanites to teach them about God and Christ. When he finally had the chance to teach someone, he said, “What do you know about God?” The man replied, “I don’t know who God is, but I do know about the Great Spirit.” So Ammon, without skipping a beat, said, “The Great Spirit is God.” From there, he started correcting doctrines that the man believed but that held him back from understanding who Christ was. Ammon wasn’t in a hurry to correct every single mistake the man had about the way the world was; he knew that if he could simply get the man to confess his sins to Christ, and trust in him the rest of his life, it would be well enough with him when Judgment Day rolls around.

      A similar story is told in the New Testament. Paul arrives in Athens, and begins a public sermon around the “Unknown God” that the Athenians had built a monument to, declaring that God to be Christ, who is no longer unknown to us because he manifested himself in the flesh. Paul was clear in his teachings that we must devote ourselves to Christ first and foremost, and we must be willing to accept those who hold incorrect ideas and beliefs, and lovingly and patiently work with them until all of our understandings improve. That is why so many Greek ideas survive in Christianity today, some (perhaps many) of which are simply wrong.

      • demo kid Says:

        You may have provided a wordy response, but answered pretty much nothing of what I said.

        Let me rephrase this, then. You’ve effectively removed all possible need for a God from this system. If you can get relaxed and connected to the universe on your own, if low-probability events that follow rational explanations benefit you on occasion, and if the people around you try to fulfill your needs, there is no indication that prayers specifically directed to God really matter.

        And, getting back to your main points, this is why prayer is pointless to those that question religion. While there are distinct benefits to elements of prayer, there is no particular advantage or even demonstrated need to direct this towards a divine power.

      • Jonathan Gardner Says:

        I don’t understand why you think I’ve removed God from this system. God is the key to the whole thing; without him, there is no reason to be consistently thankful, there is no reason to dedicate my work to serving fellow man, and there is no greater purpose to the meditative components of prayer.

        It’s like a parent who asks you to do your homework. Yes, you’re growing and learning and progressing by virtue of doing your homework, regardless of who or what compelled you to do so. Nevertheless, as every teacher knows, without a parent there prodding the children to do their homework, it simply won’t get done.

        As you have stated, remove a belief in God, and prayer and all its benefits is gone as well. It certainly is a conundrum. You can’t pray and not believe in God, can you? I choose to resolve it by believing in God and accepting the benefits of prayer in my life, rather than rejecting God and losing those benefits.

      • demo kid Says:

        No, you’ve successfully removed God from the system, and done it in a way that would make the nonreligious proud. If you provide someone with a description of the benefits of prayer, saying that:

        1. It is a source of strength and relaxation, which can be received from breathing techniques, meditation, long walks, etc.
        2. It petitions a higher power who might intercede on your behalf, but only through other people that exercise free will of their own.
        3. It grants no other supernatural boon, except what can be explained through rational means.

        what is the point? Nothing in that statement would suggest that an active God — or a God at all! — would need to enter this system for it to work.

        What is worse, though, is that you cannot admit this. When you state:

        God is the key to the whole thing; without him, there is no reason to be consistently thankful, there is no reason to dedicate my work to serving fellow man, and there is no greater purpose to the meditative components of prayer.

        you’re almost admitting that agnostics and atheists have greater faith and character. Why not be thankful without a God? Life is a wonderful and beautiful thing! Why would it depend on God or not? Similarly, what is the value of helping others if this is done with a metaphysical reward in mind?

      • Jonathan Gardner Says:

        I cannot help you understand. Apparently, you think everything I say is a lie. Why bother to repeat myself?

  2. demo kid Says:

    I think this is where the logical reasoning of Atheism breaks down. If God really is an invention of mankind, then we need to ask, is it good or bad? If it is good, that is, if believing in God and acting according to those beliefs brings good results versus not believing, then wouldn’t you believe in such a God?

    Which God?

    As outlined, nothing that you discussed proves supernatural benefits to prayer, or that you would even need to pray to get these benefits. A self-aware atheist should be eager to follow these techniques — being thankful for what you have, learning to accept events if nothing more can be done, and so forth.

    If you’re claiming that people can get supernatural benefits, I would suggest that any self-respecting atheist would need proof that they’re getting the greatest benefit. Why wouldn’t they have religions compete? Would praying to Yahweh or Allah or ancestors or animals provide the best odds with low-probability, beneficial events that exceed reasonable levels of confidence?

    Again, there are non-supernatural benefits to praying and being a member of a religion! Being part of a community, having a shared sense of purpose, etc. can be very powerful things. But you have not made the case that any of these things are divinely granted, nor that you could not get them from a non-religious group.

    Personally, I care about being honest, and I care about results. I have no problem with other people believing what they like, as long as the results of that belief are positive. However, the belief that one could lie about faith to obtain results that they could get in other ways? That’s absolutely, positively wrong.

    • Jonathan Gardner Says:

      See, this is where you are being dishonest.

      As I explained, if there are net benefits to a particular belief, and you refuse to believe in that belief, then you are choosing the lesser of two alternatives. You might as well choose to be sick, or poor, or dead. That’s your choice; many people choose to be unhappy, although I cannot understand why a reasonable person would do so.

      When you have competing beliefs, choose the one that benefits you the most. Choose the one that brings the greatest satisfaction and joy in your life. No one is responsible for your happiness but you, and if you don’t choose things that make you happy in the long run, you’ll only have yourself to blame for it.

      The nice thing about beliefs is they have no substance, and need none. If there is substance, it can only be seen after the “jump of faith.” I certainly don’t “believe” in the core doctrines of the LDS church anymore; to me, it is pure knowledge, superior to my observations of the quantum charges in Millikan’s oil drop experiment which I performed myself, or the detection of muons falling from the sky which I performed with technology I understood and configured. In all the above cases, I believed what I was told, acted according to that belief, and observed that, indeed, my belief was correct.

      Obviously, beliefs that contradict our observations lead to conflict within ourselves, conflict which can either be resolved by ignorance or intelligence and wisdom. Perhaps you can postpone altering your beliefs to align with reality by saying, “I need more data.” But that will only work for a while; eventually, when you have enough data, it’s time to rework your beliefs. If you think I don’t regularly rework my beliefs, you’re pretty silly. I’m not an idiot.

      Your belief in Atheism is yet another belief among many. You certainly can’t ever prove the absence of something without observing everything. You can probably disprove certain kinds of Gods because their definition tends to make them dismissable through evidence. For instance, a god that always answers prayers right away can easily be disproven by saying a prayer. A god that instantly rewards good behavior and punishes bad can likewise be dismissed. But you cannot disprove all possible concepts of God, without exploring every one of them.

      I don’t believe in the supernatural as some people believe in it. There is a concept that there is one or more realm of existence that is parallel and independent of our own that follows different laws of nature, or has no law at all. I’m not sure that is a correct concept. Reading the scriptures I have access to, I think it’s all but crystal clear there is no separate realm, only a separation of space or frequency. If there is no supernatural realm, there is no supernatural cause. Everything, every miracle, can be explained simply by basic laws of nature. laws we do not understand yet. Jesus turning water to wine, curing diseases, raising the dead, resurrection, the forgiveness of sins, all of these, in my mind, are perfectly logical and reasonable, although I cannot comprehend the laws that govern these except at the most basic level.

      Here’s the kicker. If I worship a God who is logical and reasonable, and who has ordered nature to be the same, then I observe such in nature, is that any more or less a miracle than if God healed a sick man or brought someone back to life? “Look, the charge of an electron is indeed consistent! It’s a miracle!” is identical to, “Look, so-and-so has risen from the dead in a perfected, glorified body! It’s a miracle!” To me, everything is a miracle, a divine manifestation of God’s will. The fact that you disagree is a miracle as well—a sign showing that indeed, just as God said, we have free will to do as we please.

      Following the reasoning that any sufficiently advanced technology is considered magic, I propose that any manifestation of a superior understanding of the laws of nature is also considered magic / a miracle / supernatural / act of God by those of lesser understanding. If this is so, then the fact that there is anything at all we don’t understand about nature yet we observe is a miracle in and of itself. The fact that science makes any progress at all is a testament to the existence of that God.

      • demo kid Says:

        I haven’t called you a liar here. I’d expect that unless you can provide evidence, you’d refrain from throwing insults around.

        I never quite said that there were or were not net benefits to any belief, or that people shouldn’t take the path that they feel is best for them. My statement was merely suggesting that if you are an atheist keen on choosing a faith based on the benefits alone, you should test those beliefs. Specifically, you should test the supernatural benefits of these faiths, as the more natural benefits can be achieved without religion, and ethical beliefs alone do not require faith in the divine.

        Likewise, your statements about atheism mischaracterize my beliefs. At no point did I say that there was no God, nor that evidence conclusively pointed to that fact over any one of a number of other possibilities.

        In fact, I would claim the opposite! If one assumes that all possible explanations of God (or a lack of a God) have equal probability a priori, some may be dismissed as unlikely through evidence (as you note). However, with others there will be no way of distinguishing them from one another with the information you have, or ever will have.

        If this is the case, you can either be honest with the evidence and state that you just don’t know, or you can misrepresent the data and claim that one explanation or a small group of explanations are true. We all have biases and personal interpretations based on our own weaknesses as human beings, and I don’t fault anyone for that.

        However, if you claim that one explanation is absolutely true when there are several possibilities not excluded by the evidence that you present, what does that really say about the rationality of this conclusion?

      • Jonathan Gardner Says:

        “Dishonest” doesn’t mean I’m calling you a liar. I’m pointing out that your logic isn’t sound, and there are some contradictions there you may not have realized. If it was interpreted that I meant to say you were motivated to misinform people intentionally, then I was wrong.

        If you can’t say there is no God, then you’re not an Atheist, are you? If you say you can’t tell if there is a God, and no one else can either, doesn’t that make you an Agnostic? It’s curious that some people start off, “There is no God.” And then, when they finally realize how absurd a statement that is, they settle with, “You can’t prove there is a God.” At least that’s progress. I can certainly demonstrate evidence of God that could convince anyone with an open mind.

        I am sure that you can, like others, classify things into broad groups based on their attributes. For beliefs, we can characterize all of the world’s religions this way. Certain religions are ruled out because they are inherently illogical (and I prefer logic), or they offer no happiness. Other religions are ruled out because they do not deliver on the promises they make. Of all the world’s religions, the only one that I know about that is logical and offers exactly what it claims to offer is the LDS faith. Yes, I am biased since I was born into the church, and since I know a great deal more about what it means to believe in the LDS faith than someone who was not born in the church. However, you cannot say that I have not investigated, seriously, other religions, or that I have not ruled out other beliefs simply because I am a member of the LDS church. That’s absurd.

        You’re certainly welcome to tour the world’s religions. I believe I have done as good as can be expected for a middle-aged man, better than the vast majority, perhaps. I think, as in calculus, when you see the derivative pointing towards a particular point, you can tell that that must be the maximum, or at least a maximum. In other words, if you examine one religion, and you say, “What would make this religion even better is X”, and X is consistently between that religion and a particular religion, and when you examine that particular religion, you say, “I cannot think of any small variation that would improve this religion”, then you have found a maximum.

        True, there may be some other maximum point, at which point, you’d have to compare the elevation in absolute terms between them. I don’t see where such a maximum could exist. You’re welcome to show me.

        As for agnosticism or atheism, certainly, the path to greater happiness is knowing that there is a purpose for your life, and that you are not simply cogs in a heartless machine with absolutely no greater purpose than to eat, sleep, make a few babies, and die. Certainly, though, atheism and agnosticism is preferable to many religions. I can’t argue with that, but it certainly isn’t the optimum for happiness.

  3. Human Ape Says:

    “Why I Believe in Creationism”

    You believe in magical creationism because you’re a coward.

    • Jonathan Gardner Says:

      Tell me, how does believing in what you believe in help you to apply logic and reason? Or is “you’re a coward” the pinnacle of logic and reason? Can I use the same reasoning to argue against you?

  4. Human Ape Says:

    “I’ve taken some time to once again, research the broad topic of evolution. I’ve, once again, confirmed my belief that it is incorrect, and that the best explanation is found in Genesis for how we got to where we are today.”

    Evolution is incorrect? Did you tell this to the molecular biologists at MIT and Harvard? You should go there and explain why you are so much smarter than they are.

    “Evolution is really three topics wrapped up in most people’s minds.”

    “1. Micro-evolution, or rather, diversity within populations.”
    “2. Macro-evolution, or apes-to-humans evolution.”
    “3. Abiogenesis, or life from nothing.”

    Ape to humans? This shows you don’t know what you’re talking about. Humans are apes. We are one of the modern ape species. This is a basic scientific fact you can find in any encyclopedia.

    Life from nothing? Is that what you call organic matter, nothing?

    Again you show you don’t know what you’re talking about. Abiogenesis and evolution are separate branches of science.

    It would take several days to explain why you’re wrong about everything so why don’t you read Why Evolution is True by Jerry Coyne (a University of Chicago biologist). Read it to understand it. Then read it again.

    If after studying what Jerry Coyne wrote, if you’re still a science denier, then you need psychiatric help.

    By the way your Genesis is a childish fantasy, a belief in magic. You’re afraid of science so you invoke magic. You’re pathetic. You won’t be able to understand Jerry Coyne’s “Why Evolution is True” because your disease is incurable.

    • Jonathan Gardner Says:

      Evolution is incorrect? Did you tell this to the molecular biologists at MIT and Harvard? You should go there and explain why you are so much smarter than they are.

      Simply because someone smart thinks something is correct is no grounds for justification. The correct thing should stand on its own reason. Or do you not believe in reason and logic? Which physicist goes around telling people to believe in physics because physicists say so? Or which mathematician says, “Mathematicians at our top universities agree with me, therefore, I am correct.”

      Let me put it this way: Very smart people from not so long ago thought that a pig’s tooth was the tooth of the missing link. Why are they incorrect but today’s smart people correct? That’s the question I want you to try to answer.

      Notice that no one dare enter the mathematics and probability of evolution, exactly as I have begun to do. Why is that? Because it makes no sense when you do.

      Again you show you don’t know what you’re talking about. Abiogenesis and evolution are separate branches of science.

      Exactly as I said it was. Where’s the disagreement?

      It would take several days to explain why you’re wrong about everything so why don’t you read Why Evolution is True by Jerry Coyne (a University of Chicago biologist). Read it to understand it. Then read it again.

      I have read several works on evolution. I’ve followed renowned evolutionists, read evolutionist papers. I don’t think I’ve read Jerry Coyne’s work, and to be frank, if it’s not written for a scientist, I’m not interested.

      If I’m wrong in my explanation of what evolutionists think is correct, then by all means, correct me. Trust me, I can read any paper you throw at me, and follow any logic you want to use.

      If after studying what Jerry Coyne wrote, if you’re still a science denier, then you need psychiatric help.

      I laugh at your charge that I am a science denier: HA HA HA HA!

      Science is my religion. I believe in a God that created the universe subject to laws of logic and order. I believe man has the capability of understanding those laws, and that by experimentation and logical reasoning we can deduce them. I not only believe we can, but that we must, in order to become like God. God compels us to do so, and we ignore his commandments at our own peril.

      What is the foundation for your science, my friend?

      By the way your Genesis is a childish fantasy, a belief in magic.

      Any technology, sufficiently advanced, is magic. So what’s wrong with believing that God is simply smarter than us, capable of using technologies we cannot conceive of today? What would be childish is to assume we know everything, or even anything. That sounds like something a teenager would say, or a child-man who has not learned the most basic lessons of humility and patience.

      You’re afraid of science so you invoke magic.

      I EMBRACE science, in every aspect of my life! I REJECT anti-science, or illogical untruths. Can you say the same for yourself? If I showed you how illogical and unreasonably something is, would you be willing to quit your belief of it? Or do you persist in believing something regardless of how reasonable and logical it is?

      You’re pathetic. You won’t be able to understand Jerry Coyne’s “Why Evolution is True” because your disease is incurable.

      And we’re done here.

      Thank you for trying to play, “Debate the scientist.” You’ve shown yourself of incapable of reasoning with even a modicum of logic and reason. If I were science, I wouldn’t want you to represent me. You’d be the guy on the other side, the guy I’d try to convince to join science.

      Please, go do yourself a favor and read about logical fallacies. The one you seem to rely on the most is the ad hominem. There were also hints at ad populum and argumentum ad verecundiam. Come back when you are ready to debate and discuss without such obvious logical fallacies.

      Unlike your belief in me, I believe you can improve and learn more than you currently know. I have nothing but charity towards you, despite your obvious animosity towards me.

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