Denyse O'Leary: God is Evidently Quite Emotional

The wonders of the modern apologetic techniques never quite stop being amusing. In a recent post on her blog, Mindful Hack, Denyse O'Leary discusses a new book by two philosophers. The book, entitled Answering the New Atheists: Dismantling Dawkins' Case Against God is authored by two philosopher cum apologists, Dr. Scott Hahn and Dr. Benjamin Wiker.

The book is certainly not written for a scholarly audience and what Denyse O'Leary takes from it is a delightful twist on the idea of intercessory prayer studies. As readers know I believe intercessory prayer as a concept to be deeply flawed. However, the best studies of intercessory prayer have also found it to be useless, or possibly harmful. The philosophers address this thusly:

The error of the double-blind prayer experiment is that it treats God like some kind of natural cause rather than as a personal, rational Being. In doing so, God is being unjustly subjected to a humiliating attempt to manipulate Him by an experiment. In short, the experiment is an insult, and any rational being, superhuman or not, would treat it as such. That does not, of course, mean that praying for healing itself is an insult; we are speaking only of framing such prayer in the context of a manipulative experiment. (p. 57)

I had to read this three times to be sure that it was actually written out by people who claim to be philosophers, but yep, there it is. Read it again yourself just to make sure you get the gist of it.

My summary: God isn't your monkey. You hurt his feelings when you test him.

I wonder if these fine philosophers, or Ms. O'Leary have read their Bibles. From what I can see of the Bible it's got numerous opportunities for God to have his feelings hurt, but he never seems to. Let's go through some of those times when Yahweh should have felt insulted, although I'm sure this list is not exhaustive.

First, in Exodus we see the story of Moses. God has Moses turn his staff into a snake and turn his hand leprous. Moses shows these signs to the Israelites so that they will believe. Then he does some of the same tricks for Pharoah in Exodus 7:

Yahweh said to Moses and Aaron, "When Pharaoh says to you, 'Perform a miracle,' then say to Aaron, 'Take your staff and throw it down before Pharaoh,' and it will become a snake."

So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and did just as Yahweh commanded. Aaron threw his staff down in front of Pharaoh and his officials, and it became a snake. Pharaoh then summoned wise men and sorcerers, and the Egyptian magicians also did the same things by their secret arts: Each one threw down his staff and it became a snake. But Aaron's staff swallowed up their staffs. Yet Pharaoh's heart became hard and he would not listen to them, just as Yahweh had said.

God's feelings were definitely not hurt during this test of his powers.

Next we get to Elijah and the priests of Baal in 1 Kings 17. Elijah challenges 450 priests to a contest, deliberately hurting God's feelings according to these philosophers. He mocks Baal repeatedly and then has the bull he's going to incinerate doused in water to make the event that much more amazing. Elijah was evidently the Doug Henning of his time. Finally Elijah goes for it:

At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed: "O Yahweh, God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. Answer me, O Yahweh, answer me, so these people will know that you, O Yahweh, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again."

Then the fire of Yahweh fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench.

When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, "Yahweh -he is God! Yahweh -he is God!"

Finally we get to the New Testament. While the NT is littered with stories of miracles proving God's existence or the true discipleship of one or another apostle, the best single "test" of God in the NT from my point of view is the story of Ananias and Saphira in Acts 5. Ananias comes in and gives less than he owes to Peter. Peter tells him that he lied to God and then as if to prove the point, God strikes him dead.

The story gets better when his wife comes in:

About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. Peter asked her, "Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?"

"Yes," she said, "that is the price."

Peter said to her, "How could you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also."

At that moment she fell down at his feet and died. Then the young men came in and, finding her dead, carried her out and buried her beside her husband. Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.

Yes, evidently in the 1st century CE, when God was tested he struck people dead out of rage. But now, the 21st century, he just gets his feelings hurt and pouts.

Now it is entirely possible that the God that Drs. Hahn and Wiker are defending is not the Jewish or Christian God. If they are not theists however, they would typically not believe in a deity who answers intercessory prayer to start with, and so I think that it is likely the paragraph quoted is indeed a defense of the God of theism. Therefore I think it is simply incoherent to imagine that his nature has changed from the wrathful Yahweh who strikes people dead, burns stones, bulls, water and dirt, and then has wood-snakes eat other wood-snakes. Do they now really believe he has become a pusillanimous, sensitive gentle being who can't be called out without causing him emotional pain?

Thanks Denyse, that one was a blast!


stevec said...

Yeah, I've wondered if, say a study was conducted of historical records of snakebite victims, and it was found that say, believers fared no better than non believers, despite Matthew 16:18, would the believers say, "Well, you know, God saw this coming, and preemptively neglected to protect those believers from the snake bites because he knew the atheists would, years later, go back over the records and try to make some sense of it, so, you know, he couldn't have that. So he just let them die, and brought them up to heaven. And, that's a good thing, right?"

So, either way, if God saves he gets credit, and if you test if he saves, and it turns out he didn't, well, it's cuz you tested, so of course he didn't, duh.

All Christians make them selves into retards without exception is my experience. I've yet to meet even a single Christian with a non-retarded reason for believing his brand of idiocy.

Evan said...

Steve I don't think I was retarded when I was a Christian. I think I was misguided. But yes, any test that won't change your beliefs on the basis of the outcome is indeed a silly test.

Harry McCall said...

Great point Evan on how apologist play the old shell game with semantics.

Back in 1982, I worked at Greenville Avionics with a Bob Jones University Mission major (Paul). We had many discussion about the Bible and theology, but one in particular I recall really expressed just what you pointed to in your post.

Paul, like most all Christians, demanded we prove God in prayer by putting all our faith and trust in Him to protect us. He claimed God would only honor the Bible believing faithful.

At the time, I was a liberal Christian and though up a good test question for him and stated as follows:

If I showed up at your Bible believing church with several of my thugs and demand that your church pay for protection or, in a month, we would burn it down.

As a Bible believing and God fearing church (it was had many Bob Jones faculty and students), what would your congregation do?

A. Go into a called prayer meeting 24/7 that God would surround the church with protective angels or send fire down from heaven to strike us dead when we returned either to get ether the money or burn the church dwon.

B. Call the police.

Paul told me he needed some time to think about this situation.

Several days latter he told me that they would pray and trust God for his protection, but that they would also called the police.

Case closed; point proven!

Steven Carr said...

How to avoid Hell.

Bet with your friends that God will send you to Hell.

God will be so upset that he is the subject of this humiliating, degrading wager that he will refuse to play along with it.

I wonder why this alleged god does not heal his beloved children anyway.

I guess God loves children so much he gets hurt when they die of malaria.

Not hurt enough to bother to do anything about it of course.

But he is crying inside, every time of his children dies.

Russ said...

O'Leary and company are clearly suggesting that if any claim of God answering prayer can be validated either by current experiment or through later, possibly much later, analysis, then God doesn't intervene.

O'Leary is saying that God didn't assist prayed-for heart patients in the Benson study published in 2006( because he knew he was being tested at that time, and he left the crown heads of Europe - perhaps the most frequent targets of prayers for good fortune of all time - exposed to the grave genetic deficiencies of inbreeding expressly because he knew that at some point in the future someone would relate their life outcomes to the innumerable prayers for their happiness and well-being.

By that analysis, God ignored prayers for health and longevity in the past, leaving the children he loves subject to the ravages of disease and famine, because he knew that skeptics from today would look back and assess how quality of life has changed. Since such historical experiments can be conducted concerning any activity in which God has been asked to show his hand, God must never intervene.

More broadly, every prayer constitutes a test, an experiment. It may not take place in a formal laboratory setting, but it is a test nonetheless, and clergy regularly report the outcomes of the experiments when those outcomes support their claims. However, the faithful only count the hits, that is, the agreeable outcomes, telling us their informal experimental protocols are deeply flawed, but still they are reporting experimental results: I prayed for my wedding day to be sunny and sunny it was; God answered my prayer! However, O'Leary's God doesn't participate if it knows that someone is now, or ever will, pay attention to the results.

So, as much as it pains me to say so, I agree with Denyse O'Leary: God never intervenes; God never does anything that will be noticed, especially to the extent that rigorous analysis could determine that it had done something; God behaves exactly as if it did not exist.

Touchstone said...

I wonder what Denyse thinks about the good things that *didnt't* have for the subjects of intercessory prayer because God refused to be the object of empirical tests. I know this prospect bothered me as a Christian -- God is more interested in thwarting uppity scientists than granting the prayers of the faithful, and helping those who are being prayed for.

One thing to remember is that the prayers being offered up in the experiment come by all measures as earnest, sincere prayers. The people praying are participating in a study, but they aren't trying to disprove God; they are earnest believers praying earnest prayers as best we know. If Denyse is right, God denied healing and relief he would otherwise have given just to avoid demonstrations that might support the idea that he does exist and does interact with the world around us (and in good ways, even).

Cole said...

I don't understand the emotions of a personal God. He's grieved and angry when bad things happen and happy when good things happen. There are millions of good and bad things happening right now all over the world. So God is right now all at the same time:


God is retarded.

ismellarat said...

I'll have to stick out my stupid head on this one and take a few punches.

I can see there's a difference between a personal god and a natural process.

I can't imagine a believer, as part of a conscious "let me see if you're really there, but don't get me wrong, I really do believe" experiment, offering the kind of sincere prayer that they say God rarely answers to begin with and expecting results.

Most Christians I know would say such a prayer would never get answered - but of course, having thereby admitted it's not testable by outside observation, they also can't say it obviously works.

Like James Randi says, "I can't prove there's no Santa Claus". We can't know a thing, but there've been some fantastic, sincere claims made...

I thought it was interesting, that on some syndicated series on alleged divine intervention that ran a few years ago, that people of all sorts of beliefs were claiming healings, some together with the doctors who'd unsuccessfully treated them.

This presents an odd problem - if there's any truth to this, this God atheists don't believe exists passes over the prayers of many deserving Christians, instead sometimes answering prayers and healing people who Christians say he'll later be slamming into Hell.

Some Wiccan girl once told me she'd been cured of cancer after having gone to some Indian witch doctor. She went into enough detail and answered enough questions to at least convince me that *she* believed what she was telling me. I wish I could get to the bottom of this stuff.

Evan said...

Ismellarat, the studies were done without any explicit instructions to the people giving the prayers to "test" God. They were praying in the way they normally do.

In addition, for most medical diseases, even cancers, there is a spontaneous cure rate that would occur without treatment. Admittedly for some diseases it is vanishingly small, but it does happen.

However, there are no cases of someone praying for a limb to regrow and it regrowing.

Biomedically this makes sense. Spiritually it makes no sense.

ismellarat said...

It looks like the the American Heart Journal wants my money, before telling me the meaning of life.

From the abstract alone, I can't tell if those who prayed knew they were/might be part of a test ahead of time, or not, and if they did, and if those who O'Leary quoted were talking about exactly this sort of thing (and not some other kind of test), I'd still tend to agree with her.

I'd guess this was the case in that study, since they couldn't very well have found hundreds of people after the fact, who had just happened to consistently pray for these particular patients.

I don't know if such studies "should" prove anything or not (I'm sure many would jump at such a chance to "show the world, once and for all" - and disown the idea, if it didn't go their way in the end), but it seems she did have an out, and she took it.

And God of course knew he was being tested, if the secret could have been kept from all of the participants, who simply may have been told they were part of a prayer circle.

They can point out that millions pray for world peace, etc., not knowing what effect it might have. And that getting healed isn't known to be a simple function of the number of people who care about a person. (Why don't the Popes live to be 120?)

There's enough of a gray area in there, it seems (and of course O'Leary can't claim that the evidence proves her beliefs, either).