In my humble opinion, the question “Does God exist?” is best answered by taking a ride on the PHILOSOPHY BUS:
We should answer this question by means of philosophical investigation, especially by critical examination of philosophical arguments for and against the existence of God.
However, this is NOT the only way to approach the question “Does God exist?”. There are alternative ways of answering this question that involve engaging in religious activities:
4. Try praying to God, to see if God answers your prayers.
5. Try prayer, meditation, and worship, to see if you feel the presence of God or hear the voice of God.
6. Try reading the sacred texts of various religions, to see if you sense divine wisdom in any of them.
Part of the idea here is that skeptics and atheists don’t come across evidence for God because they don’t engage in religious activities, activities that would provide them with experiences and evidence that support the existence of God. Prayer to God, worship of God, and study of the (supposed) words of God are religious activities that many people think provide them with experiences of God and evidence for God.
APPROACH #4: ASK GOD TO DO SOMETHING FOR YOU
This appears to be a simple and straightforward test for the existence of God. God, by definition, is all-knowing, so if you pray to God and ask God to do something for you, say to heal an illness or injury that you have or that someone you care about has, then God, if God exists, KNOWS that you have asked God to do this. God, by definition, is all-powerful, so God can heal any disease or injury completely and instantaneously.
Answering your prayer by doing what you asked God to do would be a very easy thing for God to do, and if God does instantly grant your request, then you would have some dramatic evidence for the existence of God.
If you pray asking God to do something for you, say to heal an illness or injury that you have or that someone you care about has, and nothing happens (i.e. the illness or injury gets worse or takes the usual amount of time to run its course or to heal up), then you have evidence that God does NOT exist.
PROBLEMS WITH ANSWERED PRAYER AS CONFIRMATION OF GOD’S EXISTENCE
However, as with the previously considered practical approaches, the use of prayer requests to determine whether God exists is not as simple and straightforward as it initially seems.
One problem is that confirmation of the existence of God by means of an answered prayer involves the POST HOC FALLACY:
First X happened, then Y happened so X must have caused Y.
First I prayed for John to get well, then John got well, so my prayer for John must have (through God’s response to my prayer) caused John to get well.
This is a very dubious way of reasoning about cause and effect. Perhaps John has a strong immune system which can fight off diseases rapidly, and your prayer had NOTHING to do with John’s recovery. Perhaps John took a prescribed medication (like an antibiotic), and that was what caused him to get well, not your prayer for John. Perhaps John was just lucky and got over this particular illness quickly, but not because of any supernatural intervention by God, not because of your prayer for John.
How can we know whether a particular instance of getting well quickly is the result of divine intervention as opposed to being a coincidence or as opposed to being caused by an ordinary means, such as the activity of a person’s immune system or the influence of a prescribed medication?
An “answered” prayer does not provide clear proof or confirmation of the existence of God. Other causes and explanations could account for the event in question. This approach is NOT as simple and as easy as it initially seems.
We should think of prayer as similar to a drug that is being tested for safety and effectiveness. It is unreasonable to infer that drug X is a safe and effective way to treat disease Y just because one person took a large dose of drug X for a week, and then their disease Y went away. No medical scientist would accept this as anything close to being confirmation that drug X is a safe and effective treatment for disease Y.
We expect there to be double-blind experiments where hundreds or thousands of people who have disease Y are randomly assigned to either take drug X or to take a placebo pill, and to carefully monitor and measure and record the results of this experiment. We expect that a careful mathematical analysis be performed on the results to confirm that, if the people who took drug X tended to get well more often or more quickly than the people who took the placebo pill, this result was very unlikely to be a chance coincidence. That is what reasonable intelligent people expect to be persuaded that drug X is an effective treatment for disease Y (and similar evidence is required to show that drug X is safe to take).
An “answered” prayer might well be the result of an ordinary physical cause, such as the activity of a person’s immune system. But if we are to allow for the possibility of a supernatural cause (such as God intervening and directly causing a person to be healed), then we must allow for all sorts of different possible supernatural causes:
- psychic healing power of the person who prayed
- psychic healing power of the person who was sick
- a fairy healed the sick person
- a witch or wizard healed the sick person
- an angel or demon healed the sick person
- a finite deity (Zeus, Venus, or Neptune) healed the person who was sick
- astrological forces connected to the current position of the sun, moon, and stars caused the sick person to be healed
In ordinary scientific investigation of the efficacy of drug X to treat disease Y nobody is concerned with eliminating various supernatural causes or forces. The assumption is that the cause of people who have disease Y getting well is some sort of physical or biological cause. But in the case of investigating the existence of God by means of prayer, we have opened the door to a huge number of possible supernatural causes and forces.
This means that prayer works as confirmation of the existence of God only AFTER we have eliminated a large number of potential alternative SUPERNATURAL causes. It seems to me that there is no established scientific way of doing this. So, in order for prayer to provide confirmation of the existence of God, we must first engage in METAPHYSICS:
- What sorts of supernatural beings and forces besides God exist or are likely to exist?
- What sorts of knowledge and power do these beings have?
- Could any of these other beings or forces be the cause of the healings in question?
In short, in order to use prayer as a means to confirm the existence of God one must FIRST take a ride on the PHILOSOPHY BUS and arrive at various conclusions about the likelihood of various supernatural beings and forces and the likelihood of those beings and forces causing observable effects in human lives.
The prayer test is clearly NOT a simple and straightforward way to confirm the existence of God, but requires a degree of intellectual sophistication and some philosophical investigation in order to have any chance of being successful.
PROBLEMS WITH UNANSWERED PRAYER AS DISCONFIRMATION OF THE EXISTENCE OF GOD
The same is true of using UNANSWERED prayer as a way to DISCONFIRM the existence of God. It seems unreasonable to expect that God would act like a magic Genie in a bottle and grant whatever request anyone asks. What about evil prayer requests? What if a Nazi asks God to annihilate the entire Jewish population of a city, or nation, or of the entire planet? Surely, a perfectly morally good creator would NOT grant such an evil request.
Also, there are common circumstances where it would be logically impossible for God to grant BOTH a prayer request by one person AND an opposing request by another person. For example, Tom is a player on his high school’s basketball team, and he prays for God to make his team win the game tonight against the team of another high school. Jack is a player on the basketball team of the other high school, and he prays for God to make them win the game tonight against the team that Tom is on. God cannot make both teams win. Only ONE TEAM can win the game, so God cannot grant these two opposing prayer requests.
Furthermore, if God were to grant every prayer request (at least those that were not evil, and not contrary to some other prayer request), then this would remove all incentive for people to work, to take care of their children, to take care of themselves, to take care of their possessions. If you lose your job, you could just ask God to pay all of your bills or to fill you bank accounts with thousands of dollars. If you don’t feel like feeding your children, you could just ask God to feed them, and to take them to school. If you smoke a pack of cigarettes a day for ten years and then get lung cancer, you could ask God to heal your lungs and go right back to smoking a pack a day. If you don’t change the oil in you car and the engine breaks down, you could just ask God to fix the engine or make you a brand new car.
These are the sorts of considerations that arise when philosophers discuss the PROBLEM OF EVIL, a basic question in the philosophy of religion. Before the failure of God to answer a prayer by granting the prayer request can be viewed as DISCONFIRMATION of the existence of God, one must engage in some challenging philosophical investigation into the PROBLEM OF EVIL, and make some reasonable conclusions about what it would be reasonable to expect out of an all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly morally good creator of the universe.
In short, in order for prayer to be used as a means to DISCONFIRM the existence of God, one must take a trip on the PHILOSOPHY BUS. Approach #4 is thus NOT as simple and straightforward as it seemed initially to be. For this approach to have any significant chance of success, one must FIRST engage in some serious philosophical investigation.
So, just as with the two practical approaches discussed in Part 3 of this series, this approach is NOT an alternative that will allow one to proceed without engaging in philosophical investigation, investigation that requires a degree of intellectual sophistication and skill in critical thinking.