Confessions of an Anonymous Coward

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Basis For Belief, Part Two: The Proof of Prayer

Okay, I'd intended to have this post up much earlier, but my sister's wedding reception was yesterday, and I'd been busy helping the family prepare for it, and then get everything taken down afterward. It was...a lot of work.

Anyway, I ended my last post (and to get the full context for this post, you should probably read that one first, if you haven't already) with the mention that many theists do claim to have a reason for believing in God besides just the lack of ironclad, completely undeniable reasons for not believing--and that the first commenter I had quoted had alluded to that reason at the end of this comment. So let's start by revisiting that last paragraph of his comment:

If peace of mind in this matter really is important to you then an honest investigation and perhaps a reevaluation of some other basic beliefs might be [in] order. Moroni 10:4-5 would be a great place to start from. It's not called a Promise for nothing. Of course the positive aspect is usually spoken to in reagrds [sic] to this scripture, but the opposite is equally true. If you come away from a genuine application of the principles mentioned in that scripture and still don't believe then it's all good. Peace of mind will be yours.

The mention of "Moroni 10:4-5" isn't likely to mean anything to anyone not familiar with the LDS church, but among Mormons that's one of the best known and most quoted scriptures of all. As the commenter refers to, these verses from the Book of Mormon (along with the preceding verse 3, which is usually included with them) are often known in the church as "Moroni's Promise", and they read as follows:

3 Behold, I would exhort you that when ye shall read these things, if it be wisdom in God that ye should read them, that ye would remember how merciful the Lord hath been unto the children of men, from the creation of Adam even down until the time that ye shall receive these things, and ponder it in your hearts.

4 And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.

5 And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.

These verses are particularly often quoted by missionaries, who use them to challenge their investigators to read the Book of Mormon and pray about it and ask God if it's true. This is what the commenter is suggesting that I do as well--the fact that, having been raised in the church, I've already done it many times having apparently not occurred to him.

Yet another comment, to my post "Temple Trip", put it a bit more succinctly:

I dont think that u should be going to the temple if you are not worthy. Yes the church is true and u obviously have not prayed and asked about it.

Actually, yeah, I have; been there, done that, thanks. (I find it amusing, incidentally, that this commenter chooses to write of what he apparently considers sacred truth in what seems like chatspeak. It makes me imagine a chatspeak Bible: "Deuteronomy 7:2: And when the Lord ur God will deliver them b4 u, u will smite them, and utterly pwn them; u will make no covenant with them, nor show mercy to them. LOL!" Coincidentally, a few days later I discovered that something similar does, in fact, already exist...)

Of course, while both those comments apparently came from Mormons, I know that the concept of praying to find out the truth isn't unique to Mormonism, though the LDS church does put especial emphasis on it. Want to know the church is true? Pray about it. Want to know that the Book of Mormon is true? Pray about it. Want to know Joseph Smith was a prophet? Pray about it.

This is often taken beyond such weighty matters as the truth of the church as a whole, though, to more personal affairs. Often when I've disagreed with my mother about something, she's told me to pray about it. At one point--and this was back when I still considered myself a faithful Mormon--I finally told her that the way she was saying this, she was being extremely arrogant; she was basically saying that she was sure God would agree with her. She hadn't seen it that way before, but when I told her that she said she could see my point. (Which hasn't stopped her from still saying that occasionally, though she does it less frequently now. At least that'll be one positive side effect when I finally come clean about my atheism--she won't be telling me to pray about things anymore. Well, she probably will at least for some time try telling me, as these commenters did, to pray about the truth of the church.)

But arrogance isn't the only problem with the exhortation to prayer--and really, in a way, the apparent arrogance is understandable. I mean, the people who are telling you to pray about it presumably have already done so themselves and think they've gotten an answer, so they think God's told them they're right. But there's a bigger problem with trying to say that if you don't believe in the church, you haven't prayed about it enough. To highlight the problem, let's consider a hypothetical situation.

Readers are almost certainly familiar with James Randi's Million Dollar Challenge. Conclusively demonstrate a paranormal ability under appropriate controlled conditions, and you win one million dollars. (The local Independent Investigations Group has a similar challenge with a more modest $50,000 prize but a slightly lower bar for entry, but for the purposes of this hypothetical situation I'll use Randi's challenge because it's better known.) Now, the rules for Randi's challenge do explicitly say religious claims aren't acceptable, but let's suppose for the purposes of this hypothetical situation that that rule wasn't in place. So, suppose a missionary approached Randi and told him that if he read the Book of Mormon and sincerely prayed about it, he would know for sure it was true and that angels had appeared to Joseph Smith.

Would Randi accept this challenge? Well, no, of course not. Why not? Because of the lack of observable results? Ah, the missionaries might say, but if the Holy Ghost bore witness to him, Randi himself would know beyond a doubt, even if nothing physically changed. Other observers would be welcome to read the Book of Mormon and pray, too, and they could receive similar witnesses. Let's assume for purposes of the argument (improbable as it is) that Randi agreed on this as acceptable evidence. So, would he consider this a valid challenge?

If you're not familiar with the rules for Randi's challenge, look them over. Notice any guidelines (besides the one about religious claims, which we're ignoring for now) that this proposed challenge wouldn't meet?


See, that's the problem. Saying that you can know the church is true by praying about it is meaningless as evidence, because there's no way to disprove it. Suppose Randi, in a fit of temporary insanity, accepts the missionaries' challenge despite its incompliance with his guidelines. He reads the Book of Mormon, cover to cover. He prays about it, three times a day for a week. And at the end of that week, he comes to the missionaries and says that no, he didn't receive any witness from the Holy Ghost that it was true. Would the missionaries accept that as evidence that the Book of Mormon wasn't true? Not likely. They'd point out that the scriptures specifically said you had to pray with a sincere heart; is Randi sure he was honestly open to the possibility of its truth? Or maybe they'd say he just hadn't prayed enough; sometimes it takes time for an answer to come. The guidelines are too vague; there are too many outs.

Now, it's true that the first commenter I quoted does at least pay some lip service to the possibility of disproof. "Of course the positive aspect is usually spoken to in reagrds [sic] to this scripture," he says, "but the opposite is equally true. If you come away from a genuine application of the principles mentioned in that scripture and still don't believe then it's all good." But does he really mean what he's saying here? If I met him on the street (again, we're speaking hypothetically here, since he commented anonymously and I don't have any idea who he is), and told him I had in fact read the Book of Mormon and prayed about it, and that I still disbelieved, would he really accept that, and decide the church must not be true after all? More likely he'd just say that, well, maybe I hadn't genuinely applied the principles. Maybe I hadn't really been open to the Spirit; maybe I hadn't been praying with a sincere heart. Or, again, maybe he'd just tell me to keep praying. It's all well and good to say that you can pray about something and know it to be true, but there are never any limits set. There's never any way to falsify it. There's seldom a time limit set, so if you've prayed for three weeks and haven't received an answer, they can always say to keep praying.

Similar arguments, incidentally, are often applied to matters other than prayer. In 1996, the president of the church, Gordon B. Hinckley, was interviewed by Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes. At the end of the interview, Wallace remarked that he'd thought about LDS beliefs, but had "not been able to persuade [him]self." "You haven't thought about it long enough!" Hinckley replied. He didn't, of course, but Wallace could have responded just as cogently that Hinckley hadn't thought long enough about the possibility that LDS doctrine wasn't true. Telling someone he hasn't thought about something enough, again, is no argument at all, because (while in many cases it may be true) it's not falsifiable; however much someone claims to have thought about it, you can always just tell him to keep thinking about it. And, of course, this argument isn't just used in religious matters; in discussions on other contexts, too, sometimes a disputant dismisses an argument solely on the meaningless grounds that his opponent just hasn't thought about it long enough. It doesn't work any better on other matters than it does on religion.

But telling someone he hasn't prayed about something enough is even worse, because there are even more outs. Not only is there no time limit, but there's also the fact that the arguer can always just say you weren't really praying with an open mind or heart. (I suppose even in the case of thinking about things, one could make the accusation that you weren't thinking honestly, but that's not nearly as common.) It's like Moroni's Promise says--you have to ask "with a sincere heart". And since you can't prove you were really being sincere, the theist can always say you didn't get an answer because you weren't.

It's like Linus van Pelt on Halloween. If the Great Pumpkin doesn't come, it's not because it doesn't exist; it's because your pumpkin patch wasn't sincere.

So with all those outs, there's absolutely no way to falsify the claim that you can pray about something get a witness that it's true, which renders it pretty much meaningless. But really, that's only half the problem. Not only is there no way to falsify the claim--there's not really a way to verify it, either. But that'll be the topic for Part Three.


At 4/30/2007 8:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post. It hits home.

One of the things that annoyed me the most when I was going through my own deconversion process was the assumption by others that either (a) I hadn't prayed about the decisions I was making, (b) I wasn't interpreting the answers correctly, or (c) I wasn't being sincere enough.

The idea that I was getting an answer (from outside or inside) and that it was exactly the right answer never occured to them.

One of the only unchanging religious beliefs I have is that there is no one right way. I do think that two people praying about exactly the same thing (e.g. Moroni 10:4-5) can get completely different answers and that both answers are true. I don't believe there is a universal truth.

It's hard to explain this to other believers in God(ess(es)).

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