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Letter To My Family Part 1: Prayer

By DRC ~ 

I am a 26 year old male, brought up in a fundamentalist church. I’m still attending and still actively involved there. The following is a small part of a letter I’ve written to explain to my family what I’ve been thinking over the last few years. I have one request for the readers of this site. As you read this, think about how a fundamentalist Christian would perceive it. I want the logic to be irrefutable so I’d love your feedback about how to make it so.

Imagine that a good friend gives you a phone number. They tell you that it’s the number of a person who “would be perfect for you”, a “mystery date”. You are told that this perfect match is overseas right now so you can’t see them, but they are a great person and they’re expecting a text message from you. It turns out they are with the same phone company as you, so all your text messages will be free! You’ve got nothing to lose so you send them a message. “Hi, my name is ______. I like pina coladas and getting caught in the rain. Tell me about yourself.” You wait expectantly for the reply. A day later there has been no reply. You go back to your friend and ask them if they gave you the right number. Your friend assures you it’s the correct number, the mystery person has received your message, and you just need to wait patiently for the reply. After 3 days there has still been no reply. You think to yourself, replying to a text message is so simple, why haven’t they done it? You go back to your friend several times and tell them that you think the number is wrong or the messages aren’t getting through. Your friend becomes frustrated with you. They get a post-it note and write in neat and deliberate letters, “Your mystery date has read all your messages and they love to talk to you.” They take the post-it note and stick it on the back of your phone as a reminder. They tell you if you’re ever unsure of how the relationship is going, just read the post-it note, and send another text message telling them how you feel. Now here’s the question. If you send roughly 8000 messages over 21 years to this person and you never receive a single reply, do you have a real relationship with them?

The obvious answer is no. If the allegory is not painfully clear, this has been my consistent experience of prayer over my lifetime. I estimate that I have said roughly 8000 prayers throughout my life, and have never received an answer to any of them. We are constantly told in church that God answers every prayer. Whereas I have found He hasn’t answered any. How can we account for such an enormous difference between theory and practice?

I have never experienced anything that I can undeniably attribute to “divine intervention” in my life. However, there is one event for which I cannot imagine a natural cause. It is the best evidence for the existence of God that I’ve encountered: the creation of the universe. It is a source of continual surprise to me that the universe exists at all. If everything is the result of natural causes, I would expect there to be absolutely nothing, instead of this incredible world we live in. Whatever caused everything to exist must certainly be outside of our universe, and must be far more powerful than us. This certainly sounds “super-natural” to me. Disappointingly, when I pray and ask God if He created the universe, He doesn’t reply. Shouldn’t He be overjoyed to reply, “Yes!”? In my life, I have built things far less impressive than the universe and I am proud to vocally claim that I created them. Isn’t God proud of his workmanship?

Having said all this, something troubles me yet further. When I was young, I asked Santa Claus for a particular Lego set for Christmas. My parents never really talked about this fictional character, except to say that he didn’t exist and he wasn’t the true meaning of Christmas. Nonetheless I knew other children asked Santa for presents so I thought I would try it too. I never received a reply from Santa. I didn’t get what I asked for Christmas, but I did get another Lego set which I also liked. It’s disappointing to admit, but my personal experience with Santa Claus is exactly like my experience of God.

What would Jesus text?Image by abohemianlikeu via Flickr
Perhaps my detached experience of God is unique. Does God answer the prayers of other Christians? I was seriously challenged in my beliefs when I heard of the Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer. It basically showed no positive effect of prayer on heart surgery patients. Let’s be very clear about this. The Bible says that prayer is powerful and effective, including physical healing. It says that two people can pray for absolutely anything and it will occur [Matthew 18:19]. In fact it says that God wants us to “bear much fruit” with regards to prayer in order to bring glory to him [John 15:7-8]. It also says that with only a tiny amount of faith, “nothing will be impossible for you” [Matthew 17:20]. Just two people with hardly any faith could have given instantaneous, miraculous healing to all 1802 patients in the study, and yet they experienced the same rate of complications as everyone who undergoes this surgery (about 50%), whether they were prayed for or not. This study showed me that if you believe what has been taught in a Bible believing, evangelical church, you will be in for a big surprise when you compare your beliefs to the real world.

The onus is now on Christianity to show that prayer truly is effective, not just through emotional stories and anecdotes, but through hard evidence. If prayer is powerful and effective, it will be clearly seen in controlled medical trials, and not just in the minds of people who want it to be true.

By now it must be clear that I haven’t felt a direct connection with God through prayer, but many Christians will say that they have. Their personal experience is that God does communicate through prayer and they have an active, “two way” relationship with Him. The problem here is that personal experience is a very unconvincing form of evidence. People from many religions invoke personal experience to “prove” the truth of their beliefs, so it doesn’t prove anything. In addition, personal experience is highly prone to error. If the reader doesn’t believe this, they should research topics such as the placebo effect, attitude polarisation, choice blindness, suggestibility, hindsight bias, confirmation bias, persistence of discredited beliefs, and preference for early information. If any rational person has a belief system founded on personal experience, it is essential that they have taken account of all these effects.

Luckily, we actually don’t need any evidence based on personal experience. If God truly does answer our prayers, then the world will be literally filled with all sorts of overwhelming evidence, wherever there are Christians. How could you possibly hide a truth as big as God? We don’t need to resort to personal experience as evidence, because there should be vast realms of independently verifiable evidence all around us. We should be tripping over it in the streets.

If you think a fundamentalist Christian would perceive any holes in my arguments, please tell me about them. My aim is to make this a finely polished piece of writing before I show it to my family.

Next time… Part 2: How do we know the Bible is written by God?