Sunday, June 20, 2010

Praying For Oil to Touchdown Jesus: Counting The Hits and Ignoring the Misses

According to a recent article at, Louisiana lawmakers are proposing a day of prayer to stop the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. State Senator Robert Adley had this to say:

"Thus far efforts made by mortals to try to solve the crisis have been to no avail. It is clearly time for a miracle for us."

It is a testament to our great infancy as an intelligent species that in the era of modern science, the age of reason and enlightenment, state senators and even President Obama (for crying out loud) actually consider speaking to an invisible deity a reasonable solution for this horrendous calamity. Perhaps these politicians are simply appealing to the American majority of evangelical Christians and do not, in fact, consider prayer a reasonable course of action. No matter. The fact that they have to appeal to such nonsense to secure their offices by a majority democratic vote is enough reason to be alarmed.

In my essay Prayer, Science and Haiti I made a strong case, using observed evidence, for the ineffectiveness of prayer. I won't elaborate any further on that as it is scientifically uncontested.

This is what bothers me about praying for the oil spill: While the pious are kneeling before an unverifiable god wishing for a miracle, someone is working around the clock to actually solve the problem. When they do solve the problem it will be because of the ingenuity of that person (or team of people) and it will be implemented using tools and methods derived solely from science. But what will the religious community say? They will shout to the heavens about how GOD answered their prayers! They'll talk about the futile efforts of man and how good GOD is to have heard their fledgling petitions. They will completely ignore the fact that GOD could have easily prevented the oil spill in the first place or plugged the hole with a divine horde of angels, thereby saving the lives of countless animals and protecting America from another devastating economic blow.

And here is the truly remarkable thing. What will the religious community say if the day of prayer does not have any effect on the oil spill whatsoever (as observable reality suggests)? Well, of course they will say that GOD's will is mysterious and that it is probably for the good of our national character, even though our minds are too puny to comprehend it. They might say it's the work of the devil in the eternal battle for good and evil. More likely, they will blame it on the gays, abortionists, democrats or really any demographic they do not belong to. One thing it seems they will certainly not do is reflect on whether or not it was a complete waste of time. They certainly will not wonder if GOD really exists or not.

Why should they? After all everyone has at least one story of baffling circumstantial coincidence. Maybe you were about to file bankruptcy and a relative died leaving you an inheritance. Maybe you struck out every time you were up to bat except for the one time the bases were loaded. Maybe you survived a car crash without a scratch. Maybe your relative's cancer went into remission. And so on and so forth. I've had moments like these. We all have.

But if we're really honest we've had A LOT more moments when these things did not pan out. We've prayed for LOTS of things that never happened. After all, every basketball game ends confirming the prayers of one side and ignoring the prayers of the other, right? The progressive believer may say that God does not care about sporting events. Fair enough. But what about when children die of cancer? What about when families are torn apart by substance abuse? No, the perceived answer to prayers are commonly things that would have happened naturally either way (thus compatible with laws of probability) or are results of scientific innovation (antibiotics, surgery, genetic engineering, etc.).

This is called confirmation bias or, counting the hits and ignoring the misses. Consider the incredibly ironic story of a recent lightning bolt destroying the Touchdown Jesus statue in Monroe, Ohio. Now if a lightning bolt had struck the Hustler adult store across the street from Touchdown Jesus these people would have no doubt considered that an act of GOD. A fiery judgment on fornication. But since the lighting hit Jesus square in the face they are appealing to science, blaming the sporadic nature of lightning and the metal frame that Touchdown Jesus housed under his buttery exterior. Interestingly none of them consider the lightning a judgment from Zeus, the once widely worshiped thunder god.

It may be clear to Senator Adley that we need a prayer miracle in the gulf. But it's clear to me and any reasonable person that sitting around and talking to yourself is exactly what we DO NOT need. We need real people devising real solutions to a real problem. People think I'm angry? Well, when it comes to this issue, if you're not angry then you're not paying attention.

In Reason,

Clint Wells


Anonymous said...

Dude, I am not religious either. But you are beginning to sound just as fanatical as some fundamentalists.

Chill out a bit.

Clint Wells said...

Anon - I appreciate your criticism but respectfully disagree.

1. How am I being fanatical?

2. As I often admit in my own writings, I think I have a lot to learn about how to dissent with religion in an effective way. As I refine that skill, I'm more interested in responses to my actual content rather than anonymous criticisms of how I convey that content. Ya dig?

3. I consider the idea of believing in things for good reasons to be of utmost importance to civil society. That is why I write about it so much. I am literally always thinking about it. I don't have the time or energy to write a blog post about what I had for lunch or how much I hate the weather or any other trivial thing. That's what my Twitter account is for.

4. If my writing style is too fanatical or fundamentalist for you, then feel free to stop visiting. Until then, party on, Wayne.

Patrick said...

What will the religious community say if the day of prayer does not have any effect on the oil spill whatsoever (as observable reality suggests)?

Here's a better question: what will the agnostic community say when science has no effect on the oil spill whatsoever (as observable reality suggests)? If we had some sort of scientific progress on this problem, it's safe to say that the Louisiana state legislature wouldn't be holding a day of prayer.

Say what you want about the effectiveness of prayer (you've defined away any potential for dialogue, so we can't meet on equal terms), but science can't do shit for this oil spill either. All any of us can do is clean up the mess (and pray, because what does it hurt?).

Clint Wells said...

The failure of science is (and has always been) a self refining system. The struggle to better solve the problems of the world are the very shoulders science stands on to give you the comfortable life you no doubt are currently enjoying at this very moment.

The failure of prayer does what exactly? How is religion self-refined when prayers are ineffective?

What does it hurt? It hurts because there are a lot of people in the world who do nothing BUT pray because they think it's all in the Lord's hands. Perhaps it is. But there is no good reason to believe that and until there is we need to get off our asses and get to work. That is where science comes in.

If you want to pray while you clean oil off of dying animals then be my guest. But let's just see which one actually gets the work done.

And speaking of this "well it cant hurt nothing" argument, are you offering any prayers to Zeus? What about L. Ron Hubbard? The flying spaghetti monster? The Celestial teapot? After all, it cant hurt. Right?

Clint Wells said...

You know why else it fucking hurts society? Because when these people do nothing but pray and problems actually get solved by science who gets the credit? GAWD does. Every time. Even if credit is given to science its always GAWD who ultimately is praised for "guiding" the science.

And these people who think this nonsense are the same ones IMPEDING science every day because of their unfounded beliefs. These people piss into the very fountain of knowledge that they lustily gulp from every time they check their e-mail or take anti-biotics or fly in an airplane or drink clean water or turn their air conditioners on.

Its sick and it deserves its criticism to the hilt.

Clint Wells said...

Patrick - You said:

you've defined away any potential for dialogue, so we can't meet on equal terms

I humbly apologize for making you feel like you have no equal place in the marketplace of ideas. Please, by all means, prove to me that prayer works.

Patrick said...

Well, I can't. At least not to your satisfaction, because the effects of prayer are not the sorts of thing that an empiricist even believes exist. They cannot be observed in a scientific sense.

And that's what I meant when I said we can't meet on equal terms. You are an empiricist. I am not. You believe that everything that is can be observed, and I don't. So you've chosen a belief system that could never accept that prayer works, and because of that we could never meet on equal terms.

Clint Wells said...

"...the effects of prayer are not the sorts of thing that an empiricist even believes exist."

False. An empiricist believes in verifiable data. If the effects of prayer were to be proven then the empiricist would acknowledge it fully.

"They (effects of prayer) cannot be observed in a scientific sense."

Then why in the hell would you pray for GOD to stop the oil leak? Or for your sick relatives? Or for starving people? Or for the AIDS epidemic?

You've said before that you pray because prayer changes you. When I asked you to qualify that statement you disappeared. If prayer only changes the individual in some abstract emotional sense then why not simply meditate?

Besides, assuming you are a Christian, your vague definition of prayer is quite different than what the Bible presents. The Bible clearly presents a GOD who suspends natural order to answer prayer. The sun stands still, bodies rise from the dead, water turns into wine, storms cease, seas part, etc. These are all easily observable are they not?

How interesting that in the modern age, when these things can be tested and held accountable to reality prayer becomes this fuzzy thing that cannot be scientifically measured. I mean, you aren't the least bit skeptical about this?

I think we can both agree that either prayer works in reality or it does not. What extraordinary evidence do YOU have to believe that it does when all of our observational tools tell us it DOES NOT?

Sincerely interested in your answers.

Patrick said...

I disappear because you go into rants after every comment. I'm not interested in that.

Clint Wells said...

Patrick - I'm fine with your passive aggressive criticism toward me. Otherweise I wouldn't publish your comments.

However, I'm still waiting on you to make a single point about anything. If you're so goddamned turned off by my "rants" then why do you even say anything?

Substantiate your claims.

Anonymous said...


Though you used to be a Christian and play in a Christian band, you are obviously not up on your Reformed theology.

Prayer does not necessitate some sort of "occasionalism" where God must directly intervene in order to solve the affairs of the world. Rather, there is a philosophical distinction between primary, secondary causes. Plenty of Christian scientists pray that God would bless them in their work, and then they get up and do great work in their field (i.e. Francis Collins).

I think I don't appreciate it when your intellectual arguments regress into emotional banters where it seems as if you would want religion outlawed. And you also create theological strawmen. Not cool.

Party on Garth.

Clint Wells said...

Anon - I've done plenty of my homework on theology. It's clear that you believe reformed theology the only true expression of Christianity (wow)and that is actually fine with me.

I think I may be able to dig way down into my tiny atheist brain and recall that there is nothing in reformed theology that denies the suspension of natural order in gods actions.

I've never said that this is the only way Christian theology portrays prayer. However, I think you'd be hard pressed to say it never happens. So, if it happens sometimes then it should be observed. If it is not observed it deserves to be approached with skepticism.

Speaking of straw men, I have NEVER called for religion to be outlawed. EVER. I believe that in an open marketplace of ideas only the good, substantiated ideas survive. And so the end of religion will be due to its inability to maintain credibility as we continue to learn about the natural world.

As usual with theists, you confuse criticism with intolerance. Hopefully I've clarified the difference.

Oh and as far as these whiny appeals about "emotional rants" kindly remember that this is my fucking BLOG and not a submission for a peer review journal. Jesus H.

I'm off to listen to Crucial Taunt now who are, decidedly, better than the Shitty Beatles.

Anonymous said...

It's interesting that you call yourself an empiricist, when you're too afraid of physics and calculus to even bother to learn anything that would allow you to validate this science on your own. So, basically, you're taking as truth and fact something that you can't substantiate any more than you can confirm the existence of God or the efficacy of prayer. So, who's the believer in hocus pocus now???

Good thing it's not a submission to a peer review journal - you wouldn't even make it past the mail room.

Clint Wells said...

Anon - Do you know what empiricism is? Now, try really hard to pay attention.

Empiricism emphasizes the role of experience and evidence, especially (but not limited to) sensory perception, in the formation of ideas, while discounting the notion of innate ideas

Empiricism in the philosophy of science emphasizes those aspects of scientific knowledge that are closely related to evidence, especially as discovered in experiments. It is a fundamental part of the scientific method that all hypotheses and theories must be tested against observations of the natural world, rather than resting solely on a priori reasoning, intuition, or revelation. Hence, science is considered to be methodologically empirical in nature.

Got it? Good.'re too afraid of physics and calculus to even bother to learn anything that would allow you to validate this science on your own.

FALSE. I love physics and calculus but I quite simply am unable to understand them to the degree that I understand, for example, evolutionary biology. This doesn't mean that I have no way of discerning what is true in physics from what is false in physics by looking at EVIDENCE. Are you really suggesting that the only way to know something is to be an expert in that field? That is the most ridiculous thing I have heard today. Congratulations.'re taking as truth and fact something that you can't substantiate any more than you can confirm the existence of God or the efficacy of prayer.

FALSE. I personally cannot substantiate the mathematical ramifications of relativity theory. However, I can see and comprehend that scientists for the last 70 years have constructed models that substantiate the theory. It has survived peer review and falsification. This is hocus pocus? Hardly. Prayer, on the other hand, has been shown to be demonstrably ineffective.

I've never claimed to be able to confirm the existence or nonexistence of god.

Good thing it's not a submission to a peer review journal - you wouldn't even make it past the mail room.

Um, didn't I kindof already make that point about myself? INSULT FAIL.

Four2aBar said...


As you known, I'm in real crisis of faith right now and (realizing that many would criticize me on this) I'm leaning toward a "non-religous" scientific world-view that still me some personal "faith" but not a faith at that as conform to some set of Biblical stricture, historical creed, etc.

I think it would a good time to do a post or two on Epistemology in relationship to the Bible, Christian faith and faith in general. If you've already done this I'd love to read it. Please reply with links.



Anonymous said...

A few things come to mind in relation to my previous post (comment #13) and your response as well as some general issues related to your rhetoric.
First, regarding your lack of formal competence in physics and calculus, your response was in part: “This doesn't mean that I have no way of discerning what is true in physics from what is false in physics by looking at EVIDENCE.”
My main point was that you, and most people (probably all people in at least some areas), are in fact not competent to evaluate the “EVIDENCE” independently. Most evidence of modern science is now wrapped in several layers of theory and instrumentation. Consequently, it is not experienced by anyone in an unmediated fashion and is subject to interpretation and disputation at many steps along the way. If the physicists tell me they have found the Higgs Boson at CERN, I’ll have to take their word for it, just as I would if they tell me they haven’t. I’m certain there will be several credentialed particle physicists with differing opinions as to the strength of the evidence and its implications. I would have no way of knowing which to believe except from sifting through various expert opinions and deciding which I find most persuasive. And that decision may be based more on rhetoric and plurality than on “EVIDENCE.”  Even among the scientists themselves, science is a knock-down, brawling contentious enterprise full of politics, presuppositions, partisanship and “EVIDENCE”. In fact, most of us have no direct evaluation of the “EVIDENCE” underlying quantum mechanics, statistical mechanics, cosmology, or even biochemistry and cellular biology.
We are, by and large, consumers of summaries and interpretations of the “EVIDENCE” and it is difficult to defend a stance that it is even possible for such sources to by wholly objective and unbiased. To believe otherwise, even when it comes to science, is to flatter and fool ourselves.  Witness recent controversies about estrogen replacement therapy and mammography-- millions of people, including some strong commercial interests, “knew” based on the “EVIDENCE” that they were good and worthwhile. Now, with more careful study it appears not to be the case. Apparently we did not know what we were sure we knew… In short, I still contend that you, and most of us, in fact “have no way of discerning what is true in physics from what is false in physics by looking at EVIDENCE” without a whole lot of work and training. Even that training  is, in fact, not value-neutral and tends to produce people who are invested in upholding the system in which they trained.

Anonymous said...

To continue:

I do find it interesting that you cite your comparatively better understanding of evolutionary biology. Interesting because evolutionary biology, in some very deep senses, is not a scientific theory that makes falsifiable predictions in the Popperian sense—there’s lots of discussion about that in the peer-reviewed philosophy literature. If you are really interested, I might suggest that you look to the journal Biology and Philosophy as a starting point. While evolutionary biology is in some senses scientific and based on lots of “EVIDENCE’, it is also a filter through which we can understand the world. As a filter, it colors everything and is therefore subject to the same problems as encompassing theories of psychology. You can see everything in an evolutionary way, you can see everything in a Freudian way, an Adlerian, a Jungian, etc… It colors what you see and what you will allow yourself to see, and adopting that perspective is both evidence-based and evidence-making and ultimately very prone to naturalistic fallacies. String theorists want to see things as strings, and there may be enough degrees of freedom built into their models to fit all the data which makes it hard to falsify, even if they never make any bold predictions. For that matter, planetary motions could be explained by cycles and epicycles before the Copernican Revolution. Evolution similarly provides few predictions that could be falsifiable, so it’s difficult to separate the theory from the filter.
Second, as a general critique of your rhetoric, you seem to rely on very specific premises to arrive at broad conclusions. For example: “In my essay Prayer, Science and Haiti I made a strong case, using observed evidence, for the utter ineffectiveness of prayer. I won't elaborate any further on that as it is scientifically uncontested. Look it up yourself.” What I saw in that essay was some evidence and argumentation that prayer is not effective based on two preconceptions of what the effectiveness of prayer should look like, literal-biblical-Christian, and medical. Sure, if you believe in the personal god of the literal bible there are some tough questions to look at vis-a-vis human suffering, but they endanger only that particular conception of god, and anyone who thinks seriously about the subject would have to admit that an inconceivably mighty being is, by definition, untrammeled by our conceptions.

Anonymous said...

One slippery epistemological issue that you skirt is that if one conceives of god as an omniscient and omnipotent being, that pretty much rules out any conceivable way of “testing” said deity’s attributes. Such a god would be aware of our putative tests, would even be aware of our intent to perform such tests, and could choose whether or not to submit to them. So a particular demonstration that purports to show that prayer is “utterly ineffective” does no such thing; it just shows no observed effectiveness of the particular sort proposed under the specific circumstances evaluated. For this reason, such a god is not subject to scientific or rational inquiry and to say that any general truth has been demonstrated either way is ludicrous. In any case, I can’t think of an experimental design that would be conclusive. If you can, I’d love to see it, and I’m pretty sure the Templeton Institute might even give you money to try it out. However, I’d bet that neither you nor anyone else can think of a truly and logically conclusive way to prove as a general fact the “utter ineffectiveness of prayer”.
Prayer may or may not be effective; any putative effectiveness may result from physiology or divinity. I see no harm in a day of prayer—it may prompt god to act in mysterious ways. Who knows? It may give the oil-field engineer with the leak-stopping idea the confidence necessary to present it to his boss. It won’t make the people who are working now to solve the problem stop their efforts. The people proposing the day of prayer don’t have the technical know-how to do anything, and it may distract them from meddling in the engineering work that is being done. Ultimately, god and prayer are outside of science, except in relation to specific questions that I doubt will have any universal implications.  

If you really want to engage and critique honestly, you need to learn how to do it without a sneering attitude. That will require very serious discussion that carefully distinguishes premises from conclusions and makes every effort not to try to pin your conclusions on their premises or vice-versa.

Clint Wells said...

Anon - Many good points.

I've never claimed that science is a completely unified enetrprise avross the board on what are and are not facts. Scientists have been wrong about a lot of things. It's the way scientists respond to being wrong that I find remarkable and interesting, particularly in contrast to religion.

I agree that most people approach any idea with certain biases and a certain predisposition to being persuaded more by rhetoric or plurality rather than direct access to hard data that they may not even understand. This is certainly the case for me in the area of physics and calculus. I could sit in on any physicist's experiements and behold the same data with my senses and still struggle to make sense of what that information means. I would, of course, rely on people interpreting that data for me in the marketplace of ideas and I would likely be persuaded if it survived falsification in that marketplace. Does this mean that I believe in hocus pocus, as you (without a sneer, I'm sure) suggested? I don't think so.

I agree with your thoughts about evolutionary biology, however I think they deal more with the philosphy of evolution rather than the actual biology of it. One isn't biased or colored towards the world with an understanding of the human genome map the same way (dogmatically) one is colored by psychoanalysis or universal conciousness.

Techinically a theory is falsifiable even if it only makes one falsifiable prediction. However, evolution makes several. Irreducible complexity, a static fossil record, mechanisms for inhibiting mutated genes from accumulating, direct observation of creation, to name a few.

I agree with you that my conclusions about prayer cannot possibly apply to all conceivable deities. However they do strongly apply to the Christian god, who is repeatedly purported to have answered prayer by suspending natural order. This is well documented in the Bible as well as throughtout all of church history. I don't know where you live, but in Birmingham, AL it is extremely common to encounter people who talk to God and who will testify that God has entered reality and somehow physically affected their lives. I generally assume that the readers of my blog are belivers in the Christian god and so my conclusions are bent in that direction.

Perhaps a better way of stating my conclusion would be:

"As far as we know, based on the best information we have from our experiments which are subject to change in light of new information, intercessory and natural order suspending prayers are ineffective."

Your ideas for why prayer might be a good thing are interesting. Let's devise a conclusive experiment and spit that Templeton money. I'll of course spend it on drugs and whores and baby eating...and you can spend it on whatever gets you through the nights.

Thanks for your comments. They were insightful and helpful.