Asserting the Untestable

Joseph Farah has a column at the Worldnutdaily about the drought in Lubbock and the resolution from the city council there to ask residents to pray for rain. It's standard religious right rhetoric - the media is full of pagans who laugh at Christian faith, but they all have their own religions like worship of money, government, etc. But what I find interesting is this prediction at the end:

It makes sense to me to pray. But oddly, or maybe not so oddly, this UPI story appeared under the newstrack heading "quirks." Evidently, some editors at UPI consider prayer "quirky." I don't. In fact, I hope you will join me and the good people of Lubbock and West Texas tomorrow in prayer for rain. I'm going to be watching the weather reports there with interest. What a testimony it will be when God answers those prayers...Who knows? Maybe the results will even open the eyes of my colleagues in the pagan press.

But does anyone doubt that Farah will claim success regardless of the outcome? if it rains tomorrow, it will be because God answered those prayers. If it rains in two weeks, it will be because God answered those prayers, he just waited a couple weeks to do it. If the drought continues for another 2 or 3 months and does ten times more damage than it has already done, then whenever it finally does rain, it will be because God answered those prayers, but in His own time. It's going to rain eventually, of course, but no matter when it does he will declare his prediction a success.

Heck, if it didn't rain for a whole year, he would simply dismiss that as God answering prayer - after all, sometimes the answer is no. Perhaps it will just be God testing our faith, or allowing suffering so that we would learn and grow from the experience. No matter what happens, there is no way of testing the claim; any outcome to the test will be viewed as success. The claim is entirely immune to disproof, which means it's completely sterile. It literally is a meaningless assertion because there is no way at all to tell whether it comes true or not. And that's why it should not be taken seriously.


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I remember hearing once about a Russian scientist (I forget which one) joke that he could prove that heaven was 10 light-years away because of how long it took for Russian prayers during the Russo-Japanese War to make the round trip and be answered by the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake.

I increasingly wonder about prayer. If God has a plan why do I need to pray other than to say thank you if one is so inclined. His plan will unfold either way and I doubt he's going to toss the plan overboard on a whim.

Reminds me of Francis Galton's famous study. The British population prayed each Sunday for the health of the royal family, but the royal family turned out to have a lower life expectancy (but not statistically significantly so).

Of course, one explanation could be that God does answer prayer, but that the Jews were right.

What gets me is the reference to the 'pagan press'. Pagans don't prey?

We might not pray to your god, but we do prey.

In my church (an Episcopalian church), we learned to pray for different things, to pray for changes within ourselves that allowed us to deal with the circumstances of the world rather than just "change the world for us". If the one thing prayer can change the most is emotion, then why not keep your prayers oriented to the emotions that you wish to change - strength, patience, awareness, openness, forgiveness, and (personal) peace?

Though "proof" that such prayers work is just as anectdotal as prayers for rain, it does make it considerably easier to "feel" a prayer answered.

True, using science, psychologists could probably support a theory that such prayers just by the act of focus and personal introspection, might lead to the desired result.

But I'll hold onto my last little "God of the gaps" until then ;-)

By Joe Shelby (not verified) on 30 Jul 2006 #permalink

After he retired many years ago my grandfather started volunteering for his Catholic church. His job was as a "substitue prayer". The church had many members who were too sick to go to mass, so he was given their names and a list of what they wanted to pray for. My grandfather would make their prayers for them. I remember one time one of the regulars he prayed for died, and I don't think that I had ever seen my grandfather so sad. He had been praying for this man's health and considered it a personal failure that the man did not get better.

It was heartbreaking to see my grandfather in such a state, though I honestly didn't know what to say to him.

I think you're probably right, Joe. Praying for the strength to stop smoking probably does help a person's willpower to do it. That's different than praying that the world changes to your liking, though.

Oh, Ed, it gets even better. If the city endorces praying for rain, and rain does not come the next day, week, or month, you watch: the ministers involved will begin explaining that God witheld the rain because folks were unworthy, they were tolerating sin amongst them [take your pick: gay/straight student clubs, bars and saloons, pornography, etc] and God can not be expected to answer the prayers of the unworthy. But if the city council would at last understand the sources of God's unwillingness to send rain, and correct them, their prayers would be answered and the land would flow with milk and honey.

In fact, pick more or less any sermon from a Puritan pulpit in New England in the troubled years from 1670 or so on, change a term or two to fit the modern case, and you'd be in business. [E.g. cross out "witches" and substitute "gays."] Instant "exclusive" for the Worldnutdaily.

By flatlander100 (not verified) on 30 Jul 2006 #permalink

Maybe they should start with an easy one to get everyone's confidence up: let's all pray for the sun to come up tomorrow.

People want to have an impact. They want to "do something." I guess praying is one way to feel like they are taking action.

Gerry L wrote

People want to have an impact. They want to "do something." I guess praying is one way to feel like they are taking action.

Yup, praying is a way to maintain the illusion of control over uncontrollable events. It has the added advantage noted by several commenters: If the prayer isn't answered, it's not the responsibility of the person praying, it's God's. So it's win-win: if the prayer seems to be answered affirmatively the person praying has exercised (illusory) control; if the prayer isn't answered, it ain't my fault.

Meteorologists recommend waiting until Thursday to start praying. Additionally, you should pray especially hard on Sunday.

Jul 30 Sunny 95°
/67° 10 %
Jul 31 Sunny 96°
/71° 20 %
Aug 01 Mostly Sunny 97°
/71° 20 %
Aug 02 Partly Cloudy 94°
/66° 20 %
Aug 03 Isolated T-Storms 89°
/61° 30 %
Aug 04 Partly Cloudy 89°
/62° 20 %
Aug 05 Scattered Showers 92°
/63° 30 %
Aug 06 Scattered T-Storms 88°
/63° 60 %

UPI not believers in prayer? Did the Unification Church sell UPI recently, and I missed it? UPI was purchased out of bankruptcy by the Rev. Moon, and it operated as a Moonie news outlet for a while. Is that no longer the case?

It just goes to show that those who accuse the rest of us of lacking faith, don't give a whit for the facts.

If God sent a hurricane - or an hurricane as in an historic occasion (which drive me nuts) - could they then claim that they over prayed?

By Bill from Dover (not verified) on 30 Jul 2006 #permalink

The Lubbockians should be at least a little happy for their drought. At least, without rainclouds around there, they aren't likely to get many tornadoes down there.

I know it's evil to say this but I so hope for some flooding ;D

During a prolonged drought earlier this year, a sign in my town said "Pray for rain." Not long afterwards, we received four inches of rain in one hour, which flooded one end of town and caused severe damage to a lot of homes. The next day, the sign was changed to "Pray for gentle rain." I didn't pray for either one, but I sure got a kick out of it.

Don't pray, play cricket.

By Neutral Observer (not verified) on 01 Aug 2006 #permalink

FWIW, the Colorado Rockies baseball team has (according to USA Today) "become an organization guided by Christianity," posting Bible quotes in its weight rooms, holding chapel as a team, and "embracing a Christian-based code of conduct they believe will bring them focus and success."

Early in June, pitcher Jason Jennings said: "We do believe that if you do things right and live your life right, good things are going to happen."

That was when the Rockies were 27-24, "having their best season since 1995," and talking about the playoffs. Now they're 51-54 and one game out of the cellar.