Grayer than thou?

John C. at BCC published this rather stark post, the basic (and unfortunately familiar) thrust of which is that, if you “lose your faith,” it’s your own fault — not any leaders, GAs, ward members, SS or EQ teachers, Jesus, God or the Holy Ghost. (It was not specified whether you could blame the devil, although Old Scratch’s role would seem to be implicit in any loss of faith. Along with a lack of character. Or will power. Or just not trying hard enough. Or something.) It strikes me that the thought behind this kind of assertion is that there has to be some reason you lost your faith — something predictable and categorical; something that ensures that You Did Something Wrong…and if I just don’t do any of those Wrong Things, then I won’t lose my faith. Especially since I choose not to lose my faith.

This was then followed by a post written by john f., who seems to be at least obliquely responding to John C.’s assertions. John f.’s theme is also not an unfamiliar one — a fairly regular theme in the ‘nacle-vs-DAMU conversations. In a nutshell, this argument posits that ex- or post-Mormons are victims of their own “black and white” thinking. They took things too literally and didn’t have the spiritual flexibility to accommodate new information, so they, being absolutists, took the leap from white to black in a sort of spiritually immature snit. And it is the flexible, shades-of-grey-embracing Mormons, who are very familiar with all the so-called skeletons in the closet, who are the more sophisticated, and perhaps more evolved on some pseudo-linear development scale like Fowler’s stages of faith.

The numerous comments on both of these posts come from all different belief spectrums, and represent pretty widely varying approaches to gaining, keeping, and losing, faith. Which of course in itself puts paid to the idea that any parsimonious theory about losing one’s religion is going to capture even a plurality of what people’s real experiences are. In reality, I’ve seen all “kinds” of people who retain faith in religion; really, what else could account for sites as religiously varied as Bountiful, M*, T&S, ExII, ZDs, etc., all having faithful, active believers regularly engaged in conversation about “their” religion? Likewise, those who “lose faith” also represent a very wide spectrum of personalities and experiences; hence sites as varied as NOM, PostMormon, FLAK, and RFM. Perhaps a more interesting question is, what about all the people who aren’t online or involved in any discussions like this at all? The active Mormons who’ve never even heard of the Bloggernacle. The inactive Mormons, or those who’ve actually resigned, who never have any apparent need to talk religion ever again.

The more I read the ‘nacle and the DAMU (or the sites within each that I prefer, which is likely not representative), the more I believe how similar we all are in terms of one variable at least: We are interested in talking about Mormonism and our experiences with it. We are engaged in our religious life through questions and answers, doubts and beliefs, wide-ranging perspectives, with tensions, arguments, and, occasionally, a lovely emergent moment where we feel a kindred feeling and our humanity is affirmed.

Are there more sophisticated people in the ‘nacle or the DAMU? Is it even possible to discover, somehow measure, who sees more grey? Is seeing more grey in fact equivalent to being more sophisticated, or even something unequivocally Good? I don’t know. I don’t have all, or even many, of the answers. That’s why I love to keep talking about it. And my favorite quote from the john f. post’s comments is this (paraphrased): Without Black and White, there is no Grey. Can’t argue with that.

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141 Responses

  1. brailsmt says:

    Faith is established, primarily, by some sort of supernatural experience. Therefore, for the faithful, physical evidence and inference therefrom is less important than other considerations. Generally speaking, faithful people, when presented with new evidence (even if it appears contradictory to basic faith claims) will try to find a way to accommodate it within their faithful worldview.

    Emphasis mine

    I find this statement extremely troubling. As you stated, the faithful will place less importance upon empirical observations, and will endeavor to fit new data with their worldview. This smacks of Crabtree’s Bludgeon.

    I read all of your posts in response to mine, and I must admit that you had some well reasoned responses, however, in the end it came back to you reasserting that there are some things which cannot be answered by evidence alone (I agree, reason and logic are also required).

    You stated, “there are supernatural things that would cause me to question my faith.” You also state that you call the “supernatural motive force” God. Therefore, I interpret your statements to be circular, ie, you will question your faith in God if God does something which would cause you to question. Or, you will question your faith of the supernatural (God), if the supernatural (God) causes you to question. This assumes the existence of a God.

    Just as you have said that it is impossible to prove God does not exist, this is not the same as saying that God does exist. This brings us to the familiar territory of arguing for or against the existence of God. We can both argue until blue in the face and call upon Russell’s teapot, Pascal’s Wager, etc… in support of our positions, and we are unlikely to persuade the other. You have likely heard the arguments before, as I have from the other side.

  2. brailsmt says:

    re 95:

    Now talking about computability, this is my field. There is an entire, vexing class of problems labeled NP-complete in the realm of computer science. NP-complete is simply the notion that there are problems which will complete or be solved in an Nondeterministic Polynomial execution time. We basically, cannot expect to solve such problems in any sort of predetermined amount of time because of their complexity, given our current computing power and mathematical models.

    I think this is a good analog to our current debate. We have a problem domain which has vexed us for thousands of years. That being our purpose, the meaning of life, how we relate to the cosmos, God, etc… This set of problems is not something which we can reasonably expect to understand and solve with any certainty with our current methods of observation, our current mathematical models, our current computing power, etc… However, we are getting better all the time at explaining these or exploring these questions. We are in the very infancy of understanding the neurological processes in our brain, we have been using computer models for only roughly 50 years, we are refining instruments capable of measuring things on a much finer and much grander scale than ever before. We are beginning to grapple with the definition of life at the cellular level in order to understand the genesis of life.

    It seems defeatist to me to claim that there are realms which cannot be understood by evidence and reason. It is tantamount to saying that because we do not currently understand things which you would classify as spiritual, we will forever be incapable of such understanding. This returns to my original question of why? Why are you so certain that those things which you deem spiritual will always lie outside the ability of evidence and reason to explain?

  3. John C. says:

    It’s been 200 years and we still can’t quantify happiness. The idea that we can is a bit ludicrous. If you are talking about advances in science that are going to be measured in centuries, then I am just fine calling it a sufficiently advanced technology (if you know what I mean). I suppose that I am not finding a difference between your science fiction and my fantasy.

    As to the natural/supernatural divide, I’m perfectly happy with your last sentence. So that might be the difference.

    Calling arguments from religion circular is like calling circles round. You find my faith unreasonable? I’m shocked, SHOCKED!

    I believe because I’m convinced by what I have experienced. What I experienced invokes the supernatural to my mind (get back to me 1,000 years from now and I’ll let you know if I’ve changed my mind). I don’t expect that to be convincing to anyone else (I’m not really trying to convince you guys of anything other than intelligent people can choose to believe and not be dupes, idiots, or collaborators).

    “It seems defeatist to me to claim that there are realms which cannot be understood by evidence and reason.”
    It seems defeatist to me to assume that there aren’t, especially after you and I both acknowledged the limits of human reason. Perhaps you wish you were a robot (ala Veridian Dynamics)?

    As to your last question, may I ask one? What do you think would be sufficient evidence to establish that there is no God?

  4. brailsmt says:

    “What do you think would be sufficient evidence to establish that there is no God?”

    I don’t think evidence alone can prove the non-existence of anything. Just like I could not produce enough evidence to disprove the existence of Russell’s Teapot, I cannot produce enough evidence to disprove the existence of god. As I stated, this is not the same as admitting he does exist. Perhaps the most meaningful logical argument against god, is for me, the Problem of Evil.

    However, this is all somewhat beside the point. I do not have to establish that god does not exist. The burden to prove his existence belongs to those that make the positive claim. If I claim to have found Santa Claus’s north pole domicile, it is not you that must disprove the claim. It is I that must provide the proof of the claim. Until such a time as I do provide proof, the prudent approach is to remain highly skeptical of the claim. So it is with god, notwithstanding the long tradition of western civilization.

    Furthermore, claims that god exists are not falsifiable. As such it is impossible to disprove the claim because of the way the claim is made. I do not believe god exists, but if verifiable, repeatable evidence was provided that proved his existence, I would believe. Such a thing does not exist, and personal anecdotes or personal convictions and experiences are meaningless, IMO, because they are simply Appeals to Emotion, which is a well known logical fallacy. Until such a time as it is proven that there is a difference between “feeling the spirit” and feeling a positive emotion, I will also remain highly skeptical of the claim that there is a difference.

  5. brailsmt says:

    “Im not really trying to convince you guys of anything other than intelligent people can choose to believe and not be dupes, idiots, or collaborators”

    There is no need for you to convince me of this, I do not think all believers are dupes, idiots or collaborators. I hope you also feel that those of us that have left the church are not all sinners, weak or easily offended.

    I think that any reasonably intelligent person is capable of providing convincing arguments for either side of a debate, and it is a mark of intelligence to be able to see the validity in the claims of a position which is not your own. With that said, I do not feel that all sides of a debate to have equal merit simply because they can both be supported by reasonable and intelligent people.

  6. brailsmt says:

    Just to clarify, by saying “personal anecdotes or personal convictions and experiences are meaningless” I did not intend to imply that they are meaningless in the general sense. They are very meaningful to the person who has had such experiences and feelings. I should have stated that they are irrelevant to establishing the truth of a claim. It is feasible that I could receive a very strong personal conviction that 2+2 is 5, it matters not how strongly I might feel this, I would still be wrong.

  7. “Its been 200 years and we still cant quantify happiness.”

    This is actually a relatively recent effort known as positive psychology. Until recently, the scientific community hasn’t made much of an effort to study happiness. And there are some indications from research about what makes us happy.

    Anyway, the claim that belief in the supernatural is necessary to achieve optimal happiness or is a surer path to optimal happiness seems dubious to me. In my personal case, I am much more satisfied with myself and generally feel happier since I rejected religion. Some may be happier inside of religion, but I’m not.

    So it’s not religion or belief in the supernatural/God per se that makes us happy, not universally anyway. And it is possible (for some?) to live happily without embracing and accepting irrationality.

  8. John C. says:

    Well, good. I’m glad that we agree that the supernatural (if it exists) is not identifiable via empirical naturalism. What are we arguing about again? Also, I am happy to say that (as far as I know) you are no more a sinner, a weak person, or an easily offended person than I am. Thank goodness we can set aside all these useless stereotypes, no? As to the relevance of personal anecdote to the truth of a claim, it depends on the claim, doesn’t it? Some claims aren’t meant to be objectively generalizable; does their anecdotal nature somehow make them invalid as a result?

    While I do think that belief in the divine is necessary to achieve optimal happiness, I don’t remember making that claim, as it strikes me as insupportable (especially after I just said that we can’t quantify happiness). I know I’m a hypocrite, but hopefully I’m not that obvious of one.

    Of course, it is possible for someone to live happily while eschewing irrationality. In theory, at least. In fact, I tend to think taking irrationality out of people isn’t possible, so this is all a bit of a moot point.

  9. brailsmt says:

    “Im glad that we agree that the supernatural (if it exists) is not identifiable via empirical naturalism.”

    I did not make that statement. You asked what evidence would be sufficient to disprove god. I said that evidence alone cannot prove the non-existence of something. That is not the same as agreeing with you. It seems you are focusing only on evidence and the supernatural (god). If you define the supernatural as that which does not have evidence in the natural world, then your definition preempts any discussion. If you are claiming that a lack of evidence against the supernatural is a basis for a claim for the existence of the supernatural, then there is no point in debating such a fallacy. I’m fairly certain you aren’t making this claim (at least I hope).

    My original question is why the terrible questions mentioned require an answer, and why only faith is equipped to answer them, and why you are certain you are correct. We have fairly well discussed what you mean by the supernatural, but I’m not sure this brings us any closer to the question of why the supernatural has answers to those questions where evidence *and* reason do not. Nor does it bring us closer as to why it is necessary for these questions have answers in the first place.

  10. John C. says:

    I’m relatively certain I’ve provided my answers to those questions. I’m also fairly certain that I’ve expressed my okayness with your decision to ignore those question. So, barring some exciting new evidence, we’re done here, no?

  11. Andrew S says:

    re 103:


    This is the WORST non sequitur I have ever heard. “It’s been (insert amount of time) and we haven’t been able to (figure something out quantitatively). Therefore, it must not be able to be figured out quantitatively.”

    This is as fallacious as the argument, “In (several) thousands of years of recorded human history, we have not found empirical evidence of God. Therefore, it must not exist.” Or the theist’s answer, “No, therefore, God is not empirical/natural.”

    I think the difference, if you’re going to call mine “science fiction” and yours “fantasy,” is that we can *do nothing* with your fantasy. It is just there. But it cannot be interfaced whatsoever. at least with the science fiction, we are trying to interface with and investigate. Fantasists are giving up, essentially.

    Still, I don’t think I’m as optimistic or naive as you may think. When I say things like, “We have a road to the *possibility* or *hint* of understanding,” this isn’t to mean that we ever will understand, or that we can, in fact, understand. So, I think science fiction is saying that we WILL understand, that we WILL progress infinitely, and things like that. No, I don’t accept that. I’m only allowing for the theoretical possibility — on the other hand, your position is a flat-out rejection of the theoretical possibility. “Based on a (rather short) period of time, I conclude that we cannot quantitatively measure happiness!”

  12. John C. says:

    I’m not cutting off the possibility (how would I do that?). I could be dead wrong about our future ability to quantify happiness (though I doubt I am). But the point is that you are defending reason by pointing to possibilities that are, at present and for the foreseeable future, fantastic. If you can’t see the irony there, I don’t know what to say.

    And there is a possibility that you can do something with the fantasy, but only those who buy in are doing it. I’m not fighting hard for that possibility here, because I doubt you are interested in buying in and without that there is no point in having the conversation.

  13. Andrew S says:

    re 112:

    You’d cut off the possibility through your words and attitude.

    My question is…how is a “possibility” fantastic? A “definitiveness” is perhaps fantastic (e.g., we will quantify it. Definitely.) But a possibility is not fantastic because it isn’t bold enough. So, I don’t see the irony (and I guess you don’t know what to say).

    So we are at an impasse.

  14. John C. says:

    I don’t have that sort of power (only the power of Greyskull). Sure possibilities are fantastic. It’s possible that tomorrow we will develop the ability to fly. It’s possible that monkeys and keyboards and infinity and Shakespeare. All sorts of unlikely possibilities are fantastic. I just don’t see yours are somehow less fantastic than mine. Both require a certain suspension of disbelief, for instance.

    I agree that we are at an impasse, however. Let’s let sleeping threads lie, shall we?

  15. Andrew S says:

    re 114:

    Actually, it’s not the “possility” that is fantastic…is it the limits or the parameters you set on them. If you say “It’s possible that tomorrow we will develop the ability to fly,” this is fantastic.

    But if you say, “It’s possible that sometime we may develop the ability to fly,” this isn’t a bold, ambitious, or fantastic statement.

    If we applied this ambiguation to religion and the supernatural that I *already* apply to my statements, however, then religion would look vastly different than what it does. (I think it would be vastly better, too…much more humble).

    So please don’t misunderstand me while we are at impasse. I’m not as optimistic or naive as you might think. I’m not saying, “It’s possible that tomorrow we will develop the ability to fly” or anything of that strength and boldness.

  16. John C. says:

    When my son was young, he wanted to grow up to be a panda. This isn’t impossible, I suppose, but it is sufficiently unlikely that labeling it fantasy doesn’t seem unreasonable. If you want to discuss the lengths of time necessary to make sprouting wings, thinning bones, and so forth necessary to create flying humanity, that’s fine, I guess, but at those distances any speculation is equally fantastic (for all the possibility that it might turn out to be true). Why not insist humans will get a third eye? Develop a reason for the appendix? Figure out the infield fly rule? If you want to speculate about human and natural possibility, have at it, but it seems just as fantastic to me as anything religious folk have dreamed up.

    I was struck by Contact, back in the day, because Carl Sagan seemed to believe that instead of have an all-powerful, loving creator who made mankind, it was better to have all-powerful, loving aliens who made mankind (I’m garbling it, I’m sure. It’s been a while since I saw the movie and I’ve never read the book). I’ve yet to hear evidence that convinces me that the superiority of Sagan’s theory was that it was more likely.

  17. Andrew S says:


    Why not insist? Because “insisting” is not the language of “possibility” to the language of definitiveness. Definitiveness is the problem. Narrow boundaries are the problem.

    Carl Sagan is a SETI proponent. The definitiveness of his propositions (and of SETI proponents in general) is what makes him ludicrous. (Especially clinging to claims such as “all-powerful” and “loving” or whatever.) But the categorical difference is that Sagan is trying to describe a natural solution, whereas you say supernatural.

    This is the distinction. At least a natural claim invites discussion (in fact, the claim of naturality is what allows you to be so skeptic because you recognize that now, there is not too much evidence that is persuasive to you). However, if aliens are natural, then at least we have the possibility of coming to discover them and describe them. A claim of supernaturality, however, closes off and precludes discussion. So the skeptic, some would say, “just needs more faith.” or whatever. Skepticism is seen as inferior or invalid.

  18. John C. says:

    supernature doesn’t preclude discussion (what is it exactly that you think we do over in the Bloggernacle?). Both naturalists and supernaturalists have entry requirements for participation in a discussion (in full fellowship, at least). Even the foyer isn’t a completely open forum. Sure, some discussions are less likely and other more, but that’s true of any community. So we are back to the notion that we are just taking different approaches to ultimate meaning and such. And neither is obviously better than the other, says me.

  19. So much to respond to. 🙂

    I agree that we will ever completely completely eschew irrationality. I believe however that we can and should work to minimize it and keep it in its place.

    Regarding fantasy, the discussion reminds me of mathematicians. They are infamous for saying “It can be proven that X” without bothering to prove X. They’re often only concerned that X can be proven in principle. (chanson, can you back me up here?)

    So anything that affects the natural world (i.e. the world governed by natural law) can be measured and tested in principle. Therefore, the supernatural (i.e. something that cannot be measured in principle) cannot have an effect on the natural world, else it would be measurable. (Proof by contradiction.)

    So if God affects the natural world in any way, we will be able to measure and explain it… in principle. And God would be therefore not be supernatural.

    Regarding benevolent aliens, isn’t Carl Sagan’s (blessed be his memory) theory essentially identical to what Mormonism teaches? Highly intelligent scientist/creator from another planet doing on this world what has been done on other worlds, seeding life, etc.? 🙂

  20. Andrew S says:

    re 118: John,

    With the natural (e.g., what you did with Sagan), your ideas may be criticized. They may be skeptically reviewed. You are also free to engage in the critical review yourself! With the supernatural, there’s a kind of zone of veneration and deference. The supernatural is taken for granted. This is what I mean by preclusion for discussion.

    And you should know that! You should know more than most of us (well not me, because I’m one of your outlaws :3) that the Bloggernacle has certain “OK” zones and certain zones which cannot be crossed. The site you are a member at (BCC, not FPR…although perhaps FPR does the same) is NOTORIOUS for shutting down the conversation whenever it feels like, or for shutting out certain commenters when they don’t “match the tone”.

    And I mean, this gets into a discussion of what is reasonable vs. unreasonable censorship (and there’s another impasse), etc., but I find it odd that you’d say there is *no* preclusion of discussion when one of your last comments in one of these pertaining to one of these blog posts was a scathing response telling all the DAMU visitors, in more or less words, to stay on their own side of the internet forever.

    I mean, I can’t speak for everyone here, so maybe chanson or the others censor right and left, but basically, if you’re worried that MSP isn’t letting your comment through, it’s because 1) somehow, you have to be manually added and an admin may not be here at the moment or 2) the site’s on the fritz (I will admit our software and hardware disagrees with us sometimes). And MAYBE if you are CLEARLY spamming (like, unintelligible spam with tons of off-topical links). It’s not because “the tone” is off. It’s not because “We dont like you. We dont like your comments. We dont like the manner in which you conduct yourself. We dont like how you blame others for your problems. Go away. Dont come back. Leave forever. Take a hammer to your computer. Move to Montana and conduct all your business by mail. Die a horrible lonely death. Leave us alone.” and so on.

  21. John C. says:

    It may simply be that I think it is fine for irrationality to play a larger role in life than you would like (or that I may admit it does).

    Regarding the natural as a cloak for the supernatural, I don’t agree. I can imagine it being possible for the supernatural to affect the natural, possibly even using natural means, with itself being natural. But I may, as always, be dead wrong with that. Many Mormons, for instance, seem to believe that God operates exclusively via natural means and that he is sorta natural. I don’t subscribe to that view, because you have to do too many twists to make it work in my opinion, but it is out there.

    If a TBM showed up in the foyer and started calling everyone to repentance, that would be frowned upon behavior. And a discussion of whether or not Elder Packer or Elder McConkie has a better approach to some doctrinal chestnut isn’t going to get very far in that forum either (I can’t speak for this forum because I don’t generally follow it). If you think that operating in the DAMU places you in some blissful no censorship zone on the internet, that a fine delusion to have, I suppose, but it ain’t so. There are behavioral norms and those norms tend to get enforced. That applies everywhere.

    Every DAMU person who contributed to that thread was coming in angry and looking to pick a fight. Heck, brailsmt’s last comment (possibly deleted) was him picking a fight with ZD Eve, who essentially agreed with him. I’m sure that it might be more polite to let the horde overturn the tables, but we’ll pass thanks. Also, I’m egotistical enough to love my prose (you forgot the part where I invited folks to come back once they got the angry out (I may have even been sincere (admittedly, at that point it was hard to tell(also, die a horrible lonely death was probably a little too much for the DAMU-ers that day; how about “Die surrounded by loved ones”(That said, I’d still use the old version for Mike, who just wouldn’t take a hint or even a straight up assertion))))).

    In order to have a conversation about the supernatural, you do have to take it for granted. I don’t deny that, but I don’t think that it invalidates it in some way. It just establishes the entry fee for being taken seriously. To have a conversation about it’s existence, I don’t think you do, but the existence of the supernatural isn’t generally established for people via argumentation (otherwise, Socrates and Plato would be are greatest spiritual guides). So you have the Bloggernacle, where people assume that they are talking about something real, if subjective, and they have lots of conversations about what that means to them. They even go so far as to try and persuade one another (and sometimes succeed without the invocation of divine intervention). Completely irrational, all of it, I am sure.

    Finally, I founded FPR. I invited everybody who is there now in (except maybe Yellow Dart). You clearly don’t know my history.

  22. John C. says:

    *without itself being natural

  23. If the supernatural uses natural means to affect the natural world, then the effect of that natural means can be measured, and the supernatural’s influence on the natural can be detected and investigated. The effect would be detectable as a violation of natural laws. If the supernatural never violates natural laws, then the distinction between natural and supernatural is meaningless.

  24. Andrew S says:

    re 121:

    If a TBM showed up in the foyer and started calling everyone to repentance, that would be frowned upon. but the TBM would not be banned. If the hypothetical Packer/McConkie discussion occurred, there’d be loud voices against it. But the discussion would not be banned.

    With the Foyer, there is scrutinizing. There is criticism. There are heated discussions. Don’t get me wrong. Everything is not sunshine and daisies and I’m not saying it is. You have to back up what you say or face the consequences.

    On the other hand, this is not the case in other places (I do understand that this isn’t even the case for New Order Mormon, so perhaps that would be a better example of DAMU censorship). Perhaps you will be banned from discussion.

    It seems you are trying to equivocate some things. If we can have a discussion even if some people “frown” — this is fine. This is not a problem. If we can’t have a discussion because things will be shut down by the powers that be eventually…then obviously, discussion is impossible. Again, you may agree with the BCC shutting down certain discussions — this again gets us into the no-man’s land territory of justified damage control and censorship.

    The problem with taking the supernatural for granted is that it precludes one rather important subset of conversation — the conversation about what if it isn’t real?

    Finally…uhhhh…NO MAN KNOWS YOUR HISTORY :D. i couldn’t resist.

  25. John C. says:

    I don’t disagree with anything you just said. I’m just open to violations of natural law.

    I’m perfectly willing to put it to the test. I’ll just go over to thefoyer and be as obnoxious as possible. We’ll see how long I last. You wanna dare me? It’s not like I have a good reputation there to lose.

    It isn’t the discussion that gets me riled it’s the behavior and the likelihood that it will go somewhere. Spinning wheels isn’t interesting to me. Flame wars aren’t particularly interesting to me. When I see the potential to either, I’ll ask about moving along the topic. Also, if you show up and act like a jerk or a troll, that will usually get you booted.

    Also, I should note that I don’t speak for the powers-that-be at BCC. So take everything I say with a grain of salt. I don’t decide who lives and who dies.

    Regarding discussing the supernatural, I addressed that in my comment. If your response to any discussion of the supernatural is to say, “Why are we even having this conversation?” that’s a bit of a conversation killer. And now you know why you don’t get invited to cool medium parties. 😉

  26. Well, we haven’t found evidence of the violation of natural laws or what we understand of them anyway. They seem to hold true in experiment. If they seem to be violated, it has always led to more fundamental laws, not to someone apparently twiddling with reality.

    I would like to draw a distinction between the faith that I think helps us and superstition which I think harms us.

    Faith helps us to move out into the impossible as Arthur C. Clarke put it. It allows us to transcend current knowledge in order to find new knowledge. It gives to artists their vision, to scientists their hunches and their hypotheses, and to activists their hope for a better future. Faith speculates based on current knowledge but cannot guarantee success. It allows us to move forward in the face of uncertainty. It expands our horizons.

    Superstition, by contrast, has no solid basis in current knowledge. It may even be refuted by available evidence. It may even lie beyond the reach of future verification. It propagates through our ignorance and fear. It confers a false hope in the face of uncertainty. Superstition stultifies and closes us off to future advancement.

    I see prayer as a commonly practiced example of a superstition. We’ve attempted to verify the efficacy of prayer on behalf of others. It’s not clear that such prayer has any effect. The example that helped me to give up my own superstition was prayer for those with amputated limbs. No one has recovered a limb, whether they were prayed for or not, without the intervention of human medicine. If prayer were effective, why are amputees left out?

    From what I can tell, religious faith often amounts to little more than superstition.

  27. John C. says:

    In my understanding of my experience, prayer has been effective and I imagine that it will continue to be so. So, when faced with the choice of your experience and mine, I’ll go with mine. FWIW

  28. I understand that prayer can have beneficial effects indistinguishable from those of non-theistic meditation. Let’s make sure that we’re not talking about that kind of thing.

    However, when someone says “I prayed and my father got better, therefore prayer works,” it brings prayer within the realm of the testable. Such personal judgments are too subject to biases and distortion. We’re too ready to see patterns where there are none, too ready to count prayer’s hits but not its misses.

    The only way to tell if praying to Vishnu has any real effect on the health of our loved ones is to perform tests. Most religious folk don’t care to subject their beliefs to the test (a good sign of superstition). In other words, they’re afraid to find out the truth.

    So our personal experiences and feelings aren’t worth much when we’re trying to determine the efficacy of prayer. It’s too small a sample and too biased an observer.

  29. John C. says:

    There are too many factors in prayer to be accounted for in objective testing. Faith (on the part of the pray-er and the prayee; God’s will; what is and ain’t possible; butterflies in Brazil). If we knew what we were looking for, we might be able to fashion a test, but we don’t and there is a sufficiently large number of variables as to make it senseless to try at present.

    Besides, no amount of testing is going to convince the convinced that they are wrong. It wasn’t the testing that convinced them that they were right.

  30. Those all sound like rationalizations. Science has been pretty successful at teasing out significant factors in complex situations. Why not in principle with prayer?

    Someone somewhere said pretty much the same thing as you have. I wish I could remember the quote exactly, but basically, what wasn’t reasoned into can’t be reasoned out of. I agree mostly, except it’s not always true. Reason (and testing a hypothesis about prayer) convinced me.

  31. John C. says:

    As much as I appreciate sign-seeking or perhaps egomania failed to produce new limbs in amputees, I fail to understand why your failed attempt is applicable to me and my relationship to prayer. I’m pretty sure that we’re done here so, barring some remarkable development in the scientific study of the evil that dwells in the hearts of man, I’m gonna pull out. Have a nice day.

  32. I’ve been accused of needing to have the last word before. I don’t want to believe that about myself, so I’m loath to continue a discussion after it’s over.

    But (of course there’s a but) the turn that our conversation took is an excellent example of what Andrew has been trying to say about the supernatural. Toss the supernatural into a conversation and it leads it down a dead end street where no useful conclusion can be made.

    You say we have to factor in God’s will if we want to test prayer. No one is competent to speak for God’s will, so this puts prayer beyond discussion and therefore beyond usefulness.

    Someone prays for their sick aunt and they get better? Must not have been God’s will that she die. Someone else prayed that their father would beat the cancer but he died anyway? God must have wanted him to come to Heaven. There is thus no way to disconfirm the efficacy of prayer.

    There is no result that would lead the believer to say that prayer doesn’t work. Under these conditions, saying that prayer works doesn’t provide information; the statement has no real content, only the appearance of saying something. Someone who believes that prayer works has no way of knowing what effect their prayers will have. Maybe they’ll get what they want, maybe they won’t. So why even ask in the first place?

    No one who uses this kind of logic can say truthfully that their experiences led them to believe in prayer. Something other than their experiences and logic led them to that conclusion. Childhood teaching when we’re the most vulnerable to indoctrination may be one factor. The will to believe may be another. In any case, it is only a pretense to themselves and others that they are being reasonable in believing in prayer.

    I find the sign-seeking defense frustratingly hypocritical. First, God didn’t seem to mind splitting the Red Sea for the skeptical Israelites, or raising the dead Lazarus, or letting Thomas feel the nail and spear wounds. Why should he refuse to offer me a reason to believe? Why am I different than those other skeptics?

    Second, almost every believer that I’ve met is a skeptic at heart, except for the case of their own religion. If I came to them and claimed that making oblations to Cthulhu had made me wealthy, they would doubt me and demand some form of proof. That’s why I say the sign-seeking defense is hypocritical.

    This is where superstition (the refusal to submit our faith to the test) leads us.

  33. Wayne says:

    “I see prayer as a commonly practiced example of a superstition. Weve attempted to verify the efficacy of prayer on behalf of others. Its not clear that such prayer has any effect.”

    I cannot vouch for limbs growing back as a result of prayer; however in the mental health realm there has recently been some evidence that faith healing, prayer etc. In areas where traditional healing practices (shaman, medicine men) are available along with secular western medicine and mental health practices are available. Tests have shown that individuals with mental illness have a faster and more effective healing rate when treated by their shaman than when treated with Western
    This includes what may appear to western doctors as purely physical illness.

    The healing rates of Schizophrenia in cultures where “mentally ill” individuals are treated by shaman are also better than cultures, such as the U.S., where these illnesses are treated with medication. Other non-religious practices.

  34. Such studies are usually not double blind trials. Were the recipients of shamanic prayer aware that they were being prayed for?

    Also, was the control group pulled from the same population but their shamans instructed to refrain from praying for them?

  35. Wayne says:

    If you did carry out a test I doubt that you would get any decent results. I don’t know that it is possible to quantify experience. If you did carry out such a test your results would only give you a range any way.

    Psychologists have yet to come up with a reliable test to measure emotion, even fmri tests and eeg tests which map brain centers are not effective at explaining reactions our emotional reactions to our environment. So, I doubt that doing scientific analysis on prayer would be very effective.

    I don’t need proof of the power of prayer to a god because in my experience I have not found such beliefs as effective. My experience is not enough for me to take a position on someone else’s faith.

  36. Hellmut says:

    Here is a pretty comprehensive and seemingly honest review of prayer studies:

    There are studies that show both positive and negative effects. There are more studies that show no effect at all.

  37. Wayne,

    Science still struggles with measuring emotional responses. Their methods remain crude, but are getting better.

    I’m not after emotional responses and experiences, though. Unless we’re talking about measuring the faith of the pray-er, then I am most interested in prayer’s effects on measurable things like health and wealth. I’m basically gunning for the theistic god who answers prayers with worldly effects (e.g. the proverbial surprise check after paying tithing despite not having enough money to pay the bills, or the miraculous healing of someone after being prayed over).

  38. Wayne says:

    Hellmut-fascinating article. I liked the authors conclusion ” God is so generous you don’t really need to pray” It seems to me that St. Francis came to that same conclusion while watching a bird eat.
    Anyway, it seems that a study would be just as effective if it just compared the mean healing rates between those who pray and those who don’t. It would give you just as much info and it would not have to be double blind.

    Johnathan- Frankly, I am far to skeptical about the power of prayer to even want to study it out side of the realm of how prayer interacts with mental health. That is entirely other conversation.

  39. Wayne says:

    And now to belabor the point. I spoke with one of my psych. professors about this subject(she is into symbolic healing) She pointed me toward several tests. Here is a link to one.

    There are several others if you go to google scholar and look for double blind studies and prayer.

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