2 Book Reviews (part 1)

A while back, I was reading a “logical” argumentation by Rebecca Goldstein regarding the non-existence of God.  The author of this novel takes 36 “proofs” of God existing and shows how each assertion is flawed. I avoid atheism vs. God exists arguments because they are never productive. The God side always gets mad and calls the atheist a heathen, and the atheist calls the believer-in-God nutty. I am convinced, especially after reading the above “refutations” that logic will never prove or disprove God (I’ll explain my reasoning for that later). If you try to do either, you end up looking foolish.

Let me take number 9 on the list mentioned above:

9. The Argument from Answered Prayers
1. Sometimes people pray to God for good fortune, and, against enormous odds, their calls are answered. (For example, a parent prays for the life of her dying child, and the child recovers.)
2. The odds that the beneficial event will happen are enormously slim(from 1).
3. The odds that the prayer would have been followed by recovery out of sheer chance are extremely small (from 2).
4. The prayer could only have been followed by the recovery if God listened to it and made it come true.
5. God exists.
This argument is similar to The Argument from Miracles, #11 below, except that, instead of the official miracles claimed by established religion, it refers to intimate and personal miracles.

flaw 1: Premise 3 is indeed true. However, to use it to infer that a miracle has taken place (and an answered prayer is certainly a miracle) is to subvert it. There is nothing that is less probable than a miracle, since it constitutes a violation of a law of nature (see The Argument from Miracles). Therefore, it is more reasonable to conclude that the conjunction of the prayer and the recovery is a coincidence than that it is a miracle.
flaw 2. The coincidence of a person’s praying for the unlikely to happen and its then happening is, of course, improbable. But the flaws in The Argument from Cosmic Coincidences and The Argument from Personal Coincidences apply here: Given a large enough sample of prayers (the number of times people call out to God to help them and those they love is tragically large), the improbable is bound to happen occasionally. And, given the existence of Confirmation Bias, we will notice these coincidences, yet fail to notice and count up the vastly larger number of unanswered prayers.
flaw 3: There is an inconsistency in the moral reasoning behind this argument. It asks us to believe in a compassionate God who would be moved to pity by the desperate pleas of some among us—but not by the equally desperate pleas of others among us. Together with The Argument from a Wonderful Life, The Argument from Perfect Justice, and The Argument from Suffering, it appears to be supported by a few cherry-picked examples, but in fact is refuted by the much larger number of counter-examples it ignores: the prayers that go unanswered, the people who do not live wonderful lives. When the life is our own, or that of someone we love, we are especially liable to the Projection Fallacy, and spread our personal sense of significance onto the world at large.

flaw 4: Reliable cases of answered prayers always involve medical conditions that we know can spontaneously resolve themselves through the healing powers and immune system of the body, such as recovery from cancer, or a coma, or lameness. Prayers that a person can grow back a limb, or that a child can be resurrected from the dead, always go unanswered. This affirms that supposedly answered prayers are actually just the rarer cases of natural recovery.

I came across this as I was reading A Praying Life by Paul Miller. My father-in-law told me that Miller’s book was the most applicable book on prayer that he had ever read. Okay, sure. I had my opinions on how a book on prayer could be so applicable, so I was a bit skeptical when I began reading. It didn’t take long for my skepticism to fade and for my interest to peak. This is now the best book on prayer that I’ve ever read too, even though I don’t read as much as Andy. Anyways, Miller establishes, as an entire base for prayer, that it should be approached like a child. He tells several stories of children being excited, asking for what they want (often times over and over and over and over again), accepting coaching/instruction, telling things the way they see it, and sharing all of their thoughts without a filter. I think it’s a pretty interesting way of looking at how to approach God.

After explaining that people should pursue praying to God like a child, he explains why cynicism destroys a prayerful heart. He deals with such questions as why God chooses to heal some people and not others, allows some couples to get pregnant and not others, etc. This section was extremely challenging and thought-provoking because  of the conclusion Miller draws.

Miller suggests that to live a prayerful life is to live a  poet’s life (much like Barnes in the Pastor as Minor Poet). The purpose then in prayer is not to get something from God per se, but to understand the story God is telling through you. Prayer isn’t necessarily about getting what you want, it’s about understanding God. This powerful stance on prayer dismantles Goldstein’s assumed stance regarding prayer.

After reading Miller’s book, it’s seems silly to determine whether God exists based on a misguided assumption about something Goldstein doesn’t clearly understand. Yup, I’m resorting to name calling. But Goldstein comes across as having arrived–as being an intellectual genius that completely understands the universe. I don’t care who you are (atheist, agnostic, Christian, Muslim, Jew, Mormon, etc.) but when you start believing that you have it all figured out, it’s only a matter of time before life punches you in the face. Which brings me to the second book for this long review, which I will post shortly!


5 thoughts on “2 Book Reviews (part 1)

  1. What a great post, Joel! Your last paragraph is truly profound. The older I get and the more I learn, the more I realize that I really know and understand so little. For example, no matter who we are “(atheist, agnostic, Christian, Muslim, Jew, Mormon, etc.)” we would all agree that human beings think in 4 dimensions – length, width, depth, and time. Astrophysicist, Hugh Ross, in his book Beyond the Cosmos indicates that God might be able to think and operate “in at least the eleven dimensions established by the string theory – and probably many more” (p. 77). Do I understand this? Not at all. However, linear algebra enables us to do math in more than four dimensions. Do I understand this? Most definitely. Do all well-educated human beings understand this? Maybe, maybe not. Do I understand everything that happens in our world? Not at all. Do I understand biblical passages like God speaking to Moses from a burning bush that does not burn up, or like Jesus entering a room without opening locked doors and windows after His crucifixion? Not at all. Do I believe it really happened? Most definitely. Could I understand such things if I could think in more than four dimensions? Maybe, maybe not. But because we can do math in more than four dimensions, maybe, just maybe, we could understand more about our world if we could think in more than more four dimensions. Maybe we could even understand why some are healed this side of heaven while others are not, or why some couples can conceive while others cannot. So what’s the point of my comment? Like Joel says, we will never “have it all figured out.” There is always more to learn and more to understand. Perhaps it is the learning rather than the arguing (to which Joel refers in his opening paragraph) that is most productive and rewarding…

  2. I like “to live a prayerful life is to live a poet’s life.” I don’t pray in any other way, so poetry will have to do. I agree with your larger point, too, that it’s foolish to deny our ignorance. What disturbs you about Goldstein’s evident sense of “having arrived”—a form of arrogance—disturbs me as well; but I’m equally disturbed by it in believers who happily thump their sacred book of choice while committing all manner of crimes in the name of the God whose will they’ve conned themselves into thinking they understand. (Not all believers, of course; I’ve met many who appreciate their own ignorance.) In fact, I’m a bit more disturbed by arrogant believers than by arrogant non-believers, because non-believers tend to dismiss believers as delusional, while believers (the type that concern me, at least) view non-believers as hell-bound dangers to their own way of life. Hence their willingness—even eagerness—to commit intellectual crimes such as twisting the teaching of history (see the current Texas textbook guidelines) and promoting creationism as science; worse, there are plenty of believers willing to bomb non-believers, a term they use to include anyone who believes differently from themselves. Of course, non-believers in God (Saint-Just and Robespierre, Stalin and Mao, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge) have committed similar crimes, but always in service to some other transcendent value: History, the future Workers Paradise, etc. Our own country has plenty of blood on its hands as a result of bringing “freedom and democracy” to people who would rather not join our particular political sect. Anyway, the common thread in my thinking is the arrogance you speak of. It’s a warning flag wherever it appears. I simply don’t trust anyone who lacks a proper respect for the vastness of our ignorance.

  3. It seems to all come down to that we all need to keep learning, learning never stops, ask any teacher. 🙂
    Nice post Joel, thanks for sharing. I feel I get to know you through your blog, thanks for that chance.

  4. Wow. Lots of stuff to digest in all of your comments. Ski, I would say ask any new or passionate teacher. I know some old fogies who don’t give a rip about learning. It’s really unfortunate. I have yet to meet a teacher at our district meetings that isn’t grumpy about having to learn something new.

    Mom, I think I’m getting your mathy-linear-objective-concrete brain to consider poetry stuff. Way to go!

    Joe, the conclusion of my response to Goldstein in regards to another book review will deal with much of what you wrote. So I won’t go into too much detail here, but two thoughts come to mind. I understand what you say about believers taking violent actions against those who don’t believe the same thing. I think both “sides” are guilty of discrediting the other of personal experience. For example, to suggest that God doesn’t exist because prayers aren’t answered arrogantly and ignorantly invalidates a part of my own journey regarding both answered and unanswered prayers. I prayed vigilantly for a year that God would heal my father of bile duct cancer. I also prayed during that time that God align my heart with His regardless of what happened. My dad died and I had nothing but a middle finger for God for awhile. For someone to suggest to me that God may not exist because of the results of those prayers, it seems a bit insensitive. (I know Goldstein wasn’t writing specifically to/for me, but I’m labeling her as a stereotype. How nice of me.) During grad school, I prayed for two things (what’s with me and two’s? Good grief.): that I would be able to make connections and build relationships with established writers for community and growth and that I would find a workshop group. Both of those prayers came to fruition. Some may say that those two things are natural results when enrolling in a writing program, therefore my prayer was useless. I’m so very grateful for the way my grad program worked out, the people I’ve met, the way my craft has grown, etc. To discount God in this is to discount my story, which is again, arrogant.

    You’ve shared part of your story with me before about the way a minister responded to your interest in dinosaurs, and how that was the beginning of your journey, which someday I hope to hear more about. But for some believer to say that you were just an oversensitive kid discredits and devalues what was important to you, something that began to, or eventually define who you are.

    And that’s one of the points in Miller’s book that really resonates with me. We all have stories–valid stories–that have formed us. Which leads me to my second thought. Your quote, “Believers . . . view non-believers as hell-bound dangers to their own way of life” really caught me. I’ve realized over my brief journey that it’s not about my own way of life. Now, I think it’s important for people to vote for those who represent their views/ideas/etc.–that’s part of the process. But, too many believers want their faith/beliefs validated by the government. They want what they want and whine when they don’t get it (and this isn’t just a problem with Christians. Americans in general seem to me to be pretty whiny). Miller drives home the point that it’s not about me. It’s about the story that God is writing through/in me. It’s about slowing down and learning about others’ stories and sharing life together. I wonder what kind of impact this sharing would have on all of the religious cooky-ness.

    So much for not going into too much detail. Maybe I sound cooky now. Either way, I like the conversation!

  5. Joel, sometimes it’s not so much that they don’t want to learn something new but if they’ve been around long enough they may have already seen this “new” idea just packaged differently. I have to go to a training about something I don’t feel is really in the best interest of my students and I am being forced to take it. Am I grumpy about having to go and “learn” this stuff, yes! It’s a very narrow way of looking at how children read and it does help some children. so for this I will go and listen although I won’t be as open as I probaly should be. . . Most of the programs we are being told to impliment are programs where we are spoon feeding the students the information, we are taking away the discovery, the joy of figuring something out on their own with guidence from the teacher. Those teachers that really don’t want to learn something new for the sake of learning probably shouldn’t be teaching any more and we have to deal with them and give them credit for what they have done. My third grade teacher was “rebel” when I had her, I loved her and learned a lot from her however I know that as she got close to retirerment she was considered to be “grumpy and old” and unwilling to try new ideas.

    Enjoy the rest of your summer! Let us know when Cade decides to make his appearance.
    We are off to swimming lessons.

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