A Dilemma for Prayer in Politics

By on November 1, 2012

Whether it’s meant sincerely or is just pandering, it is commonplace for politicians to talk about prayer. For example, Newt Gingrich said the following during a Republican Presidential Primary debate on October 18, 2011:

How can I trust you with power if you don’t pray?

The general idea seems to be that prayer will provide some feedback that will lead you down the right path. This brings about some interesting dilemmas. I’ll just highlight a few.

First consider this question: Will the feedback always confirm what seems most reasonable or will it sometimes conflict with what seems most reasonable? We’ve reached our first fork in the road. If the feedback always confirms what seems most reasonable, then it is simply unnecessary. If you think God will always be on the side of what seems most reasonable, then you wouldn’t need confirmation. You could just always follow that path. So, if we want to maintain that prayer is relevant to decision making, it seems like we would have to say this feedback would at least sometimes conflict with what seems most reasonable. This path leads to another interesting result because it means you would have to go against the apparently most reasonable solution. Imagine that your town mayor tells you that instead of fixing the potholes on the main road in town, she wants to use the tax dollars to make them worse. You ask for her reasons and present all the good reasons against her plan and her response is only, “I know it seems very unreasonable, but I prayed and this is what I think the Lord wants me to do.” Under this scenario, the politician would have to go against reason solely on the basis of what the prayer feedback seems to indicate.

Now, you might say I’m being unfair. After all, the situation I sketched is very obvious because reason, evidence, etc. strongly support one side. In those cases, maybe it wouldn’t really be necessary to pray for guidance. But what about all the hard choices we have to make when the answer is not so obvious? I would still say the first example shows that even the possibility of conflict with reason, which should be possible if we want to say that prayer is a useful aid to decision making, presents a major problem. But just for fun let’s go ahead and consider whether similar problems can arise with “tough decisions” too.

Consider this question: What should you do when your prayerful peers[i] disagree with you? You pray a lot and have come to feel that one decision is best, and perhaps you even feel strongly that it is most representative of God’s will. Your peer has gone through the same process and come to the opposite conclusion. This is actually a really common scenario. There are many pastors, priests, rabbis, etc. in this country who spend a lot of time in prayer and seek God’s guidance in their tough decisions. Among these clergy men and women, there is vast disagreement about which political and ethical paths most reflect God’s will. Or you might prefer the example of multiple Republican candidates for President claiming they are God’s preferred choice. What is the appropriate response? Should one prayerful person doubt their own feeling of feedback from prayer or should they doubt the other person’s feedback?[ii]

Let’s first dismiss the idea that both parties can admit the reliability of another person’s conflicting testimony. Feedback from prayer is supposed to lead you down the right path, if it is useful. Yet, under this scenario it is reliably pointing us in two conflicting directions. This does nothing to resolve the initial conflict brought about by disagreement.

Practically speaking, though, I imagine most people would stick to their guns and doubt the reliability of the other person’s testimony of feedback through prayer. Think about what message this sends, though! Both people would be telling me that another person’s testimony about prayer is unreliable. Yet, to me, both of them are another person. How would I go about deciding which politician to trust now that significant doubt has been placed on relying on the testimony of others about feedback from prayer? If we can only trust our own testimony about feedback from prayer, then it shouldn’t matter if our politicians pray. Either I have my own feedback from prayer, so theirs is simply unnecessary to me, or I do not have any feedback of my own and have reason to doubt both of their testimony.

I really don’t see any good way out of these dilemmas for the person who wants to maintain that prayer is useful for a politician. I look forward to any potential objections readers can raise, though.

 



[i] By peers, I mean two people who seem to be in the same epistemic position and you have no external reason for preferring one over the other. So, if you are a Catholic, two archbishops will probably be peers. If you do have a reason for preferring one over the other, then the initial dilemma arises, where you are placing your weight on the reasons, rather than the testimony about feedback from prayer.

[ii] Obviously you can doubt both, and that is an excellent choice, but I’m considering this from the scenario of someone who wants to maintain that prayer is a useful aide to political decision making

 

Discussion

Good article. I hadn’t before thought of the argument represented by the first image, even though it should be obvious.

I tend to criticize this sort of prayer (as opposed to prayer that is supposed to build a relationship with an undetectable being) on the grounds that it conflicts with the theist’s own beliefs about God’s plan and human free will. For example: if you ask for God to influence the election so that Romney wins, then you are asking for God to change its divine plan for your sake. If Romney’s victory is already part of God’s plan, then your prayer was unnecessary. Some theists will agree that this makes sense when we are talking about prayer for elections, sporting events, or other “worldly matters,” but fewer are willing to acknowledge that prayers for others to be safe or get well are just as pointless according to their own belief system.

Mike

Thanks, Ryan. I just thought of that first dilemma the other day after I’d been thinking about the Euthyphro dilemma for a while. Prayer raises a lot of interesting questions, like the one you mentioned. Any expectation of God intervening in the world has consequences against the theist in a lot of philosophical arguments from the problem of evil to the argument from hiddenness.

Nick

I just think it’s unfortunate you even had to waste your time worrying about and writing this piece in the first place. I’m tired of politicians implanting religious tidbits whenever and where ever they please (or pleases their current or would-be constituents). Let’s say 100 US senators prayed to God about whether or not to pass a certain bill; it is highly unlikely they would all return from their fantasy session with the same “answer” from God. In fact they would express very conflicting answers from the same God speaking the same flavors of religion. It’s a cop-out to pray and ask for answers like God was a drive-thru crystal ball when the going gets tough; instead of wielding logic, reason and unfortunately collateral damage at times, and then putting the onus on Him.

I enjoyed reading this piece, you took a much calmer, more logical and diplomatic approach than I ever could.

FTR I only capitalize “God” and “Him” on Fridays.

Paul

If we think about this in absolutely practical terms the usual scenario is that a believer prays to god to help them decide between to seemingly opposing positions, abort or not abort, build a dam or not build a dam etc but are we ever supplied a definitive, conclusive third option that was supplied through divine inspiration? In other words, humans have narrowed the decision making down to two options and it is left up to god to decide the correct option, if humans are inferior to god why is god limiting his answers only to those questions posed by humans? Why doesn’t god provide the definitively correct solution even if that solution is something not yet considered by humans?

Mike G.

Or you might also wonder why “God’s” opinion always seems to conspicuously mirror the cultural opinions at the time.

Paul

I’m not surprised by presentist thinking, since it’s so common. I am unsettled that god’s thinking is so obviously limited by human conjecture. But I think you have something there, god and the believer are mirror images, one doesn’t exist without the other.

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