06/08/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

National Day of Prayer: An Exercise in Futility

In a country founded on the principles of separating church and state, a national day of prayer raises certain obvious questions. But instead of focusing on that issue on this dubious day of celebration, let's go deeper and examine prayer itself as our special way of celebrating.

Here is the central dilemma for anybody who prays: religion must somehow explain the existence of evil in the presence of god. Despite heroic efforts, all attempts have failed completely. The bottom line is clear. In a world that knows evil, an all-powerful god responsible for all creation must be evil. That interpretation is unavoidable and certain. But given that many people will wish to dispute the claim, I will show next how no other conclusion is possible.

Some who oppose the notion of a brutish ugly deity propose that god did not intentionally create evil. If so, that begs the question of evil's origin if not from the hand of god. In one scenario, god allowed evil to flourish as an unintended consequence once his newly-minted Adam and Eve started roaming the earth; in another, evil sprang to life without god's permission, as a rude cosmic surprise. Both scenarios would give god a pass on being evil, but would at the same time mean he was not omnipotent. None of the three scenarios is looking too good for the big guy. Let's review: in the first case, an all-powerful god must be evil since evil exists and god created all, including evil; in the second case, god's work got beyond his control, a mistake not typically associated with an all-powerful thing; in the third case, god not only does not control our fate, he is incapable of peering into the future, a decidedly un-god-like attribute.

Religion solves this conundrum the old-fashioned way: by making up a silly answer with truly contorted logic. The answer in this case is free will, but only for human beings. Somehow, when god gathered his last strength to make people, before taking a one-day vacation, he decided, unlike with beavers or parrots, to give his new creation the ability to choose a path not preordained by god. This divine grant of free will solves the dilemma because people can choose to be evil without implicating god. Whew!

Unfortunately, the idea does not hold water. Even the briefest examination lies waste to the claim that free will was or could be granted by an all-powerful god. The idea is an absurd oxymoron: the very act of granting free will would destroy the power do so. Let's see why by looking at the combination of free will, evil and prayer in the presence of an omniscient god.

We can start with prayer. If god has a plan for everything and everyone, prayer could not affect his behavior. If he changed his plan according to a prayer, that would be an admission that god's original plan was flawed, making him fallible. If only those prayers that fit into god's original plan are answered, then the purpose of praying is defeated. With preordained fate, prayer could not change any outcome, which is the very purpose of a prayer.

Ah hah, you might say, the trick is that god gave mankind free will - that allows for the legitimacy of prayer. But prayer cannot work in the case of free will, either. If we have the power to choose our own destiny, prayer has no role to play. If I pray to god for a certain outcome, just the act of praying is an admission that I do not determine my fate; I admit my fate is in the hands of god, that god can change the outcome of my life, making the notion of free will moot. The idea of free will is religion's version of having your cake and eating it too. You can have a god who already preordained everything, and you can pray for a different outcome anyway, and you have free will to change your destiny. The wishful thinking that a pastry can be consumed without being depleted is no more viable than the notion that free will and prayer are compatible.

An argument often provided to counter this line of reasoning says that god knows what every person will choose beforehand, but the person does not; the person is still making a choice. How oddly tautological. Whatever we choose, our choice is according to god's plan because we chose it! But if god already knows what we will choose, already knows the outcome of every choice, that is not free will, only the cruel illusion of free will. The choice was already made at the beginning of time, meaning there never was any choice.

Another common argument is that free will allowed humans to fall from god's grace, without impugning god's character. That is simply defining away the problem without solving anything. If god is all-powerful, he could have created a species of humans who chose to use the gift of free will only for good. That his creations chose to behave badly means that such behavior was either god's original intent, or that god is not all-knowing.

Perhaps a benevolent god created a world with evil, but he chose to do so for good reasons. He created evil, but is not evil himself. Assuming this logic, some argue that evil and suffering are necessary in order to know god. Well, that is simply another example of solving the problem by defining it away, and ultimately contributes nothing. Since god is all-powerful, he could have just as easily designed the world such that suffering was not required to know him.

Let's look at a real case of evil, that of Slobodan Milosevic and his choice of genocide: only three scenarios are possible. One, god knew beforehand the choice Milosevic would make, and did nothing to prevent the outcome; two, god knew beforehand, but could do nothing to change the outcome, or three, god did not know what choice Milosevic would make. From these three possibilities we must come to a conclusion that is irrefutable, undeniable, and logically immune to any counter argument. In a world in which evil and suffering exist, god is either all powerful and is responsible for that evil and suffering, through design or neglect, or god is benevolent but not all-powerful. Nothing else is possible, other than the obvious conclusion that god does not exit. With evil in the world, an all-powerful god cannot be benevolent. Whether god's power is diminished either as an original state of being or as a consequence of voluntarily relinquishing his power to human free will, the effect is the same. If god is benevolent and not culpable of evil, he has no control over evil. If god is not evil, he cannot alter our fate. No amount of twisted or convoluted logic can change that immutable conclusion.

That conclusion yields an obvious and terminal problem for prayer. If your baby is seriously ill, you pray to god for her recovery. Why? If god is all-powerful, he would already know the fate of your baby, and your prayers would be for naught. Whether you prayed or not, your baby's fate is already sealed, pre-ordained, for better or worse, by the all-powerful god who knew the outcome since the beginning of time. Plus, since an all-powerful god must be evil, since he is responsible for everything in the universe, including evil, he might take joy in your suffering, since he has allowed so much grief to visit the human condition long before your child became ill.

Alternatively, if god is benevolent, he is not responsible for the evil and suffering in the world, meaning he has diminished powers since forces exist in the universe for which he has no responsibility and no hand in their creation. You would be praying to a being without the ability to control human fate, rendering the prayer useless. If god has no control over evil, praying to him to stop evil and suffering makes no sense. Prayers to an all-powerful and evil god are futile; prayers to a benevolent god are useless. You might as well pray to the tooth fairy. At least with the tooth fairy you get a quarter.

The flip-side of human free will is also important to examine; that is, does god himself have free will? If not, can god grant what he himself does not have? An all-powerful god is all-knowing, meaning god knows all of his future actions, and all of the choices he would make. Here is the rub: god could not change those choices, otherwise his earlier knowledge would have been wrong, meaning god would not be all-knowing! An all omniscient god therefore has no free will to choose actions, since all actions must be preordained. God becomes an observer of his own omniscience since all knowledge of the future precludes any changes to that future. Any god with free will would have to be imperfect, and would by definition not be all-knowing.

So an all-knowing god, who cannot possess free will, cannot grant something he himself does not have. But a bigger problem remains. Free will implies a future with no predestination. A god who knows all, about everything past, present and future, could not create any free will that would prevent that knowledge of the future; the very act of creating free will would destroy the fact of omniscience.

The notion that an all-powerful god granted humans free will is one of the most egregious examples of religion's absurdity. But the situation becomes positively surreal when people believe that praying to an all-powerful god can alter the outcome of events according to the entreaties of the prayer. Holding three mutually exclusive ideas at the same time is a sign of insanity.

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