03/09/2011 12:33 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Pray for Prayer

Those who pray may wish to direct your attention to prayer itself as the subject in need. A recent opinion piece in the Miami Herald by Leonard Pitts, Jr. reveals why. In that article Mr. Pitts notes that he offended some atheists when he wrote earlier that Lara Logan, the CBS reporter assaulted in Egypt, deserved "our compassion, our empathy and our prayers." That elicited the expected response from the rationalist crowd, including comments such as, "Please stop the superstitious nonsense."

Up to this point, the story unfolds in the same tired way in the never-ending struggle between rationalism and religion. But then Mr. Pitts says something toward the end of the article that inadvertently reveals a deep truth, one that contradicts his premise that "there must be a god somewhere" but unseen because "god is not proven, god is felt." In fact, Pitts says something truly astonishing when asked by a colleague why his prayers failed to prevent a friend's death from illness: "I don't' know. I'm OK with 'I don't know." In that claim lies a profound irony that undermines any conclusion about god's existence.

The certainty implied by "must" means inevitably that "I don't know" is not an option for Mr. Pitts or anybody else who believes the existence of god is indisputable. The logical conclusion from not knowing is that one cannot know if god exists. By stating that god "must" exist, Mr. Pitts claims he knows that god exists. Following that assertion with the claim "I'm comfortable with 'I don't know'" is untenable. A belief in god is the ultimate proof that the believer is not comfortable with not knowing: in the face of life's uncertainty instead of saying "I don't know" believers make up answers like "It's god's will." Uncertainty invokes god, not a confession of ignorance of ultimate answers. In contrast, scientists do not claim to have all the answers, only that we wish to learn more through additional study. We do not make up answers in the face of ignorance; we seek ways to better understand that which we do not know. Only rationalists can claim to be comfortable with not knowing. An atheist could be convinced that god exists if provided with sufficient evidence; a believer cannot be convinced that god is an illusion by any amount of evidence or the absence thereof because belief is by definition not amenable to evidentiary challenge. An unchallengeable belief is the ultimate claim to know.

This comforting fallacy of reasonableness on the part of believers extends to the idea of prayer. Believers know that if god must exist, so must the benefits of prayers. As with the claim of comfort in not knowing, this conclusion about prayer too is false. To see why we need to dip our toes into the waters of evil and free will.

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. At this point believers often invoke free will to solve this dilemma, but to no avail as we will see.

If we have the power to choose our own destiny through free will, prayer can have 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 one's cake and eating it too. Believers can have a god who already preordained everything, and they can pray for a different outcome anyway, and they have free will to change their destiny. These are three mutually exclusive ideas.

The next 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. That is 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.

In the face of human tragedy, only three scenarios are possible, and none bodes well for prayer or god-granted free will. One, god knew beforehand the outcome, and did nothing to prevent the calamity; two, god knew beforehand, but could do nothing to change the outcome, or three, god did not know and therefore could not change the outcome. From these three possibilities we must come to a conclusion that is irrefutable: 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 logically possible, other than the conclusion that god does not exist. 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 matter how fervently we entreaty him to intervene on our behalf.

That conclusion yields an obvious and terminal problem for prayer. If your spouse is seriously ill, you pray to god to save your mate. Why? If god is all-powerful, he would already known the fate of your spouse, and your prayers would be for naught. Whether you prayed or not, your mate's fate is already sealed, pre-ordained, for better or worse, by the all-powerful god. 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 as allowed so much grief to visit the human condition long before your spouse 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. Yet believers like Mr. Pitts know that god exists and that prayer is viable, while claiming to be comfortable with not knowing. That glaring contradiction gives lie to any assertion of open-mindedness when "god" is always the answer instead of "I don't know."

A belief in god trumps all claims to uncertainty because god is always the answer. "I don't know how god works" is not equivalent to "I don't know." We should not confuse the two.

Jeff Schweitzer is a scientist, former White House senior policy analyst and author of 'Beyond Cosmic Dice: Moral Life in a Random World' <(Jacquie Jordan, Inc). Follow Jeff Schweitzer on Facebook.