I’ll Pray For You. And Deny Your Free Will.

I hear frequently from Christians the offer that they will pray for someone who is not a believer. No doubt there is a range of possible meanings by such an offer. It may be just a cynical, passive-aggressive insult. It could be an innocent and simple request to generally keep the recipient safe from harm.

Or, it may be a request that God help the person to come to know and understand Him. This implies a potential path to belief, faith and eventual salvation for the prayed-for person.

Prayer seems to take different forms – not all prayers are requests (some are offers of thanks). However, request prayers are thoroughly pointless. When someone makes a request of God through prayer, it can only be with a childish naivety that they would ever expect their request to be granted. Leaving aside the fact that prayer has been shown not to work, the thinking (or lack thereof) behind the request prayer seems to be that the human act of praying itself will somehow influence a omniscient deity’s decision-making.  As if he didn’t already know what the praying person was about to ask for.  And as if His mind hadn’t been fully made up before said prayer about smiting or saving someone, or delivering world peace, or fixing the cataracts of Sam’s mum, or allowing a particularly pious football team to be more deserving of a victory on a given day.

More profoundly illogical than this is the prayer for a non-believer – that somehow they will change their minds, see the light, allow God into their hearts, and (eventually) become a Christian.

In the previous post here, I described one of the core Christian doctrines – that of the existence of free will.  This is the assertion that we all have the choice of what we believe.  We are apparently free to choose to accept the Christian God, or to reject Him, according to Christianity.

As part of a recent online discussion with some Christians, I made the point that “praying for an atheist” in this way is completely contrary to the notion of free will.  Their reply was that when Christians do this, they obviously don’t mean something in the sense of a “spiritual mafia” (their words), or a forced, instantaneous conversion.  They were implying a more gentle persuasion approach – one in which God would reveal Himself more subtly, not make the person believe, but rather help them to, perhaps over a course of time and through interactions with other believers.

But this misses the point that even such a ‘gentle’ approach contravenes the principle of free will with respect to belief.  If God plays any role whatsoever in influencing the thinking of a non-believer, then He has interefered with the free will of that person in their apparent choice to not believe.  It makes no sense for an omniscient God, who wants their subject to believe and indeed follows through with the evidence or revelation required, to do so in a way that just falls short of success – even if that success takes the form of a last-minute death-bed conversion.

The belief or non-belief position of a person is something that is arrived at by a complex psychological process.  It is influenced by the teachings of people close to that person from a young age, the individual learnings and discoveries throughout their lifetime, the persuasion of others and the memories and lessons from the individual’s past. Basically the sum total of all of a person’s experiences.  There may even be a biological or genetic component to the psychology of faith vs. scepticism (although I personally doubt the significance of such a component in the context of all the other aforementioned influences).  The power of all of these factors demonstrates that free will, and certainly the supposed free will of theistic belief, is clearly a psychological illusion. We cannot examine our beliefs in a conscious manner that is independent from these influences.

However, Christians that believe in limited atonement – and this seems to be nearly all of them – insist that free will of belief is true. Therefore they cannot escape the point that if they pray for a non-believer (ie., make a request to God to persuade them of the Christian ‘truth’), then they are asking God to intervene – no matter how gently or subtly – and influence the belief system of the individual in question.  It is a direct contravention of one of the core tenets of Christian belief.

Of course, the logic of this will be lost on most Christians who still feel the need to pray for their atheist friends.  The next time one of them does, see what they come back with when you point out the flaw in their logic.  If they do see it, perhaps they have the potential to see some of the other logic flaws in their beliefs.

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Free Will, Belief and Salvation – The flaw in the heart of Christianity

One of the key components of Christian doctrine is the notion of free will. This is the freedom to make conscious decisions and choices about what to think.

Free will is a controversial and much-discussed topic, unresolved by science or philosophy. It is also confusing, because people use the term to mean different things. I use it here in the more classical context, which says that free will is our ability to make decisions independent of the constraints of our physical circumstances and selves. It implies a dualist nature of consciousness – a component of our conscious mind that exists independent of our brain and body (a ‘soul’ perhaps?).

Suffice to say, my view is that this type of free will is an illusion. There is no component of our consciousness that exists outside of our brains, and therefore no free will that allows us to think in a way that is independent of our physical selves, our memories and our environment.  No scientific observations have ever been made to demonstrate that a dualist free will might exist. And while we all have a compelling sense that our thoughts are our own to control, we do not have any persistent sensation of our thinking occurring outside our physical bodies or independent of our physical circumstances. At least, I don’t, and I would doubt and dismiss the claims of anyone who said that they did have such experiences (ie., free of brain chemistry-altering substances and psychological disturbances).

Christians (and followers of other religions) maintain that belief and worship of their God is a conscious choice – an ability endowed by free will. Believers are saved (they go to heaven when they die); non-believers are damned (they go to hell).  According to Christian free-willers, when we reject belief, we are doing so entirely of our own volition. There is more than one philosophical argument against this position, including the point that if God is omniscient and omnipresent, then He must already know what all of our conscious decisions will ever be. This therefore means they must be predetermined, putting a lie to the claim that our decision-making ability was ever truly free. Theists have an out-clause for this argument, however, and for those interested I suggest looking up the wafflings of William Lane Craig and others to hear the rhetorical gymnastics of how they escape from it.

But I’m more concerned with the direct, more personal and less metaphysical observations of conscious thinking. What we know – what we come to believe (or disbelieve) – is not something that is wholly (or at all) within our control. Everything we ever learn is the result of life-long conscious experiences – what we’ve been taught by others, what we’ve discovered and how these things have been shaped by our memories, our circumstances and environment, and even our genetics. Although it may ‘feel like’ any conscious decision we make is truly under our control, it is impossible to eliminate influences from these sources.
In a recent online discussion with some Christians, I made this point to them. And yet they still argued that I had the ‘choice’ to believe. In response to my suggestion that God needed to be more convincing if He truly wanted me to believe in Him, one said that He had already done enough, and that ‘the rest was up to me’.

No.

If God is truly omniscient then He ought to know what kind of knowledge is sufficient to convince a skeptic in the 21st century. He should know that contemporary society, for which none of us are individually responsible, contaminates us with the bogus trappings of modern lifestyles and of centuries of recorded history of superstition and alternative belief systems. He should know that we ought to be discerning about what we accept as truth and what we reject as lies. And He should see that many of us are already discerning about those things.

So no. If God really, truly, wants us to believe, then He needs to do more. The fact that He apparently chooses to reveal himself to only a subset of the human population demonstrates either that He isn’t there at all, or that His existence isn’t consistent with the claims of Christianity – in particular that we are all equal in the eyes of God. For if all people were truly equal, then all people ought to be given the same opportunity at salvation by the Christian God making himself known to them.