Atheist blogger Heather Hastie, who blogs over at Heather’s Homilies, has written a post titled, The Value of Prayer, in which she pokes fun at religion by using clear and simple flowcharts, whose pithy sarcasm impressed New Atheist Jerry Coyne. But a flowchart can easily be invalidated by faulty assumptions and loaded questions, and Ms. Hastie’s flowcharts are no exception.
Take Heather Hastie’s flowchart on belief in God. Ms. Hastie begins by asking: “If God is all loving and all forgiving, would he forgive someone for not believing in him, without being asked?” If the answer is “No,” then God is not all loving and all forgiving; but if it is “Yes,” then no-one needs to believe in or worship him.
What’s wrong with this flowchart is that it fails to distinguish between two grounds for unbelief: unbelief which is due to honest ignorance of the evidence for God, and unbelief which is caused by a refusal to countenance the idea of a Supreme Being, because of the demands that such a belief would entail. Unbelief of the former kind is certainly forgivable; but unbelief of the latter kind is more than a mere lack of belief: it is a refusal to believe. And I would respond to Ms. Hastie’s loaded question by asking: can God forgive someone who doesn’t want to be forgiven? I would also point out that while people who are honestly ignorant of the case for theism are under no obligation to believe in God, the case is different for those who are familiar with the arguments for God’s existence or who have witnessed His intervention in the lives of people whom they know.
Heather Hastie’s flowchart on prayer fares no better. She begins by supposing that an individual prays for something, and then asks: “Is that something in God’s Divine plan?” If it is, then prayer is redundant; if not, then it is futile. Either way, concludes Ms. Hastie, prayer serves no purpose.
What Ms. Hastie overlooks is the possibility that when God plans for us to receive something, He also plans for us to receive it because we have prayed for it. The Catholic theologian St. Thomas Aquinas made the same point 750 years ago in his Summa Theologica (II-II q. 83, art. 2), when he quotes Pope St. Gregory the Great on the purpose of prayer: “For we pray not that we may change the Divine disposition, but … ‘that by asking, men may deserve to receive what Almighty God from eternity has disposed to give,’ as Gregory says (Dial. I. 8).” In that case, prayer does serve a purpose: it is the Divinely appointed means to the ends which God has planned for us.
A final sample of Ms. Hastie’s logic can be seen in her 2012 tweet, “If it’s God’s will when women get pregnant from rape, then in the minds of the religious, the rapists can’t be criminals.” Ms. Hastie fails to distinguish between God’s active will (i.e. what He intends) and His passive or permissive will (i.e. what He allows to happen). (See here.) Pregnancy resulting from rape falls into the latter category, which means that rapists can be criminals, as their actions are not intended by God but are actually contrary to God’s intentions.
If this is the best that the New Atheists can throw up against belief in God or belief in the value of prayer, then I have to say that I feel very sorry for today’s atheists. With arguments like these, they are digging a hole for themselves.