“You are the answer to my prayer” my sister-in-law Sally said to me the other night on the phone. That statement is not one that I expected, especially since I became an atheist.
As I have said previously, my wife’s family are conservative (some dote on DT) and very religious. When I rejected theism, I told my wife, who accepted the change, but we decided not to tell friends and family. The accusation of Satanism and resultant hassling of both of us would not be worth it. So they all think I’m still a Christian, though I have not participated in a religious service for a while.
A few years ago, Sally went through a nasty divorce. Her ex-husband attempted to weaponize their 3 children and turn them against her; he succeeded with Jill, the middle child. Jill has estranged herself from her mom, and to a certain extent her aunts and uncles, ever since. Being a good Christian mother, Sally has prayed regularly for reconciliation since then.
The other day, Jill and her husband were in town, they called my wife and I and we all spent a wonderful evening together sharing Thai food. Jill is a Registered nurse, studying to get her Nurse Practitioner qualification and is working in the emergency room. She loves it there and regaled us with “Tales from the ER” all evening.
Sally is a doctor so the next evening I called her to update her on Jill’s life and professional status. After I had finished, Sally said to me, “Well, there is a little book of praying that I am following. It says that when we come to God/Jesus in prayer, in his infinite wisdom, He already knows what we want and is already working behind the scenes for us. So sometimes we have to be thankful for the things going on behind the scenes that we don’t know anything about. Now, I’ve been praying for a long time for reconciliation to happen, and nothing has. So last Sunday I said a prayer and thanked Him for all the work behind the scenes that I was unaware of, and now you call and tell me this has happened. You are the answer to my prayer.” Not wishing to throw a whole toolbox into the works and cause a big scene, I smoothly changed the subject.
The episode does highlight why people think that prayer works. Sally has been praying for almost 5 years, and nothing has happened. Conclusion: prayer does not work. However, the moment that something she perceives as positive randomly occurs within days of a prayer, then all the previous 5 years of “failed” prayers are discounted. “Obviously, God knew that we were not ready for reconciliation up till now,” would be the way for a theist to explain away the negative responses.
As humans, we can so easily reject the data that do not fit our preferred narrative and wildly accentuate the data that do. It is the power that drives gods and demagogues.
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