Chapter 10 - Why do battlefield prayers sound so convincing?

If you have taken the time to read the preceding chapters, you may be starting to notice a pattern. If we assume that God is imaginary, then the world makes far more sense than it does if God is real. For example:

  • Why won't God heal amputees? If God is real, it is a mystery. If God is imaginary, it makes complete sense.
  • Why is there no statistical advantage to praying if you are sick? If God is real, it is a mystery. If God is imaginary, it makes complete sense.
  • Why can't you move a mountain? Why does God never answer impossible prayers? If God is real, it is a mystery. If God is imaginary, it makes complete sense.
  • Why do the laws of probability in Las Vegas apply to believers in exactly the same way that they do for everyone else? Why haven't believers prayed all the money out of Vegas? If God is real, it is a mystery. If God is imaginary, it makes complete sense.
  • Why do bad things happen to good people? If God is real, it is a mystery. If God is imaginary, it makes complete sense.
Let's look at one more example that confirms this trend: The Battlefield Effect.

The "battlefield effect" is one reason why so many people believe in the power of prayer. By understanding how it works, you can understand a great deal about how prayer works.

Let's say that a general sends 10,000 soldiers into a fierce battle. Although the general does not know it at the time, the 10,000 men end up marching into an ambush. The enemy has 30,000 troops, artillery support plus close air support and is able to decimate the 10,000 soldiers in short order. Once the enemy is finished, they leave 100 survivors out of the original 10,000 to limp and crawl back to base.

You may have heard that there are no atheists in foxholes. Before they died, we can assume that every single one of the 10,000 soldiers who marched into the ambush prayed fervently and deeply for God to spare his life. Despite those prayers, the enemy proceeded to attack with deadly force. 9,900 of those who prayed wasted their breath -- they died.

The 100 who return from the battle, however, feel as though their prayers were answered. They have been through a horrific firefight, and they are deeply grateful to have escaped with their lives. At the time they prayed, they were absolutely and totally terrified and desperate. To have survived seems like a miracle.

The 100 survivors fan out with their personal stories of answered prayers. They tell their soldier buddies how they prayed for their lives and their prayers were answered. When they arrive home they tell their families and friends about their harrowing experiences on the battlefield and how nothing but their prayers saved them. They give testimonials at church, give speeches in the community, write articles for magazines, etc. Millions of people are exposed to the positive, powerful, personal testimonials of the 100 survivors.

This is great advertising for prayer. And it works. People hear the stories of the survivors and they believe. The real power of this approach, however, comes from the fact that the 9,900 dead soldiers never get to tell their side of the story. Ninety nine percent of the soldiers died, and only one percent survived. Far more men prayed and died, but they never get to tell anyone about their disappointment.

So the 100 personal testimonials FOR prayer are strong, loud, frequent and compelling. Meanwhile the 9,900 personal testimonials AGAINST prayer are silent, because the dead soldiers never get a chance to speak. Therefore, to a casual observer, it appears that prayer works. Every story that you hear is positive. The reality is that 99% of the praying people died. It is another perfect example of God's Ratio (see Chapter 2).

Dropping like flies

Let's say that you listen to a person tell this story: "There I was in a horrific firefight on the battlefield. All of my friends around me were dropping like flies. But I prayed to God and he saved me." The question that any normal person would ask is, "Why did God let all the others drop like flies? And why aren't you running away from a God who killed 99% of your friends instead of answering their equally fervent prayers?"

The fact that 9,900 praying people died while only 100 survived should be plenty of evidence to indicate that prayer does not work. A 99% failure rate is significant. But for some reason, believers do not seem to think about the 9,900 who died. They instead celebrate the "answered prayers" of the 100. The 9,900 who died are swept under the carpet.

It should be becoming obvious to you what actually happens on any battlefield. The survivors benefit from random luck and nothing more. Their "answered prayers" are simply coincidences.

Here are several other examples of the same coincidental phenomenon. Imagine that you hear the following stories from four survivors:

  • "I was a prisoner in a concentration camp, and in the morning we were marched to the death chambers. I knew that I could not die -- I had to live so that I could see my baby again. I began praying the most intense prayers I have ever prayed as soon as we started marching. When we got to the gas chambers, an amazing miracle occurred -- I somehow had moved to the end of the line, and there was no room for me in the chamber! I was told to join a nearby work group, and I survived. God heard my prayers, and I was saved!"

  • God's Ratio

    Mary kills 20,000 people in the mud slide but answers the prayers of one. That's a 99.995% failure rate for prayers. It should prove to you conclusively that neither Mary nor God answer prayers.
    "It was the most amazing flood in the history of Honduras. An immense wall of mud cascaded down the mountain and through our city, killing 20,000 people. I was caught in the tide of sludge and sucked deep into the bowels of the torrent. In just a few seconds I would drown and die in a sea of mud. But I prayed to the Virgin Mary, and not one second later my head popped to the surface, I was able to grab a nearby branch and pull myself out. The virgin Mary answered my prayers!"

  • "There is no way to explain the miracle that happened next. I said a quick prayer before my car slammed into and then underneath the truck in front of me. As if by magic, the entire car crumpled like a wad of paper -- the entire car, except for the passenger area where we were sitting! God heard and answered my prayers by using his power to protect the interior of the car and save our lives!"

  • "I was on a business trip. I got drunk and had a one night stand with a stranger. It is totally unlike me, but it happened. In the morning I realized what I had done and I was wracked with guilt. I got down on my knees and said a very sincere prayer: "Dear God, please don't let me have AIDS. I cannot die of AIDS. The embarrassment and pain would be too much for my spouse, my children and my parents. It only happened one time, and I promise that it will never happen again. If you will grant me this prayer, I will do ANYTHING that you ask. Amen." I waited three months and I was a nervous wreck. I went to my doctor to get tested and I was clean. The relief that I felt was incredible, like a huge burden being lifted from my soul. God personally answered this prayer for me!"
Believers seem to love these stories. We hear miraculous personal testimonies like these all the time. They are supposed to show the "power of prayer" and the "love of God" in our world today.

However, what I would ask you to consider is both sides of the story. Look at both the successes AND the failures of prayer, and what we see is extremely uncomfortable. All of them display God's ratio as described in Chapter 2. If God let millions of people die in the Holocaust, but then "heard the prayers" of one person and saved him, what sort of God is that? To say that God killed millions and saved one is a terrible ratio. God would have to be a monster. Killing millions of people is an unimaginable atrocity.

Believers seem to be completely comfortable with the sort of schizophrenia shown here. They are happy about the one person saved from the Holocaust by a prayer -- they actually celebrate his story and tell it with glee. They do not seem to care that, if it was God saving the one, then it must also have been God who killed the millions of others by completely ignoring their prayers.

With your common sense you can examine all of these situations and see what actually happened by looking at both sides of the story:

    God's Ratio

    God kills millions in the Holocaust but answers the prayers of one. That's a 99.99998% failure rate for prayers. It should prove to you conclusively that God does not answer prayers.
  • In the case of the Holocaust survivor, it was not a "miracle" that saved him. To believe that is to believe that God killed millions of others by specifically withholding his blessings from them. What actually happened was dumb luck and coincidence.

  • In the case of the mudslide, do you believe that Mary heard the prayers of one person while purposefully ignoring the prayers of 20,000 others and killing all of them? Of course not -- that is ridiculous. This man's survival involves luck and coincidence as well. If the man's story were actually true, it would make Mary a capricious demon guilty of mass murder.

  • In the case of the car, it is not a miracle that the passenger compartment remained intact -- that is how the car is designed. It is called a passenger safety cage. God had absolutely nothing to do with it. In the United States, 40,000 people die every year in car accidents. If God actually saved this driver, then it is an atrocity that God let the other 40,000 people die by ignoring their prayers.

  • In the case of the AIDS survivor, God did not answer the prayer. Tens of millions of people have died of AIDS. To believe that God answered the prayer is to also to believe that God killed tens of millions of other praying people. What actually happened is random luck. Despite all the media attention AIDS gets, in the United States less than one percent of the sexually active adult population has the HIV virus. [ref] And it is not guaranteed that HIV will be transmitted during every sexual encounter. So the odds are excellent that, after one sexual encounter, the person will not get AIDS. It does not matter whether the person prayed or not -- it was simply luck through the normal laws of probability.

The unconscionable arrogance of the blessed

Let's assume that a tremendous hurricane like Hurricane Katrina hits Louisiana. It does an incredible amount of damage, destroying hundreds of thousands of homes, killing thousands of people and wiping entire towns off the map.

Your sister, a devout believer, happens to live in Louisiana, and a week later when cell phone service is restored she gives you a call. The first words out of her mouth are:

    "Oh, God has blessed us so much this week! We prayed all through the storm, and he answered our prayers. The next town over was completely decimated, but our house is still standing. We are so blessed! God answered our prayers!"
What I would like you to do is step back for a moment, look at this statement, and think about the remarkable arrogance that it represents. What your sister is saying is this, "I am so special and God loves ME so much that God heard MY prayers and personally helped ME. All those millions of other people who God cursed -- obviously God hates THEM. I am cool in the eyes of God, and all those other wretched people out there are, obviously, uncool in the eyes of God. Otherwise he would have helped them just like he helped ME."

For a beliver to talk about his or her blessings in a huge natural disaster like Katrina is to implicitly ignore the damage and suffering that are plainly visible for all to see. If God "blessed" one, while completely ignoring millions of other believers caught in exactly the same predicament, it says nothing about blessings. It says that God is an insane demon. For anyone to believe that God personally helped her while at the same time wreaking havoc on millions of others is a supreme arrogance. Yet believers seem to be completely comfortable with this arrogance.

The truth of the matter is easy to see if you will take the time to look at both sides of the equation. The hurricane hit, and God neither blessed nor cursed anyone. The hurricane did its damage according to the laws of nature. The fact that one house is undamaged while thousands of others are swept into the sea is not a blessing. It is random luck, nothing more.

When you hear people discussing their personal experiences with the power of prayer, simply listen to the stories they tell and ask to hear both sides. Look for God's Ratio. In every case, the prayer's power can be explained by coincidence, luck, normal probabilities, the laws of physics, human design or some other normal, non-miraculous process. And God's Ratio will be terrible, just as it was on Steve Homel's street.

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by Marshall Brain

New York Times Coverage
discussed in a
New York Times piece
by N. D. Kristof.
For a counter-point to Mr. Kristof, please see
Chapter 26.

Recommendation by Sam Harris
Sam Harris recommends WWGHA in his book Letter to a Christian Nation.

Endorsement by Richard Dawkins
In a New York Times Letter, Richard Dawkins calls WWGHA a "splendid Web site."

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