Chapter 9 - Who gets to go to the prom?

Jesus makes an extremely clear statement about prayer in Mark 11:24:

    Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.
Nothing could be simpler than that. All that you have to do is say a prayer, then "believe that you have received it," and your prayer will be answered. That is what Jesus promises, and Jesus is God so he is perfect.

But is Jesus' statement true? We can test it with this thought experiment.

Let's imagine the following situation. Two girls are attending a Catholic high school. Their names are Alicia and Kristin. Both of the girls are good students and devout believers. They obey God's commandments. They attend church twice a week. They pray to God daily. And they are both beautiful, so clearly God has shown them favor.

The prom is coming up, and the most eligible boy at the school is named Mark. Mark is perfect: A great student, a star athlete, good looking, yet humble and friendly. Everyone loves Mark. He too is a devout believer and he knows both Alicia and Kristin well.

With the prom approaching, both Alicia and Kristin pray a simple prayer. They both ask God to be Mark's date for the prom. They do this separately, and neither knows that the other is praying.

Alicia believes with all her heart that God will answer her prayer. Kristin believes with all her heart that God will answer her prayer. As expressions of their belief, both Alicia and Kristin go shopping for their prom dresses, knowing that Mark will invite them.

Jesus now has a problem. He has made a promise that he cannot keep. God is perfect and unerring, so the Bible can contain no mistakes. But clearly Jesus has made a mistake here. Both of these girls believe that their prayers will be answered, but one of them is going to lose. Jesus is going to end up lying to either Alicia or Kristin. Or he might end up lying to both of them -- maybe Mark is in love with Buffy, so he invites Buffy instead.

The fact is that Jesus' promise is a false one. Whenever two or more people pray for the same thing and only one person can have it, someone is going to lose. Common sense tells you that. It does not matter if they both believe, and it does not matter how fervently and sincerely they pray. The simple fact is that they cannot both get the same thing in that kind of situation. Therefore, Mark 11:24 is wrong.

In addition, there is nowhere in the belief structure that says that people are God's puppets. God cannot force someone to fall in or out of love because of someone else's prayer. Common sense tells you that. If we were God's puppets, we would all be walking around like zombies, doing whatever God wants.


What if two people pray for two things that are opposites? If they both believe, who is going to win? For example:

  • Imagine that a farmer prays for a good, soaking, daylong rain on Saturday, while a bride who is having her wedding nearby prays for crystal clear sunshine on the same day. One of them is going to lose.
  • Imagine that the fans of two opposing football teams both pray for their teams to win the Super Bowl. One group is going to lose.
  • Imagine that one member of a devout couple prays to become pregnant, and the other prays that they do not. One of them is going to lose.
Someone must lose, and Jesus' promise in Mark 11:24 turns into a lie. It does not matter how much you believe or how fervently you pray. If someone else is praying for the opposite of what you are praying for, one of you must lose. It is easy to think of thousands of situations where Jesus' promise in the Bible cannot possibly be fulfilled.

So... this is uncomfortable. Jesus unmistakably says in the Bible:

    "Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours."
That is so clear and simple, it is impossible to misinterpret it. And Jesus is God, so there is no reason for him to lie about it. Unfortunately, if the prayers of two people are opposites, one of them is guaranteed to lose no matter how much they both believe. Jesus' statement is completely wrong.

An experiment

Do your own experiment. Take a devout believer to a casino. Have her pray sincerely to win. Have her recite Mark 11:24 one thousand times. Then have her place a $10 bet on number 17 on the roulette wheel.

Since Mark 11:24 is the word of God, Mark 11:24 must be true. Therefore, she will win and receive $350. Right? What other possibility is there? Jesus is perfect, and Jesus clearly says, "Whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours" and, "if you ask anything in my name, I will do it" and, "Ask, and you shall receive." So she will win.

Have her then bet the $350 on number 17 and pray again. She will win and receive $12,250. According to Mark 11:24, the odds of winning are 100%. This bet is a sure thing.

You will probably have to move to a new table at this point, because you will be over the table's limit. Move to a new table.

Have her bet $12,250 on number 17 again. She will win. That is what God promises. At this point a crowd will have gathered. Perhaps a news crew will be on hand. She will be holding chips worth nearly half a million dollars in her hands.

Have her bet it all again on lucky number 17.

Why should she stop? There is nothing that is impossible for God. Jesus clearly says that nothing is impossible through prayer. In Matthew 17:20 Jesus says:

    For truly, I say to you, if you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you.
Nothing will be impossible for you. That statement is crystal clear, and this is the word of God.

Because of Jesus' promise, your friend will soon be worth millions of dollars. Won't she? What will happen next?

  1. Millions of believers will descend on Vegas when they hear the news.

  2. Every casino in Vegas will be bankrupt one day later.
If prayer worked the way the Bible says it does, then Las Vegas could not exist. People would have prayed all the money out of Las Vegas years and years ago. Yet, anyone who has visited Vegas recently can see that Vegas is alive and well. It not only exists, but it is growing and thriving. Casinos are making billions of dollars from the unchanging laws of probability, despite Jesus' promises in the Bible.

Here is another way to prove that prayer does not work. Take 38 devout believers to the roulette table. Have them all pray. Let all of them call their prayer circles on their cell phones. Make sure all of them recite Mark 11:24. Then have the 38 believers all bet a different single-number bet. There are 38 pockets on the roulette wheel, and there is one devout believers betting on each of the pockets.

Now spin the wheel.

How many of these 38 prayerful people will win? One. That is how the world works. It does not matter what Jesus promises in the Bible. It does not matter how much the 38 people believe. It does not matter how big or powerful their prayer circles are. No matter how much they all pray, only one of them can win if the wheel spins one time.

Explaining the reality that we see in our world

A believer might say, "Out of the 38 people, God will pick the one who is most deserving and let him win." An easy way to prove that statement false is to put one devout believer and 37 godless, convicted murders around wheel. If God were to pick the most deserving person, then the devout believer would win every time you spin the wheel. But that is not what happens. The laws of probability will make sure that each of the convicted murderers wins just as often as the believer does. It does not matter how much anyone prays or how much anyone believes.

A believer might say, "God only intervenes in lotteries and casinos occasionally, only when it is his divine will, and only for the most deserving people." That is not what Jesus promises in the Bible. And it is interesting that God only "intervenes" in a way that exactly follows the natural laws of probability.

If we simply look at what is happening in our world in an objective way, the actual truth of this situation is apparent. The fact that the outcome exactly follows the natural laws of probability conclusively and provably tells you that God is not answering prayers. When something exactly follows the laws of probability, what we are seeing is coincidence and nothing more. If God were actually answering prayers, we would be able to see a statistical effect of God's work. The laws of probability would work differently for praying people than they would for other people. We would actually have two "laws of probability" -- one for believers and one for non-believers.

Another person might explain it by saying, "Well of course Jesus does not answer prayers in a casino. Jesus never answers prayers for money. Prayers for money represent greed." That may be true, but in that case Jesus should have said, "nothing will be impossible to you, except if you pray for money." There are also lots of believers who would disagree with the statement, because they believe that God has answered their monetary prayers. The "Prayer of Jabez" is all about money.

Another believer might say, "God can not bend the laws of probability, in the same way that he cannot bend the laws of nature. If God was constantly bending the laws of probability, they would not be laws anymore." That makes sense, but that is not what Jesus said.

Here is what Jesus said in Mark 11:24:

    "Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours."
That is clear and simple. But it is completely wrong. Why, then, did Jesus say it? Why would Jesus lie to us?

The more important question to ask is: What kind of prayers does Jesus answer? If he never answers the prayers of amputees, and if he never answers medical prayers, and if he never answers impossible prayers, and if he never answers prayers that break the laws of nature, and if he never answers prayers that violate the laws of probability, and if he never answers a prayer that turns another person into a puppet... What's left? When does Jesus answer prayers?

What does your common sense tell you? Based on the experiments we've discussed in the last several chapters, we have discovered all kinds of prayers that God never answers. How do you reconcile what Jesus has to say about prayer in the Bible and the Standard Model of God with the reality that we see in our world?

Now what?

When you add all of this to the concepts from the previous chapters, you realize that Jesus misspoke rather broadly when he talked about prayer. Instead of saying:

    "Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours."
What Jesus might have meant was this:
    Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it might be yours, as long as it is possible, and as long as it is my will, and as long as what you pray for does not violate a law of nature, and as long as what you are praying for does not violate a law of probability, and as long as what you pray for does not turn another person into a puppet, and as long as no one else who is praying for the same thing believes more than you do."
If this is what Jesus meant, then it begins to explain why so many prayers go unanswered. Unfortunately, it also means that what Jesus had to say about prayer in the Bible is wrong. And it is hard to explain why God would publish something that is wrong in the Bible when God is perfect.

Is there a better explanation? Yes, there is. If we assume that God never answers any prayers, then all of these conflicts and problems disappear completely. The huge advantage of this explanation is that it perfectly fits the data that we see in our world. And what it means is that prayer -- a cornerstone of the religious faith -- is meaningless. Whenever "God answers a prayer," what we are actually seeing is a simple coincidence, nothing more.

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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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