Freewill in prayer

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Freewill in prayer

First off, this argument has its flaws I'm sure, and I am hoping to bolster it with better examples and more logical relations so I am hoping both theists and athiests alike can help me find and isolate strong and weak points in this.

 Second, this has nothing to do with to do with the nature of free will or whether or not it actually exists. This is simply an argument against the purpose and effectivness of prayer, or more importantly what is attributed to god and prayer, by religions in which freewill is a necessary aspect. 

 Finally, forgive the length as I'm trying to basically restate my points from a verbal debate.


So, today is apparently Rosary Sunday for the Catholic Church, the main function behind it I don't know nor particularly care about, except that apparently it has something to do with prayer. This lead to a conversation about prayer with my catholic friend and the fact that I believe so much of prayer is pointless by the teachings of most religions, at least in this case Catholicism. I don't claim to be a Catholic scholar, but I'm pretty certain Catholicism, like most Christian religions rely on the notion of free will and your abilty to choose, I'm ignoring the Grace issue because I know thats a different matter.

Following the majority of this conversation, she asked me to try to summarize, in something like a thesis statment my premise which she wrote down I presume for future reference. I don't have my words  here but I believe my statment was something like the following: 

 "To attribute to God and prayer anything influcing your actions, thoughts and desires is a direct contradiction to your freewill and thus the teachings of your religion."

As I think you can see there were three main aspects here to try to convince her of to prove that the attribution of these things to prayer were pointless.



This one is rather obvious. If god somehow makes you walk onto the wrong bus, then that is clearly against you're own free will.

 But a slightly less obvious question was, what if you flip a coin, ask for heads and it lands as heads? This is obviously a simplistic example with 50/50 odds, but if you expand that out to 100 times heads in a row, and you get it... well thats statistically improbable enough that it might seem a more reasonable thing to attribute to God's interervention. There are two ways though that this could happen through intervention (ie, excluding randomness)

1) God physically alters the path of the coin through some methods of changing physics to ensure that it comes out at heads

2) God gives you the knowledge to know how to hold and flip the coin in such a way that it always lands heads (because in theory the exactly same actions should lead to the exact same results. But this is no longer so much of an actions things because your actions are controlled by your thoughts, which is a different venue of freewill 


 If god put this knowledge into yourhead, isn't that denial of freewill? You didn't have a choice of whether or not to accept this knowledge (regardless of whether you DESIRED it, as thats the next area) and thus it was not of your own freewill that you gained it. You did not learn it, it was put in there.

By this same token I argue that if I tell you "don't think of pink elephants" then you will think about them, even if juts for a moment, and I have denied you the freewill of wether or not to think of those pink elephants. This is not a common way to think about freewill, but since you (I would argue) did not make conscious descision to think about free pink elephants, it was against your free will. And infact, as I think fe people will argue with, most of, if not all, of your subconscious thoughts are against your free will as well, which is why they are subconscious in fact!

 So, I think I've sufficently made my point through these two examples that if god puts a thought or piece of knowledge into your head then it is contrary to your free will. But as I mentioned before, is it really against your free will if you desired and asked for this knowledge? I would still say yes, and I'll go into that now


This is the most complicated one to try to explain and show in my opinion and so I shoudl also mention that I equal desires with emotions.

Scenario: Your significant other proposes to you and you're unsure about what you should say because you're not sure if it's truly love. "God, please help figure out what I should do and what I want me can't realize." OR maybe even "God, I don't think I love him/her so allow me to feel the love that they feel for me back."

Maybe thats a piss poor prayer, but it shows what it needs to. You're asking god to help you dig into your deepest emotions and come to a decision about wha tyou really want. Do you want to marry this person or is this person maybe just not really 'the one'.  Do you really love this person? These are the questions that are being asked of god to help you answer.

The second prayer is more obviously a contradaiction because you're asking go do physically change your emthos in someways. I'm not going to question the ways, because even if it through external actions, I believe anyone would be hard pressed to find a way in which god allowed this without altering someone's free will at some point. Thusly to ask god for a change in your feelings is an obvious free will contradiction. (The only exception I can currently think of is some sort of natural phenomenia in which the other person is given the opportunity to act heroicly and thus win your love. I believe this makes sense enough to explain the only exception I can think of).

The first one though, is more difficult, because it's asking god to help you find something inside yourself. Something that is already there. Because such things are so intangible and the results of their realization can be so unknown, the best similarity I can come up with is that of a pysciatrist helping a patient recall or realize certain things by asking the "right questions". Though the person wants this help, the questions force the person to think of something that brings forth a realization, and by my premise of freewill in thoughts, the path to coming to this realization of desires/emotions is a denial of free will. 



So when my friend says prayers asking god for help with something, I said to her that the majority of the times these praryers are by Catholicisms own claims of freewill, admitedly pointless. To say that "God gave me the strength ..." or "God helped me ..." is to say that God somehow acted on you in a way that more than likely contradicted your free will of actions, thoughts and/or desires. 

To pray is one thing, but to actually attribute so much of what happens to these prayers probably contradicts that religions teaches and holds necessary (ie, freewill).



I would love feedback and thoughts on this argument because I see the claim of freewill while still having such heavy focus on prayers to be a major conflict in a lot of todays organized religions.

Thanks for reading, I hope this felt worth it!

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shelley's picture
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I think your friend should

I think your friend should watch that video - prayers to jake.

 Seriously though, there are two problems with prayer according to religious teaching.   The first is the one you brought up - if God does indeed intervene, he's altering the concept of free will and the second is that god is supposedly all-knowing and subsequently everything is "according to his plan" so your prayers won't make a damn bit of difference. 

Now before someone says 'well he knew ahead of time if you prayed or not and therefore decided well before you were born where/when he would help... I have a theist friend who argues that God knew ahead of time if you would pray or not - in this case the free will aspect comes up again, big time.

The only thing prayer could possibly do is bolster someone's confidence to do something... ie. "I have God behind me when I do X, Y, Z therefore I feel more secure in doing it."  (Sounds like a terrorist, doesn't it?)  The other problem with prayer is that when people fail to succeed in whatever X, Y, and/or Z was they then feel like they failed God and are again in a worse postion.

 I read a study once where sick people who knew they were being prayed for actually did worse than the control group because of the stress (ie wanting to show that they had done better because of prayer).

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Great post! I think you are

Great post! I think you are absolutely correct. You can even look in the Bible to find perfect examples of God robbing people of their free will.


Exodus 4:21

And the LORD said unto Moses, When thou goest to return into Egypt, see that thou do all those wonders before Pharaoh, which I have put in thine hand: but I will harden his heart, that he shall not let the people go.

If you ever come to a disagreement about the issue, what you should do is clarify what conditions must be met for free will to exist, agree on it, and then debate from that point. It should then be simple to demonstrate that the necessary conditions for free will are not being met.

I think the biggest question that comes out of this is, "If God can force people to do things, why doesn't he just force them all to believe in him?"

Yes, we know why: Because he doesn't exist.

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Fateless7 wrote: I think

Fateless7 wrote:

I think the biggest question that comes out of this is, "If God can force people to do things, why doesn't he just force them all to believe in him?"

Yes, we know why: Because he doesn't exist.


Your deduction at the end there seems a little silly, like you haven't really thought things through enough.


One could suggest that since God by his very nature is mysterious, we cannot rule out an explanation for his actions, or we are simply judging our creator by the standards he himself created. 

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I'm not sure you can debate

I'm not sure you can debate this without asking if free will exists.  To which I would make the argument of free will of what exactly?  The bible does not say there is not free will but it does state that the will of God is what is important.  Sooooo that means that since God speaks to people via the holy spirit (which you could say means there is a spirit to spirit conversation), now its simple to say that there is no such thing as free will of the spirit, only the flesh. 

OK ok I won't make it a huge thing but free will in prayer?  I wonder, do you understand what it really means from the bible to an individual to "pray?"  There is a very specific structure to prayer which is not only at night, only by your bedside, and only by saying the "our father".  One very specific theme in prayer examples in the bible is about God's will, not the individual's desires.  Even Solomon when he asked God to be the smartest person on the planet did so for his own gain but to express who God was to him through his actions and words (1 Kings 3:7-15).

I think the question of is there free will in prayer isn't asking who's will is trying to be accomplished in the prayer.  If you believe in what prayer represents and who it is going to, asking for a new car or to win the lottery are not prayers to glorify God and subsequently if it was not God's will to grant such, that person's will in the prayer are not going to be granted anyway. 

What is faith? Is it to believe that which is evident? No. It is perfectly evident to my mind that there exists a necessary, eternal, supreme, and intelligent being. This is no matter of faith, but of reason. - Voltaire