This column is excerpted from Dan Barker’s blog at patheos.com/blogs/freethoughtnow on April 23.
By Dan Barker
It’s simple logic. The Christian god promises to answer prayer. Prayers to this god are not answered. Therefore, the Christian god does not exist. Right now, millions of Christians are asking their god to defeat the coronavirus and to heal the sick. Those prayers are having no effect.
It is not just the coronavirus, of course. We could take the example of the 1755 Lisbon earthquake that Voltaire called a “repellant dance of death” and which 19th-century orator Robert Ingersoll claimed had “denied the existence of God.” Or the 1918 “Spanish flu,” which killed my great-grandfather. Or the 2001 terrorist attacks that prompted Richard Dawkins to say: “My respect for the Abrahamic religions went up in the smoke and choking dust of Sept. 11th.”
History is pockmarked with examples, but we only need one. SARS-CoV-2 is virulent enough to single-handedly kill the Christian god.
What does the Christian god promise?
The Christian god makes a crystal-clear pledge: “I will answer your prayers.”
Jesus stated boldly: “All things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive.” (Matthew 21:22) There is no ambiguity here. “All things” means “all things.” He even clarified: “Even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ it will be done.”
Jesus, who said “I and the father are one,” confirmed this in many other passages:
“So, I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” — Mark 11:24
“If two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven.” — Matthew 18:19
“Have faith in God. Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you.” — Mark 11:22–23
Other New Testament writers agreed:
“And whatsoever we ask, we receive of him, because we keep his commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in his sight.” — 1 John 3:22
The same promise appears in the Old Testament: “Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” (Psalm 37:4)
The claim is indisputable. The Christian god promises to answer “everyone who asks,” “all things,” “whatever you ask for in prayer.” If a believing Christian prays, then “it will be done for you,” “you shall receive,” “it will be yours,” “I will do it.”
There is no more solid promise in scripture.
The Christian god vows to answer prayer not with “Yes, No, or Wait,” as some apologists claim. He promises an unequivocal “Yes.”
Does God answer prayer?
Multitudes of Christians have been fervently praying. The Jesuits have asked Jesus to “Heal those who are sick with the virus.”
The Christian relief organization World Vision is asking Almighty God to “keep this new coronavirus from continuing to spread.” The Southern Baptists are praying “Lord, you are the Great Physician, so we pray for healing for the victims of COVID-19.” President Trump’s spiritual adviser Paula White said, “I believe in the same way if we call on God almighty to divinely intervene just as He does so many times, that the plague can be stopped.”
So why are thousands continuing to succumb indiscriminately to the coronavirus? The tragic deaths include devout believers, as well as ministers, bishops and priests. They are asking their Lord for protection, but the virus, no respecter of person, is recklessly storming around the planet oblivious to their beliefs.
By the middle of March, President Trump finally realized that the pandemic was going to be a problem. The number of COVID-19 deaths in the United States was inching toward 100. So he announced (by tweet) a National Day of Prayer, “looking to God for protection.”
Trump’s proclamation prayed “for God’s healing hand to be placed on the people of our Nation. . . . For with God nothing shall be impossible.”
Then what happened?
The death rate from COVID-19 shot up dramatically after that. A month later, on April 15, there were more than 20,000 known deaths. A week later, it surpassed 40,000 and will certainly be higher by the time you read this. Christian families are not being spared. Prayer is making no difference. In fact, the reluctance of some pastors to close their sanctuaries — trusting that Jesus meant what he promised — most certainly has increased the risk of infection among churchgoers.
Mountains are not being cast into the sea.
Is governmental prayer effective?
Since the 1950s, the U.S. president has issued an annual “National Day of Prayer” proclamation. Many governors and mayors have echoed it, asking for God’s protection for our nation. President Trump’s 2019 Proclamation said:
“Today, on this National Day of Prayer, we once again come together to give thanks to Almighty God for the bountiful blessings He has bestowed on our great Nation . . . We also acknowledge our dependence on God’s love to guide our families, communities, and our country away from harm and toward abundance and peace.”
Look around. Did that have any effect?
The theme for this year’s National Day of Prayer on May 7 will be “God’s Glory Across The Earth.” That unintentionally tragic-comic phrase was selected many months ago, before the glory of the virus was parading across the earth, before the prickly irony would have been apparent. And yet, people will continue to pray, hoping that maybe this time God will keep his promise.
When Florida Gov. Rick Scott publicly prayed for Hurricane Irma to bypass his state in 2017, the destructive storm paid no attention. That merciless tempest was nicknamed “Irmageddon.”
Is it our fault?
Rev. Ralph Drollinger, the evangelical pastor who conducts bible study at the White House for President Trump’s cabinet, blames the coronavirus on sin: “Whenever an individual or corporate group of individuals violate the inviolate precepts of God’s Word, he, she, they or the institution will suffer the respective consequences,” he wrote. “Most assuredly America is facing this form of God’s judgment.”
Some Christians preach that prayer is conditional. Natural disasters are actually punishments from God, they proclaim. He doesn’t answer prayer at the moment because America has turned its back on him. They cite verses that condition God’s favor on our obedience.
“If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.” — 2 Chronicles 7:14
So, the pestilence is our fault. Actually, it isn’t. Notice that that verse is only the second half of a sentence. The first half says:
“If I shut up heaven that there be no rain, or if I command the locusts to devour the land, or if I send pestilence among my people;” — 2 Chronicles 7:13
Put those verses in the right order, and we see what it is that God promises to “heal the land” from: himself!
In my book, GOD: The Most Unpleasant Character in All Fiction, I cite more than 50 passages showing that the jealous biblical God uses pestilence, plagues and illnesses to punish his people for worshipping someone other than himself. Here are a few:
“I will heap calamities on them . . . I will send wasting famine against them, consuming pestilence and deadly plague.” — Deuteronomy 32:23
“So the Lord sent a pestilence upon Israel . . . and there died of the people . . . 70,000 men.” — 2 Samuel 24:15
“Behold, with a great plague will the Lord smite thy people.” — 1 Chronicles 21:14
‘God did not stop the virus’
On April 14, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo was expressing guarded optimism that the curve was beginning to flatten in his state. “Our behavior has stopped the spread of the virus,” he said. “God did not stop the spread of the virus. And what we do, how we act, will dictate how that virus spreads.”
Exactly. What we do. It should be obvious, even to those who believe in prayer (including Cuomo, who is Catholic), that effective remedies do not come from begging God.
Prayer might offer hope and comfort to some, but the heavy lifting of problem solving is done by science through human effort. Brave health-care workers (including believers and nonbelievers) and enforced governmental policies like sheltering at home are what make the difference.
Isn’t it a relief to know that the Christian god does not exist? Instead of being distracted and disappointed by supplicating an ancient god full of empty threats and emptier promises, let’s open our eyes, get off our knees, roll up our sleeves and work with science and medicine to battle this pandemic.
Robert Ingersoll said it best: “The hands that help are better far than lips that pray.”
Dan Barker is co-president of the Freedom–From Religion Foundation and co-founder of The Clergy Project.