As hurricane Irma was bearing down on the Caribbean, Cuba, and the US, many religious people took to prayer. The typical internet atheist retort went something like: “Really? You’re praying to the God who didn’t see fit to stop the hurricane in the first place?” Or, “If hurricanes are part of God’s providential ordering of things, why bother to pray for those caught up in one?” The point appears to be that it’s stupid or pointless to pray for God to help people, since if God really wanted to He could easily have swept the hurricane from existence altogether.
To my mind there is little substance to this complaint. The atheist here appears to be operating under some assumption such as:
(A) If a being – S – causes some event – C – then S cannot rightly or rationally or justifiably be appealed to for help by those affected by C.
The problem with this assumption is that it is flat-out false and we can easily think of a whole host of cases where it fails to apply. For instance, suppose my son goes to school one day to join his class. When seated the teacher presents them with an incredibly difficult sheet of mathematics problems, invites them to work through it, and then sits at her desk reading some Bertrand Russell. In this scenario, would it be silly or pointless for one of the pupils to approach the teacher for assistance, despite the fact that the teacher is wholly responsible for the pupils’ predicament? Not only would it not be unjustifiable or silly, but it would make winsome sense to do so, and in fact might be part of the reason for the exercise in the first place. Perhaps the teacher is seeking to illustrate a more general lesson to the class beyond pure mathematics. Perhaps she is testing their ability to cope in the face of a seemingly intractable problem. Or perhaps she wants to teach them the importance of seeking assistance from those who can offer it. It matters not what the purpose is – and I’m not trying to say God sends hurricanes to teach us things – I’m simply illustrating that just because S causes C doesn’t mean those affected by C cannot rightly appeal to S for assistance – in other words, that the hidden assumption in the atheist’s complaint does not hold.
In the face of natural disasters, Christians (and presumably those of many other faiths) will resort to the spiritual discipline of prayer, despite knowing that such an event has occurred only within the providence of God who either directly caused it or permitted it to occur. However, I can’t see any reason to suppose that praying is therefore pointless, (though someone could think it is pointless on totally different grounds). The critic seems to understand God’s providence in fatalistic terms: God has ordained everything to happen as it does, therefore there is nothing we can do about it by prayer or any other means. This is a common understanding of providence at the popular level, but it’s wholly lacking in nuance, (not to mention involving an overly narrow view of prayer).
It isn’t my intention to explicate a doctrine of divine providence here, but rather to point out that since the assumption behind this complaint is false, the atheist owes us an argument as to why it’s unjustifiable or absurd to say that although God causes or permits some event He can still be appealed to by those affected by it. To put it another way: what reason is there for thinking that if God has some purpose in allowing C to occur then He cannot also have a purpose in assisting someone in C in response to prayer?
Stephen J. Graham