He begins by listing a common objection atheists make when Christians claim that prayer works:
‘Why doesn’t God intervene to stop mass murderers – perhaps even slightly, without notice — by altering humans’ thoughts? Since this does not happen, and God is supposed to be an all-loving, all-knowing being who can effortlessly stop heinous acts, we can be justified in disbelief of God.’Then he offers the typical Christian response:
A typical Christian response is such that if God intervened in human affairs [at least to stop mass murderers] free will would be infringed upon. Free will is of utmost importance — trumping all other concerns — and may not be infringed upon lest we be agents unable to exercise meaningful choice thus God does not intervene.From this he argues that even if atheists accept the free will defense, then Christians still run into a several other difficulties, essentially jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire below.
To demonstrate the problem, Vacula offers a brief thought experiment. Imagine Bob has just broken up with Jane. Heartbroken, Jane prays that Bob will get back together with her again. According to Vacula, if God intervenes then Bob's free will has been compromised:
Before the prayer there existed a state in which Bob, exercising his free will, decided not to remain in a relationship with Jane…but suddenly after the prayer Bob entered into a relationship with Jane. Free will would be infringed upon in this case because an already determined choice had been altered in some way because of God’s supposed interference.But why should we think that? Ignoring prayer for the moment, it's not out of the ordinary for someone to make free choice X at time t only to go against that decision soon after t. In this case, Bob goes through two free choices: (1) To break up with Jane and (2) to get back together with Jane, each coming about at different times. These two choices certainly do not compromise Bob's free will.
However, Vacula argues that if God is involved then it does, contrary to what I say, compromise Bob's free will:
If the Christian maintains that prayer instead led Bob and Jane to meet somewhere, for instance, and ultimately rekindled a romance there would still have to be a ‘divine rearranging’ of events by which Bob and Jane had met; God in some way had to have changed decisions of Bob and Jane so that they met.I would argue that no such rearranging occurred. There's a misconception that God goes through real-time decision making. God, being eternally omniscient, knows the truth value of every proposition including counterfactuals. It follows that God knew that Jane would pray for Bob at that specific time. God's decision to answer Jane's prayer existed from eternity's past, but was only actualized at the proper time. Rearranging something presupposes that the old order of things wasn't satisfactory.
What is consistent to say, however, is that God arranged it (from eternity's past) so that Bob and Jane got back together. Despite Vacula's claim, this doesn't entail that God directly changed the decisions of Bob and Jane anymore than encouraging my friend forces him to stick with a particular sport. My encouragement adds variables which promote a certain action by my friend, namely his decision to stick with the sport. Likewise, God may incite, or encourage, someone to freely choose something. God can do this in a Hollywood-esque way by booming His voice out of a storm complete with lightning and wind, or, as is generally the case, He can use subtle methods.
I'll demonstrate one way which God can assist these hopeless romantics: First, Jane prays that Bob will take her back. Having prior knowledge of this, God arranges certain encouraging situations to take place. Bob, preparing to fly to his hometown during Christmas break, packs a travel bag given to him by Jane when they first met. Inside the front compartment is an old picture of Jane, which causes him to have a brief flashback. While driving to the airport, Bob turns on the radio only to hear Jane's favorite song playing. While listening to the song, he further reminisces about his happy memories with Jane. Once on the plan, Bob sits next to a young woman who wears the same perfume Jane always wore. Unable to get Jane out of his head the entire flight, he decides to call her when he lands. Through that conversation, they rekindle their love for one another and they go back out.
Impossible? Not at all. Each situation I listed put a thought in Bob's head related to Jane. Thoughts can enter the mind's eye through involuntary means. Not many of us would think that 'random' thoughts compromise our free will anymore than the feeling of hunger forces me to eat food. Likewise, if God plants thoughts in our heads, either directly or indirectly, then he is not robbing us of our free will.
Vacula, assuming his previous argument is valid, asks an important question that he feels reveals a second problem for the Christian:
[W]hy would God not intervene to stop deadly natural disasters, birth defects, etc — while maintaining that God intervenes in some areas in life but not in others. How could an all-loving, all-powerful, and all-knowing God intervene to help someone pass an examination but not intervene to stop hundreds dying because of a tsunami?I generally find why-would-God questions to be weak. Regardless, I think that this question can be answered by breaking down the basics. First, this argument does not warrant disbelief in God; it only shows that God is indifferent, impotent, or ignorant. What would follow is some form of deism. Despite these niceties, Vacula must maintain that it is logically impossible for God (as so defined above) to have morally sufficient reasons for allowing some tragedy P. This is a heavy burden of proof. However, instead of playing defense, I'll treat his argument as a question, since it's technically how he phrased it.
Imagine waking up in a concrete bunker with no memory of how you got there. Besides the bed that you're on and a dim light above you, there is nothing in the room besides two windows each connected to separate rooms ahead. It becomes apparent that you're a prisoner in the room as the only door out is barred from the outside. Weakly stepping off the bed, you make your way closer to the windows. A gut-wrenching feeling overtakes you as you observe what lies in the rooms before you. Looking through the left window, you see a cell similar to yours with someone chained up wearing a baggy robe and blindfolded with a sack over their head. You know they are alive because they are clearly trembling with fear. Despite your efforts to communicate, the prisoner doesn't know you're there. As you peer through the right window, fear runs up your spine. Before you are fifteen individuals chained and blindfolded. It's hard to make out age or gender. You also notice a small red button below each window, which is covered in a transparent plastic cap.
As you process this grisly sight, you are startled by a loud echoing voice. Turning, you notice a loudspeaker in the corner of the room. You begin to listen to the calm and deliberate voice:
"Greetings. Today you will participate in a moral experiment. As you have noticed, there are two rooms beyond you. On your left there is a single individual. On the right, fifteen. You must choose who lives and who dies. The buttons below the windows will soon open, allowing you to press them. If you press the button on the left, then the individual before you will die. If you press the button on the right, then the fifteen die. If you fail to press a button then you all will die. You have 20 seconds to choose. Starting....now..."
It's no doubt a difficult decision, but not because the correct choice isn't clear. It's obvious that saving the fifteen people is the best moral choice. It's difficult because most of us would have a hard time being responsible for the death of a person. However, if we are under the assumption that one human life is valuable, then surely fifteen people are more valuable than a single person. All we have to go by in this situation is quantity. There was no way to know gender, age, position, health, etc. No one would hold us accountable for letting that one person die.
When it comes to God, however, we must adjust our thinking. Too often atheists fail to uphold God's properties throughout their arguments. Vacula's argument, or rather his passive-aggressive question, is guilty of this. So how would God choose in this situation? The honest answer is that we don't know. However, God could possess warrant for either decision. For example, let's say God decided to save the single individual while condemning the fifteen to death. From our standpoint we are appalled. However, God, being omniscient, knows all ends. Moreover, God, being omni-benevolent, seeks to bring about the greatest good*. God would look at the fifteen people and know how they would influence the world around them. Perhaps they, or their children, will set in motion greater amounts of evil in the future. There are thousands of ways this can be true. A theist only needs one possible scenario to refute the atheist's claim.
Vacula must maintain, not that it's unlikely that killing the fifteen will lead to a greater good, but that it's impossible for that choice to lead to a greater good. Either way he phrases it, he would be doing so in ignorance. He would lack the necessary knowledge of future events, the necessary variables, to make that charge. This goes for the traditional problem of evil and also for the problem of natural evil. God allows a tsunami to kill thousands of people because, in his perfect knowledge of the future, he knows that doing so will lead to a greater good. This good may come the next day, or month, or year, or 100 years. Only God knows. The theist merely has faith in God's power.
Does this mean that the Holocaust was a good thing because God allowed it to happen? Of course not. Theists are still right in calling it a horrible evil event. It certainly was evil. God, not violating human free will, allowed Hitler to initiate the order which led to the Holocaust because He knew that somewhere down the line a greater good would result. This is essentially a moral version of the butterfly effect.
In conclusion, Vacula's arguments fall short. I've shown that answered prayer does not violate one's free will. Like random thoughts, or memory triggers, God can use subtle means to encourage another person to act a certain way without hijacking their will. Vacula fails to demonstrate why the contrary must be so. Moreover, I've shown that the problem of evil is impotent because it fails to uphold God's attribute in unison. Even if the problem of evil were true, it would only call into question one of God's attributes, thus leaving us with a form of deism and not atheism. Although my arguments are valid and sound, I don't think they do much for the emotional trauma one may go through as a result of profound loss. Here the atheist will always have a pulpit by which to preach. Yet the atheist's response to the problem of evil, if naturalism were true, boils down to "sh*t happens". That's unacceptable. With God before the mind's eye, the solution to the problem of evil is faith, hope, and love. I merely provided the starting point, but God will lead us, if we're willing, to the end.
Justin Vacula's blog: http://justinvacula.com/2014/10/17/prayers-incompatibility-with-free-will-and-selective-action/
*If God's goal is to bring about the greatest good at some point in the future, then it makes sense to not answer all prayers. Even if what we ask for is good and done in faith, God may know that eventually it will bring about a greater evil either against you or others. In the Gospel of Luke chapter 11 verses 11-13, Jesus says that a father, after his son asks for a fish, will not give the child a serpent (or an egg, a scorpion). Sometimes what we ask for takes on one form, but the motivations behind it are another form completely. I may ask for a Lamborghini, but what I really desire is a vehicle to fuel my personal hubris, greed, and materialism. In short, God is not a genie devoid of moral principle.