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The Value of Prayer

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Hey all!  Seth Kurtenbach here.  This will be quick and painless and full of plugs (there is a sex pun somewhere in there, but I can’t figure it out).

In Columbia, Missouri, there is a church with a sign out front that reads something like, “Prayer + $1 dollar = food for the needy”.

In our SASHA meeting last night, we discussed how this sign illustrates a violation of the principle of parsimony.  Dave Muscato gave a great talk on speaking with theists, and one of his tips included becoming familiar with parsimony.  This is a good tip, for skeptics and theists alike (though the two are not necessarily exclusive).  The sign illustrates a violation of parsimony in the following way.  In order to explain the successful feeding of the needy, all we need to postulate is that a dollar was donated.  The additional postulation of prayer has no explanatory role, because the dollar explains everything.  Parsimony tells us not to multiply entities beyond necessity, which means, ‘don’t postulate the existence of things if they are unnecessary for an explanation.’  Dave thinks parsimony is the single most important aspect of the scientific method, and many agree.  I think it is important, but it definitely has some problems.  Dave, you should write a post about why parsimony is so great.  I might troll about in the comments.

Anyway, I think there’s an interesting sense in which the church sign equation is true.  Before I explain this sense, let me lay out an assumption that I think is quite reasonable.  I think that money, rather than prayer, actually purchases the food.  I think the sum of the cost of the food is $1 dollar.  If prayer could be exchanged for food, I think the needy would be a lot less hungry, because prayer is something they have in no short supply; it is money (and food) that they lack.  However, an economist will quickly point out that a market based on prayer would quickly crumble due to outrageous inflation.  This only supports my assumption that it is the dollar that purchases the food, that in turn gets donated to the needy.  Side note: here’s a good experiment; try ordering some food from Chik-fil-A and offering to pay with prayer alone.  Chik-fil-A is owned and operated by some super religious zealots, who almost certainly believe in the efficacy of prayer, but good luck getting them to accept prayer as payment.  Although, there might be something to this, because supposedly the meek shall inherit the earth, or theirs is the kingdom of god, or something, so the poor and needy might offer the superwealthy some of that post-apocalyptic inheritance in exchange for some food/money now.  Prayer Credit Cards?  Moving on…

Here is some math skills:   a + b = c.

Subtract b from each side of the ‘=’, and you get a = c – b.

Let’s apply this formula to the church sign equation.  We get “Prayer = food for the needy – $1 dollar”.

Well, we assumed (reasonably) that the value of the food is fully explained and accounted for in the value of the dollar.

That is, the cost of the food = $1 dollar.

So, c = b.

But, that makes a = zero!  Indeed!

The church sign equation entails “Prayer = Nothing”.  Imagine Nathan Explosion saying it.

I’m happy to agree with that.  Way to go, church sign!  Isn’t it great when we can find common ground?  That’s the kind of accommodationism I really strive for!

Reminder:  Friday, 10/28, from 6 – 9 pm, is day one of the SASHA fall conference!  Then, Saturday, 10/29, from 10 am to 3 pm, is day two!  Show up or forever live in shame and regret…

Seth Kurtenbach is a philosophy PhD student at the University of Missouri.  His research focuses on applications of formal logic and game theory to questions about knowledge and rationality.  He is growing a mighty beard, in order to increase his philosophical powers.  Feel free to contact Seth at with inquiries about philosophy, logic, guest blogging, or visiting to give a presentation!

Helpful resources:
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Skeptics’ Annotated Bible / Skeptics’ Annotated Qur’an

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Blogs: Greta ChristinaPZ MyersThe Friendly AtheistWWJTD?Debunking ChristianitySkepChick, Rationally Speaking.


About Seth Kurtenbach

Philosophy grad student who wandered into a computer science PhD program with a backpack full of modal logic and decision theory.

3 comments on “The Value of Prayer

  1. Adam Loper
    October 27, 2011

    I just wanted to point out that you’re begging the question here:

    “Here is some math skills: a + b = c.
    Subtract b from each side of the ‘=’, and you get a = c – b.
    Let’s apply this formula to the church sign equation. We get “Prayer = food for the needy – $1 dollar”.
    Well, we assumed (reasonably) that the value of the food is fully explained and accounted for in the value of the dollar.
    That is, the cost of the food = $1 dollar.
    So, c = b.
    But, that makes a = zero! Indeed!”

    You assumed that prayer equals zero, did one simple algebra maneuver, stopped and referenced the assumption to reach your conclusion. This is a logical fallacy known as “begging the question”. If you’re going to use math to prove that prayer has no efficacy just use statistics. You don’t need this sign or algebra. Besides I think it’s a moot point as far as theists are concerned because they don’t believe that you can use things like math or logic to prove or understand the magic of God. Faith-based belief systems fundamentally don’t believe in reasoning, thus things like non-contradiction are meaningless to them. They have to first realize that contradicting yourself is stupid, then they have to realize that they are doing it. Good luck.

    • Seth Kurtenbach
      October 27, 2011

      Thanks for the feedback, Adam. I justified my assumption that the value of the money was equal to the value of the food, and the church made the mathematical claim equating the sum of prayer and $1 dollar with the value of the food. If I were inviting them to accept both assumptions, then I would be begging the question, but since I am assuming only one thing, and taking their assertion, I am not begging the question. To refute my argument, they need only show that the value of the food is not equal to the value of the money, or withdraw their assertion.

  2. MU SASHA Administrator
    October 27, 2011

    How is this begging the question, though? The equation as given by the sign is “$1 + A Prayer = 15 meals.” The assumption is provided by the people who made the sign in the first place. It’s only fallacious if the skeptical party isn’t willing to accept the premise as true for the sake of the argument. Seth is accepting the premise as given. It’s not Seth who’s begging the question by rearranging their equation; they are begging the question by asserting that the equation is true in the first place.

    – Dave

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This entry was posted on October 27, 2011 by in Author: Seth Kurtenbach, In The News, SASHA Meetings.
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