The Course of Reason

The Value of Prayer

November 4, 2011

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! 



About the Author: Seth Kurtenbach

Seth Kurtenbach's photo
Seth Kurtenbach is pursuing his PhD in computer science at the University of Missouri. His current research focuses on the application of formal logic to questions about knowledge and rationality. He has his Master's degree in philosophy from the University of Missouri, and is growing an epic beard in order to maintain his philosophical powers. You can email Seth at or follow him on Twitter: @SJKur.




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