Understanding the rationalizations

You can see that the amputee experiment reframes our conversation. No longer are we talking about "religion" or "faith" or "God's existence". What we are talking about here is the basic human ability to process factual information. Jesus makes a number of promises about prayer in the Bible:

  • If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer. [Matthew 21:21]

  • If you ask anything in my name, I will do it. [John 14:14]

  • Ask, and it will be given you. [Matthew 7:7]

  • Nothing will be impossible to you. [Matthew 17:20]

  • Believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. [Mark 11:24]
Are Jesus' promises true or false? By looking at amputees we can see that they are false. Jesus/God never answer prayers to spontaneously restore lost limbs, despite the promises in the Bible.

If you are a believer, and if this is the first time you have thought about the situation faced by amputees seriously, you may have a set of rationalizations and excuses swirling through your head right now. Let's examine them one by one.

Rationalization #1

Here is an explanation that you might have heard or used before:

    The reason God cures thousands of cancers, infections, etc. each day but never intervenes with amputees is because it is not God's will to do that. It is not part of God's plan.
This explanation seems a little odd. Amputees really do seem to be getting the short end of God's plan if this is the case. If God answers prayers as promised in the Bible, and if God is performing all of the medical miracles that we read about in inspirational literature, then God should also be restoring amputated limbs. Why would God help cancer victims (e.g. Marilyn Hickey's mother) and people bitten by rabid bats (e.g. Jeanna Giese), but discriminate against amputees like this? (See Understanding God's Plan for an in-depth look at how "God's Plan" works).

Keep in mind what Jesus promised:

  • If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer. [Matthew 21:21]

  • If you ask anything in my name, I will do it. [John 14:14]

  • Ask, and it will be given you. [Matthew 7:7]

  • Nothing will be impossible to you. [Matthew 17:20]

  • Believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. [Mark 11:24]
There is no indication from Jesus that amputees will be ignored when they pray for medical help.

The five quotes in the previous paragraph are all simple, straightforward statements. Doesn't "nothing will be impossible for you" mean "nothing will be impossible for you"? Jesus is God, and as an all-knowing being God knows how humans interpret sentences. If Jesus did not mean "nothing will be impossible for you," it seems like Jesus would have said something else. He also would not repeat that sentiment so many times. And Jesus is supposedly answering millions of prayers each day, so prayer-answering seems to be his intent (See Understanding the gumball machine for a more in-depth discussion).

Rationalization #2

In a similar vein, many believers will say, "God always answers prayers, but sometimes his answer is 'no.' If your prayer does not fit with God's will, then God will say 'no' to you." This feels odd because God's answer to every amputee is always "no" when it comes to regenerating lost limbs. Jesus says, "If you ask anything in my name, I will do it." He does not say, "If you ask anything in my name, I will do it, unless you are praying about an amputated limb, in which case I will always reject your prayer." Jesus also says, "Nothing will be impossible to you," and regenerating a limb should therefore be possible. The fact that God refuses to answer every prayer to regenerate a lost limb seems strange, doesn't it?

To understand how strange it seems, compare God's treatment of amputees to the concept of God described in this article.

Rationalization #3

Here is another explanation that you might have heard: "God needs to remain hidden -- restoring an amputated limb would be too obvious." We will discuss this idea in more detail in later chapters, but let's touch on it here. Does God need to remain hidden?

That does not seem to be the case. In general, God seems to have no problem doing things that are obvious. Think about the Bible. Writing the Bible and having billions of copies published all over the world is obvious. So is parting the Red Sea. So is carving the Ten Commandments on stone tables. So is sending your son to earth and having him perform dozens of recorded miracles. And so on. It makes no sense for a God in hiding to incarnate himself, or to do these other obvious things. Why send your son to earth, and then write a book that talks all about his exploits, if you are trying to hide?

In the same way, any medical miracle that God performs today is obvious. The removal of a cancerous tumor is obvious because it is measurable. One month the tumor is visible to everyone on the X-ray, and the next month it is not. If God eliminated the tumor, then it is openly obvious to everyone who sees the X-ray. There is nothing "hidden" about removing a tumor. So, why not regenerate a leg in an equally open way? If God intervenes with cancer patients to remove cancerous tumors in response to prayers, then why wouldn't God also intervene with amputees to regenerate lost limbs?

Key Point

If God intervenes with cancer patients to remove cancerous tumors, then God should also intervene with amputees to regenerate lost limbs.
Another example is seen in Jeanne's rabies case discussed earlier in the chapter. Tens of millions of people are aware of the Jeanna's rabies miracle. Personally, I read about it in a big article in my morning newspaper. That is pretty obvious. What is hidden about her recovery?

Why, then, does God ignore the prayers of amputees? (see Chapter 19 for a complete discussion of the "hidden God" theory)

Rationalization #4

Some people might say, "Everyone's life serves God in different ways. Perhaps God uses amputees to teach us something. God must have a higher purpose for amputees." That may be the case -- God may be trying to send a message. But, again, it seems odd that he would single out this one group of people to handle the delivery. To quote Marilyn Hickey once again:

    No matter what has happened in your past, no matter what is happening in your present, seek out your heavenly Father in prayer as often as you can. Take my word for it -- He loves you and wants to answer your prayers. [ref]
You see this logic all the time in inspirational literature and hear it every Sunday at thousands of churches: "God loves you! God hears your prayers and will answer them for you!" See this article for an example. Yet, for some reason, miracles never happen when it comes to regenerating lost limbs. It does not seem to make sense that amputees would be cut off from the blessings that Jesus promises in the Bible. And it also does not mesh with all of the prayers that Jesus seems to be answering for other people.

Rationalization #5

Some people ascribe the problems that amputees face to free will. They will say, "Well, if you go into a war zone and get your legs blown off, that is your own free will. God gives us free will. You made a free choice to be a soldier. It is not God's fault, and therefore he has no obligation to repair the damage." This logic is fascinating. What about all the people who are born with missing limbs, or the people who lose limbs to diseases through no fault or choice of their own? How are these people any different from cancer victims, who, supposedly, are constantly being healed by God?

We know that God ignores all amputees, regardless of the cause of the missing limb. Why doesn't God heal thalidomide babies, who are by definition completely innocent? Or the innocent children who lose their limbs in mine fields? Why would God heal millions of other diseases, but completely ignore any disease that results in a lost or missing limb?

Rationalization #6

Some believers say, "God does help amputees - he inspires scientists and engineers to create artificial limbs for them!" This logic is interesting, especially if we look at other examples. Take the case of smallpox. Millions upon millions of people died of smallpox until the vaccine was invented in the twentieth century. If God is the one who inspired the scientists, why did God wait until the twentieth century to do it? Why would God want to be the source of the massive suffering that smallpox caused prior to the twentieth century? And why do we pay the scientists, given that their work is simply God's inspiration? (we will discuss the question of divine inspiration in more detail in Chapter 7)

Rationalization #7

Someone might say, "Thou shalt not test the Lord. It says so in the Bible." This is hard to swallow because every prayer is a test. Either God answers the prayer or he does not. There is no difference between praying for an amputee and praying for Jeanna Giese and her rabies.

Rationalization #8

Some people might say something like, "Jesus never says when he will answer your prayers. Maybe your prayer will be answered in the afterlife." But that seems uncomfortable. Jesus is answering millions of prayers for everyone else in the here and now. Clearly that is what he means with all his verses in the Bible. Why single out amputees for treatment in the afterlife when Marilyn and Jeanna get their prayers answered almost instantaneously?

Rationalization #9

Someone might say, "God will answer your prayers, but not immediately. You must be patient." They will point to a situation like that found in Mark 6:47-51:

    And when evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land. And he saw that they were making headway painfully, for the wind was against them. And about the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. He meant to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the sea they thought it was a ghost, and cried out; for they all saw him, and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, "Take heart, it is I; have no fear." And he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased.
A person might say, "you see, he came in the fourth watch (generally understood to be 3AM to 6AM), not in the first or second or third. You must be patient and wait for the Lord to answer your prayers." This is just as uncomfortable as the previous explanation. God does not answer the prayers of any amputee to restore lost limbs.

Rationalization #10

Finally, there is this oft-used chestnut: "There is no way to understand the mysteries of our Lord. People have believed in Jesus for 2,000 years, and there must be a very good reason for it." This feels like a sad point in the conversation. On one side of the conversation is a person who is defending the all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving creator of the universe. This person's position should be unassailable. Yet, if God exists, and answers prayers as described in the Bible, there is no explanation for what we see in the world around us. The Bible is silent in this case. God is silent. There is not a good, comfortable explanation for the situation faced by amputees except to say, "We cannot understand the mysteries of the Lord. We have no explanation for why God refuses to answer prayers to regenerate lost limbs."

Explaining the case of amputees

Just for a moment, I would ask you to consider the possibility of another explanation. If you believe in God, then this explanation will initially appear to be complete nonsense. However, it is interesting in light of the conversation we will be having in this book.

One explanation for the evidence that we see before us is this:

    God exists, and God answers prayers, but for some reason God chooses to ignore the prayers of amputees. We don't have a good explanation for why God acts this way, and it does seem to contradict what Jesus teaches about prayer in the Bible, but clearly God has his divine reasons.

Now let's look at the situation with amputees from another point of view. This explanation is more straightforward:

    God is imaginary.
Let's look at what happens when we consider this explanation and see how it stacks up.

Assume that God is imaginary. The beauty of this explanation is that it fits the facts perfectly. In the case of amputees, it is a valid way to explain the reality that we see in our world. The logic goes like this:

    If God is imaginary, then he does not answer any prayers. Therefore, the prayers of amputees would go unanswered too.

The thing that is so appealing about this explanation is that there is no hand waving. There are no contradictions. It is completely fair. There is no paradox. This explanation makes complete sense in light of the evidence we see in our world.

Key Point

If God is imaginary, then he does not answer any prayers. Therefore, the prayers of amputees would go unanswered too. The thing that is so appealing about this explanation is that there is no hand waving. There are no contradictions. It is completely fair. There is no paradox. This explanation makes sense in light of the evidence we see in our world.
Interestingly, this explanation also happens to cover the case of Neva Rogers in Chapter 1. And Steve Homel's subdivision in Chapter 2. And Ranika in Chapter 4. If you assume that God is imaginary, then the paradox of God evaporates in all of these cases. Why did Ranika die? Because there was no all-powerful, prayer-answering God to save her. Why did Neva die? Because there was no all-powerful, prayer-answering God to save her. Why did Steve's house remain standing while 39 others burned to the ground? Because there was no all-powerful, prayer-answering God to save any of the houses (and Steve's house was a fluke). Why did 200,000 people die in the tsunami? Because there was no all-powerful, prayer-answering God to save them. And so on. It explains amputees too. The paradox of God vanishes completely.

In response to this proposal, a thoughtful person might say, "Just because God never answers the prayers of amputees, it does not mean that he does not answer other prayers. I agree with you that it is unfair to amputees, and I agree with you that it contradicts what Jesus teaches in the Bible, but God has his reasons. For some reason, it is not part of God's plan to help amputees by regenerating their lost limbs. There is no way to understand the mysteries of our Lord, but he does have his reasons and they will become clear to us when we die and go to heaven." That is one possible explanation, but words like "unfair" and "contradicts" feel, somehow, uncomfortable. They do not fit with our mental image of an all-loving and perfect God, nor with the words of Jesus in the Bible. Why would God have such a problem with amputees that he completely ignores their prayers to regenerate lost limbs, while at the same time he is answering all of these other prayers millions of times a day? When it comes to amputees, why would Jesus renege on his promises to answer prayers in the Bible?

You can see that what we have here is a paradox:

  • On the one hand we have an all-knowing, all-loving God who has made very clear and specific statements in his Bible about the power of prayer. We have billions of people who believe that their prayers are being answered. We have thousands of examples of the power of prayer published in inspirational literature. We have prominent doctors at the CDC declaring that God is reaching down onto earth and performing medical miracles. We have major newspapers and magazines reporting on the power of prayer and prayer circles.

  • On the other hand, we have a piece of explicit evidence that does not make any sense if God exists. No matter how many people pray, no matter how sincere they are and no matter how much they believe, God does not answer the prayers of amputees to regenerate their limbs.
There are two possible explanations for this paradox:
  • Many people believe that God answers millions of prayers every day, using his love and power to bless people all over the globe. They express their belief in articles like this, published in magazines read by millions of people. But they also believe that God ignores the prayers of amputees for a divine reason that is unknowable to human beings. In that case, the situation with amputees is a mystery.

  • Many other people believe the opposite. They believe that God is imaginary, and therefore he cannot answer prayers. In that case, the situation with amputees makes complete sense.
Who is right?

The thing about amputees is that the evidence is rock solid. This solidity is what makes this example so compelling.

A cascade of problems

It's not like I am revealing some hidden truth here. The funny thing about amputees is that this evidence is obvious to everyone. We have all seen that God ignores the prayers of amputees. This evidence has been plainly visible for centuries.

Amputees are not the only ones either. For example:

  • If someone severs their spinal cord in an accident, that person is paralyzed for life. No amount of prayer is going to help.

  • If someone is born with a congenital defect like a cleft palate, God will not repair it through prayer. Surgery is the only option.

  • A genetic disease like Down Syndrome is the same way -- no amount of prayer is going to fix the problem.

Or what about this. What if we get down on our knees and pray to God in this way:

    Dear God, almighty, all-powerful, all-loving creator of the universe, we pray to you to cure every case of cancer on this planet tonight. We pray in faith, knowing you will bless us as you describe in Matthew 7:7, Matthew 17:20, Matthew 21:21, Mark 11:24, John 14:12-14, Matthew 18:19 and James 5:15-16. In Jesus' name we pray, Amen.
We pray sincerely, knowing that when God answers this completely heartfelt, unselfish, non-materialistic prayer, it will glorify God and help millions of people in remarkable ways. Will anything happen? Of course not. If prayers like this worked, Christians would have prayed every disease on the planet into extinction centuries ago. But if God were to exist, why would he ignore such a worthy prayer? [We will discuss this particular question in much more detail in chapter 6.]

It is also easy to find corroborating evidence outside the medical arena. At the global level, we see the evidence every day in many different ways. For example, we all see the millions of children who die every year from the tragic effects of poverty. Unicef puts it this way:

    Every year, more than 10 million children die totally preventable deaths. Some are directly caused by illness pneumonia, diarrhoea, measles and others are affected by indirect causes such as conflict and HIV/AIDS. Malnutrition, lack of safe water and inadequate sanitation are contributing factors to more than half of these deaths. [ref]
Jesus is supposed to love all the little children of the world: "Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight." So we can ask this straightforward question: If children are precious to Jesus, then why is he killing 10 million of them every year with abject poverty? That's 27,000 dead kids every day -- more than 1,000 dead children each hour. If Jesus answers prayers as he promises in the Bible, then why haven't the prayers of billions of people to end world hunger caused Jesus to solve the problem of global poverty? (We will discuss this situation in more detail in chapter 22.)

Key Point

27,000 children die every day for preventable reasons like malnutrition and unsafe drinking water. If Jesus answers prayers as he promises in the Bible, then why haven't the prayers of billions of people to end world hunger caused Jesus to solve the problem of global poverty?
We all know that holes like these exist. It is easy to find them. The holes suggest that something very odd is going on.

Ambiguity and coincidence

The question, "Why won't God heal amputees?" probes into an extremely interesting aspect of prayer and exposes it for observation. This aspect of prayer has to do with ambiguity and coincidence.

Imagine that you pray for something -- It does not really matter what it is. Let's imagine that you have cancer, you pray to God to cure the cancer, and the cancer actually does go away. The interesting thing to recognize is that there is ambiguity in your cure. God might have miraculously cured the disease, as many people believe. But God might also be imaginary, and the chemotherapy drugs and surgery are the things that cured your cancer. Or your body might have cured the cancer itself. The human body does have a powerful immune system, and this immune system has the ability to eliminate cancer in many cases. When your tumor dissappeared, it might be a coincidence that you happened to pray. Drugs, an immune response or a combination of the two might have been the thing the cured you.

How can we determine whether it is God or coincidence that worked the cure? One way is to eliminate the ambiguity. In a non-ambiguous situation, there is no potential for coincidence. Because there is no ambiguity, we can actually know whether God is answering the prayer or not.

That is what we are doing when we look at amputees.

When we pray to God to restore an amputated limb, there is only one way for the limb to regenerate. God must exist and God must answer prayers. What we find is that whenever we create a non-ambiguous situation like this and look at the results of prayer, prayer never works. God never answers prayers if there is no possibility of coincidence. We will approach this issue from several different angles in this book, but Chapters 6 and 7 are particularly important.

The fact that prayers are never answered when the possibility of coincidence is eliminated meshes with another fact. If we analyse God's responses to prayers using statistical tools, what we find is that there is never any statistical evidence for prayer. In other words, when we statisically compare prayer to coincidence for explaining any situation, they are identical. For example, this article points out:

    One of the most scientifically rigorous studies yet, published earlier this month, found that the prayers of a distant congregation did not reduce the major complications or death rate in patients hospitalized for heart treatments. [ref]
It also says:
    A review of 17 past studies of ''distant healing," published in 2003 by a British researcher, found no significant effect for prayer or other healing methods.
No scientific study has ever found any evidence that prayer works.

There are two possible conclusions to draw from these statistical studies and the situation with amputees:

  1. God somehow detects every non-ambiguous situation (like amputees) and every situation where a statistical study will be done and he "refuses" to answer prayers in those situations.

  2. God is imaginary and does not answer prayers at all. In every case where it appears that God "answers" a prayer, it truly is nothing more than a coincidence.
One problem with the first explanation is that it contradicts what Jesus teaches about prayer in the Bible. Jesus says that he answers payers. He never says, "don't pray to me unless the situation you are praying about is ambiguous." Another problem with the first situation is that it is possible to analyse any prayer with statistics, meaning that God cannot answer any prayer.

In other words, we reach the same conclusion: God is imaginary.

Incredibly Interesting

Whether you are religious or not, you have to admit that what we see here is incredibly interesting. Despite the fact that billions of people around the world believe in God, in this chapter we have seen a credible piece of evidence that indicates that God is imaginary.

We also have many other pieces of evidence that indicate the same thing. Let's step back and look at several of them.

First of all, we have this fact: there is no scientific evidence indicating that God exists. We all know that. For example, God has never left behind any physical evidence that shows that he is real. None of Jesus' miracles left behind any physical evidence either. God has never taken over all the TV and radio stations and broadcast a message to mankind. There is the Bible, but as we will see in Section 2 the Bible has problems of its own. And so on. So let's agree that there is no empirical evidence showing that God exists:

  • If we had scientific proof of God's existence, we would talk about the "science of God" rather than "faith in God".
  • If we had scientific proof of God's existence, the study of God would be a scientific endeavor rather than a theological one.
  • If we had scientific proof of God's existence, all religious people would be aligning on the God that had been scientifically proven to exist.
  • Etc.

Second, we have the fact that there is no statistical evidence that God answers prayers. No non-fradulent scientific study has found any evidence that prayer works. For example, if we have a prayer group pray for certain people in a hospital but not for others, the people who were prayed for don't get better any faster or live any longer. The prayers have zero statistical effect. We will discuss this in much more detail in Chapters 6 and 7.

Simply think about the world around you. First, if there were conclusive statistical evidence that God answers prayers, that would provide scientific evidence that God exists. Second, we can see that there are not two laws of probability -- one for Chistians who pray and one for everyone else. There is a single law of probability that applies equally to everyone. Prayers have zero effect in any statistical study.

Key Point

There are not two laws of probability -- one for people who pray and one for everyone else. There is a single law of probability that applies equally to everyone. Prayers have zero effect in any statistical study.
Third, we have quite a bit of daily evidence that also suggests that God is imaginary. For example, there is the paradox of Neva Rogers from Chapter 1. In this case Neva prays openly to God and then gets shot in the head four times. There is the paradox of Steve Homel's house, where Steve prays and his house is saved. Unfortunately, the 39 other houses on his street are cursed and burn to the ground. That 97.5% failure rate for prayer makes it feel like the survival of Steve's house is pure coincidence rather than a miracle. We see paradoxes like that constantly, and they all point to the fact that God is imaginary.

Fourth, we have the fact that all of the gods of the past truly were imaginary. We all know with certainty that the Egyptian gods, the Roman gods and the Aztec gods were completely fictitious. Otherwise we would not have started to worship Jesus. We would be worshiping Ra or Zeus rather than Jesus if Ra or Zeus were real.

Now we can start adding pieces of new evidence showing us that God does not exist. For example, we have the case of amputees as described in this chapter. If God is real, it is apparent that there is something very odd about amputees. God is supposedly answering millions of prayers on earth every day, but he completely ignores amputated limbs and refuses to restore them. That makes no sense according to the Standard Model of God and Jesus' statements in the Bible. God's treatment of amputees is inexplicable if God exists, but makes a lot of sense if God is imaginary.

We have all of this evidence to show that God is imaginary. If we were in a court of law looking at this question, the judge would quickly rule that God is imaginary. There is no concrete evidence that God is real and lots of evidence that he is imaginary.

If you are a thoughtful, curious person, the case of amputees really makes you wonder: Is God real or is he imaginary? Let's try looking at another example and see if it sheds any light on this situation...

Go to Chapter 6 >>>

by Marshall Brain

New York Times Coverage
discussed in a
New York Times piece
by N. D. Kristof.
For a counter-point to Mr. Kristof, please see
Chapter 26.

Recommendation by Sam Harris
Sam Harris recommends WWGHA in his book Letter to a Christian Nation.

Endorsement by Richard Dawkins
In a New York Times Letter, Richard Dawkins calls WWGHA a "splendid Web site."

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