Christian selection bias: how you, too, can be God

August 27, 2006 | By | 7 Replies More

Erich and I have previously mentioned Christian selection bias — the practice of crediting “God” with prayers that are “answered” while ignoring the many examples of prayers that are not (also known as confirmation bias) — but today I saw, for the first time, an explicit call for this bias among Christians.  A televangelist on one of the Christian channels was ridiculing Christians for mentioning the many times their prayers are not answered.  He admonished his flock, “Don’t honor the Devil or your own lack of faith by complaining when things you pray for don’t happen, you should only honor God when your prayers are answered” (emphasis added).

See, that’s how it works.  If you pray for something that comes true, then you should immediately spread the word about the power of God to answer your prayers.  But if you pray for things that don’t happen, then you should just shut up and sit down, because it’s your own fault.  If God doesn’t answer your prayers, it’s because your own lack of faith has allowed the Devil to run your life.  You are explicitly told to behave this way, or risk being publicly ridiculed — a classic form of social manipulation.

God sure has great PR.  Heck, with PR like his, anyone could be God.  In fact, here’s how you, too, can be God: 

Find a bunch of followers who will observe two simple rules:

(1) they must fervently believe you can answer their prayers, so you can gain the placebo effect that God enjoys; and

(2) they must ignore all instances when you fail to answer their prayers, and credit you (and only you) whenever you appear to answer them, so you can gain the marvelous selection bias that God enjoys.

If your followers do these two things, they will be unable to distinguish your prayer-answering ability from God’s.  Indeed, this is how pagan faith healers (e.g., shamans) also operate, and for good reason:  because it works.

For more discussions about prayer and Christian selection bias, read here and here.


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Category: Psychology Cognition, Religion

About the Author ()

Grumpypilgrim is a writer and management consultant living in Madison, WI. He has several scientific degrees, including a recent master’s degree from MIT. He has also held several professional career positions, none of which has been in a field in which he ever took a university course. Grumps is an avid cyclist and, for many years now, has traveled more annual miles by bicycle than by car…and he wishes more people (for the health of both themselves and our planet) would do the same. Grumps is an enthusiastic advocate of life-long learning, healthy living and political awareness. He is single, and provides a loving home for abused and abandoned bicycles. Grumpy’s email: grumpypilgrim(AT)@gmail(DOT).com [Erich’s note: Grumpy asked that his email be encrypted this way to deter spam. If you want to write to him, drop out the parentheticals in the above address].

Comments (7)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    Speaking of intercessory prayers, I ran across a site that deserves an honorable mention for the name of the site alone. "Why Won't God Heal Amputees?"

    It's really interesting how those who believe in intercessory prayer rarely ask God for the sort of healing that would be dramatic, vivid and convincing to non-believers. Why do they hold back?  

    There's no theological reason that those lacking limbs shouldn't go ahead and ask for that replacement limb! Puny humans who are attempting to sway omnipotence and Omniscience shouldn't hold back. After all, providing a new leg shouldn't be any harder for Omnipotence than getting rid of lung cancer or calming a person's general sense of anxiety.  Really, why NOT ask for a replacement limb to suddenly sprout–unless, perhaps, the person praying is hedging her bets.

    If those amputee believers REALLY believed in what they preach, they'd ask God for replacement limbs on live National TV, so the rest of us could see it all happen (or not).

    This reminds me of the time I met a woman who claimed that she could levitate.  Her claim caught my attention and I asked if she really meant that her body lifted off the ground.   Absolutely, she assured me.  I asked her if I could come watch.  She looked a bit nervous, but assured me that I could watch.  I asked for her address and a good time to come observe.  She paused, then lashed out at me, claiming that I was not of the right mindset.  I did not deserve to watch her levitate.  Therefore, I was not any longer invited to see her levitate.  I was a bad bad man, she announced.

  2. Jennifer says:

    We just spent several posts discussing this very issue on my blog. We started going through the Why Won't God Heal Amputees site, looking at each rationalization point by point. Much arguing and mud-slinging ensued. It was fun. 🙂

  3. grumpypilgrim says:

    Erich's story about the woman who claimed she could levitate reminds me of an amusing story about the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. For many years after the PTO opened, it routinely required a working model of every invention (assuming it was practical to do so). However, as the building began to fill with prototypes, the PTO realized it could not continue this policy, so it reversed course and stopped accepting working models…with just one exception that remains to this day: perpetual motion machines. This is the only category of invention for which the PTO still insists on receiving a working model — no exceptions. But I'll bet that if someone files a patent application for an anti-gravity machine or a faster-than-light spaceship, the PTO will insist on receiving a working model of that, too.

    As regards God not healing amputees, it is indeed convenient for God that the many people who claim to have been healed by him never seem to have any observable symptoms that would enable someone to conclusively demonstrate divine healing. They'll claim that God has healed their back pain or their headaches, but not their blindness, deafness, paralysis, etc. Likewise, things like cancer give us another example of selection bias: people who survive can claim that God has healed them, while those who die are no longer around to complain about God's failure to answer their prayers; thus, subjective reports of God's miraculous healing ability will be very heavily distorted in God's favor.

    What irks me are the many stories we hear in the media about so-called "miracles." They'll do a story about an amazing surgical procedure (e.g., a thirty-hour surgery to separate conjoined twins) or about some amazing example of survival (e.g., a guy who survives a fall from a 30-story balcony by landing on his back on the roof of a car), and they'll call it a "miracle." These things aren't miracles; they're either examples of revolutionary new medical techniques or examples of events that are just very unlikely. I once dropped a nickel onto the floor and it came to rest on its edge — should we believe this was a miracle? I don't think so. But, we might think so if we were to believe the media's hyperbole.

    Maybe this is why so many religious believers (not just Christians) have such a poor ability to distinguish between science and superstition. If your worldview insists that whenever something occurs that is statistically unlikely to occur — someone survives a plane crash, for example, or has a brain tumor that goes into remission — then you're likely to imagine that all sorts of ordinary events are "miracles" even if they occur just as often as statistical predictions would expect them to occur. And if your worldview also includes vast armies of invisible creatures — devils, deamons, witches, angels, ghosts, spirits, etc. — then the occurrence of statistically-unlikely events will trigger all sorts of absurd…or, at least, unscientific…beliefs about how the world works.

    Given all this, is it a surprise that the Republican party — a party beholden to extremist evangelical Christians — is also the party that (a) imagines that terrorists are going to overthrow America and (b) is utterly inept at effectively dealing with the actual terrorist threat? Is it any wonder they are chasing windmills in Iraq, while the rest of the world shakes its head in dismay?

  4. Maf says:

    With reference to :grumpypilgrim Says:

    August 28th, 2006 at 8:35 am

    The relationship between people who are indoctrinated into unquestioning faith and the Republican party faithful is a great example of how to win at politics.

    Stupid people & greedy people will always add up to a majority in the USA, while the rest of us are left with a bemused feeling, as if watching a smiling man about to piss onto an electric fire.

  5. Mike says:

    Very interesting article, and a very good question… Does God Answer Prayer.

    In fact it reminds me of a story about a young man who when he was 6 asked his father for a shotgun. The father did not even reply to the boys request, instead without even looking up continued with his work.

    Again the boy asked his father… and again no reply. The boy became angry at his dad for ignoring him… and not even answering him. The anger eventually grew to dislike… and dislike to hate. The boy started avoiding his father completely, disobeying him, and saying things behind his back. This continued for years, until just a few days before his 16th birthday his father passed away.

    The boy still angry with his father had nothing to say at the funeral… and as soon as it was over went home to rummage through his father's possessions to see what could be of use to him. As he dug through his father's things he found a large box with a card. Unaware of what could be in this box he opened it to find a brand new shotgun… the card attached was a birthday card for his 16th birthday.

    It read the following:

    "I know you wanted this shotgun when you were 6, but I knew then you were not ready for it. Through the years you asked me again and again, but you were never quite ready. I am proud to say that now you are becoming a man, and one I could not be more proud of.

    Love Always, Your Father."

    I think this is something all Christians need to remember… just because we don't get the results we want… it doesn't mean God isn't listening, or hasn't answered our prayers.

    Sometimes God says yes and gives us the answer right away…

    Sometimes God says no, and has something else in mind…

    And sometimes, like the father in this story, he says Wait…

    I hope you publish this, as I think it is important for all Christians to remember not to rely on material things… but to rely on God. I truly believe that God sometimes gives us what we want… but ALWAYS gives us what we NEED.

    Thank You & God Bless,


  6. Erich Vieth says:

    Mike: Nice story, but I don't see how it proves anything about the alleged power of prayer.

  7. Intelitary Milligenc says:

    I believe in miracles. I do not believe in magic.

    Confirmation bias goes both ways. If God showed himself, would you believe it was him? What proof would there be? If he did grow a new leg for someone, would that mean he was God, or an alien with super duper powers?

    Then you've got the problem of what a remote control would do for people in ancient times. They'd want to call anybody holding one a God, or worse kill you so they could be Gods too.

    It gets worse. Suppose there was a mighty showing of power. Just what would that solve? Is it really healthy for people to be trying to reason about things when their egos are fully engorged so to speak?

    And suppose we found an explanation that showed how God did it. I mean if it's possible there must be a means. Would we then deny that God did it all along?

    The fact is there is nothing that proves or disproves prayer because there isn't even a hypothesis or theory to begin with.

    I'll tell you what though, the real problem is associative reasoning. It's a bunch of hollow assertions masquerading as logical arguments and when it comes to bias and truth that stuff gets you confused.

    If something happens and you had prayed for it before the fact, you may think there's a causation.

    Arguing about why we ignore the prayers that "don't work" is like arguing about why every email to mom isn't just as sweet as every other.

    Why doesn't every teacher teach well?

    Why doesn't every dog look the same?

    Prayer is more complex than you make it out to be. Not your fault, though.

    Prayer is more complex than most believers imagine.

    If we want to understand reality we have to give up the dialectics.

    We need to look at reality from three aspects. Everything has a beginning middle and end. There's more to it than opposites.

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