The Rich Man and Lazarus

Over at Parchment and Pen, Michael Patton wonders why some people believe and others don’t. He hews pretty close to the standard Christian answer that people know there’s a God but don’t admit it because they don’t want to admit to God’s authority (actually, it’s educated Christians who know there isn’t really a God but don’t admit to it).

Moses and the Prophets

I was interested in his discussion of the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, in which the Rich Man ignores Lazarus, the beggar at his gate. The Rich Man ends up in Hell, while Lazarus ends up in Heaven. The Rich Man wants Lazarus to visit his brothers and warn them, but Abraham (who’s in charge of Heaven and Hell in this story, in a sort of Jewish version of St Peter’s role, I suppose) tells the Rich Man that “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” Patton says this illustrates that “we have a much bigger problem than the lack of evidence”.

Well, maybe we do, but we certainly do have the problem of lack of evidence, and the Abraham of the parable is either irrational or encouraging the Rich Man’s brothers to be so. People rising from the dead is strong evidence in a way that merely writing books is not, because many worldviews have books which advocate them and they can’t all be right, and because the fact that your opponents write books isn’t very surprising to a whole load of views. Resurrections, on the other hand, are very surprising to views which don’t predict them.

This, then, is how you should pray

I was listening to the Christian philosopher Tim Mawson on a podcast recently. He thinks atheists should pray to God to reveal himself, which seems fair enough: I’d like to try it if I can think of what would be a fair positive and negative result. Any ideas?

Pre-commitment

Crucially, Mawson agrees beforehand that a negative result is evidence against Christianity, which makes him more rational than Abraham. As I mentioned previously, I’ve been following Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, a fun bit of creative writing which explores what would’ve happened if Harry Potter had been educated in science and rationality before the Hogwarts people turned up. Mawson’s attitude is a bit like the alternate Harry Potter getting everyone to agree on the significance of possible outcomes before doing an experiment at the beginning of this chapter of the story.

Edited: Speaking of Hell, there ended up being a lively discussion on Hell on one of my previous posts, which you might also be interested in.

3 thoughts on “The Rich Man and Lazarus”

  1. Atheists praying to God to reveal himself: I’d think the key thing in designing such an ‘experiment’ would be to avoid privileging any hypothesis to excess. Even if we accept that conducting the experiment by prayer limits it to testing the existence of only those types of supernatural being which can hear and answer prayer, it would seem like an error to get too specific on fine details like, say, Jesus.

    (Does Mawson also think that Christians should pray to all the other possible gods to reveal themselves? If not, why not?)

    1. In the comments on Luke’s post, Mawson writes:

      You fall over the edge of a cliff and are hanging desperately from a protruding root, which is about to crack and send you hurtling to your doom hundreds of feet below. Your only hope is that there’s someone on top of the cliff with a rope; you didn’t see anyone just before you fell over and you probably would have done had they been there so you’re almost sure there’s no-one there. Nevertheless, when you cry out, ‘Is there anyone there?’, you’ll be sincere. So you can be sincere in praying even if you think that there’s almost certainly no God.

      So, I think one could do that without privileging the hypothesis too much: Mawson saying you should pray to Jesus, he just thinks (as a Christian) that Jesus will answer “To Whom It May Concern” prayers.

      (Does Mawson also think that Christians should pray to all the other possible gods to reveal themselves? If not, why not?)

      Good question, and not one that I recall Luke asking. I’ll comment on the Common Sense Atheism thread, as it seems Mawson is reading there.

      1. So you can be sincere in praying even if you think that there’s almost certainly no God.

        Oh, that’s a really interesting point.

        (I did try praying, and got no result, but it wasn’t a conclusive test :))

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