THE POWER OF PRAYER

24-May-2015


There is an article in Sports Illustrated, the issue of 5-18-2015, about new University of Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh. One story in the article tells of how Harbaugh found a new house for his family in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where the university is located, and where Harbaugh himself had grown up.

According to the article, Harbaugh's wife, Sarah, made several trips from California to Ann Arbor to look at houses, and rejected 20 of them.

At last Harbaugh, after an all-night aimless drive through Ann Arbor, began looking at homes in the neighborhood he was driving through when it became light enough to see them. One house looked ideal, to his eye. It was, unfortunately, not for sale, but he wrote down the address anyway. And then, according to the article, "He went to mass at St. Francis of Assisi, his childhood church. Three days later the place went on the market." Sarah flew out once more from California, liked the house, and they bought it.

There seems to be an obvious intended message here: I have to think article writer Michael Rosenberg, in making a point of including Harbaugh's trip to mass, immediately before telling us the house then went on the market 72 hours later, is trying to suggest that the power of prayer had produced a miracle, as it purportedly so often does. Though Rosenberg doesn't say specifically that Harbaugh, at mass, prayed about the house, it would be pretty astonishing if he didn't, and I'm sure we're meant to assume he did.

The Christian faithful will surely take this anecdote as yet another proof of God answering prayers: how likely is it, one wonders, that one particular house that you would like to buy would go on the market within three days?

Well, that question, at least, I can answer, and put it in a context that will make it sound less amazing.

According to Credit Sesame, during the period 2001-2008, American homeowners sold their homes after an average of six years. Following the crash of the real estate market, the average turnover time had shot up to nine years by 2011. That market has recovered to some extent, so let's say that in 2015, the average is 8 years. That's about 3000 days, or about 1000 three-day periods.

So if you pick a house entirely at random, there is 1 chance in 1000 (or so) of seeing it go on the market in a given three-day period. (Actually, I should mention that housing turnover is faster than average in college towns, of which Ann Arbor certainly is one. So the Ann Arbor house going on the market is really more likely than that 1-in-a-thousand figure. But I will give the power-of-prayer advocates a break and pretend I didn't know that, and treat Ann Arbor as an average American city.)

Yes, that is a pretty unlikely occurrence. But not prohibitively so; certainly not the "one in a million" that is traditionally held to represent events you'd never expect to happen. How can one get a feeling for what "1 in 1000" means in terms of likelihood?

Take ten coins. Throw them up in the air. How likely is it that all ten will come up heads? Obviously not very likely, but to be specific, there is exactly 1 chance in 1024 of it happening. Let's call it 1 in 1000. Go ahead and try it. I'll wait for you.

Okay, you tried it. It didn't happen. I'm sure you didn't think it would.

So try it again -- toss all ten coins in the air once more. And again. And again. Do it a dozen times. A hundred. A thousand.

If you try the 10-coin toss a thousand times, you should expect to see all ten coins come up heads once sometime during those thousand tries. That's what 1-in-a-thousand means.

And that time all ten coins come up heads? It might happen anywhere along the way during those thousand attempts. It can happen on the first try. Unlikely, but it can happen. One chance in a thousand.

Jim Harbaugh (presumably) prayed about the house he wanted to buy. It came on the market in three days. There was a 1-in-1000 chance of that happening. Approximately the same chance as that coin toss. It's like he tossed the ten coins and they all came up heads on the first try.

But wait. Was it the first try? By that I mean: had he never before in his entire life ever prayed for something that was unlikely to happen? Surely that's not the case. When he did pray, did he get what he asked for every one of those times? Surely not.

You can't judge the prayer-for-a-house in isolation. It has to be considered in the context of all of the things Jim Harbaugh had ever prayed for. The magazine article didn't mention any of those things in his lifetime Harbaugh had ever asked for and didn't get. It only told us about the one time that something amazing happened. If you focus on one answered prayer out of a lifetime of unanswered ones, that's called cherry-picking. A lot of false beliefs can be "proven true" by cherry-picking: paying attention only to instances that support the belief and ignoring all of the ones that don't. It is exactly as if you repeated the ten-coin toss, again and again, forgetting all of the times when you failed to get 10 heads until finally, at long last, the coins all come up heads, at which point you exclaim, "I tossed ten coins and they all came up heads! How incredible is that??" There is nothing incredible, amazing, or even unlikely about it. When you keep tossing the coins, the 10-head result is bound to happen eventually. The only thing that makes it seem amazing is ignoring all the failures as if they had never happened.

That is what the "power of prayer" is all about: it is a matter of overlooking all of the failures of prayer and pointing only at the successes. The successes have to happen eventually. They aren't acts of God.



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