How God Works

Marshall Brain is an entrepreneurial genius who sold the popular company he founded “How Stuff Works” for $250 million dollars to the Discovery Channel. In recent days he has set his lay-level explanations towards a loftier goal. According to his website, his new book How God Works, published in January 2015, tackles the topic of God’s existence in an attempt to “resolve the eternal debate once and for all” through Brain’s “intellectually rigorous, scientific approach.”

I picked up the book after having it recommended to me by a friend. I read a steady diet of books by skeptics and was genuinely interested to see what new angle or approach Brain would bring to the topic. After all, anyone with the last name “brain” deserves a chance.

But if the book really is a sincere attempt at resolving the eternal debate once and for all: it falls dreadfully short. Of course that purpose statement has all the ring of marketing jargon formulated to prompt book sales. To be totally honest, it is one of the more superficial works on the topic that I’ve read in recent history. Brain basically has one fundamental critique with belief in God, most specifically targeted at Christianity, and that is the problem of evil as evidenced by unanswered prayer.

The Problem of Evil

For a book that claims to be intellectually rigorous, it surprisingly doesn’t go in depth with either the problem of evil or unanswered prayer. For example, regarding the problem of evil, Brain doesn’t deal with the massive philosophical body of work addressing the topic. I searched for a reference to popular defenders of the faith like C.S. Lewis, Alvin Plantinga, or William Lane Craig in vain. He seems to make no attempt to even interact with meaningful counter arguments. Evil and suffering is just tossed out as the reason why believers should jettison faith in God. After all, as he concludes his chapter on “Who is God” the Christian story is plagued by irreparable holes namely that (1) God is invisible and (2) God is publicly silent (p.57). It is hard to tell if Brain has not been exposed to more substantive arguments against God’s existence, or if he just finds sound bytes like these persuasive.

Regarding the topic of prayer he merely quotes several passages of Scripture, horrifically out of context, and challenges the Christian reader to conduct an experiment of praying the following prayer, “Dear Jesus, I have great faith that you hear and answer prayers as you promise in Bible verses like John 14:12-14. I am going to flip this ordinary coin fifty times, and I am asking you to cause it to land tails-side up all fifty times. In your name I pray, Amen” (.67). He then says if the coin doesn’t land tails-side up all fifty times that it is scientific proof that God doesn’t exist.

Anyone with a cursory understanding of the teaching of prayer in Scripture knows that prayer is never presented as a mystic chant to get whatever one desires. In fact, a great passage for Brain to have considered, if he wanted to give a credible presentation of the Christian faith, would be where Jesus literally taught the disciples how to pray in which he instructed them to pray, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:9-10). Brain’s experiment comes across as not only gimmicky but grossly constructed as a straw man argument (an informal logical fallacy in argumentation where you present the weakest case for the opposing position as possible). 

The Science of Prayer

Though Brain doesn’t do justice to a biblical description of prayer, I was curious about how he would tackle his next chapter on prayer by the title “What Happens If We Examine Prayer Scientifically.” In this chapter (#6) he relies upon a study by Francis Galton from 1872. As an aside, Galton is Charles Darwin’s half-cousin, and also the scientist who coined the term “eugenics.” Galton’s nineteenth century research proves to be a useful tool for Brain to illustrate that prayer doesn’t work.

But those directly involved in researching the effects of prayer in the twenty-first century seem far less dogmatic.

In fact, this New York Times piece summarizes the disagreements about the findings of recent research and includes the warning from Dr. Charles Bethea, “One conclusion from this is that the role of awareness of prayer should be studied further” and this from Columbia University Dr. Richard Sloan, “The problem with studying religion scientifically is that you do violence to the phenomenon by reducing it to basic elements that can be quantified, and that makes for bad science and bad religion.” And in this book synopsis, Harvard University Press author Candy Gunther Brown states, “the widespread perception of prayer’s healing power has demonstrable social effects, and that in some cases those effects produce improvements in health that can be scientifically verified.”

In short, Marshall Brain should do at least a little survey work of contemporary studies before he conclusively states that we have scientifically proven that prayer doesn’t work. In this way he’s guilty of the very thing he charges believers for doing, “cherry picking,” which he describes as, “When someone . . . is electing only data and examples that match her expectations, while ignoring the data or examples that conflict with them” (.39). If he isn’t guilty of this, I’m not sure who is.

Not only do I think Brain fails to deal with the issues he raises in a fair and balanced way, I just think the tone of the book is unhelpful. For example, in the back of the book he gives a list of things that those who leave faith should expect to hear from Christians like: “You can’t prove that God doesn’t exist, so why don’t you shut up you atheist idiot? (.265) and “Have fun in hell with all your atheist friends, you creep!” (.267). You might think he’s just being cheeky, but he’s actually being quite serious as he describes, “Religious people, because of the tribalism and out-group negativity associated with religious super-irrationality, sometimes resort to attacks like this” (.267). Perhaps he has actually experienced someone saying these things to him, and if that is the case then I’d like to apologize on behalf of myself and all the Christians I know who would find such statements lamentable.

Brain raises a really important question, at least three times in the book (pages 16, 49, 58), “What process could possibly lead such an immense number of people to believe this conclusion [the existence of God]?” I think this is a fair question, and to be totally honest, I wish he would have dealt with it more seriously. I think this is a question worthy of greater consideration regardless of where one lands on the issue.

The History of How God Works

Who will read this book? Probably a lot of people mostly in their twenties and thirties. Who will be convinced by it? I hesitate to answer this because in a sense I want to say no one. I think people who generally agree with him before they read the book, will agree with him throughout. But because he deals with the topics on such a surface level, I don’t see how any one would could have a change of mind as result of his work.

If you are really curious about how God works you might consider, maybe for the first time in your life, seeking to understand the Christian story, what believers call the gospel. This simple narrative can be summarized with the four words: creation, separation, incarnation, and regeneration. God created. Humanity rebelled. Jesus came to make things right and promises to make all things new.

The issue of suffering and evil fits well within the framework of the fall. Christianity is not overturned by evil, but actually offers an objective category for understanding it. And, if the gospel is true, it does even more: it offers a solution. But on the atheistic perspective we simply live in a cold cosmos that doesn’t care one iota about our suffering. And for those who are honest enough to admit it, authors like Richard Dawkins and Alex Rosenberg, the category of evil loses all meaning on atheism. Instead of offering a coherent explanation of evil, it is eventually dismissed as a mere illusion.

At one point in the book Marshall Brain helpfully raises the question of why Jesus doesn’t reveal himself (Chapter 17). This is of course the factual claim at the heart of the gospel. And for anyone who is interested in an intellectually rigorous approach to the topic, this is a historical claim open to historical investigation. If you’ve never considered the historical claims of the gospel, I hope you’re up to the challenge. I know Jesus is.