Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, May 13, 2013

The power of prayer vs. the power of litigation

Today we have a rather ironic story out of Brazil.

Cabaret owner Tarcilia Bezerra, in the city of Fortaleza, wanted to expand his business.  He had experienced great success with his liquor-and-dancing-girls enterprise, and thought it was time to make the place bigger.  So he applied for, and got, a building permit, and construction began.

The local church, however, didn't think that was such a hot idea.  All of that skin showing and alcohol flowing was just sinful; the idea that the godly folks of Fortaleza had to put up with Bezerra crowing about how well he was doing, and making the place bigger and better, was just naughty in god's sight.  So the pastor (who was unnamed in the story) encouraged his flock to pray that god would intervene and smite Bezerra and his unholy Temple of Tawdriness.  Prayer sessions were organized morning, noon, and night for weeks, as the construction went on.

And then, only a week before the grand reopening, lightning struck the cabaret, destroying most of the roof and almost all of the new construction.

The pastor was overjoyed, as were the members of his congregation.  The pastor spoke in a sermon the following Sunday about this demonstration of "the great power of prayer."  The church members bragged all over town that their petitions to god had been heard, and that the lightning had been sent by god himself to strike down the wicked cabaret.

So Bezerra sued the church.

His lawsuit read, in part, that the church and its members "were responsible for the end of my building and my business, using divine intervention, direct or indirect, as the actions or means."

The pastor, of course, was appalled, but was forced to respond to the lawsuit.  His response, predictably, was to deny "all responsibility or any connection with the end of the building."

Now, wait a minute: isn't this backwards?  The cabaret owner is the one who believes that praying works, and the church pastor doesn't?

The judge in the case, which has yet to be decided in court, evidently agrees.  In his opening statement, he said, "I do not know how I'm going to decide this case, but one thing is evident in the records. Here we have an owner of a cabaret who firmly believes in the power of prayer, and an entire church declaring that prayers are worthless."

It all, somehow, makes me wonder how much folks really believe what they're saying.  I remember, during the Cold War, Americans praying for the destruction of the Soviet Union.  How would they have reacted if Moscow had been struck by a giant meteorite, causing millions of deaths?  People pray for political candidates, and sometimes sports teams, to win.  What if it actually happened, as per biblical miracles, with the losing candidate (or sports team) being eaten by a lion, contracting leprosy, or being "swallowed up by the earth?"  Each Sunday, there are thousands of prayers given asking for Jesus' return.  What if he just showed up, and said, "You rang, here I am!  Okay, leave behind your comfy house and all of your stuff.  Give everything away to the poor, like I told you to.  What, weren't you listening?"

Oh, I'm sure that there are some people who would be thrilled if this happened.  The members of the Westboro Baptist Church, for example.  But I'll bet that most ordinary churchgoing folks would freak out so badly that they might never freak back in.

I suppose the take-home message, here, is "be careful what you pray for, because due to random chance, it might actually happen, and then you'll have to admit that you honestly didn't think anyone was listening."


  1. The Pastor's argument should have been that the guy should be suing God, who actually caused the destruction, and not the church who only asked him for it. Or at least that God should bear the brunt of the fine. I think suing God Himself has been tried though, and legal grounds were not found...

    1. you can be found guilty of murder if you hire a hitman.

      this should be no different. if they believe prayed works then they were actively working toward the destruction of that man's property.

  2. God is out of that court's jurisdiction, though I suppose if He ever visited that country He could be arrested and charged with arson or vandalism or whatever.

    If you view God as the ultimate authority, then you wouldn't expect Him to be overly influenced by the pleas of worshipers. They might, let's say, call attention to a situation, but God disposes, right? If Berezza really is a believer, it seems he should conclude that God doesn't approve of his expansion plans. God certainly isn't just the tool of the local minister.

    Of course, it might be that Berezza believes in God, but doesn't acknowledge his moral authority. If he thinks God is basically a stupid, powerful bully, then I suppose it's legitimate to sue the people who pointed Him in Berezza's direction.