How should Christian effective altruists use prayer in decision-making?


by Josh Parikh

Christians commonly talk about the importance of prayer in decision making. The idea of ‘calling’ – such as in one’s career – is commonly seen as something discerned through private prayer. This seems to be in tension with effective altruism as classically defined:  “the use of high-quality evidence and careful reasoning to work out how to help others as much as possible” (Centre for Effective Altruism).

So how should Christians who want to affirm both the significance of prayer and the moral imperative of reason and evidence in decision making respond?

This matters especially in light of the robust bases of evidence provided by effective altruism on a number of key issues by charity evaluators such as GiveWell for charitable giving; 80,000 Hours on career choice; and the Future of Humanity Institute and others on cause prioritisation.

If both prayer and reason are valuable, then there seems to be a tradeoff. Some people argue that calling, whether in giving or with regard to career, is primarily determined by prayerful hearing, while others argue that these should be made with through reasoning. David Lawrence has explored how trade-offs in Christian ethics are often underplayed. One of the key points which David made was that many people think they resolve a tradeoff when all they do is restate it. If I tell you how great reasoning is, but also affirm that prayer is really important too, then all I have done is restate rather than resolve this tradeoff.

I want to defend a ‘default-reason’ ethic as a resolution to this tradeoff. This means we should default to relying upon reason and evidence when it exists with regards to career, and should only rely on prayerful hearing from God if we have very good reason to trust this. I will, however, outline some roles for prayerful hearing later. I want to be explicit that the requirement for reliableness when it comes to prayerful hearing is quite stringent. A person with a verifiable track record of prophetic hearing or a very explicit miracle which clearly designates a particular option might fulfil this requirement. I don’t believe this will be very common, and want to explicitly clarify that.

Why defend such a stringent requirement? Here are at least three reasons to accept this view.

Firstly, it is an intuitive requirement. If we consider the example of health, most Christians would agree that medicine (or other, ordinary physical remedies) should be our default way of approaching illness. Many Christians would also accept that prayer for healing is a legitimate complement to medicine. A fringe minority might argue that prayer for healing should exclude using medicine, but most people and most Christians are happy to rely upon medicine as the default. This is because of the stronger track record of medicine to ensure that people’s lives are made better, discerned through its evidence base. The role of reason and evidence also becomes more important when we have higher stakes. While you might not read the Spotify terms and conditions, you’re more likely to do so when going bungee jumping because the stakes are much higher.

In careers and giving, we have the opportunity to do significant good in a very high stakes scenario, and reason is clearly helpful to make much better decisions. For example, philosopher Toby Ord suggests that the difference between the best and the worst health interventions can be up to 15,000 times as effective. Moreover, our intuitions of the most and least effective interventions are often unreliable by comparison to what the evidence shows. This finding is significant, I think prayer is valuable, but I do not believe that prayerful hearing has the track record here which allows us to have an impact which is 15,000 times greater, or even 60 times greater. Insofar as this tradeoff exists, I would argue that reason-based giving and career choice is to be prioritised more heavily.

Secondly, a ‘default-reason’ ethic fits with the Biblical view of guidance. Guidance is sometimes thought to be a purely private affair, relying solely on private prayer without the use of reason. I think this is inconsistent with Scriptural conceptions of guidance. One key verse here is Psalm 32:9-10 :

I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;

I will guide you with My eye.

Do not be like the horse or like the mule,

Which have no understanding,

Which must be harnessed with bit and bridle,

Else they will not come near you.

The first part of this passage promises guidance from God very explicitly, the instruction, teaching in the way you should go and being guided. The second part of this passage clarifies that this guidance is not to be like a horse or a mule which have no understanding and are pulled along with a bridle.

The situation of these two side by side demonstrates that God’s guidance of us as human beings, who have understanding, is not like a mindless mule, but instead should be considered as an intellectual endeavour involving our understanding.

Further Biblical reasons to accept this view include the need to discern what is true in prayer (‘Test everything, and hold fast to what is good’ 1 Thessalonians 5:21), the need to recognise false teachers and our ability to do so, and the generally high view of reason as laid out throughout Scripture, from the book of Proverbs and onwards.

Thirdly, we know from experience that people often get wrong what they think to be hearing from God. Tim Keller records the example of preacher George Whitefield, who believed that he had heard from God that his son was going to be an amazing preacher. After Whitefield had declared this numerous times in public, his baby tragically died at a very young age. Numerous other examples exist, from wild apocalyptic prophecies to the everyday experience of mature disciples. I think we can be mistaken for a variety of reasons, from sinfulness, to an inability to correctly discern God’s voice over our own desires. While I believe we can still discern God’s voice in prayer, I also think we should be wary of relying upon people’s prayerful hearing over the trusted mechanism of reason in high-stakes endeavours.

This does not mean that prayer should be discarded. Indeed, prayer is vitally important for the Christian Effective Altruist to ensure ongoing character formation, fruitfulness in their endeavours, and as a vital way of caring for the needs of the world. But in the difficult trade-off, we should rely on the gift of reason.

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