I guess this is the week of responding to tweets. Our latest helping comes from my coauthor Justin Schieber:
When somebody thanks God for helping them find their keys they betray their belief in a God with some profoundly misaligned priorities.
— Real Atheology Podcast (@RealAtheology) December 21, 2016
Before I proceed to offer a response, let’s put this in perspective with a concrete example. Mrs. Brown goes out once a week to meet her friends for a game of bridge. This is her greatest joy since her husband’s passing at the age of 90. But this morning she cannot find the keys to her Oldsmobile. As the worry grows that she will miss her cherished bridge game, she feels the panic settling in. In that moment, she closes her eyes and prays “Dear God, please help me find my keys so I may see my friends and find some small joy in these long, lonely days. Amen.” With that she turns around and a glint catches her eye from behind the potted fern. Could it be? She walks closer and is delighted to find that it is, indeed her keys. In a moment of overwhelming gratitude she thanks God for helping her find her keys.
According to Justin’s tweet, in virtue of thanking God for helping her find her keys, Mrs. Brown reveals a belief in God with “some profoundly misaligned priorities.”
Oh really? Like what?
Perhaps Justin is thinking something like this: “God could have protected civilians in Aleppo. But instead, he chose to help Mrs. Brown find her keys. Any person who chooses to help a person find their keys instead of helping war refugees has profoundly misaligned priorities. Therefore…”
Unfortunately, this kind of reasoning reveals a deeply confused understanding of divine action. God’s action is not a zero-sum game as if his acting in one place precludes him acting in another. God is by definition omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good. So if God answers one prayer in a way that visibly benefits some persons (e.g. Mrs. Brown) but he fails to answer another prayer in way that visibly benefits other persons (e.g. war refugees), it is not because he has “profoundly misaligned priorities.” Rather, it is because he has morally sufficient reasons for responding in this fashion. And of course the theodicists have provided us with many accounts of what this might be.
That brings us to our second possible interpretation. Perhaps Justin’s real target is the alleged inadequacy of all theodicies, at least as regards this specific issue. On this take, Justin would be arguing as follows: the fact that apparently trivial prayers are answered (e.g. Mrs. Brown’s keys) while other more serious prayers are not answered (e.g. those of war refugees) reveals that no God exists. To be sure, there could be a subdivine being who is the object of these prayers, but if there is then he has “profoundly misaligned priorities.”
However, if that is the claim then Justin has only given us the conclusion He still needs to provide the supporting argument against theodicies.
In sum, I see no reason to think that thanking God for finding your keys necessarily reveals that God has profoundly misaligned priorities. As for Mrs. Brown, she is perfectly within her rights to be thankful to God.