Prayer Doesn’t Work as Advertised

This is an excerpt from my book, Cross Examined: An Unconventional Spiritual Journey.

A bit of background: Jim is a wealthy, housebound, and somewhat obnoxious atheist, though formerly a devout and learned Christian. Paul is the young acolyte of a famous pastor, doing his best to evangelize. It’s 1906 in Los Angeles, and they’re in Jim’s study.

“Have you thought much about how prayer works?” Jim asked.

“The Bible tells us how: ‘Ask and ye shall receive.’”

“Does it really work that way? You just ask for things and then you get them?”

Paul breathed deeply to focus his mind. He had to think clearly. Jim’s arguments always seemed to trap him. “Well, no, of course not. And that frustrates some Christians. They don’t understand that they need to let God’s plan unfold for them. It may simply not be part of God’s plan to give you what you ask for right now. You can’t treat God as an all-powerful servant always at your elbow, fulfilling every whim that comes to mind. God isn’t a genie.”

Several white chess pieces—three pawns, a knight, and a bishop—lay on the center table. Though the table was not marked with a chessboard, Jim leaned forward and set them up on the table in their beginning positions. “Perhaps not, but ‘ask and ye shall receive’ is pretty straightforward. It makes God sound like a genie to me.”

“But that’s clearly not how prayer works.”

“I agree, but the Bible doesn’t. It makes plain that prayer is supposed to work that way—you ask for it, and then you get it. Prayer is a telephone call to God, and he always answers your call.”

“No—you’re misreading the Bible. It doesn’t say when you get it.”

Jim shook his head. “But it does say that you’ll get it.”

Paul tried another tack. “God answers every prayer, but sometimes the answer is No.”

“That’s not what the Bible says. Jesus said that if you have faith as tiny as a mustard seed, you will be able to move mountains. Jesus said that prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well. Jesus said that whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. Jesus said that all things are possible to him who believes. Jesus said, ‘Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it.’ No limitations or delays are mentioned.”

“Fine,” Paul said, clenching his teeth. “Fine.” He hated conceding ground, but he had no response.

“Okay,” Jim said, “let’s look at another aspect of prayer. When you pray, are you telling God something he doesn’t already know? That is, is prayer important because you’re informing God of some news, like ‘I’ve lost my job’ or ‘my brother has consumption’?”

“Certainly not—God is all-knowing. Obviously, he already understands your situation. It’s the asking part that’s important.”

“So you need to change it to ‘please help me get this new job’ or ‘please cure my brother’s consumption’?”

“That sounds better.”

Jim leaned forward. “But even this doesn’t make sense. God knows what’s best for you. For you to ask God to change his plans is presumptuous. It’s like an ant giving an engineer tips for designing a bridge. Will God think, ‘It’s best that you not get the new job, but since you asked nicely, I’ve changed my mind’? And maybe it’s simply part of his plan that your brother die from consumption.”

“But prayers are answered all the time! Lots of consumption patients can point to God as the reason they’re alive now.”

“Not with any justification. Let’s say Aunt May has an illness. She and her family pray, and then she gets well. She concludes that it was prayer and God’s intervention that cured her. But obviously there are other explanations, such as, that her treatment saved her. And if she had no treatment, perhaps it was simply her body healing itself.”

“And perhaps it was God!” Paul ached to pace around the room to burn off some of his tension, but he was a guest and thought better of it.

“Perhaps so, but you’re basing that on no evidence. I agree that we can’t rule out that it was God—or Vishnu or Osiris or a four-leaf clover. But we have no evidence that any of them did anything.” Jim was quickly running through different opening moves for his five chess pieces—tick, tick, tick as the pieces quickly struck the table, then a pause as he set them up again.

Paul wondered if his responses were so bland that Jim needed to play chess to keep his mind occupied.

Jim looked up and said, “The attraction of prayer in many cases is that it’s easier than doing the hard work yourself. Praying for a promotion is easier than doing what’s necessary to deserve a promotion. But let’s look at this from another angle. God has cured zero cases of birth defects—say, mental idiocy. We know this because zero cases have been cured by any cause, natural or supernatural. Millions of mothers have been devastated by the prospect of their children growing up with a disability or even dying an early death. Has God found none of their prayers worthy of an answer? Or amputations—there are probably men in your own church who have lost limbs due to war or injury. Has a single limb ever grown back? No. And since God has cured zero of these, maybe he has intervened in zero illnesses. That is, since God hasn’t performed any visible cures, maybe he hasn’t done any invisible ones, either.

“And think of the millions of people around the world who are starving. Prayers or no prayers, God apparently can’t be bothered to help them. If God is going to set aside the laws of physics and perform a miracle, is he to put my needs at the top of the list? If he won’t save a country starving during a famine, why should I think he’ll cure my rheumatism?”

Jim expanded his diversion, adding opposing black chess pieces to his imaginary board—three pawns and a knight from the other side of the table. He alternated moves from each side and held the captured pieces between his fingers so that the round bottoms embellished his hands like fat wooden rings.

“Consider smallpox,” Jim said as he set up the pieces for another mock game. “We don’t think of it much now, but it has been one of civilization’s most deadly diseases. In fact, the last smallpox outbreak in this country was here in Los Angeles, about thirty years ago. Suppose you have a large number of people who are vaccinated against smallpox and an equally large number who aren’t, and both groups are exposed to smallpox. Those who were vaccinated will do far better than those who don’t—regardless of who prays. You can look at this from the other direction—the high death rate from smallpox suggests that God’s plan is for it to be deadly. That is, vaccines interfere with God’s plan. Maybe we shouldn’t be using them.”

Every confident tick of a chess piece was a goad to Paul, a reminder that he was the novice in this discussion. Tick, tick, tick became “i-di-ot.” He said, “Maybe God doesn’t need to focus on smallpox anymore because science has stepped in. Maybe He’s focusing His miracle cures on diseases like consumption or cancer because that’s where the need still exists.”

“Did God ever focus on people with diseases?” Jim tossed away the chess pieces, and they clattered on the table. “Before vaccines, smallpox was life threatening. It killed hundreds of thousands of people every year. But in America, it’s now just a nuisance. Science has improved life expectancy; prayer hasn’t.”

Paul clenched the arms of his chair. “You can’t judge prayer with science,” he said, probably louder than he should have. “You can’t expect God to perform like a trained monkey at your command. It’s not our place, nor is it even possible, to judge God’s work. I agree that there are aspects of God’s actions that we just can’t explain. But I have the patience and the humility to accept God’s wisdom and wait for understanding. Perhaps I won’t understand until I get to heaven.”

“Fine, but if your argument is that you don’t understand, then say so. When asked, ‘Can we say that prayer gives results?’ the correct answer must then be ‘No, we cannot because we don’t understand.’ God might answer every prayer as you suggest, but we have no reason to believe that. A sufficient explanation is that prayers don’t appear to work because there is no God to answer them. The invisible looks very much like the nonexistent. Which one is God—invisible or nonexistent?”

Paul had no clever rebuttal, so he treated the question as rhetorical. “You’ve ignored praise,” he said. “That’s a vitally important reason for prayer. We humble ourselves before God and acknowledge that He can do what we can’t. It’s only appropriate to give thanks and praise to God.”

Jim snorted. “What’s the point in praising God? Surely God doesn’t need to hear how great he is. Is he that insecure that he needs constant reminding? Put this in human terms—do we curse insects for not acknowledging how important we are? Suppose we built a race of mechanical men. Would our first command to them be that they need to worship their human creators?”

“Are you unwilling to humble yourself before a greater power?”

“I’ll consider it when I know that such a power exists,” Jim said. “The picture of God that the writers of the Old Testament painted for us is that of a great king—a man with the wisdom of Solomon, the generalship of Alexander, and the physical strength of Hercules. And he apparently needs the fawning and flattering of a great king as well. You would think that God would be a magnification of all good human qualities and an elimination of the bad ones. But the small-minded, praise-demanding, vindictive, and intolerant God of the Bible is simply a caricature, a magnification of all human inclinations, good and bad. As Man becomes nobler, he loses these petty needs. Shouldn’t this be even more true of God?”

Jim leaned down and picked up a rumpled copy of a newspaper from the floor. “Let me show you something I read in this morning’s paper,” he said as he noisily flipped through a section. After a few moments he laid the newspaper on the table. “Here it is. It’s about a train accident in which eight people died. A woman was just released from the hospital, and here she says, ‘The doctors told my husband that I probably wouldn’t make it. But he prayed and prayed. And his prayers were answered—it was a miracle.’” Jim looked up. “So according to this, prayer works. But I must wonder if I understand the meaning of the word ‘works.’ Imagine if the utilities that we use so often—electricity, clean water, trains, mail delivery, and so on—worked no more reliably than prayer.”

“You’re mixing two different things,” Paul said. “You can’t judge the Almighty’s response to prayer in the same way that you judge something as artificial and profane as electricity.”

“Then don’t use the same word to describe their reliability. Prayer clearly does not ‘work’ as electricity does. And to compensate, the rules are rigged so that success is inevitable—if I get what I pray for, that’s God’s plan, and if I don’t get what I pray for, that’s also God’s plan. When a train crash kills eight people, and it’s called a miracle, how can God lose?” Jim slapped his hand on the newspaper. “But this makes praying to God as effective as praying to an old stump.”

Paul’s rebuttal lay scattered about him like a division of troops overrun by Jim’s argument. His fists were clenched, but he felt defenseless. “Are you saying that prayer has no value?”

“Many spiritual traditions across the world use meditation to clarify the mind or relax. Christian prayer can have these same benefits. A mature view acknowledges what you can’t control and can be an important part of facing a problem, but to imagine an all-powerful benefactor helping you out of a jam is simply to ignore reality. None of prayer’s benefits demand a supernatural explanation, and to imagine that prayer shows that God exists is simply to delude yourself. The voice on the other end of the telephone line is your own.”

Photo credit: Wikimedia

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  • smrnda

    This is something that I have always thought, that prayer, particularly the Christian notion of personal appeals to a personal god, is a totally unfalsifiable. If god doesn’t answer, it’s never proof it fails, and even the slightest indication of an answered prayer is proof it works.

    And on communication, we consider people who don’t give us straight, direct answers to be rude. If I ask someone “hey, could you mow my lawn while I’m out of town?” and they say “maybe” that isn’t polite. God, of course, gets out of this requirement for politeness in that he can basically just never give a straight answer.

  • ZenDruid

    Jim is obnoxious as Dawkins is shrill and strident — that is, not really. Good arguments.
    With fairness to Paul, I can’t help wondering if there is more to his position that he can’t portray. My opinion is that prayer is of enormous emotional importance to the prayor, regardless of practical outcome.

    I mention elsewhere my speculation that the act triggers a conditioned response within the limbic brain. Andy Thomson and Sam Harris have made some bold statements in the same direction, and I would like to see the fruit that a collaboration between them might bear.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Christian prayer as meditation? Sure, I can imagine lots of value in that.

      But prayer for what it was advertised for? That’s a different story.

      • ZenDruid

        “Ask and you shall receive” always struck me as the best-case scenario of people helping one another.
        Asking the monster under your bed for anything is a total non-starter.

      • phillip

        You mis-read the ad.

        Matthew 21:20 And when the disciples saw it, they marvelled, saying, How soon is the fig tree withered away!
        21 Jesus answered and said unto THEM…” (the disciples.)

        Pop quiz:

        The Bible says that:

        A) Jesus told all believers “And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive.

        B) Jesus told Bob Seidensticker “And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive.

        C) Jesus told the disciples “And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive.

        If you answered “C”, then you have judged correctly.

        The Lord’s address from the sermon on the mount was to who? Israel.

        Joh 1:11 He came unto His own (Israel)

        Luk 1:80 And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his SHEWING UNTO ISRAEL.

        Matthew 10: 5 These twelve Jesus sent forth, and commanded them, saying, Go NOT into the way of the Gentiles, and into any city of the Samaritans enter ye not: (That cuts out a large section of the population. There is no Textual basis for “concluding” that there should be a secular account of Jesus of any kind.)

        Matthew 10: 6 But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel

        Luk 1:16 And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God.

        Luk 1:54 He hath holpen his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy

        Luk 1:68 Blessed be the Lord God of Israel; for he hath visited and redeemed his people,

        I could go on and on and on…

        If you can make a Logical Conclusion from the Text with regards to your claims, then I’ll be impressed. Otherwise, this is as bad as the religious drivel of my fellows. They don’t know what they’re reading.

        • ZenDruid

          My logical conclusion is, given there are so many different interpretations of the bible, I can be comfortable with any interpretation that pops into my head. That said, I’m not inclined to take any interpretation seriously, including my own.

        • Bob Seidensticker


          C) Jesus told the disciples “And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive.

          If you answered “C”, then you have judged correctly.

          So you don’t take the Great Commission as a demand put on believers either, right?

  • Kristen inDallas

    with faith you can move mountains…
    The trick is the “with faith.” Most don’t have it, not really. I suppose the argument could be made that any one who truly had faith, not just faith in God’s existance but faith in His judgement as well, would only really have one thing they could ever pray for: to be made use of in any way God sees ft. For that person, I suppose prayer always works. :)

    • Bob Seidensticker

      I see what you’re saying. I’ve heard that the only valid prayer is: “God, please help me accept your plan” (or similar).

      As for prayer always working, you’re right again, and that’s maddening for atheists. Christians will make bold claims for God and prayer but then slip away from the obvious fact that these claims don’t hold up.

      • machintelligence

        There is the Templeton Foundation Intercessory Prayer Study. It was a well controlled, double blind experiment, run by an investigator who expected positive results.

        Our study had 2 main findings. First, intercessory prayer itself had no effect on whether complications occurred after CABG. Second, patients who were certain that intercessors would pray for them had a higher rate of complications than patients who were uncertain but did receive intercessory prayer.

        And it only cost two million dollars or so to find this out.

      • J-Rex

        “Dear God, please let whatever happens happen.”

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Well, yeah, kinda. But I think that the idea is more like, “Dear God, please let me accept whatever happens.”

  • Fernanda

    Ha ha, Bill is right. Prayer definitely doesn’t “work” like some sort of cosmic vending machine. I can also say with complete certainty that Bill never did learn the truth about what Paul actually believes about prayer nor what Paul’s experience was. I’m guessing he didn’t want to in the first place. Trying to learn what a Christian believes about prayer as well as what his experience with prayer has been in the midst of an argument which attempts to debunk everything he asserts is actually quite difficult. If you really *want* to know what we believe about prayer and how we have experienced it, you are going to have to ask a lot of open ended questions to begin with. And then when people start to share with you, ask questions to draw them out or clarify something further but don’t try to debunk what they say. You know, your basic active listening. Choosing to not raise an argument does not mean you agree with what you just heard :-)

    • Fernanda

      Oops, I meant Jim, not Bill. Sorry!

    • Bob Seidensticker

      In the story, Jim has an extensive background in Christianity (including strong beliefs that prayer works) but has become an atheist.

      Yes, it is difficult to listen patiently and with an open mind. I try, but I’m sure I fall short.

  • phillip

    All Scripture is good “for instruction”. II Timothy 3:16

    Not all Scriputre is “about us”.

    “For thus saith the LORD God of Israel, The barrel of meal shall not waste…” I Kings 17:16 “See? God said we don’t have to shop any more.” <- that's foolish. There was a condition, and a subject and an object that prevents us from going "willie nilly" all over the place with this.

    “The Bible tells us how: ‘Ask and ye shall receive.’”

    Actually, the Bible tells us that the Lord told His disciples, "Ask and ye shall receive." The testimony of "them that heard Him" was accompanied by Divine testimony. (Heb 2:3-4). That was their purpose.

    We may not go "willie nilly" with this. We don't have the authority.

    I don't hold God's personal itinerary in my hand. He may have performed a miracle in your life. But if we expect the same things to happen today to the same degree as had occured during the preaching of a then-present Kingdom, to Israel, and after the Kingdom was removed, then we haven't been paying attention.

    Rev 12:10 tells us when we will see dunamis and exousia again. Until then, show me dunamis, or no "willie nillies".

    • phillip

      Matthew 12: “But IF I cast out devils by the Spirit of God (P), THEN the kingdom of God is come unto you.” (Q)

      P -> Q

      Matthew 21:43- “Therefore say I unto you, The kingdom of God shall be taken from you…” ~Q

      THEREFORE, NOT Christ is casting out devils by the Spirit of God. ~P

      Matthew 21:43- “…and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof. ” Enter Rev 12:10.

      There is no Logic… I say, no Logic… by which we may conclude any miracle or answer to prayer for any man, Luke 4:25-27

      • phillip

        A Negation can be accomplished by numbers or statistics, e.g.:

        “All” is not equal to “many” or “some” or “few”.

        IF all things are accomplished by prayer (P), THEN the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth all. Q

        The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much. ~Q

        THEREFORE, NOT all things are accomplished by prayer. ~P


        So again, even after the removal of the Kingdom, there is no Logical by which these “conclusions” may be made.

    • Bob Seidensticker


      Actually, the Bible tells us that the Lord told His disciples, "Ask and ye shall receive." The testimony of "them that heard Him" was accompanied by Divine testimony. (Heb 2:3-4).

      Are you saying that “Ask and ye shall receive” works, but it was only applicable to the disciples?

      OK, but then you need to reconsider the Great Commission. “Go and make disciples of all nations” also applied just to whom it was addressed to, the disciples.

      I don't hold God's personal itinerary in my hand.

      Right, but we don’t presume that God exists. That’s the thing we’re trying to figure out.

  • IB Bill

    Well, I was a Buddhist for three years, but learned meditation first from a Hindu teacher. Sat for three hours once without blinking my eyes.

    My Christian walk in the past 20 years includes some time in the charismatic movement, some time in evangelical circles, and now I’m Catholic. My Catholic practice has included rosaries, various prayers, various RCIA-related ceremonies, and of course, Mass. I’ve also studied Eastern Orthodoxy, but choose the Tiber over the Bosphorus.

    I’ve also done work with cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). I got sober through AA and have been sober for 24 years. And I write a newsletter that focuses on cognitive biases.

    These varying practices all have common elements. In Hindu and Buddhist meditation, you learn to “witness” your thoughts without feeding into them. This element is included in CBT. CBT is all over the Bible, especially the New Testament. Catholic practice, with its focus on behavioral aspects of rituals, includes strong elements of CBT. So does AA.

    Buddhist and Hindu practice do create spiritual experiences. CBT creates a different one — especially a practice known as defusion. Defusion does wonderful things like lets you get over something in a few days that might take years.

    Some conclusions: You really have to know how your brain works first. I’d recommend anyone struggling with “issues” to take a look at CBT. It helps you correct thought distortions and cognitive biases, and helps you understand the connection between your thoughts, feelings and actions. It includes meditative elements and is based on the latest brain science, but also has thousands of years of folk wisdom behind it. CBT also serves as a corrective to numerous common distortions of Christian thought. For example, the addictive sin-and-repentance cycle — it doesn’t help you.

    To unite all these things, I’ll just say this: Hinduism is outright demonic. Buddhism offers a nice meditative experience but opens you up to demons. CBT is fine. AA — it really matters which Higher Power you choose, but it will get you sober, but not necessarily sane. (But it will get you sober!!!! Don’t forget that part. Stick around for the miracles — they happen.) The charismatic movement has a lot going for it, but it has, um, excesses, leaves you vulnerable to wishful thinking, and some people can get completely unhinged.

    At the end of the day, there’s nothing remotely comparable to a Catholic Mass or a rosary — it is pure, it is loving, it comes from outside you, and it opens you up to a new relationship with God. It’s the good, the true and the beautiful all wrapped up in one. I just wish I’d found it sooner. We Christians — we feel the Holy Spirit. Remember Pentecost.

    You keep trying to explain away our experiences, but they’re still there. I was there when I went to an ER with a friend because his mother purportedly had a heart attack. (The ambulance had already taken her away when I woke up.) In the ER waiting room, I prayed and had a vision of her heart — it was tight, then it loosened and she was fine. I was given a word that it was not a heart attack. Without a lot of confidence and a little wigged out that I’d heard this in prayer, I told this to my friend — your mother didn’t have a heart attack, and she will be fine. A doctor came out a few minutes later and said basically the same thing — no heart attack; she’ll be fine.

    Another time I walked into an AA meeting and felt the Holy Spirit just pouring out of a guy there. That’s happened lots of times in church, and once on the streets of Philadelphia and felt the Holy Spirit and there were teenage girls praying a Rosary. In Africa, I once prayed for a hyperventilating woman while coaching a basketball game — literally, I got a message to call time out, turn around, and go lay hands on her. I did and she stopped hyperventilating. It’s not unanswered prayers that freak you out — it’s the answered ones.

    Sometimes, our prayer experiences can be explained in terms of CBT and brain science; other times, it’s apparent that CBT is a crucial part of spirituality and we’re calming ourselves. Still other times, it’s clear that we’re experiencing something greater than ourselves: the spirit of Christ Himself. Still yet other times, there’s a spiritual evil involved. A lot of it involves interpretation, but lots of it are unmistakably clear. My two cents.

    • Blessed Jim

      Bill, What a coincidence!
      Last spring I was having chest pains, and because of a previous medical condition, I went straight to the emergency room. While sitting in the waiting room I didn’t pray, and miraculously it wasn’t a heart attack. I guess not praying to your god works just as well as praying.

      Bob, I think you missed one of the most powerful examples of prayer. If you pray with (the appearance of) a sincere heart (on your syndicated TV show) you can move mountains (of cash into your bank account). It works every day for televangelists.

      • Bob Seidensticker

        I guess not praying to your god works just as well as praying.

        I’m convinced! What more evidence would anyone want?

      • IB Bill

        Blessed Jim and Bob, You aggressively missed the point.

        I’m glad you’re OK, though.

    • Matthew

      IB Bill,

      Referring to people who don’t share your religious beliefs as demonic is appalling. Really, it is.

      • IB Bill

        Um, I didn’t refer to people as demonic.

        • Matthew

          “I’ll just say this: Hinduism is outright demonic. Buddhism offers a nice meditative experience but opens you up to demons”

          These are your words Bill. Yes, you called people who don’t share your religious beliefs demonic. Do you really need me to specify that you called Hindus “outright demonic” and Buddhists “open to demons”?

          Yes, saying that stuff is appalling.

        • IB Bill

          Really. Learn to read. I didn’t call Hindus outright demonic; Hinduism is. Buddhism can open you to demons, too. A meditative experience unprotected by the Holy Spirit, especially where you are calling on other spiritual beings, can involve demons. You may find that appalling, but it doesn’t make it any less true. It has nothing to do with whether they share my beliefs. And the person isn’t demonic — they may end up oppressed or even possessed, though. Demons are separate from humans. A demon is judged and can no longer repent. Any person still alive can.

          Jesus of course didn’t go around casting out demons from Hindus and Buddhists, but he did cast them out of people from Palestine. I suppose you find that appalling, too.

        • Bob Seidensticker


          I suppose you find that appalling, too.

          That Jesus only helped out the people in Palestine instead of those from around the world? Definitely.

    • Bob Seidensticker


      there’s nothing remotely comparable to a Catholic Mass or a rosary — it is pure, it is loving, it comes from outside you, and it opens you up to a new relationship with God.

      It’s great that you’ve found what works for you, but why imagine that this is true? That God actually exists?

      You keep trying to explain away our experiences, but they’re still there.

      Of course. If you say you had a mystical experience, then I guess you had a mystical experience. That doesn’t do much to convince me that God exists, however.

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  • smrnda

    If I had a friend who didn’t return my phone calls, but who expected me to keep calling, or who never responded to my email but expected me to keep emailing, taking it on faith that they really cared and read every word, I’d ditch that person and not waste my time when there are people out there who actually communicate.

    If I asked someone if they could help me and they either said “maybe” all the time or “let’s see” and never gave me a straight answer, I’d quit asking them for anything. Why bother, when someone else can at least give me a straight “no” when they aren’t going to do something?

    Prayer, to me, is like when someone believes that they actually have some real attachment to a celebrity who probably doesn’t even know they exist. The belief that the Christian faith offers a personal relationship with god is purely bunk – personal relationships require continuous, mutually unambiguous communication. What I see in Christians is just an amazing capacity for creating rationalizations that god answered regardless of outcome or after the fact, or a tremendous capacity for self-deception.

    The openness to experiences hinges on the belief that there’s something outside of just pure woo behind them. I can have a meaningful experience with some kind of artistic expression but part of that is that I know that there’s an element of truth to what I’m seeing – a play is usually fiction, but it manages to say some truth about human existence. Behind religious rituals there’s a belief in a reality that I see no evidence for. Either that, or there’s this problem of ‘discernment’ is it really god, a trick of perception, and evil spirit? I’m always gong to go with the explanations that require me to believe in the least bullshit, which is that it’s all in someone’s head.

  • Hausdorff

    Great read, I did have one question while reading it though, how would the dialogue change if both characters were experts rather than the atheist being skilled and the Christian being a novice?

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Hausdorff: Great question, but that’s the question I would give to you.

      I didn’t want Paul to have nothing but flimsy arguments. Of course, you need to read the whole book to get all of Paul’s arguments, but I never deliberately shortchanged the Christian position. I wanted Jim to respond to the best that Christianity had to offer, especially since the goal of the book is to encourage thoughtful Christians to think about this.

      If you think that I’ve left out major parts of the Christian position supporting the rationality and efficacy of prayer, I’d be interested in hearing them.

  • JohnH

    I am highly impressed by your ability to set up and then defeat strawmen, something on the level of difficulty of knowing the alphabet (do you still get confused with c and s or are you working on the problem of where z goes now?).

    You may wish to add that Jesus repeatedly told His apostles that they lacked the faith to do miracles, that demons would only leave through fasting and prayer, that even though the wise builder built on a rock the rain fell and floods rose just as much as with the foolish builder, that we are told we need to believe when we ask, and much else. Malachi actually talks specifically about what you are saying in 3:14-18, saying that those that pray and serve God will be His in the day He makes His jewels and they will be spared as sons.

    No one advertises prayer as you have presented it, not even the Bible or even the scriptures in the Bible that you are trying to say do advertise prayer as you have presented it. However, I know from experience with you that going through the scriptures is pointless as you do not believe the scriptures, think it is a fantasy tale, and latch on to whatever you wish to latch onto irregardless of whatever else is being said in the very same verse even. Which is like me taking this ” imagine that prayer shows that God exists is simply to delude yourself.” and getting “prayer shows that God exists ” out of it; See you have admitted that prayer shows that God exists!

    • smrnda

      If I want to find out if Pill X works for Condition Y, I should do a double-blind placebo trial or else I cannot say that I have determined that Pill X works on Condition Y. The reason is we have to be able to determine that Pill X actually works better than Not Pill X, regardless of the perceptions of the people in the study. This is particularly important for things like pain, fatigue, or depression, where symptoms are more subjective and the placebo effect will be greater.

      So, what test could be devised for prayer? It seems that the teachings of the Bible on prayer imply that it works because a person believes it works, or because a person trusts in god or wants god’s will. This means that no systematic inquiry can be made into the claim since it is unfalsifiable to begin with.

      I can’t speak for Bob, but I don’t believe in things without evidence. Evidence is more or less ruled out here.

      • JohnH

        Let me get this straight: if one does a study where one group is given sugar pills and another group is not given anything then the sugar pill group will do better (especially in measures of pain, fatigue, depression but even otherwise as well) and we are supposed to get from this study that faith (trusting in something that is believed) has no effect? To me it would seem that the power of faith is empirically shown with every single drug trial conducted.

        “what test could be devised for prayer?”
        See Alma 32 :26-43 (or the whole chapter) (it is in the Book of Mormon).

        “It seems that the teachings of the Bible on prayer imply that it works because a person believes it works”
        Faith is needed, so this is partially correct, however there is much more to it then this.

        “This means that no systematic inquiry can be made into the claim”
        Other then the placebo effect being constantly observed? Ignoring that then you are probably right in regards to prayer in general.

        ” don’t believe in things without evidence”
        Other then the evidence of all believers everywhere? Are we all liars or deceived then?

        Just as I am not aware of anyone that is religious due to logical arguments, I am also not aware of anyone that is religious due to empirical evidence. It is the Spirit that converts, not evidence. What type of evidence though do you think would be sufficient?

        • smrnda

          The placebo effects exists, which demonstrates that for highly subjective perceptions (such as pain) ‘faith’ or ‘belief that you are doing something that has work’ has some effect. However, it’s also been shown that though the placebo effect works on subjective perceptions, but is less and less effective when the underlying symptoms are more severe, meaning that in the end, the sugar pill makes you think you’re getting better, but doesn’t actually fix underlying problems, so aside from problems that only manifest in subjective feelings, they’re useless.

          However, if you want to look into drug trials, you can find many times when the actual drugs actually outperform the placebos. In those cases, a much stronger case is made that the drug actually fixes the problem regardless of whether or not a person believes in them. So in many cases an empirical fact (Drug X treats Condition Y) can be observed because Drug X treats Y regardless of whether or not people know they are getting the drug or a placebo. (A double-blind trial is when people do not know whether they are getting a placebo, and those administering the trial do not know if they are giving the placebo.) These trials are done since, when people do not know if they get a drug or placebo, the placebo effect isn’t going to occur.

          Comparing faith or prayer to the placebo effect isn’t making a case that god is real, only that people can be led to feel that something is real that isn’t there. There’s lots of psychology experiments that show that people can be made to feel real things from the power of suggestion. If anything, it seems to indicate that it’s just the same as a sugar pill convincing someone their headache is weaker – it’s still a sugar pill. It’s like getting a ‘chemical’ on someone that is just water and having them ‘feel’ like it burned or made them itch – a testament to the power of suggesting but not to the reality of the thing.

          The evidence of believers isn’t very persuasive to me since people who believe vastly different religious and spiritual things are reporting similar things, and their claims as to the underlying causes contradict each other. I know polytheists who claim invoking certain gods gets results in the real world. I know Christians of various sorts who say their prayers get answered. Most of the time there’s no indication to me that it’s anything but the power of suggestion.

          My stance on what I believe is that something has to be able to be demonstrated as true without that demonstration relying on whether or not you or anyone else believes in it. You have to be able to test something without belief being a factor at all.

        • JohnH

          placebo effect may say nothing about God being real, but it does have something to say about the power of faith and the power of prayer. (I note that you misstate why the double blind trials are necessary, it is so that both the drug and placebo are equally subject to the placebo effect; the patient is supposed to think they have the drug both when they really do and when they don’t)

          “You have to be able to test something without belief being a factor at all.”
          Since I brought it up in response to Bob, like health codes claimed to have been revealed by God? If not then why not?

        • Bob Seidensticker

          John: I see smrnda has commented, but here’s my take:

          See Alma 32 :26-43 (or the whole chapter) (it is in the Book of Mormon).

          I hadn’t read that; thanks.

          I wonder why the BoM is written in a King James style? I suppose it gives it character, but why would that artifice be needed since it’s the word of God? The King James style was a lot more relevant in the time of King James than it was in the 19th century.

          I don’t see what value faith has. Show me the evidence, and I believe on trust. I gotta have that evidence. (Must be how God made me.)

          Are we all liars or deceived then?


          What type of evidence though do you think would be sufficient?

          From this post:

          Science gets around this problem by using a community to duplicate and validate its findings. There are too many excuses I could make if the experience were all my own, so I’d want to crowdsource it in the same way. Have God speak to everyone. For example, maybe the entire world has the same spiritual dream where God gives them instructions or insights, or maybe we see “YHWH” spelled out in stars. That is the kind of evidence I’d like to see—something where I have some corroboration that it is valid.

        • JohnH

          ” maybe we see “YHWH” spelled out in stars. ”
          I can pretty much guarantee that there are a cluster of stars that would appear to spell out “YHWH” given the right perspective and resolution. Just like there appears to be a W in the sky, and a Bear, and a Man that has a um “sword” yeah, we will go with “sword”. If the name of God were “W” then you would just claim that we got the name from the appearance of the stars.

          What about health laws that are claimed to be revealed by God? They are instructions that can be checked as to their effectiveness.

        • smrnda

          Rules about health could have been determined by trial and error by human beings in the past and then attributed to divine command. Plus, the idea that you should quarantine lepers doesn’t seem to display much more than a basic assumption that sick people make other people sick.

        • JohnH

          That still leaves the LDS Word of Wisdom which was clearly not determined by trial and error and which the attribution of when it was revealed is well known. Trial and error is still in the process of determining parts of it, but the gold standard of health study being cohort study has conclusively shown that Mormons have the lowest death rates and longest life expectancy among any yet studied well defined cohort.

        • Bob Seidensticker


          What about health laws that are claimed to be revealed by God? They are instructions that can be checked as to their effectiveness.

          You mean the Levitical food laws? Mary Douglas has a great discussion that makes a lot of sense of them. I discuss it here.

        • Bob Seidensticker


          Are you saying that a Mormon holy book has supernaturally given medical wisdom? I hadn’t heard that–tell me more.

          As for Mormon’s health, I don’t see much divine here.

    • Bob Seidensticker


      set up and then defeat strawmen

      Nope–not strawmen. If the Christian position on prayer is weak, it’s because I was unable (through ignorance or bias, perhaps) to make it any stronger.

      do you still get confused with c and s or are you working on the problem of where z goes now?

      Your obvious compassion for your fellow man wraps me in a warm blanket of love.

      Jesus repeatedly told His apostles that they lacked the faith to do miracles

      Even those who reject Jesus will be able to do miracles (Matt. 7:22).

      (Or did I misunderstand that one as well?)

      not even the Bible or even the scriptures in the Bible that you are trying to say do advertise prayer as you have presented it

      Then explain why it sure looks like those passages say that prayer does that.

      you do not believe the scriptures

      True, but we can work from within the Bible to see what it’s trying to say. You say that the Bible is unambiguously clear that God isn’t a wish-granting genii. That’s sure not my read. Show me my mistake.

  • smrnda

    I also haven’t wasted my time reading the Books of Mormon since the claims made about history in North America is so demonstrably false that I can’t think of it as anything but a gigantic fraud.

    On Mormon longevity, I can only find comparisons to other groups of white males and females in the US. Plus, lifestyle factors like use of alcohol and tobacco – these were understood by many as health risks long before Joseph Smith was around. I mean, King James I of England made a strange intuitive case that tobacco was bad for you in the 1600s.

    • JohnH

      ” Books of Mormon since the claims made about history in North America is so demonstrably false ”

      Please demonstrate that there wasn’t a relatively small group of people living in an a relatively small area somewhere in probably central America during the time period of 600 bc – 400 ad, those are the claims which are made internally in the book itself. Or to what are you referring to?

      “On Mormon longevity”
      As I said evidence doesn’t convert. I could argue the point further or present other lines of evidence but it is the Spirit that converts not evidence and were it possible I am fairly certain that there would be those that would deny God while experiencing the second coming saying Jesus was a space alien or something and that prophecies of it happening aren’t really prophecies because they don’t give the exact year, day, hour, second of when it would happen.

      • smrnda

        You can find lots of stuff online on the historical inaccuracies of the book of Mormon, which makes specific claims about what types of animals and technologies were in the Americas which does not work with what is known. I mean, there are Old Testament and New Testament books where at least the places they mention are real or other facts are correct. Read the wikipedia article on how historians view the book of Mormon. It’s a good place to start.

        How is conversion by the Spirit supposed to work? It seems like either I have to believe already to believe (which is circular) or else you have this unfalsifiable notion that there is spirit out there and I’m not letting it work. Before I can be convinced by the spirit, I have to verify its existence and to some extent its properties. How is the Spirit that I’m not convinced by any different than when people tell me I’m not attuned to the right chakras?

      • Bob Seidensticker


        demonstrate that there wasn’t a relatively small group of people living in an a relatively small area somewhere in probably central America during the time period of 600 bc – 400 ad

        I think you have things backwards. The scientific consensus on what the Americas looked like during that time frame is our null hypothesis. If you want to argue that it’s flawed, go ahead. You have the burden of proof.

  • Matthew


    I have confidence in my reading comprehension. If I describe Catholicism as devil worship, then most people will understand that I also believe Catholics are devil worshipers. When you describe Hinduism as outright demonic, any reasonable reader will understand that you believe Hindus are involved in a demonic practice.

    As for your belief in demons, well, I think that’s crazy, but to each his own. However, when you start describing others in our society, especially religious minorities, as being involved with demons, that sets off all kinds of alarms for very good reasons. The Catholic Church has a pretty sordid history when it comes to such accusations. Same goes for exorcisms.

    And meditation calling on spiritual beings? Bill, my in laws are Buddhists. I’m familiar with their religious beliefs and practices, none of which involve invoking spiritual beings. I understand there are several different strains of Buddhism but whatever you’re describing doesn’t reflect theirs.

    • IB Bill

      Matthew, To clarify … Hindus do not think they are worshiping demons. The things they think are gods are in fact demons. Devil worship implies intentional evil. But you think it’s nuts, and that’s all right with me. I agree it sounds nuts.

      I am happy your in-laws are Buddhists. In some ways, I wish Buddhism were true. My Buddhist practice opened me up to a spiritual realm I’d never experienced before and broke the back of my atheism for good, and for that I’m grateful. It also got me sober. In terms of pre-Christian and non-revelatory religions, it’s the best there is. If you want a natural religion, that’s the one. There is a lot of truth in it, and it’s stunningly beautiful. But it does have a meditative element that can lead to spiritual oppression — and I speak from experience. It took Christ to rid me of it. I suppose a Buddhist would say I had a problem with attachment, would need to do x or y, etc., but Jesus just cleaned it out, particularly when I became Catholic.

      Is that a less appalling way of saying it?

      • Matthew

        It’s certainly less appalling in regards to Buddhism. Hinduism, not so much.

        Look Bill, I’m not interested in trying (no doubt unsuccessfully) to change your religious views. However, I did want to make you aware how you were coming across. Perhaps in your church, there’s a better understanding of your intent. But I think most of the readers here probably don’t share your theology. When you bring up demons most people probably think of something along the lines of The Evil Dead, Exorcist, and Black Sabbath Album covers. And when you attribute that to other religions, my first thought was “What next? Is he going to go for Blood Libel?”

        Anyways, I appreciate you being patient enough to explain yourself. I disagree with your views, however, I’m satisfied you’re not looking to burn anyone at the stake.

        • IB Bill

          Thanks for your thoughts, Matthew.

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