Nothing Fails Like Prayer

The religious belief known as deism holds that God makes himself known to human beings through nature and reason, rather than through revelation and miracles. A common corollary of deist belief is that God does not interfere in the day-to-day workings of the universe, that he does not concern himself with humans and our affairs. There would be little point in praying to the deist god, but most other religions have some method for human beings to communicate with the divine, and a belief that such communications can potentially influence the workings of the universe. Indeed, prayer is a centerpiece of today’s major religions. Prayer networks and prayer requests can be found in multitudes across the World Wide Web. Observant Muslims have to say five daily prayers, and devout Jews have even more. However, out of all the major world religions, the Christian Bible makes what are undoubtedly the most spectacular and extravagant claims about the efficacy of prayer:

“If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” —Matthew 21:22 (NIV)

“I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” —Matthew 17:20 (NIV)

“Ask and it will be given to you…. For everyone who asks receives.” —Luke 11:9-10 (NIV)

“Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.” —Matthew 18:19 (NIV)

These promises are, obviously, false. No Christian I know of would claim that they can accomplish literally anything, up to and including moving mountains[1], through prayer (and if there are any who do claim that, James Randi has a million dollars for you). Instead, most Christian apologists defend these verses by claiming that the only prayers that are answered are those that are in line with the will of God. Of course, since no one can know what the will of God is, this gives them license to explain away any failed prayers.

But this is a condition not stated anywhere in the text itself. The above verses state clearly what the requirements are for having any prayer answered: believe, have faith, and if you want to be really sure, get someone else to pray along with you. Those are the only requirements listed. Do these things, the Bible says, and your prayer will be answered. It is hard to imagine how this promise could be any more unequivocal. If the text really does mean that any prayer by a faithful believer will be granted, in what way would it have to be different for the apologists to recognize and accept this as the intent?

The apologists’ extra condition is, quite simply, an invention. They have made it up out of whole cloth and imposed it on these verses to rescue the Biblical text from errancy. Moreover, in doing so, they have opened a loophole so broad it drains these verses of all meaning. Why bother to make such splashy promises about the dramatic power of prayer if they are immediately qualified by fine print that says there is no guarantee that any prayer will ever be answered? And why would this not be stated in the original text if that is what was meant – must we rely on human beings to clarify the things that God forgot to tell us? This tactic turns God into an overzealous advertiser who is prone to get carried away with his claims and must be rescued by disclaimers from the apologist legal department. It will not stand. In any rational reading, these Bible verses can only be regarded as broken promises.

Probably the most common purpose of prayer is to ask God to do things – fulfill requests, grant favors, and generally use his supernatural powers to act on behalf of the petitioner. Internet prayer request pages overflow with theists asking others to pray for them so that they may be healed of sickness and injuries, delivered from financial troubles, or so that they may find love. Christian visitors to my site often inform me that they will be praying that God reveals to me the truth of his existence.

However, as an application of simple logic shows, any prayer that asks God for anything is pointless. Is prayer going to bring to God’s attention a need of which he was not previously aware? Is it going to convince him to do something he was not already going to do? Both of these are impossible with an omniscient deity. On the contrary, if God is all-knowing, he already knows everyone’s desires without needing to be told. Likewise, long before any believer ever begins praying for him to take a certain action, his infinite mind will have tabulated every possible reason for or against taking that action, judged the consequences of doing it versus not doing it and run down all the innumerable ramifications of each decision, and finally settled on the verdict that he knows will best achieve his goals. Do theists, believing themselves to be unimaginably small and insignificant by comparison with the Almighty, hope to then change his mind? Do they hope to budge this divine calculus with a single whisper of supplication? A prayer for God to do something he was already going to do is unnecessary; a prayer for God to do something he was not already going to do is futile.

The only way this sort of prayer could work would be if God had decided that he would do a certain thing only if a sufficient number of people prayed for him to do so. But what does this say about his character? Does it speak highly of God that he would see the need for some action and know that it would have good results if he were to do it, but would still fail to act unless he was asked to do so? A morally good person, perceiving the need of another, does not have to be asked to help.

Furthermore, if the teachings of most religions are true, God will never grant any prayer that influences or affects another human being in any way – such as those prayers prayed by theists for God to convert atheists such as myself. If God created us with free will because he wants us to make choices for ourselves, for him to then intervene, override a person’s free choice and change the course of their life by compelling a specific action or mental state would be a violation of his own plan. Conversely, in a universe where there is predestination, God will have already planned out every person’s life ahead of time anyway, so again, efforts to change the course of events through prayer will be futile.

And finally, is it not in a way arrogant for a theist to ask God to take some action? Is it not a claim that they know better than he does how things should be? After all, if God is omniscient and omnipotent, nothing can happen if he does not desire it to happen. Nothing can happen against his will. Therefore, whatever state of affairs a theist seeks to change through prayer must be God’s will, and by seeking to change it, they are in essence saying that what God has done already is not good enough, or just plain wrong. (This post neatly sums up the absurdity of such a situation.)

The second major purpose of prayer is to praise God, but this is even more unnecessary. God doesn’t need to be told how great he is or how thankful you are – he already knows, by definition. It serves no purpose for billions of people worldwide to tell him the same things over and over again every day (and if I were him, I’d be terrifically bored of it all by now). Does he actually desire praise? Is he vain, or conceited? Is he susceptible to flattery? Did he create us just so that we could constantly tell him how great he is? Strangely, most theists who insist that life is purposeless without God have no problem with the notion that the high and mighty purpose for human existence decreed by God is to act as a sort of canned applause.

The final reason commonly offered for prayer is to grow closer to God and build a personal relationship with him, much as you get closer to your friends by spending time with them. But think about this for a moment. What is the definition of “relationship” in this sense?

For a relationship of this kind to be healthy, I propose that the following things are necessary: a spirit of give and take, where each partner is willing to compromise to satisfy the other’s desires; the presence of open, honest communication, where each partner is aware of the other’s thoughts, wishes, feelings and motivations; a gradual increase of knowledge and trust as each partner comes to know the other one better over time; and an atmosphere of empathy and caring as each partner stays faithfully by the other’s side and comforts them in times of adversity.

The relationship believers claim to have with God lacks all of these things. For example, in the theistic relationship, there is no give and take, no compromise. The theist prays, and God either grants their request or does not depending on whether it accords with his predetermined plan. As the apologist defenses discussed above clearly imply, any prayer – even one that the petitioner greatly and desperately desires – may be rejected out of hand, without explanation, if it does not conform to the mysterious divine plan which no human being is privileged to know.

Likewise, the theistic relationship has neither open two-way communication nor a gradual increase of understanding. Human beings may talk to God, but God never talks back, except, so the believers say, in subjective feelings and vague sensations that possess all the explanatory clarity of a Magic 8-Ball. Though it would be well within his power, he never does something even as simple as replying to a prayer in an actual, audible voice. Believers who have faithfully worshipped God all their lives still do not claim to grasp his motives nor consistently understand his reasons; his ways remain just as mysterious to them as they ever were.

Finally, the theistic relationship offers no consoling in times of tragedy, no tangible source of comfort or reassurance. Lacking physical form, God cannot provide even the most minimal comfort one human being can offer another: the empathy of a simple touch, the contact of a hand. In fact, we are told, sometimes God deliberately causes tragedy and disaster as a way of “testing” the faith of his believers, even though by definition he knows what the results of the test will be ahead of time. (The Old Testament’s Book of Job is the best-known example of this.) No matter how deeply God cares, what does it matter if he will not show it in any immediate, tangible way? All the aid and comfort that a believer has in times of crisis comes from fellow humans, though that does not stop many of them from giving the credit to their deity of choice regardless. This is another example of religious compartmentalization, of theists judging their faith by an entirely different set of standards than the ones they apply to everything else. Who can say they would ever put up with anything comparable from a human friend?

If prayer cannot provide the vital elements of a relationship, we must conclude that it cannot provide a relationship with God at all, and therefore its third major purpose also fails. The theistic relationship seems to consist of the believer sending their prayers into the darkness, usually to be answered by silence, occasionally receiving in response a hazy feeling “within their heart”, so to speak. By what definition of the word can this even be called a “relationship”? It is static and entirely one-sided.

Of course, believers are likely to say that prayer is not for God’s benefit, but for ours. Though they may concede that it will not convince him to do anything he was not already going to do, though they may agree that it does not give them superior understanding of his ways, they are likely to assert that its principal purpose is to change the person who prays, to draw him closer to God (in some way) and help him become the person God wants him to be, and that this is what is meant by a relationship. However, at this point we have abandoned any claim of supernatural intervention, relegating prayer to the same level as any other program of self-improvement. It needs nothing miraculous to accomplish this: all a person needs to do is decide on a set of principles they would like to possess and remind themselves constantly to abide by them.[2] Prayer is simply a way to internalize this process. As proof of this, consider the fact that prayer always strengthens the faith and reinforces the particular prejudices of the person who prays. Neither a Fred Phelps nor a John Shelby Spong is drawn toward the other’s viewpoint when they pray – though they obviously both cannot be right in their conception of God. Rather, each is simply reinforced in his own convictions. If one God with one viewpoint existed, we would expect at least one of them to be drawn away from his beliefs and toward that viewpoint as their relationship with God improved, but this has not happened. Followers of either of them might say that the other is only listening to his own voice and mistaking it for God’s will, but if this can happen, then how can they know that the same is not true of themselves as well?

Like many structures of theism, prayer also takes advantage of a common error in human thinking: the confirmation bias, also known as “counting the hits and forgetting the misses”. Across the world, billions of believers are praying millions of prayers each day; it is hardly surprising that some of them come true just by chance. Yet when believers pray for something and it happens, they hail it as a miracle, proof of the existence of God. However, when they pray for something and it does not happen, they are usually not in the least disappointed. Instead, they merely assume that God, in his infinite wisdom, has decided not to grant their request for reasons beyond their comprehension, and these occasions are soon forgotten. By contrast, the few rare occasions when prayers seemingly come spectacularly true are remembered and elevated to great significance. To complete the process of belief reinforcement, such testimonials are circulated throughout the community of like-believing theists, making it seem as if miraculous answers to prayer are common.

In addition to confirmation bias, prayer employs an effective psychological technique for strengthening learned behaviors, called intermittent reinforcement. As opposed to continuous reinforcement, in which the test subject receives a reward every time for performing some task, intermittent reinforcement rewards the desired behavior only some of the time. Contrary to what one might expect, intermittent reinforcement produces a much stronger response, and one that takes much longer to die out even after the rewards stop coming. (As an example of this, compare a vending machine to a slot machine. A vending machine is a source of continuous reinforcement: you put money in and expect food to be returned every time. If a vending machine accepts your cash and does nothing in return, most people will not keep inserting coins. By contrast, a gambler who believes that only a very few of his inputs will result in a jackpot will gladly sit and feed money into a slot machine all day.) As above, the few prayers that come true by chance provide powerful incentive for believers to keep trying. To guard against the threat of believers coming to expect continuous reinforcement, and the rapid extinction of belief that would inevitably follow, theists are admonished not to test God, and taught to take responsibility on themselves when prayers go unanswered. (“If only I had more faith” or “If only I understood better what God wanted of me” are two popular all-purpose excuses.)

Of course, none of this is deliberate. No one person intentionally created a system of religious memes that would play off human psychology to propagate themselves. Instead, these qualities came about as a result of unconscious change over time – a sort of religious natural selection. Since the evidence does not support theism, only those varieties of theism which are unfalsifiable survive; those which are falsifiable are inevitably rejected as soon as someone thinks to test them. (Here is an example of one such.) The only belief systems that remain are those, such as today’s major religions, that are protected from falsification by viewing whatever happens as evidence of God’s hand at work, but denying that human beings can ever expect a predictable response from God. In this way, no evidence is allowed to count against the belief structure; nothing is accepted as proof of the falsity of the beliefs. Of course, only an untrue system must warn its followers not to test its validity. A system that is genuinely true need not fear testing, and as “The Theist’s Guide to Converting Atheists” shows, atheists have no such fear.

In the end, one question remains: If prayer cannot be a way to achieve our desires or build a personal relationship with the Creator, then what is it for? What purpose does it serve?

The answer to this question is obvious. The true purpose of prayer is to make the people who pray feel better – it is a way of making believers feel they have exerted some degree of control over a situation that is beyond their control. Indeed, this is one of the major purposes of religion. Human beings have always been, and still are, at the mercy of a complex and often frightening world. It is only natural that people in such circumstances would be eager, even desperate, for a way to calm their fears and give themselves confidence, and this is what prayer provides. It gives believers a “direct line” to the highest power in the universe, the one whom they are told is on their side and will make sure everything turns out all right for them. This ability to cope has always been one of the major perceived benefits of religious belief, and atheists who seek to make inroads against theism would do well to remember it. As long as believers picture atheism as a bleak existence bereft of meaning or hope, they will always reject it regardless of the arguments offered in its favor. If atheism is ever to spread and flourish, we must overcome these misperceptions and show that, on the contrary, it leads to empathy, purpose and positive action. The most insidious effect of prayer is that it encourages believers to remain passive in times of crisis, waiting for divine deliverance that will never come rather than taking effective action. Atheism, by contrast, teaches human beings to get up off their knees and begin living life. Rather than ask for all our wishes to be fulfilled, it is up to us to bring into existence the world that we want to live in. As the great agnostic orator Robert Green Ingersoll wrote, “The hands that help are holier than the lips that pray.”[3]

Footnotes

[1] Of course, this verse need not be read as a literal promise that God will give his followers the ability to rearrange the topography of the planet on a whim. It is perfectly rational to regard it as hyperbole. However, even a metaphorical reading does not help the Biblical literalist, because the obvious intent of the verse – that faithful believers can expect to routinely accomplish even large, significant things through prayer – is still false. Again, any believers who dispute this are encouraged to contact James Randi, or the author of this website, for testing.

[2] It does not even require a religious belief system for this to happen. The author of this website can testify that his deconversion to atheism has had similar beneficial effects on his view of ethics and morality.

[3] Robert Green Ingersoll, “The Children of the Stage,” 23 March 1899. See http://www.infidels.org/library/historical/robert_ingersoll/stage_children.html.


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