This Is How You Pray Harder, While Accomplishing Nothing

The biggest complaint atheists have about prayer — at least when it comes to praying for something as opposed to mere meditation — is that it makes you think you’re doing something useful when you’re totally not.

Catholic blogger Meg Hunter-Kilmer has a list of 50 ways people can talk to God. I’m not calling attention to it because she’s advocating for prayer (a Catholic is acting Catholic? Shocking!), but because some of her examples are so obviously useless for the task they’re trying to accomplish.

Like #1:

Close your eyes and just repeat the name of Jesus.

Our God is a good God… a good, egomaniacal God who wants you to repeat his Son’s name ad nauseam. (Which, by the way, is kind of hard to do. Try it.)

And #7:

Hold a crucifix while you pray.

If God wasn’t listening before, I seriously doubt he’s going to listen while you hold an instrument of torture in your hands.

And #30:

Pray over pictures of starving children. Ache for them as Christ aches for you.

Your prayers are literally doing nothing for those children. You want to help? Send money. Or food. Or adopt them. Reciting incantations over their images helps no one.

And #50:

Go through the motions if it’s the best you can do. It’s better than nothing.

Actually, it’s worse than nothing. Going through the motions when you don’t believe in what you’re doing is a waste of your time — I did this myself when I realized I was losing my faith. Unsure of whether or not I still believed in God, I hedged my bets and said my prayers with my arms folded properly, even though I sorta knew in the back of my head that no one was listening. It’s one thing to do that in a period of transition. But why bother when you’re just not feeling it? Go do something more useful with your time.

You have nothing to gain by following any of these suggestions. If you want to change something in your life that’s within reach, then go take some action. Talking into space, even with the best of intentions, won’t change anything.

(Image via Shutterstock. Thanks to Austin for the link)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • quasibaka

    Number 30 was pretty lame yet epitomises prayer in general . Pray over pictures of starving children – I don’t know whether to laugh or sigh in despair.

    “Dear God” by XTC seems appropriate here

  • C Peterson

    While these actions may be useless in one sense, they certainly are not useless for religion. Repetitive ritual like this is key to maintaining belief. It inoculates people from reason, and strengthens faith. It is an altogether evil tool of those who seek to maintain religion.

    • 3lemenope

      If repetitive ritual is an altogether evil tool, humans are enthralled with evil up to our eyeballs.

      • Itarion

        How do you do that hyperlinking trick?

        • 3lemenope

          (replace square brackets with pointy ones)

          [a href="the URL of the site you want to link to"]text of how you want the link to read[/a]

          • cyb pauli


            • Feminerd

              You say that, but HTML truly does some sort of magic sometimes.

              It’s usually the bad kind, where you swear you didn’t tell it to do that!

        • Conuly
          • Itarion

            Two things.

            First, that’s a cool site.

            Second, I deserved that.

            • Conuly

              And now you know! Try not to let the new power (of linking and/or lmgtfy) go to your head!

  • 3lemenope

    3 is absolutely, thigh-slappingly hilarious.

    I honestly liked:
    1 (it strikes me as very similar to mantra mind-emptying meditation)
    6 (yay, nature!)
    8 (because it involves reifying, even on a small scale, something that Christians tend to gloss over as a real part of their mythology)
    9 (similar reason as 1)
    11 (same as 8, really if you’re going to believe something, you ought to be serious about it)
    17 (people generally have a very hard time with stillness and quiet because of how modern life tends to be)
    23 (impossible tasks are great meditation tools)
    25 (yay, art!)
    29 (same reason as 17)
    35 (I personally find it ridiculous that people worship a God who is, if real, at best a complete asshole, and yet don’t do this)

    But I like finding value in everything. And some of those other suggestions are unbelievably goofy and yet don’t really have any obvious utility. (A few even strike me as counterproductive.)

  • Paul (not the apostle)

    Pray while holding your hand “under your thigh” wink wink. Causes my prayers to be answered every time

    • cyb pauli


    • Lando

      You mean “the stranger?”

  • EuropeanCommunist

    Thanks Meg, #21 is a really good one! I think I’ll go with Psalm 137:9 today, bashing infants against rocks seems like the perfect theme for a Sunday.

    • Mick

      Behold I will corrupt your seed and spread dung upon your faces.
      (Malachi 2:3)

  • JohnnieCanuck

    She seems fairly happy in her delusions. Or at least that’s the impression she leaves. Still some Catholic guilt grinding at her there, just the same.

    She has some of that born-again personal relationship with Jesus thing going on that the Baptist types are so big on. Is this just her or is it a whole new subset of Catholicism?

    • Neko

      I wonder about that. It does seem like a fundie-Catholic hybrid has taken root.

      • Emmet

        Seriously. You too.

        • Neko

          Ha! You’re right. I was oblivious of this travesty until relatively recently.

    • Emmet

      Seriously. You need to get out more!

    • skinnercitycyclist

      In Catholicism it is usually referred to as the Charismatic movement. She has all the eye-brightness and tail-bushiness that marks that type. They have been around at least since the late 1970′s. Generally less objectionable than protestant fundies in that their social views tend to be more humane.

      • Greg G.

        I knew a family of them in 1976.

  • Itarion

    #51: Hold an involved conversation with yourself. It amounts to the same.

  • Neko

    This woman has two theology degrees from Notre Dame. Do they just plow all their resources into the Fighting Irish?

    • Jeff

      I don’t think so. If they did, the football team would be higher ranked than they currently are.

  • Madison Blane

    Actually….closing your eyes and repeating one word over and over DOES accomplish something. It puts your mind in a meditative/trance state. This floods your brain with many of the chemicals that bring much of the ‘peace’ and good feelings the believers think comes from an external spirit source. I’ve seen people do this MANY times in Pentecostal churches while ‘speaking in tongues’. they will begin to babble one word or phrase on repeat, sometimes for hours at a time, and they do get a euphoria from it. Some will faint, some will simply have their eyes roll back and they feel a sensation that can only be described as similar to orgasm.
    What this woman essentially prescribes is meditation, without using the word, because that word brings the unwanted connotations of yoga, witchcraft, devil worship, gurus and mystical things the religious are taught to fear.

    • GCBill

      You are right, and there’s some interesting psychological research investigating this very phenomenon.

    • Alice

      I experienced this in meditation, too, the peacefulness that can be seen as the Holy Spirit. When it dawned on me that all people who practice meditation get these feelings, I knew what that meant.

    • Leiningen’s Ants
  • Miss_Beara

    Jesus is the bridegroom (3) and you are suppose to pray to him like a child saying “I love you” to its parents. (12)

    Also you are a horrible horrible sinner in need if prayer and repentance everyday.

    Nice relationship.

    • 3lemenope

      I suppose 3 and 12, taken together, manage to turn 3 from pretty funny to immensely creepy.

      • Miss_Beara

        The illustrators from the previous thread should definitely include that in their next book.

  • joey_in_NC

    I’m not calling attention to it because she’s advocating for prayer…

    Actually, yes…you are. This entire post simply criticizes prayer. Just be honest about it.

    • 3lemenope

      What recommends the linked post for ridicule is not that she’s calling for prayer, but rather some of her suggestions how to do so.

      • joey_in_NC

        So how are we supposed to pray?

        • 3lemenope

          Pray however you like. Just, from an outside perspective (and this is true of any cultural ethos, not just religion and certainly not just Christianity), practices can often seem strange, and certainly any practice can be criticized even by a non-participant for not effectively matching its intended object.

          • joey_in_NC

            …certainly any practice can be criticized even by a non-participant for not effectively matching its intended object.

            Is there actually an example of a practice that you, as a non-participant, feel “effectively matches its intended object”? If so, what would that be? If no, then my point stands.

            • 3lemenope

              Is there actually an example of a practice that you, as a non-participant, feel “effectively matches its intended object”?


              Every tradition and every culture past or present on Earth has had a panoply of practices that either arose organically or were more consciously designed to achieve some end. They do this with varying effectiveness. Most of the mythological ones involve an end of what is literally, etymologically “religion”, the re-tying to past figures, past events, other realms and beings and so forth of a person existing in the present.

              Take the Passover seder, for example. It is a symbolic reliving of a period in a people’s history; its effectiveness lies in how those symbols give an experiential gloss to stories long past, how a person who is part of that tradition sitting at a table in 2013 can taste and feel, in some non-trivial sense, something of what their ancestors are said to have tasted and felt, from the somewhat literal symbolism of unleavened bread and bitter herb, to the anamneutic role of the ritual asking of the questions.

              The Eucharist is a similar example, a ritual designed to recall a specific event in your mythology, so that you can participate in it in a way that gives life to the promises made by Jesus as well as the basic feeling of communion embodied in the breaking of bread and the sharing of wine. Its power to do so is likewise symbolic; even in Catholicism, the accidents of the host are not said to change, only its essence.

              The power in these things is that by participating in them, they reach back to a shared cultural ethos, a shared story. You are in the story when you participate in the tradition. But from the outside, Passover is first and foremost a meal, the Communion wafer a cracker. Its power, being only in shared participation, submergence into the myth, can’t really be monkeyed around with. Haphazard changes dilute their power to move a participant towards the participatory state. The thing that prevents the seder from being just a meal, or the communion wafer just a cracker are lost.

              So wild innovations in current practice of long traditions cause me to raise an eyebrow, because it generally means that the tradition is about to take a dive into meaninglessness, and so fail to achieve its object.

              • joey_in_NC
                Is there actually an example of a practice that you, as a non-participant, feel “effectively matches its intended object”?


                But we were specifically talking about prayer.

                Prayer, in its most simple description, is communication with God. Now, is there an example of a practice (prayer) that you, as a non-participant (someone who doesn’t pray), feel effectively matches its intended object (effectively communicates with God)?

                Do you think any of the things that you mentioned above effectively communicates with God?

                • Greg G.

                  Prayer, in its most simple description, is communication with God.

                  Prayer: pretending to communicate with one or more deities.

                • joey_in_NC

                  Prayer: pretending to communicate with one or more deities.

                  My point exactly. How can one argue that one form of prayer is more “effective” than another, if you don’t think any prayer at all is “effective matching its intended object” (communiting with God)? Just be honest and admit that all prayer is hogwash.

                • 3lemenope

                  Because the utility of religion to a believer is not simply communing with God. Religious apologists and promoters have argued this pretty strenuously (and I think on some points persuasively) for millennia. If religion did not make your life better (more fulfilling, more meaningful, more sensible, etc.) people wouldn’t do it even if God were real and the consequences for not doing it steep, mainly because people don’t respond to abstract far-future consequences very well in general, especially compared to more proximate pressing concerns.

                  So, as an atheist, I don’t believe that when a believer is praying, they are communing with a real entity. But I can still judge the effectiveness of religious practices by whether it seems to fulfill the myriad purposes and motives that prayer has that do not require positing the existence of the literal object of prayer. If it is psychologically healthy, and has obvious utility to the person beyond what they might believe the underlying metaphysics of prayer is, I think it not vacuous to be able to adjudge such a prayer as “good” even while not believing in its primary object. Elsewhere on this here thread (before you and I started talking on this issue) I indicated which of the list proffered struck me as good in this sense and why. I could be more expansive on any of them if you like, but I tend to ramble on as it is so I try to keep such observations to a thumbnail.

                  On the other side, a person can adjudge an attempt to achieve such an end as bad even if they don’t care about the end. A person may think one thing or another about animal care and animal abuse, but if the commercial trying to convince you to care about the issue has the primary and overwhelming effect of causing you to desperately want to strangle Sarah MacLaughlin and destroy all in the world she holds dear, it’s bad at pursuing its object. Doesn’t matter how worthy the end the commercial has in mind. Others are bad simply because they’re pointless; if you try to swim to Arizona, you will fail, and not because there’s anything wrong with swimming (or anything relevant wrong with Arizona), but simply because the means is poorly matched with its end due to the nature of the material surrounding Arizona, i.e. not water.

                  FWIW, I nearly reacted to your follow-up question the same way Neko did above. After all, it is a supremely odd question; the Bible may be cagey and metaphorical on many points, but on prayer it reads practically like an instruction manual. Jesus mentioned where NOT to do it, but also where TO do it, and how, and what words to use, and in what manner, and what expectations you should have. Hence my personal conservative instincts cause me to look askance at modifications and innovations to things that, being essential to the wider practice or ethos, also expectedly tend to come with pretty detailed instructions (as I talked about earlier up-thread). If you start using leavened bread in the Seder, it ain’t a Seder no longer, because it’s missing a big metaphorical point of why the bread must be unleavened. When there exists a fairly objective “right way” to do something in a given tradition, people outside the tradition have equal access to those objective relevant requirements and standards and also can use those to judge the propriety of an innovation.

                • joey_in_NC

                  I appreciate the thorough response, but I still disagree.

                  So, as an atheist, I don’t believe that when a believer is praying, they are communing with a real entity. But I can still judge the effectiveness of religious practices by whether it seems to fulfill the myriad purposes and motives that prayer has that do not require positing the existence of the literal object of prayer.

                  But once you remove all mysticism from prayer, then what you have left is entirely subjective experience. So how can you judge the entirely subjective effectiveness of prayer for someone else? “You shouldn’t pray over pictures of starving children because you can’t possibly get any psychological/emotional effects from of it.” Well, it obviously works for the blog author, or else she wouldn’t have listed them.

                  That’s why I find it bizarre that an atheist, one who doesn’t believe in the mystical aspect of prayer, would criticize how someone else prays. It’s akin to me criticizing some of the strange types of ‘services’ a man requests from a prostitute, because I feel those things “don’t match its intended object”.

                • Neko

                  Joey: of course many atheists are former Christians and know a thing or two about the religion. I was a cradle Catholic, and the notion of marketing prayer advice (“Check out the ‘Speaking’ page for more on how you can bring me to your church or school”!) smacks of the kind of Pharisaical ostentation and self-gratification my Catholic upbringing discouraged. The Gospels report Jesus himself teaching how to pray; his opinion should suffice for any Christian.

        • Jeff

          Um….by NOT praying? Action produces results, and usually results that benefit others. Prayers, at best, produce a peace that among the evils of the world, you were able to put yourself at peace without actually doing anything.

          • joey_in_NC

            Action produces results, and usually results that benefit others.

            Oh really? That’s news to me.

            Seriously, it’s amusing that many who criticize prayer seem to think there is some absolute mutual exclusion between praying and acting. If you think that prayer is a waste of time, then so be it. But don’t suggest that people who pray don’t also act.

            Just today I witnessed an enormous amount of ACTION within our Filipino-American community to provide aid for the hurricane victims (gathering box after box of donations, supplies, medicines, clothes, etc). Although we Catholics certainly like to pray a lot, we act too.

            • Jeff

              Please, read what I posted. I did not leap to the conclusion you did. Prayer is NOT action. I wrote as discussing them as singular action, and I did not claim people who prayed did not act. If you are here simply to argue, do so. But do not rewrite postings to rationalize your argument. But tell me, which of the two things helps the hurricane victims? Does a prayer provide clean water, food, shelter? If you can show me where that happened, I’ll start praying right now to help those folks. Silly me for just donating cash to the Red Cross.

              • joey_in_NC

                Why would you tell me not to pray and lecture me about action, unless you also think I don’t act?

                Why should I criticize someone for watching football for a few hours on Sundays, unless I also think he is being completely unproductive for the time he doesn’t spend watching football?

                • Jeff

                  You are absolutely correct. Have a nice day.

        • Rain

          So how are we supposed to pray?

          Step 1: Squinch eyes.
          Step 2: Make baby faces.

        • Neko

          Joey: aren’t you a Catholic? Matthew 6:5-6

          And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

          Mehta explained outright that his objection to prayer is its passivity. However, he is shooting fish in a barrel.

  • LesterBallard

    Oh God, oh Jesus, oh God, Oh Jesus, oh . . . yes, yes, yes. Like that?

    • Ubi Dubium

      I’ll have what he’s having.

      • LesterBallard

        Just the love of Jesus.

      • starskeptic

        nicely done…

  • Rain

    There is actually a way to tell if someone is praying really hard. If they are squinching their eyes real tight, then they are praying really really hard, and they really mean it.

  • Aspieguy

    I always like the story about bears killing children because they dared to call a prophet a “baldhead”. God’s prophets take no shit from anyone. Just when you thought Catholicism couldn’t have enough rules, someone invents 50 more.

  • chicago dyke, TOWAN

    send starving children food and money? goodness no! that would.. actually make a difference. we can’t have that.

  • Raising_Rlyeh

    “Close your eyes and just repeat the name of Jesus.”

    So, Jesus is Beetlejuice?

    • 3lemenope

      Or Hastur.

      • Stan

        Or Candyman.

  • A3Kr0n

    I can think of 50 ways to talk to my cat, but she has yet to talk back. I know, cats work in mysterious ways, and I should just have faith. I’ll try harder.

    • Astreja

      Talking to cats is easy: Just repeat back what they say to you. (Similarly, if you want to converse with gods, I assume you’d have to try speaking whatever the heck they speak.)

    • RowanVT

      Your problem is that your cat is not secretly a pokemon. My cat Mallorn will *always* say “Maal!” in response to his name.

      • Greg G.

        “Maal!” is his real name. He is trying to correct you.

        • baal

          He’s really a bad person that I turned into a cat and is trying to say my name so he can turn back.

  • Taylor Stewart

    “7  When praying, do not say the same things over and over again as the people of the nations do, for they imagine they will get a hearing for their use of many words.8  So do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need+ even before you ask him.” (Matthew 6: 7&8 NWT) If they actually read their Bibles they would see that much of these prayer tips don’t help them to be heard. But that was never really the point I guess. =^P

  • sam

    Only 50 ways to talk to a god? I’m not so impressed. I just read on Tony Ortega’s blog that L. Ron Hubbard developed about 90 different processes for Scientologists to exteriorize their thetans outside of their bodies. All that and their “scriptures” consider mass human genocide to be a BAD thing (their ultimate bad guy Xenu engaged in it, not their good guy LRH). Can’t say the same thing with yhwh and his global floods. Remind me again, which one is the kookier cult?

  • observer

    Oh sure, pray for starving children, but when it comes to political stuff they dislike (i.e. gay marriage), they’ll actually donate money to groups and take effort.

  • DougI

    Number one works, just like a four year old repeating the same thing over and over again to his mom. God will give you want if you are really, really annoying apparently.

  • Emmet

    This is weak.

    What task is prayer aiming to accomplish? The task of building relationship with Christ. So Hunter-Kilmer’s 50 things are, to greater or lesser degrees, well-suited for that task.

    If prayer was about getting stuff, then maybe Mehta would be right.

    However, it’s not, and a basic acquaintance with the theories and practices of Catholic prayer would tell a person so.

    Piss-poor atheist arguments:
    (1) I prayed for X.
    (2) I did not get X (at least not right away).
    (3) Therefore, God does not exist

    • EuropeanCommunist

      I love the link, allow me to fix the formatting for you:

      Massive straw man fallacy

      You’re welcome!

    • islandbrewer

      Yeah, I really don’t get what one is trying to accomplish with that Thomism site. I realize that there was the site that put up the “proofs” of god’s existence. They were all ridiculous, however (pay attention, now, Emmet) they were”proofs” that we actually do hear from christians. E.g., the first “proof” is the popular presuppositional argument from Sye Ten Bruggencate (and others from William Lane Craig to Eric Hovind). Not all christians agree with them, but we hear these “proofs” enough to recognize them instantly.

      The spittle-flecked catholics decided that “WE CAN DO FUNNY TOO!” and put up an identical site, but reversed the conclusions, and thought “Hmm, same material, same funnies, amiright?” without any ability to actually think about the reason for the original site. But these aren’t any “proofs” that I’ve ever heard for god’s nonexistence, at all. Granted, I only read the first 20, yawned and got bored, but it was clear what they did.

      Are they supposed to piss off atheists? They don’t, sorry. Not really. We’re far too used to strawman presentations of atheists. Boring.

      Is it supposed to be funny? Satire only works if there’s some truth to what you’re saying. The best parody entails minimal commentary (e.g., John Stewart running clips of people who are essentially parodies of themselves). The Thomism site doesn’t show any argument that anyone actually sees. For example, I don’t see anyone here stating that unanswered prayer is “proof” of god’s nonexistence. If you can point out an example of where one of these argument gets used sincerely, feel to link to it, of course (don’t forget the smug, and the “clever internet atheist” sneer!).

      Is it supposed to be some sort of “checkmate atheists!” moment to make Catholic bloggers feel better? A balm for your internet butthurts? I’m truly baffled by the intent there.

    • Greg G.

      Studies show that groups of people who were prayed for fared no better than groups of people without prayer. This pattern is seen even when the test is done by religious organizations if double blind protocols are used to eliminate bias. The only studies that show a benefit from prayer suffer from protocols that would allow bias to skew the results.

      Conclusion: Prayer doesn’t work and believers will cheat, intentionally or subconciously, by any means possible to convince themselves that there is some basis for it.

    • Itarion

      I’m not even going to pretend that those are supposed to be serious. They look like formal logic. They claim to be formal logic. But anyone with the five minutes to go here or here can easily tell that those arguments are not logical by any stretch of the imagination.

      • Emmet

        I know that. And yet atheists put them up as wham-gotcha arguments all the time.

        • Itarion

          Those are all either gross oversimplifications that remove all meaning from arguments [strawmen], or outright fabrications that have never [or should never] be used seriously [lies]. I recognize a couple as simplifications of arguments that I have used, certainly, but the tone adopted by this writer is rather harsher than I would use, first, and a lot less introspective.

          Let’s go with this one, which is the proper logical setup for my primary argument, the one at the core of my atheism. It goes a bit like this:

          1) It is reasonable to act from my senses and reasoned extrapolations of what I can sense.
          1a) a corollary to 1) It is unreasonable to act upon what I cannot sense.
          2) I have not sensed God in any physical way.
          By 1a) and 2),
          3) It is unreasonable for me act upon the premise of God.
          Restating 3)
          4) It is unreasonable for me to believe in God.

          You are welcome to explain how my argument is broken.

  • raerants

    I wouldn’t say “mere” meditation. There have been scientific studies into the benefits that meditation can provide. And I dare say (as a rational skeptical atheist) that there are ways of praying that are in reality meditation. The difference between mere prayer and meditation is that meditation can provide benefits to the person who is meditating. Mere prayer is, at best, just giving yourself a nice pep-talk. (On what is a different matter.)

  • Conuly

    #30 is so insulting. These children deserve better than to be objectified for their poverty. Creepy and rude!