What Is Prayer?

What Is Prayer? August 28, 2010

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  • Susan Golian

    Oh – succinct and wonderful – and a perfectly-timed reboot to my completely shattered discipline of prayer. I believe I will now retire to my room and actually kneel by the side of my bed (yes, the physical position does, in fact, alter the prayer experience) and give thanks for this reminder and its author, and all the other wondrous things of the last several days, and then climb into bed and try to just "be" closer to God. Thank you – and sweet dreams, John.

  • DonP

    All good except: I don't know if it's even possible for a mere man to "commune" with God. Wallow in His spittle, maybe. Hope just for the the glimmer of hope to have an inkling of what He's all about, maybe. Get a momentary flicker from the light of His knowledge before our minuscule brain lets it go, maybe.

    "Commune" to me implies climbing up to His level. Seems arrogant to me.

    Humbleness, humility, self effacing is the place of man when approaching the throne of God.

    Now, your words are prettier than mine John but, here's what Jesus said In Mathew 6 about prayer:

    9"This, then, is how you should pray: " 'Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name,

    10your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

    11Give us today our daily bread.

    12Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.

    13And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.

    14For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.

    15But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins."

    After reading that, then prayer as defined by Jesus (not a man), is first and foremost, a recognition of God's authority over us, secondly a request that our needs to be met. Thirdly, a request for His forgiveness and protection.

    Now,… that's simplicity! No need for long explanations and books upon books written about it……..Or, prettier words.

  • Tanager

    My son isn't quite sure what to make of prayer. He knows I pray – mostly because I tell him I do; he's generally asleep during my "prayer time," which pretty much consists of a conversation with God when I turn out the light and snuggle down. Sometimes I fall asleep during it. But I always wake up later in the night and pick up where I left off.

    What confuses my son is why we really *bother* to pray at all. He can understand the thanking and remorse type prayers. But the supplicating? Which, to his mind – and I can totally see where he gets this, of course – seems to him to be mostly what people do – he doesn't get it. I'm not sure how to answer him, but answer him I did, thusly:

    Son: "Why bother? God is all-everything, right? Like, if he decides that someone is going to die then how come you bother asking him to not let it happen? Do people think they are going to change his mind or something? Can you? If you pray hard enough will God change his mind?"

    Me (laughs a little nervously cuz gah! I don't really know): "No….God would never say later, 'If you'd prayed for another hour I'd have done/not done X'…prayer doesn't change who God is, but I think it *changes me*."

  • ManimalX

    And yet… there are plenty of examples in Scripture of God "changing His mind" when folks asked Him to do so!

    It isn't just, "God changes me," when we pray! Oh no! If you believe that Scripture is True, then we (lowly we!) sometimes get a say in the way events unfold! Why am I usuing so many exclamation points?! Because it is exciting!

    The easiest example if, of course, King Hezekiah from 2nd Kings. The condensed version is this: King Hezekiah fell ill. God sent Isaiah to tell King Hezekiah that King Hezekiah was going to die post haste. King Hezekiah wept bitterly and reminded the Lord of King Hezekiah's faithfulness. God then ixnayed the death sentence and gave King Hezekiah 15 more years of healthy life.

    The official version is this:

    "Hezekiah's Illness and Recovery

    1 In those days Hezekiah became sick and was at the point of death. And Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz came to him and said to him, "Thus says the LORD, 'Set your house in order, for you shall die; you shall not recover.'" 2 Then Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the LORD, saying, 3 "Now, O LORD, please remember how I have walked before you in faithfulness and with a whole heart, and have done what is good in your sight."And Hezekiah wept bitterly. 4 And before Isaiah had gone out of the middle court, the word of the LORD came to him: 5 "Turn back, and say to Hezekiah the leader of my people, Thus says the LORD, the God of David your father: I have heard your prayer; I have seen your tears. Behold, I will heal you. On the third day you shall go up to the house of the LORD, 6 and I will add fifteen years to your life. I will deliver you and this city out of the hand of the king of Assyria, and I will defend this city for my own sake and for my servant David's sake." 7 And Isaiah said, "Bring a cake of figs. And let them take and lay it on the boil, that he may recover." 8 And Hezekiah said to Isaiah, "What shall be the sign that the LORD will heal me, and that I shall go up to the house of the LORD on the third day?" 9 And Isaiah said, "This shall be the sign to you from the LORD, that the LORD will do the thing that he has promised: shall the shadow go forward ten steps, or go back ten steps?" 10 And Hezekiah answered, "It is an easy thing for the shadow to lengthen ten steps. Rather let the shadow go back ten steps." 11 And Isaiah the prophet called to the LORD, and he brought the shadow back ten steps, by which it had gone down on the steps of Ahaz." – 2 Kings 20:1-11

    Does God always answer "yes?" No, He does not. The best example of a "no" answer can be found in Matthew 26:39, the night before Jesus was to be crucified. Jesus, fully human and fully God, prayed to the Father, "And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, "My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will."

    The answer was "no." And thank God for that answer, since that answer meant that countless billions have been allowed to become children of God by the blood of the Son….

  • Gina Powers

    Manimal, I'm actually totally with you on this one! And John, WAY TO GO…again!! 😉

  • Meditative prayer with god presumes the object reality of god. When we 'feel' better for the exercise, we reinforce our belief that god is real. This assumption is then used to justify belief in an intercessory prayer. After all, because we know that god is real through our experience of meditative prayer and we feel different during and after praying (so the cause must be external because we cannot arbitrarily change how we feel, right?), then it is but a very small step to believing that there must be something to intercessory prayer as well, where god somehow orchestrates a kind of intentional intervention. There are many scriptural references that intercessory prayer works. But are any of these references and conclusions actually true?

    Well, we know that people who believe in the power of charismatic healing inhibit their brain's capacity to critically think by shutting down parts of their medial and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and we know through a meta-analytic review that there is no evidence to show any causal link greater than chance between prayer and effect. We do know that mindful meditation alters brain chemistry and improves immune function, which brings into question our assertion of the need for any external agency for mood alterations and how we feel during meditative prayer at all.

    Once again, we cannot trust that what we believe is true is necessarily true unless we have some less subjective way to test it. And when we do test the claims made on behalf of prayer, what we find is that it offers us no evidence for any external agency.

  • ManimalX

    @ Tanager:

    Such a good point. I COMPLETELY know what you mean.

    I guess I am a pretty cut 'n dry kind of guy, but here is how I see it: if I prayed and it happened, then the answer was "yes." If I prayed and it didn't happen, then the answer was "no." To those on the outside, this might seem like some sort of cop-out (Sarcastically: "Oh, you give God credit no matter what,") but it really isn't like that. It is more like the more time you spend in Scripture and the longer you spend praying, the closer your will echoes God's will, and the more frequently you get those "yes" answers. At least that is my personal experience.

    Regarding Numbers 23:19: this is one of the Severely Abused Verses of Scripture. There is a lot that can (and has) been said/written regarding this passage, but the main thing to remember is "context, context, context!" This one verse you provided has to be considered in light of ALL of Numbers and especially ALL of Numbers 22.

    Numbers 22 is about Balaam (a prophet of God for Israel) being coerced by Balak (leader of the Moabites) to curse the Israelites. Balak thought that if he could get Balaam to curse Israel that Israel would not be able to conquer the people of Moab. The specific part in verse 19 in in regards to the covenant God had made with Israel, specifically God's promise that Israel would be victorious over the Moabites.

    The Moabites were just SURE that if they could get Balaam to curse Israel that Israel would not be able to defeat Moab.

    It becomes much more clear when you read all of Numbers, or at least go back to the very beginning of Numbers 22. Verse 39 isn't so much a universal declaration regarding God's character (though it does have something to say about it), so much as it is a clarification of God's covenant with ancient Israel.

    You can take this or leave it, but there is something that an old pastor of mine told me many, many years ago that I have found invaluable to my studies in Scripture: Scripture is usually either DEscriptive or PREscriptive. In other words, sometimes Scripture is DESCRIBING a particular event or one-time action of God, and sometimes it is PRESCRIBING the way God ALWAYS acts or how we should ALWAYS behave.

    Over the decades I have found that bit of advice very helpful, but you can take it or leave it. Just a suggestion. Hope that helps 🙂

  • ManimalX

    Celebration! 🙂

  • Freda

    Beautiful! I'd like to add that prayer DOESN'T have to be in King James English. It is so startlingly weird to hear someone praying sonorously in a version of the English language that's been dead for centuries.

    Apparently they don't think that God understands modern English.

  • DR

    These verses are such a great accompaniment to this post, thanks for adding.

    Prayer is transformative if I'm in a humble place (which is harder to experience the more I'm aware of its necessity). Though prayer is often the place where I begin to become humble too. The ability prayer has to really reveal where we are before God never ceases to amaze.

  • There's also unintentional prayer, like when I'm about to be hit by a car and I quickly slip one in just in case. This is precisely why I avoid spending too much time in foxholes. Upsets my whole belief system.


  • ManimalX

    A piece of writing well done and beautiful in its simplicity. As my Australian mates like to say, “Good on ya!”

    A couple of verse came to mind while I was reading, especially when I got to the very last sentence:

    “Humble yourselves before the LORD, and he will lift you up.” – James 4:10

    And in more detail:

    “6 Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. 7 Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. 8 Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. 9 Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings. 10 And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. 11 To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen.” – 1 Peter 5:6-11

  • I think the ability to pray is one of the great advantages we agnostics have over the atheists. I love praying even though I can't be certain of what, if anything, hears or answers my prayers. Even if my atheist friends are right and I'm just talking to myself, the mere act of opening myself up, to listening to someone other than that guy who keeps talking inside my head, relaxes me, offers me a new perspective, and makes me a better person. To me, the key part of agnostic prayer is just to listen. I don't care what the source is that I'm listening to, but I know that if I do listen, I just might learn something. How fun is that?

  • Now if I could just listen to that voice in my head that says, "Hey stupid, don't forget to subscribe to comments on this post" the first time then I wouldn't have to leave inconsequential posts like this one.

  • DR

    I love this.

  • Tanager

    I know the context of the verse, but was sort of still using it as a pointer regarding God's character, despite. My bad. I do think it does point to His qualities, though, as you also say.

  • Tanager

    It's kind of like that for me, too, though I haven't fallen asleep like a baby…for a long time. Still, it's a very special time for me, that chat, and it's usually very very good. Sometimes nasty thoughts crowd in afterward and I have trouble shutting them off. But, in general, it's a time of great relief and comfort, like a blankie to hold.

  • ManimalX

    I was just re-reading that passage from 2 Kings and had to pump a fist in the air in excitement. Did you read what God said?!

    “Thus says the LORD, the God of David your father: ‘I have heard your prayer; I have seen your tears. Behold, I will heal you.’ ”

    “I have heard your prayer.”

    God listens to us! Who’da thunk it? How cool is that?!?

  • Susan Golian

    Yes! I wrote the first post to this thread last night before going to bed – I haven't slept soundly without chemical assistance for 2 or 3 weeks. I did, in fact, pray on my knees for a little while, then continued with the attempt at meditative prayer under the covers. The alarm shocked me awake this morning – I slept the entire night through and feel better than I've felt in weeks! It is now after lunch and I'm about to go get ready for school to start tomorrow morning – and I'm going to pray for a little while because I'm anxious. Bet you everything I own I'll be feeling like a new woman in about a half an hour!

  • Great stuff, you guys. Thanks so much for sharing all of this.

    Related to how beginning to pray even a little can radically improve your life, here's a piece from a long while back called "Back on Track" to which some of you might relate:


  • Tanager

    I know, I know! I know there are examples…but then there is the question of why God says no, and is it my/our fault? That can cause people a lot of stress (not me, but it would be very difficult to get into that with a child.) Should I have prayed more? Differently? Was it not “good enough?” When I say prayer changes me, perhaps I mean it enables me to accept the No, or handle it, or whatever.

    And a deeper question that *might* get asked is, did God really change His mind because of the prayer? Or was it already changed, really? I don’t know!

    “God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill?” – Numbers 23:19

  • I do not believe commune means "climb up". I can "accept" what is offered. I do it best when I do it humbly.

  • I pray to God without any thought that my prayer will "affect" God, but, I express my feelings on something to him. I want to let him know, even tho he doesn't need my words, if I use them. I acquired this outlook after asking myself the same question as the child mentioned above. I was led to the liturgical response: "Let my prayers rise up to you as incense, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice."

  • Or, they may be comfortable speaking to him in the language he has sometimes spoken to them.

  • Wonderful piece of writing!

    Thank you.

    I’m about to post it to my facebook page.

    sunny lockwood

  • DonP

    @Don Rappe, You are probably right about the "commune" word. Being a "child" of the sixties, I tend to use the word as putting everyone on equal footing. Providing for the whole in one giant social effort. as it were. In those days, many of us joined "communes". Wherein, we pooled our resources and worked for the good of the whole. There where many different iterations of the concept. Many encompassing some form of Socialist ideals. I suppose most people do not use the word in that way these days.

    Hope I didn't offend.

  • Diana A.

    Don, thanks for what you have written. It resonates with me.

    I think prayer is how we become conscious of the workings of God in our lives. God can do all the wonders and miracles that he wants, but if we don't acknowledge them then, at least for us, they never happened. Prayer brings to our awareness all that we need and desire as regards God and how God has responded and continues to respond to those needs and desires, thus making us conscious–and grateful.

  • Diana A.

    I hear ya, Brian! I've done that myself so many times!

  • Emily

    Prayer is like my own personal Xanax before bed. I have a chat with God, so I can get everything off of my chest, and then fall asleep like a baby. The calm is instant, and it lasts the whole night. Can’t beat that!

  • The non-believer has a different answer to the simple question of "What is Prayer?". I'll share if any are interested.

  • DR

    *raises hand.


  • Robert Meek

    One of the things about us, humanity, people, and the concept of prayer, and God, is how many times we basically try to treat God as if He is some kind of spiritual vending machine.

    There are many examples.

    For one, there are three basic answers God can give you: "yes," "no," and "wait." We tend to want only yes. We tend to act like spoiled children about "no," and "wait"!

    I remember one acquaintance from one of my former employers, I ran into her years later, in a store. I noted she was using a cane, and limping. As she was younger than me, I vaguely commented.

    She said she lost a leg to cancer, amputation, and that they got all of it. Now she had a prothesis, of course.

    Her next comment totally floored me. After saying "Praise God," for them having gotten all of it, she added, "And now, we're expecting God for another miracle!"

    You guessed it. She genuinely expects God to GROW HER A NEW LEG.

    Yes, God is all-power, all-knowing, and present everywhere, but because He is, doesn't me He does.

    No where does it say Jesus healed ALL the lame, blind, or lepers. Merely that he did so.

    Another person, with visible physical deformities in her arms and hands (this will be relevant in a moment), was talking with me.

    We were discussing my HIV and lung disease with oxygen dependency.

    She started to "preach" at me and lecture me about how God can heal me.

    I agreed. I said if He willed so to do, great, but if He willed that these things stayed in my life, so be it.

    She jumped all over me, viciously, saying that I was not healed because it was MY FAULT because I was SPEAKING in a WAY that showed I did NOT REALLY BELIEVE it.

    She added, with great pomposity, that she was already healed.

    I reluctantly responded, that I hated to say anything contrary, but unless my eyes were deceiving me, she still very much had her infirmity, too, as I did.

    She said, "Well, I've already been healed! It just hasn't manifest yet!"

    And she was 100% serious.

    She was right, I was wrong, she was healed, I was not, and it was my fault.

    So much for my latest experiences with my "brothers & sisters in Christ"! Anyone wonder why I don't go to church and upset my life with these people?

    And yes, it's a very small town here. I'd never get away from these lunatics if I did go. And yes, I consider them very much lunatic. Not stable, at all.

    God never condoned irrational magical thinking. He condoned faith in Him, and acceptance of His Divine Will.

    Even Jesus, in The Lord's Prayer, giving us the example, said "Thy will be done, on earth, as it is, in heaven." "Give us this day, our daily bread" – give us what we need for this day, not what we want, our whims, our pouting whining sniveling demands. What we NEED.

    Our Father, Who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy Will be done, on earth, as it is, in heaven. Give us this day, our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we for give our debtors. But lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.

    This is how Jesus taught us to pray.







    But not a blasted vending machine!

  • Diana A.

    Yes, you're absolutely right, Robert. As for what your friend said about her healing not having "manifest yet," that sounds suspiciously new age. I actually like new age thought, but it does tend to be kind of soft and to not take into consideration that God sometimes has reasons for allowing us to walk through our personal "Valleys of the Shadow of Death" oh my! And no, God is definitely not a vending machine.

  • I thought I already did that.

  • Don Whitt

    I need a book on prayer. Seriously. I have a problem about praying to God.

    In the early 80's, just out of college, I was a waiter at a very popular watering-hole in San Francisco. This establishment only employed boys and girls who could either be models or escorts or the "boy/girl next door". We were oh-so clean and athletic, fresh-faced and seductive. And we made tips hand-over-fist as we "watered" the glamorous and famous. I may have killed more livers than a delicatessen. And i took $300-$500 home every night doing so.

    And I learned to never bother the rich and powerful with even the slightest acknowledgment that I existed. I served with a smile, happy that I could do so. The 1 or 2 times I crossed the boundary into their world, uninvited, I received a nice swack and retreated quickly as their laughter or disdain quickly subsided.

    And I sort of feel that way about speaking with God. Odd, huh? I'm embarassed. Like I'm troubling God when I bother him/her with my insignificant bullshit.

    Sure, I suppose I'm no less significant than any of you, but I guess I just don't buy that. My problems are mine and mine alone with which to deal – God's focus is deserved so much more by the millions with bigger issues.

    "Can anyone recommend a good book on the topic of prayer for people with low self-esteem?

  • vj

    I particularly like the way C.S. Lewis interprets God's responses to our prayers:

    “We must not picture destiny as a film unrolling for the most part on its own, but in which our prayers are sometimes allowed to insert additional items. On the contrary; what the film displays to us as it unrolls already contains the results of our prayers and of all our other acts. There is no question whether an event has happened because of your prayer. When the event you prayed for occurs, your prayer has always contributed to it. When the opposite event occurs your prayer has never been ignored; it has been considered and refused, for your ultimate good and the good of the whole universe.”

  • DonP

    Here's me sometimes…"God?… God?… (get's louder) God?… (gets whiny) God?… (gets nasty) God I want what I want and I want it now.

    ………..God…I'm still waiting!

  • misunderstoodranter

    "What is prayer?"

    A superstation that is based on coincidence.

    Let say there is a disease that has a 10% survival rate. When 10 people get this disease, all of them pray to god to save them. Nine of them die, and one of them lives. The one that lives says ‘I prayed to god, he saved me’ – but we don’t hear what the others say, because they are dead. This is how the myth of prayer spreads.

    Prayer is a coincidence, there is no special law of probability that applies to people who pray, or who have lucky horseshoes, or rabbits feet – there is only probability.

  • Tanager

    And me, showing the truth of Annie Lamott's sentiments on certain prayers:




  • Ace

    What is your interpretation of the word and act of "Communion", then, Mr. Don P?

    I'm not challenging you on the subject, I'm just curious what your thoughts are, given such a context.

  • Ace

    I think that's a lot of us, much of the time!

    Well, any father knows his children can get a bit whiney sometimes.

    I'll admit I'm rather guilty of having a very lax prayer life. I'm not good at it and never have been, for various reasons. I should probably work on that.

  • Diana A.

    I like "The Prayer Bible" myself–it's the Bible mixed in with biblically inspired prayers and advice about praying. Sometimes, I find it a little fundamentalist, but it's a start.

    And remember that "God is Love." So God will never treat you like a waiter at a rich person's watering-hole. On the contrary, God is pleased when we bother him with our insignificant bullshit. And God is more than capable of dealing with our problems and the bigger issues of the world.

    I also like "A Guide to Prayer for All God's People" by Reuben P. Job and Norman Shawchuck. This book is goes through the church year with recommended bible verses on various topics followed by readings/quotes from various Christians across the years. It does have a distinctly Wesleyan slant, but as a Methodist, I consider that a plus. It also includes a lot of Catholic mystics (at least, I think they're Catholic. They sound kind of Catholic–but I could be wrong.)

    I also like The Book of Common Prayer, though that might be a little formal for your needs. Anyway, hope this helps!

  • Diana A.

    Something I've been known to say to God when life is not going the way I want it to: (glares toward Heaven)–"You owe me!" It's a good thing for my sake that God has a good sense of humor.

  • Diana A.

    I'm fond of "Help!"

  • Great post, especially the last line. Thank you!

  • DonP

    Good question. I never really questioned it. I suppose because the Sacrament as instituted by Jesus was one in which His disciples were commanded to do as equals, not equal to Jesus but to each other for their common good. Also, as practiced by the Churches I have attended, it is practiced as a group of individuals who have come together for their common good as Christians. Doesn't really seem inconsistent with my original above.

  • Well tildeb touched on some what non-believers see as prayer at
    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnshore/2010/08/28/what-is-prayer/#c…. Brian eluded to bits.

    I would offer the following extra bits….

    John seems to have it pretty much right in his two categories of 'meditational' and 'intentional'. I think the latter is more often called intercessory prayer because the subject deity is being asked to intercede in the natural world to alter the outcomes of events in accordance with the wishes of the petitioner.

    Meditational prayer has been clearly and scientifically shown to to have benefits. It is pretty well understood that meditation and relaxation alters stress hormones and practitioners do exhibit better health and well being. The important point is that it doesn't matter what deity one is ostensibly communing with nor does one have to commune with any deity at all. This 'meditational prayer' seems to work on precisely the same level as conventional meditation and relaxation techniques. …and important to my position; it offers no evidence of any sort of any supernatural actor.

    Intercessory prayer, on the other hand, doesn't work as practitioners would believe…not even a little bit. It seems to me that intercessory prayer is something that someone can do to feel like they are helping to control an outcome when that outcome is actually out of their control. This is not without benefit. Just like meditation; feeling like one is doing something when one cannot, in actuality, do anything does reduce stress hormones et. al. and does bestow the associated benefits to the practitioner. Statistically, however, intercessory prayer has been shown to have zero effect on the outcomes of events…and people do actually test this stuff. One of the better conducted studies can be reviewed at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16569567. Indeed; the more rigorous and properly controlled the studies get, the closer the results converge with placebo and random chance. …and important to my position; it offers empirical evidence that a major tenet of most theistic belief systems is false and that there is no reason to think that any deity is acting on behalf of petitioners.

    Thanks for asking DR.

  • @MIsunderstood:

    Science has shown that, when people think positively, their brain chemistry changes. It becomes self-manifesting. They're happier. Life gets better for them.

    In the same way, when people are sad and continue to dwell on sad things, they spiral into depression. The mind poisons itself.

    If prayer does nothing else, it provides hope and, I believe, an anecdote for the daily poison we all ingest mentally.

    And odds are that the most successful and happiest people ignore the odds.

  • Doh, how could I have forgotten that one about therapeutic effects of cardio patients? And you are right, MB: it is one of the better ones.

    You fail to mention (no doubt out of politeness – a condition with which I am only sometimes afflicted) that there is a slightly negative correlation between prayer and health outcomes, meaning that, if anything, there is evidence (be it ever so thin) that praying for someone to get better is associated with a more harmful outcome!

    Uh oh…

  • Sushi


    An aside. Positive thinking doesn't work for a lot of people, especially those who need it most, according to the scientific research in this article (and my own personal experience):


  • I didn't mention the 'slight negative effect' because, given the population size of the study, the effect was not statistically significant…meaning it's not evidence. Interestingly; if that WERE a statistically significant effect (where people that were prayed for faired worse), then that would be AMAZING and [possibly] be compelling evidence for some higher power. Of course that would mean that humanity would be TOOOOOTALLY wrong about just what that higher power was about!! 🙂

  • DonP

    The Scriptures tell us that God answers prayer. But, only if we are asking according to His will. Also, if anyone has something against us for something that we may have done to wrong them, we are to seek their forgiveness before we come before Him. I would submit, that today's "Church" is so preoccupied with the cares of this world. and the pleasures that it offers, that most everything asked for is done so outside His will. We are for the most too prideful to lay ourselves at the mercy of those we have wronged. And who among us is willing to give up the 50" plasma screen much less our favorite TV shows, some other material thing, our power or the vacation that we have saved for a lifetime for?

  • The Scriptures tell us that God answers prayer.

    I guess I am wrong then. 🙂

    Oh wait!!! So is praying for strangers to recover quickly from heart surgery is against God's will? Would God ignore the needs of the the cardiac patient because the prayer has an ostentatious TV?

    If you think possessions might be getting in the way of God listening to your requests, I would be happy to take your plasma TV and late-model car off your hands. Deeding your real estate to me would DEFINITELY get God to listen!! Drop me a line and I will give you my shipping address. 🙂

  • Not necessarily so, MB. I seem to recall that the slight negative correlation was for patients who knew they were being prayed for. Hence the conclusion receiving intercessory prayer was associated with a higher incidence of complications. This could be due to many possibilities that have nothing whatsoever to do with anything supernatural and everything to do with the the patient him- or herself.

  • So let's do an experiment: let's get one million christians (more is better) to pray for the same thing at the same time – let's say ending cancer. Out of those surely there are a few who are exemplify the very best of christianity. If cancer is not ended, then let's assume god does not want cancer to end by intercession. That should clear the theological decks so that we can all agree to get back to researching embryonic stem cells.

  • DonP

    I gave up trying to discern the will of God in much of anything long ago. I find that His will is so far beyond my understanding that I must for my own sanity ask God to "grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference."

    With that said, I smile and with a bow, exit the room.

  • But you assume those with low self esteem 'need' positive reinforcement even if it is baseless. I think improving one's self esteem by accomplishment does this task very well.

  • The 'strange and mysterious ways' or 'beyond our ability to understand' argument is a very good note to go out on!! 🙂 Best to you.

  • Diana A.

    Prayer is as much a matter of heart and attitude as it is one of spoken word. Getting one million Christians to pray verbally for an end to cancer might not be difficult. But would their hearts be in it? And if not, would that make a difference in God's willingness to end cancer?

    On the other hand, I can see God granting that prayer just to silence skeptical atheists. But would it be appreciated? Or would we immediately whine because God had not seen fit to remove the scourge of AID's as well?

  • Have you ever seen those American Idol hopefuls that sing so badly with great self-esteem because they were given positive reinforcement? ("Sure honey!! You sing GREAT!!") Then they go and quit their job to achieve success on Idol. There is not a clear line between dashing one's dreams delivering a useful reality. Positive reinforcement is not always a good thing.

  • Sushi


    You are absolutely right. Self-esteem can be gained by proving to one's self that he is capable.

    My point; however,was that 'positive thinking' has proven to negatively affect someone with low self-esteem. If someone who thinks poorly of himself engages in "visualizing success" or repeating mantras that the person doesn't believe, the effect is often the opposite of the intended outcome, according to the article.

  • Why on earth would you think the end of cancer would not be appreciated… by everyone?

    I'm just imagining one possibility I can think of that would make me a theist. Can you think of one thing it might take to make you an atheist?

  • I understand, S. I was simply pointing out your use of the word 'need' and questioning its validity.

    It makes sense to me that someone who believes he or she is not adequate or good enough will have this message reinforced by making positive statements the subject believes is false. The only way to change that belief is by evidence that it is not true.

    I do exactly this when I teach adult students that they already know all the math necessary for post secondary programs; the only thing I need to do is teach them how to show what they already know. I have yet to see a student of any age who believes he or she is illiterate in math or who has a history of failure in the maths complain when he or she receives near perfect marks consistently with each new area tackled. Nothing builds self-esteem as much as revealed capability, which sometimes needs a helping hand rather than a contrary pronouncement. It's all about ownership as far as I'm concerned. When someone owns an ability and can show that ability, then the person quite rightly builds self-esteem based on that ability. It's earned honestly.

    Prayer, to my way of thinking, acts contrary to this very important sense of ownership. If I don't have any power to affect change about a problem, then it's not my problem. But if I can affect change, then I own the problem and I own whatever results occur when I exercise that power. If I transfer my power elsewhere, then I am shifting ownership and responsibility elsewhere and that comes with both benefits and more problems, but that's another issue entirely.

  • Diana A.

    "Why on earth would you think the end of cancer would not be appreciated… by everyone?"

    Because one of the fun little things about human beings is that we tend not to appreciate the blessings/good things that happen to us as much as we notice the bad things. So I can see us (and I'm referring to the whole of humanity, not just atheists, not just theists, everybody) giving a big cheer if cancer is wiped out–and then five minutes later being back to noticing everything else that's still wrong with the world.

    "I’m just imagining one possibility I can think of that would make me a theist. Can you think of one thing it might take to make you an atheist?"

    No, I can't–because for me there is no one thing that could/would turn the tide one way or the other. With me, it's never any one thing that sends me in a particular direction but a bunch of things. It would be a mistake to assume that I dismiss atheism out of hand. I weigh atheism on a fairly regular basis, just as I weigh my own faith. I ask myself if I really believe in God or if I'm just going along with an old habit. I consider what the world would be like without God–that is, if I were to give up my faith in God and only believe in scientific facts and the things verifiable by my five senses and other people concurring with what my five senses are telling me. I can't imagine a colder, grayer world. I'll keep my delusional faith in God, thank you. I like color. I like warmth.

  • Fair enough

  • I, for one, would absolutely abhor the idea of (for instance) some diseases being wiped out with the wave of an all-powerful hand and extending our lifespans by (let's say) 50 or 100 years. We can barely feed the 6+ billion people we have now and we are running out of water and we are suffocating our ecosystem with our byproducts.

    Can we work it out that God can cure stuff and let us live great quality lives right up until we are (let's say) 90 years old? …or how about we live 200 healthy, quality years but our fertility is cut by 75%? …or God hands out condoms and makes them pleasant to use?

  • DR

    Sure. Thanks for the answer. I’m glad for the research on the meditative prayer showing some results, I did a half-hearted google search for it but ran out of time.

    I will say, for anyone to assert we can really know conclusively if intercessory prayer works seems to assume a definite conclusion about the existence of God. And while I understand many atheists have a different burden of proof for such things and that I tend to believe that agnostics – when faced with “Is God Real?” – have the most intellectually honest response (being “I don’t know”). So it’s weird for me to watch anyone try to prove something that to me seems unprovable.

  • DR

    Love this comment. Thank you.

  • I am an agnostic AND an atheist…they are not mutually exclusive. I cannot prove that Zeus does not exist, therefore I am agnostic on the existence of Zeus. I am atheistic with regards to Zeus because I find no compelling evidence for the existence of Zeus and, hence, do not hold theistic beliefs with regards to Zeus.

    …and I NEVER try to disprove what doesn’t exists. Argument theory 101 informs us that one cannot disprove a negative. My points merely show that two arguments FOR theism are, in reality, invalid and failed arguments.

  • There are those who believe in god, those who don't, and those who don't know. Sounds quite reasonable.

    There are those who believe in Zeus and who state categorically that they know many of his properties worthy of worship, those who have no reason to believe Zeus is real and interactive in the world, and a bewildered group of people who really aren't sure about any of it because no one seems to know for sure. Doesn't sound quite so reasonable.

    Agnosticism in the matter of religious belief is a way station between destinations of true and false that some people would like to claim as the only legitimate stop if headed for intellectual honesty. This is a land of stark certainty that conveniently ignores the landscape of what is probably accurate/inaccurate, probably correct/incorrect, probably true/false. In all other matters of belief, we claim agnosticism as a (negative) condition that draws us and our inquisitive minds into committing more effort to continue our journey to know. Yet the agnostic would have us believe such an effort is intellectually dishonest unless only certainty can be achieved.

    Oh really?

    Just imagine your physician who quite honestly withholds a diagnosis because there is some element of uncertainty about its veracity, or a mechanic who clucks the tongue and admits that one can never be sure if a mechanical problem is completely fixable. A student who brings home a report card that states 'I don't know for sure how this person is doing in any studied subject" isn't a very helpful guide.

    "I don't know" as a theological conclusion is an intellectual cop-out.

  • DR

    There seems to be quite a bit of discord among atheists and agnostics as of late (if the Internet is any kind of measure, which is dubious at best). I’ve seen atheists cast dispersion on the idea of being agnostic – that it was kind of an “atheist lite” which seemed a bit insulting. These things are complex and we get to choose what we are and why. Had I not had an experience of faith I suppose I’m still trying to unravel, I’d be in the agnostic camp.

  • My friend Mike and I do disagree here. I think atheist and agnostic are mutually exclusive. Atheists are people without theism, who positively assert that there is no theism that is valid. We agnostics just don’t know.

    I agree with Mike that there is no evidence that is persuasive to me to suggest that Zeus, Thor, Allah, Zoaraster, The Judeo-Christian god, or any others that I have encountered or studied are the one and only true answer to the nature of the universe. However, just because I haven’t been exposed to data that proves a theism, as an agnostic, I must always remain open to the possibility that someday such data could theoretically come forward. I cannot make universal statements that suggest it’s impossible for any deity to exist because I just don’t know. In that way, both atheism and religious belief seem like hubris to me.

    DR, like you and John for that matter, I have had experiences in my Christian youth and using meditative techniques learned from SRF and other rituals, and using psychedelic substances that seemed powerful and not easily explained. However, I remain agnostic about what happened to me during those experiences. I don’t have sufficient training in brain chemistry, psychology, pharmacology, or a variety of other disciplines to make definitive statements about what I felt and saw. Even if I did, it seems very possible to me that such answers are beyond the current state of the art in such scientific disciplines to provide satisfactory answers. So again, I have to say I don’t know.

    In summary, I refuse to describe myself as an atheist even if I agree with atheists who have found specific flaws in the claims of specific theists. There just seems to me too much that not only do we not now know, but that an honest person must concede we will never be able to know.

  • Such a world might look like this.

  • I do not know whether Zeus or Jehovah or Osiris or Vishnu exists, nor can I prove they don't exist. I don't claim to know, therefore I am agnostic with regards to each. There is nothing that leads me to think enough of any of their conventional narratives to lead me to hold theistic beliefs for any of those gods, therefore I am 'without theism' or 'a-theistic' toward each of them.

    Agnosticism and atheism are, most assuredly, are not mutually exclusive. I say this based simply on the simple deconstruction of the words. They describe [not having] completely different things…knowledge and theism. If you are not a theist, then you are an atheist. If you are a deist, then you are an atheist.

    **(Theism in my book is belief in a personal god that interacts with our world and belief that one knows something of the mind of that god)

  • Ace


    Might be helpful for this debate you all are having.

    I don't think agnosticism is a "cop-out" necessarily, simply an admission that evidence provided by current scientific methods and technology are insufficient for dealing with the question of any sort of "higher power" in the natural order, just as technology in previous centuries was insufficient to deal with the question of, for example, the electromagnetic spectrum outside of visible light (or, for example, the Higgs boson right now, which physicists are still trying to find with gadgets like the LHC).

    Lack of evidence is not proof of non-existance any more than lack of evidence is proof of existance. Frankly out of any of the religious beliefs or non-beliefs in this world, agnosticism probably makes the most sense given what we actually *know* at this juncture.

  • This is a sophisticated philosophical position that is true for all of us, MB. None of us really know for sure if any gods exist, nor can any of us prove with certainty an infinite number of negative hypothesis. But when we are speaking of intellectual honesty about the objects of belief, are you clarifying anything by suggesting that you really are agnostic about Osiris, MB? Really?

    The same argument you offer can be successfully used against all scientific knowledge. We can argue that no one knows if the plane we are about to board can fly, if all the evidence that backs our knowledge of thrust and lift will always work. But in practical terms, of what use is this philosophical reminder except to leave intellectual wiggle room for those who wish to believe without evidence that the laws of physics can be and have been routinely suspended by supernatural forces?

    Claiming agnosticism about Osiris may be true in a strictly philosophical sense, but in practical matters of acting in the world you are not agnostic. That's intellectually honest. You have, in fact and by action, moved away from this philosophically defensible position you claim to hold simultaneously with atheism and have made the decision to not believe that which does not have a preponderance of evidence to back it up. In effect, you have taken the position of non belief and have rejected the maintenance of pristine agnosticism. By boarding the plane, you have rejected the notion that the laws of physics might be suspended this time and have chosen to act on the preponderance of evidence that the laws will continue to work for this plane at this time. Saying that you don't know if they can be suspended may allow you to feel justified to keep one foot in each camp but in practical terms it favours only one: apologetics for woo.

  • Diana A.

    Yes, I read your silly little cartoon. Doesn't change my mind in the least.

  • You claim it would be a colder, grayer world, Diana, but the point of the cartoon is to reveal that we're working with exactly the same data set. By your own admission your belief is immune from falsifying, so how can you lean more towards believing cold a gray than the way the world actually is other than relying solely on your belief that it may be? This shows that the belief you claim adds colour and warmth does something else, too: your belief alone inserts cold a gray where none may be. And no one is asking you to believe in scientific facts as some other kind of belief similar to the religious kind: you function in the world by relying on the truth of those 'scientific' facts already and do so without 'believing' in them. They are the default setting we unthinkingly but reliably use every day.

  • @tildeb

    This is a sophisticated philosophical position that is true for all of us, MB.

    Oh if I had a million dollars for every time someone called me sophisticated I would have some serious money!! 🙂

    We are on the precisely the same page tildeb. I only trot out the argument when I am confronted with some of the language arguments that we frequently see…apparently it goes over many heads.

    Of course, as a practical matter, it is manifestly ridiculous to qualify one's self as being agnostic with regards to Zeus et. al.. I am an atheist with regards to Zeus and have never made any positive claim that Zeus does not exist. I am an atheist with regards to Yahweh and have never made any positive claim that Yahweh does not exist. I only say the arguments FOR Yahweh suck…and suck hard.

    Truth be told; I don't know ANY atheist (including Dawkins) that makes a positive statement that God does not exist. I think "Hard" or "Positive" atheism is something of a straw man. If there is a "Positive atheist", then I would lump them with the fundamentalists that I disdain.

  • Ace

    "I think “Hard” or “Positive” atheism is something of a straw man. "

    I've met a few, and yes they do tend to be as obnoxious as the holy-rolling bible-beater camp, but I don't think they are all that common.

  • Ace

    If you are talking about the young-earther genesis creationist crowd, Mike, I think we can all agree they are being very obtuse at best, or maybe just paddling their way down de-nial river.

    Religion and science don't have to be at odds, and I think a lot of that "war" is deliberately cultivated by people with some very political motiviations.

    As for whether prayer "works" or not, well that is one of those things that people have to experience for themselves and come to their own conclusions. I think sometimes it's best to have, as the film "Dogma" once put it, "a good idea" about matters of faith and leave it at that.

    I don't think there are a lot of people *here* at least who claim their religious beliefs are verifiable scientific fact. Not all us religious folk are like that.

  • @Ace

    As for whether prayer “works” or not, well that is one of those things that people have to experience for themselves and come to their own conclusions.

    The problem is that personal experience is frequently NOT the best way to determine validity or truth. It is the 'miracle' of the scientific method that is our best tool to mitigate the failings of the human brain and allow us to dispense with ancient conventional wisdom and lead us to real truth. …and isn't truth what we all want?

  • Diana A.

    Yeah, Sushi, my experience concurs with yours on this.

  • Ace

    I meant TO FORM ONE'S OWN CONCLUSIONS not "to for one's one conclusion" argh. I can't type today.

  • @ace

    The non-overlapping magesteria is nonsense. Religion pretends to provide all kinds of answers to all kinds of questions. Science attempts to answer the why questions when it is knowable and leave well enough alone those questions that are unknowable. You can say that unicorn wings are made up of laughter but only theology pretends to know these kinds of answers.

    Look, methodological naturalism can very much determine supernatural claims if that claim involves in any way the natural world. As for what happens or exists outside of the natural world, we have absolutely no way of knowing, which does not impede anyone from making all kinds of claims about it. But please don't assume that religion somehow is separate or immune from methodological naturalism because it makes assertions it cannot possibly know. As for answering the 'why' questions, on what grounds does religious belief elevate the 'answers' above any other domain like science or philosophy? Again, without the original assumption that religion DOES offer an elevated position, there is no evidence for the conclusion… any more than without the original assumption that the supernatural DOES exist, there is no evidence for the conclusion that we can know anything about it.

  • @ace, @Diana

    The method of how we can know something through religious faith is not the same but exactly opposite how we can know something through scientific inquiry. They are not compatible methods of inquiry and they do not produce equivalent knowledge from inquiry.

    Only the method of science produces the kind knowledge that we can verify through testing and falsification. The method of religious faith produces assertions and assumptions that are untestable and unverifiable and in no need of falsification because it is assumed to be true.

    Only the method of science produces knowledge that we can apply with practical success. The method of religious faith produces… more assertions and assumptions.

    Only the method of science throws away what doesn't work and builds on its past successes for new inquiries and a deepening of knowledge with what does. The method of religious faith starts with all the answers against which non-conforming input is simply rejected as trivial or in need of some radical interpretation to fit the theology.

    The method of science is to inquire about what is true and to verify that through practical applications. The method of religious faith circumvents this process with inquiry already over and an answer based on faith substituted. What is true under the method of religious faith is assumed and asserted but incapable of being tested or verified.

    They are mutually exclusive methods of inquiry.

    @Mike 8:12 am

    Exactly so.

  • Jeanine

    Science studies the natural realm; but matters of faith take place in the supernatural realm.

    Trying to study the supernatural using natural means is like trying to measure time using feet and inches.

  • Jeanine

    I know; that was a very 'unscientific' comment. Lets pick apart all of the words……

  • Matthew Tweedell

    @tildeb, @Mr. Burns, @Mr. Sheilds, @Ace, @DR, et al.

    Why do you think that none of us really knows for sure if any gods exist? Certainly you might define a god in such a way that his existence is an untestable claim. But that doesn't make possible his existence any more than our defining a being that lives deep underground on Mars makes possible that exact being's existence, or that describing some made-up element we label “Kryptonite” gives meaning to anything real.

    And why is this?

    We only have the ability to truly make definition of something by reference to a known reality. What we’d do then in such a definition is make reference to a reality, constructed in the mind. So such definition (that is, untestable—even if the reason is ostensibly human limitations: in actuality, the world and nature are defined by human limitations, and an actual theory is a model, a simplified image of reality in the mind, for anticipating correlations in data input from the outside world within the limits of our experience), such is in actuality completely independent of any objective reality (and thus should we rightly classify such as fiction/fantasy). The only god(s) that may exist absolutely are ones defined as such that are really known to be.

    You see, "God" is but a word made up by men/women, to relate certain conceptions of reality (as known unto them). Outside of that framework, it is meaningless, meaningless—it is senseless to speak of its "existence".

    And so agnosticism and atheism are not only fully compatible, but one ought to imply the other, de facto.

  • Sushi, I agree with almost everything you've written here. I think many people feel just as you have suggested. But people with emotional problems are missing something fundamental on an emotional level and we'll get to that in a moment. But first I want to address what I think you misunderstand by what I mean with the term 'ownership' of a problem and have misplaced what you call my reliance on 'logic' for methodology when I suggest accomplishment builds esteem.

    If my grass is so long that it's a problem and is in need of cutting, then building a fence really well, vacuuming behind oven, and polishing the silver does not address the problem of long grass any more than an emotional problem is addressed by looking good, buying a new car, and going on a cruise. The esteem I talk about is directly related to the overcoming of a specific problem and enjoying the feeling of success that brings. If one has an addiction problem, for example, then breaking that addiction is a significant achievement; the problem, however, is that no one ever reaches the goal because one is always an addict. So the 12 step program works for a lot of people for many good reasons but I don't think anyone is ever 'cured.' And the reason for this is that they are simply in remission because the problem's symptom is what's being addressed – hopefully for life one day, one hour, at a time. The problem, however, remains.

    In addition, asking for help – being in the right mindset to recognize the need for help – is a key ingredient. It is part of the acceptance of owning the problem (in this case the problem's destructive symptom) and being prepared – being willing – to do something concrete about it. I think we are in agreement over this part.

    We are also in agreement about the head/heart notion. In my case, a little lower – butter tarts and diet constantly wage a war for dominance. I don't pretend that logic is the dominant force we should use; I think we have sold short the vital importance emotions play for a very long time and have little knowledge about what constitutes emotional health and how best to maintain it. Suffice to say, what we learn and incorporate as children plays out throughout our lives and it is here where so many emotional issues that become problems with real symptoms comes into the light.

    We are emotional creatures (especially children) and to belittle or reduce the role emotions plays to our overall emotional sense of a healthy and whole self is to our overall detriment.

    Where we seem to part company is about the belief in a higher power that you think might be necessary for success in the 12 step program. We know it's common but not necessary for those who have had success in the program. What I think is important is to frame problems in such a way that we are not helpless in our response to them. Helplessness, we know, breeds helplessness and has negative results across the psychological board. I think it is a key ingredient – a necessary step in our downward spiral – to depression. But does the 12 step program address why we feel the way we do, get to the very root of the source of that emotional reality, or does it transfer responsibility elsewhere?

    I know it will be controversial to write, but I think indoctrinating children with religious faith is a travesty to their long-term emotional healthy stability and self-trust. (Pa whooped my ass behind the woodshed and it ain't hurt me none. I turned out okay, which is why I whoop my boy's ass behind the woodshed and learn him some discipline!)

    Although we in the west allow the easter bunny and Santa Claus and the tooth fairy to pass away into metaphor, our collective failure to do so with gods and spirits sends an important message to kids that I think causes uncertainty and harm to the core of their being, to the heart of how reliable are (and how much we can trust) our interpretations of the world. We burden children with a religious identity (and mistrust of self) not of their choosing and expect them to accept it as true even if it is not fair.

    Emotional problems are almost always related to significant perceptual errors about the self. And if we have been raised to distrust self, – especially how we DO feel compared with how we are told we are SUPPOSED to feel – usually from a very early age, then we have prepared the emotional ground necessary for long term emotional problems. This is a common core issue with people with addiction problems.

    The scary part of all this is how the brain builds its neural net, revealing that how we have learned to think (and feel) determines what we think (and feel). It's a 'gift' that keeps on giving. Perhaps dealing successfully with controlling destructive symptoms when self and world are at odds is the best we can hope to accomplish, but from my understanding of the efficacy rates of long-term talk therapy, I suspect it takes a great deal of relearning core lessons about the self to become emotionally healthy people.

  • Matthew Tweedell


    "Only the method of science produces knowledge that we can apply with practical success."

    That's not true. Knowledge of a divine Savior can be applied with great success in helping average people psychologically.

    "The method of religious faith starts with all the answers against which non-conforming input is simply rejected as trivial or in need of some radical interpretation to fit the theology."

    That's not true either. That's only the case when you start from the presumption of authoritative revelation.

    "What is true under the method of religious faith is assumed and asserted but incapable of being tested or verified."

    That's not always the case either. (And to the extent that it is, much historical knowledge is the same; for example, Cleopatra's affairs with Caesar and Mark Antony.)

  • Diana A.

    Unlike you, I don’t see science and religion as mutually exclusive. Rather, I am inclined to let science do what it can do and let religion do what it can do. Science deals in hard-core facts–and that’s cool and necessary. Religion deals in motivations, purposes and so forth–and that’s cool too.

  • Ace

    Diana, I agree with you, the two are not mutually exclusive.

    They deal with entirely different questions – Science asks “how” and maybe “when” but religion asks “why” which is something science doesn’t deal with. Science deals with the mechanics and functioning of nature, not the purpose or reason for it.

  • @Diana

    Rather, I am inclined to let science do what it can do and let religion do what it can do.

    Then religion shouldn’t make truth claims that can be tested scientifically. …and [to extend the definition of science] shouldn’t use supporting arguments that fail to meet basic logical argumentative standards.

    Pretty much everyone here knows the basic FDA process they use to see if medications are safe and effective…and pretty much everyone appreciates its value. Yet few [no?] theists will apply the same standards to their truth claims of [for instance] prayer being effective by motivating their deity to action.

    I’m just sayin’!

  • Sushi


    Again, you are right and what you think is completely logical. But, lack of self worth is not always based on logic, on the surface at least.

    How many people suffer from lack of self worth, yet are accomplished, successful, attractive – have all the trimmings, so to speak? People feel like failures for a multitude of reasons. The logic of ownership does not apply, because what is missing is on an emotional level. Now, if a person’s life is dissected, then perhaps his lack of self worth is understood logically. But if YOU are that person, the “head knowledge” of why you are f*cked up, doesn’t always translate into a “logical” progression to regaining self worth.

    As for prayer and lack of self worth… What do you make of 12-step programs? The foundation to any of the myriad of 12-step program as I understand it is faith in something greater than you. If you’ve ever read the “steps” they are an integration of self-awareness, taking responsibility AND trusting in “the God of your understanding.”

    The program works – not for everyone, but seems to have a decent success rate. I know there are people who doubt the ‘power’ of the so-called “higher power” but there are people who claim it’s saved their lives, or that the 12-step program has saved their lives.

    I’m just saying that your methodology works for you, but doesn’t for everyone. Logic should always be sought, but for many logic isn’t enough.

    On the other hand, I believe you can probably lay out a completely logical assessment as to the reasons of success behind the program. Interested to hear it.

  • Ace

    If you are trying to figure out the efficacy of a new cancer treatment, or the composition of lunar rocks, or the mating habits of the Atlantic Puffin, the scientific method is useful.

    If you are trying to figure out if god(s) exist, and hear the prayers of people, frankly, it’s just not a viable method, as such things are not observable phenomena.

    If you can’t see or detect or observe a phenomenon in some fashion, you can’t study it scientifically, point blank.

    So personal inquirey and experience to for one’s one conclusion is pretty much all that is left. If you can come up with something better, do please let the world know.

    (As for “mitigating the failings fo the human brain” well the scientific method is no cure for that either, a whole lot of shoddy research and garbage science gets published for political, social and monetary reasons, as well as just plain incompetence – you have to be careful about blindly accepting scientific “fact” as well, as a lot of what ends up in the news, upon closer scrutiny, will reveal really questionable methods and conclusions, especially in fields like psychology)

  • Diana A.

    At this point, tildeb, I think you're just being argumentative. You are as discontent with living and letting live as any other fundamentalist–religious or otherwise. You see what you want to see and then you argue with your own perception.

    Motivation and purpose are values. Values are personal. You don't get to tell me what I should and should not value. That's my decision. So kindly butt out.

  • @ Jeanine

    I understand and appreciate your motivation, Jeanine. And, no, I don't have all the answers but I have what I think are good reasons (that may turn out to be replaced by better ones) for the ones I do have. You are welcome to disagree and I won't take it personally.

    The questions you have raised are all good questions most of us have had but the primary one I think must be: how can we know if god is real? I think the honest answer here is we can't know in the same way we can know worldly stuff (that we can test and verify and falsify) but we can still choose to believe. You have made such a choice because it works well for you. And that's fine as far as I'm concerned but with one caveat: because the choice to believe is a personal one, our faith should be a personal one. And by that I mean that our faith should not be extended into the world as if it were knowledge no matter how strongly and passionately we believe it to be so. That's why I spend so much time and make the effort to challenge those who think faith is knowledge. But as you know I argue that the product of exercising faith is not knowledge if it cannot be tested and verified and falsified in the same way as worldly knowledge can be: it's faith and should be treated as such.

  • Diana A.

    Science is a God. Let us bow down and worship it now!

  • Matthew Tweedell

    Amen, Jeanine!

  • Matthew Tweedell

    @Diana A. at 6:59 pm

    Values are cultural. And inasmuch as they influence actions in the common world we live in, we have a vested interest in molding them.

  • Diana A.

    @ Matthew Tweedell: Who's "we"? And are you seriously advocating that I should give over my autonomy to any mortal human being? And did you read what I wrote in the context of the "conversation" that I've been having with dear, sweet tildeb or are you taking it as an isolated remark? And yes, I'm ticked, just in case that isn't abundantly clear.

  • @ Diana

    I am argumentative, yes, but not as a goal.

    Writing is crafting thought. The more people do it, the better the craft and you are good example of that. You write very well.

    I have learned that most people do not follow their own thinking to its conclusion unless they have to write what they think. And that's a net benefit to come to know your own mind, your own thoughts. Yet you know as well as I that most folk are quite willing to act on half-formed opinions about what they believe is true rather than figure out what's actually true. And the way to find that out is to explore our thoughts and opinions through expressing them and receiving critical review. It is this process that is beneficial for the opinions of all who partake. And what becomes crystal clear is that the strengths and weakness of our thoughts are exposed by this process of caring about what's true. Soon enough we find that the devil, so to speak, is in the details… details that only begin to emerge when some argumentative 'fundamentalist' jerk like me comes along and keeps pushing the opinion into shape and clarity.

    I know it pisses you off sometimes while at other times you think "Yeah, that's a good point…" or "I hadn't thought of it that way." Sometimes you might even replace an opinion with one that has better reasons or come to know better what you only sort of thought before. One day (who knows?) even I might be such a cause.

    Take motivation and purpose as an example. You assert that my motivation is to be argumentative. Why do you think so? Revelation? Of course not. You have evidence that I argue. A lot. That's the scientific method in action even though you assign it to the realm of religion. You assign a purpose to that motivation: to see only what I want to see so that I can argue with myself. Why do you think so? I think it is because I have challenged you to see your beliefs to be on shakier ground that you want to admit or maybe see your beliefs in a new way that you don't like so you get defensive and blame me. It's blame I will gladly take. But I don't agree that it's none of my business.

    When you make claims as you have done repeatedly on this site about the nature and property of god and how they inform your beliefs it IS my business if I care about whether or not we can know if your claims are true. So I engage you in writing. Your claims are not 'values' that I am questioning; they are truth claims in which you have invested personal value. That's a different kettle of fish and not my doing, but challenging the former does not equate with telling you what to do.

    You are free to not respond at any time but I think you DO care about what's true. I think most people care about what's true. And that's why our dialogue serves (or pisses off) not just you and me but many who read our exchanges but do not necessarily comment. Telling me to 'butt out' from commenting on and questioning your truth claims is not your call. But I think we would both lose more than we would gain by my agreeing to do so.

  • Diana A.

    I am hereby exercising my freedom not to respond.

  • MT, why don't you explain to Jeanine why proving a negative is not good reasoning. I'm sure she would be more open to reading it coming from you more so than from me. I have explained it several times to you so I know you are aware why it is such a problematic position.

    Jeanine, it is not a sense of satisfaction to me if you approve or disapprove of or believe or do not believe in gravity. What matters to me is if any opinion you have about the matter is true.

    Obviously the design in nature you see around you is very convincing evidence that its has a designer… and not just any designer like vishnu but a christian designer. This truth claim is laden with problems as I'm sure you can imagine but we would have to go into the details to find satisfactory answers to support your specific assertion. Simply asserting that nature is evidence for god and that that god happens to be the christian one does not further my cause to discover if what you assert is true without exploring such detail. And I don't think you honestly want to offer it up.

  • Matthew Tweedell

    I apologize, Ms. A.

    I was following the conversation but did regrettably choose to isolate that remark in order to make a point of my own, which was not that you should give up autonomy to any man save the Son of God, but that we are all in this together, Diana, so we need to work together supporting common values that serve the common good.

    But yes, certain values are personal. Value invested through faith in beliefs about what is true, as tildeb correctly notes, is personal but of a different sort from a value that informs one's vision of purpose.

    God bless, Diana!

  • Diana A.

    @ Matthew Tweedell–I forgive you.

    I agree that we are all in this together and that it is good that we work together to support common values that serve the common good.

    I thank you for your understanding of my position and your further elaboration of yours.

    God bless right back at you!

  • Matthew Tweedell

    Hi, tildeb:

    I guess part of the reason is that I'm more sympathetic to Jeanine is that you're still saying, "I think the honest answer here is we can’t know in the same way we can know worldly stuff (that we can test and verify and falsify)," when I've pointed out that with this line of thought, you've just thrown much of our historical knowledge out the window—which now you would even seem to classify is unworldly—and you're ignoring the arguments of my comment that asks, "Why do you think that none of us really knows for sure if any gods exist?"

    Anyway, I gather that you actually mean is the supposed impossibility of proving of a universal negative (alluded to elsewhere on this post by Mr. Burns), in regards to her argument that "you cannot give me any scientific evidence that he does not exist."

    Well, allow me to enlighten you…

    That you cannot prove a universal negative is true if and only if that you cannot prove a universal positive is true, since a universal positive is true if and only if a universal negative negated is true. "For all S, S is not P" is equivalent to "for all S, S is Q", for Q given as inverse to P; the universal negative that no swan is black is implicit in the universal positive that all swans are white. There is no preferred reference for the polarity; the universe of discourse is finite over the domain of human experience, and no definition can be applied beyond it.

    You don't really seem interested in whether God exists in the sense that through any given point not on a given line there exists a line parallel to the given; you avoid any axiomatic approach and go on about empiricism; yet even when the domain is theoretical and unbounded, universal negatives are indeed proven, such as that there is no algorithm that can correctly determine for any given algorithm as its input, whether the given algorithm would run ad infinitum or ever halt.

    Now, with your approach, you can say is that the definition does not correspond to any reality known to you and as such is meaningless, or you can say that you can identify a way to relate it to reality and have done so, and the data indicate, after checking X number of S's and finding none to fit condition P, in a universe of no more than N S's, we can be C % certain that no S is P.

    Now that would be some good scientific evidence, my friend.

  • Matthew Tweedell

    (By the way, tildeb, that "proving a negative is not good reasoning" is a negative that good reasoning will not prove.

    And sorry for all the typos.)

  • misunderstoodranter

    There is lots of discussion about ‘positive’ outcomes to prayer… but what about the negative outcomes from prayer. If prayer actually does work (more than simple probability) then what accounting do the religious do for the negative prayers that also get answered?

    For example: the 9/11 bombers, prayed to their god that their mission would be successful – their peers prayed for them, and prayed that their mission was successful. It is highly likely, that their peers wished them more than luck (‘god be with you’) before sending them on their terminal way.

    For me (a non-believer), the answer to this question is easy – prayer does not work, the bombers had a probability that their pernicious plan would succeed and the success of such a mission is just a matter of chance, and not the intervention of the divine power.

    For the bomber’s peers and supporters, the successful outcome of the collapse of the twin towers was nothing more than further evidence that their god must exist.

  • Actually, Jeanine, this is a fairly common point but fails to reveal how religious faith alone grants access to knowing about the supernatural. It looks identical to wishful thinking and is need of something, some evidence, some means to signify why and how it’s different.

    BTW, nothing wrong with your words at all. And I know you passionately believe what you do and you have a fantastic ability to draw on scripture. I do not mean to insult you in any way. I simply think that your reasons for believing what you do are not very strong ones.

  • Now Diana, I do not propose we worship science but clearly understand why it has such strong epistemology which directly informs with very strong evidence its ontology. We use the practical results of the scientific method every day and we should appreciate the method that brings us so much verifiable knowledge. In comparison, the method of inquiry through religious faith is terribly weak, meaning what we can ‘know’ through using religious faith is also terribly weak . We must stop making claims that both methods are equivalent when they are not nor can we equally justify like we can using the scientific method some religious truth claim.

  • Diana A.

    Did I say that both methods are equivalent?

  • DonP

    @tildeb, We all have a God (Gods). Something that we elevate to the guiding principle/force of our lives. Despite your protests, for all of us, even Christians, this is true. We may not name it, we may not even recognize it for what it is. But we give it control and live by it's dictates. For some of us, it would seem not so much to be Ignorance but, the purposeful defense of it.

    You seek proof. Your God tildeb is………Proof. If Proof were food, you would starve to death.

  • Jeanine

    I’m sure you have argued this point a great deal – and will have an answer for anything I say. If we are both honest with each other, I don’t think either of us is searching for the answer on this, we have both made up our minds.

    I have spent alot of time wrestling with the nature of God, is heaven real? is hell real? is there a right religion? is there a way for me to know God? Why do things happen? etc. but I have not spent very much time on the question of does God and the supernatural exist.

    I think the reason that I haven’t is because to me, it is obviouse. Chance and randomness cannot account for the incredible order I see in nature. It cannot account for love, beauty, classical music, shakespear plays, or sorrow. Chance cannot account for the notion that I can think about these things at all.

    I am an architect and I can remember sitting in architectural history class and studying Stonehenge for the first time. We were wondering things like – how was it surveyed? What was it for? How did they construct it? What tools did they use? Who built it? Not one person was wondering if it was a random accident. It was obviously designed by somebody.

  • @ Diana

    Tangentially you did, with Science deals in hard-core facts–and that’s cool and necessary. Religion deals in motivations, purposes and so forth–and that’s cool too. This is the kind of statement that typifies the assertion of NOMA… as if the method of gaining knowledge about motivation and purpose is somehow exempt from the method of scientific inquiry but not that used by religious inquiry. I don’t think that’s true. At all. I don’t think the religious method of inquiry, which I identify as assertion and assumption that is untestable and unverifiable is any legitimate alternative for gaining practical knowledge.

  • Jeanine

    You say I have ‘faith’ that the supernatural exists. But I say you are using faith, not evidence, to say that it does not exist.

    I may not have scientific evidence enough to satisfy you that God exists (although I think nature itself screams it), but then again you cannot give me any scientific evidence that he does not exist. All you have is speculation and theory.

    We, will both die not knowing everything that there is to know; so we are both deciding based on limited knowledge.

    However, I do have the evidence of countless witnesses and testimonies throughout the ages of people who have encountered God and the supernatural. As far as I can tell, I have more general evidence than you do.

    But mostly, I have my personal relationship with God. He teaches me, he cares for me, he listens to me, he helps me, he leads me, he disciplines me and he loves me. I rely on him daily – I’m not sure why I would need to be searching for evidence of his existence when I know Him.

    That would be like searching for my sister’s birth certificate to prove she is alive when she is sitting right beside me.

  • Ace

    Hmmm… but if you truly believe the Communion bread and wine is the body and blood of Christ, then it goes beyond just the individuals or congregation – you are in a very physical way bringing the Divine into things. Again, you are left with the problem of "climbing up to His level" as you put it.

    Honestly, I personally think as much as mere mortals can never truly been equal to God, we are still meant to *try* to climb up to His level, at least as much as we are capable of (and hope God can pull us up by the boot straps, so to speak, where our meager strength fails), it is that struggle to become more God(Christ)-like that makes living a Christian life what it is.

    Though I suppose if you do not hold that particular theological understanding of Communion it is less of an issue.

  • Jeanine

    Well, in my college days I probably would have followed that argument, Matthew, but I think my mind must be getting old…

    tildeb –

    The evidence of design in nature is one of the reasons I believe in God; but it has nothing to do with why I believe He is the Christian God. That belief took a whole bunch of searching, and questioning, and grief. If I were to unpack that, it would take a good deal more blog space.

    And quite frankly, based on the things I read in this blog every day, I am not so sure I like calling God the 'Christian God', because the term 'Christian' seems to have a lot of baggage hanging on it today that I don't agree with. I think I would just say that I think God is the God of the Bible. That is not all He is; but that is what he has chosen to reveal to us.

  • Diana A.

    "And quite frankly, based on the things I read in this blog every day, I am not so sure I like calling God the ‘Christian God’, because the term ‘Christian’ seems to have a lot of baggage hanging on it today that I don’t agree with. I think I would just say that I think God is the God of the Bible. That is not all He is; but that is what he has chosen to reveal to us."

    I totally see your point on this, Jeanine–and I think you're right.

  • Diana A.

    God, should such a being exist, is not a vending machine. Therefore, just because people pray for a particular outcome does not mean that God is bound to give those people what they want.

    That God did not stand in the way (to my knowledge) of the 9/11 attacks does bother me, just as any sort of evil winning bothers me. I do believe, however, that God knows stuff that we don’t and therefore sometimes permits stuff that we would not. Or, maybe there is no God. Anyway, if God is real, he is no slavey, at our beck and call, helpless to do everything we ask of him. Oh no. Not even close.

  • @Jeanine

    The evidence of design in nature is one of the reasons I believe in God

    If one actually studies evolution by natural selection [ENS] it is pretty easy to see how we get the appearance of design through natural forces. The theistic argument from design is merely "I don't know how it was done, therefore God did it."…and we can can casually dismiss such arguments.

  • misunderstoodranter


    Nevertheless the 9/11 bombers would have been as happy with the outcome of their prayers as you would be if your prayers come true, and furthermore, would advocate that god is indeed answering their prayers, and give thanks for it.

    In other words you automatically attribute good with god – because you believe that god is good, and probably because you are good when contrasted against the motivations, convictions and beliefs of most terrorists.

    In other words you use your own motivations and morals as a baseline to judge whether something is good or bad, and if good things happen you thank the lord, and if bad things happen you praise the lord for having more knowledge than you do. The lord wins regardless of the outcome – i.e. your reasoning is not balanced with independent thought, it is strongly weighted in gods favour regardless of the outcome.

    To add balance to the reasoning you need to look at this from the terrorist’s perspective; you are bad (very bad) from their point of view. So their prayer is actually a good prayer (to them), as good (if not more good) than your cleanest prayer – they are utterly convinced that their god will be pleased with their actions, and will only let their actions be carried out if god is pleased. They are so convinced they will bet not only their mortal life on this conviction, but their eternal afterlife (plus virgins) on it as well.

    If you are *truly* honest about prayer, you should see it for what it is, a play on probability, which is regarded as good or bad depending on your personal emotions that you associate to the outcome of specific events that you personally judge to be an answer to your desires and wishes.

    It is for this reason that I do not assume that there is a god or a cosmic vending machine granting wishes.

  • Matthew Tweedell

    Excellent closing observation, DonP.


    "…there is no evidence for the conclusion that we can know anything about it."

    Yes there is: A tree falls with roaring silence in an empty wood.

  • Jeanine

    @ Mike Burns 'it is pretty easy to see how we get the appearance of design through natural forces.'

    So neither of us is questioning that it 'appears to be designed'. And I think we might both agree (or maybe not) that the apparant deisgn in nature is of a level of complexity that man has not been able to completely duplicate or even completely figure out.

    "The theistic argument from design is merely “I don’t know how it was done, therefore God did it.”…

    The theistic argument as I see it is something more like -"I can study the apparent design and start to figure out how it all works; I can learn things from this complex order about how nature behaves, and begin to find natural laws in it; I can see that these natural laws do not happen randomly; I can use my intellegence to make predictions about what will happen, naturally, under different conditions. I can test those assumptions. Nature is intelligible! Since it is intelligible – then intelligence has created it.

  • This reminds me of Mark Twain's War Prayer short story ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_War_Prayer ) pointing out that there are often two sides to such requested entrieties…the spoken and the unspoken. When a congregation is praying for wartime victory over an enemy and "aged stranger" reveals the unspoken side of their prayer…

    "O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle — be Thou near them! With them — in spirit — we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it — for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.

    Gaaaawd!!! Twain was a brilliant writer!!!

  • Ace

    I prefer the Monty Python version myself –

    …And Saint Attila raised the hand grenade up on high, saying, "O Lord, bless this Thy hand grenade that with it Thou mayest blow Thine enemies to tiny bits, in Thy mercy." And the Lord did grin and the people did feast upon the lambs and sloths and carp and anchovies and orangutans and breakfast cereals, and fruit bats and large chu… And the Lord spake, saying, "First shalt thou take out the Holy Pin, then shalt thou count to three, no more, no less. Three shall be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three. Four shalt thou not count, neither count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three. Five is right out. Once the number three, being the third number, be reached, then lobbest thou thy Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch towards thy foe, who being naughty in My sight, shall snuff it." Amen

  • @Jeanine

    It seems you play pretty loosey-goosey with words. It should be obvious to the casual observer when I say the "appearance of design through natural forces", that we get [what the uneducated observer might perceive as] design without the involvement of any higher intelligence or actor. Actual 'design' must come from some intelligence.

    ENS is the marriage of random changes and NON-random selective forces when in isolation. Look at dog breeding [artificial selection] to see just how radically selective forces can divert a single organism. If you have beetles that might otherwise be multi-colored and isolate them on white trees; before you know it you only have white beetles because all the non-white beetles have been eaten. This is far too cramped a space to educate you and others on ENS.

    Check out

    for some excellent tomes on just how broad and compelling the evidence for ENS is. Even if you think you know the evidence…pick up one of these books. You will likely be stunned by some of what you didn't know.

  • Diana A.

    Then there's the joke I read in the "Englishman Jokes for the Irishman" that I bought–oh ages in ago in Ireland:

    After World War II had been fought, an English General and a German General met up and were discussing the war.

    German General: I still don't understand why you won and we lost.

    English General: Well, we prayed to God for victory.

    German General: So did we!

    English General. Bosh, you don't think God understands German, do you?

  • Diana A.

    BTW Ace: Love the Monty Python bit–that's the best!

  • Matthew Tweedell

    But Jeanine is right: nature is intelligible; through Logos of Deity have all things come into being that came to be; laws of nature are created and sustained by Reason. Intelligibility implies the ability to apply word, and there would be not even such possibility if there were not inherently the Word ineffable and incarnate already Logos, as the Reason of Truth—that is, Love. Yes—without it—neither would there be for us even Life.

  • Mel

    This has absolutely nothing to do with this post, but for some reason I can't reply to the article about the comfortably cursing Christian anymore. So, since I found your comment Matthew, I thought I would comment here instead. This is regarding Mindy's comment about you being sarcastic with your prayer remark, and your comments following.

    I know that his comment was sarcastic. I didn't take it literally at all. But sarcasm can still be rude, as his was. You're right that he was making fun of someone who would pray for a person to be saved, even if said person didn't want them to. I am that kind of someone, and he knows that, so he was definitely making fun of me.

    Matthew, you said that I am hypocritical. Can you give me an example of a time that I was hypocritical? Because I can't think of any time in this post where what I have said has been such.

    As for your comment about me calling you very dumb, that is completely untrue. Ignorant is not a synonym of dumb. They are two different words, and have to entirely different meanings. Ignorant is defined as "lacking knowledge or information as to a particular subject or fact". You were lacking knowledge on the topic of prayer. Regardless of the fact that your comment was sarcastic, it still demonstrated a complete lack of understanding of prayer to somebody like me. According to thesaurus.com "stupid refers to lack of ability while ignorant refers to lack of knowledge". Dumb IS a synonym of stupid, so I think we an all agree that calling someone dumb is "name-calling" whereas calling someone ignorant is simply stating a fact.

  • “Praying isn’t how you become someone better than you are. It’s how you remember who you are in the first place.”


    Outstanding post, thanks for writing it! 🙂

  • But it IS how we become someone better than we are. It is only through prayer and reading His word that we can become who He created us to be.

  • Marcey

    John, I used to ask this question all the time. You are so insightful. And your writings are addictive. I used to think I didn’t know how to pray. Eventually, with help, I learned to pray both intentionally and meditatively. I have now realized that all thoughts are prayers, both the conscious and the subconscious ones. Sometimes the subconscious thoughts are the most powerful. Actions are prayers, and life is a prayer.