One of the central features of religion is prayer, yet it is something that doesn’t make any sense. While praying seems like a natural and harmless action, if you think through the logic of it, you realise that it is neither possible, probably or desirable. The only reason the laws of the universe function is because prayers are unanswered, a point even religious people subtly acknowledge. If prayers were answered, the world would be a chaotic, unstable and illogical place.
A common time for pray is when a loved one’s’ health or life is in danger. It is completely unsurprising to hear people declare they will pray for a friend or family member who is in hospital. However, I don’t see the point of this. By praying, people are asking God to intervene to save someone’s life, with the implication they’re going to die unless he does so. Now let’s think about the logic of this. Why do religious people use hospitals? If prayer and God can cure anything, why rely on doctors? The obvious answer (which even a religious person will give) is that if you have a serious illness and don’t seek medical treatment, you will die, prayer or otherwise. So by praying for relatives in hospital, the implication is that God is good, but not that good. He can tip the balance or give you a slight edge of survival, but not completely cure someone. Thus, even those who pray have a severe lack of faith.
If someone recovers from their illness, people are quick to praise God, but slow to mention the doctors. But what about those who do not recover? If surviving an illness shows the power of God, what does the death of someone who was prayed for show? The usual response is that God has a plan or he is mysterious. But if this is the case, why pray? If God has a plan, doesn’t that make prayer pointless? If a recovery leads to praise, surely a death should lead to condemnation? The common phrase “All things are possible to those who pray” is forgotten at funerals and replaced with a quote about how foolish it is to try to change the mind of God. It’s a clear case of confirmation bias, where anything positive is taken as proof of the power of pray, while all failures for prayers to come true are ignored.
Even though my Mother reads this blog and knows I’m an Atheist, she insists on praying for me whenever I have exams. Again, if we think though the logic of this, we see there is no point for this. My mother is essentially praying that God will change the exam to suit me (which would thereby hurt someone else) or make me smarter (violating my free will) or make the examiner mark my exam easier (violating his/her free will and giving me a grade I may not deserve). Imagine if prayer did help you pass exams, the results would be disastrous. The world would be full of incompetent but religious people. Imagine if you board a flight where the pilot was too incompetent to pass his exams and only got his licence due to prayer. If prayer did work, why would anyone study? Instead of exams there would be prayer competitions. The result would be a chaotic world with little place for effort or merit, where instead we would all live like monks.
The Bible is very clear that prayer can achieve anything for those who have faith. Jesus himself supposedly said that “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened” (Matthew 7:7) Just in case he wasn’t clear, he says “For truly, I say to you, if you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you.” (Matthew 17:20) So even if you barely believe in God, you will still be able to move a mountain. Surely then it would be easy to pray away all the disease, war and famine in the world?
There have been various experiments to attempt to prove if prayer does or does not exist. Surely this would be the perfect place for God to reveal his grace before us all? After all, he would gain a lot of converts if it was proven that belief was based on evidence not just blind faith. However, the numerous experiments all failed to find any proof that prayer had any effect. To test the hypothesis 800 patients suffering from cardiovascular disease were split into two groups, one of which had 5 people praying for them, the other one was the control group. After 26 weeks, the researchers concluded that “prayer had no significant effect on medical outcomes”. A second experiment with 748 patients also found that prayer had no effect. The most definitive experiment was conducted by top researchers at Harvard in 6 separate hospitals. Not only was prayer tested, but so was whether people knew they were being prayed for. Again prayer was shown to have no effect whatsoever and people who knew they were being prayed for actually performed medically the worst!
Despite evidence to the contrary some religious people claim prayer still works (by the way, refusing to change your views in the face of contrary evidence is the definition of being closed minded). It is argued that God refuses to be “quantified” or “perform parlor tricks”. I’m not sure why saving someone’s life is considered a parlor trick or why we should expect that God would ignore the cry of people who need him, after all isn’t he supposed to love us? If someone I loved needed my help, I would give it, even if it meant being “quantified” or revealing my existence (why the secrecy?). Interestingly, one defence of prayer essentially admits that an examination of history shows it doesn’t work. While defending prayer they admit a history of death, disease misery and disasters show that prayer cannot prevent these things.
Another defence is that prayer is like asking for ice-cream, sometimes it is best if we are rejected. But these experiments involved people who were dying. How can it possibly be claimed that it was best for them if their prayers were ignored and they died? How is asking to live a childish and unreasonable request? What about all the people who are starving in the world, are their requests unreasonable? Are they asking for too much? Then why does God not answer their prayers?
A final defence is to blame the individual. Your prayers weren’t answered because you’re too sinful or too greedy or you stop too soon or don’t pray the right way or have the right frame of mind etc. This is a poor attempt to shift the blame or claim God answers in his own time, which if this was the case, there’d be no point in praying. Of course all these apologetic excuses are completely contrary to what preachers claim, namely that pray can achieve anything. This raises another problem which is if you only get what you deserve then surely you don’t have to pray to get good things? God would surely provide anyway?
So prayer doesn’t work, which is something that even religious people who pray will easily admit. Then what’s the point of it? If people know that there’s slim (if any) chance of an answer, then why pray? The answer is simple. People want it to be true. There is an impulse in us all to wish things would happen, even if it is impossible and prayer taps into this. On mature reflection, even devout people know most prayers don’t come true, nor should they, yet they want them to. Hope and wishful thinking, no matter how irrational, can always triumph over logic.