Theistic religions put a lot of stock in prayer, perhaps Islam most of all. Most atheists look upon prayer with skepticism or outright derision, but socially we tend to conduct ourselves with quiet disregard. Religious folks, to their credit, often politely show an indifferent reverence in response to prayers of other religions. But before I share a few thoughts on the matter, here is a classification scheme of types of prayers I’ve found useful—three different intentions prayers are meant to fulfill (a given prayer might combine one or more of these types).
First, there are prayers of gratitude in which god or gods are thanked for something good that has happened and that the pray-er believes a god or gods had something to do with. This prayer asks for nothing. It is like “saying the blessing” or “returning thanks” before a meal. (To simplify my wording and before you and I both get tired of “god or gods,” I will use the singular “god” to stand for one or more authoritative supernatural entities.)
Second, there is prayer that is a pouring out of fears, happiness, jubilance, distress, or other emotions. It is addressed to a god, but doesn’t ask anything except a sympathetic divine ear. This type can reasonably be considered to include prayer as a meditation device with calming or centering effects.
Third, there is a prayer of request, petitioning a god either to make something happen that otherwise wouldn’t or to stop something from happening that otherwise would. This type is occasionally referred to as “god bothering,” particularly by some liberal Christians.
It is the third type of prayer that motivates this post. I am ignoring the first two because each of them can have psychological benefit quite apart from whether there is a supernatural entity that listens or, if listening, cares. The believer’s faith imparts value, not existence of a presumed deity. Sincere expressions spoken into a void are not without value.
The third type, however, referred to as intercessory prayer, is an entreaty to a god to take action, that is, to cause or prevent something in the natural world. (I’ll skip requests to affect happenings in the supernatural world, since there is no way to distinguish results from non-results. An example of this would be appealing to god for a reward in heaven.) The purpose of an intercessory prayer is not just gratitude or emotional release (though it might include both), but to petition god to intercede in the natural goings-on of the universe. (Technical note: In standard Christian usage, prayers of intercession ask results for other people rather than for oneself. I will ignore that distinction here, choosing to combine prayers both for others and for oneself, the common element being divine interference in the natural order.)
Instances of prayer at least partially intercessory are abundant. In fact, prayers of thanks or expression often imply a previous intercession. For example, a mother profusely thanks a god for her child being spared in a car wreck. A farmer thanks god for rain that saved the crops. Americans thank god for the blessings of presumed exceptional status. Many such expressions assume that god has already bestowed something of worth, perhaps without having even being asked. I will ignore the intercessory component in this kind of prayer in order to focus attention on prayers that ask god to affect events in the future.
When the governor of Georgia, during a recent period of extreme drought, held a public prayer event on the steps of the state capitol, he and hundreds of assembled citizens were convinced that god might intervene in natural weather patterns due to their prayers. Responsible newspapers, like the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported this pray-in as if it actually made sense, though nothing about it demonstrated a whit more intelligence than rain dances by a primitive tribe. When a spouse prays for her partner’s recovery from a life threatening disease, the same belief in supernatural intervention is in play. Athletes often pray for victory (showing thereby more faith than sportsmanship). Regardless of the object of intercessory prayer, the faithful genuinely believe it works.
This attitude of a virtual phone line from millions of faithful (in the right faith, of course) to god is bizarre. And its weirdness impels various conflicting attributes. A popular website proclaims that “prayer works because repeatedly, in God’s Word, He promised that it would.” The biblical promises referred to include “Ask, and it will be given to you” (Matthew 7:7), “Whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith” (Matthew 21:22), and “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do” (John 14:13-14). Not to be forgotten is the strangely worded “Whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it [italics mine] and it will be yours” (Mark 11:24).
Arguing another view, or maybe just expressing a nuanced version (hard to tell) is Mother Teresa: “Prayer is not asking . . . Prayer is listening to His voice in the depth of our hearts.” Or Mahatma Gandhi: “Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul.” Or Søren Kierkegaard: The purpose of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.” Just as an aside, these modifications make more sense to me than the foregoing New Testament claims.
However, belief in the Biblical claims are the product of mentalities and attitudes that are more hopeful than rational. (I will not even go into Jesus’s reputed promise about moving mountains.) Samuel Butler in “Unprofessional Sermons” put it well in opining that “Prayers are to men as dolls are to children. They are not without use and comfort, but it is not easy to take them very seriously.”
Let’s be clear what intercessory prayer seeks. It is an attempt to convince god to interfere in the physics and other cause-effect processes by which the universe operates. Someone would have died from such horrid wounds, but due to prayer he survived. The political leader would have made egregious decisions had the electorate not asked god (convincingly, apparently) to augment the official’s wisdom. Our team would have lost, but we pray before games.
Asking for “blessing” is a simple, generic form of intercessory prayer, normally non-specific as to the concrete request, though perhaps specific as to recipient. The petitioner may ask god to bless someone, some activity (like this summer’s vacation Bible school), or some object (like food before a meal). Just what bless means is frequently left obscure unless, of course, the meaning is simply to request that the person, activity, or object find favor in god’s eyes. The burden of its finding favor, however, would seem to be on the person, activity, or object, not on god.
Further, even imagining one is in conversation with a deity undoubtedly has a psychological payoff for the person praying. The payoff, however, rests on the person’s faith, not on whether there is such a deity or, even if there is, that the deity pays any attention. Apparently that psychological payoff is sufficient to keep the practice alive. The durability of the practice is bolstered by the pass we give religious beliefs that prevents serious questioning, pretty much like a child choosing not to question the reality of the tooth fairy, lest she jeopardize her mysterious nocturnal cash.
The unvarnished truth is that no one has ever demonstrated that intercessory prayer works. All serious attempts to confirm its effectiveness have failed to do so. When I speak of “demonstration” and “confirm,” I mean substantiated with the scrupulousness required to establish truth in any other field of inquiry. But in religion, such integrity in determining fact is not a valued commodity.
A few years ago a religious friend told me of a relative who’d narrowly escaped death in a horrid car accident. He and others prayed fervently for the victim’s recovery. In what is often represented as a “medical miracle” she did recover. He summed up his story by leaning toward me as if to share a momentous secret, saying “You can’t tell me that prayer doesn’t work.” Actually, I was not trying at that time to tell him anything; I was feeling only pleasure that things had come out far better than expected. But in the back of my mind, it was hard not to notice that such meaningless “proof” is regularly accepted by the faithful as demonstration of the power of prayer. In fact, the faithful require even less such faux confirmation than that. For example, verification can be simply that many people believe X or respected authorities endorse X or a Biblical figure is reported to have had a direct experience of X. These beliefs are transparently juvenile, but can only be seen by the faithful for what they are when they examine someone else’s religion.
I suppose that religion-inspired loss of reasoning power should not be surprising. Prayer can be a code word for Christians more than an actual, meaningful practice. If you pray, you are therefore acceptable; if not, you are not. But quite frequently the power ascribed to intercessory prayer goes too far even for many Christians: Evangelist Billy Sunday in 1918 during World War I and a simultaneous influenza pandemic assured Americans that “We can meet here tonight and pray down this epidemic, just as we can pray down a German victory.” Really? That is thoroughly ridiculous rhetoric. But how can one tell where craziness begins when no utterances are required either to make sense or to stand the test of evidence. And what does that make of those who mislead millions, salving their fears with nonsense. What does it say for Christian leaders who multiply the pain of guilt on stressed believers, telling them when prayer fails that they just didn’t have enough faith!
It should hardly require saying, but feelings don’t provide evidence either, though religious people in the millions think that because their faith feels good, it must therefore be true. “I know in my heart” has a pleasing romantic quality, but has promoted delusions throughout history. “God got me through my illness” is similarly no proof of god and it doesn’t show god did anything. What it shows is that a person effectively drew on his or her inborn and learned strength, then chose to “give god the glory,” as the Bible intones. Feelings are not facts about the world outside our minds. Religion bids us to think our ideas—no matter how cockamamie—are implanted by the universe or a universal god. Psychosis is similar.
Therefore, when I say there is no evidence that intercessory prayer works better than chance, I am ignoring these low-bar tests that Christians are willing to call proof, even Christians who are quite reasonable people in every treatment of evidence outside the religious domain.
Prayer can have great value for an individual and even for a group when done together. It can enhance the sense of community and enrich mutual support. In the case of meditative prayer, it can promote an individual’s healing and emotional centeredness. Such prayer can be marvelous activities with potentially wondrous results. But there is neither reason nor need to pretend the words go higher than the ceiling.
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