I used to pray, but I don’t any more. For nearly 40 years I prayed in the mornings and evenings; I sometimes prayed when driving alone; I prayed privately and in public; I prayed silently and out loud. Now, I no longer pray.
For an account of how I lost my faith see Jesus Didn’t Work For Me. But I want to focus in this post specifically on prayer. After many, many hours spent doing it (I think I have some credibility in this area, and over a lifetime have perhaps spent more hours doing it than many of my readers and objectors), I have now five problems with it.
The beneficence failure
If prayer is, in part, at least, about asking good things for people from a good, all-powerful and all-knowing god, why doesn’t the good, all-powerful and all-knowing god just grant the requests before they are asked for the benefit of everybody concerned? Why do I have to ask a good god to make good things happen?
If prayer really works, what kind of deity denies good things happening to others on the basis of my inadequate prayers or my inability to pray? What kind of parent would say, “I’m not feeding your young sister because you failed to ask me to give her food, or you asked for the wrong things, or you were a naughty boy when you asked”?
Why should an imperfect me have to persuade a god to do good?
The meaningless discussion
In his witty and thought-provoking novel, Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks, Christopher Brookmyre addresses the issue of having a serious critical conversation with anyone of faith, because the normal rules of logic are never allowed to apply, and whatever point you bring, there is always an answer. You think you have sunk the rubber duck, but it just bounces back to the surface.
If something good happens, then god has obviously answered the prayer.
If the requested thing doesn’t happen, then it is because god is teaching the person patience, or because the person doing the praying doesn’t have enough faith, or is too sinful, or because god knows that the requested action would be wrong for the person.
And if the opposite to what is requested happens (the person dies rather than gets better) it is because god knows it would be better for the person to die rather than be healed.
There is always an escape clause.
The empirical void
There is no hard evidence that prayer works. There may be lots of subjective accounts of how the person who prayed felt changed by the act of praying, and there may be lots of accounts of things happening in conjunction with someone praying, but there is no hard evidence that prayer actually changes events in the world. Apparent correlation is no proof of causation.
An account of one of the largest empirical studies done on prayer concluded there were no statistically significant differences between those patients that received prayer and those that didn’t:
Harvard professor Herbert Benson performed a “Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP)” in 2006. The STEP, commonly called the “Templeton Foundation prayer study” or “Great Prayer Experiment”, used 1,802 coronary artery bypass surgery patients at six hospitals. Using double-blind protocols, patients were randomized into three groups, individual prayer receptiveness was not measured. The members of the experimental and control Groups 1 and 2 were informed they might or might not receive prayers, and only Group 1 received prayers. Group 3, which served as a test for possible psychosomatic effects, was informed they would receive prayers and subsequently did. Unlike some other studies, STEP attempted to standardize the prayer method. Only first names and last initial for patients were provided and no photographs were supplied. The congregations of three Christian churches who prayed for the patients “were allowed to pray in their own manner, but they were instructed to include the following phrase in their prayers: ‘for a successful surgery with a quick, healthy recovery and no complications’. Some participants complained that this mechanical way they were told to pray as part of the experiment was unusual for them. Complications of surgery occurred in 52 percent of those who received prayer (Group 1), 51 percent of those who did not receive it (Group 2), and 59 percent of patients who knew they would receive prayers (Group 3). There were no statistically significant differences in major complications or thirty-day mortality. (Benson H, Dusek JA, Sherwood JB, et al. (April 2006). “Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) in cardiac bypass patients: a multicenter randomized trial of uncertainty and certainty of receiving intercessory prayer”. American Heart Journal. 151 (4): 934–42. doi:10.1016/j.ahj.2005.05.028.PMID 16569567. – John Templeton Foundation (April 5, 2006).)
If prayer really works, why does god never heal amputees?
The pragmatic absurdity
If people feel the need to tell me they are praying for me, I see that, for some of them, it is a pointless, absurd attempt at kindness. It is like saying: “I am going to be kind to you by counting the spiders in the garage,” or “I am going to be kind to you by thinking of a series of random numbers.” The stated act has no consequential link whatsoever to the stated aim. Far better to offer to cut the grass, or bake a cake.
The pointless threat
If people feel the need to tell me they are praying for me, I see that, for some of them, it is a pointless threat. The implicit subtext is: “Well, I have failed to sort you out, but I’ll bring in the big guns and get god on my side. (S)he’ll zap you!”
Thankfully I can usually see the irony in the threats (the big guns are a damp squib) and I don’t usually feel the need to retaliate or be very afraid.
What has been your experience of prayer?