THE PROBLEM WITH PRAYER

One of the most common beliefs found throughout the various theistic faiths, is that of prayer being a useful tool to communicate with ones deity. Some theists such as Muslims will pray many times a day, while others pray only when some type of tragedy befalls upon them creating a need for "divine intervention." Regardless of how often people pray they all are equally deluded into believing that such actions produce some type of positive results. I can already hear the echoing theistic refrain; "I prayed for such & such and it came to be," but as we will see in this section, individual claims for prayer "success" do not prove anything in regards to prayer effectiveness. The pope prays for world peace each year. This prayer has never once come to pass into reality during the entire Earth history of humanity. If god isn’t listening to the pope, I fail to see why he’d listen to the average Catholic.

---Blasphemous Chanting---
Before I begin to get into the uselessness of prayer, I'll first bring up the blasphemy of such an action. Assuming that one is a true believer in whatever creator they bow down to, the act of prayer in itself is telling this deity that he/she has been asleep at the wheel. If one is to believe in "god's will" or "god's plan," isn't praying to this god simply saying that he's overlooked something of importance? If, for example, one prays to be cured of an illness, this person is stating that god shouldn't have made him sick. Isn't questioning god’s creation of illnesses the same as questioning the omniscience of that god? It would seem that the desired effect of prayer would be for god to scratch his head in contemplation & then decide "Gee Bob, I never thought about it like that. I guess you're right on that one. Abracadabra! You’re no longer sick."

---Arrogant Requests---
If one can somehow dismiss the blasphemous aspect of prayer, the next moral challenge to overcome is the blatant arrogance of the action. If one is to pray for assistance in their personal life or in the lives of loved ones for example, the person praying has elevated his own selfish interest over that of someone less fortunate. No one ever has to look far to find an individual worse off than himself. Hence this plea of "please god help me" realistically translates into "I'm more important, take care of me first." If this character of god truly exists, then surely such a being would have his priorities straight. Once again, if one feels the need to let god know what's happening in his personal life, that person is accusing god of not paying attention. We can parallel this act of praying with a small child flailing his arms around screaming "look at me! Over here, over here!" If I were a god bearing witness to this temper tantrum, I'd literally piss on the heads of these people & allow them to believe its raining.

---Counter Production---
I'm sure that the faithful find personal comfort in prayer with regards to "feeling" that they've done some good deed (i.e. praying to end homelessness). However, the reality of the situation is that the time one has spent on their knees begging for supernatural occurrences could have been time spent more productively by getting up off the floor & actually doing something. Instead of trying to wish away the homeless issue, someone could spend their praying time addressing the issue head on. Maybe do some work to help with education &/or job placement for homeless people. Perhaps one could assist with temporary housing for people to help them get back on their feet. Nothing, however, gets done if opportunities to be productive are trumped by spiritual wishful thinking rituals.

---Coincidental Hearsay---
I've heard more than my fair share of stories about how someone's prayers were miraculously answered. I'm not going to argue that these happenings did not occur. That would simply be the wrong way to investigate the claim. The question isn't weather or not the desired effect of prayer was achieved, but rather if praying for the outcome directly influenced the end result. Take the following scenario:
Suppose I'm walking down the street feeling much anguish over my financial debts. In pondering what to do about this dilemma, I scratch my nose in deep thought & then look down to see a $100 bill on the ground. I pick it up quickly & stick it in my pocket. Am I now to believe that every time I scratch my nose I'll find money on the ground? What if I had been feeling bad due to some sickness such as flu? Can I simply scratch my nose & expect my illness to vanish? This would be a completely ridiculous expectation by any rational standard, so why does god get a free pass when it comes to coincidences? If we’re going to say that prayer “works” because of personal fortunate happenings, then we have to give the same credit to nose scratching.

---Misdirected Gratitude---
Of course, not all prayer rituals are performed to ask favors of a god. Some prayers are to give thanks for whatever good fortune the praying theist has benefited from. I'm not going to advocate that this type of praying is some terrible action. If someone enjoys a sunny day at the park & wishes to thank Yahweh, Allah or whatever (in this case the Egyptian sun god Ra would seem the most appropriate), the action is completely benign on the social level as it does no harm or result in any counter production. What does turn my stomach with regards to thank you praying is when an individual’s deserved gratitude is trumped by an imaginary friend. For example, when a patient thanks "god" for the success of his surgery, he's overlooking the doctor & medical team whose actions are the only things that truly saved the life of this individual. How arrogant does one have to be in order to believe that god spared his "good soul" while allowing the flat lined patient in the next room to not be so lucky?

I'm reminded of an essay I read a while ago which told the tragic story of a plane crash where only 2 out of several teen-aged passengers survived. In church the following Sunday, the preacher delivered a sermon where he thanked god for sparing the lives of these 2 good Christians. The author then noticed several people a few pews in front of her begin crying hysterically. She initially pondered what the cause was for this emotional break down, but it was later revealed to her that the group of saddened people was the parents of a few children that didn't survive. What other conclusion could these parents come to other than that in the preacher’s eyes; these children didn't make the cut with god. Perhaps they should have prayed harder. If we're going to thank god for every wonderful thing that happens in our lives, shouldn't we simultaneously be cursing at him when tragedy befalls us?

---Count the Hits (Ignore the Misses) ---
Quite comically, those who believe in “prayer power” always seem to amplify their desired results with spiritual praise, while concurrently muffling the many times when prayer has failed them. For example, award winners will often thank god for their victory, but those whom did not win ever blame Jesus, Muhammad, Allah, or Yahweh for their short comings. The football player who fumbles never says “Why has god forsaken me,” but somehow it’s socially acceptable to thank “god” when some jock scores a winning touchdown; even when both teams pray equally as hard. Oh, & while I’m on the topic of sports, athletes really need to stop this ludicrous action of pre-game praying for victory. Even if I’m wrong & there is in fact a god of some kind, I guarantee that he/she isn’t the least bit concerned over who wins the big game.

---Effective Prayer by Logical Means---
I will admit that in certain circumstances, prayer can be a useful tool for a theist to utilize. However, its usefulness is not due to divine intervention, but rather psychological realities. Say for example that Joe is in a bad car wreck & finds himself trapped inside of his vehicle. His initial reaction is to panic & flail around wildly which doesn't better his situation in the least. He then stops squirming about & begins to pray. His breathing patterns & heart rate then slow down to a normal rate. He is no longer reacting to his dilemma with a knee-jerk mentality. He calms down & begins to think rationally. At this point, he remembers that there is a crow bar in his back seat. He carefully (non-panicky) maneuvers himself where he can reach the item & proceeds to pry open his door & escape to safety.

Joe did not escape because of any assistance from a god here. He was able to improve his situation by calming himself down so that he could think logically. Prayer happened to be the tool he used to achieve this, but the same outcome would have resulted if he were to count to ten slowly, picture a tranquil area in his head, or briefly meditate to explore his options. When someone engages in prayer, they are focusing on something specific. It doesn't matter if they pray to a god or a cactus. Mental focus allows for controlled breathing & a greater ability to assess any given situation. Although prayer is not directly responsible for anything, the cognitive functions resulting from the action can be beneficial in these types of fearful situations. This is the only "benefit" which can be logically expected from prayer.

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Comment by Eli on September 5, 2008 at 1:04pm
I would only add that not all prayer falls under the category of requests and pleading. Many prayers are ones of thanks and/or adoration to/of god, and these types of prayers would in no way be in contradiction to any divine plan, or divine will, nor are they arrogant or selfish.

While your points are quite valid when it comes to a lot of modern prayer in the west and a lot of christian prayer (mainly because in the new testament Jesus states that prayer will be answered). Of course the origins of these prayers asking for boons is a direct descent form ancient times when man had little idea of what caused many of the natural occurrences in the world and was grasping for any help they could get (to have a successful hunt, make crops grow, etc...)

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