In case you haven't picked up on it in some of the threads or in chat; I've been going through a bit of rough patch since graduating from University. Finding work with a BA is damned hard. I've been working on applying for dental school and talking with recruiters should everything fall through the cracks.
Two days ago I took a standardized test for applying to dental school. I spent the better part of six months teaching myself two years worth of science that I wish I had taken more seriously in Uni. I had taken it once before and only scored average; this time around I got an excellent score putting me in a very competitive position but just shy of guaranteeing me anything. Right now I'm hoping it's high enough to outshine my less than stellar undergrad science grades.
My parents are very religious, all of my relatives, and most of our family friends are are also highly religious. Of them only my family and a few friends know that I'm an atheist. As I was preparing I knew that a lot of them were praying for me, my parents reminded me every day that they were praying for me.
Before I went in to take the test I read an e-mail from a family friend in Hong Kong who wanted to let me know she was praying for me. After I got my scores my mom told me that she was in sustained prayer for the full 4h30m that I was in the testing center.
As sincere as those praying for me were, I know that my performance had everything to do with six months of soul crushing study and almost nothing from the prayer of others. If there was any positive effect it was the kind of moral support that comes from words as simple as "good luck."
I received the same kinds of prayer a year ago when I found out that my being severely overweight put me at serious risk of diabetes. Two and a half hours of exercise per day for almost a year later, I'm healthy and fit. It was nice to know that people were praying for me, but I know that discipline had much more to do with my current health than the well wishes of others.
These kinds of prayers coming from people so close to me has put me in an odd place, intellectually.
After my test, I wrote my aunt in Hong Kong who is an evangelical; I told her "thank you so much for your kind thoughts and well wishes, I know your moral support kept my head clear and steady."
All of which, I felt, was true enough. I thanked my mother for praying for me as well.
In a way I don't mind it; my aunt in Hong Kong couldn't really do much to help me in any material way. My mother, to her credit, didn't pester me about going to church as the test day drew close and once I entered the test center there really wasn't much more she could do but pray. They asked what they believe to be the supreme power in the universe to bend all the laws of reality to help me and, in a way, I was happy for it. A simple "good luck" or "I was thinking of you" would have been good enough, but I'll take the equally ineffective prayer.
I don't think either of them are claiming any kind of credit for I managed, though I do believe they want me to credit it to a god I don't believe in.
This is not to say my opinion on prayer and people who pray has changed significantly. I still know that prayer is useless and doesn't actually do anything but waste time. When there are other non-useless things that can be done I would always want that to be done first, e.g. going to a doctor as opposed to faith healing.
However, when there really is nothing else that can be done, like being locked in a windowless room for 4h30m, I can appreciate the exercise in futility.