Prayer is the attempt by a human being to communicate with an unseen god or gods.   To believers in the Abrahamic traditions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), it is the attempt to communicate with the One (and only) God which those believers worship.

          This discussion will assume for the sake of argument (without admitting) that such a God or gods do exist.   From now on, for the sake of simplicity, I will use the term "God" to refer to any god or gods to which believers may direct their prayers, and indicate when some comment applies only to one kind of god or the other.

          The purposes for prayer may be many:

  • To request a favor;
  • To confess a sin;
  • To give thanks for blessings or favors already granted;
  • To enjoy feeling closer to the divine presence;
  • To pay homage (to worship);
  • To comply with a ritual requirement (this usually will overlap one or more of the other purposes);
  • To obtain information.

          Most gods - and certainly the One God - are considered by their believers to be all-knowing ("omniscient").   The first problem with prayer, then, is that the believer who prays is telling God what God (being omniscient) must already know, since God already knows what is in their minds.   Therefore, what purpose does it serve that the believer actually expresses the prayer in words?  

          Some believers assert that God of course does know what is already in the believer's mind, but that it is important that the believer actually formulate the prayer in words and express it, preferably aloud.   (Although prayers traditionally are spoken aloud, most believers also admit that a "silent" prayer - that is, a prayer which the believer does not actually utter aloud, but only goes over it silently in the mind - is just as effective, if an audible prayer would be inappropriate in the circumstances.   However, most believers would insist that the actual words be formulated in the mind; a mere generalized thought would not count as a prayer.)

          Many believers base their belief in the existence of God on the fact that their prayers have been answered (not all, of course, but a few).   One believer wrote to me:

Hi, I know that God exists because I have had most of my prayers answered two of which are permanently stuck in my mind.   because as I was on my knees asking God for something it was answered immediately that very moment!
I replied:
          I have absolutely no doubt that there have been occasions when what you were asking for in prayer actually did happen. However, I don't see that as evidence that your god actually exists or that your particular religion is "true." And here's why:

          It is an inescapable fact that the prayers of many people are sometimes "answered" in exactly the same way as you claim your prayers were answered, and not just people who share your particular religious beliefs, but people of ALL religious beliefs:   Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jainists, Shintoists, Taoists, Native Americans, Voodooists, on and on... even (and perhaps even more often) members of obscure cults and sects with only a few hundred adherents.   And I can testify to you that even the "prayers" of atheists and unbelievers are sometimes "answered." (Of course the atheist is not praying to any "god", but simply thinking in the mind something like, "Oh, if only XYZ would happen!" and - lo and behold! - XYZ DOES happen!)

          For someone who bases his own religious faith on his own "answered prayers," then, this fact poses a serious problem.   How do you explain it?   There are only a limited number of explanations, and none of them are satisfactory evidence for the truth of the beliefs on which the prayer was based:

- Explanation #1: All those other people's prayers were not really answered because the events they prayed for did not happen.

          This argument simply ignores the facts, and shows the closed-minded arrogance of the believer.   It is not really an argument at all, nor is it an explanation that would satisfy anyone else except the believer and those who believe exactly like him.   And it gives others the right to make the same assertion about THEIR answered prayers.

- Explanation #2: The results they prayed for may have happened, but it was simply a remarkable coincidence - they would have happened anyway, without their false prayers.

          This explanation is a double-edged sword - it cuts both ways.   If the explanation is good enough to explain the answered prayers of others, it is also good enough to explain YOUR answered prayers.   And therefore "answered prayers" prove absolutely nothing.

- Explanation #3: Satan (or some evil power) granted their desires so as to keep them in his clutches in a false religion. This explanation is also a double-edged sword.   How do you know that it is not an evil power granting YOUR desires?   If you respond that it cannot be an evil power, because your religion is true and your god is the real god, then you are arguing in a circle:   You are using the answered prayers as proof that your religion and your god are true (and therefore not evil).   This makes the argument useless, since it begs the question

- Explanation #4: God (MY god) also grants the desires of righteous people who are sincere in their religious devotions, even though their religions are false and they are ignorant of the true God (MY god). This explanation is the strangest of all, since it implies that your god (the real, true god) is doing things that actually confirm believers in other religions and other gods that they are correct in their (false) beliefs.   That is, god is actually keeping them from the truth.   What kind of god is that?

          The best explanation is actually the second one:   The results prayed for would have happened anyway.   It was simply a remarkable and fortunate coincidence, however inexplicable and "miraculous".   But that means, then, that answered prayers are not evidence of the truth or falsity of any religion, nor evidence for the existence of "God" (or of fairies, leprechauns, guardian angels, good spirits, evil spirits, fairy godmothers, or Santa Claus).

          So don't tell me that you know your beliefs are correct because your prayers have been answered.

          Actually, if one were completely honest and accurate, one would have to admit that the number of requests made in prayer that are deemed answered are far outweighed by the prayers which God seems to have ignored.   This is in spite of the many promises in the Bible that the prayers of the faithful will be answered:   God will grant anything requested in prayer by a righteous person who believes and who asks in Jesus' name and/or with faith (Matt 21:22, Mark 11:24, John 14:13-14, 15:7, 16:23).   John 9:31 and 1 John 3:22 require that you must also be keeping the commandments (also Prov 15:29, James 5:16).   Sometimes it takes two believers (Matt 21:22, Mark 11:24).   1 John 5:14-15 conditions the promise by saying the thing must be "according to his will," which means that God is going to do what he wants anyway.  

          Believers are able to explain why most of their prayers are unanswered.   "Sometimes God's answer is 'No,' but that is still an answer!" This rationalization is good for any god, of course, or even a good luck charm.   (See, for example, "My Lucky Rabbit's Foot".)

          Since God must already know that you have sinned, praying to confess the sin is simply an act of repentance, not providing God with information (1 John 1:9).   The Bible also requires one to confess sins to others (James 5:16).   There may be a psychological benefit in acknowledging one's mistakes, especially if they have caused harm to others.   But prayer is not necessary to obtain that benefit.   James does not mention confessing one's sins to God, but to others.

          It is certainly proper to feel gratitude and to express it.   It would seem much more appropriate to thank those human beings who were directly responsible for the benefits, where known, rather than what one believes to be the ultimate source of all things good.   If one believes that all good comes from God, then one cannot possibly itemize what one is grateful for.   Praying "Thank you, God, for everything!" seems meaningless unless one is truly thinking of everything, which is unlikely.
          If one believes (as do many Christians) that God is indeed everywhere, like the air or the force of gravity, then it should not require any special verbalization to enjoy it.   One can enjoy the brisk, fresh air of a fall day in the country without talking to the air or saying out loud, "I am enjoying the air!"

          Many believers claim to have a "personal relationship" with God (or with Jesus, or with the Virgin Mary or some saint).   This seems no different from the "invisible playmate" that is constant company of some children.   Talking with God as with an intimate friend can be carried to extremes, and would appear no different from a schizophrenic's conversations with imaginary people.

          Talking with God or some other imaginary person has the great advantage over talking with a real person, however, in that a real person might talk back, or be sometimes unavailable, or even disagree with you.   But God is always "there." (Or perhaps never, really.) If God really does talk back, one should see a psychiatrist - schizophrenia is the usual diagnosis.

          It seems strange that an all-powerful being wants people telling him (or her or it or them) how wonderful he is.   What is the purpose?   Usually the implied purpose is because God wants people to do that.   No other reason is given, that I am aware of.   If a human being required others to tell him how wonderful he was, we would consider that person to have a serious personality flaw, even if he really did deserve the adulation.

          Many religious rituals must be accompanied by prayers.   Almost always the prayers must be said according to a prescribed formula and verbatim.   Generally the belief is that if there is a mistake in reciting the prayer correctly, it will have no effect (which is a very convenient excuse if the ritual does not have the desired effect).   Most believers do not recognize that this is no different from magical hokus-pokus.

          Some believers interpret the Epistle of James 1:5 ("If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God...") to mean that God will provide information and knowledge to the believer.   This is a very seductive belief.   Some believers do not make any decision or take any important step without getting God's advice.   Unfortunately, they often mistake their own subconscious feelings for messages from God.   A devout friend of mine once told me that he had at last found the woman he would spend the rest of his life with.   He assured me that he had "checked it out with the Man Upstairs" and had gotten the go-ahead.   This was the woman God wanted him to marry.   When I saw him a few weeks later and asked him about his wedding plans, he told me that the woman had dumped him.   Apparently the woman knew more than God.

          We know, from our modern knowledge of psychology, that "altered states of consciousness" (that is, sudden physical feelings of elation, "highs," hallucinations) can be easily induced in many ways, including chemicals (drugs), sleep deprivation, lowering of blood sugar through fasting, suggestion (hypnosis), and even auto-suggestion.   We know, too, that these altered states of consciousness seem very real to the person experiencing them.   The reality is enhanced, of course, if there is also a strong desire to accept the experience as real.

          The fundamental question, of course, is how one can validate the source and the trustworthiness of any "message" or "inspiration" that one might receive?   Even devout believers in some form of the "prayer method" of obtaining knowledge must admit that some such messages cannot be relied upon.   The devil can transform himself into an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:14) and thus deceive "even the elect" (Matthew 24:24).

          The wise person, then, would validate anything which might claim to be a supernatural message.   How?   One suggestion, usually offered by defenders of "spiritual knowledge," is essentially that if the message says what you have been told it ought to say, then it is from God.   If it testifies of Christ, then it is from God; if it does not, or if it is different from what I told you, it is false (Galations 1:8).   This is, of course, basically fallacious:   it is the fallacy of self-validation (also called "self-sealing"), a special form of the fallacy of circular reasoning (also called "begging the question").

          The only way to validate information is to check it using reliable information that we already have.   That means using the facts, using our own experiences and the reliable experiences of others.   And it requires a healthy skepticism.

          Anyone who asks us to believe some message obtained by prayer (or any other such supernatural means) which is contradicted by facts is asking us to be gullible and to abdicate our responsibilities as rational beings.

          Doesn't it seem odd that purveyors of some belief systems also suggest that you "pray" for confirmation of the truth of their claims?   And their followers do indeed seem to get that confirmation.   (And undoubtedly tell those who don't get confirmation that they weren't really sincere, or that they did not have enought faith.) See the exercises for A Course in Miracles", , or if you read the Urantia Book, or the challenge in the Book of Mormon at Moroni 10:4.

          Not all believers are so gullible.   Mohammed said that God's advice is:   "You shall not accept any information, unless you verify it for yourself.   I have given you the hearing, the eyesight, and the brain, and you are responsible for using them." (Koran 17:36)

          Numerous scientific studies have been conducted to try to determine objectively the effects of prayer, usually in helping the sick.   When conducted "blind" and in such a way as to eliminate the possible psychological influence of the patients themselves, the results have been unable to demonstrate the effectiveness of prayer in the sense that believers had hoped.   The few positive studies have later been shown to be fraudulent.

- Richard Packham

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©  2006 Richard Packham    Permission granted to reproduce for non-commercial purposes, provided text is not changed and this copyright notice is included


When did I realize I was God?   Well, I was praying and I suddenly realized that I was talking to myself. - Peter Barnes, The Ruling Class

pray, v.   To ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner, confessedly unworthy. - Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary

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