Atheist Brain

exploring the cognitive foundations of religious belief

Does prayer work?

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Does prayer work? I imagine people have prayed for things and had their prayers answered millions of times throughout history. Is a prayer to the Christian god more likely to be answered than a prayer to the Jewish god, Mohammad, or Krishna? Is an answered prayer the result of God interceding on the petitioner’s behalf or is it random chance?

We need to ask, ‘What is the chance the event would have come to pass anyway?’ Assuming we had not prayed for a rain cloud to come and water our crops, what are the chances it would have rained anyway?

It is important to note that all Christians learn very early on to pray for things that might actually happen. I remember being a child and praying for god to give my teenage mutant ninja turtle action figure the ability to fly (Raphael because he was the angriest ninja turtle so I figured if he fell to his death… ehh, no big deal). Then I chucked him off the deck and watched him fall helplessly to the ground. Splat!

I even prayed for god to give me the ability to fly! Of course I jumped off one of the lower steps rather than throw myself off the top of the deck.

It’s a good thing I didn’t have more faith or else I might be dead.

Even at a young age children are able to intuitively recognize the inefficacy of prayer. We learn to pray for things like “please let my mom be nicer to me,” or “make the girl in my homeroom like me,” rather than “fly me to the moon God.” We learn to temper our expectations for the success of our prayers according to probability and reality. In a debate with Pastor Rick Warren, Sam Harris makes this idea abundantly clear,

“Get a billion Christians to pray for a single amputee. Get them to pray that God regrow that missing limb. This happens to salamanders every day, presumably without prayer; this is within the capacity of God. I find it interesting that people of faith only tend to pray for conditions that are self-limiting.” 1

Also, consider the following demonstration which shows why prayer occasionally appears to produce positive results via random chance, even in very unlikely scenarios:

Scientific studies on prayer have been done repeatedly and in each case they have returned a null result, that is to say they have reached the conclusion that prayer has no impact. A few studies have actually shown that prayer can have a negative impact on patients recovering after surgery when they are told they are being prayed for.2 It appears there is added ‘pressure to perform’ (i.e. pressure to show improvements in health) when patients are told they are being prayed for, and the additional stress appears to cause a slightly higher rate of post-op complications in patients who are told people are praying for their health (when compared with patients who aren’t being prayed for, or patients who don’t know they are being prayed for).

Some apologists object to the notion that prayer can be examined within a scientific framework, for example it says in Deuteronomy 6:16 “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” And in the words of C.S. Lewis,

“The trouble is that I do not see how any real prayer could go on under such conditions (i.e. while under the microscope of scientific examination)…Simply to say prayers is not to pray; otherwise a team of properly trained parrots would serve as well as men for our experiment.” 3

Richard Dawkins responds to objections of this variety in The God Delusion,

“A double-blind experiment can be done and was done. It could have yielded a positive result. And if it had, can you imagine that a single religious apologist would have dismissed it on the grounds that scientific research has no bearing on religious matters? Of course not.” 4

And another refutation of this common objection, this time by Sam Harris from the Beyond Belief conference in 2006:

So to answer our original question, does prayer work? The answer is clearly no.

The God Debate, 1
Prayer meta-study, David R. Hodge 2007 2
C.S. Lewis, “The Efficacy of Prayer,” from The Essential C.S. Lewis p. 379-380.3
Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion p. 65.4
Wikipedia, Efficacy of Prayer

One Comment


    Looks like prayer failed for this couple. Why they have children should be the more important question!

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