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Prayer: Why it Doesn't Work

Updated on April 12, 2015

I don't know about all my other atheist friends, but I for one am getting sick and tired of hearing about prayer.

"Nothing is more powerful than a prayer."

"Prayer works!"

"Instead of worrying about everything, pray about everything."

"Have you prayed about it as much as you've talked about it?"

"Saying a prayer is better than doing nothing at all."

I hear variations of this garbage almost every day. I don't ever say anything in reply, but the skeptical look on my face undoubtedly betrays my thoughts. This is typically the moment where the religious person that I am conversing with decides to get right up in my face and passionately insist that, "No, prayer is truly the most powerful thing we can do! It's amazing! Whatever you need, just ask, and God will answer you. He really will! You just have to listen, and sooner or later, you'll get your answer. I promise!"

Right.

I don't know what these people are smoking, but I assure you that I am no stranger to prayer. I prayed diligently for the first 18 years of my life and I never heard the voice of God answer me. Not even once.

My personal experiences with prayer are, of course, completely beside the point. Lack of evidence for the effectiveness of prayer is not why I choose not to believe in it. Rather, the process of prayer, when you really break it down and analyze it, makes the idea of doing so sound so ludicrous that it's a wonder how anyone can take it seriously.

First of all, to think that God would change His earthly plan simply because you asked Him to is, in my opinion, extremely arrogant. I mean, as a Christian you accept that God knows what is best for the world, right? So...why are you begging Him to go against His plan so that you can have your way? As a believer, are you not supposed to cling to the blind faith that God knows what He is doing and that, someday, He will tell you the reason behind every bad thing that ever happened to you and your loved ones? "Oh wow!" you'll be able to say. "That's amazing. I never thought of that! Now I know why you didn't save my dad when he was dying of cancer. Thanks, God! You really did know what you were doing!

Yes, I too find the likelihood of such a scenario taking place before or even after death to be pretty low, but whatever. Let's suppose that they're right. Suppose God does have a divine plan that He is willing to change if enough people pray for Him to do so. We'll use the above example of the cancer patient. Say a bunch of people pray for someone's cancer recovery, and say that this is a situation in which God does decide to intervene and rid the patient of his ailment. Think for a moment about how screwed up that is. God heard the prayers of all these people and went, "Well, I was going to let that guy die, but since he got all these people to beg me to cure him, I guess I'll go ahead and do it!"

God is good, guys. God is good. Yes indeedy.

The majority of the religious folk I talk to, however, hold the belief that God in fact does not change His divine plan for anyone. Hearing this never ceases to astound me. What then, I ask you, is the point of praying if God is just going to do what He wants regardless? Does that not make praying for something completely...well, silly? Shockingly, most Christians don't seem to be even remotely bothered when I point this out. They just shrug it off like it's nothing and say something along the lines of, "Oh, well, God always wants you to ask anyway. He likes it when you talk to Him."

Um. What?

No, really, do you even see what you just did there? You fully acknowledged that prayer is not empowering. Because if God has an unalterable divine plan, then none of us possesses any true power or influence. We're all like pieces on a chessboard, free for God to move whenever and wherever He wishes. Asking Him to move us elsewhere won't change His mind. At the most He might laugh and say, "Sorry, but I can't. It's not in the plan!" So again I ask you: What the hell is the point? And don't give me that "the point is to talk to God" nonsense again, because...well, sorry, but I'm not real fond of the idea of falling to my knees and begging for something repeatedly when I know that, in the end, my pleas will not be heard and will have absolutely no effect on anything whatsoever. Sounds to me like...oh, I don't know. A waste of time?

So there you have it. As far as I can tell, prayer is exactly what I always kind of thought it was deep down: a load of crap. Look, I know I'm an atheist, and if you're reading this as a Christian then you're probably sitting there thinking that I'm a load of crap. I mean, what do I know anyway? I don't even believe in God. I must remind you, however, that I did not come here to argue that prayer doesn't work because God doesn't exist. I came here only with the intention of showing you that prayer does not work from a logical standpoint.

If you take the position that God does intervene from time to time when people pray, then you are forced to admit that He might not be such a benevolent deity after all. If you take the position that God does not intervene when people pray, then you must accept the fact that prayer is an utterly pointless act.

I implore you to not immediately dismiss me, but rather, to at least attempt to look objectively at the things I have said today. If I can convince you to do even that much...well, then I'd say I've done my part. I am, of course, always open to debate and discussion, and if you think that I have somehow misrepresented prayer with my words, then by all means, I would love to hear whatever it is you have to say.

I will now bring this post to a close by leaving you with the prayer chart that I have provided below. It is not an image I created, but I think it covers the majority of what I said today in a much more concise manner. Plus, it's hilarious.

Source

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    • Joseph O Polanco profile image

      Joseph O Polanco 2 years ago

      I don't follow. Could you explain how the following are "completely immoral"?

      ““You heard that it was said: ‘You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. However, I say to you: Continue to love your enemies and to pray for those who persecute you, so that you may prove yourselves sons of your Father who is in the heavens, since he makes his sun rise on both the wicked and the good and makes it rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those loving you, what reward do you have?" (Matthew 5:43-46)

      “But now you must put them all away from you: wrath, anger, badness, abusive speech, and obscene talk out of your mouth. Do not lie to one another. Accordingly, as God’s chosen ones, holy and loved, clothe yourselves with the tender affections of compassion, kindness, humility, mildness, and patience. Continue putting up with one another and forgiving one another freely even if anyone has a cause for complaint against another. Just as Jehovah freely forgave you, you must also do the same. But besides all these things, clothe yourselves with love, for it is a perfect bond of union.” - Colossians 3:8,9, 12-14.

    • Joseph O Polanco profile image

      Joseph O Polanco 2 years ago

      @Ed

      Thank you! :)

    • Katherine Franke profile image
      Author

      Katherine Franke 2 years ago from Indiana

      I've read the Bible. Reading it was actually what made me realize that it isn't a book that anyone in modern secular society should be taking too seriously. It's completely immoral.

    • Edward J. Palumbo profile image

      Ed Palumbo 2 years ago from Tualatin, OR

      Joseph O Polanco, my compliments.

    • Joseph O Polanco profile image

      Joseph O Polanco 2 years ago

      @Katherine

      I invite you to openly consider the following:

      Over the years, skeptics have challenged— and continue to challenge— the Bible’s accuracy regarding the names of people, events and places it mentions. Time and again, though, evidence has shown such skepticism to be unwarranted. The Bible record, as such, is wholly factual.

      For example, at one time scholars doubted the existence of Assyrian King Sargon, mentioned at Isaiah 20:1. However, in the 1840’s, archaeologists began unearthing the palace of this king. Now, Sargon is one of the best-known Assyrian kings.

      Critics questioned the existence of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who ordered Jesus’death. (Matthew 27:1, 22-24) But in 1961 a stone bearing Pilate’s name and rank was discovered near the city of Caesarea in Israel.

      Before 1993, there was no extra-biblical evidence to support the historicity of David, the brave young shepherd who later became king of Israel. That year, however, archaeologists uncovered in northern Israel a basalt stone, dated to the ninth century B.C.E., that experts say bears the words “House of David” and “king of Israel.”

      Until recently, many scholars doubted the accuracy of the Bible’s account of the nation of Edom battling with Israel in the time of David. (2 Samuel 8:13, 14) Edom, they argued, was a simple pastoral society at the time and did not become sufficiently organized or have the might to threaten Israel until much later. However, recent excavations indicate that “Edom was a complex society centuries earlier [than previously thought], as reflected in the Bible,” states an article in the journal Biblical Archaeology Review.

      There were many rulers on the world stage during the 16 centuries that the Bible was being written. When the Bible refers to a ruler, it always uses the proper title. For example, it correctly refers to Herod Antipas as “district ruler” and Gallio as “proconsul.” (Luke 3:1; Acts 18:12) Ezra 5:6 refers to Tattenai, the governor of the Persian province “beyond the River,” the Euphrates River. A coin produced in the fourth century B.C.E. contains a similar description, identifying the Persian governor Mazaeus as ruler of the province “Beyond the River.”

      Regarding the historical accuracy of the Bible, the October 25, 1999, issue of U.S.News & World Report said: “In extraordinary ways, modern archaeology has affirmed the historical core of the Old and New Testaments— corroborating key portions of the stories of Israel’s patriarchs, the Exodus, the Davidic monarchy, and the life and times of Jesus.” While faith in the Bible does not hinge on archaeological discoveries, such historical accuracy is what you would expect of a book inspired by God.

      Even more staggering, however, is the fact that there’s more historical evidence for the death and resurrection of Christ than there is for evolution. In fact, any denial of the historicity of Christ’s resurrection is comparable to denying the US declared its independence in 1776 or that Columbus landed in America in 1492.

      In his book "The Historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus", Michael Licona provides a list of scholars who attest to the historicity of Christ’s death and resurrection which includes Brodeur, Collins, Conzelman, Fee, Gundry, Harris, Hayes, Hèring, Hurtado, Johnson, Kistemaker, Lockwood, Martin, Segal, Snyder, Thiselton, Witherington, and Wright.

      Concordantly, British scholar N. T. Wright states, "As a historian, I cannot explain the rise of early Christianity unless Jesus rose again, leaving an empty tomb behind him.” (N. T. Wright, “The New Unimproved Jesus,” Christianity Today (September 13, 1993)), p. 26.

      Even Gert L¸demann, the leading German critic of the resurrection, himself admits, “It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus’ death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ.”(Gerd L¸demann, What Really Happened to Jesus?, trans. John Bowden (Louisville, Kent.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), p. 80.)

      These are just a minute sampling from the massive throng of scholars whose research attests the historicity of Christ’s resurrection - http://amzn.to/13MQiTE http://bit.ly/18UraA6

      Prominently, in his book, “Justifying Historical Descriptions”, historian C. B. McCullagh lists six tests which historians use in determining what is the best explanation for given historical facts. The hypothesis “God raised Jesus from the dead” passes all these tests:

      1. It has great explanatory scope: it explains why the tomb was found empty, why the disciples saw post-mortem appearances of Jesus, and why the Christian faith came into being.

      2. It has great explanatory power: it explains why the body of Jesus was gone, why people repeatedly saw Jesus alive despite his earlier public execution, and so forth.

      3. It is plausible: given the historical context of Jesus’ own unparalleled life and claims, the resurrection serves as divine confirmation of those radical claims.

      4. It is not ad hoc or contrived: it requires only one additional hypothesis: that God exists. And even that needn’t be an additional hypothesis if one already believes that God exists.

      5. It is in accord with accepted beliefs. The statement: “God raised Jesus from the dead” doesn’t in any way conflict with the accepted belief that people don’t rise naturally from the dead. The Christian accepts that belief as wholeheartedly as he accepts the hypothesis that God raised Jesus from the dead.

      6. It far outstrips any of its rival hypotheses in meeting conditions (1)-(5). Down through history various alternative explanations of the facts have been offered, for example, the conspiracy hypothesis, the apparent death hypothesis, the hallucination hypothesis, and so forth. Such hypotheses have been almost universally rejected by contemporary scholarship. None of these naturalistic hypotheses succeeds in meeting the conditions as well as an actual, historical resurrection.

    • Joseph O Polanco profile image

      Joseph O Polanco 2 years ago

      @Katherine

      You raise some important issues although, as simple as this may seem, developing a personal relationship with your Creator starts with reading about, apprehending and applying Christ's example in our daily lives.

      One of the reasons why so many different denominations exist is because most "Christians" fail to take this first, all-important step.

      Don't believe me? Conduct a simple poll and find out how many "Christians" have actually read the Bible in full.

    • Katherine Franke profile image
      Author

      Katherine Franke 2 years ago from Indiana

      And I have done just that. I was a Christian for 18 years. When I began to have doubts I immediately got to work. I researched science, history, philosophy and religion, desperately seeking evidence that would back Christianity as the one true religion. But the more I dug and the more I learned, the more I found that there is no more evidence for the truth of Christianity or for the existence of Yahweh than there is for any other religion or deity on the planet. This upset me for a while. I didn't want to let go of my religion. But I had to, because I'm not the type of person who can go on believing something when there is no evidence for it.

      I asked questions. I received no adequate answers. To this day I continue to ask questions. I am a very open-minded individual. If anyone could give me even the smallest bit of evidence for the legitimacy of the Christian religion, I would consider changing my mind immediately. But thus far that has not happened.

    • Katherine Franke profile image
      Author

      Katherine Franke 2 years ago from Indiana

      Reasoning with religious folk can often be extremely frustrating. You present them with indisputable logic and it's like...it goes right over their heads. But I used to be religious too, so I'm generally very understanding when participating in such discussions. People just don't want to let go of things that they hold near and dear to them. I get it. I really, really do. But damn it can be irritating, especially when you hear the same poor arguments over and over again.

    • Katherine Franke profile image
      Author

      Katherine Franke 2 years ago from Indiana

      Personal relationship? Even when I was a Christian I didn't understand what that meant. So many people claim to have a "personal relationship" with God, and yet...and yet nobody seems to know what God actually wants. How He actually feels. What He actually thinks. Everyone is in disagreement with one another. If this weren't the case there wouldn't be so many different denominations of Christianity. If a "personal relationship" with God were possible, then by now we would all have come to a consensus. But as it is...we haven't. Looks to me like nobody really "knows" God. Maybe that's because He can't ever truly be known?

    • Edward J. Palumbo profile image

      Ed Palumbo 2 years ago from Tualatin, OR

      Phil Perez, I'm 68 and I questioned some of the issues and pursued the answers until I was 32, when I took a few small steps in the direction of faith and commitment. We are not discouraged from asking questions, because there are answers. However, we are discussing important issues and we are advised not to seek counsel from those not qualified to give it. If you want answers, look for them, study, and accept or reject what you may.

    • Joseph O Polanco profile image

      Joseph O Polanco 2 years ago

      You lost me. Why would you expect God to answer any of your prayers if you've never had a personal relationship with Him?

    • Oztinato profile image

      Oztinato 2 years ago from Australia

      The hubs title should be "why prayer doesn't work for YOU".

    • Phil Perez profile image

      Phil Perez 2 years ago

      Logic? Objectively? Understand? Skeptic? What are those, says the religious person. It must be a sickness that people refuse to question what they want to believe in. I greatly enjoyed your Hub and although praying is one of the seemingly unlimited examples available, you make an excellent point!

    • Edward J. Palumbo profile image

      Ed Palumbo 2 years ago from Tualatin, OR

      When you were a youngster and asked your parents for some item or accommodation, their answer could have been "Yes", "No" or "Not at this time." I have good reason to believe God hears and answers prayer and occasionally the answer is "No" or there is no answer - and that's a test of faith. You pray for the life of a friend who is diagnosed with cancer and the answer may not satisfy you, it may be difficult to accept, but we live in vulnerable bodies. We pray for someone in a combat zone and they may not make it. You ask "Why?" and I remind you God did not aim the weapon but gave us free will and have wars (and consequences) with which we must deal. This is a topic upon which books have been written, so I doubt if a brief comment will satisfy you. When your prayer is expressed in faith, the development or answer (whatever it may be) can be accepted, perhaps understood. Without faith, it's all very arbitrary and God seems distant and apathetic. With faith, you know He hears and He is there, and that ultimately He is in control. Our vision, our perception, is limited. When you're aboard a cruise vessel or commercial aircraft, you trust your pilot's experience and intent to land safely without any control or input on your part, but occasionally there's an emergency. Simply expressed, I trust the Pilot and I've seen him operate. I don't criticize your skepticism, but I can't agree with it. Best wishes to you, and I hope to read more of your opinions.