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Prayer: How to do nothing and still think you're helping.
—Common "de-motivator" poster

A prayer (from Latin precari "ask earnestly, beg") is a form of spell or incantation, usually cast or recited to a specific God or demon. Believers assert that their God hears their prayers and might even, if in a good mood, grant the requests contained within said prayers - a kind of celestial bonus package. On occasion, prayers are made to some third party who is believed to have the power to intercede on behalf of the petitioner, such as a saint or "the Lord's anointed" (royalty, religious leaders etc.).

Though many "studies"[1] have attempted to prove that prayer gets results, there is no evidence of divine intercession actually occurring, other than occasional applications of the Texas sharpshooter logical fallacy.

Generic "prayers" are often offered by public figures, or people who run websites, or people who wish they did, in order to suck up to the vaguely religious majority of the population, thinking that they're free, and, who knows, they might help, and lawyers attempting to gain favor from judges. While these prayers are directed at manipulating the faithful (regardless of the manipulator is themselves actually a believer), the overall mechanism of praying is sucking up to God.


[edit] Quantity of prayer

The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.
Søren Kierkegaard

Congregations are frequently exhorted to pray for something or someone. The idea apparently being that if entire groups of people pray for something, then the being being prayed to is more likely to perform miracles - not unlike the idea that the more people shake a vending machine, the faster it dispenses treats.

Exactly why they believe this is not clear. Possibilities include:

  • They believe their eternally perfect supreme being may, in fact, be slightly hearing impaired.
  • They believe that as the being has to listen to all the prayers, it simply gets bored and performs a miracle to shut the believers up.
  • They believe that if more people demonstrate faith then their God will be more impressed than if only one person demonstrates it.
  • They believe that a certain number of "prayer hours" are necessary for each miracle and consequently collective action gets things done more quickly (essentially a real life equivalent to the very dignified process of "grinding and farming" in video games).
  • They believe that prayer is like a lottery, one gets picked out of the hat each day so the more entries you have the more likely thy will be done.

Many of these "get blessed quick schemes" constitute textbook examples of magical thinking, and the suggestion that "the more people who perform the prayer, the more power it has" implies that the faithful don't really believe in an omniscient deity after all.

Rarely do the faithful connect this supposed need for some kind of game theory-inspired "prayer meta" to affect the output of an omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent eternal creator, with the suggestion that: maybe your pointless suffering is noted and even intended?

[edit] Efficacy

When I was a little boy, I used to pray every night for a new bicycle. Then I realised, the Lord, in his wisdom, doesn't work that way. So I just stole one and asked Him to forgive me.
—Emo Phillips[2]
Prayer logic

There have been attempts to carry out double-blind experiments to prove the value of prayer most notably by the Templeton Foundation.[3] Not surprisingly, these have shown that prayer has no noticeable effect.[4] Indeed, in the study quoted, prayer had a small negative effect on the health of the patients prayed for.[5]

However, medical studies have shown that for individuals, time spent in prayer can lower stress and therefore affect stress related illness. This is not due to God's interventions, but the secretion of particular hormones during moments of heightened focus such as meditation, solo prayer, and yoga. Prayer also has the illusory benefit of feeling as if you are doing something, when there is nothing else you can do for a situation.

Every time a pope falls ill and ends up on his deathbed, we may assume that a sizable fraction of the one billion Catholics in the world all pray for his recovery. Despite this enormous effort of prayer, 100% of popes eventually die.

British Roman Catholic theologian Gerald Vann adressed the lack of meaningful outcomes resulting from prayer, pointing out how people tend to treat prayer as some kind of childish butler bell for wishgranting, implying that prayers only appear to go unanswered due to the excessively inflated expectations of the praying.

Some people think that prayer just means asking for things, and if they fail to receive exactly what they asked for, they think the whole thing is a fraud.
—Gerald Vann

The actual problem, however, is that this is precisely how Jesus himself defines prayer in multiple places in the bible, corroborated by all four gospels[6] - thus effectively closing the door on any attempts by christian theologians to invent some kind of requirement that prayer must be "modest" or consist of "realistic demands" to be likely to be answered.

Amen, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, 'Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,' and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it shall be done for him. Therefore I tell you, all that you ask for in prayer, believe that you will receive it and it shall be yours.
Jesus (Mark 11:24-25), instructing the faithful on how to tell if a prayer worked or not, and what to expect in terms of results.

Jesus in fact stresses the flamboyant disproportionality of answered prayers as the definitive proof of their success, underscoring that the only mechanism causative of unanswered prayer is a lack of faith, however obscure this splinter of doubt may be even to the praying individuals themselves - and not any divine regulation against supposedly "over-the-top" demands in prayer (since the whole point of prayer is that faithful worshipers may be rewarded by an omnipotent God).

This is a problematic state of affairs regarding christian prayer theology, since an imaginary opportunity for the church to get away with specifying prayer as "only that which is so subtle as to blend in perfectly with random chance" would at the very least allow for reliances on vagueness in the defence of prayer - strategies with their own set of problems.

[edit] Paradox of prayer

I cannot believe in a God who wants to be praised all the time.
Friedrich Nietzsche

A strange aspect of prayer is that the deed being prayed for has often been rendered necessary by the actions of the deity prayed to. A natural disaster or "act of God" often leads to prayers to the same God to alleviate the consequent harm. It would seem to give more bangs for the prayer bucks to pray for there to be a reduction in such disasters.

[edit] Mechanized prayer

Prayer flags in La Bolsa

The Tibetans have actually brought prayer into the Industrial Age by mechanizing it in the form of prayer wheels that turn a scripture on a scroll inside a drum, acting as an automatic prayer. In Nepal, prayer flags are used to make the prayer physical in the world.

[edit] See also

[edit] Literature

  • Heiler, Friedrich: Prayer. A Study in the History and Psychology of Religion. (1997) ISBN 1851681434

[edit] Footnotes

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