The Great Courses

Nothing Fails Like Prayer

The Thinking Atheist
Feb 9, 2012 at 7:33 PM
5 years ago

It's curious.

All over Facebook, people beg for prayers for their loved ones, often describing horrific and near unthinkable accidents and illnesses with life-and-death outcomes.

My mom is in Intensive Care at Hospital X.  Please pray!  I have a spot on my lung and I'm going in for further tests.  Please pray!  My sister miscarried at 12 weeks.  Please pray.  A baby's body is ravaged with cancer.  Please pray.

Ask yourself what all of the prayer posts really imply.

  • If God truly wanted a child cancer-free, he would simply prevent the cancer.  Period.

  • If he waits for the baby to be ravaged by invasive chemo before being "healed" (aka: remission), he would be guilty of ambivalence (and sadism?) as human physicians actually cure the little boy or girl with wildly expensive treatments that, all too often, send whole families into bankruptcy.

  • And if the child dies, God would have forgone an easily-done divine healing (ignoring the chorus of prayers) to allow the snuffing out of a precious young life under the eyes of his/her grieving parents.

This brings about the common equivocation that, no matter how things turn out, "It was God's will," which is a statement that actually nullifies any power prayer might have.  If God's will is done regardless, prayers do nothing to change it.  If God's mind can be changed by our petitions, his omniscience is seriously suspect.  And if God is merely using tragedy to elicit our dependence, he's no better than a petty dictator like Saddam Hussein.

Prayer makes us feel good.  It gives comfort.  It's a way to feel like we're doing something important with minimal effort.   But in light of the circumstances in which we do it, prayer is pretty ridiculous.

We pray for food that humans planted, harvested and prepared.  We pray for weather that natural cycles of the earth determine.  We pray for good grades before studying hard to earn the grade.  We pray for safe travels while we latch our seat belts.  We pray for protection while locking our doors and activating our security systems.  We pray pray pray.  We tell our friends and family to pray.  We post bulletins online and ask our church members to pray.  And we insist that it's meaningful, helpful, reasonable, powerful.

Prayer works.  Except when it doesn't.  And when it doesn't, we again play the "God's will" card...brushing over the promise in Mark 11:24:
"Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours."  Or Matthew 17:20:  "For truly, I say to you, if you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you."  Or James 5:15-16:  "And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective."

And as much as people invoke the importance and power of prayer, do they really believe it?

Think about it.  If prayer truly works, and we are truly under God's care, why pay an insurance premium?  Why hire a physician?  Why rely on man-made medications?  And why is everyone praying instead of asking why Yahweh (who supposedly has every hair on our heads numbered) would require one of his children to be peeled out of a flaming school bus wreck with the Jaws of Life to endure excruciating skin grafts?

Think about yourself in the midst of crisis.  If your child was in a car wreck tonight, would you immediately drop to your knees and pray?  Or would your first action to be to grab the nearest phone and dial 911?  And if your child was so precious to God, what would explain why his hand of protection was absent while you frantically waited on the paramedics?

How ridiculous are our prayers in the grand scheme of things?

Football hero Tim Tebow prays on the football field while 30,000 children starve to death worldwide.  Christmas shoppers pray to find the latest gift fad while tsunamis and earthquakes bury whole cities in an explosion of swirling, violent debris.  Believers pray to find their car keys while Taliban hostages are beheaded on the internet.  We find a good parking space at the mall?  Praise God.  A child dies of leukemia?  Oh...that's just terrible, but God is love and he has a plan.

And, of course, anytime the law of averages or happy coincidence makes a wish come true?  DING!  God answers prayer!  Convenient.  This is monumentally imbalanced, lazy thinking.

Prayer is the placebo.  The empty calorie.  The Blue Pill.

Of course, none of these uncomfortable challenges to prayer really faze the faithful.  They'll probably stare at me with pity and pray for me.  They'll expound that God works in mysterious ways.  His master plan is above our understanding.  He allows us to be tested.  Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden and ruined everything.  Humankind has rejected God and now pays the price as Satan runs rampant in this world.  It's somehow our fault.  But Heaven will one day alleviate all pain.  God is good.  God is love.  Kumbaya.

But when the chips are truly down, I submit that former evangelist Dan Barker hit the nail on the head by saying that "Nothing fails like prayer."

When all of the unheeded prayers fall back down from the sky, all we human beings have is each other, and for every plea to our respective deities (there are too many to count) , we should offer 1000 gestures of thanks and support to our doctors, scientists, rescue workers, medical staff, volunteers and the very human hands which provide the true solutions.  


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