Monday, June 25, 2007

Without a Prayer

I was raised from birth as a Christian and taught to believe in a God that cared about people. Naturally I believed it was true. Our culture was steeped in Christian beliefs and virtually no one questioned them. I had no reason to doubt the authority of my parents, relatives, pastors, and teachers. As a kid I just accepted it all without question. In my early teens I began trying to establish a personal relationship with God and Christ. Prayer was a huge part of this process. At that time, it was an integral part of life for our family. We said grace when we sat down to eat. We prayed for help when times were hard or when someone was ill. We also said bedtime prayers. It was part of our daily routine. In those days, we even said prayers in school.

I’m not looking for sympathy here but I had a pretty rough childhood. Sometime during my youth, I began to think of prayer as a way to try to escape my problems. We were poor and times were hard. My parents fought a lot. Dad drank too much and was abusive. Also, I was not popular as a kid. I had a weight problem and kids picked on me. Dad was a marine and we moved a lot. I had very few friends. And none of my friends were girls although I began thinking romantically about girls at an early age. I didn’t fit into most groups because I wasn’t athletic and I didn’t follow the fads. I drew pictures, read books and wrote poetry or short stories. I was a daydreamer and not really very interested in the real world most of the time. I usually lived in a fantasy world.

Religion was much like the other fantasy worlds I created in my mind. It was exciting because it was full of emotion, stories and camaraderie. I could feel accepted there. It was magical. One could have the power to change the world. I believed what Jesus said in Matthew 17:20 "For verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you." I recall several times when I prayed for specific things in my youth. Praying gave me confidence because I thought God was on my side. I prayed to get out of trouble. I prayed for a girlfriend. I prayed to succeed in sports. When these things eventually happened I believed that my prayers were answered. I prayed that my Dad would survive Viet Nam and he did. Lots of people survived Viet Nam but, in true Christian fashion, I considered this an answer to my prayers.

Looking back on it I can see that it was having confidence that enabled me to make some things happen. If people had been teaching me how to build self-confidence and how to believe in myself as a child, I wouldn’t have needed religion. I don’t need it now. Other than what I made happen myself, what happened was pure chance. My prayers were na├»ve. I trusted God to be there for me and I was shaken when I began to realize that it wasn’t really so. When prayer failed, I was confused. I prayed for God to help my parents resolve their problems and stay together. But they got divorced. I prayed for my baby brother to get well. But he died before he was a year old. I didn’t see the difference between the prayers that I believed were answered and those that were not answered. I knew that the things I was asking for were good things. I didn’t ask for riches or fame. I wasn’t trying to test God.

I had not yet learned the rationalization that God sometimes says “No” to prayers. It wouldn’t have made sense to me even then because I had read the scriptures that made it clear that God would give you whatever you asked for in faith and righteousness. These and many more scriptures say it in no uncertain terms.
Matthew 7: 7-8; “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened”
Mark 11:24;"Therefore I say unto you, What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them."
John 14:12-14 "Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto my Father. And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If ye shall ask any thing in my name, I will do it."

I believed that then. For God to refuse such a request made no sense. How could God say “No” when I asked for my baby brother to get better? I had no idea why God would want him to die. What conceivable plan could God have in letting an infant die? And if everything is going to happen the way God wants it to happen, what’s the point of prayer?

These questions haunted me for a very long time. However, I didn’t give up on God. I thought it would make sense some day when I learned more. I was told; “God works in mysterious ways.” And everyone else seemed to accept it as normal. I continued to be faithful and even felt that I had received a call to the Baptist ministry when I was fifteen. Looking back on it I am sure that I was responding to suggestions in the pastor’s sermons but then I attributed it to a call from God. I eventually got ordained. However, it was in a different religion. My questions about religious dogma had caused me to switch religions a couple of times by then. I was never a pastor because I entered the military under a different specialty but I did work as a lay minister for several years. I taught classes, counseled people and helped with the services. All this time I read the Bible and the scriptures of other religions. I read apologetics and religious discourses. And, of course, I prayed. I wanted to be sure I was doing what God wanted and serving the right church.

I struggled on with my questions and growing doubts for many years. The more I thought about the results of prayer, the more I realized that it just didn’t seem to make any difference. People were always praying and these prayers were about as effective as wishing on a star. I had thought that God would answer the prayers of those who were truly faithful and sincerely believed. What I began to see was that people could rationalize anything into an answer for a prayer. I talked to a lot of people about prayer and they all had different ways of looking at it. But their experiences were all the same no matter what their faith. When they prayed, whatever happened was the same thing that would have happened by sheer chance. Statistically speaking, there wasn’t any difference.

When I talked to people about what they experienced as answers to prayers, some people said they heard a voice in their head. Others said they felt a warm feeling in their chest or other part of their body. Some people just said they felt calm. I had never experienced that kind of answer. I wondered if there was something wrong with me. When I prayed, I just talked to God silently or vocally but never got any response. The only way I ever had to determine if a prayer was answered was by the results. And I could see that was no help. When I told people this they sometimes said that I wasn’t faithful enough or that I needed to pray for God’s will to be done. As for the faith part, I knew that I had at least started out with unquestioning faith. And to pray for God’s will to be done seemed pointless. If no one ever prayed, wouldn’t God manifest his will anyway? There seemed to be no end of suggestions for rationalizing away the failure of prayer.

One of the most common things people said that confirmed prayer to them was the miraculous remission of disease they had actually seen as the result of prayer. Well my family and I had often prayed over sick people and the recovery rate for all diseases in my experience is precisely the same with prayer as it is for the disease normally. People died from the diseases that were fatal and they recovered from those that weren’t. I never saw a miraculous cure. People have said they believe in the power of prayer because one of their friends or family members recovered from something like cancer when the odds were 1000 to 1 against it. But that doesn’t prove anything because if a disease is not 100% fatal, some people will survive. It might seem miraculous but it is just that some people will recover even given terrible odds. That’s just the way it works.

A lot of people have told me of experiences where they or their loved ones were destitute and prayed for help. Lo and behold someone just came to the door or stepped up to them and gave them money or some other kind of aid. They always say it was just out of the blue and that no one had any reason to help them out. They say; “it must have been from God.” I guess they lived in a vacuum and no one had any idea they were poor. But I’ve been on both sides of this kind of situation. When we were poor there were times when people just showed up with food or money. And since I’ve become relatively successful in my life, I’ve done the same thing for others. People know who the poor people are. There are many groups who take up collections for the poor and, if they don’t already have someone in mind, they find them by checking with welfare organizations or churches or they just drive around until they see someone in need. It’s not a miracle. It is just people caring for people.

Some say that since most of this aid comes from churches, that makes religion a good thing. They say that in effect it is God who is helping. I applaud the humanitarian works of churches especially when there are no strings attached. But I don’t think it takes religion for this to happen. It would be hard to determine the difference in the amount of humanitarian work done by non-religious people and religious people. But since more than 90% of the people in this country believe in God, no one can use the fact that most aid is given by churches as an indicator of anything. For example, if 90% of the people are religious and they provide 75% of the aid, then the 10% who are non-religious people are providing 25% of the aid. That would mean non-religious people are more generous and would not look good for religion. Even if we could determine the exact amount of humanitarian aid provided by churches, it is not clear whether the people who contribute are themselves believers. Many non-religious people donate to religious charities. There are also secular sources of humanitarian aid and we cannot know whether religious belief motivates those who donate to those charities. Anyway, who cares about the source of aid provided when you are in desperate need? The point is that good people care about others and that is who is providing the help. It doesn’t matter if they believe in God. To attribute humanitarian work to God is gratuitously crediting God for what people do.

The Bible and the scriptures of other religions make it clear that those who follow a religion other than the “true religion” will not receive help from God. In fact they are reviled. They are sinful unbelievers. Their prayers will fall on deaf ears. Christians are told in the Bible by Jesus to hate even their family members who don’t follow him (Consider Matthew 10:35-37 and Luke 12:51-53). Even so, the efficacy of prayer is the same no matter the religion of the person praying. If there was a true religion then the followers of that religion should benefit more from their supplications. But there is no difference. So there is no one true religion and it is quite obvious that they can’t all be right.

Recently there has been a lot of buzz among people of faith about studies that supposedly show the efficacy of prayer in helping people overcome disease. I’ve seen many an article by the likes of Dr. Uwe Siemon-Netto touting 1,200 studies at research centers around the world that show a correlation between faith, prayer and recovery from illness. While Siemon-Netto has a Ph.D, it should not surprise anyone to find out that it is a theology degree. That’s like being a doctor of astrology. I don’t know why people can get a doctorate in a field that is based completely on superstition. But this is getting to be a long article and I’ll save that for another day. What I’m saying is that there is no scientific evidence of the efficacy of prayer. The studies people refer to and that you may have read about in the news are not scientific. They are not double-blind studies that can achieve meaningful results (even when they claim to be). I’ve read as many as I can find and even the most hopeful ones have a margin of error that makes them statistically insignificant. They also totally ignore the placebo effect. For more on this see:
Straight Dope about Prayer Studies

For those of you who are tempted to say that God should not be tested I refer you to the Bible: Malachi 3:10 "Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in My house, and test Me now in this," says the LORD of hosts, "if I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you a blessing until it overflows."

God doesn’t appear to have a problem being tested.

For more in-depth discussion of the failure of prayer see:


Arul said...

hi, 2nd post here.....but i still think that god and religion shouldn't be confused. believe in god makes people do good things, believe in religion makes ppl do bad things. let me explain, if a muslim man helps an indian man, it is because he believes in God, and believes he is doing the right thing....if a muslim man hurts an indian man, it is because he believes what his religion tells him, and thinks himself to be better than ppl of other religion.
your assumption that ppl will be helpful and kind even if there was absolutely no believe in God is hard to accept. even in a world, where as u say, 90% are God-fearing (sorry for that word) religious ppl, we have murders and rapes and other crimes going on. let's leave wars out of it. wars between countries like india and pakistan or usa and iraq have got nothing to do with religion or god. it's about politics and economics, where politicians use religion to gain power. but, individualistic crimes, like rape, murder and abuse, these are the crimes that tell me that without the believe of God, the world will go into chaos. it is important for ppl to believe that by being good now, they will be gain something, whatever the belief (heaven, another world, karma).....this is because, you are not getting anything for being good while you are here in this world, and at the same time, not all the bad ppl are being punished in this world. the hope that you will get something in your afterlife is what keeps you good, and stops you from being bad. maybe there are a few ppl who are genuinely good, and do good without caring about themselves. but i believe these ppl are too few and far between to save the world if there is no believe in God.

Will Friday said...

Hi again Arul. With all due respect I think you are completely wrong in what you say here. You are making the assumption that belief in God and the afterlife causes people to behave properly. That is precisely what religion would have you believe. You have been brainwashed by religious culture to accept this as the truth. But the facts don't support this belief. As a matter of fact, it is exactly opposite of the truth. Atheism does not push the world to chaos. Elsewhere in my blog I explain that crime rates are lower in countries with higher levels of atheism. This is not just my opinion. The actual figures are available and show very clearly that atheism is a civilizing factor in society. According to Dr. Phil Zuckerman (sociologist and researcher) as published in the Cambridge Companion to Atheism (2005), statistical analysis of the most authoritative data shows that the countries with the most voluntary atheists have the highest levels of societal health such as low crime rates including homicide rates. They also have higher levels of education, personal income, healthcare, gender equality and overall societal security.

I understand that his seems to go against common sense. But it is quite clearly true. And it does make sense when you really think about it. You made the assumption that without God and Heaven there is no motivation to behave. What I don't think you understand is that the belief that this life is the only life a person gets is actually more of a motivation to do good things than some nebulous promise of spiritual reward. I really think that love and friendship and success are much greater motivations to people. Are you surprised that real, tangible rewards are actually more motivating than vague promises of afterlife? If you think about what is promised in the afterlife you will realize that you have no idea what is supposed to happen. But here, you know exactly what the consequences of your actions are. If you behave, work hard and treat people well, you will have a nice long life and many rewards. If you commit crimes, hurt people, take drugs and live selfishly, you will have a short miserable life probably in jail with no real friends. And if people seek immortality, they can achieve it by striving to do something that lasts after they have passed on. There is no contest here. The reality of the atheist is much clearer and more compelling than the fantasy of the God follower.

People don't really believe in God anyway. Although some people are hopelessly deluded, I personally think that most people don't really believe in God even if they think they do. They are just following societal norms. It is customary to claim faith but as people become better educated and more facts are available we can see that there is absolutely no evidence of God or souls or an afterlife. The underpinnings of theism are slipping but people hang on to the semblance of belief out of emotional attachment or nostalgia or appearances or something like that. But the fact that they rely on people and earthly institutions in all things rather than God or prayer shows that their belief is superficial. For example, people may pray over the sick but they will still take them to a Doctor and give them medicine. They know God will not heal them. Why would a person buy insurance if God is protecting them? Belief in religious fantasies is as childish as believing in Santa Claus. Intelligent adults can see this. It’s no secret.

I’m sorry to have to tell you this but belief in God is just cosmetic. It is an archaic superstition that will fade away just like belief in Zeus or Ra. You can already see it happening. Some people claim that atheism is on the decline but the high birth rates in highly religious regions are skewing the numbers. Consider the growth of any religion compared to atheism in the last century. There’s no comparison. Looking at the percentages Christianity has decreased, Islam has increased modestly and other religions have decreased significantly. However, atheists, agnostics and non-religious have increased from an insignificant 0.2% to between 10 and 20% of the world population between 1900 and 2000 depending on how you count them. “Throughout the 20th century, non-believers have skyrocketed from 3.2 million in 1900, to 697 million in 1970, and on to 918 million in AD 2000” and “are today expanding at the extraordinary rate of 8.5 million new converts each year, and are likely to reach one billion adherents soon.” (WHY THE GODS ARE NOT WINNING by Gregory Paul & Phil Zuckerman)

Anonymous said...

I like your in depth, well researched essays that are thought provoking. As I read, I think of dozens of things I would like to comment on before I can even get to the end. You know I agree with you about prayer because of my comment on the other post. You have evoked so much that I want to say that I don't know exactly what I want to say but here goes an attempt: I guess my main belief system now is something like mind over matter, perceptions, if you will with some morality thrown in. My son, 16 yrs old, also is very philosophical and doubtful about the Christian dogma that I raised him in and we seem to agree on many things now except he doesn't like to throw morality into his 'anything goes' beliefs. I feel the need (because I hate chaos and violence and death and suffering) to have morality thrown in. Every single person has a different perception of reality and no one has the right to negate what someone else's perceptions are. Then each of us (like you said, from our experience and environments/cultures) interprets their own perceptions and lives accordingly, maybe each person is right where they belong whether good or bad. How can we judge a prostitute, we don't know her/his reality or struggles or even her/his morality or anything else. We have to open up our minds to have a greater understanding and our hearts to determine what is good from what is evil (maybe there is even a determined place for evil, I don't know). Maybe each person ends up where they end up because that is what they truly desired out of life, i.e. a bum (I know the term is not politically correct)values his freedom over a work ethic, maybe he is happier than most, who knows. Those people who are miserable and do not follow their bliss, their hearts are because they are not where they belong (many wealthy and successful people fall into this trap), they have some motivation to be somewhere else and are deceived into thinking that is where they need to be. Did I go off on a tangent, I think all of this is connected to what you are trying to say, I don't know.