Prayer: The Greatest Time-Waster Ever

Introduction

How did Ted Cruz decide on Carly Fiorina for a running mate, in the unlikely event his campaign had a future which, fortunately, it did not? He said, I’ve prayed about this decision for a long time. Not long enough, it seems. Or, maybe there’s another explanation.

Perhaps there’s a god out there with a sense of humor – who knows? Or something beyond knowing – tooth fairies, vampires, devils, goblins – or even currently unknown gods, benevolent or malevolent apparitions of eternal, everlasting omniscience, power and wonderment, beings that become the focus of future adorations and prayers? Maybe such a god or gods simply haven’t yet revealed themselves, just yet. Moses, Joseph Smith, et. al. – where are you? Who knows?

All such wonderments are impossible to settle, to verify. Gods are not subjects for science, after all – they inhabit the realm of superstitions, at least until verifiable evidence for one or more of them turns up. Not likely, but then, who knows? That’s why religion is about faith – simply believing, hoping, wishing. Knowing humans cannot establish such things, I’m agnostic. But, convinced there’s no rational basis to believe there’s anything out there in the nebulous beyond, no anyone/anything to pay attention to Ted Cruz, or anyone else, now or ever, I’m an atheist, as well. Of course, there’s no actual difference in the two – if you don’t believe in the supernatural, what are you if not agnostic and atheist? Neither says there could not be a god, or a devil or a Flying Spaghetti Monster or anything else. Yet, the one who says I don’t know and the one who says I don’t believe have the same position – they cannot reconcile the existence of the unknowable.

Which gets us back to Ted Cruz’ prayer that led him to pick Carly. Wow.

Prayer

How many bazillions of words, thoughts, animal and human sacrifices and other pleas to an imaginary friend have been sent into the ether, to no avail save, perhaps, in a calming, meditative sense (an effect available without belief in a skygod)? We’ll never know but, whatever the tonnage, heavy duty skepticism seems in order that any single prayer was ever heard, let alone answered, favorably or at all.

Why, then, do so many persist in doing so, despite the absence of results? Explanations by the faithful are varied and diverse; one of my favorites comes from an evangelist named Ken Collins: If He did, you’d stop praying! So He delays His answers to give you something better: fellowship with him through persistent prayer.

Another comes from Superintendent Chalmers, a character in The Simpsons: Prayer has no place in the public schools, just like facts have no place in organized religion.

Let me offer a rhetorical question: Has there ever been a greater time-waster than prayer in all of human history? In my view, nothing else comes close. Not spectator sports, not stamp collecting, not bingo and not even chasing after or primping to attract prospective mates. The latter, after all, contributed to the fact that we’re still here.

Reason and REAL Wellness

If you view reason as a key dimension of well being and thus place importance upon rational thinking, you too might have reservations about prayer. This is most likely to be the case if you are not disposed toward superstition and magical thinking. I don’t think doubt that you can be well if you don’t pray, but I’m not convinced you can be truly well mentally if you earnestly believe prayer would influence a god, IF there were one. It’s just so bizarre, when you think about it, unbounded by continuous conditioning from the norms and rituals of religious traditions.

Prayer, in my view, is more injurious to well being than chain smoking, alcohol abuse and binging on sugary soda – put together. A person has to suspend his/her sense of reality to think or even hope that prayer might affect a change beyond his/her own feeling state. (I am not questioning the possible value of prayer – or simply whispering, chanting or thinking of words in a mumbo-jumbo fashion as a meditative chant or form of relaxation – only as an attempt to change something in the world beyond the self.) I’m with Ethan Winer: If prayer actually worked, everyone would be a millionaire, nobody would ever get sick and die and both football teams would always win.

Christopher Hitchens pointed out the arrogance of praying when he wrote, A man who prays is one who thinks God has arranged matters all wrong but who also thinks he can instruct God on how to put them right. In Improved Man, Robert Green Ingersoll noted that the improved man will not endeavor, by prayers or supplication, by fastings or
genuflections, to change the mind of the Almighty, or to alter the course of nature; neither will he employ others to do such things in his place.

Many people believe, as several are credited with saying, that nothing fails like prayer. Dan Barker wrote a song with that title – and it’s delightful.

Any drug company that sold pills with less efficacy would be prosecuted; anyone who ingested them would be considered a fool. Yet a Pew survey a few years ago found that half the American population prays daily. Politicians have created a national prayer day; even lawsuits have not kept public officials from mixing city/county/state and other government business meetings with opening prayers. Our president can’t conclude a speech without intoning the ritual mantra, which sounds a lot like a prayer, God bless you, and God bless the United States of America. After every hurricane, tornado, tsunami, mass killing and tragedy of every kind, people seem compelled to offer comfort or sympathy with these meaningless words: Our prayers go out to the victims and their families.

Well, it does no harm, I suppose, to let prayers go out, but it would be nice if something positive were to come back as a result. And that has never happened. Never. Not once.

Summary

Step back and imagine for a moment you’re a visitor from space. Knowing because of your vastly advanced large head containing multiple wondrous super computer-like brains that no prayer anywhere, anytime in any form has ever been answered by an deity or god-creature in the whole wide cosmos, what would you think of the inhabitants of this planet being attached to such a bizarre convention?

I don’t know for sure, but I doubt that spaceman/woman you would be favorably impressed.

Other than eating, sleeping and having sex, humans have done more praying than anything else since climbing out of trees to walk about and jog on terra firma. No verifiable results, ever, from a single prayer and yet, we keep at it. Not everyone, of course, but most people, to say the least. More likely nearly all people.

I do not have a closed mind about prayer. Here’s a simple way, suggested by Sam Harris, to make prayers of infidels like me:

You could prove to the satisfaction of every scientist that intercessory prayer works if you set up a simple experiment. 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.

As a small child under the spell of Roman Catholic brainwashing, I had to do a lot of praying. I stopped doing so when I was 12; I often wonder how many of my schoolmates from the graduating class at St. Barnabas in 1952 are still at it.

Be well while looking on the bright side of life and pray for me.

Just kidding.

One thought on “Prayer: The Greatest Time-Waster Ever

  1. Thanks, Don! I really like this essay! One quibble, though—it’s not really a quibble so much as a clarification. From your post:

    Gods are not subjects for science, after all – they inhabit the realm of superstitions, at least until verifiable evidence for one or more of them turns up. Not likely, but then, who knows?

    Gods are indeed subjects for science, unless what is meant by “god” is so nebulous it cannot be meaningfully distinguished from nonexistence. However, that is not how most of the people who pray would define their deity. Once someone makes a factual claim about that deity, it is as scientifically testable as any other fact claim. (Obviously the same caveats about whether or not something is practically testable applies, such as a claim for the existence of Russell’s teapot.)

    Take the claim of the efficacy of prayer, for instance: it’s been studied, and failed.

    Am Heart J. 2006 Apr;151(4):934-42. (Benson et al.)
    Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) in cardiac bypass patients: a multicenter randomized trial of uncertainty and certainty of receiving intercessory prayer.

    BACKGROUND:

    Intercessory prayer is widely believed to influence recovery from illness, but claims of benefits are not supported by well-controlled clinical trials. Prior studies have not addressed whether prayer itself or knowledge/certainty that prayer is being provided may influence outcome. We evaluated whether (1) receiving intercessory prayer or (2) being certain of receiving intercessory prayer was associated with uncomplicated recovery after coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) surgery.

    METHODS:

    Patients at 6 US hospitals were randomly assigned to 1 of 3 groups: 604 received intercessory prayer after being informed that they may or may not receive prayer; 597 did not receive intercessory prayer also after being informed that they may or may not receive prayer; and 601 received intercessory prayer after being informed they would receive prayer. Intercessory prayer was provided for 14 days, starting the night before CABG. The primary outcome was presence of any complication within 30 days of CABG. Secondary outcomes were any major event and mortality.

    RESULTS:

    In the 2 groups uncertain about receiving intercessory prayer, complications occurred in 52% (315/604) of patients who received intercessory prayer versus 51% (304/597) of those who did not (relative risk 1.02, 95% CI 0.92-1.15). Complications occurred in 59% (352/601) of patients certain of receiving intercessory prayer compared with the 52% (315/604) of those uncertain of receiving intercessory prayer (relative risk 1.14, 95% CI 1.02-1.28). Major events and 30-day mortality were similar across the 3 groups.

    CONCLUSIONS:

    Intercessory prayer itself had no effect on complication-free recovery from CABG, but certainty of receiving intercessory prayer was associated with a higher incidence of complications.

    All humans are directly descended from Adam and Eve? FAIL.

    Claims that a creator god (e.g. Yahweh) created the world and all of the species in it in more or less modern form less that 10,000 years ago have been subjected to scientific verification, and they all fail too.

    This is why the apologists’ definition of god is always so slippery, and changes depending on their audience. Once you nail them down to a fact claim, it’s theoretically disprovable. If they cannot state a fact claim—if they admit that their god doesn’t actually do anything observable in the real world—then it may as well be nonexistent for all intents and purposes. At the very least it means we cannot possibly know anything about it, for example its preferences regarding our masturbation habits.

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