The Great Chain

The Great Chain

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Uselessness of Prayer

We are creatures who crave causation. We see an effect and we look for a cause. Unlike any other creature, our intelligence leads us to the inescapable conclusion that when something happens, something else must have caused it to happen. While this is one of the hallmarks of our intelligence, it often leads to erroneous conclusions, and gross misattributions especially when the effects which we are attempting to explain have multiple causes, or whose causes are not readily apparent.  Nothing illustrates our tendency to misattribute cause than the belief in the efficacy of prayer.

We crave causation because it provides us with the illusion that if we can control the cause, we can control the outcome. The idea of an interventionist deity is the ultimate expression of this primal craving for a knowable causation. Early humans had little to no understanding of the underlying mechanics of the world they inhabited. The idea that the landforms they walked were the result of complex geological and hydrological processes operating over billions of years would have been utterly unfathomable to an early human. The idea that the weather that battered or blessed their crops arose due to the complex interplay between those landforms and thermal, pressure and humidity gradients that are themselves driven by the sun's influence on atmospheric and oceanic conditions would have been incomprehensible. Early humans could see the effect of weather, could even track the budding symptoms of weather to come, but utterly lacked any knowledge of the cause.

Gods were a simple answer to an unimaginably complex set of questions. Why did the weather do what it did? Why does the sea do what it does? Because the gods are angry or benevolent or a million other human emotions. By assigning human emotions to the divine and by then assigning those emotions to some physical manifestation, that primordial craving for an underlying cause is satisfied. More importantly, if these physical manifestations can be explained by some divine emotional state, it places complex physical systems under human control, because if we could somehow alter the emotional state of the divine, placate it through prayer, meditation, sacrifice, or otherwise, we can ultimately exert control over our physical environment. And so throughout human history, men have prayed, meditated, pleaded and sacrificed in the hopes of exerting control over the physical world by appealing to the fickle emotions of a million different divinities.

When I was growing up, I was told that “God always answers prayers, its just that often the answer is 'No.' or 'Wait.'” Looking back, I cannot help but marvel at the amazing psychology behind such a sentiment.

Even the strictest and most literal adherents to religious dogma cannot avoid the manifestly obvious truth that simply praying for something to occur in no way ensures that it will. Anyone who has ever prayed for anything must admit that at some point they have earnestly even desperately prayed for something that did not come to pass. Indeed, anyone who has ever prayed will probably be willing to admit that MANY of the things they pray for do not actually come to pass.

Prayer is ultimately a totemic, talismanic invocation no different than sacrificing a chicken or a goat, blowing on dice before a throw at craps or wearing a lucky jersey to a sporting event. Obviously, blowing on dice before a toss in no way guarantees a positive outcome. Indeed, the chances of obtaining the desired result is not in any way modified by our actions. Obviously sacrificing a chicken to Asherah or Baal or Zeus is not going to alter the weather to ensure that my crops will flourish. Obviously, wearing a lucky jersey, even a jersey that you have worn to many games, in no way guarantees that the outcome of the sporting event will be desirable. Indeed, it has no impact on the game whatsoever. Yet we continue to engage in such pointless activities because it is a means of satisfying our need for control. Humans pray because it satisfies a deep seated need to exercise some degree of control over the outcome of events.

The sentiment that God always answers prayers, even if that answer is WAIT or NO is merely a clever way of accounting for the fact that ultimately prayer has absolutely nothing to do with the outcome of any given event. It is an illusion.  Many will vehemently disagree and cite anecdotal and personal stories wherein they were praying for some specific result and they obtained it. And there are, of course, studies that laud the psychological benefits of prayer. I do not doubt the veracity of such anecdotes and studies, but think that they again, fail to deal with the proper chain of causation and are ultimately a manifestation of gross causal misattribution.

Prayer is an utterly useless and meaningless activity insofar as it seeks to obtain some sort of divine intervention. However, Prayer, like meditation, is exceedingly useful in focusing the human mind. When we pray, when we focus our minds on a specific objective. We often obtain clarity of thought and clarity of action that we would otherwise lack, BECAUSE we are thinking about it, we are exerting our time and energy in a problem solving endeavor. That allows us to take more productive and effective steps towards achieving our goal and increasing our chances of attaining it. To be sure, under such circumstances, prayer is an effective tool for achieving a certain end, but make no mistake, such prayers are not effective because some invisible sky wizard has listened to your pleas and decided to intercede on your behalf. That is a fallacy of misattribution.

When prayer is effective it is effective because you have taken productive steps to better your circumstances. You have concentrated. You have focused. You have exerted the energy necessary to consider whatever problem you are facing and confront it with greater clarity or knowledge than you would have otherwise possessed. What your prayers have done is changed YOU, not facilitated the intervention of some higher being.

I will never understand the religious obsession with the power of prayer. Prayer is at best a crap shoot. It is a complete and utter failure at least as often as it allegedly succeeds. I never pray. Ever. Yet shockingly, things that I want to happen, specifically, those things that I work hard for, happen with far greater frequency than those things where I simply wish and hope for a positive outcome. The simple truth is that God, even assuming He exists, does not answer prayer.

Put yourself in God's shoes for a moment. Ask yourself if you would answer the prayers of a single bacteria on the other side of the world. Would you? Would you even be aware of its existence? Would you care about its plight? Would you care about its earnest pleas for help? Or would you ignore this utterly inconsequential creature because you have more important things to do? The simple truth is that we are even less to the Creator of the Universe than a bacteria is to us and our pleas, no matter how earnest, no matter how heartfelt, are simply beneath the notice of such a being.

Indeed, to presume that such a being would actually take the time and make the effort to deal with our utterly mundane and cosmically meaningless problems is an ideology of breathtaking arrogance and surpassing narcissism. Indeed, so petty and small are our trivial concerns that they scarcely register in the life cycle of this planet, let alone in any wider cosmic sense. To presume that such a being, who has presumably existed for tens of billions of years and will presumably exercise sovereignty for countless trillions of years beyond, would be the slightest bit concerned or the slightest bit interested in the transitory, ephemeral concerns that plague our comically brief existence is utterly laughable. To presume that such a being would actually take the time to intervene in the affairs of the world and answer the petty incantations of our trivial species borders on insanity. To believe that such a being would lower itself to act as our cosmic servant, endlessly answering our pointless, self-centered, prayers and catering to our endless, contradictory whims is insultingly silly and denigrating to such a being.

There is no one intervening on our behalf. No invisible men or women flitting through the ether and making sure that all our dreams come true. But take heart, because the fact that God doesn't answer your prayers could not be less important. God doesn't answer any prayers. He never has. He never will.

Take heart, because neither you, nor we as a species are powerless. God doesn't answer prayers, but humans do. Humans answer prayers all the time. Normally, all we need do is ask. When we need help, when we ask, and we receive some unexpected kindness or aid, or comfort, or love, it is not God answering our supplications, but our brothers and sisters. Our kin. Our kind.


  1. you are truly an excellent writer. the connections you made here are fantastic. i tried to write something that sounded simmilar a few weeks ago, using early mans understanding of how a spear works to explain how lightning from the sky is a weapon of some unearthly powerful being. i scrapped it, but after reading this i may revise it and continue. great work!!!!

  2. Thank you sir. I'm trying to elicit more commentary and criticism so I can improve it. I'm trying to write a book out of all this. I will totally check out your work on the subject.