The Problem with Prayer

One of the strongest evidences I’ve seen against the existence of God is the problem of the unreliability of prayer. The basic problem is this: every Sunday, in all the Christian churches in all the cities in all the states of this country, there are millions (if not tens of millions) of people praying – most likely, for many of the same things. An end to war, an end to hunger, healing of the sick, and so on; these are consistent themes for prayer in most moderate-to-liberal churches. More conservative and fundamentalist churches will pray for the return of Jesus, the spreading of the gospel, God’s protection over the nation, et cetera.

It seems that the only “answered” prayers are those that are ambiguous – basically, praying that God’s will be done (isn’t it always?) or that God will protect our loved ones (in which case “nobody in my family died” means my prayers were answered). We still have plenty of war, hunger, and sickness. When I ask apologists why we don’t see prayers about these things answered, I tend to get one of a few responses:

  1. God moves in mysterious ways. We aren’t meant to know the mind of God, simply to accept that he knows what needs to be done.
  2. God isn’t a genie. That’s not how prayer works. You don’t get everything you want just by asking.
  3. If God wants it to happen, it will happen. God has a plan, and sometimes we just have to wait.
  4. God answers all prayers. The answer is either “Yes”, “No”, or “Wait”.
  5. (Matthew 7:21) “Not everyone who says to Me, “Lord, Lord,” shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. In other words, just because you cry out, that doesn’t mean you get what you want.

There are, of course, serious problems with these defenses.

  1. All well and good, but couldn’t God be mysterious without being unnecessarily cruel and indifferent to the suffering of the people he “fathered”? I’d say it’s much more mysterious for all sickness to be instantly healed than for it to just keep on going. If God is omnipotent and omniscient, why on earth can’t he figure out a way to work out his plan that doesn’t leave us high and dry?
  2. This is despite Jesus supposedly saying, repeatedly, that it is precisely how prayer works – Mark 11:24, John 15:7, John 14:13-14, and so on. I bring this up often, and the response I tend to get is that, even though he literally says you’ll get whatever you want, that’s not really what the words mean. Plus, even if it were, you’re only supposed to ask for things that glorify God. How convenient; if you ask for something practical, and you don’t get it, clearly it wasn’t going to glorify God anyways.
  3. Fine. He has a plan. But this is nothing more than Stockholm syndrome. We’re told that despite being in the grip of horrifying, needless suffering and being victims to the whim of a being that set our fate at our birth, it’s really okay, because we can just trust that he knows what he’s doing. Forgive me if I’m not convinced that we should blindly trust and love a person who doesn’t explain himself – and, what’s more, who tells us that we’re wrong to expect him to.
  4. These are the only three options. This is not specific to any sort of real being. You can pray to a brick and get the same results. It’s a matter of postdiction rather than prediction. You just have to massage the results to fit into one of the “answers”. This isn’t proof of prayer being answered; it’s an exercise in intellectual flexibility.
  5. (Romans 10:13) “For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” In other words, just because you cry out, that means you do get what you want. Also see Joel 2:32. The Bible is, after all the Big Book of Multiple Choice. Of course, this all only applies to the Christian god. Other gods might catch a break for not matching up with all of his personality traits. Somehow, though, I doubt that any (personal) god’s existence would fare better, considering that the failure rate is so huge.

Behind all five objections is one larger objection: If God doesn’t answer every prayer, and in fact he only answers those which align with his plan, why on earth would he want us to pray at all? He’s already got his mind made up; is our prayer nothing more than a symbolic-only, non-functional, groveling appeal to his vanity?

It seems to me that the fact that our prayers aren’t answered the way we expect them to be shows that God is a bit short-sighted, seeing how it leads to reasonable doubt. It also makes him appear capricious, unreliable, uncaring, and irrational. Seems better to me to just say he’s not there at all than to continue to make up nonsensical excuses for his lack of action.

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