Brian Edwards Media

The Powerlessness of Prayer


Watch almost any television news bulletin and you’ll  hear someone praying for something to happen, or not happen. The background to their prayers is normally a real or potential  tragedy of some sort.

Individuals pray for themselves or those close to them to be cured of life-threatening illnesses. The relatives of people who have gone missing pray for them to be found and returned home safely. Families pray that the names of loved ones will not appear on the lists of those killed in plane crashes. Churchgoers pray for the victims of natural disasters.  World leaders pray for peace.

Prayers are often at odds with one another. A nation prays for victory in war. Its enemies do the same. Drought-stricken farmers pray for rain. Holiday makers pray for good weather. Sports fans from opposing teams pray that their team will win.

There is no correlation between prayer and goodness. Saints pray. Suicide bombers pray. Both expect their reward in heaven.

Our parliamentarians pray, beseeching Almighty God ‘to grant that we may conduct the affairs this House and of our country to the glory of Thy holy name, the maintenance of true religion and justice, the honour of the Queen, and the public welfare, peace and tranquility of New Zealand, through Jesus Christ our Lord.’

No-one who watches parliament could conclude that this prayer has ever been or is ever likely to be answered.

But then, in Christian theology, prayers can never be answered, since the doctrine of free will means that God cannot interfere in human affairs. That, at least, is the justification given by Christian theologians for God’s failure to prevent human suffering. He cannot interfere. In reality then, Christian prayers are only ever answered in the sense that something wished for actually happens. What really determines whether a prayer is answered is luck, fate, karma, being in the right or wrong place at the right or wrong time – whatever you want to call it. This is the only way you can explain the randomness of ‘answered’ prayer.

Two hundred more or less equally innocent people are on a plane which disappears off the radar over the Tasman Sea. A search begins. Across New Zealand and Australia, relatives of the passengers pray that their husband, wife, son, daughter, mother, father, sister, brother will be saved. Only ten have their prayer answered. They and the media describe the survival of the ten people as ‘a miracle’ . The word has religious connotations, leading people to say, ‘Thank God!’.

This immediately begs the question as to what the attitude should be of the relatives and friends of the 190 people who perished in the accident. Perhaps they should  curse God? After all, the very concept of answered and unanswered prayer presupposes a selection process, based on some unknown divine criteria. God chose to answer the prayers of the relatives of ten of the passengers and not the prayers of the relatives of the other 190. Why?

Keeping God out of the equation altogether seems to be a more rational approach. The survival of the ten  passengers was a ‘miracle’ only in the sense that it was, like all miracles, an outcome hugely against the odds. Crash investigation and the testimony of the ten survivors is considerably more likely to produce reasons for the crash and its aftermath in terms of human life  than attempting to fathom the mind of some supernatural being.

I’m an atheist myself, but even if I accepted the existence of an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent god, I would still be mind-boggled by the concept of Him/Her responding to ten trillion voice-mails a day asking for  ten more years of life or a win on the Lotto. If I were God, I’d probably regret ever having created the sniveling, wheedling, importuning little creatures in the first place.

I’d have a point. It’s hard to decide whether talking to God reflects the most extraordinary hubris or the most abject lack of dignity. As a non-believer I find it a depressing and demeaning picture – centuries of human beings on their knees, genuflecting, abasing themselves, trading worship for favours and forgiveness. And all for nothing.

Of course the trouble with being an atheist is that if you’re wrong you’re going to take a lot of stick in the afterlife, but if you’re right, you won’t know it, let alone be able to crow about it. It’s a risk, but on the whole, I think the argument against there being a god or an afterlife is pretty conclusive. If I’m right, then all that praying and praising has just been white noise, lost in the ether. Return to sender, address unknown, no such number, no such zone.

Sad, eh?

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  1. relax mate.
    the placebo effect wasn’t invented just last century.
    it just is
    prayer pills tv whatever
    god, dog, whatever does’nt have to listen to the ‘snivelling whinging creatures’ was it?
    that does not describe my family i must say with respect.
    nor yours or Judys I suspect, but then I hav’nt read your book.

    • relax mate.
      the placebo effect wasn’t invented just last century.

      I’m pretty relaxed already, mate! And yes, religion is the opium of the people. But placebos and opiates both relieve pain and there is value in that. And we non-belivers ought not to be too cocky. Anyone who says he knows there is no god, is a fool. We could be wrong. And if we are, the boot will be very much on the other foot.

      For an insight into what might happen then, check out the wonderful Rowan Atkinson’s sketch in which The Devil Welcomes People to Hell.

  2. Speaking of prayer, it seems Ian Wishart believes his prayers are occassionally answered.

    I like you blog very much BTW, and my mum (who is 72) was very excited when i told her about it as well.

    • Speaking of prayer, it seems Ian Wishart believes his prayers are occassionally answered.

      Thanks for that, Tom. Pretty sick, eh? But then the Old Testament god is a vengeful god and, if you believe in him, the idea of a plane full of abortionsists being struck down ceases to be all that unlikely. My own view on abortion has always been that it is one of the most difficult moral issues. I have little time for closed-minded supporters on either side of the debate. Both positions have merit and can be held by reasonable people.

      Your Mum’s only one year older than me. Give her my regards.

  3. You are absolutely right Brian. The debate over existence of a god is meaningless.

    And as you hint, even if one could prove that there was a god, it would be a huge step of blind faith to assume that this entity had anything to do with any deity referred to in the writings of the Holy Bible!

    A character called Jesus Christ may have been ahead of his time in imploring humans to love their enemies – when life expectancy was around 30 years of age in such a primitive land. And stories about him contain perverse surprises as with the prodigal son and the good Samaritan.

    But this did not mean that individuals should take it upon themselves to set up JC as a demi-god. The “Life of Brian” is actually quite insightful here.

    “Pascal’s Wager” suggests we should go for god to cover the risk that we might be doomed if we walk away from god.

    To be fair, I believe that prayer in certain cases could produce similar benefits to meditation and yoga. It is a form of meditation, where you turn focus inward, free the mind – but I stress that this is an INTERNALISING activity, not external at all.

    On the other hand, “Ockham’s Razor” says forget it – too hard, too complex, too improbable. When explaining something, choose the SIMPLEST explanation.

    • You are absolutely right Brian. The debate over existence of a god is meaningless.

      You’re correct that prayer could produce ‘similar benefits to meditation and yoga’ and that in itself gives prayer real value. My mother was sustained by prayer throughout her very difficult life. I think I was trying to make two points: that if God is to be given the credit for answering the prayers of some for help, His reasons for not answering the equally just requests of others may be called into question; and that if there is indeed no God, then the spectacle of human beings on their knees is both sad and demeaning.

  4. I read about a Catholic Bishop who was amazed at the habits of a South American Indian tribe. The tribes-people were praying to a mysterious set of gods, annointing themselves with oils and burning items to appease the gods all the while mumbling strange incantations. The Bishop was heard to comment that it was strange if not incredible that these primitive peoples in this day and age should hang on to such strange behaviours! Huh?

  5. The world will only be a fit for habitation when the last politician has been strangled with the entrails of the last priest.

    • Hopefully after due process, including a trial. Or will the last lawyer already have been strangled with the entrails of the last journalist?

  6. I chuckle when I hear (as I did as a kid, when forced to attend church) adult believers having a quiet laugh at the expense of kids who believed in Santa or the Tooth Fairy… even at that age, I recognised the irony of the situation…

    My by-line (when asked by a trio of Mormon missionaries who came, unbidden, to my door yesterday evening):

    “God made me an atheist. Who are we to question his plan?”

    (Not my invention – spotted in someone’s signature on a website forum)