Challenge: Prayer Doesn’t Work!

Posted: September 7, 2010 by Amy Hall in God is Real, Weekly Challenge

From the Florida Freethinkers, in an article titled “Scientific Conclusion: Prayer Doesn’t Work”:

Even though prayer is an irrational concept, could it nevertheless be tested scientifically? Francis Galton, the brilliant and eccentric half cousin of Charles Darwin, thought so and gave the idea scientific legitimacy. Galton was the father of biometry and a central figure in the founding of modern statistical analysis. He argued that regardless of how the prayers “may be supposed to operate,” the efficacy of prayer … is a perfectly appropriate and legitimate subject of scientific inquiry” because it can be tested statistically. He then proceeded to set up such studies.

I’ve heard more than one atheist talk of scientific studies that prove prayer doesn’t “work.” But it seems to me that they’re missing a couple very important points about both God and prayer.

Which brings us to this week’s challenge. If your friend were to cite these studies as proof against prayer (and by extension, against the existence of God), how would you respond?

As always, feel free to make as many or as few points as you like, and both content and tactical ideas are welcome. Then stick around to hear Brett’s response to both the challenge and your comments later this week.

  1. Adrian Urias says:

    Ok, well, studies that prove prayers don’t work…

    well, first off, i would say that I’m glad that God did not answer half of my prayers. lol

    but on a more serious note, I would say that they have a misconception of what prayer is. Prayer is communication with God. That’s it. Nothing more, nothing less. To try to test it using methods of science would be kinda wierd. Catagory mistake or something.

    Um…but whhat I think the skeptic has in mind is the part where Jesus that says if you do it in His name, that stuff will be done. And so the skeptic is referring to that would say, “Well, pray for something, and if nothing happens, then the bible is false. ha.” I would respond by saying that priveledge was given to the apostles only for certain occasions. Never read a bible verse right?

    • Adrian Urias says:

      oh, and another point. to say that because God didn’t answer prayer isn’t a real argument anyways. Asking God to do whatever whimsical thing you want is innapropriate. He doesn’t jump through hoops for us. He could have good reasons for not answering prayer (like I said, Im glad he didnt answer half of my prayers) so to say that because God didnt do whatever you wanted him to do, does nothing to the God hypothesis.

  2. Thomas Peck says:

    Prayer is not ordering God to obey, it is a conversation with God that often involves requests, not an outcome based activity like goal-setting.

  3. Sam Harper says:

    I would say that God’s unwillingness to participate in an experiment tells us nothing about the general efficacy of prayer. God is a person, after all, not a machine or a natural phenomenon.

    I have to admit, though, that I’ve come up with experiments I’d like to try. God’s apparent unresponsiveness to prayer is one of the major reasons I ever have doubts about Christianity. I can’t say that God has never answered my prayers, but when you compare reality to some of the things Jesus said about prayer, there does seem to be a large disconnect.

    Anyway, here’s an experiment I’d like to do, and this is more to do with the Book of Mormon than with prayer in general. In Moroni 10:4-5, it says that if you pray, asking God to reveal to you whether the Book of Mormon is true, God will reveal the truth of it to you. I think it’s inevitable that if a large number of people pray about anything like that, at least a few of them will get some kind of witness about it. It’s just the law of averages. There’s hardly an idea in the world that at least SOMEBODY doesn’t believe. But I think that if Moroni 10:4-5 were true, we should expect that more people would convert to Mormonism than who actually do.

    The experiment would go like this: Get 2000 people together who are unchurched, fairly secular, and who don’t know much or care much about religion. Take 1000 of them, explain to them about Joseph Smith and the BOM, and then ask them to pray about it. Do the same with the other 1000, except instead of the BOM, use some other book–maybe the Quran or Desire of the Ages or something made up that tells a similar story as the BOM. It would be interesting to see what would happen. If the BOM is true, we should expect to see a greater percentage of people getting a witness about the BOM than about the other book. If it turns out that the number of people who get some sort of witness about the BOM is roughly equal to the number of people who get a witness about the other book, that might disprove Moroni 10:4-5.

    Of course the experiment would be subject to the same problems I mentioned about prayer in general. God might just decide, “I’m not playing the game.”

  4. LeeAnn Bonds says:

    Prayer is all about relationship. We pray to our Father as His adopted children. If you’re not a child of God, why would you expect Him to play your testing game and answer your–in reality–fake prayers. These experiments do not even try to get a picture of what a real God would be like…if they did, they would realize how inherently ridiculous such experiments are. By that I mean the omnipotence of God, His ways and thoughts being beyond ours, and our microscopic importance in the grand scheme of His universe.

    I can understand why God’s apparent unresponsiveness to prayer can cause doubts, but I find that reminding myself of His complete goodness and deep love for me go a long way toward helping me trust Him even when He’s often silent.

    • Sam Harper says:

      LeAnn, couldn’t a person get around the problem you raised by using committed Christians in their experiment?

      • LeeAnn Bonds says:

        Now that would be interesting! Committed Christians would probably pray much differently than an experimenter might expect. In fact, you could probably save time and money by just asking them to bring their prayer journals, and reading all the answered prayers they’d recorded over the years.

        I’d like to know what was prayed in the experiments that were done.

  5. Eileen Jerome says:

    First off, I have empirical proof in my own life that prayers are answered. I have 2 grandchildren who shouldn’t be alive. My granddaughter Taci is just starting the first grade in a regular classroom. When she was 11 months old she aspirated vomit while napping in her crib. The doctors held out no hope, she was in a coma with little brain activity for over a week. If she survived we were told that she would never be “normal”. The prayer chain went into action and here it is 5 years later and she is in a normal classroom. The second is my youngest grandson, born this past February at over 4 months premature. There are a lot of things that can go wrong with a baby born that early, and other than his being a little behind by the standards of his birthdate, he is perfectly normal. Once again that was the direct result of prayer. Scientists will believe in the “theory” of evolution, which has no proof to back it up, but they won’t believe in a God that loves us and hears us and meets our needs, even when we can offer up examples where it was thought to be impossible for something to happen, yet it did!

  6. Schwan says:

    These kinds of experiments seem, fundamentally, to be flawed for the reason that Sam expressed. They treat God like a machine, rather than a Person who has a will. I don’t recall scripture as a whole claiming that God will give us whatever we ask for, but that if what we ask is in accordance with His will it will be given to us. I know this analogy isn’t exactly the same, but it’s like concluding that my friend who lives overseas doesn’t really exist because I asked them to do something for me and they didn’t do it. The conclusion that they don’t exist is even more absurd if what I asked them to do goes against their nature or character.

    These experiments also don’t seem to take into consideration that God’s answer to our prayers is sometimes “No.” They seem to conclude that not getting a “yes” is not getting any answer at all.

    Also, what “God” are the people in these experiments praying to, anyway? Are they all praying to the same God?

    I’m not familiar enough with these experiments to critique them very thoroughly. These are just thoughts off the top of my head 🙂

  7. Luke says:

    God is not a vending machine. Just because we ask him to do something (no matter how much we love him or how hard we pray), does not mean that he will do it. God has his reasons for answering different prayers from different people in different ways. There are too many variables (that we cannot control) involved to come to any statistical conclusion. There have been studies that show that prayer works, while there have been studies that show that prayer does not. They are not in conflict, they are just evidence that we are not in control of the Being we are attempting to test.

    Also I would point out that God’s will does not change just because we are trying to test him scientifically. He is not more likely to do what we want just to show us that he and, and he is not less likely to not just to test our faith or be mean to a non-believer.

    Keep in mind that both sides could easily respond to the other by saying that prayers weren’t answered because of lack of faith (or not a true faith- praying to the wrong God) or that prayers were “answered” due to coincidence or gifted human intervention.

    Many people (both believer and non-believer) fail to recognize that what we may pray for may come to fruition naturally or by human intervention (yet still attribute it to prayer- not to say that it is not an answered prayer), or that what we pray for might not come to fruition because it is not time or something great may be planned.

    The testing of prayer is a misguided endeavor, for theological and epistemological reasons, not metaphysical or behavioral reasons. It can never prove that God does not exist, while it cannot prove that God does exist. The results (either way) can be interpreted from both a spiritual and naturalistic point of view. The best that these “tests” can do is establish that if God exists, he may answer some prayers; and if he does not exist, then coincidences do happen that make people believe that someone or something is answering them.

    All of these tests and their results need to be conducted and interpreted in light of a larger worldview. They cannot stand alone at all.

  8. Stephen says:

    There are so many clarifying questions that need to be asked, like what do you mean by prayer and work, so I’m am making the assumption that those who claim that prayer doesn’t “work” mean… if a prayer is made and isn’t answered, God can’t be an all knowing powerful being, and therefore doesn’t exist.

    If this is the case they have misunderstood what prayer is. Prayer isn’t a wish list that God grants you. Prayer, as John Piper puts it, is conveying an intentional message. If you look at Jesus message on how you pray you see that there is no wish list that he inserts in there. Jesus pretty much says that it’s about giving praise and thanks to God. Of course we are welcomed and called to come to Him in prayer (James 1:5, 1 Thess 5:17, Eph 6:18) but it is His will that shall be done. I mean even when we don’t know what to pray for the Spirit intercedes for us (Romans 8:26-27). God answers all prayers, but the answer doesn’t always come as we think it might or how we’d like. As people have been saying, prayers aren’t always answered in the affirmative. God can answer yes, no, or later. The answer to the prayer might not even look the way you thought. I believe in the movie Evan Almighty the wife had prayed for something and the God, being played by Morgan Freeman, said something very interesting. He said something along the lines of… maybe God doesn’t give you more patience but give you the opportunity to be patient. Which is so true, if we want to be more patient we have to be given the opportunity to be patient.

    Moving on to the actual test of prayer. I think there is a fallacy here because if prayer is non-mechanical, how can you then test it by mechanical measures. Prayer doesn’t work in a cause and effect way so why would you expect result from a cause and effect test(just because you pray for something doesn’t mean you get it). I think they are trying to use a test that tests event causation versus using a test that tests agent causation. One last thing is that they are missing the bigger picture… how bout we start with the probability of their being a God before we jump into assuming God exists but doesn’t answer prayers.

  9. My own anecdotal, unscientific observation, prayer does seem to work. I ask for my daily bread, and so far I haven’t starved to death.

    I think that such tests of the outcome of prayer relies too much on assumptions about the purpose of prayer that are influenced by cargo-cult, prosperity gospel type of christianity.

  10. JT says:

    2 responses:

    1) God isn’t a Genie in a Bottle.

    2) As a husband, let me tell you… Men can’t figure out an “equation” or “formula” to understand what women want… Because we don’t fully understand women.

    So, why would anyone expect a “formula” of prayer to work? We clearly don’t fully understand God!

  11. God did not say “I will answer the way you want me to”. His answers are always within His will, and always work to accomplish His plan. If you ask for something outside of His will you won’t get it. This does not mean prayer doesn’t work, it means God said “no!” It is not that he did not answer the prayers in the study, he just chose not to answer within man’s will.

    Also, God has told us not to test him. Doing a study to prove if prayer works is testing God. In doing so the study is doomed to fail, because God is not in the business of proving himself according to man’s standards.

    In addition to that, I would share my specific experience with prayer and it’s affect on my life and the others around me.

  12. Dino says:

    The ACT of praying is a human (natural?) thing. Answering a prayer is a God (supernatural) thing. If the objector is claiming that prayer is irrational he is (basically) saying that belief in God is irrational.

    So right off the bat he rejects the supernatural. If this is so, the results from the studies will be interpreted with a bias toward a naturalistic explanation. When the studies are done and the stats are in, he will reject those results that might show (or point) to answered prayer, and accept those that show some natural explanation (or some such thing).

    He’s not looking for the best explanation because he automatically rejects the supernatural. So, to him, ANY result is going to have a natural explanation, and he will find that prayer doesn’t work.

  13. Chris says:

    Each prayer and answer in the positive or negative are different experiments in themselves thus not repeatable so can’t be incorporated into the scientific method.

  14. Steve says:

    Ask them what they were praying for. Then try not to snicker when you hear the answer.