“If prayer actually worked, everyone would be a millionaire, nobody would ever get sick and die, and both football teams would always win.” –Ethan Winer
The phrase “nothing fails like prayer” was coined in 1976 by secular activist, Ann Nicol Gaylor, and the evidence is on her side. Research on “petitionary prayer,” the kind that makes requests, shows no overall effect or one that is very weak. The most that can be said is that God, maybe, operates at the margins of statistical significance—not a very impressive claim for an omnipotent, interventionist deity. The more carefully constructed the research, the less likely that prayer has any significant effect on those prayed for. Put it this way, a pharmaceutical company that made similar claims and had similar results would be sued out of existence.
Ask and ye shall receive? Knock and it shall be opened unto you? Not unless the implacable laws of physics and biology are already trending in your favor.
And yet, despite a stack of evidence that God is either deaf or dead (or otherwise unaffected by human supplication), theists by the hundreds of millions keep sending their requests heavenward. In a 2010 Pew Survey of 35,556 Americans over half said they prayed daily, with 48% of Millennials (born 1982-2002) and 68% of “the Greatest Generation” (born 1900-1924) reporting prayer as a daily part of their lives.
Many people pray only when alone or else in the company of co-religionists. But some insist on displays of prayer in public places and in public roles, like city council members who appeal for God’s guidance before each meeting, or Air Force football players who kneel before each game. Millions more respond to “acts of God” like hurricanes and tornadoes or, worse, to violence committed in the name of God like bombings and mass murder with words like “Please pray” or “Our prayers are with the victims.” Since prayer has no measurable effect and religion often plays a causal role in mass violence, requesting or offering prayer in response to a natural disaster or terrorist assault may seem particularly cynical or cruel. But these requests and offers often are made sincerely—by smart, kindhearted people who seemingly should know better.
What is going on?
Humans are Broadly Superstitious
One simple answer, of course, is that human beings are wired for superstition. We see patterns in all sorts of random phenomena and engage in wishful thinking that knows few bounds. The scientific method is powerful precisely because it erects barriers against our tendency toward wishful thinking, forcing us to ask the questions that could show us wrong. It has been called, “what we know about how not to fool ourselves.” We don’t have to lower the standard of evidence far before all manner of pseudoscientific or spiritual hogwash seems real.
Given sufficient ambiguity, we perceive what we want to perceive and believe what we want to believe. And more than anything we want to believe that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people and that we can control the good and bad things that happen to us and people we love–even when all evidence suggests that we can’t. Helplessness feels horrible, and sometimes doing anything feels better than doing nothing. In the absence of real knowledge and power we devise all manner of distracting and comforting rituals.
And yet, humankind has outgrown countless superstitious beliefs that our ancestors treated as knowledge. We have discarded thousands of rituals for currying supernatural favor and talismans for warding off harms, each of which failed to precisely the same degree as prayer requests.
So why is it that intelligent, compassionate educated adults—folks who would laugh if you suggested they carry a lucky rabbit’s foot or sacrifice a small goat or cross the street to avoid a black cat—still pray?
Our Minds Construct Relationships
The answer appears to lie in the cognitive, emotional, and social architecture of the human mind, in hard-wired patterns of thought and feeling that neuroscience is only just beginning to understand. Human beings are social information specialists, meaning our ability to survive and thrive depends on our ability to relate. And this means that a large portion of our brain space is optimized for processing information from and about other beings with minds much like our own.
One of our mental super-powers is that we can represent other minds as “introjects” within our own, creating virtual copies of other people that allow us to anticipate their thoughts and preferences, and to act accordingly. If I want to know whether my husband will like an anniversary present, I can call up my virtual Brian script, run the possibilities, and make some good guesses.
Our capacity to represent other human minds within our own also lets us create imaginary beings. Children construct imaginary friends who meet important developmental needs, and then develop relationships with these imaginary companions, sometimes carrying on elaborate conversations with, essentially, parts of the self. They also create virtual copies of their parents, which allow them to obtain (or debate) parental guidance when a physical parent is not present. Sub-vocal self-talk remains important on through adulthood.
As hierarchical social animals, we are predisposed to seek authorities and allies, and so we also use these same important, adaptive capacities to create supernatural beings whose feelings, priorities, and modes of information processing are variations on our own. As Pascal Boyer lays out in his book, Religion Explained, humanity’s gods all have human psyches with minor modifications, and the God of Christianity is no exception.
The same cognitive capacities that let us have relationships and conversations with people also let us have relationships and conversations with supernatural beings. One study using functional magnetic resonance imaging found that prayer lights up the same brain regions used in a conversation with friends or neighbors. Is prayer, like self-talk, adaptive? Or is it simply an artifact of our make-up? The answer to that isn’t entirely clear. Either way, the habit of prayer comes quite naturally to our species.
We Want What We Want
Prayer makes sense when we understand that humanity’s multi-millennial interest in supernatural beings and powers is actually a means to an end. As humans, a huge part of our energy goes into trying to figure out the cause and effect relationships that govern our lives and wellbeing. To that end, the gods that interest us are gods who care how we think and feel and behave—because otherwise we have no way to manipulate what they do. Our interest in God is not actually about God, per se; it is about us.
Our ancestors generated a whole host of ideas about who the gods are and then rules about how humans can relate to them in ways that get us what we want: health, children, enduring prosperity, protection from our enemies, bountiful crops—and more esoteric desires like a sense of tribal superiority and individual righteousness—and perhaps most importantly the ability to delay or avoid death, or at least make it not permanent.
Not everybody wants the same thing from God. At the simplest level, people who preach and practice Prosperity Gospel like Joel Olsteen and his followers, may basically want money. Believers in this tradition may treat God like an investment of sorts. Put money in the offering plate and it will return to you ten-fold, even a hundred-fold, some say. But most believers want something more complex, more like what one Bible writer called the fruit of the spirit—love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, kindness, meekness, temperance—and of course faith or hope. All of these become the subject of prayer requests.
Trading Worship for Favor
Regardless of the specifics, when we commit our lives, our money, our energy to a god, we expect something back. Without the hope that our devotion can change our lives and afterlives for the better by winning divine favor, then the question of whether God exists simply isn’t interesting to most people.
If we knew for sure that God was the god of Thomas Jefferson—a prime mover who put the universe in motion and then disengaged—or if we knew for sure that God was the god of Albert Einstein, best understood as a set of mathematical intricacies frankly incomprehensible to most of us … . If we knew that God’s predestined plan was going to play out no matter what we did, then people would simply get on with their lives: trying to take care of their kids and pay their bills and maybe occasionally practice random acts of kindness and senseless beauty.
What people wouldn’t do is this: spend time trying to cultivate a relationship with God—whether that means church on Sundays or daily prayer. The word cultivate and the word cult, meaning religious practice, have the same root word—the Latin cultus—which literally meant the care and feeding of the gods. Farmers cultivate the ground to get crops out. Salesmen cultivate clients. Nonprofits cultivate donors. Prayers, even prayers of praise and thanksgiving, are forms of cultivation. Our ancestors used to take care of the gods so the gods would take care of them. In our own 21st Century way, we do the same.
This article is Part 2 of a 4-part series adapted from the chapter, “If Prayer Fails, Why Do People Keep at It?” by Valerie Tarico in Christianity in the Light of Science: Critically Examining the World’s Largest Religion, edited by John Loftus. Read Part 1 here.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including AlterNet, Salon, the Huffington Post, Grist, and Jezebel. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.