If “Nothing Fails Like Prayer,” Why Do People Keep at It?

praying-over-kennedy-coffin“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.


About Valerie Tarico

Seattle psychologist and writer. Author - Trusting Doubt; Deas and Other Imaginings.
This entry was posted in Musings & Rants: Christianity, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to If “Nothing Fails Like Prayer,” Why Do People Keep at It?

  1. hostirad says:

    Once a fellow who liked to think that he was wise told me, “All prayers are answered. It’s just that the answer God gives us is not always the one we want.” The implication was that God knows better than we do what is good for us, so we can expect that, in the long run, whatever happens after prayer is in our best interest, even when we don’t get what we ask for. What this seemingly clever line of thinking doesn’t explain is why we should bother to pray at all. If what God gives us after a prayer is always going to be what God wants to give rather than what we ask for, why bother to pray for anything specific?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. richardzanesmith says:

    thoughtful article Valerie, Giving God his instructions for the day, seems a common prayer time for believers other than making announcements on FB ” prayers sent!” which may be simply a way of saying ‘I’m scrolling FB and don’t have time to waste on your problems’. There is an interesting article in the latest National Geographic which does a study on “belief.” Through a series of tests using medicine and placebos, some patients who really believed they had been given medicine (and not the placebo) did improve more than those who were uncertain. There might be something humanish about “belief” that is “useful” or even beneficial , but it didn’t seem matter WHERE or to WHOM one believed. Perhaps this is an answer to WHY there are still healers and prayer meetings of all kinds pleading to all kinds of deities. Some who really believe they are being cured might actually have a better chance at survival. It doesn’t always work however, and no one is growing new limbs or arms My sister believed God would cure her of her cancer and i watched her poor body wither into a dried shell before she died leaving six children behind. interesting topic !


    • Carey Folk says:

      Richard – your post is thought provoking to me. Thanks for the reference to the NatGeo – I’ll look that up. I’ve long thought that the “efficacy” that people feel in prayer is not about the object of the prayer BUT the process of the prayer itself. I think this relates to the whole “law of attraction” thinking and even positive psychology.

      It seems to me most people falsely attribute the efficacy of the prayer to the object – i.e. God when really, the power is in the process.

      Lastly, my mother died of cancer as well – lots of unanswered prayers there. (note – I reality dislike the “God answers all prayers, He may just be saying no…” line of thinking…or better yet, line of rationalizing.). The effectiveness of the power of the process is very small and incremental – i.e. stage 4 cancer and growing amputated limbs need not apply….

      Liked by 3 people

  3. Valerie, Thanks for another lucid article.

    Here’s my thoughts on prayer:

    First, you wrote, “One simple answer, of course, is that human beings are wired for superstition.”

    That was never the case with me in the 55 years that I was a Christian, mostly of the very liberal Quaker sort.

    Many humans, even atheists are superstitious, such as the famous novelist and atheist Ernest Hemingway. And, of course, millions of religious people are, in fairly strict conservative Christianity and Islam.

    But, in our family, and our Baptist church, we positively berated and strongly opposed superstition. My father, a Baptist minister and history teacher, was also very practical, a carpenter and skilled handy-man, too. And my mother, tended to be very realistic about life. They had survived the Great Depression and suffered through WWII.
    They both took a dim view of my aunt’s Pentecostal beliefs, for instance.

    So, I don’t remember ever having any sort of superstition when I was a kid. We weren’t against all that sort of beliefs from astrology to lucky coins, etc.

    So then why did I continue for many years to pray fervently?

    NOT ONE of my many central prayers (unselfish ones, centered mainly on healing for others and for world peace, etc.) in 55 years was ever answered.

    #1 We heard many sermons with various excuses that I took to heart, thinking that if leaders who I respected said that ‘it wasn’t God’s time’ or that ‘we didn’t have enough faith,’ etc. they must know more than I did.

    #2 Prayer was, at it deepest level, much more than requests for miracles, etc.
    I had had a dramatic experience with God (I felt and thought) when young, and then several unexplainable transcendental experiences when an adult (like Ralph Waldo Emerson’s sort of Transcendentalism), experiences in which I was very clear-headed, not around others, experiences that greatly affected me for the positive and the best.

    I don’t claim to know their nature any more, but they were life-changing and beneficial.

    Long after, I had come to the conclusion that there are no miracles, that all such claims are hearsay, placebo, misdiagnosis, false-reports, even fraud,
    I still
    thought that the human sense of the transcendent is real, and, for that matter still do.

    Also, when I was an adult, I became a liberal Quaker, and many modern Quakers tend toward the rational side. Einstein in later life said that if he didn’t have a Jewish background, he would have been a Quaker.

    #3 Also, prayer, was an important response, sort of like meditation, when all possible humans actions have failed.

    Many humans curse, others kick the wall, etc. I prayed:-)

    It did no good for any changes, but it helped me emotionally in the midst of despair and sorrow.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oops, correction on the sentence, “We WERE [NOT weren’t] against all THOSE sortS of beliefs from astrology to lucky coins, etc.


    • Ah, I didn’t mean to imply that people who pray also engage in other superstitious behavior. I meant simply that we are inclined to see cause-effect relationships where none exist. And yes, i do hear you about the benefits some people experience from prayer as meditative practice. Thank you for reaching out.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, I understand that, and the fact in your fine article you explain many more complex reasons later in the article. I was only responding to the first basic one. Hopefully, later (but on my own website), I will respond you your “cause-effect” explanation, etc.

        I wanted to be careful not to write too long a comment here. (My wife reminds me to give the ‘short version’ when communicating with her and others. She knows that us retired literature teachers have a penchant for overly long long-winded explanations:-)

        I’ve put a several paragraphs of your article on my webblog–and directed readers to your site for the complete article.

        Thanks for your thoughtful blog.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Kathleen Abrams says:

    I really enjoyed this “article,” Valerie. I read “Religion Explained” about 12 years ago, and it helped me understand my atheism.

    (I’m a Life Member at FFRF!)

    Kathleen Abrams Widland from Indiana. (I got married and changed my last name!)


    Liked by 1 person

  5. Steve Ruis says:

    If one believes that God controls everything and God has a plan for each and every one of us, you can’t believe in prayer because such a thing would require God to change his plan or change his mind, either one of which undermines his infallibility or omniscience.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. Suzanne Seed says:

    All the evidence points to meditation having good effects and prayer having none. Whatever God is, he/she/they/it would seem to want to be communed with in meditation than talked at in prayer. Meditation does seem far more open, interactive and relational. And my experience is that the insights and epiphanies that result from it are far more useful and less self-servingly-ideological than those reached through prayer.


    • rorys2013 says:

      I agree. Prayer is directed at a God out there and nobody has yet produced a repeatable experiment that confirms the existence of such a God. Therefore if a particular prayer is effective it is perhaps because the prayer was tapping into some aspect of existence and what we need to do is to work out how this happened by seeing if it can be repeated. Experiments with mindfulness indicate that it is effective in achieving good outcomes. Mindfulness does not require the existence of a God out there.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Lara/Trace says:

    From such a young age, with religion, they burn these ideas into our heads. Then it’s hard to see clearly or be coherent. So I think of religion as a curse, not a cure.

    Liked by 1 person

    • rorys2013 says:

      Rather people should be taught the ‘physics’ of the functioning of the brain. Thoughts are just representations in our brains. The representation exists in our heads and it is not physically compelled to to be linked to anything so it could be representing nothing. Thus if we wish to be thinking about reality it is always necessary to have a means of ascertaining that a particular thought [i.e. representation] is representing something real. Take the thought ‘God out there’ for instance. Nobody has yet devised a repeatable experiment that confirms the existence of a God out there so the words are just a representation of nothing. That does not stop people from believing in a God out there because a belief is just a thought set in emotional concrete and thus not open to experimental proof.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. John Garrett says:

    You’re ruining the placebo effect for everyone :) Thanks for a great article.


  9. Carey Folk says:

    I think I can get caught up in the feel of the wording here. Superstitious comes across as a pretty strong word. Certainly, there are some inclined to superstition.

    Aren’t humans meaning seeking and making beings? We ALL do that to some degree.
    And then, I think superstition is merely our meaning making tendency gone wacko.

    Makes me think of Aristotle’s Golden Mean. In the middle lies virtue and to the left and right of the continuum lies excess or deficit. Isn’t superstition just the excess of our virtuous tendency to seek/create/want meaning?

    Maybe that’s Valerie’s meaning – I would reframe it a bit though to…

    Humans are broadly meaning makers and seekers.
    Some humans are broadly superstitious.


  10. Bill says:

    Another fantastic article, Valerie, although to “the implacable laws of physics and biology” I would have added probability or just plain dumb luck.

    But prayer does serve a purpose. When all else fails, intercessory prayer to God completes the supplicant’s list of available options. In the end, the feeling that “Now it’s in God’s hands” makes a person feel good. And that’s the only value that prayer provides — a good feeling. Too bad that people take a good feeling to mean that God has heard their prayers and is actively considering them.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Perry says:

    “But some insist on displays of prayer in public places and in public roles …”

    Seems to me that Christians who insist on public prayer are expressing their own self-righteousness (“look at how holy I am”) and are apparently unaware of, or deliberately ignore, the words of “Jesus” when he supposedly said in Matthew 6:
    5 And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.
    6 But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.


  12. john smith says:

    I’m not getting your articles anymore. What’s the problem?

    John P.



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