Why It’s Time to Call Bullshit on Prayer Requests

starving-child-prayerAsking God for help is not as harmless as it seems.

Around the world and across America, people ask God for favors large and small, and praying gives them comfort. People pray over dying pets, dying parents, wars, forest fires, food, football games, parking spaces, tests, super-shopper discounts, erectile dysfunction, and excessive flatulence.

In the face of terrorist tragedies or natural disasters (sometimes called “acts of God”), preachers and politicians call for more prayer. And why not? It costs them nothing and earns them points. Public opinion and even the Bible are on their side. “Cast all your cares on him, for he cares for you,” said one Bible writer. “Ask and you will receive,” promised another.

Even though research shows that prayer requests don’t have any measurable effect—that God, at best, operates at the margins of statistical significance—pro-prayer platitudes and scripts are cherished and repeated and handed down from generation to generation. As a child at Camp Good News, I crooned along with my fellow campers: God answers prayer in the morning, God answers prayer at noo-oo-oon, God answers prayer in the eeevening . . . My youth pastor explained why it didn’t always seem that way: Sometimes God says yes, he told us, sometimes He says no, and sometimes He says wait. Forty years later, Christian children and youth still memorize the same lines.

Atheists, agnostics and other secular activists may think prayer is hogwash, but a lot of other people like praying and they like to think that it works. So, why not just leave the habit alone? It seems harmless enough. “Prayer makes us feel good.  It gives comfort.  It’s a way to feel like we’re doing something important with minimal effort,” says former Evangelical Seth Andrews.

It may even have other benefits.

Possible Perks from Asking God for Favors

To be perfectly clear, not all prayer involves soliciting favors from a God or gods. Prayers can take many forms, including meditation and thanksgiving, that may provide related benefits and pleasures. But even petitionary prayer—the kind that makes requests—may have benefits whether or not a supernatural being actually responds in some way.

Formulating a prayer request may help a person clarify his or her own desires; it may strengthen resolve or lend confidence to an endeavor. Placebo or hypnotic effects may operate even when divine intervention doesn’t. Handing off anxieties or burdens to a deity may provide relief, at least temporarily. Praying for others may offer comfort at times that we otherwise feel powerless to help. Asking forgiveness from God may help people to forgive themselves.

So, shouldn’t skeptics let prayer and pray-ers well enough alone? Disillusioning people about prayer seems mean, especially when those prayers come from an impulse of altruism, generosity, or compassion.

The Arrogant Humility Head-trip

While I am sympathetic to this perspective, I believe that petitionary prayer is far from harmless and that in the long run research is needed to sort out positive and negative prayer effects so that humanity has a real accounting of the benefits and costs. In the meantime, we can be clear that at least some costs are real.

For one thing, praying entangles people in a bizarre maze of cognitive contradictions. As Christopher Hitchens pointed out, A man who prays is one who thinks God has arranged matters all wrong but who also thinks he can instruct God on how to put them right.” Think about it: A Christian claims that God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and good, and that He has a perfect plan for each of our lives. But that same believer, during prayer, asks this all-knowing perfect being to change some part of the divine plan that isn’t to her liking. If that’s not a bit presumptuous—arrogant even—I don’t know what is.

And yet, when praying, most believers don’t look puffed up, like they are going to teach God a thing or two. Instead they adopt speech patterns and postures that were demanded of slaves and servants in traditional societies, sometimes literally groveling. Head bowed and hands clasped together. On bended knee—or even prostrate on a rug. The combination of simpering and fawning while simultaneously proposing that an all-knowing deity should change His perfect plans is mind warping.

Hidden Costs

But that’s only one of many ways that prayer should be troubling.

  • Petitionary prayer suppresses critical thought. According to the Bible writers, prayer manifests faith. But “faith means the purposeful suspension of critical thinking,” says Bill Maher. “It is nothing to be admired.” Seth Andrews of The Thinking Atheist asks, “Why is everyone praying instead of asking why Yahweh . . . would require one of his children to be peeled out of a flaming school bus wreck with the Jaws of Life to endure excruciating skin grafts?”
  • Petitionary prayer undermines agency and responsibility. Let go and let God, say Evangelicals. Que sera, sera, say Latin American Catholics. If God is in charge, then whatever happens after prayer must be his will.
  • Petitionary prayer promotes a habit of self-deception. Even those who claim they believe in the power of prayer at some level believe otherwise, as Lawrence Krauss points out: “You are choking. I have 2 choices: 1. I perform the Heimlich maneuver; 2. I pray for you. Which do you want me to do?”
  • Petitionary prayer distracts from more promising endeavors. Whole industries have grown up to promote petitionary prayer, which is one of the most lucrative products sold by televangelists. What else might that energy and money do?
  • Petitionary prayer promotes victim blaming, including self-blame. If a perfectly loving God grants the requests of the faithful, what does that say about those whose prayers evoke no response?
  • Petitionary prayer teaches people to mistake abuse for love. Being forced to praise and adore a powerful person who requires vulnerable dependents to beg for what they need—even though he already knows—and who then grants or denies these requests in some inscrutable pattern, is not love. It is abuse—and as many former Christians have testified, it primes people, especially women—for further abuse.
  • Petitionary prayer replaces compassionate action. In her monologue, Letting Go of God, Actress Julia Sweeney gets hit with the realization that we are responsible for each other:

    “Wait a minute. What about those people who are like…unjustifiably jailed somewhere horrible, and they are like…in solitary confinement and all they do is pray…this means that I…like I think they’re praying to nobody? Is that possible?’ And then I thought, ’We gotta do something to get those people outta jail!’ Because no one else is looking out for them but us; no God is hearing their pleas. And I guess that goes for really poor people too or really oppressed people who—I had this vague notion—they had God to comfort them. And an even vaguer idea, that God had orchestrated their lot for some unknowable grand design. I wandered around in a daze thinking, ’No one is minding the store!’”

As I said before, not all prayer involves begging favors off supernatural beings. In fact, some kinds of prayer, like contemplation, meditation, expressions of gratitude, or cultivating a mindful sense of communion with something bigger than ourselves, may be valuable habits for even secular people to cultivate. In this regard emerging secular congregations like Sunday Assembly may have a lot to learn from religious traditions.

But let’s be honest: It’s past time for humanity to stop asking magical favors from sugar daddies or tyrants in the sky. By the best evidence available, kindergarteners and chimps respond to plaintive pleas for help more consistently than gods do. Any doctor seeking evidence-based medical interventions would conclude that weak bleach solutions beat prayer at saving lives.

It’s time to get off of our knees and take care of ourselves and the people around us. We’ve long passed the infancy and adolescence of our species. Regressive fantasies can be delightful, but at some point clutching a teddy bear and squeezing our eyes shut and lisping “Now I lay me down to sleep” ceases to be sweet. The world needs adults who, in Sweeney’s words, are willing to get up in the morning and mind the store.

This article is Part 3 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.

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 and Deas and Other Imaginings. Founder - www.WisdomCommons.org.
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18 Responses to Why It’s Time to Call Bullshit on Prayer Requests

  1. T. Maenad Widdershins says:

    This is awesome. Thank you. The threads on social media where people say “thoughts and prayers” always seem like such bullshit. The world will change when we realize love is a verb and requires action.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. AlexanderTheGoodEnough says:

    Omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent. Choose any two.

    “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

    When someone allows that they will pray for me, I volunteer that in return I will think for them. Not that it ever does any good…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. spencer522 says:

    Valerie, I don’t like your tone. As a subscriber for a number of years, I always read you column. I was disappointed with your last article on the results of the election and your joining with the rabble that actually wanted to overthrow the election. Now you are using vulgar language in a discussion of religion, that is totally unnecessary and counterproductive. I am now going to unsubscribe from your list.

    Like

  4. metalnun says:

    Everything you’ve said here is valid. Intercessory prayer makes no sense from a theological standpoint. However, at the same time (and I’ve addressed this under a previous post), whenever people ask me to pray for them, I do. It comforts people to say, “I will pray for you,” especially when there isn’t any concrete thing we can actually do. It’s like saying, “You’re not alone in this. You are loved.” But if there IS something that can be done, well obviously, action needed in addition to kind words Sometimes, also, as you’ve mentioned above, prayer can give us the courage to fight in the face of overwhelming odds, like the fallout of the election in America today. We need all the help we can get, real or imagined, to prevent our country from going to hell in a handbasket.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Steve Ruis says:

    Brilliant! Well said! Will it have an effect? Probably not in that denial is not just a river in Egypt. I am coming to the point that in order to earn your Christian card, there are things you must do: one of those things is to pray. So, if I wanted to pass for a Christian in a new community, I would be expect to join a church congregation, attend church services occasionally, and appear (at least) to pray from time to time, and mouth some platitudes. These dissembling behaviors would get me accepted as a Christian almost anywhere in the U.S. Obviously this is dishonest and I am not saying this is what Christians are doing overtly but these are the signals given to all prospective members of Christian communities: you have yo go along to get along to get the benefits of group membership. So, these are the things signaled to youths/newbies/etc. looking to be accepted by a church. Prayer seems to be one of these things. Oh, and positive utterances when things go one’s way. If a friend goes into the hospital for something not quite life-threatening, and someone prays for them to have a “speedy recovery” (I do this as a “wish” or “hope”) and they do recover, they will claim their prayers were answered, even though it was modern medicine responsible, not divine intervention. Its what they do.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. LAWRENCE says:

    Ms. Tarico:

    I was watching the White Helmets in Syria on 60 minutes;

    Faith seems to go into being a white helmet, faiths seems to go into fighting to breathe in the rubble;

    However, all parties would be best served in figuring out how to firmly address the United Nations, Syria, Russia, and the rebels to go meet in the desert somewhere and “fight like soldiers”

    Like

  7. Even during my 17 year attempt at Christianity, I never used petitionary prayer. Mostly for the very reasons Hitchens laid out, but also because what you call the language of slavery offended my deeply held ideas of the nobility of human agency.

    Like

  8. Pingback: Vridar » Miscellany

  9. allanmerry@allanmerry.net says:

    Valerie: Outstanding! I will call it to the attention of everyone I can think of. BRAVO as always. Oh, and Mr. spencer522: “The Rabble” who thought the election had been seriously tampered with? This is mean to say, I suppose, but I won’t miss him.

    Like

  10. rorys2013 says:

    There is no God out there somewhere. Any activity aimed at interacting with this fiction is pointless. There are aspects of the Universe that we know nothing about however and we need to acknowledge that fact. Something in prayer seems to tap into this reservoir of the unknown and the whys and where fors of that is what we need to research unhampered by prior beliefs in a God out there.

    Like

  11. “Asking God for favors, at best, is just plain silly.”

    This truism became obvious to me at about age 13. The older I got, the sillier it seemed to me. By the time I reached my 20s I had to turn away at the sight of people making deliberate fools of themselves lest I started laughing out loud.

    My next door neighbor makes prayer requests almost on an hourly basis: pray for rain (in the summer months if precipitation is low), pray for sunshine (if it’s been overcast for a few days), pray that she finds a nail clipper that she misplaced, pray, pray, pray. It’s simply exhausting being in her presence. Now, this might be somewhat understandable if my neighbor was, say, 10 years old, and she just had her “first communion,” but she’s not. She’s 59.

    Ninety-nine plus percent of the people I encounter or at least casually know engage in this silly behavior to one degree or another. And it’s pretty clear to me why they continue to engage in this silly nonsense even into their final days; it’s the cumulative effect of:
    early (and steady) cultural indoctrination
    primal fear(s) (created by their indoctrination)
    inadequate education
    poor reasoning and critical thinking skills
    general enculturation

    What else could possibly explain the “gawd bless you” phenomenon that comes from a perfect stranger when you sneeze while standing in a checkout line at Target? Silly behavior? It’s worse than silly. It’s mind boggling, detrimental to sound mental and intellectual development. As a direct result of religion, our culture is chuck full of silly nonsense. It’s so ubiquitous that hardly anyone notices it.

    Like

  12. mfdempsey1946 says:

    Number of prayers sent to all the gods of human history: untold trillions.

    Number of prayers answered by these gods: zero.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Yeoshi Yamamoto says:

    Prayer is a form of apology for not taking substantive actions. It is akin to voting in politicians and then forgetting about it until the next year’s elections. Doing so gets us Bill C-51, the War Measures Act, the Religious Schools nightmare, the continuing genocide of aboriginal peoples in Canada, the erosion of our liberties and freedoms, both by the progressively Crappy (PC) party and the Liberals; neither of which really gives a dam about Canadians.

    A thousand years of prayers will not get a glass of water to a Somalian person in need of it, neither will it put food in his hands. Prayers will not give clean water and proper housing to our native peoples whom continue to be abused, killed, and devastated by government attitudes and the Canadian people’s attitude as well.

    A prayer is pretend action, a psychological game to absolve yourself of all responsibility. We ask and the lord provides; utter nonsense. Your responsibility is to do real physical actions to help people. Prayers are well intentioned, somebody else will fix it, attitudes.

    If you can, send a blanket, send money to the needy. Offer your own time and sweat to fix issues. Work as a volunteer. Join protests, become an activist. Let our politicians know you are watching. If you can send email or mail to protest, do it. Prayer is the slave of inactivity and does not excuse your lack of real help.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. bscritic says:

    Another well written segment, Valerie. I like the fact that you also recognized the emotional benefit of certain types on non-intercessory prayer. We need to use proper terms for those mental activities — meditation, mental focus, expressions of love, etc, NOT prayer.

    Another great harm of the prayer illusion is when politicians encourage prayer instead of taking action themselves and encouraging effective action by others. Yeoshi Yamamoto said it very well in the previous post — “Prayer is a form of apology for not taking substantive actions.” And “Prayer is the slave of inactivity and does not excuse your lack of real help.”

    I look forward to your next segment, Dr. Tarico, and I will find the book your chapter is in.

    Like

  15. bewilderbeast says:

    Yesterday for Christmas I got this resigned message from a “tired of the baloney” friend: “Ask god for slippers. More chance of getting that than peace on earth.”

    Like

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