Argument from the efficacy of prayer

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"Now, you come along, and pray for something. Well suppose the thing you want isn't in God's Divine Plan? What do you want Him to do? Change His plan? Just for you? Doesn't it seem a little arrogant? It's a Divine Plan. What's the use of being God if every run-down schmuck with a two-dollar prayerbook can come along and fuck up Your Plan?"
George Carlin

Prayer is the act of speaking to a god or goddess, either mentally or out loud, to profess loyalty or ask for favors. For example ancient pagans sometimes prayed to the sun. They were scared if they didn't pray the sun might set one day and not bother to rise the next day.


Christianity and prayer

Prayer in the New Testament is presented as a positive command (Colossians 4:2 Bible-icon.png; 1 Thessalonians 5:17 Bible-icon.png). Christians are challenged to include prayer in their everyday life, even in the busy struggles of marriage (1 Corinthians 7:5 Bible-icon.png) as it brings people closer to God.

Prayer in the New Testament is also presented as being completely dependable. For example:

  • Matthew 7:7 Bible-icon.png "Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. Or what man of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!"
  • Matthew 17:20 Bible-icon.png "For truly, I say to you, if you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you."
  • Matthew 21:21 Bible-icon.png "I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, 'Go, throw yourself into the sea,' and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer."
  • Mark 11:24 Bible-icon.png "Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours."
  • John 14:12-14 Bible-icon.png "Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I go to the Father. Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it, that the Father may be glorified in the Son; if you ask anything in my name, I will do it."
  • Matthew 18:19 Bible-icon.png "Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them."

Thus, the stipulations one must fulfill for having their prayers answered are these:

  1. Have faith. It doesn't matter how much, for even someone with the faith of a mustard seed will have their prayers answered.
  2. Don't doubt in your faith.
  3. Believe in Jesus and the works that he does.
  4. Believe that you will receive what you pray for.
  5. If you really want your prayer answered, get a group of people to all pray for the same thing.
  6. If your prayer is not answered it.s your fault because you didn't have enough faith.

The Bible says that if you adhere to these rules then this is what God will do for you:

  1. He will answer your prayers, no matter what you ask for.
  2. Nothing will be impossible for you if you pray about it.

Can prayer move mountains?

According to Matthew 21,21 and other verses prayer can indeed move mountains.

If ye have faith, and doubt not, ye shall not only do this which is done to the fig tree, but also if ye shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; it shall be done. [1]

Has this ever happened? If a mountain ever fell into the sea it would cause such an enormous tsunami that history would record it. [2] Any number of Christians have faith, Christians who don’t know about the tsunami might well pray in faith for a mountain to move but history does not record a mountain moving. This verse of the Bible can’t be literally true.

By the way if Jesus was an ignorant 1st Century wandering preacher we can easily understand him talking about prayer moving mountains. Those who imagine Jesus was God and was therefore omniscient must wonder why on Earth Jesus would encourage good people to pray for such a devastating tsunami? Why does God allow tsunami in any case?

Objections to prayer

  1. As the George Carlin quote suggests, the act of prayer seems a little odd for people with belief in a god who is supposed to be omniscient and omnibenevolent. Clearly an omniscient god would already be aware of your problems and know what you want. Ultimately, your request may be regarded by God as either good or evil. If it is good, then why would God not have granted your wishes already? If it is evil, then why would God ever grant your request?
  2. Billions of people pray for various things every day. Many of the prayer requests are even contradictory. For instance, in a football game, often the players and fans on both sides are praying to win. If God answers prayers, which side should He choose? The side that prays loudest?
  3. Christians often state that God can answer prayers in one of three ways; "yes", "no", or "wait". This makes God no different from random chance. After all, when you pray it can either happen (i.e. God answers "yes"), not happen (God answers "no), or you have to wait to see if it will happen (God answers "wait"). This atheist video ridicules the Yes, No and Wait concept, The best optical illusion in the world!
  4. "Successful" prayers rarely have an unambiguous form. Apologists point to events like cancers that go into remission or people waking up from comas as evidence for the power of prayer. Yet cancer goes into remission and people wake up from comas all the time. How are we to tell the difference between cancer that healed naturally (or thanks to the presence of skilled doctors) and cancer that was cured miraculously? A commonly asked question is, "Why doesn't God heal amputees?" Live footage of a severed limb miraculously regrowing would be far more convincing as proof of the power of prayer. Yet such prayers are apparently never answered, or answered away from the prying eyes of meddlesome investigators.
  5. Some people say that it isn't God's will to perform unambiguous miracles through prayer. However, if it's all just God's will then why pray? God will just do what he wants to whether you pray about it or not.
  6. Christians might also say that God doesn't want to provide unambiguous proof of his own existence since this would deny faith. However, this rationalization ignores the myriad of times in the Bible that he does just that.
  7. Another common rationalization is that God uses unanswered prayers to demonstrate his power through the suffering person's life. For example, a patient with terminal cancer whose faith is deepened because of their ordeal. This raises the question, however, of why an all-knowing and all-loving God couldn't think of a less painful way to accomplish that particular goal. It also raises the question of why a person who already had faith has to endure more pain to have it "deepened".
  8. A less common rationalization is that a person who gets their leg shot off in a way chose to be on that battlefield of their own free will and, thus, God has no obligation to heal them. However, this ignores the millions born with missing limbs that were never healed. It's not that God ignores some amputees, it's that he ignores all amputees.
  9. Some might say that God does heal amputees by divinely inspiring doctors and scientists to cure them. This, however, is easily refuted by Occam's Razor. God's inspiration isn't necessary for doctors and scientists to find ways to cure amputees. And why did God feel the need to bypass this kind of helpful inspiration for thousands of years and reduce the suffering only in the modern age?
  10. Others say that God can't be tested since he's so much higher than us. This ignores the story of Gideon in the Old Testament and Thomas in the New Testament who both did exactly that and who received the proof that each had asked for.
  11. Some Christians say that Jesus never specified when he would answer prayers and that maybe he will answer them in the afterlife. This is unfair since God apparently answers so many other prayers during the believers' lifetimes. Also, the verses quoted above are unambiguous in the fact that they state that whatever you ask for you'll get during your life.
  12. Some might bring up the objection that these verses aren't to be taken literally. Firstly, the verses themselves are certainly written like they should be taken literally. Secondly, if this objection is used the believer must provide an objective reason why these verses are non-literal. If no reason can be provided then the verses should continue to be taken literally.
  13. Matthew 21:21 Bible-icon.png says that you must have faith and not doubt for your prayers to be answered. This offers a convenient loophole for unanswered prayers. If you pray and you satisfy every single stipulation and yet your prayer is never answered, Christians can always fall back on saying "You didn't believe enough" or "You doubted your faith". Since there is no empirical way to define how much belief is "enough", this becomes an ad hoc explanation which makes prayer unfalsifiable. It also undermines the fact that some theists will claim that they themselves or people they know of have become believers after being prayed for and where the result was some miraculous event.
  14. It's important to remember statistical probability when considering supposed miracles. For example, let's say there's a disease that has no cure and let's say 999,999,999 people so far have contracted it but none have survived. However, let's say the billionth person to contract it does survive. This isn't a miracle; it simply means that the odds of survival are now 1 out of 1,000,000,000.
  15. Finally, when all else fails a Christian might say "People have believed in Jesus for 2,000 years. There must be a good reason for it." This is a non sequitur because it ignores the political and cultural forces that shape all societies and modes of belief throughout time and instead focuses on its own supposed inherent goodness. It also fails to account for all of the other competing beliefs that survived with it for equally long or longer periods of time like Islam and Judaism. Strangely, you don't hear Christians arguing that there must be good reasons for those religions' survival too!

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