When faced with circumstances or events that are completely beyond our control, war, disaster, accident, or health challenges, involving either ourselves or others, then a quite common human instinct is to attempt to gain control of the completely uncontrollable by attempting to seek assistance from a supernatural entity – we call that “prayer”.
The concept itself is actually a bit more complex than that, for example it may also be a means of expressing a specific emotion to a deity and need not involve actually asking for anything specific, for example a prayer of thanks for something. Generally however, the most common usage is that it is an attempt to ask a deity to do something specific, and so it is that variation I’m interested in here.
What makes prayer rather interesting is that this is both testable and measurable. When challenged about the lack of any empirical evidence for any god, believers often reply by claiming that god, or at least their specific concept of such an entity, is beyond space and time and that is why it cannot be measured or detected. The fundamental flaw with this claim is that those that assert this are rarely deists suggesting that god simply turned a key to set the universe running on autopilot like a clock and then promptly vanished, but rather that their god will, when asked using the correct incantation, step in and personally intervene in our reality by overriding the laws of nature.
This opens up a rather interesting avenue of research, because if prayer does actually work, then we can devise double-blind tests to measure what actually happens and verify if something supernatural is indeed going on. I’ll dive into the specifics of such tests another day, for the moment I’ll focus on thinking about the concept itself.
Some Basic problems with Prayer
The primary objection to the entire concept of prayer concerns the attributes that god is supposed to have, they appear to nullify the entire concept.
God is claimed to be omnipresent, a word that basically means that god is everywhere at the same time, and that there is no place where he is not. Just to be clear, this is not a claim that god transcends all of space and is just very big, but rather that god fills every part of space with his entire being. The clear implication of this belief is that there is no requirement to go to any specific place to pray, nor are individuals restricted to a specific time. Almost all variations of belief would concur with this and confirm that there are indeed no space or time restrictions, and yet we still appear to have a concept that also often involves a specific building such as a church, mosque or temple being special for some magical reason. Nobody can articulate in any meaningful way why such places are special, and instead we get words such as “holy” deployed, but such terms do not describe anything that is actually measurable. So we have an apparent logical conflict here, yes you can pray at any time or place, oh but specific places at specific times are deemed by some strands of belief to be more effective. Either it works just as effectively universally, or it does not, you can’t have both – unless you happen to be a believer, then apparently you can quite happily embrace these mutually exclusive beliefs. No to be fair, not everybody who believes deems specific places to be extra special in some magical way.
God is also claimed to have an attributed known as omniscience. This is a term that basically encapsulates the idea that god knows everything and that there is nothing that god does not know. If this were indeed true and god knows everything, then why is there a requirement to ask god to do something or to tell him anything? If you simply wish to express an emotion and tell god how grateful you are about something, then what meaning does it have to tell god something that he already knows, you are not imparting any new information that was previously unknown to god. If you actually need something then should he not already know that there is a need for him to step into our reality and help. It might be tempting to think that it is simply a case of god refusing to intervene until asked to do so, and that he chooses to not breach our free will, but since god knows everything, he not only knows that you need help, he also knows that you want him to help, so why is there a need for prayer?
God is also supposed to have omnipotence, he can do anything at all, and is also supposed to be all loving. Combine these attributes with the previous ones and you find it gets even more bizarre, for we are now faced the a god that knows what needs to be done, can do anything, and yet chooses to not do anything, even when asked to do so. And yes, I know, this is where the usual rationalizations kick in … “Its a test, because his ways are not our ways”. Such answers might satisfy some, but they don’t in fact resolve anything at all. If it is indeed a test, then how does that fit into a universe where there is a god who knows everything and so always knows the result of the test, so why bother with a test. “Ah but he does that to help us grow into what he wants us to be”, some might retort, and of course the obvious rebuttal to that is to ask why he who can do anything did not make us the way he wants us to be in the first place.
Clearly the concept of “Prayer” is simply not compatible with the modern concept of a god.
So what is really going on?
There is of course a far simpler answer, one that does not involve any gods. Humans have been naturally selected to control their environment because it gives them a distinct survival advantage, yet when faced with mysterious uncontrollable random events the natural impulse is to attempt to work out some means of control, and as a result invocations to deities have naturally emerged as a means for doing this. The fact that such supernatural deities do not exist, and that asking such deities for assistance does nothing at all does not deter in any way, because it gives humans the illusion of control. This tells us a great deal about human psychology, but very little about the things that are actually true.
“When we talk to God, we’re praying. When God talks to us, we’re schizophrenic”. – Jane Wagner, In Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, 1985, performed by Lily Tomlin