Thursday, January 5, 2012

Prayer Doesn't Work

A reader who has followed my blogs said she was praying for me. Apparently, my discussions doubting the existence of God concerned her.  She is worried about how God will react after I die and was trying to create some kind of a prayer shield for me.   I am always grateful for such concern, but am fearful that the reader is violating her own religious beliefs.

All monotheistic religions teach that prayer should never ask God for anything, but rather should simply praise Him.  In Conversations with God, author Neale Donald Walsch blew his cover by saying God was surprised to learn that particular aspect of prayer.  The Lord of Hosts is not alone:  in the movie Bruce Almighty , the computer overflows with prayerful requests from humans, and Bruce (Jim Carrey) cavalierly approves them all.   Naturally, hilarity ensues.

Besides, they don’t work – at least on Earth.  Prayer, after all, is a vestige from the ancient origins of religion in magic.  Say the magic word, and whatever you want will happen.   Not according to research.

One massive study of the efficacy of prayer, released in 2006, found that “having people pray for heart bypass surgery patients had no effect on their recovery.  In fact, patients who knew they were being prayed for had a slightly higher rate of complications.”

There was no explanation for the findings, which mirrored previous research.  Maybe an old adage is the best option: sometimes the answer to a prayer is “no.”

On top of that, praying for others has a long and dismal history.  Throughout much of Christian history, for example, wealthy members of society worried about their immortal souls left oodles of money to various churches and religious organizations for perpetual prayers.  As a result, such groups as Dominicans became extraordinarily wealthy.  

The Roman Catholic Church benefited greatly from such efforts and, in the 1400s, went one step further.   In Church teachings, the souls of those who die go to purgatory before being sent to heaven or hell.  The step was necessary as a way to explain where Jesus was between the time of his crucifixion on Friday and his subsequent resurrection on Sunday.

Naturally, all the extra masses paid for by believers were designed to increase chances the subject of those prayers would go to heaven.  To heighten the effect, the Church began to sell indulgences, which supposedly decreased the time a poor soul spent in purgatory, a sort of “get-out-of-purgatory” free card.   Salesmen actually wandered through towns, selling these indulgences to the na├»ve and the stupid.

That’s same approach works today.  People follow astrology charts, buy stars for loved ones and the like without the slightest concern for logic.

Those with an ounce of common sense back in the 1500s, however, were upset.  A German monk named Martin Luther was so incensed that he issued a direct challenge to the Church in the form of 95 Theses, which called for reform of the Church.  Instead, he launched the Protestant Revolution.

The resulting carnage had only one bright spot: colonists to the New World, determined not to transport religious wars from Europe along with their other baggage, opted for freedom of religion, a heritage that continues to make this country so special.

That’s why people like me can write columns like this.

Actually, I subscribe to several options regarding prayer.  Blaise Pascal, the French mathematician who invented odds, correctly observed that the odds that God exists are 50-50.  I’ll go with the odds.

I also figure things turn out pretty much the same, no matter what anyone does.  In that, I support John Calvin, who taught that God chooses who is saved regardless of what happened on Earth.   His philosophy spread widely and was followed by the Puritans who founded Massachusetts.

I also go along with Abbot Arnald Amalric who in 1209 reportedly said, “Kill them all, God will recognize his own” when asked what to do with the French residents of Beziers who were targeted by anti-heretic crusaders.  The folks living there were a mixture of Catholics and Christian Cathars.  An estimated 20,000 people were butchered by men led by Simon de Montford on St. Medeline’s Day, including many who sought refuge in the church dedicated to the saint.

In no way am I suggesting anything so brutal, only that God – if He exists – will recognize believers without any assistance. After all, prayer contradicts basic religious ideas.  If God is all powerful, all knowing, then prayer would be unnecessary.  He would know my feelings and, however well-meaning the prayers on my behalf, certainly should recognize their limited value.

Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.

1 comment:

  1. "If God is all powerful, all knowing, then prayer would be unnecessary." -- Yes, unnecessary for God, but not for us.

    In praying, we recognize that we are weak, that we have needs far beyond what we are capable of providing for ourselves. In prayers, we express all our innermost desires out of faith, not out of demand to a being comparable to a Genie or an ATM machine.

    When we pray, we simply do not ask, we converse with God, and in so doing, recognize how powerless we are without Him.