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Is Prayer Selfish?

Asking God to stack the odds in our favor is asking him to stack them against someone else.

Fall is prayer season. Some folks think of it as football season, and indeed, images of football players circled with heads bowed or pointing to the big guy in the sky are almost  as familiar lately as birds flying south. But the real season kickoff this year was the Republican convention, where the fervent supplications of evangelicals and Pentecostals  miraculously diverted Hurricane Isaac, so that the party could go on. Praise the Lord, Tampa was spared, and the death and destruction that might have befallen people who live there...befell somebody else. 

Should the families of those who died in Louisiana and Mississippi sue the Republican prayer warriors for not being a little more specific? Couldn’t they have gotten the hurricane to touch down somewhere remote, where the only homes destroyed would be those of, say, birds and non-pet, non-farm and most importantly non-human mammals?

Ironically, the best defense of the prayer warriors might be the evidence (so popular with social scientists, freethinkers and certain stage magicians) that prayer doesn’t actually work. The  first statistical analysis was published over 100 years ago by Sir Francis Galton himself, and in the intervening years, scores of studies and meta-studies ( herehereherehere) and other analyses (e.g.  here) have accumulated. The mountain of evidence stacks up one side of the balance. It points to the very same conclusion Galton reached:

  • Despite constant prayer vigils for the sick and dying, the devout—including devout Christians—have a similar life expectancy to everyone else.
  • In aggregate, research on prayer show no overall effect or one so weak that the most that can be said for God is that he – maybe—operates at the margins of statistical significance; not a very impressive claim for an omnipotent, interventionist deity. Put it this way, a pharmaceutical company that made similar claims and had similar results would be sued out of existence.

Oh, for the good old days. According to the stories of the ancient Hebrews, their god responded to prayer with dramatic shows of power.  One story in 1 Kings, is about a prayer duel. The prophet Elijah and 450 prophets of Baal face off over two pyres, each of which is topped by a slain bull. All day long, the prophets of Baal pray, begging their god to send down fire from heaven to consume their bull as a burnt offering. They dance wildly with the servant-priests of Baal’s female consort, Ashera, and cut themselves with knifes in a show of fervent devotion. Finally, when they have exhausted themselves, their pleas unanswered, Elijah has the audience pour water over his altar. He then prays to Yahweh, who sends down such a fierce fire that it consumes the bull, the wood and even the water. Eager to show which side they are on, the crowd butchers the devotees of Baal and Ashera.

Today, to get such impressive results Christians have to fake it. And sometimes they do. A group of East Indians once told me about a missionary school bus driver whose bus wouldn’t start after he loaded the last child. He asked the children to pray to the gods of their parents: maybe Vishnu, Krishna, Shiva, Ganesh, Devi or Brahma. Nothing happened. Then, after surreptitiously reconnecting two wires under the steering column (the same two wires he had disconnected a few minutes earlier) he asked them to pray to Jesus. The bus roared to life. In rural Africa, where  medical science is scarce, Pentecostals bring people back from the dead. By contrast, in the cities and on the football fields of the West, the power of prayer is roughly equal to the power of suggestion.

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