Sunday Sermon from an Atheist 2: hashtag prayfor

Inevitably, human lives encounter moments which render reason useless. Moments where rational capacity fails and emotion overwhelms. Two such events leap immediately to mind in my own life, and both involve my father. One in college and the other just a few years back. The first arrived in the form of a voicemail, where my mother’s cracked voice recounted how his car had been t-boned and that an ambulance was en route to take him to a hospital. The second awoke me in the wee hours of the morning from a hospital lobby floor to inform me that cancer had been discovered in his intestine. During the first event, I identified as a Christian; during the second, as an atheist. Both times, I prayed. There’s an inner reflex, perhaps indelibly imbedded into my psyche that reaches to an unknown when faced with the unknown. Since we often personify evil, it may be natural that we personify its antithesis and reach out to it when we feel malevolence approach. It’s possible that no matter how often reflected reason reminds me that such beliefs lack evidence, the urge may remain to seek hope in invisible creatures when all seems lost. I’ll come back to this all later, but it seemed an important flag to plant early on. In the next few paragraphs, I’m going to go after Christian prayer without clemency. But I must stress that I am not going after you, my dear reader. I hope the above flag acts as a symbol of the empathy I hold for those who reach out in prayer in moments of tragedy. First I’ll try and capture how prayer is utilized in our culture. Next, I’ll move on to discussing its efficacy for both precant (the ancient word for one who prays) and prayee.  Then I want to touch on how Matthew records what Jesus says about prayer and point out some glaring discrepancies with its current practice. Finally, I want to bring to bear why exactly I think prayer is problematic and end with a bit of hope.

Prayer is ubiquitous in our culture. According to a Pew Study, over half of Americans pray daily. For some, it bookends their days, for others, it precedes their meals. Contrary to popular cries, prayer remains alive and well in many of our nation’s schools where it opens football games, high school graduations, and, in my experience, faculty meetings. (Gentle curiosities as to how a god would respond to opposing football teams both petitioning him for victory often amusingly spring to mind.) A chaplain delivers one at the start of Congressional sessions, and often a popular pastor gives one at the Inauguration of our President. And, as I was reminded on my recent visit to his Memorial, Lincoln, in the midst of a Civil War told his countrymen that “Both [the North and South] read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.” When evil, either caused naturally or by humans, occurs countless tweeters urge us to #prayforParis, #prayforLondon, #prayforHaiti, etc. When tragedy strikes one part of the world, leaders from other parts of the world offer prayers. During the two events in my own life that I mentioned earlier, many people offered prayers to me and my family. For me, in those cases, such overtures rang hollow and left me wondering if my own prayers were either insufficient or if God is some kind of celestial calculator waiting for prayer counts to reach arbitrary levels. It seems as if tragedy acts as the hammer on our prayer offering reflex. It isn’t disingenuous, but people don’t know what else to say. (It should also go without saying that the secular substitution of “thoughts” for “prayers” is likely even less useful.) In all of those instances, the goal of such prayers is somewhat unclear. Even so, many folks view seemingly answered prayers as confirmation of divine interventions while unanswered prayers seem to vanish into the ether with vague, ineffable excuses. The manner in which the Christian God answers prayers is, for many precants, simply mysterious. But if prayer is such a vital part of our society then the empirics ought to matter. If such a god exists and if that god answers prayers, discovering how to tap into it could potentially relieve a great deal of human misery. Thus, we may have good reason to try and study whether or not prayer works.

A tension lies in the study of prayer’s efficacy. Certainly, while many tout faith as a virtue, few want to acknowledge that their beliefs contradict evidence. Therefore, many people want proof that prayer works without the possibility of the contrary. In light of that, I want to present two studies concerning prayer: one supporting a version of prayer’s efficacy and another negating it. The first is a study reported on in Scientific American that attempted to measure whether prayer increased one’s ability to have self-control. Its study found positive correlates linking prayer to greater self-control, but the study fell short of confirming any supernatural element. Rather, those that conducted the study concluded that the communicative nature of prayer (the fact that the precants believed they were talking to someone) actually served as the mechanism behind the increased self-control. Since past research reveals that self-control can be increased through social interactions, that factor seems the likely culprit. The second study was one of the largest prayer studies ever conducted. The NYT reported on it in 2006, and it revealed that “[p]rayers offered by strangers had no effect on the recovery of people who were undergoing heart surgery.” This study conducted, in part, by funds from the Templeton Foundation, spanned nearly a decade and evaluated the effects of intercessory prayer offered by strangers. Interestingly, the study found that patients who knew that they were being prayed for actually fared worse. There are some problems that exist with studies of this kind, namely the impossibility of isolating some variables. Researchers had no way of ensuring that the group who wasn’t supposed to receive prayer wasn’t being prayed for by people outside the study. Even so, the study can at least be used to cast serious doubt on science’s ability to prove the effectiveness of prayer. Precants often offer two answers to such problematic findings: (1) God should not be tested (Jesus suggests such in Matthew 4:7) and (2) God works in mysterious ways according to His own purposes. If the first excuse is valid, any scientific test proving or disproving prayer ought to be considered null. And if one adopts the latter explanation, then that person is left to find other reasons to pray. If God works in mysterious ways according to his purposes, there is no use in bringing requests to Him. Further, that person would need to explain away verses like Matthew 21:22 (“Whatever you ask for in prayer, with faith, you will receive”) or Matthew 18:19 (“Truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven”). Such discussions, however, inevitably involve shifting goalposts that render any investigation of the facts useless. Because of these limits, it’s not clear that this tension surrounding the scientific study of prayer will ever dissolve. While religious people will likely clamor towards confirming evidence, they will find it equally easy to dismiss disconfirming evidence with little more than a mystery invoking handwave. Presenting scientific arguments against prayer may, in that sense, be a fruitless enterprise. Also, if prayer actually helps the precants like the first study shows, there is little reason to request that people withdraw from personal prayers. Therefore, I want to shift to my main concern–its ubiquity in our culture.

While often, in the US, people invoke separation of church and state arguments to counteract prayer’s prevalent use in society, one really need only look to Matthew to challenge the Christian. While the verses in Matthew 6 concerning prayer didn’t surprise me (I recall hearing them in my youth), they did read differently now. Chapter 6 recounts Jesus’ teaching regarding what he viewed as the excessive “practicing of piety before others” (6:1). Reading over these verses awakened flashbacks from my youth where I would pray openly over scattered, smothered, and covered hashbrowns and gather around flagpoles with other Christians. Certainly, when I was young, I didn’t view such activities as “acts of piousness.” Instead, I viewed them as acts of courage. Something akin to real life versions of Facebook chain-letter type posts that remind people accusingly that only courageous Christians will “share” said Christian propaganda. Nevertheless, it seems Jesus offers fairly specific instructions to those who pray. Matthew relates:

Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father…When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think they will be heard because of their many words. (6:5-6)

Jesus seems fairly specific here, yet the calls for prayer in school and in the public square continue. One wonders how such verses can be understood differently. Of course, even a cursory reading of some new testament prescriptions reveals that Christian’s often don’t take the text literally. I’ve never met anyone who has plucked out their own eye or chopped off their own foot (18:8-9).  While opening the text and challenging Christians with their own book typically comes across as a less than legitimate enterprise, I hope to bridge that divide here. I seek not to abolish prayer but to fulfill it. Tweeting or Facebooking prayers directly contradict the Biblical instruction for prayer. Public prayers don’t advance a cause or ease pain, they render causes impotent and mask pain. It is possible that when people say prayers to themselves, they may be doing the very most they can do to ease their own pain. But when people pray for others, they are engaging in the very least they can do to alleviate suffering.

My appeal is not meant necessarily as an attack on the divine. I appeal, instead, to our shared humanity.  It is something like the recognition Carl Sagan makes when discussing the Pale Blue Dot. Sagan reminds us that “in our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.” Likely, people pray not because they believe a supernatural intervention will actually occur, but they pray because they desire to feel a part of something rather than alone. One cannot fault this impulse, but such impulses should underscore humanity’s need to reach out to one another. When tragedy strikes someone we love, too often we retreat from that person’s presence. We abandon those we care about in their hard moments because we fear that our words will fail us. Our absence nearly necessitates a desire to substitute invisible gods for flesh and blood. People talk to the invisible because those to whom they wish to speak have rendered themselves invisible. I think this is a terrible human failing; one, in which, I must admit guilt. At times, I have known people experiencing great grief, and instead of reaching out, I stayed away. I feared that I would lack the words to resolve their grief. But, we must realize that in moments of tragedy people don’t often desire reasoned words. Accident or cancer statistics might provide explanations, but they likely won’t satiate emotional needs. People in pain don’t need to be given the right words, they just need words. Words from living, breathing humans. So, this is my challenge to the precants and the secular “thought” senders: let us turn to one another, talk to one another, and embrace one another. While a kind prayer may dissipate, a kind word retains the power to resonate.

2 thoughts on “Sunday Sermon from an Atheist 2: hashtag prayfor

  1. Some interesting observations. Well reasoned as usual. When reading this, I find myself pondring the power of shared experience. What was once called the “Dionysus”. When we dance to music snd revel, we hear and experience together. Pherhaps why we still enjoy going to the movies with other sometimes obnoxious people. There is something profound and dare I say instinctual in these experiences. As a former Catholic, this is how I would rationalize the need for prayer. To say im thinking about you and you are not alone. My grandmother would often tell me I was in her prayers. And I did find comfort in this even though I had zero belief someone was listening. This was when i was still cynical about religion because the wound of realizing it wasn’t true was fesh. I felt duped. Now, with less anger about it, I realize there are hidden reasons in some of its practices. The best lies ofgen mingle in some truth. Prayer; the Dionysus, the communal experience when praying togeher. Reflection and in a way, meditation when alone at night. Can it really be coincidence that a person praying and a monk meditating do many of the same things? On your knees, repeating words and phrases that are so common they lose meaning and just become a cadence of sound. Closed eyes, and that feeling of going inside yourself. To reflect and still the inner dialogue brining into focus what is truley important. I’m sure i could go on, but if this is a new revelation, then you can see there’s something here. I don’t have sources to cite, but I doubt many would argure against the mental and even physical benifits of meditation. That said, could prayer have been the method to get people meditating? Or was it a clever tactic to link the religious into an already familiar custom like the xmas tree or easter egg. Further entrenching its infkuence. Do offering thoughts and prayer’s simply try and fulfil the need to communicate one is not alone. That we understand mysery loves company… So through my thoughts of you in this dark time, I in a way suffer with you. Of course you hit the nail on the head when you discussed it also being the least that one can do while still getting that reward response in the brain, but tricking the brain to reward us is a whole other conversation. I look forward to further discussion.


    1. I think you bring up some important points here that I didn’t really tease out in my post.
      1. I think, even in general, that the community that religion creates actually benefits people. Secular answers to this community are quite weak. So I think you point out something important about ritual and community that would need to be replaced if religion ever went away.

      2. I do think that there may be an important difference to tease out when talking about prayer for oneself and prayer for others. Even the latter can be teased further between people one knows and people one doesn’t know. There may be benefits in each of those cases.

      3. I think there are psychological benefits to prayer, but the cursory research I’ve done seems to suggest meditating is actually better.


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