11 July 2006

How, exactly, does prayer work?

When I was growing up, I never understood the point of prayer.

I still don't.

I don't see the point of it, and I don't get what use it is to anyone, least of all, God or anyone else.

Certainly, in the context of the Christian interpretation of God, praying seems like the silliest activity a worshipper could possibly engage in.

Consider this:

1. It is God's prerogative as to whether or not He answers, or even agrees to, a request in a prayer.

2. If God wants something done, He goes ahead and does it.

3. Everything is meant to be done the exact way that God intended.

4. God never gets anything wrong.

We know from the information provided that God is omniscient, omnipotent and perfect.

We also know that no one dictates God's Will except for God.

(What we also know is that, in all my years of observing believers in the act of worship, I have never once heard anyone use the word, "Please". A fairly major liberty to take with an perfect, omnisicient, omnipotent being, I would think. I'm sure I'm not the only one who thinks that if God exists, he must be Almightily pissed off with people making demands of him all the time and not saying please, but I digress.)

Therefore, for prayer to have any benefit over no prayer at all, one or more of the following must occur:

1. God must have a rule that He agrees to the request in a prayer more often than not. This kind of overrules God's Will a wee bit, so we can rule this out.

2. There could be stuff in this world that happens independently of God's instigation or knowledge. Unlikely, given that God is meant to be omniscient and omnipotent.

3. God double-thinks Himself. A perfect being double-thinking Himself? Yeah right.

4. God gets things wrong occasionally and has to be put right by us mortals. See point 3.

On the face of it, this means that prayer simply cannot work. Unless, and this is quite likely, I've missed something.

Could someone please explain it to me?


Einzige said...

I certainly can't.

A corrollary to this: Why are religious people ever sad? Isn't the world unfolding according to God's will? When a relative dies, isn't this a joyous occasion, because they're off to meet God (of course one's relatives are never destined for Hell)?

Another thing: Why would a religious person ever seek medical attention?

Personally, I think anyone who cries or goes to a doctor is secretly an atheist.

Dikkii said...

Ha ha.

Einzige, I've wondered about these ones myself.

You wrote, "Personally, I think anyone who cries or goes to a doctor is secretly an atheist."

I think everyone is agnostic to an enormous degree. In a future blog article (here we go again!!) I'll examine faith and how it differs from knowledge.

This will also cover the latent agnosticism of everyone.

Not sure I'd go as far as "atheist", though.

Einzige said...

Not sure I'd go as far as "atheist", though.

I'll concede the point.

It's funny, though, that we've all constantly gotta split hairs when it comes to that scary word.

Dikkii said...

It's funny, though, that we've all constantly gotta split hairs when it comes to that scary word.

That scary word being atheist.

I probably tend to split more hairs than most on this one. There is something not quite 100% wholesome about people's use of that word, and I can't seem to put my finger on it.

It's kinda like how chicks use the word "funky" wrong and it drives us blokes insane. At least, in Melbourne, anyway.

alex said...

In the old days you just went to a preist and he interveined on gods behalf for you (probably how well depended on the sacrifice/gift). Possibly it made more sense with your old style less powerful whimsical pantheon style gods. Anyway newfangled private prayer (new since the 18th dynasty of Ancient Egypt) is a free market do it yourself option that cuts out the monopolists, i thought you would be on board with that.

Einzige said...

My thoughts on the atheist/agnostic controversy are best represented by this post I wrote a few months back, over at The Lippard Blog.

Dikkii said...

Alex: You're probably right about prayer making more sense with your older style gods - as far as I know, it's only the Judeo-Islamic-Christian god who has pretentions of Almightiness.

Not really sure about your monopoly comment though - if you cut out the salt company and evaporate your own seawater, you've still got NaCl at the end. But just try getting sugar instead - still ain't gonna happen.

Einzige: We're probably going to never have an all encompassing agreement on what the word 'atheist' means.

My frustration stems mostly from the fact that while most people use it one way, its literal interpretation is something else.

What is of some concern is that certain groups may possibly muddy the waters on this because, yes, it is politically convenient to do so.

Unlike the Discovery Institute, however, I'm going to go on the record right now and say, "There is no controversy regarding the A word - just some minor semantic debugging."

I'd say there's more controversy with willingly labelling yourself agnostic. People look at you sideways, kinda like the French Resistance and the Germans must've looked at "Collaborateurs."

Or the suspicion that a bisexual arouses amongst gay and straight bigots alike.

I once chose to label myself an "apathete." Sigh. Things were so much easier then.

Dikkii said...

Einzige: Liked that Santa Claus straw man, by the way.

Very clever.

Einzige said...

Well, since it was a parable, after all, I'll take your "straw man" epithet in the kindest possible light.

The two percent guys dug it, as did PZ Myers.

Dikkii said...

"Well, since it was a parable, after all, I'll take your "straw man" epithet in the kindest possible light."

I actually genuinely dug it. I use the term in in its strictest literal sense - and yes, I know you threw Santa up deliberately.

Mind you, after this little exchange here, which I commented upon here, I worry that I will never use the term Straw Man again.

Einzige said...


Food for thought, definitely.

From now on I'll be sure to say, "Your characterization of my side of the argument sucks!", instead.


ted said...

I don't know what the fuss is all about really:

Atheism simply involves the theory (note that word) or belief that God does not exist. In other words, prove it one way or another and atheism goes away as it's no longer required.

Agnosticism is the belief that nothing can be known of the nature or existance of God or of anything beyond material phenomena. So he could personally slap you in the face and it wouldn't make any difference.

Those meanings came from The Concise Oxford Dictionary, ninth edition BTW. I had to chuckle when I read the "ask Oxford" link...:)

I think that all that really happens here is that people get the two confused. Even the lads at Oxford seem to be having some trouble with it...:-)

So I went and had a look at a few dictionaries (Funk and Wagnals, an old Illustrated Westminster that I like and my mums full Oxford Dictionary). They all seem to agree with my Oxford Concise and NOT the internet version...

Dikkii said...

Ask Oxford is meant to be the Compact Oxford English Dictionary, which itself comes from the Concise Oxford English Dictionary.

Suspect yours might be a few generations old, Ted, but Ask Oxford largely appears to be the same thing as what you've just written vis a vis atheism and agnosticism.

But the confusion thing is spot on - the editors of the OED wouldn't be alone on this particular piece of confusion.

Incidentally, although I consider myself agnostic, I'm by no means hard-core compared to some. What I mean is that if God Himself slapped me in the face, I probably would re-think things a little.

If I was still alive, that is. I daresay a slap from God would equate to a Mark Waugh drive over long-on. Can't see anyone surviving that.

ted said...

All the oxfords are 1993, including my Australian Concise, which I didn't mention. It's probably time I updated I 'sopse. You're bang on with the Westminster though, 1933. Still, it's pretty much the same...

Yep, and I don't think that well over long-on would be a problem for God, no matter the venue, considering his record at smiting...:)

ted said...

I should probably add a little something here considering I was a born again there for a while and have considerable experince with this prayer thing.

In actual fact, it's just another method of meditation. That's the wrong side of woo for the average Chistrian though, so it becomes their way to commune directly with God and ask for guidance and stuff.

They belive it too when "God answered my prayer and I got the job!" Of course they ignore the perfect qualifications, spotless resume, 15 years experince and glowing references.

Basically, it's the mechanism used to intsill hope, albeit of a dudbious kind. I saw a doco not long ago that said Benny Hind is the most succesful stage hypnotist working with large groups today. Watch how he works, he does it with prayer. He opens with prayer and stops to pray regularly, getting everyone involved. Of course, we're always taught that prayer works better in groups, it's merely coincidence that the collection plate also makes an appearance at the same time, usually while you're praying for funds for the church because there's so much it has to do...:-)

Doctors? Well, your average Christian will always take fact over hope, but have a look at Benny's mob. They flock to his faith healing shows and will rarely, usually only if Benny tells them to, go to a doctor...

So it's just the hypnotic method used to brain wash you into comming back really. How cynical am I?

Dikkii said...

Hi Ted,

Just a little while to respond to your comments.

I don't think you're being cynical at all - I would say you're just telling it like it is.

It's interesting that you were a BAC - Born Again Christian. I think I remember in a previous comment somewhere that you mentioned Assemblies of God.

I myself was raised by parents who were agnostic but who would make sure we attended church if my grandparents were in town.

Nothing like AoG, though. Our family background is Uniting Church, Methodist specifically.

I have to admit to being completely apathetic until about 3rd year uni when I chose to adopt agnosticism with a passion.

There are reasons for that - perhaps a blog article about this is in the offing.

Also, there is certainly one in the offing about Benny Hinn - he's one odious dude.

ted said...

I'd love to see you do one on Benny (sorry about my spelling), odius ain't the half of it methinks...:)

Joel Rosenblum said...

Your real question is, how does God predestining everything not conflict with our free will, both of which are asserted in the Bible? The Xtian answer I have read and heard everywhere? Wait for it... "The human mind is incapable of comprehending God." There you go, now you got your answer! DUH!

Dikkii said...

The problem is, Joel, that the concept of "free will" immediately contradicts the idea of an omnipotent, omniscient and infallible god.

The reason that your suggested reason: "The human mind is incapable of comprehending God" fails is because the human mind can comprehend this situation. You cannot have free will and an omniscient, omnipotent and infallible god by definition.

We might not be able to comprehend god, but we can smell bullshit when we come across it.

But thanks for playing anyway, Joel.

Joel Rosenblum said...

Darn, I was sure that would convince you... it seems to work on most people.

Dikkii said...

Very clever, Joel. Normally, I consider myself the most average person alive, although I suspect that I might lie somewhere away from the mean on this one.

David B said...

My answer (in very short form) would be a variation of 1: God does sometimes decide to answer prayer, but it is entirely up to Him whether to do so or not. So, you don't know what will happen until you ask.

Also, sovereignty and free will are not entirely incompatible. A person with sovereign power is still sovereign even if that power is not exercised. Where that power is not exercised, free will remains.

Dikkii said...

Hi David,

That all sounds good, but I suspect this bit that you wrote, "So, you don't know what will happen until you ask," to be complete horse piss.

This statement suggests the following:

1. After one prays, one gets a clean and quantifiable indication that He has even noticed one's prayer. This is beyond belief, this is utter supposition and does not appear to be borne out by historical experience.

2. If God answers such a prayer, one is guaranteed a clean and quantifiable indication that it was your prayer specifically, and not someone else's. We know from history that God simply doesn't do "clean and quantifiable" although we can suppose away anything that takes place as either "yay" or "nay".

Notice that I bolded the word "suppose".

Lastly, one might argue that one's decision to not exercise one's free will is an expression of free will itself. Which isn't free, however, if it's been predetermined. What definition of "sovereignty" are you working off, David?

David B said...


Re your point 1, you have taken my use of "until" too literally. Answers to prayer, in my experience, do not usually come straight away. So the indication that He has heard the prayer does not come until the answer itself has come.

Re your point 2, your comment implicitly accepts that the second person's prayer has been answered. Also, God does sometimes do clean and quantifiable, and not all prayers are simply for a "yay' or a "nay". I am thinking, for example, of prayers for insight into a particular situation, or for a person to change the way they are treating other people, etc.

On free will and sovereignty:

* one could conceivably decide not to exercise free will (that is, to submit to someone else's will) without that decision being pre-determined by that other person. Many decisions within a marriage would fall into this category.

* my concept of sovereignty is best defined by an example - parliament is sovereign in a democracy, but that does not mean that parliament dictates everything that everyone in Australia does.



Dikkii said...

G'day David,

Can't bring myself to use your name without a salutation, so I'll just continue to use one. Incidentally, I know someone who once refinanced his margin loan after someone at the bank responded to a query by addressing him without a salutation. Hint hint.

Re point 1: "Unless", "until", whatever. Your response is nonetheless slightly glib, somewhat open to interpretation and somewhat convenient don't you think? Is it not contingent upon actual action being taken, and more than willing to consider inaction as delayed action? Or ignore it outright?

My second point is moot if I misunderstood you, but my comment does nothing of the sort that you suggest. Wilfully disregarding coincidence, my use of the word "suppose" and the fact that I constructed tense use in the same way as point one for consistency purposes in the cavalier way that you have; is precisely the list of reasons why no one in the sciences takes Jung seriously.

Nor does it address the point that there is nothing clean or quantifiable that would tie such an event (caused by God or otherwise) to the original request.

Does God do anything clean and quantifiable? History is unaware of any such incident, which makes your suggestion that He does somewhat unfounded.

Agree not all prayers are motivated on selfish grounds, but really, if you wanted "insight", given the Almighty's appalling track record in answering prayer (again, refer history - very indicting), let alone doing so clearly and unambiguously, I would suggest a cup of tea with a good friend, myself.

The problem gets worse if you assume that all events are caused by God, because free will has just walked out the door, by definition. You also cannot say (again, by definition) that intercessory prayer has any objective benefit over no prayer at all because the same events simply must occur.

Re your first dot point on free will and sovereignty: No you cannot, and I suspect that you knew this was a stretch.

Re your second point: No and definitely not. As you well know, the Crown is sovereign, not parliament. And as to why this has become a definite no, unless parliament has suddenly become omnipotent or omniscient or even infallible, you have dredged up a very silly example.

David B said...

G'day Dikkii

On sovereignty, I chose parliament, rather than the Crown, as my example because, under our system, the crown's role is primarily to give assent to laws that have been made by parliament. That is, sovereignty, in practice, is shared between the two, but it is the parliament who decides whether or not to legislate on a particular subject at all or, alternatively, to leave that subject as an area of free will for members of the society. The crown is therefore an even stronger example (than parliament) of the proposition that a sovereign does not have to dictate everything that other people do in order to still be sovereign.

The parliament / crown example is far from being silly - it is true that the parliament / crown is not omnipotent or omniscient or even infallible, but saying that these differences make the analogy with God's sovereignty silly assumes (falsely) that it follows from omnipotence, omniscience or infallibility that God will decide to intervene in any given situation (regardless of whether or not He is asked to do so).

On prayer, there is no need for any ex ante indication of whether He has heard a particular prayer. Ultimately, whether a person believes that a prayer will be heard, before they see the result, will depend on their view of the character of God (ie whether He is benevolent, reliable and trustworthy, or whether He is capricious, mean spirited etc). Based on the resurrection of Christ from the dead, I hold the former view.

Further, I also think that, human nature being what it is, people would be less likely (than they actually are) to acknowledge God as God if He made the world an easy, comfortable place in which to live. In that scenario, people would simply take His goodness to them for granted. Just because God is often opaque doesn't make Him any less real or benevolent.

Inaction could also be an answer to prayer - ie "no" or "wait", but that doesn't make it any less an answer. We may in fact be asking for a stone when God wants to give us bread. Not everything that we want is good for us.

Whilst I agree that it will often be the case that answers to prayer will not be clear and quantifiable, I do think that God does sometimes do clean and quantifiable - for example, there have been a number of instances in my experience where God has given me insights into situations or issues on which even good friends (with or without cups of tea) would have been hopeless. Good friends only have partial knowledge and insight, but God's knowledge and insight is perfect.

A couple of other queries / comments:

* re your second point, I was not wilfully disregarding anything or being in any way cavalier. The first sentence of your second point left that interpretation open, so thanks for the clarification. I am curious, however, as to why you link this to a critique of Jung....

* I am also not assuming that all events are caused by God. The fact that God is sovereign does not mean that everything that happens is dictated by Him (see the Crown / parliament example above).

* on the subject of decisions not to exercise free will, it appears that you are trying to assert that such a decision can only be made if it is pre-determined by someone else. What definition of free will are you using here?

Dikkii said...

Hi David,

I really wish that I'd hit free will on the head when Joel brought it up before. It is, mostly, irrelvant to this thread.

In any event, free will is the unfettered control of one's own destiny. Full stop. Without meaning to get existential on you, you can have no master/mistress. You can also have
no pre-known outcome (I'm not saying you can't have probable ones - but as we know, when dealing with an omniscient God, all outcome can only have a probability of one).

Parliament is an exceedingly poor comparison because of the following:

1. Parliament can only enact laws - they cannot enforce them. An omnipotent God can enforce.
2. Parliament can say what the population should and shouldn't do - they cannot make the population do stuff. An omnipotent God can.
3. Parliament can make laws to specify how people should act. They cannot know how people will act. An omniscient God does.
4. An omniscient God knows how all possible outcomes will eventuate. Parliament almost certainly does not.
5. One of parliament's functions is to resolve instances of legal failure. An infallible God would never have any such things.

I could go on like this but I won't. Needless to say, the Crown is even worse, unless you're an interventionist deist. Obviously such a concept is an assault on good taste, logic and both of our intelligences so we can eliminate that, although where superstition and apologetics are concerned, there really are no bounds.

Dikkii said...

Part 2.

I don't think that I can add to what I've already written about prayer above. Changing a pre-determined outcome is the same as God admitting to having fucked something up the first time.

If the change was what God originally intended, then why pray in the first place?

Dikkii said...

Part 3.

Jung. Why Jung? Well I'm not sure if it was deliberate, David, but you managed to defend all possible outcomes in your response without acknowledging that we are striving for a clear, Boolean affirmative. And it becomes an wasteful exercise if those yeses are not statistically probable.

(Never mind the point that if all possible outcome is predetermined, then it's also wasteful inefficience as well. But I digress)

Jung, you may recall ended up justifying even the likeliest of outcomes as glorious coincidence. Except it wasn't "coincidence" at all, it was "meant to be".

He also had a fair disregard for the scientific method - some have said that his stubborn belief in his own experience over double-blinded, bias-adjusted, sample-based controlled tests revealed a Christ complex of his own although I have to say that I'm not so sure about this.

I don't plan to reacquaint you with Jung's kooky ways, but I was a little cross at the time, and put simply, the idea that you are comfortable with the unfalsifiable notion that prayer achieves even inaction as an acceptable outcome makes me feel a little queasy.

Dikkii said...

Part 4

Forgot to add, if all you're after is "insight" then, again, the notion that prayer is required for Him to provide it is somewhat offensive.

Assuming that the insight that you get is objectively the most desirable outcome, then for Him to have been not providing this, is objectively less desirable and therefore imperfect. To change His mind after hearing a request, even just for insight, implies a correction. But to only appear to change His mind upon request is both dishonest, opportunist and a lay down misere if you're still fruitlessly arguing that intercessory prayer is capable of achieving anything.

In fact, the insistence that you pray almost becomes God's last browneye to the religious.