Tag Archives: prayer

The Story of Jonah and the Fish
It was This Big!

God told a prophet named Jonah to go to the Assyrian city of Nineveh and announce that it would be destroyed soon. But Jonah knew God well enough to know that he wouldn’t actually do what he said he would do. Jonah didn’t think it would be right to deliver a false prophecy, so he ran away from God and hid on a ship that was going somewhere else.1

But God sent a storm, which nearly wrecked the ship. The sailors found out that Jonah had angered his God and brought a storm on their ship. So Jonah suggested they throw him overboard, to divert God’s wrath away from the ship. But the sailors didn’t want to kill him. They tried to sail back and return him to land, so he could resume his mission.

But God liked Jonah’s idea better, so he made the storm worse and prevented them from getting back to land. So the sailors reluctantly threw Jonah overboard, and the storm stopped. God sent a huge fish, which swallowed Jonah and then threw him up on land three days later.

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It was This Big!
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Why it makes no sense to pray for anything

Jesus says believers can ask him/God for anything they want, and he will do it. As long as you have even the tiniest amount of faith, nothing will be impossible for you, not even moving mountains. Whatever you ask for in prayer will be yours, if you believe it will be.

Well, some parts of the Bible suggest that you might have to ask in the name of Jesus, and have somebody else agree with you on what you’re asking for. The Bible says the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective, so just make sure you have a clear conscience, and you can get anything you ask for. As long as it’s God’s will, anyway…

But actually, the Bible says God gives generously to all without finding fault, so forget about all those apparent preconditions (belief, righteousness, agreement, asking in Jesus’s name, aligning with God’s will, etc.). None of those things are even required before God will give you what you ask for. If you don’t have what you want, it’s only because you haven’t asked God for it. Jesus agrees: he taught that everyone who asks receives. God even gives good gifts to evil people if they ask.

Of course, Jesus and the Bible are wrong, as usual. In reality, nobody ever gets what they want because they prayed for it.

Testing the claim

Scientific experiments

Since Jesus makes such a strong claim, that you can ask for anything in prayer and God will always give you what you ask for, all it takes to disprove that claim is to observe one single case of someone not getting what they prayed for. But we can do better than that. Even the weaker claim that prayer sometimes gets results can be disproved. When people have tried actually rigorously testing the hypothesis that prayer has a healing effect, most of the studies have found no healing effect.

Why only most? A few false positives are to be expected by chance, even if there is no real effect. But usually when a study seems to show that prayer works, it’s because that study is flawed. The more a study is well-designed, the less effect of prayer it finds.

In some of the studies, the subjects all knew they were being prayed for, which is the only reason they felt better afterwards. As shown by other studies that found that people felt better when they thought people were praying for them, not when people actually were praying for them.

(Although not even that placebo effect consistently works. Some well-done studies have found that the patients who didn’t know they were being prayed for had worse outcomes than the ones who weren’t being prayed for at all, and the people who knew they were being prayed for ended up even worse off than that.

Maybe that knowledge gave those patients performance anxiety, or maybe the patients interpreted doctors resorting to prayer as an indication that their situation was hopeless. Or maybe there’s no real effect here either way, just minor random variation.)

Then there’s this study, where there weren’t enough subjects involved, and the statistical analysis was done by a biased person without sufficient blinding (a problem other prominent prayer studies have had as well), and they claimed success based on outcomes other than what they were originally supposed to be testing for, and they failed to control for which patients had health insurance, and they didn’t distinguish between prayer and other supernatural healing methods, and it’s not clear whether actual prayer was even involved at all.

And that’s not the worst one that has been done. Another study on prayer had an even smaller sample size and no control group, and was not double-blinded. And it was funded by the Templeton Foundation, which gives the researchers a corrupt incentive to report results in favor of religion regardless of what they actually find.

Even the few prayer studies that are pretty well designed and still get so-called positive results show much more limited effects than you’d expect from an all-powerful God. If the difference in outcomes between groups in those studies was really caused by God and not chance, why would that difference merely be something like 14% of patients in the prayer group getting a bad outcome vs 22% in the control group? And why would most of the outcome variables measured show no effect of prayer, including variables like “recovering quickly” and “not dying”, which were outcomes that people were specifically praying for?

There was one study on prayer (for increasing fertility) that did find quite a significant effect size… but that study turned out to be completely fraudulent.

Keep in mind that these specific studies I’m mentioning here are just the few where prayer appeared to get fairly good results. The vast majority of studies on prayer have found no significant effect at all.

Anyway, maybe studies on prayers for sick people shouldn’t be taken as evidence for or against the effectiveness of prayer, because prayer is awfully hard to control for. Most people who are sick are already going to be praying and/or having others pray for them, so it would be hard to be sure you actually had a non-prayer group of patients to compare with. It’s probably better to assess the effectiveness of prayer by looking at something that people aren’t going to be praying about already.

Informal experiments

Most people don’t even bother keeping track of which of their prayers were or were not successful, and as a result they only remember the times when they got what they asked for. But if you do try keeping track, you’ll find that most of your prayers actually go unanswered.

You can also try keeping track of the same things you would have asked God for, but without praying. Or you could try praying to a jug of milk or something instead. It won’t make any difference. You will get about the same success rate as when you prayed to God, because all the “answered prayers” you’ve experienced were just coincidences. (Of course, to make it a fair comparison, you have to make sure that the way you evaluate the results of praying to the milk jug is just as biased as the way you evaluate the results of praying to God.)

An even easier way to test whether prayer has any effect is to try asking God to do something that unambiguously could not possibly happen without supernatural intervention. After all, if you believe you have access to an all-powerful prayer-answering God, why limit your requests to things that can happen without God’s help? Jesus promised that believers can pray for things that seem impossible, and they will get what they ask for.

So ask God to do something like moving a mountain, or making a coin land the same way 50 times in a row. Or if you prefer, try asking him to do something more useful, like restoring an amputated limb, or eliminating all cases of a common disease. And to make sure that what’s happening is unambiguous, ask him to do it instantly and without help from humans.1

When you ask for something unambiguous like that, you never get it. It doesn’t matter how good a reason you have for wanting the miracle to happen.2 It also doesn’t make any difference if you make sure to fulfill all the conditions that the Bible sometimes says (and sometimes doesn’t say) are required for your prayers to be answered.

If the only way it can happen is with God’s help, it will never happen. You only get “results” from prayer when you ask for something mundane, something that can happen even though there’s no God listening to you.

Consider the massive amount of evil that is constantly happening in the world. There must be so many people praying all the time for God to stop those things from happening, yet they continue to happen. God clearly isn’t answering prayers. And if he’s not willing for whatever reason to do anything about all the world’s big important problems, do you really think he’s going to take your trivial personal requests? The little things you ask for and get are just things that would have happened anyway.

When one or a few people pray during a disaster and end up being the only survivors, this is taken as evidence that prayer is effective. But were those people really the only ones who prayed? Most people are religious, so probably not.3 You just don’t hear about the rest praying, because dead people don’t get to talk about what happened when they prayed, so everyone ignores them. But most of the people affected by the disaster likely did pray, and most of those people who prayed didn’t survive. So no, that is not evidence that prayer is effective.4

Similarly, lots of extremely ill people pray for recovery, and lots of them don’t recover. But the few who do recover are the only ones you get to hear talking about what happened when they prayed. So if you don’t actively look into the numbers, you can easily get a very distorted impression of the effectiveness of prayer. In reality, prayer has no effect on death rates.

One more observation-based thing to note: There were much higher rates of premature death before we had modern medicine, even though prayer was no less common than it is today. Similarly, there are much lower rates of premature death in countries where prayer is relatively uncommon but that do have access to modern medicine, compared to less developed but more religious countries. Health outcomes are correlated with human progress only, and prayer clearly has no effect.

You don’t even have to test it to know that prayer won’t get results

Stand up! What are you doing down on your face?

God

What happens if you pray for something that requires other people to do something? Either God doesn’t respect people’s free will and will force those people to do things just because you asked him to, or the outcome of your prayer depends on those people’s decisions rather than on God.

Or what happens if two people pray for incompatible outcomes? They’re not both going to get what they asked for. Jesus’s claim that all prayers will be answered isn’t even logically possible.

But why should prayer even be needed? A good God would protect everyone from harm all the time, not just when they prayed. So why pray? Do you think God doesn’t already know what you need? If an all-knowing God hasn’t helped you already without you praying, it’s because either God is not good, or helping you isn’t actually the right thing to do. Either way, praying isn’t going to make any difference.

They say God has a plan, and everything that ever happens happens for a good reason, since it’s all part of God’s perfect plan. This idea is incompatible with the idea of a prayer-answering God. Not everything people want is going to be part of God’s original plan, so any prayers that don’t happen to fit into the plan are going to have to go unfulfilled.

What else could God do? Do you really expect God to change his plan just because a human asks him to? Why would you even want him to? Do you think you know better than God? To ask God to do what you want is to say that you think his own plan isn’t good enough. Prayer is blasphemy.

God already knew what you would want, and he already took that into account in his original decision. Either he was already going to do what you think he should do, so asking him to do it is pointless, or he already decided it wasn’t the right thing to do, which means you are asking God to do something bad. Do you think God is going to agree to do something bad for you? Do you think just because you think the alternative course of events would be bad, God is going to prevent it, and thereby prevent all the greater good consequences that he knows it will have?

Because according to a popular theistic argument, every seemingly undesirable event that ever happens was planned by God for a reason. It must have some awfully important planned consequences, if God was willing to intentionally plan for that unpleasant event to happen, just so those consequences could happen. So God is certainly not going to let you disrupt his perfect plan and prevent all the good that was going to happen because of that event, just because you said so. He’s going to ignore your prayer.

If God is all-knowing and all-good, then he doesn’t need you to tell him what to do, and he isn’t going to let you. Or, if God does let imperfect humans influence his actions, then God is imperfect.

Making excuses for God

Believers have plenty of explanations for why God doesn’t answer prayers. It’s easy to come up with excuses for God when you’ve had so much practice because God has been constantly disappointing you all your life.

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The Story of Elijah’s God Contest
The Gods Must Be Lazy

During the reign of the evil King Ahab, some of the Israelites began to abandon their God. They started worshiping another god, called Baal. So Elijah, a prophet of God, challenged Ahab and the 450 prophets of Baal. He had them meet him on a mountain in the presence of the people of Israel.

Elijah had a bull killed and put it on an altar to sacrifice it to God, but didn’t set it on fire. The prophets of Baal did the same for their god. The prophets kept calling to Baal all day, asking him to prove his existence by setting his bull on fire himself, but Baal didn’t respond. Elijah suggested shouting louder, in case Baal was asleep or something, but that didn’t help.

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The Gods Must Be Lazy
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The Story of the House of Saul
The Children's Teeth Are Set on Edge

During David’s reign, there was a famine in Israel. After it had gone on for three years, David asked God why there was a famine. God explained that he was punishing dead king Saul for trying to kill all the Gibeonites after Joshua had promised they wouldn’t be killed.

King David asked the remaining Gibeonites how he could make amends. They said they would like it if he helped them kill seven descendants of Saul. (Whose whole family had already been killed off.)

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The Children's Teeth Are Set on Edge
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The Story of King Absalom
A Man’s Enemies Are the Members of His Own Household

David’s son Amnon was obsessed with his beautiful sister Tamar. Amnon’s nephew advised him to pretend to be sick. Then he could request a meal to be served to him in bed by his sister. So he did. When Tamar went to Amnon’s bedroom and tried to give him some food, he wouldn’t eat it. Instead, he told her to get in bed with him.

Tamar said she couldn’t do that right now, because that would be foolish and wicked and disgraceful. They should get married first! She was sure their righteous father David would allow his children to marry each other. But Amnon ignored her proposal, raped her, and sent her away. Absalom, another son of David, saw Tamar crying, and he told her to shut up. He said she should stop taking Amnon’s actions so seriously, because he was just her brother.

King David was not happy with what Amnon had done. Two years later, Absalom had Amnon killed. David heard that all his sons had been killed, and he wasn’t happy about that, either. When he found out that only Amnon was dead, he was just slightly more happy. Absalom wasn’t allowed to see his father for two years. Then Absalom set Joab’s barley field on fire, which convinced him to let Absalom visit David.

Absalom became popular (despite his disgracefully long hair) by kissing all the men who came to see King David. Then Absalom was able to get the people to declare him king of Israel. When David heard that his son was trying to overthrow him, he and most of his household ran away. But he made ten of his girlfriends stay behind to take care of his palace.

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A Man’s Enemies Are the Members of His Own Household
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Does God listen to sinners?

No.

We all know that God doesn’t listen to sinners, but only to godly people who do his will. That’s what a man said in the gospel of John, when he was defending Jesus against the Pharisees.

There are several passages in the Old Testament that agree with that statement. A psalmist wrote that if he had cherished sin, God wouldn’t have listened to him. Solomon said God hears the prayers of the righteous, but is far from the wicked. He also said that if anyone ignored his moral instruction, their prayers would be detestable. When God’s people sinned, their prayers just made him angry, and he wouldn’t listen to them. He covered himself with a prayer-proof cloud!

If you half-heartedly engage in religious rituals, but your behavior isn’t actually good, you can’t expect God to hear you, because your sins separate you from God and hide his face from you. If you don’t listen when God calls, God won’t listen when you call. God doesn’t even want to let wicked people ask him anything in the first place.

Even just being related to a sinner was enough to keep Saul from getting an answer from God. God pretty much never listens to people at all, so of course he doesn’t listen to sinners. Or is it that he always listens to everyone, so he does of course listen to sinners…?

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Christian values vs the Bible

As an atheist who reads the Bible daily, I sometimes wonder if Christians read the Bible at all. They sure don’t act like it.

Why do Christians think they need to dress up in their finest clothes when they go to church? The Bible certainly doesn’t say they should do that. On the contrary, it says women, at least, should not adorn themselves with expensive clothes and jewelry and stuff. Christians seem to have decided that Sunday is disobey-the-Bible day.

Why do Christians think it’s proper to call priests, monks, the Pope, etc. “Father”? Jesus clearly told his followers not to call anyone “Father” except God.

Jesus also said it was wrong to take any kind of oath. Yet Christians don’t usually seem to see taking oaths as a bad thing. Avoiding oaths seems to be more associated with atheists. Most Christians have no problem with swearing on the book that tells them not to swear by anything.

Christians generally think following your conscience is good, important, and one of the best ways to make sure you’re doing right. The Bible, on the other hand, says it’s quite possible for your conscience to mislead you, making you think you’re doing right when you’re really doing wrong. It says a lot of people have no idea that they’re doing anything wrong, so their conscience clearly isn’t doing them any good. You have to train yourself to distinguish good from evil, because your conscience is naturally so unreliable. So if the Bible is right, trusting your conscience is a terrible idea!

Some Christians think it’s wrong for a couple to live together when they’re not married. But not only does the Bible not forbid that, it commands it in certain cases.

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Does God listen to humans?

Yes, he does it all the time

The Bible is full of stories where God listens to humans and does what they ask.

More than once, when God was tempted to destroy all of Israel except Moses, Moses pointed out some reasons he shouldn’t do that. And God decided to let his people live. On the journey to the promised land, the Israelites said they wished they had meat, and God heard them and gave them meat.

When Moses, Aaron, and Samuel called on God’s name, he answered them. When Samuel cried out to God because the Philistines were attacking Israel, God answered him and scared the Philistines away.

When David asked God to stop killing innocent people instead of punishing the person who had displeased him, God answered his prayer and did as he asked. (But only after David made him a sacrifice.) God didn’t ignore David; he listened to his cries for help.

When Solomon expressed his desire for the temple he built to be God’s home forever, God heard him and agreed to what he said. And just as Solomon asked, he promised to listen whenever people prayed toward that temple.

When God made Jeroboam’s hand shrivel up and Jeroboam asked a prophet to ask God to fix it, God did so. When Asa asked God to help him defeat the vast Cushite army, God struck them down. When Manasseh the evil king of Judah was captured by the Assyrians, he repented and prayed, and God let him go home. Hezekiah had Isaiah pray for God to listen to the Assyrians mocking him, and God responded by sending an angel to kill a bunch of Assyrians and scare the rest away.

When the Arameans tried to kill Jehoshaphat of Judah because they mistook him for the evil king of Israel, he cried out and God rescued him. Later, Jehoshaphat told God that a hopelessly vast army of multiple nations was attacking Judah. He pointed out that it was God’s fault that those nations were there, and that God was expected to save his people from disaster when they cried out to him at his temple. So he did.

Elisha prayed for God to bring a boy back to life, and to manipulate what certain people could or couldn’t see, and God did everything he asked. When Jeremiah spoke to God on behalf of other people, he turned his wrath away from them. Jonah was eaten alive by a fish, but then he called to God for help, and God listened and answered his cry.

God listens and complies even when you might think he wouldn’t

In the days of the judges, whenever Israel was taken over by their enemies, God would hear the people lamenting their oppression and would send someone to save them. Even after he claimed he was never going to save them again, he couldn’t help sending someone to rescue them when they asked him to.

The Israelites asked for a human king, and even though God was displeased, he listened to them and gave them a king. And when Samuel called on God to send a storm out of season as a sign of his disapproval, God did just what Samuel said. Then when the king needed to know why God had stopped helping him, he asked God to communicate through various instruments of divination to indicate who had done wrong, and God complied.

Abraham repeatedly asked God to spare the city of Sodom if he could find enough righteous people there, and God wasn’t bothered; he agreed every time. When God heard how upset Hezekiah was that God had decided he would never recover from his illness, God changed his plan and let Hezekiah recover. When Ezekiel pointed out how abhorrent God’s orders were, God changed his command to make it a little less horrible. When Amos objected to the things God was planning to do to his people, God canceled his plans.

When Gideon was skeptical and asked for miraculous proof that God was really speaking to him, God supplied the exact signs Gideon requested, twice. When Elijah wanted to show people that his God was a real God that would perform miracles on command in order to prove his existence, God cooperated and sent fire from heaven.

When Elijah wanted to murder a hundred men just because he could, God cooperated and sent more fire down from heaven. When some soldiers from Israel cried out to God to help them defeat their enemies, God helped them defeat their enemies. And then when some soldiers from Judah cried out to God to help them defeat Israel, God helped them do that, too. When Naaman asked to be allowed to bow down to an idol, God told him to go ahead.

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