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.

Should you put God to the test?

Some people say God doesn’t like being tested, so he’s not going to cooperate with any experiments on the effectiveness of prayer. But the Bible disagrees. To give just a couple of examples: It says when Gideon was skeptical and asked for miraculous proof that God was really speaking to him, God supplied the exact signs Gideon requested, twice. And when Elijah wanted to show people that his God was a real God that would publicly perform miracles on command in order to prove his existence, God cooperated and sent fire from heaven.

The actions requested of God in both of these stories served no purpose but to test God, and God was fine with that. The God of the Bible clearly has no problem with being tested. And really, praying for something is always a test. Answered prayers are taken as evidence for God. If God wasn’t willing to be tested, then he would not be willing to answer any prayers.

So why do people think you shouldn’t put God to the test? That idea comes from a misinterpretation of what Moses once told the Israelites, that they shouldn’t put God to the test the way they did at Massah. And looking at what the Bible says happened at Massah, it sounds like what Moses meant was that they had been testing God’s patience, risking making him angry with their ingratitude. That’s what he’s telling people not to do.

Moses was not saying you shouldn’t ask God to do something unnecessary for you just to see if he’ll do it, since that’s not at all what happened at Massah, and since the Bible shows that God is willing to go along with that kind of thing. And Moses was definitely not saying you’re not allowed to ask God to do anything that would provide evidence of his existence, because then you wouldn’t be allowed to pray for anything at all.

There’s even a passage in the Bible where the prophet Isaiah gets annoyed by someone refusing to “put God to the test” in the sense of asking for a miracle as proof. He says that guy is actually putting God to the test now, testing God’s patience by refusing to do what he thinks is “putting God to the test”.

Does God need to stay hidden?

Some people say you don’t always get what you pray for because God needs to stay hidden. They say he can’t make it too obvious that he exists, because then people wouldn’t be able to freely choose to believe in him, or something.

First of all, that’s not how belief works. Belief is not a choice, and it should not be a choice. It should be a response to evidence. There’s nothing good about choosing to believe things in the absence of evidence. That’s how you get false beliefs. Only a liar would try to convince you that it was better to believe something with no evidence.

Anyway, seeing miracles wouldn’t force people to believe in God. There are plenty of good reasons to think that seemingly miraculous events have nothing to do with God. And even if people are convinced that he exists, they still have the option to reject God (for being morally unworthy, or because what he’s offering doesn’t make any sense, etc.). Plenty of people in the Bible witnessed miracles and believed they were from God, and still chose not to worship him.

So the choice to accept or reject God isn’t actually about whether he exists, so evidence of his existence is irrelevant to that. Unambiguously answered prayers would not take away the freedom to make that choice.

And the Bible certainly doesn’t portray God as needing to stay hidden. If he was trying not to make it obvious that he was there, he would never directly talk to anyone, he wouldn’t be performing all those miracles,5 and he wouldn’t write a best-selling book about it. In fact, a God who was trying to stay hidden would never answer prayers at all. The God of the Bible, in contrast, would never try to hide his existence from anyone, because he wants everyone to know the truth and be saved.

More excuses

Christians like to say that God always “answers” prayers, but his answer could be “yes” or “no”. If it’s not God’s will to do what you’re asking for, then he’s not going to do it. In other words, the outcome of praying for something is no different from the outcome of not praying. God is going to do whatever he wants, regardless of whether you pray or not. Prayer is ineffective and pointless.

Also, if praying for something and not getting it means it’s not God’s will for it to happen, that means you are acting against God’s will if you try to make it happen anyway. So why would you ever do something like go to a doctor? Either it’s God’s will for you to get better, so you should save some money by just letting God heal you instead, or it’s not God’s will for you to get better, so if you go to the doctor you are opposing God’s will. If you really think that anything you can’t get just by praying is not God’s will, then you should never do anything but pray.

Another way people make excuses for God failing to answer prayers is by moving the goalposts indefinitely. It’s meaningless to say God hasn’t failed to help you if there is no conceivable scenario where you would say he had failed to help you.

Some people say God shouldn’t be expected to take orders from you because he’s your master, not your servant. Sure, that makes sense, but like most of these excuses, it contradicts what Jesus said about prayer. If you say this, then you are disagreeing with Jesus, and you are agreeing with me that God does not answer prayers.

Some people even claim that getting what you ask for from God isn’t the purpose of prayer at all. They say the real purpose of prayer is to express gratitude, or to praise God, or to get closer to God,6 or to align yourself with God’s will. (Or maybe even just to get certain physical or mental health benefits that don’t even require there to be a God at all.)

That may be true for some kinds of prayer, but it’s absurd to say that the purpose of asking God for something isn’t to get it. People who pray for things do expect to get what they ask for.7 They only claim that prayers aren’t wishes when they need to make excuses for God’s inaction. And they are disagreeing with Jesus, who clearly says you can ask God for anything and you will certainly get it. Anyway, if this is what you believe, then you basically agree with me that it makes no sense to pray for anything.

Another possible excuse for God failing to answer prayers is that people don’t have enough faith. Some parts of the Bible do say it requires faith, but other parts just say you will always get what you ask for, without any belief requirements. Anyway, Jesus says you only need the tiniest bit of faith to be able to move mountains. In reality, there are lots of people in the world who have way too much faith, and they don’t get any better results from prayer than anyone else.

If not even the most devout believers in the world have enough faith or righteousness or whatever the requirement for getting your prayers answered supposedly is, then there’s no point in claiming that God ever answers prayers at all. It would amount to saying that God will be happy to do what you ask, as long as you can do something that no one in the world can do. If that’s how you believe it is, then saying that God answers prayers is an absurdly misleading way to put it.

Some people say religious concepts like prayer are outside the domain of science, so they can’t be tested. But that would mean prayer can never have any effect on the physical world. If it did have any observable effect, it wouldn’t be outside the domain of science. So you can only use this excuse if you’re willing to admit that praying for things never gets results.

Some people object to the way prayer is done in studies on prayer. They say God shouldn’t be expected to take prayers seriously when a bunch of people are just reading almost identical scripted prayers for the healing of strangers they’ve never met and know almost nothing about, just because another stranger asked them to.

This objection would make sense, except the Bible clearly says God will do whatever you ask him for. It doesn’t make any exceptions for situations like this, or for any other kinds of prayers that some people might claim God doesn’t approve of. Also, predetermined fixed prayer formulas aren’t really unusual in religious practice.

Note that if God actually did answer prayers, believers would not be making any of these claims about why God doesn’t answer your prayers. They never claim that God has to stay hidden, etc. in cases where they believe God has answered prayers.

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