Nothing Fails Like Prayer, yet it continues

-- to ask God to do things – fulfill requests, grant favours, and generally use his supernatural powers to act on behalf of the petitioner. Internet prayer request pages overflow with theists asking others to pray for them so that they may be healed of sickness and injuries or delivered from financial troubles

However, as an application of simple logic shows, any prayer that asks God for anything is pointless. Is prayer going to bring to God’s attention a need of which he was not previously aware? Is it going to convince him to do something he was not already going to do? Both of these are impossible with an omniscient deity. On the contrary, if God is all-knowing, he already knows everyone’s desires without needing to be told.

Likewise, long before any believer ever begins praying for him to take a certain action, his infinite mind will have tabulated every possible reason for or against taking that action, judged the consequences of doing it versus not doing it and run down all the innumerable ramifications of each decision, and finally settled on the verdict that he knows will best achieve his goals.

Do theists, believing themselves to be unimaginably small and insignificant by comparison with the Almighty, hope to then change his mind? Do they hope to budge this divine calculus with a single whisper of supplication?

A prayer for God to do something he was already going to do is unnecessary; a prayer for God to do something he was not already going to do is futile.

And is it not in a way arrogant for a theist to ask God to take some action? Is it not a claim that they know better than he does how things should be? After all, if God is omniscient and omnipotent, nothing can happen if he does not desire it to happen. Nothing can happen against his will. Therefore, whatever state of affairs a theist seeks to change through prayer must be God’s will, and by seeking to change it, they are in essence saying that what God has done already is not good enough, or just plain wrong.

-- is to praise God, but this is even more unnecessary. God doesn’t need to be told how great he is or how thankful you are – he already knows, by definition. It serves no purpose for billions of people worldwide to tell him the same things over and over again every day (and if I were him, I’d be terrifically bored of it all by now).

Does he actually desire praise? Is he vain, or conceited? Is he susceptible to flattery? Did he create us just so that we could constantly tell him how great he is? Strangely, most theists who insist that life is purposeless without God have no problem with the notion that the high and mighty purpose for human existence decreed by God is to act as a sort of canned applause.

-- is to grow closer to God and build a personal relationship with him, much as you get closer to your friends by spending time with them. But think about this for a moment. What is the definition of “relationship” in this sense?

For a relationship of this kind to be healthy, I propose that the following things are necessary: a spirit of give and take, where each partner is willing to compromise to satisfy the other’s desires; the presence of open, honest communication, where each partner is aware of the other’s thoughts, wishes, feelings and motivations; a gradual increase of knowledge and trust as each partner comes to know the other one better over time; and an atmosphere of empathy and caring as each partner stays faithfully by the other’s side and comforts them in times of adversity.

The relationship believers claim to have with God lacks all of these things. For example, in the theistic relationship, there is no give and take, no compromise. The theist prays, and God either grants their request or does not depending on whether it accords with his predetermined plan. Any prayer – even one that the petitioner greatly and desperately desires – may be rejected out of hand, without explanation, if it does not conform to the mysterious divine plan which no human being is privileged to know.

Likewise, the theistic relationship has neither open two-way communication nor a gradual increase of understanding. Human beings may talk to God, but God never talks back. Though it would be well within his power, he never does something even as simple as replying to a prayer in an actual, audible voice. Believers who have faithfully worshipped God all their lives still do not claim to grasp his motives nor consistently understand his reasons; his ways remain just as mysterious to them as they ever were.

Finally, the theistic relationship offers no consoling in times of tragedy, no tangible source of comfort or reassurance. Lacking physical form, God cannot provide even the most minimal comfort one human being can offer another: the empathy of a simple touch, the contact of a hand. All the aid and comfort that a believer has in times of crisis comes from fellow humans, though that does not stop many of them from giving the credit to their deity of choice regardless.

This is another example of religious compartmentalization, of theists judging their faith by an entirely different set of standards than the ones they apply to everything else. Who can say they would ever put up with anything comparable from a human friend?

If prayer cannot provide the vital elements of a relationship, we must conclude that it cannot provide a relationship with God at all, and therefore its third major purpose also fails.

Yet the practice continues. Why?

Like many structures of theism, prayer also takes advantage of a common error in human thinking: the confirmation bias, also known as “counting the hits and forgetting the misses”. Across the world, billions of believers are praying millions of prayers each day; it is hardly surprising that some of them come true just by chance. Yet when believers pray for something and it happens, they hail it as a miracle, proof of the existence of God.

However, when they pray for something and it does not happen, they are usually not in the least disappointed. Instead, they merely assume that God, in his infinite wisdom, has decided not to grant their request for reasons beyond their comprehension, and these occasions are soon forgotten.

By contrast, the few rare occasions when prayers seemingly come spectacularly true are remembered and elevated to great significance. To complete the process of belief reinforcement, such testimonials are circulated throughout the community of like-believing theists, making it seem as if miraculous answers to prayer are common.

In addition to confirmation bias, prayer employs an effective psychological technique for strengthening learned behaviours, called intermittent reinforcement. As opposed to continuous reinforcement, in which the test subject receives a reward every time for performing some task, intermittent reinforcement rewards the desired behaviour only some of the time. Contrary to what one might expect, intermittent reinforcement produces a much stronger response, and one that takes much longer to die out even after the rewards stop coming.

As an example of this, compare a vending machine in a mall to a slot machine in the games parlour. A vending machine is a source of continuous reinforcement: you put money in and expect food to be returned every time. If a vending machine accepts your cash and does nothing in return, most people will not keep inserting coins. They will complain to the manager of the mall. By contrast, a gambler who believes that only a very few of his inputs will result in a jackpot will gladly sit and feed money into a slot machine all day.

In a similar way, the few prayers that come true by chance provide powerful incentive for believers to keep trying. To guard against the threat of believers coming to expect continuous reinforcement, and the rapid extinction of belief that would inevitably follow, theists are admonished not to test God, and taught to take responsibility on themselves when prayers go unanswered. (“If only I had more faith” or “If only I understood better what God wanted of me” are two popular all-purpose excuses.)

In the end, one question remains: If prayer cannot be a way to achieve our desires or build a personal relationship with the Creator, then what is it for?

What purpose does it then serve?

The answer to this question is obvious. The true purpose of prayer is to make the people who pray feel better – it is a way of making believers feel they have exerted some degree of control over a situation that is beyond their control. Indeed, this is one of the major purposes of religion.


I see hordes of people thronging all the temples of Mysore, specially the two temples near my house, not only during all festivities but on a regular basis.They do not have the all round education or the wherewithal to consult a modern medical physician or a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist to cure their chronic physical ailments or anxieties or depression. So they come there to subvocalize their problems to gods for succour.

It is only natural that people in such circumstances would be eager, even desperate, for a way to calm their fears and give themselves confidence, and this is what prayer provides. It gives believers a “direct line” to the highest power in the universe, the one whom they are told is on their side and will make sure everything turns out all right for them. This ability to cope has always been one of the major perceived benefits of religious belief, and atheists who seek to make inroads against theism would do well to remember it.

As long as the intellectual believers picture atheism as a bleak existence bereft of meaning or hope, they will always reject it regardless of the arguments offered in its favour. If atheism is ever to spread and flourish at least among the intellectual elite, we must overcome these misperceptions and show that, on the contrary, it leads to EMPATHY, PURPOSE AND POSITIVE ACTION.

The treacherous effects of Prayer
The most insidious effect of prayer is that it encourages believers to remain PASSIVE in times of crisis, waiting for divine deliverance that will never come, rather than taking effective action. Atheism, by contrast, teaches human beings to get up off their knees and begin living life. Rather than ask for all our wishes to be fulfilled, it is up to us to bring into existence the world that we want to live in.

As the great agnostic orator Robert Green Ingersoll wrote, “The hands that help are holier than the lips that pray.” A few institutions that follow this motto are the Red Cross & Doctors without borders.

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Comment by Ryan Leman on March 17, 2019 at 1:46am

lol just thought of this....there is one thing that fails like prayer, doing nothing at all fails just like prayer :D

Comment by Sofia Magee on January 11, 2019 at 8:25am
This is awesome
Comment by Michael Penn on December 22, 2018 at 7:48am

Yes, nothing fails like prayer. Thanks again for this wonderful piece about it. 

Recently I was talking with my long time theist friend and the subject of prayer came up. He offered me an event from his past where his brother fell and had a broken arm. The bone was even sticking out of that arm, but they all prayed for him and wrapped his arm in a blanket. By the time they got to the doctor he was all healed. Praise god for this Houdini like miracle. I say this because a blanket was used.

I offer also my own experience of watching and old Maxie Rosenbloom movie in which a picture of his deceased grandma came alive. With both guns blazing she shot Maxie's guns out of his hands. It was so funny. Recently I watched that again. There was only one gun used and it happened so much differently than I had remembered it. I first saw that movie when I was about 12 years old. Why was it so different now?

Is it possible that my friend's brother only had a sprained arm and there was no "bone sticking out?" What part of the godly magic trick did the blanket play in the remembered story? My believing theist friend would have also of been about 12 when god healed his brother. It seems to me that we believe in gods and prayers because we want to. 

Comment by Joan Denoo on December 17, 2018 at 2:06am

V.N.K.Kumar, thank you for this thoughtful piece of writing. Listening to the white supremacy population and their rationale for their beliefs was probably the experience that turned me away for religion. Teaching in an all-black classroom brushed away the stereotypes I learned as a white child in a mostly white northern city. Reading their stories written in their vernacular revealed human longings and dreams that seemed impossible, yet those kids had courage. I wonder what happened to them?



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