Chapter 11 - Reviewing the evidence about prayer


At the beginning of this section, we looked to the Bible and found that Jesus makes a number of specific and remarkable promises having to do with prayer. For example, in Matthew 7:7 Jesus says:

    Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. Or what man of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!
In Matthew 17:20 Jesus reiterates that same message:
    For truly, I say to you, if you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you."
Jesus says something similar in Matthew 21:21:
    I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, 'Go, throw yourself into the sea,' and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer."
Jesus says something even more straightforward in Mark 11:24:
    Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.
In John chapter 14 Jesus describes just how easy prayer can be:
    12 "Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I go to the Father. 13 Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it, that the Father may be glorified in the Son; 14 if you ask anything in my name, I will do it.
In the case of medical problems, James 5:15-16 says:
    And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.
Jesus' message in the Bible is so clear and simple. God answers prayers. Ask and you will receive. The message is reiterated over and over again. In Mark 9:23: "All things are possible to him who believes." In Luke 1:37: "For with God nothing will be impossible." Nothing is impossible through prayer.

However, when you look at the world around you, you find that things are not like that at all. You find yourself surrounded by contradictions:

  • God never answers the prayers of amputees. If he did, we would see amputated limbs spontaneously regenerating every day.
  • God never moves mountains -- if he did, we would see mountains moving around all the time.
  • God never answers impossible prayers -- if he did, people would be flying through the air like superman on a regular basis.
  • God never answers prayers that turn people into puppets -- if he did, then you are a puppet.
  • God never answers prayers that break the laws of nature -- if he did, then scientific equations and computer models would have to take God's random antics into account.
  • God never answers prayers that break the laws of probability -- if he did, then every believer would be rich and Las Vegas could not exist.
  • When two people pray opposite one another, obviously someone's prayer will go unanswered. If a million people pray for the same thing but only one can have it (e.g. - winning the lottery), then by definition 999,999 people will have their prayers unanswered.
  • God doesn't answer medical prayers -- otherwise the U.S. would not need to spend $2 trillion a year on health care.
  • God doesn't answer prayers to avert natural disasters -- if he did, hurricanes would not hit the U.S.
It is easy to see that God does not answer all of these different kinds of prayers. It is obvious through casual observation, but it is also easily proven with statistics. Statistical studies do not show any effects from praying. [ref] When people talk about "the power of prayer", what we are actually witnessing is "the power of coincidence."

So let's agree on this point -- God does not answer prayers. Something this apparent should not be hard to accept, and this conclusion perfectly fits the evidence that we see in the world around us. There is no evidence whatsoever that any human god answers prayers. There are mountains of empirical and statistical evidence showing that prayers are never answered.

If it is this obvious, then why do believers so adamantly insist that God answers prayers? Why is there an entire industry built around inspirational literature? Why do believers demand prayer in public schools? Why do believers hang onto the idea of prayer so strongly when it is quite obvious that God does not answer prayers? To answer these questions, please see Understanding Christian Motivations.

The problem with prayer

The problem with prayer is simple: prayer is an illusion, and the people who believe in prayer must ignore reality in order to believe in it. If you look at the data rationally, you can see exactly what is happening here:

  • When we pray to God about any unambigous situation, God never answers the prayer. For example, if we pray to God to restore an amputated limb, absolutely nothing happens. See this page for an in-depth discussion.

  • When we analyse any ambiguous prayer using statistical tools, we find zero effect from prayer. For example, if we have Christians pray for 1,000 cancer patients, those patients do not recover any faster or live any longer.
In other words, the data shows us that every "answered prayer" truly is a coincidence, nothing more. God doesn't "answer prayers" at all. The whole idea that "God answers prayers" is an illusion created by human imagination.

Christians, unfortunately, must ignore reality in order to believe in prayer.

Whether you are a Christian or not, I think we would agree that people who "ignore reality" and "turn off their ability to process factual information" have some sort of problem. And the problem is serious. For example, we would probably agree people who ignore reality are not the sort of people who we want in positions of responsibility in our society. And yet, Christians cling to their beliefs.

Thus, Christians find themselves in extremely awkward and, quite frankly, embarrassing positions. They must "believe" that God answers their prayers even though it is quite obvious that he does not. They find themselves in uncomfortable conversations like this one:

    Chris: God DOES exist! God IS all-loving and all-powerful! God DOES answer prayers! God is real and I have a living relationship with him every day! Lift up your heart and accept the Lord Jesus into your life today!

    Norm: Can you give me an example?

    Chris: Absolutely. Just yesterday I locked my keys in my car, and I prayed to God. Not five minutes later my husband came home unexpectedly for lunch and let me into the house. God answered my prayer yesterday!

    Norm: Can you not see that this was a coincidence?

    Chris: Absolutely not. God made my husband come home at that moment. God did it.

    Norm: Wouldn't that make your husband God's puppet?

    Chris: Absolutely not.

    Norm: So… God answered your specific prayer in five minutes by sending your husband home. God actually reached down onto planet earth and guided your husband. But on the same day, God allowed thousands of praying people around the globe to die of starvation, and he allowed thousands of praying patients to die of cancer and other diseases, and he allowed thousands more praying people to lose their jobs, die in accidents, contract diseases, etc.?

    Chris: Yes, God answers MY prayers.

    Norm: Does that make sense to you? Why would God have a relationship with you so intimate that he personally solves your most trivial problems, while at the same time he has given thousands of people new cancers today?

    Chris: God loves me.

    Norm: And what about the times when you pray for something and he doesn't answer your prayer? Or all the millions of people whose very sincere prayers go unanswered each day?

    Chris: When God does not answer my prayers, it's because it is not part of his plan.

    Norm: God has a plan for each of us?

    Chris: Yes, of course he does. God has counted every hair on my head. God has a plan for me.

    Norm: So… God's plan was for millions of people to die horrible deaths in the Holocaust? He planned that?

    Chris: Yes.

    Norm: Isn't a being who commits the pre-meditated murder of millions of people an abomination -- a horrific monster?

    Chris: Of course not. God is all-loving.

    Norm: Then what if God's plan for you is for you to die after being raped, tortured and then stabbed to death by a serial killer? When you pray for escape, God totally ignores you and you die because that is his plan for you. Would you say that God answered your prayers in that case?

    Chris: God would never let that happen to me. God loves me. God answers my prayers.

    Norm: Then how, exactly, did God totally ignore millions of praying people who died in the Holocaust?

    Chris: They were not believers. God punished them.

    Norm: OK... Then why did God kill the tens of millions of praying believers -- both soldiers and civilians -- who died during WWII? Why would God send your husband home for lunch, but completely ignore these millions of other people.

    Chris: It was all part of God's plan.

This discussion can go on and on and on like this, cycling endlessly. The believer appears to be unhinged on multiple levels. It seems to be the only way for the believer to maintain the internal illusion that God exists and that God wrote the Bible.

An Insane God

Simply look at the world we live in. All around us we have murderers, rapists, robbers, child molesters, terrorists, etc...

How do they do their deeds? If God is all-knowing and God answers prayers, then we have to believe that:

  1. God watches them as they murder, rape, molest and terrorize other people millions of times a day, but he does nothing to stop them.
  2. God watches the victims as they are being murdered, raped, molested and terrorized, but he does nothing to help them.
  3. God completely ignores the prayers of the planet to eliminate murder, rape, child molestation and terrorism and allows these atrocities to continue unabated.
According to the Standard Model of God, God is an omniscient, all-powerful, all-loving being who answers prayers. Imagine God sitting on his magnificent throne in heaven looking down upon Earth, seeing every detail. God speaks:
    "Look at all of those praying people getting tortured in that death camp. Excellent! I won't do anything to stop that. And look at that little girl down there being raped and murdered. Perfect! She is praying like mad, and so is her mother, but I won't do anything to stop that. And there are three terrorists preparing to blow up a church and kill 1,500 people who are saying the Lord's Prayer to me right now. Outstanding! I won't do anything to stop that. How wonderful it is that 1,000 prayerful people will die of starvation today in Ethiopia. I love it! I won't do anything to stop that. Oh… and there's little Suzy Jankins praying that I remove that pimple from her nose for her big date with Chad tomorrow. Let me go help Suzy right now…"

Key Point

If you believe that God is specifically reaching down from heaven to answer your trivial prayer to remove a zit or to help you find your lost keys, while at the same time God is allowing 27,000 children to die of starvation each day by specifically ignoring their prayers, then your God is insane.
Do you believe in a God who acts like this? Of course not. If you believe that God is specifically reaching down from heaven to answer your trivial prayer to remove a zit or to help you find your lost keys, while at the same time God is allowing 27,000 children to die of starvation each day by specifically ignoring their prayers, then your God is insane.

Yet, if you believe in a God that answers your trivial prayers each day, this is exactly the type of insane God that you are worshiping. And you look insane for believing it.

The Power of Coincidence

What, then, is actually happening when God "answers" a prayer? Let's take a simple example of a trivial prayer:

    "I had finally gotten to the end of my rope with women, so I simply gave it up to God. I prayed, 'Lord, I need you to send me a sign. When you have found the woman you want me to marry, I want you to show me by letting her birthday be on the same day as my mother's. Amen.' And you know what? About a year later I met a woman, and she was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen, and eventually I got up enough nerve to ask her out. On our first date we had such a great time I asked her when her birthday was. It was the same day as my mother! I told her about my prayer, and we got married six months later. We have been happily married for 15 years."
That seems like an amazing event. It is so amazing that it must be the hand of God, right? It seems like a one in a million chance -- impossible without divine intervention. How could this man actually find a woman with the exact same birthday as his mother???

It is nothing but a coincidence. And it is not a "one in a million" shot. The chance is 1 in 365 that any woman will have the same birthday as his mother.

What really happened? If the woman had had the wrong birthday, the man would not have married her, and eventually he would have found someone who was a match. Or, he would have simply forgotten about the prayer and married her anyway. In that case, we would not have heard the story.

Coincidences -- even remarkable ones -- happen all the time. The "power of prayer" should actually be called the "power of coincidence." The dictionary defines the word "coincidence" in this way:

    A sequence of events that although accidental seems to have been planned or arranged. [ref]
"Answered prayers" are always coincidences, nothing more. The easy way to see that is to count unanswered prayers along with answered prayers and analyze the statistics. As soon as you do the statistical analysis you unmask the illusion of prayer.

You could pray for 20 trivial things today:

  1. Pray for your car to start in the morning.
  2. Pray for traffic to be light so you get to work on time.
  3. Pray that you don't get fired for the mistake you made yesterday.
  4. Pray that the coffee stain on your purse comes out.
  5. Pray that it doesn't rain.
  6. Pray that the price of a stock has gone up.
  7. Pray that your computer doesn't crash.
  8. Pray that your son got a decent grade on his math test.
  9. Pray that there's enough money in your checking account.
  10. Pray that the guy you went out with on Saturday calls you.
  11. Pray that your mother in law cancels her trip for the weekend.
  12. Pray for there to be an available washing machine at the Laundromat when you get there.
  13. Pray that your car passes inspection.
  14. Pray that they have your size in the shoes you are thinking about buying at the mall.
  15. Pray that the envelope you are opening contains a check rather than a bill.
  16. Pray that your cat didn't pee on the new sofa.
  17. Pray for your baby not to wake you up tonight screaming so you can get some sleep.
  18. Pray that you have the winning bid for that camera on EBay.
  19. Pray that they have the video you want at the video store tonight.
  20. Pray that your team wins the game on Sunday.
Some of your prayers would get "answered," some would not. The next day you could simply watch 20 trivial things happen without praying. Some would work out, some would not. There would be no difference. The act of praying about them does not change the outcome.

Coincidences happen to all of us every day. If you are a believer, you handle those coincidences in the following way:

  • If something nice happens, you attribute that to God -- he answered your prayer and is "looking out" for you.

  • If you pray for something and it does not happen, or if something bad happens, you rationalize that it is part of "God's plan" (see chapter 8). It is "his will" that this bad event happens.
An unbiased observer looks at the same good and bad events and sees them for what they are -- random events. God has nothing to do with them.

It is the same with any superstition. Walking under a ladder is not "bad luck". Neither is breaking a mirror. Neither is seeing a black cat. Statistics prove that a broken mirror has zero effect on your life. In the same way, statistics prove that God never answers prayers.

If you are a believer, try this experiment. Go for a week without praying. You will find that things work and don't work in exactly the same way that they do if you pray. Coincidences and problems still happen whether you pray or not, and in the same numbers. Prayer has no effect on the outcome. Good coincidences will not stop happening if you stop praying. Bad coincidences do not stop happening no matter how much you pray.

The dictionary defines the word "superstition" in this way:

    An irrational belief that an object, action, or circumstance not logically related to a course of events influences its outcome. [ref]
The belief in prayer is a superstition. When a prayer appears to be answered, it is a coincidence. You have seen dozens of examples in chapters five through ten that demonstrate the coincidental nature of "answered prayers."

Proving it to yourself

What I would ask you to do at this point is simple. I would like you to think this whole thing through. You have seen lots of evidence. What do you believe? Either:

    Assertion #1: You believe what Jesus says in the Bible about prayer. When Jesus says in the Bible that anyone with faith can move a mountain, you believe him, even though no one has ever moved a mountain. When Jesus says that nothing will be impossible for you, you believe him, even though God has never healed an amputee. When Jesus says that he will do anything that you ask in his name, you believe him even though you can ask for something right now and he will completely ignore you. You believe in prayers despite the evidence to the contrary.
Or:
    Assertion #2: You do not believe what Jesus says about prayer in the Bible. You simply look at the world around you and you can see that it is not true. God does not answer prayers.
The first assertion is incompatible both with common sense and with everything that you experience every day. There are thousands of examples. You see the world each day, and it is quite obvious that God does not answer prayers. It has been said before, but let's repeat it here:
  • God never answers the prayers of amputees. If he did, we would see amputated limbs spontaneously regenerating every day.
  • God never moves mountains -- if he did, we would see mountains moving around all the time.
  • God never answers impossible prayers -- if he did, people would be flying through the air like superman on a regular basis.
  • God never answers prayers that turn people into puppets -- if he did, then you are a puppet.
  • God never answers prayers that break the laws of nature -- if he did, scientific equations and computer models would have to take God's random antics into account.
  • God never answers prayers that break the laws of probability -- if he did, then every prayerful believer would be rich and Las Vegas could not exist.
  • When two people pray opposite one another, obviously someone's prayer will go unanswered. If a million people pray for the same thing (e.g. - winning the lottery) but only one can have it, then by definition 999,999 people will be left in the cold.
  • God doesn't answer medical prayers -- otherwise the U.S. would not need to spend $2 trillion a year on health care.
  • God doesn't answer prayers to avert natural disasters -- if he did, hurricanes would never hit the U.S.
If God does not answer all of these different types of prayers, it is clear that he does not answer prayers at all. When someone says, "God answered my prayers," what he or she means is that a coincidence happened.

You can prove it to yourself right now. Simply pray for something. Pray for anything. What Jesus promises in the Bible is crystal clear and completely unambiguous:

  • If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer. [Matthew 21:21]

  • If you ask anything in my name, I will do it. [John 14:14]

  • Nothing will be impossible to you. [Matthew 17:20]

  • All things are possible to him who believes. [Mark 9:23]

  • For with God nothing will be impossible. [Luke 1:37]
Nothing could be simpler or clearer than this. Jesus is God, so there is no reason for him to lie to you. In fact, it is impossible for him to lie to you because he is perfect. So go ahead and pray. Pray that God cures every case of cancer on the planet tomorrow. Pray sincerely, knowing that when God answers this prayer it will help millions of people in remarkable ways.

Will it happen? Of course not.

Watch in your mind

Now watch, in your own mind, what happens. You have prayed, but your prayer has not been answered. In your mind, you will start coming up with a thousand excuses -- reasons why Jesus has refused to answer your prayer. It is not his will. It is not part of his plan. This prayer is "too big". This prayer is "too obvious". The Lord works in mysterious ways. It will be answered three years from now, not today. You are not sincere enough. God will eventually inspire scientists to cure all forms of cancer, blah, blah, blah....

You are an expert at creating excuses like these. You have to be. The reason why you are an expert is because you have been creating excuses like this for Jesus your entire life. Jesus has disappointed you so many times that you expect to be disappointed. That is why creating this list of excuses is automatic for you.

There is a reason why God has never answered a prayer to restore an amputated limb. It is because God does not answer prayers. Every "answered prayer" is a coincidence. It is easy to prove it using statistics.

Proving it on TV

It would also be possible to prove that God does not answer prayers with a reality TV show. Imagine this -- we conduct a nationwide survey, and we find the 1,000 most devout believers in the land. We assemble them in a studio and ask them to form the nation's most powerful prayer circle. We then ask them to pray on live TV. Here are some of the challenges we would give them:

  1. In Matthew 17:20 Jesus says, "For truly, I say to you, if you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you." We ask our 1,000 devout believers to pray that Mt. Everest move to Newark, NJ tomorrow. We watch and see what happens.

  2. We bring in a double amputee and have him sit in his wheelchair on the stage. We ask our 1,000 devout believers to pray for his legs to be restored as he is sitting there. We watch and see what happens.

  3. We find someone suffering from terminal cancer. We bring her on stage on a gurney. She is weak, gaunt and bald. She has just a week or two to live as her metastasized tumor consumes her body. We ask our 1,000 devout believers to pray for a miracle that cures her. We watch and see what happens. Let's say that a miracle does happen. She jumps off the gurney ten minutes later, completely cured. We bring in another patient. Ten minutes later that patient is cured. We bring in another patient, and the cure works again. So we ask our 1,000 devout believers to pray for the complete elimination of cancer worldwide tomorrow. We watch and see what happens.

  4. It is hurricane season and a Category 5 hurricane named Johansen is barreling straight toward the United States. We ask our team of 1,000 devout believers to pray that the hurricane be completely eliminated so it does no damage. Let's say that the prayer works. Do you know what this means? It means that the United States will never be threatened by a hurricane again. Every time a hurricane approaches, we can assemble our 1,000 devout believers and they will be able to eliminate the storm. This will save the United States billions of dollars, and thousands of deaths, every year.

  5. Etc.

You can see what would actually happen. Our team of 1,000 devout believers will not be able to move a mountain. They will not be able to restore the limbs of an amputee. They will not be able to cure cancer worldwide, or even one cancer patient on stage. They will not be able to divert all the hurricanes that hit the United States. They will not be able to accomplish anything reliably through prayer on TV. We all know it.

Why is that? Why is it that all of Jesus' promises about the power of prayer are false? It is because God does not answer prayers.

What does it all mean?

Please scroll back several pages and look at Assertion #2. The assertion is that God does not answer prayers. It should at this point be very easy for you to accept Assertion #2. We have demonstrated it from a dozen different angles. It is compatible with common sense and the things that you experience every day. It meshes perfectly with all of the evidence that we see in our world. The "power of prayer" is really "the power of coincidence." That should be plainly apparent to you.

In that case, you have discovered a profound truth. Here are several of the implications:

  • It means that the world makes sense. If you have been looking at the world wondering why God "answers" some payers while ignoring billions of others, you now have a sensible explanation for your observations.

  • When someone says that God "answered my prayers" or that "God sent a miracle," what you are actually witnessing is the power of coincidence.

  • It means that there is no supreme being sitting in heaven doling out favors to some people but withholding them from others based on his whims.

  • It means that when a person says a prayer, he is talking to himself. There is nothing wrong with that -- meditation can be a powerful and beneficial activity. However, there is no God listening to and answering prayers.

  • It means that praying for God's intercession in any catastrophe, like a hurricane or a terrorist attack, is pointless.

  • It means that public prayers, for example at conventions and sporting events, are a waste of time. There is no one at the other end of the line to hear the prayer.

  • It means that humans need to solve the problems of the world. Instead of praying to God to solve, for example, world hunger, you should use that time to work toward a solution to world hunger yourself. God is not going to do a thing about world hunger.

  • It means that people who believe in "the power of prayer" should not be taken seriously. When someone says to you that God answered his or her prayers, it means that the person is superstitious. The person is just like someone who believes in the power of horoscopes and astrology.

  • It means that everything that Jesus says about prayer in the Bible is wrong. Therefore, the Bible is not the "unerring word of the Lord." The Bible is a collection of stories written by primitive men thousands of years ago. We will discuss this topic further in the next section.
As an intelligent species, it is time for us to recognize that there is not a "God" in "heaven" who is looking down onto earth and answering prayers. We can see it, undeniably, using both common sense and statistics. In the same way that the pyramids of the Egyptians were pointless, and the Roman temples were pointless, and the human sacrifices of the Aztecs were pointless, praying to God is pointless.

If you don't believe me, you can prove it to yourself right now. Simply pray for something concrete. Then watch as your prayer is ignored.

On a personal level

The fact that God answers no prayers has meaning to you on a very personal level. Let me give you an example of what it means.

Let's say that you have a friend who is 35 years old, and she finds out that she has breast cancer. Obviously she is devastated. The cancer is fairly advanced, and the prognosis does not look immediately promising.

If you are a believer, what is the first thing to do? The first order of business is prayer. Then the advanced believer would create a prayer circle to channel the "Lord's healing power" to your friend.

As you now know, both the prayers and the prayer circle are pointless. God never answers prayers. If prayer circles worked, then we would be able to regenerate the legs of amputees, and we know that we can't. If prayer circles worked, we would not need doctors or hospitals. If prayer circles worked, we would pray that God completely eliminate breast cancer, and no one on the planet would ever get this disease. The effort spent praying is a waste of time.

So what should you do instead of praying? Think about this question: What might actually help your friend? Do not waste the time praying -- spend your time wisely doing something that will actually help your friend. For example:

  • Make her family a nice dinner and deliver it to her home.
  • Offer to take care of her kids for several days while she recovers from her last round of chemo.
  • Make get-well cards to cheer her up.
  • Organize a bake sale or telethon to raise money for breast cancer research.
  • Go sit by her bedside in the hospital each day and read to her.
  • Bring happy movies for her to watch in the hospital.
  • Etc.

God does not answer prayers -- the evidence is all around you. Now that you know that for certain, make the most of this knowledge.

<<< Go to Chapter 10     |     TOC     |     Go to Chapter 12 >>>


New York Times Coverage
WWGHA was
discussed in a
New York Times piece
by N. D. Kristof.
For a counter-point to Mr. Kristof, please see
Chapter 26.

Recommendation by Sam Harris
Sam Harris recommends WWGHA in his book Letter to a Christian Nation.

Endorsement by Richard Dawkins
In a New York Times Letter, Richard Dawkins calls WWGHA a "splendid Web site."


Table of contents

Executive Summary

Introduction

Section 1 - prayer Section 2 - The Bible Section 3 - Jesus What it means


Highlights


Other Resources


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