The Contradictory Failure of Prayer, Part I

The Bible says a lot of things about prayer:

Truly I tell you, 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. (Matthew 21:21-22)

Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them. (Matthew 18:19-20)

Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. (Mark 11:24)

And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it. (John 14:13-14)

Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. (John 14:12)


It’s quite clear from a plain reading of the Bible that prayer not only works, but works to create powerful miracles; a notion also backed up by Matthew 7:7-8, Luke 11:9-10, John 15:7, John 15:16, John 16:23-24, and even the bizarre Mark 16:17-18. Luke 22:42 and James 4:3 confirm this with some additional qualifiers, such as you must not be praying selfishly or contrary to the will of God. It’s hard to imagine Jesus giving an even more emphatic or resolute endorsement of prayer than the one he did — at least eleven times.

And it seems that many people take this to heart. Many people think that prayer is an effective method to get God to intervene directly in the world for positive results. For instance, churches across the world regularly engage in prayer to help others and help themselves. Dozens of sites offer people to post and answer prayer requests. The International House of Prayer maintains a 24/7 consistent prayer.

And these prayers aren’t just at the personal and church level, they even go as far as the government itself. Some government officials, such as Texas Governor Rick Perry and Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin, pray for the end of drought (see here and here too [Youtube]); prayers that go unanswered. The United States even has a National Day of Prayer.

Now, it’s not much of a surprise that God doesn’t seem to intervene in the world obviously to the degree the Bible says. For example, no Christian believes he or she can literally move mountains or do anything in Jesus’s name. And I agree it’s perfectly reasonable to see these promises as metaphorical, but what is not reasonable is to see absolutely nothing coming out of prayer at all.


Prayer is, essentially, one massive contradiction. The Bible says prayers will be granted to the degree of “ask and it will be done”, but they aren’t, proving the problem of divine hiddenness that I elaborated on in “Where is God?” — God has an opportunity to prove his existence undoubtably, and would have every reason to seize this opportunity because it would win millions of souls, yet he does not, providing strong evidence of his nonexistence.

Moreover, if prayer truly worked, it would mean that God would have tons of opportunity to ameliorate or even outright eliminate all of the needless suffering in the world, as millions of people pray for him to do on a daily basis. Yet God does not take advantage of any of these opportunities, not only proving that prayer doesn’t work even when put to selfless and compassionate goals, but that God is either evil or nonexistent, as I argue in “The Great Problem of Evil”.

Clearly prayer occasionally doesn’t work; sometimes it fails in very spectacular ways. I’m reminded of stories of starving children in Africa praying for the end of a drought, only to die of starvation. I’m reminded of the millions of slaves who prayed for an end to that gross injustice, before deciding to take the matter into their own hands — seen in Frederick Douglass’s famous quote: “I prayed for twenty years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs”. I’m reminded of billions of selfless and compassionate prayers for the cure to cancer, which would if granted would end the suffering of millions, yet go unanswered.


Perhaps this is why that famous atheists have remarked “nothing fails like prayer”. Prayer drives a giant wedge between certain aspects of theology: the Bible conclusively establishes prayer as a means of getting God to preform certain actions, but these actions never actually occur and never actually ameliorate suffering around the world.

Moreover, other aspects of God’s character; such as being all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good; indicate that prayer is completely unnecessary — God should already know which prayers to grant before any prayers are even issued.


The Argument from Prayer

I think all of this together makes a very compelling case that prayer makes no sense, and since prayer makes no sense, Christianity makes no sense and is false. I call this “The Argument from Prayer” and I believe it to be pretty much original — a case very few have made as directly as I am about to make it.

  1. God, as traditionally conceived by Christianity, listens to and grants prayers.
  2. Prayers are not granted any more than we would expect by chance.
  3. God, being all-knowing, would not need prayers to know what to do.
  4. Prayers cannot be granted if the common defenses to the Problem of Divine Hiddenness and Problem of Evil are true.
  5. If God answers some prayers, but not the prayers of the most hurt and deserving, then he is not all-good.
  6. Therefore from 2, 3, 4, or 5, a God that grants prayers does not exist.
  7. Therefore since 1 and 6 conflict, Christianity is false.



Can Prayer be Tested?

Prayer actually should be ideal for testing whether Christianity can be true — we simply pray for something in God’s name and see whether it happens. However, apparently it isn’t that easy: you can only pray in accordance with God’s will, and many times God will answer your prayer with “no” or “wait” (see here or here). …And you can’t test God. So there.

However whenever I see this web of excuses explaining why we can’t test God through prayer, I’m reminded of 1 Kings 18:16-45, highlighted by Eliezer Yudkowsky’s brilliant essay “Religion’s Claim to be Nondisprovable”.

In this story, the prophet of God Elijah challenges the nearby priests of Baal to see who’s God is real. This challenge consists of two bulls on two alters, both as sacrifices to two gods (Jehovah and Baal) — whichever God is real will call down fire on his sacrifice. And of course, while Jehovah did magically call fire upon his sacrifice, the priests of Baal weren’t so lucky. The true religion had passed the test, and the priests of Baal were taken and executed.

Most interestingly is the taunting the priests received when they were unable to invoke Baal’s fire:

At noon Elijah began to taunt them. “Shout louder!” he said. “Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.” So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed. Midday passed, and they continued their frantic prophesying until the time for the evening sacrifice. But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention. (1 Kings 18:27-29)


The Bible itself seems to suggest that prayer not only can be tested, but it’s a reasonable method to choose between gods, and if your god is incapable of answering prayer, he’s not a god worthy of worship at all. But while Elijah was able to invoke God’s fire, curiously no one can invoke the fire of God today, and no one is willing to use this test to see which religion to follow, if any. Elijah would be making fun of modern prayer attempts.

As Eliezer Yudkowsky summarizes it:

Back in the old days, people actually believed their religions instead of just believing in them. The biblical archaeologists who went in search of Noah’s Ark did not think they were wasting their time; they anticipated they might become famous. Only after failing to find confirming evidence – and finding disconfirming evidence in its place – did religionists execute what William Bartley called the retreat to commitment, “I believe because I believe.”



“Yes, No, Maybe So” Prayers

Perhaps we can see further about how prayers work through understanding how they’re answered: prayers can either be answered immediately and directly, answered eventually, answered in a surprisingly different way, or not answered at all; and it’s impossible to tell beforehand which response you’ll get.

Oddly enough, this covers every base so there is always an excuse for however the prayer is answered. For example, imagine praying to find $10 on the street to donate to charity. You could walk and find the $10, seeing the prayer immediately answered. Yes! You could walk around for three years and then find the $10, and the prayer is still answered. You could walk and find $2, and the prayer is still considered answered. Or you could walk and never find anything your entire life, and you simply didn’t pray strong enough or in accordance to God’s will, and the prayer is still considered answered.

Prayer is clearly a stacked game where the Christian wins no matter what. No matter the outcome, the prayer is always seen as answered by God, and believers simply succumb to confirmation bias by forgetting about all the unanswered prayers and focus entirely on the answered ones, making the case that God really does work in our lives and is amazing.

Yet it is not amazing, because through billions of believers praying millions of prayers, it is hardly surprising that some come true just by chance; and these amazing stories are hailed as miracles and circulated so that everyone can see them. Yet when a prayer doesn’t come true, it is dismissed, ignored, and certainly not circulated, so no one truly sees the amount of unanswered prayers. When you focus solely on the prayers that are answered, it’s not surprising that a lot of prayers seem to get answered.

If prayer really was answered regularly, Christians wouldn’t need a stacked system. The results would be obvious, testable, and immediately noticeable. Yet, in reality, they are not, and Christians need to hide behind a complex web of confirmation bias and rationalization to handle the idea of unanswered prayer.


No matter the outcome, the person who prays will always see the prayer as a proof of God's action. In these cases, the Christian wins every time and literally cannot be disproven or dissuaded by any evidence.


Praying to a Rock

Another way to test for the efficacy of prayer in your personal life is to pray for a week to your God, and then pray for a week to something that definitely doesn’t answer prayers, like a rock, or a jug, then pray to God for a week again, and then another week with the jug.

If prayer is only in your head, you will notice no difference between praying to a rock and praying to God — the same amount of prayers will be answered. Especially if the same excuses (such as “yes, no, wait” or “you need more faith”) are employed in the case of both the God and the rock. Even if you’re not praying for stuff and praying instead to build a relationship, try to build a relationship with a spirit in the rock. If prayer is just in your head, the prayer should be equally therapeutic.

However, if prayer really works and God is real, you should notice a sharp difference between the successes of your prayers to God and the successes of your prayers to the rock. And if God is mad that you are praying to a rock, perhaps you’ll notice being very successful the first week and unsuccessful the third week. (Though I hope he would understand you wanting evidence instead of believing through blind faith.)


Next Up

For length, we’re going to have to leave it there for now. This was just an introduction — in the next part, I’ll look more in depth into the scientific evidence for prayer, whether it makes sense to pray to an all-knowing God, and how prayer interacts with the theodicies offered Problem of Divine Hiddenness and Problem of Evil, and fully make the case that prayer conclusively fails.

Continued in: The Contradictory Failure of Prayer, Part II


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On 26 Jul 2011 in All, Atheism, Christianity. 3 Comments.


  1. #1 cl says:
    13 Apr 2012, 11:49 pm  

    In response to this essay, I offer The Contradictory Failures of Peter Hurford.

  2. #2 T B says:
    3 Aug 2012, 12:59 pm  

    Interesting. Just to riff on this, I think there’s an interesting companion argument to be made here.

    Some religious adherents fall back to a noninterventionist God to deal with some criticisms of theism, such as the problem of evil. Many such theists would believe prayer is just requesting inspiration from god, not requesting direct intervention.

    But prayer raises problems even there.

    Imagine, for a moment, that devout, well-intentioned individuals sit on opposite sides of some religious conflict. The opposing devotees take their respective knees and ask god, intending complete subservience, “I don’t know what you want me to do, but I think you want me to stand up and kill those who believe things about you that are different than what I believe.”

    If you can find one historical example of that hypothetical where individuals from both sides stood up and proceeded to kill each other, then I think you raise problems for the notion of a benevolent, even remotely interventionist god. I think it will be trivial to find historical examples in the dozens.

    I think the moral problems for god are obvious, but to be explicit…
    Suppose I tell you I’m going to do whatever you say. Then you cough, or squint. I tell you, “I think you just told me to kill that guy over there. I’m not 100%, but I don’t want to risk defying you. So is that correct?” If you don’t respond, and I kill the guy, I think it’s clear you bear moral responsibility for the result, even though you did nothing.

    A hidden god wouldn’t have to even come out of hiding to subtly shift the minds of those suspecting god wishes them to do evil. And it doesn’t challenge free will for god to offer inspiration when the faithful have chosen obedience, but are confused as to the message.

    We can drop this to a less dramatic argument. When devout women around the world take a knee and ask for god’s instructions, some stand up convinced they should wear a hijab in public, others a headscarf, others nothings specific at all. It’s a short hop to stoning the nonbelievers, but even without that, you can see that the notion that prayers are answered with clear or consistent instructions from one god is incredibly problematic, it doesn’t bear scrutiny. Religious inspiration is leading everyone to different results, so it can’t be a source of knowledge about god’s intentions, nature, or even existence.

    The fact that any differences of opinion on religion exist leads to one of a few possibilities:
    1) god does not care what we do or believe, and thus is not worth worshipping
    2) god is incapable or unwilling to provide any instruction, raising questions of omniscience or benevolence, and thus not worth worshipping
    3) god does not exist, and thus not worth worshipping
    Or I suppose I might include…
    4) everyone who disagrees with your beliefs secretly knows better, but intentionally ignores god, because everyone but you is a sinner.

    #4 seems clearly silly to me, though I find it so juvenile that I struggle to articulate exactly why. I wouldn’t be surprised if it would be one of the more common defenses among fundamentalists.

  3. #3 Peter Hurford (author) says:
    4 Aug 2012, 2:25 pm  

    #4 seems clearly silly to me, though I find it so juvenile that I struggle to articulate exactly why. I wouldn’t be surprised if it would be one of the more common defenses among fundamentalists.

    It does actually seem to be the favored explanation of some Christian theologians like William Lane Craig — see “The Evangelical Conspiracy Theory” and “William Lane Craig on Faith and Reason”.

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