Tuesday, 21 August 2012

The prayer challenge.

Even when I was a believer I couldn't really understand the purpose of prayer. We used to pray at church and when I stayed over at my grandparent's house or cousin's house. I couldn't understand what we were doing. Though christening me before I was old enough to 1) Object and 2) Know what was happening, mum and dad weren't really strict on religious rituals at home. They sent me to a Catholic school (according to one of the nuns/teachers, when I left that school it was the end of a 26 year run of one of my family members being enrolled there). Apart from that, church on Sunday was pretty much the limit. 

I've since come to understand that prayer is really for the person doing the praying, rather than for the people being prayed for. When praying for the victims of a tragedy, the pray-ers feel like they're doing something. They feel like they're helping fix the situation. There's plenty of quotes about what's going on here. One that I really like is "One pair of hands working does more than 1000 clasped in prayer" This feels very accurate for me. 

But going back to the purpose of prayer - what exactly are we trying to achieve. The kind of prayer I'm talking about is the one directed to an omniscient god. The god that knows not only that we are going to pray, but when we're going to pray and what we're going to pray for. 

I recently saw on twitter that someone tweeted they were praying to find a missing girl. It's lovely that this person was concerned for the welfare of the missing girl and of course I don't have a problem with that. Who could? What I didn't understand was what he thought he prayer would achieve. I asked a couple of questions, but never got answers. I guess the questions may have been seen as an 'attack' but I was genuinely curious. I asked whether the god that was being prayed to was waiting for this person to pray before ensuring the girl would be found safely. Or perhaps there was a target number that the god required. Maybe if 9,999 people pray the girl is never found, but once the 10,000th person gets on board, the right police officer knocks on the right door at the right time and she's found safe and returned to her family. Of course the god in question knows these people are going to pray so why wait for the right number? It's not like those people know how many others are praying. Why not let the missing girl be found immediately since he knows that the right amount of people are going to pray? (Of course it's a different topic to question why he would allow the girl to go missing in the first place). When the person is praying, are they asking god to do something that he wouldn't have otherwise thought of (despite knowing everything about everything forever)? Do they think that god is sitting(?) there, knowing that someone is missing and wishing he could do something about it? He then receives a prayer from Tommy in Jacksboro, Texas, asking god that the missing girl is found safe and well and god thinks Ah Ha! That's what I can do...I can save her! Thanks Tommy. I doubt this is what the fictitious Tommy is expecting, so why is he bothering to pray? 

Natural disaster is also a big time for prayer. Whether it be earthquake, tsunami, bushfire, or cyclone, when something catastrophic happens the pray-ers of the world get fired up and try to encourage as many people as they can to join them. Twitter will always see a new hashtag get created. #PrayForJapan for example. Again I need to question what people think they're going to achieve. Whatever the natural disaster is, people that believe in prayer must necessarily believe that the god they're praying to allowed the disaster to occur. Are they assuming that their god of choice is unaware of the destruction he has caused? Do they think he's sitting there with all the angels saying 'hey, check this out' then creates an earthquake before boasting about all the buildings he made collapse? Is it only when the prayers start arriving asking that people survive the disaster that god realises that maybe people aren't 100% happy with what's going on? Does Michael or Gabriel (or their equivalent) need to tap this god on the shoulder and say 'Um god...the humans aren't happy with that earthquake. They're asking if you can save some of the people'. We must not forget that this is an omniscient god. He knew before he allowed the earthquake to happen that people wouldn't be happy. He knew before the earthquake that people were going to ask that people be saved. So given that god knows all this, and he knows this beforehand...why are people praying to him? What is the goal of the prayer? 

When a tsunami hit Japan I received some criticism on twitter for saying 'rather than praying for Japan, why not do something useful and donate'. The criticism wasn't from a religion person. They asked who I was to say what was useful and what wasn't. They questioned why it was a bad thing to pray, suggesting that a person sitting on the other side of the world might feel completely useless and that praying might be the way the can feel like they're contributing. This goes back to what I said at the start - praying is for the person doing the praying, not the person being prayed for - and praying is certainly not for the god being prayed to. One religious friend said that rather than needing donations over prayers, we need both. Although I concede that maybe there could be an argument made for saying that people being prayed for could take comfort from knowing that although people are unable to help, at least the victims are in their thoughts, the same arugument could be made for simply letting the victims know. 'We haven't forgotten you, you are in our thoughts'. How would this be any less affective than 'we're praying for you'?

The discussion about prayer versus donations lead me to write something that to this day is still one of my favourite tweets of mine. I said 'Tell you what, put all the prayers in one warehouse and all the donations in another warehouse and let the Japanese take their pick'. 

Being an atheist with a twitter account means I get to hear a phrase pretty much daily. I'm sure you can guess what it is... 'I'll pray for you'. Yep, this is the way many theists choose to end a discussion - 'I'll pray for you'. It has been described to me as being passive/aggressive. There is certainly something about it that feels threatening, though I'd be surprised to learn that it's ever meant that way. I'm sure it's genuine. I'm sure the person saying it feels that letting me know they're praying for me should be seen as a good thing (it's not). There is the old response 'I'll think for you'. But I prefer to ask why they would pray for me when the could be praying for a child starving to death. I've said 'rather than do that, why not spend the time reading a science book'. I've also told them that I'm being prayed for by many, many people and I'm still an atheist, and that their praying is simply a waste of time. 

This leads me to issuing the prayer challenge which I first saw on The Atheist Experience. It was given by Matt Dillahunty in response to a caller asking what would convince Matt that god was real and is borrowed by me here. 

I don't believe in god, therefore I necessarily don't believe in prayer. It might, however, be possible to convince me simultaneously that these things are real. 

The Prayer challenge:
If you believe there is a god, and if you believe that this god answers prayers do this - Pray to your god and have them tell you what you can do to convince me he/she is real. Once you have this information, come back to me. Present that information. I will then be a believer. 


  1. I am going to respond to your blog using my own experiences and understanding of God and Christianity.

    (p.=paragraph, s.=sentence)

    1) p2. s11 - I've noticed that when I'm praying for others, I want good to happen to them. But while I ask for something good to happen, I also add that I am prepared that His Will be done. If my prayer is granted or not is His Will in the end. But the question that comes to my mind is, "Am I being completely selfless?" I believe that we are all human and our human nature says that we are almost always looking out for ourselves. Part of the reason why we pray is because it pleases God. It pleases God because we are acknowledging that He exists and we are making Him a part of our life. So technically, when i pray, i find favor with God. So can my prayer for someone else be totally selfless? I believe its very possible but there is still that underlying human nature that no one can escape.

    2) p.4 We pray because God listens to our prayers. If God finds favor in the things we are asking for, He will grant it to us. If God chooses to have the little girl never be found again, thats what would happen. But if we plead with God to change his mind on the fate of others, he may listen to us. In Exodus 32, God is about to destroy His people, the Israelites, for creating a false idol. Moses then pleaded with God to spare them and then the Lord "relented and did not bring on His people the disaster He had threatened." Final note: we pray because God hears our prayers and may take them into account to change his mind. (I did not say God changes. i stated he can change his mind if he chooses)

    Your prayer challenge:
    I could ask God over and over for that information and I guarantee that He will answer my prayer every time. How can I be so certain? Just because we get the answer we don't want doesnt mean the prayer isnt answered. If it is your destiny to go to hell, there will be no information that you seek. My guess is that "information" that you're looking for, doesnt exist. No matter what I present to you, you will stay stubborn. I say this because Jesus had performed many miracles in Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum but they still did not believe and repent.(matthew 11:20) - I could show you miracles, but your stubbornness would make up any excuse not to believe me.

    If you are not happy that I use the bible to make my points. go to this website, read what it has to say, then tell mme why the bible is not a valid book.


    1. Hi Adam.

      1) Pure speculation and nothing of substance.

      2) More speculation and a simple cop out. Basically making an excuse for having prayer have no effect. It's stating that prayer achieves only that which would have happened anyway (never anything impossible) and that the rate of 'success' corresponds to random chance.

      3) You're basically admitting that this god you happened to believe in is incapable of getting me to believe in it. And for this (no fault of my own) will will be punished in hell. See my blog: Yahweh Loves me... http://mrozatheist.blogspot.com.au/2012/05/yahweh-loves-me.html

      I looked at that website. There is nothing scientific there, merely attempted justification of the bible by people that already believe in it.

      Thanks for taking the time to read and respond to my blog :)

  2. should have been p.1 s1. My bad.

  3. I have a real problem with people that say they have had prayers answered.

    If one prayer was ever to be answered it should be the prayer of the little child that is abused by a loved one, or even clergy member. The prayer that this week the priest will not touch him or that daddy won't come into her room tonight.

    What purpose could god have for not answering this prayer? And by answering I mean GRANTING…not just sending the father on into the room to sexually abuse his daughter, thus answering with a NO! And a literal “fuck you”!

    Sexually abused children are 13 times more likely to commit suicide, forcing them into a lake of fiery hell for eternity. The knowledge that this happens should be enough to make any person with ANY empathy understand that prayers are not answered EVER and to say they are is forcing any god into a corner that he/she cannot come back out of. They would have to be beyond evil...way beyond!

  4. I did not mean for my name to not appear above. I don't know why it did not.

  5. I prayed, still waiting, I'll let you know though. Although on a serious note my prayers have gone unanswered for a long time, and anytime they have been it could of course be explained away.

  6. I agree - As a Christian, I'm not sure what praying for disasters and things around the world does. It doesn't make a lot of sense to me - so I tend to avoid it.

    Prayer is much more that what you have referred to here. Praying is a process of aligning my spirit with the being that created me. It's not about changing circumstances as much as it is trying to live fully within them.

    So to your challenge: http://troyfarwell.blogspot.com/2012/11/pain-and-hope.html
    Read it if you like. Like all evidence, it can be accepted, denied, ignored. This writing came out of about a year of prayer and reflection.

    This is a very personal thing to me - as you wrote about your own father's death.