Friday, 21 February 2014

Why do people pray for others?

"I'll pray for you" something I get told quite often and I'm sure a lot of atheists get told the same.

We also see people praying for those who are ill, people who are looking for work, people who are missing and so on. 

I've been told by a Christian friend of mine that when she prays she's asking for guidance, for strength, and to be 'shown the right path'. I really don't mind this as I see it like meditating. Like focusing. I think it probably does work because the person is convinced going in that they'll get what they need from the prayer - I just think they give it to themselves and they mistakenly call that part of themselves God. 

When a theist tells an atheist they'll pray for them, a common comeback is 'And I'll think for you'. It's not bad...but not helpful either. I've sometimes replied with 'Good, if you're praying for me, it means you're not on the street corner shouting crazy at everyone.' Again, not helpful, even if truthful. 

These days I tend to ask why. I want to know what they're going to say and what they're expecting to achieve. I don't often get answers but on the rare occasion it's something like 'I want to ask God to make himself known to you' or 'I want Jesus to come to you so you can know his love.' Words to that effect. 

This seems to fly in the face of what I'm constantly told which is that God has granted me free will and it's up to me to then believe in him by faith alone. If a prayer to God or Jesus asking them do something in my life to cause me to believe in them is answered it removes my free will. It's no longer possible for me to believe on faith alone. What then for my free will? 

It also appears that the pray-er assumes they can change their God's mind or make him aware of something he was not already aware of (so much for omniscience). I would really like to know what they expect from that... 

'Hey God? It's me Bobby-Jo. I'm praying to you because I spoke to this atheist and he doesn't believe you exist so can you please make yourself known to him so he can know the love of Jesus? Thanks. Also - have you seen my car keys?' 

And his office or wherever he hangs out to receive prayers gets a New Prayer notification. He sees it's from Bobby-Jo and it includes a request to make himself known to an atheist. Does God then say 'What? There's someone who doesn't believe in me? Really? Well..this just will not do! Yes, Bobby-Jo I will make myself known to this person! Wow, thanks for letting me know I had no idea!'. Is this really what the Bobby-Jos of the world think is going to happen? I'm really not sure but when I'm told that I'll be prayed for I will continue to ask why and will continue ask what will be said and what is expected. 

The other kind of prayer I mentioned is the praying for others in a time or tragedy or hardship. 

After a natural disaster there is, without fail, a massive cry for prayer. 'Pray for the victims of <insert natural disaster location here>'. 

I have replied to this with this: 

The first thing I think of when people are praying for the victims of a natural disaster (and I'm sure many other atheists think similarly) is 'Aren't you just praying to the very God that caused the disaster in the first place?' Similar to the above, are they saying 'God, I know you sent this cyclone/flood/earthquake for a reason, but if you could make it so it was really easy to recover, that would be just great!'. It's just ridiculous. 

What about praying for someone who is ill or missing. I've seen it on twitter, on Facebook and in the real world. Sometimes it's just an individual 'Praying for my brother who's having a kidney operation.' Okay, fine. If that makes you happy. Sometimes it's a request for a bunch of people to pray 'Please pray for my friend who's having heart surgery'. 

My question on this latter version is this - How many people need to pray for the prayer to work? If the fictitious friend in this scenario doesn't survive is it the fault of the people calling for prayer? Is it their fault for not getting enough people to pray? Does god sit in heaven with a counter clicking it up one each time a new prayer comes in and when it hits the magic number he (somehow) intervenes on Earth and does whatever it is a God needs to do in order to make sure the friend survives the surgery? Has anyone ever died because not enough people prayed for them? Is that what's going on here? When this person's friend gets to heaven and stands before god, will they remember this and say to God 'Why did you let them die? What did I do wrong? I prayed, I got my friends to pray too....why did you let my friend die?' And God looks at them and says 'Well you had 47 people praying for your friend. But I needed 50. It's a shame. I had big plans for your friend but you just didn't quite make it.' 

As I said in my previous post about prayer, The Prayer Challenge even when I was a believer I couldn't understand the purpose of prayer. It seemed so redundant. 

So maybe there is some point to prayer as a person reflecting, or a focusing of your thoughts and energy. But praying for me to no longer be an atheist? Praying for people who are victims of natural disaster or a group of people praying for a sick or missing person? It's clearly pointless, even if a God does exist. 


  1. The main idea is that a persons Leaguer may be answered if they have enough faith. Therefore Yes god might reveal himself to Bobby Jos friend is Bobby Jo has enough faith

    1. And then you'll tell me that only god knows how much faith a person has - only god can measure it. Convenient. Leads me to ask what the Pope is praying for. Guess he doesn't have faith for the starving, women being gang raped or children with cancer.

  2. Having to say the rosary as a kid was one thing that turned me to atheism, though I didn't know it at the time. I did ask my dad why God would want to hear the same prayers over and over again. He wasn't amused. @naughtmai

  3. If you think about it, praying is stupid at various levels. Does God not know about it? Does he not know it's bad? Do you require to meet a quota? You don't like God's plan? Do you want to make him change his mind? I think the reason why they pray is because it makes them feel they're really doing something about it. Right now, in Venezuela there's a big mess with the government, people are protesting, there are dead, wounded and jailed. I know a lot of Venezuelans, so my facebook status is full of "Pray for Venezuela" stuff. They're meeting to pray too. They may feel impotent since they're far, so they still can do something by praying. I'm sure that if Venezuela situation settles up for good, they'll claim credit for it. And if not, "it was God plan, let's keep praying".

  4. When instructed to pray as a child, it didn't sit well with me. I failed to see what it could achieve, fully aware that almost everyone I knew prayed for world peace & and end to hunger, but it was still very visible.

    I stopped praying completely after my 11th birthday. On that day a family friend fell to the floor in front of me, and as I stood watching her cup of tea drip down the wall, and the drool trickle down her chin, my mum ushered me away, telling me to go upstairs & pray.

    Pray for what? Even at 11 years old I could tell she was dead, so praying for her recovery was futile. Pray for her cognitively impaired daughter who was howling in the next room? My family would be taking care of her, more than her god just did.

    I couldn't come up with anything to pray for. I suppose it should have been her soul, but why? If she'd been good, wouldn't god take care of her anyway? What difference did it make what I did? This was a huge event, and I had no control over it, and if god did have any control, he had just fucked up, in my opinion.

    What you say is spot on. I've seen no evidence that prayer works, and it only serves to comfort the person doing the praying.

  5. Prayer is a reflex action, created during the indoctrination into theism. As we're brainwashed, we're told over & over again, how faith moves mountains, & how through god all things are possible. I remember praying, & remember believing my prayers were answered. I prayed a great deal when my youngest child died; there was no god, no comfort; it made no sense at all to me. I blamed myself, though now I understand that sometimes bad things happen. Fortunately, there is much more good to be found than misery, if we're looking for it. Pain fades with time, & joy abounds for those of us who look for it rather then dwelling in the pain of our pasts. Perhaps, that's why some people pray. They're in pain & simply don't know how to fix it.

  6. I run I to this issue all the time, especially on facebook. Horrible things are happening to really good people, and I want to show I empathize and care and hope beyond hope for a humame and happy resolution to tragedy. But for me to respond to "please pray for us" with "ok!" is disingenuous and dishonest. Yet the minute I say "all my thoughts are with you and your family" or "please tell me what I can do" I give myself away as "one of these kids doesn't look like the other." I out myself as a nonbeliever. Are my positive thoughts and empathy not as important as prayer? if things don't resolve favorably, is it because a nonbeliever chimed in? And this "please pray for..." phenomenon is growing so exponentially I cant help but wonder if it's some kind of social peer pressure. I sure know many atheists "praying" on FB. People I've known all my life who've never mentioned religion til I saw a status of praying (and matching praying meme) on their timeline. I feel like I have to continue to hide behind my "I'll be thinking about you" - outing myself and possibly degrading their prayer campaign. Either that or remain quiet, possibly making them feel badly. an atheist cannot win in the peer pressured world of social media.

  7. " 'I want to ask God to make himself known to you' or 'I want Jesus to come to you so you can know his love.' Words to that effect.

    This seems to fly in the face of what I'm constantly told which is that God has granted me free will and it's up to me to then believe in him by faith alone."

    Having someone made known to you, and then you subsequently believing in them, doesn't require you to have no free will. I stopped reading after that piece of muddy thinking.

    1. You seem to have missed the "and it's up to me to then believe in him by faith alone" part. If someone makes themself known to you, you can no longer believe in them be faith alone - which is what I'm told God demands. I'm told I must believe by faith. So I'm not saying that someone making themself known to you removes your free will, I'm saying the ability to use your free will to believe on faith alone is removed.

  8. > Does god sit in heaven with a counter clicking it up one each time a new prayer comes in and when it hits the magic number he (somehow) intervenes on Earth and does whatever it is a God needs to do in order to make sure the friend survives the surgery?

    This is but one of the many things that perplex me about those advocates of the power of prayer. Is it a weight of numbers issue? I have never been able to understand the rationale, but then again there's so much I don't understand about the mindset of the believer. It doesn't stand the test of reason! It's ridiculous!

    On a personal note, hi Donovan. I've only recently come across your site. I used to contribute to the Richard Dawkins Foundation of Reason and Science site, but it has changed its format and I've been suffering from withdrawal symptoms. I like the global aspect of RDFRS though it's also nice to read something in my own "accent" as it were.


    1. Hi Anita. Thanks for coming by to read my blog :) I see you've read a couple of the others too. I hope you find a few here you like :)

    2. Hi again. The topics I've read so far are very interesting. They are the sort of things I've given thought to in the past so I'm always happy to have a re-think and have a go at expressing my position.

      I've made the suggestion that your blog would be worth looking into as ther are a lot of would-be posters looking for somewhere to lodge