Atheist View Why Prayer Does Not Work


The obvious, easy answer, from an atheist’s point of view to the question of why prayer doesn’t work, is that prayer is a request directed at what an atheist considers a fictional character. If there are no gods, there is no one to answer a prayer directed to one. However, easy and obvious answers don’t always tell the whole story. Is there another function for prayer, a useful one that doesn’t depend on its being heard or granted?

Some (even atheists) might argue that prayer helps the person who is praying, not by virtue of being answered, but by virtue of the comfort it affords, in the belief that it might be answered. If that were true, then it could be said that prayers “work.” If we take the word “work” to mean that prayer affects the prayed-for solution, then such comfort doesn’t constitute work. If we adopt a broader definition of the word – one in which it means “renders a productive result even if not the expected or intended result” – then it does.

No gods to hear or answer prayer

Others (probably not atheists) might argue that even with no gods to hear or answer prayer, the prayer goes somewhere and affects some unknown force that then affects the subject of the prayer. This is more or less a belief in “sending good vibes,” “thinking good thoughts” and “keeping one’s fingers crossed.” It is prayer minus the deity. Psychiatrists and psychologists have a name for this: “magical thinking.” Magical thinking is reinforced by coincidence (“I sent good vibes and my aunt got well”; I kept my fingers crossed and I got the job”), but actually has no validity.

The negative manifestation of magical thinking includes the belief that one can jinx a wish by expressing it, or that stepping on a sidewalk crack will break one’s mother’s back. (There is a fine line between magical thinking and superstition; perhaps the biggest difference is that superstitions are shared false beliefs that certain behaviors affect certain outcomes or that certain phenomena are signs or portents – symbols are especially vulnerable to this misinterpretation), and magical thinking is an overwhelming false feeling that one can influence an outcome with certain behaviors or even thoughts which usually are more personal than cultural.)

Anyone who has ever cried out, “I wish you were dead!” to a loved one and then experienced the death of that loved one immediately afterward feels tremendous guilt even while understanding that the utterance didn’t cause the death. Magical thinking is very attractive, very tempting indeed. Imagine how irresistible it is when combined with a belief in a deity who causes things to happen upon request! One’s very thoughts seem to become dangerously powerful. It is an illusion.

Prayer not only doesn’t work but has its own special dangers

To people (especially atheists) who realize the illusory nature of magical thinking, prayer not only doesn’t work but has its own special dangers. To an atheist, a person who relies upon prayer to the exclusion of action is behaving irresponsibly. “It’s in God’s hands” means “I refuse to participate.”

Funnily enough, perhaps an atheist’s attitude toward the ineffectiveness of prayer is best summarized in an old joke that almost certainly was not written by an atheist. It goes something like this:

A drowning man calls upon God to save him. Worried bystanders try to help him. One throws him a rope but the man refuses to grasp it, saying, “God will save me.” Another rows a canoe out and offers the man an oar, which is also refused: “God will save me.” A helicopter passing by lowers a ladder, which the drowning man eschews, insisting, “God will save me.” Naturally, the man drowns. He ascends to heaven and meets God, but he is troubled. “God,” he asks, “why didn’t you save me?”

God replies, “Well, I sent you a rope, an oar, and a ladder! What more did you want?”

An atheist can smile at this story, in which God functions as a perfectly splendid metaphor for the story’s moral (itself valid on a metaphorical level): God helps those who help themselves.

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