Prayer: What’s the point?

Posted: June 3, 2007 in Atheism, Religion

pope-benedict-xvi.jpgOne of the aspects of religion, specifically the abrahamic religions, that I find most puzzling is that of Prayer.  People close their eyes and fold their hands, or kneel on mats or whatever their particular religious traditions dictate.   This practice, combined with thoughts and/or words is meant to be a way of communicate with their chosen deity.   But, really, what’s the point?

One of the core beliefs of many religions, let’s assume I’m talking about Christianity here, is that God knows what you’re doing, thinking or aspiring for at any given moment.  He knows you, your heart and mind.  For all intents and purposes, he’s omniscient – he knows absolutely everything at any given moment in time.  He knows if you’ve been good, he know if you’ve been bad so be good for goodness sake…

It can not be denied that a lot of prayer involves a request of some sort.  Little Johnny may be praying, somewhat selfishly but innocently in his own way, for his sister to stop being so annoying.  His mother might be praying for her sister-in-law to get better in Hospital and so on.    But why bother with the act?  Why bother folding your hands and thinking “Dear God, kindly heal my sister-in-law in the Hospital…”?   Guess what?  He’s already well aware of her ill health but has not deigned to do a thing about it yet.   Do you honestly believe he is suddenly going to cry out “Oh, crap! I forgot about that woman in the hospital! I better send a miracle her way!”?   That is absurd, no question about it.

Therefore, prayer is a pointless exercise if it is done with the purpose of informing your deity about something or making a request.  He is already well aware of any illness you wish cured or of any sisters you wish were not so troublesome.

Another central belief of most such religions is that God has some form of master-plan.  Everything has a purpose and nothing happens for no reason – you get the general idea.  Do the people performing their respective prayer ceremonies think that God will modify said plan because one or one hundred people decide to get down on their knees and ask for something?   If God does exist (which is highly unlikely bordering on the impossible, but let’s just go with it) then it is absurd to think that his plan will change just because of prayer.

Is getting people to pray the point of it then?  Is God merely setting things up for some form of celestial ego stroking?  Much like a corrupt medieval Lord making peasants bow and scrape before him before he grants a kindness, is God a bastard in exactly the same way?  Does he demand worship before fulfilling requests?  If so, then that is morally dubious at best and you should have no business worshipping such an entity anyhow.  He certainly is not an ‘all loving God’ if he fails to dispatch any kindness without someone bowing before him first.

Perhaps prayer is merely a source of comfort for those who otherwise feel powerless in troubled times.  You average person on the street certainly does not possess advanced medical knowledge that may be necessary to cure a sick relative, so why that relative is receiving treatment in a hospital then the ones at home feel helpless.   In a bid to attempt to help and comfort themselves that everything will be alright, they pray to a magical sky father figure.

Which, again, is rather absurd.  You probably can gain more comfort from the release of chemicals in the brain that happens when you eat chocolate or ice cream.  As shown above, prayer will not assist the person in the hospital – it certainly won’t help avoid medical complications or make them get better any sooner.  So that must mean that prayer is something of a selfish endeavour, it is merely there for personal comfort and consolation.  If it is a selfish endeavour then there are only two possible outcomes:

1) God exists but he sees that you are a selfish git and ignores you.

2) God does not exist in which case you are just wasting your time to begin with.

With all that said, it bring me back straight to the original question.  What is the point of prayer?

  1. HeIsSailing says:

    Matt sez:
    With all that said, it bring me back straight to the original question. What is the point of prayer?
    As I commented on the Aa site, a common and I believe, recently devised explanation for prayer is that it “aligns us with God’s will”. I have heard this cliche from the pulpit several times. Apparantly, many other pulpits are reciting the same cliche:
    What, do these pastors read the same church bulletins?
    I heard one pastor once say that our prayers to God is analogous to a boy handing dad the tools when he works on the car. Thanks, that helps.

  2. Hey Matt. You commented on my blog and I thought I’d check you out, what with you being a new face — I’m glad I did, you have some great links and even better, well worded opinions!

    What’s the point of prayer? Well I suppose that’s like saying what’s the point of crossing your fingers when the lottery numbers are drawn. The likelihood of it having any significant effect on the outcome is infinity:1

    Let’s suppose for a second that God created everything in the universe by sheer force of will. Fairly impressive! So impressive in fact I think it’s fairly certain that amongst his many super-powers is the ability to communicate with all of his creations – not just the ones who blindly trust that he is there, regardless of a single shred of evidence and in the face of overwhelmingly logical suppositions that he is not.

    The point of prayer it would seem is more to do with the need of the victi.. ..I mean worshiper to congratulate themselves for being “in the gang” – and to mentally separate themselves from us poor lost souls who trust in the power of action over the inaction of making a wish.

  3. atheistperspective says:

    I can certainly accept that prayer can be consoling. I also completely agree that it can be used as a form of meditation. Both of these could be deemed beneficial. Nevertheless most people that pray don’t see it this way. For them, the point of prayer is to encourage God to intervene in the natural world in some way, be it by healing a person of an illness or altering a current state of reality.

    That to make makes no sense at all. Even if we were to accept that an omniscient and omnipotent God exists, he’d be unlikely, perhaps even unable, to intervene in our world in this way.

    Imagine if just one prayer in a million were answered. We’d all be living in a fantasy world where nothing is in any way predictable, where the very laws that our entire universe are based upon are thrown to one side because God would need to break them to intervene. We’d never know if we were coming or going. Our entire lives would be at the behest of the prayers that people make. Scientific laws would be undermined, we wouldn’t be able to understand our universe. Our lives would be come impossible.

    Furthermore, much of prayer is self serving. ‘Please God, help me get this job, or help me get better or help my child get into a good university’ etc etc. Much of the time this would result in God having to choose you over another person, sometimes helping you and damaging another so a prayer could be answered.

    “Help me get the university place” Well, okay but if God did step in then someone else would not get that place. Would a God that loves us all really take sides in this way?

    If prayer is used as a personal form of meditation then I can see the point for people that believe. The moment one sees prayer as causal then it’s a bit misguided.

  4. barry says:

    you guys certainly spend a lot of time (and much passion) arguing against something that you regard as pointless.

    i think it’s pointless to argue against something that is pointless.

    i’m wondering what you are FOR. how would you define your position if it weren’t for religion? i.e. what is an “atheist” without theism?

    have you factored into your reasoning the role of experience? for some, REALITY is not primarily constituted by physical existence alone. when i speak to you i have FAITH that there is something out there that i am interacting with. I have no proof of that. it could all be part of my own dream. but what I can’t deny is the EXPERIENCE of interaction, conversation, relationship. i would argue that my conversation with you and Prayer require exactly the same kind of “faith” – neither of them are more real or provable than the other.

    the more significant thing for me is: what do i experience through the act of communication… (whether it is with you or with “God”)

    i am enjoying writing this comment. it helps me to clarify my own position and it holds the possibility of surprising conversation (a response that makes me reconsider…) i.e. it’s a good experience.

    I enjoy praying. for a variety of reasons. your saying “it’s pointless” a) won’t diminish the significance of the experience for me and b) simply stands in constrast to my assertion that it definitely has a “point” for me.

    in fact, to claim that something is “pointless” suggests that the entity doing the claiming knows what IS NOT POINTLESS.

    so, please let me know. what IS NOT POINTLESS? (so that I can reflect on how appealing the rational world you live in really is…)

    🙂 thanks! for a cool post

  5. Ann O'Dye says:

    that mitre in the photo has it’s origin in ‘Dagon The Fish God’.

    (just sayin’)

  6. […] enjoyed reading Matt’s comments on prayer: Prayer: What’s the point and also some of the comments he received. While I find engagement with so-called […]

  7. Don Quine says:

    Thanks for the comments on your personal EXPERIENCE with prayer practice, Barry. I’m about to start an AA Men’s Stag and I’d like its focus to be on prayer practice – sharing about what works and doesn’t work for recovering alcoholics and addicts when it some to their spiritual exercises. Your point that it is the experience that one gains through communicating to/with a power greater than your ego-bound sense of self reminds me of what my spiritual godfather, Joseph Campbell, said about what we’re seeking in life: “People say that what we’re seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experience on the purely physical plane will have resonance within our own INNERMOST BEING and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive. That’s what it’s all finally about, and that’s what these clues in myth help us to find WITHIN OURSELVES.” So prayer for me is a practice that develops my spiritual muscle, not in the Celestial Santa Claus gym, but in the far more challenging space of my loving mind, moving past the dualistic platitudes and embracing the God (remarkable how that word can fuck with people) of my understanding, misunderstanding and non-understanding who provides me clues to participating in the rapture of my here and nowness. While it is the most selfish endeavor in my life, it also affords me a generosity of spirit that constantly amazes and humbles me.

  8. Stuart says:

    Barry seems to be under the belief that his personal experience is reality. Thats the problem with religion, they will agree with anything rational as far as it goes, but once everyone has agreed a method of communication, what is agreed to be rational and what is evidence etc, as soon as it comes to their insane beliefs, its out with the old wishy washy rubbish about how can we know reality etc.
    Well thanks for wasting 5 minutes of my life there, you disingenuous git…

  9. nathan says:

    I’d like to address all the above misunderstandings about prayer. But first, has it occurred to any of you that it’s a relationship God, and hopefully His followers, actually desire? 1. Of course God knows what we need before we ask, that’s actually a direct quote from the bible! But no one likes being taken advantage of. Would you like it if all your friends and family just stopped talking to you but still expect things from you when they need it? No that’s just plain rude. And God, being a good Father, wants us to rely on him when we need to, but doesn’t want to be taken advantage of or raise rude children. 2. God knowing everything means our petition (or lack thereof) is alredy accounted for in God’s master plan. 3. Prayer is not inaction. The Bible says faith without works is dead, and most often God doesn’t honor the prayers of those who do nothing to resolve the problem on their own. God doesn’t want to raise lazy children either, so He’s not going to bless our laziness. Again, He doesn’t like being taken advantage of. 4. God doesn’t give into selfish demands any more than a good parent gives into the selfish demands or tantrums of their kids. 5. That’s a big LOL about the assumption that we understand our universe, since anyone who’s read a physics book could tell you that the majority of our universe (i forget the percentage, but i think it’s like 95%) is made up of dark matter which is entirely unobservable to us except for being able to measure that it is in fact, there. Regardless, science has no idea what it is. So all that science has ever found out is based on the small minority of the matter in the universe we can actually observe. And about God undermining the laws of our physical universe, who says He doesn’t? Anyone who’s actually read the Bible could tell you that when God answers prayers: the sick are healed, storms go quiet and dead people come back to life. Why should it surprise anyone that if God did these things 2000 years ago, He can do them today? I hope this helps!

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