December 10, 2012

Why prayer does not work

Prayer does not work. And why does it not work? Well, because there is no God. So, whether you're hoping for a lottery win, or looking for celestial respite for your Aunt Pru's arthritis, all that kneeling and head-bowing and amen chanting is about as much use as a chocolate shovel. You'd be better off praying to Satan. Satan doesn't exist either, but the parties are more fun.

But because humanity likes nothing better than self-delusion, millions of us labour on in the pretence that an invisible yet all powerful Creator actually gives a handful of monkey droppings whether we get that job we applied for or not. There are two very obvious reasons why prayer doesn't work and wouldn't work even if there was a God.

The first is that you obviously don't get everything that you pray for, from good health to happiness. The religious, always quick to dodge a sharp question, will tell you that this is God's will, and His ineffable wisdom chooses not to grant every request directed to him in the form of prayer. Which renders the whole process quite spectacularly pointless, really.

If you're going to go to all the trouble of praying to a being who's then going to decide whether or not to answer your prayers based on a set of criteria you can't see and wouldn't understand, and if that being is all knowing and is therefore aware of your situation anyway, then what's the point of flagging it up? Is praying the equivalent of sending a high priority email? Why not direct your prayers to Bill Gates in an email instead? He'll probably ignore them too, but at least he won't claim any moral high ground or spurious ineffability to fudge the issue.

We'll skip the usual 'what kind of God could allow the prayers of the suffering to go unheeded' argument because it's just too obvious.

But let's look at common prayers. Praying for a promotion, or praying that you get a job you applied for. Now, any rational person would suggest that the prayer time is probably better spent polishing your CV or hitting a few targets, but even if you assume for a moment that there is a God who is minded to answer prayers, isn't it sort of cheating to ask for divine intervention in a recruitment process? It's not really fair on the other guy applying for the job, if they have more experience and perform better in interview, and then fail to get the job because you did a bit of brown-nosing to God the night before?

And what if the other guy prays for the job as well? You're not theonly praying person out there and it's a bit unfair to ask God to do the whole judgement of Solomon thing about which of you is the worthier, when there's a perfectly competent recruiter whose job it is to do just that.

Sometimes of course, prayer seems to work. Someone does some praying, and of a hundred vague prayers for the health of friends and family, financial windfalls and romantic conquests, something goes right. Your prayers have been answered, God's in his heaven and he's in the mood for micro-managing your requests! This is called confirmation bias, and works according to the same principles as incredibly vague horoscopes - people pick out the one thing that might just apply to them, and assume insight on the part of the astrologer, ignoring all the irrelevant details.

The only sense in which prayer genuinely works is in the sense that it's an opportunity for quiet reflection, as close to meditation as some religions get. Praying can settle the nerves or build confidence not because of miracle beams from a non-existent God, but through the prayee spending a few moments relaxing into their own thoughts and just calming down a bit.

So, prayer. Hurts your knees, wears out the carpet, doesn't work. Have a cup of tea and a good think instead.