People who pray don’t believe it does any good

This is my belief, anyway. People who regularly pray will, when asked about the suspiciously high failure rate of this childish exercise, sometimes say that the god they’re vibing doesn’t listen to prayers for things to happen (i.e., requests) even when these are selfless. Since many of the people who say this do in fact routinely pray for things to happen (i.e., make requests), this explanation fails on its face and can be ignored. Others who pray will acknowledge that, sure, prayers “don’t always work” or, for that matter, “work” in anything resembling a predictable pattern, but that humans do not and cannot know the reason(s) for this — for the will of the god they vibe.
Ignore the obviously goofy and painful attempts on the part of these people to hide from obvious conclusions and focus instead on what has to go through the mind of someone engaged in an exercise she deems vital, yet freely admits (using different words than I do) does not have and cannot have any measurable impact at all on world events.


You see, it’s one thing to have confidence in a method or ritual that proves itself efficacious at least some of the time, or at least suggests a connection. Let’s say that when I prowl the bars, I have a history of bringing someone home on the first try exactly 50 percent of the time. If I then introduce a certain “cool” bracelet into the proceedings, and notice that my success rate in subsequent months hovers between 40 and 60 percent, I’m not likely to fret if I leave the house and discover a few blocks up the street that I’ve left the bracelet at home.
Now assume that I have a history of scoring 15 percent of the time, and only then with incredibly foul, drunk, and hostile women. Say I then realize that every time I go out, I actually haven’t shaved or showered in about a week and have stinking debris matted in my armpits as well as the crack of my ass (stay with me, folks). Now assume that I remember to shower and dig out my crevices half the time and on these occasions am 50% successful, while during the times I don’t shower I remain at about 15 percent. Even if nothing were ever said, I’d probably figure out that my grooming behavior was influencing these night-on-the-town outcomes.
A less stark example might be the kind of half-ass superstition dressed up as reason most of us partake of in some way. Let’s say that I’ve set personal bests in three of my past ten road races, and that I realize that in two of those PRs I’ve worn a white New Balance visor and in the other one a yellow Nike cap, while in the other seven races I’ve either gone hatless or work a dark blue Red Sox cap.
Now instinctively I’m not going to formally credit this to anything besides coincidence, but PRs are important things to runners, so maybe I decide this bears looking into. Is it possible that some sort of hat is functionally beneficial in road races — possibly keeping sun out of my eyes, and thereby allowing me to relax and maintain good form because my facial muscles don’t tense up? (Don’t laugh, I have a lazy, almost blind eye and can really get the Bill the Cat thing going out there)? And assuming this is true, is it possible that hats made for runners are lighter and less obtrusive than baseball caps, to an extent that there’s actually a subliminal but definite difference?
All things considered, I’m probably going to grab one of the two caps made by running companies (either will do), but if I forget them and have the Sox hat, I’ll sooner wear than than nothing. Maybe. Even if it is dark-colored, and that’s bad…
Anyway, regardless of exactly what happens in the course of my mini-“experiment,” it’s almost certain that the hat-related behavior will wind up extinguished and forgotten. One shitty race would be enough to do it — not enough to make me abandon the Nike or New Balance hat and its practical benefits, but enough to keep me from throwing it on in a purposeful way.
Prayer does not work like this. There are people of deep faith who go their entire lives getting nothing but deafening silence and even bona fide nastiness on the heels of prayers, and somehow they can’t tie these experiences into the logical frameworks in which they otherwise operate. The praying behavior is never extinguished, and typically the praying person — in a mental gem that would be comical if it were not also a little pathetic — continuously makes the assumption that she is simply not praying hard enough, and continually upgrades this effort (how I do not know) throughout the course of her remaining years.
None of this would make a lot of difference if it weren’t for the nature of the things people pray for and the fucked-up obeisance tied into these goofy rituals. Here’s an example. In this post, the writer implores her readers to pray for someone with throat cancer. Then, just over two weeks later, there’s this — an acknowledgment that “Heaven has a new angel.” Yes; the victim has now “gone to” the same inert daddy who has stood by yanking his crank or maybe laughing while one of his children expired of a particularly painful malignancy.
What goes through Carolyn’s mind when she posts a prayer request? Translated into something sensible, is this just an ordinary “let’s hope” sort of thing, or does she really want the weight of additional vibed fired into a void on the patient’s side? And assuming she really does pray for things when she asks others to (I have my doubts when it comes to people following through in general here), does she consciously recall any of the previous dozen or hundred or thousand known failures of prayer?
The kicker is the assumption that the now-dead person is “with” the same fella who let her get sick and die to begin with. This would be like me insisting on wearing a certain kind of hate in every race — good, bad, and in between — even if it means turning around and going home to pick it up after I’ve left the house on race morning and driven a few miles toward the start. It would also mean my responding to an especially abysmal outing by going out and buying stock in the company making the hats and imploring everyone else to do the same.
I didn’t intend to go on about prayer today, though. What strikes my most of all is Carolyn’s scatterbrained paranoia about ilegal immigrants, a subject I’ll deal with in the near future.

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  1. #1 by T. Bruce McNeely on March 10, 2008 - 9:10 pm

    Say I then realize that every time I go out, I actually haven’t shaved or showered in about a week and have stinking debris matted in my armpits as well as the crack of my ass
    I’m praying to get this image out of my head.
    It’s not working.

  2. #2 by Tony P on March 10, 2008 - 9:25 pm

    There are two groups in society that almost always get it wrong yet nobody calls them on it.
    They are meteorologists and the religious. Though the meteorologists are getting more accurate as time goes on while the religious are still stuck in the dogma and doctrine of their static religions.

  3. #3 by bsci on March 10, 2008 - 11:08 pm

    People who regularly pray will, when asked about the suspiciously high failure rate of this childish exercise, sometimes say that the god they’re vibing doesn’t listen to prayers for things to happen (i.e., requests) even when these are selfless.
    You’re focusing on the Christian (primarily evangelical Christian?) form of prayer? This is definitely not true to Judaism where most prayer is either praise of god or recitation of biblical and rabbinic texts. There are example of requests, but it is not central to almost all traditional prayers. I’m sure this isn’t just true for Judaism. If you’re going to right a rant, the least you can do is research a topic slightly first.

  4. #4 by Kevin Beck on March 10, 2008 - 11:16 pm

    bsci,
    Yes, the site I linked to is run by an evangelical Christian and when she says “please pray for Karen Cooley, storm the Heavens for this wonderful woman and her family” I don’t think she’s asking for simple praise of god or the recitation of a psalm. The entirety of my post is about intercessionary types of prayer, but I am well aware that these do not comprise everything under the aegis of prayer.

  5. #5 by Rev. BigDumbChimp on March 10, 2008 - 11:40 pm

    I work at a private company in the south who’s owners / directors are all pretty religious. Most of the time they are pretty good about not being in your face about it, more so than I would expect. However if anyone gets sick, hurt etc.. there is always the obligatory request for prayer via email (god loves technology unless he doesn’t). And this isn’t just something like

    Please Pray for Sarah. She was injured in a car wreck

    No, it is very specific prayer requests. For example this is a paraphrase of the request we all got last week.

    Sarah is doing better and she thanks everyone for their kind words and thoughts. She is still in a fair amount of pain from the wreck and her back injury and sciatica is making it hard for her to get around. We need everyone to pray for healing to come to her broken ankle and for the pressure to be relieved from her sciatica as well as for the cuts on her arm to heal fast.

    Ok that’s pretty ridiculous. You’d think the big floaty guy with the beard would know what parts of Sarah are hurting. And even if he didn’t how specific of a prayer does he answer?
    Can I pray for that scrape on my shin to heal faster?
    Can I pray for someone’s cold to go away faster? What about making the pain from me bumping my head on the closet shelf go away faster..
    Ok not me for my self? What about my wife praying for my pain from bumping my head to go away faster than the 4 or 5 mins it would normally take?

  6. #6 by Howard M. Burgers on March 10, 2008 - 11:49 pm

    As many have pointed out elsewhere, people never pray for things that would require a true miracle, like the regrowth of a severed body part. They only ask for things nature is known to sometimes take care of without any help. So much for faith in the miracles tat were supposedly commonplace at a time conveniently beyond the reach of historical documentation.

  7. #7 by GrandMasterHumanist on March 11, 2008 - 12:25 am

    Please cite stats for what people do pray for. I for one have no idea. Prayer is certainly vital to people all over the world but don’t take my word for it. Prayer comforts and strengthens people and it also gives a sense of community. Think of religion as just another element of an ecosystem like dirt or water. It’s inseparable from peoples lives.

  8. #8 by Badger3k on March 11, 2008 - 1:10 am

    I’ve found that people tend to pray when they have no power over a situation (or think they have none, such as when taking a test) – it gives them a sense of control, and thus, in many cases, seems to calm them. When I was going to get an MRI done to look for possible tumors (negative results), both a student and coworker said they would pray for me – they wanted good results and this was their way of trying to help, even though they couldn’t. At least that is how I see it – they would probably say something different. Of course, this is all anecdotal, and slightly off topic to what I wanted to say (relating to the title of the post):
    to quote “Put your trust in Allah…but always tie up your camel”

  9. #9 by Ken Shabby on March 11, 2008 - 6:33 am

    There are compulsive gamblers who keep trying to change their luck, no matter how unlucky they are. They never give up on luck. Sound familiar?

  10. #10 by JimFiore on March 11, 2008 - 1:44 pm

    It’s inseparable from peoples lives.
    I disagree and I’m living proof, as is any atheist who was raised in a conventional (by USA standards) religious home.
    I would say that prayer is more reflexive than anything else. People don’t think about the logical implications of the process, they simply do it out of habit. It was ingrained into them at any early age and they just hit autopilot.

  11. #11 by Kevin Beck on March 11, 2008 - 2:00 pm

    “Think of religion as just another element of an ecosystem like dirt or water.”
    Think of the number of people in a random sample of 1,000 who can go for a month without water and compare it to the number who can go a month without religion. These two totals differ by exactly 1,000.
    Some people literally do not think when compelling their keyboards to excrete words, and I reckon prayer is often similar.

  12. #12 by Kevin Beck on March 11, 2008 - 2:00 pm

    “Think of religion as just another element of an ecosystem like dirt or water.”
    Think of the number of people in a random sample of 1,000 who can go for a month without water and compare it to the number who can go a month without religion. These two totals differ by exactly 1,000.
    Some people literally do not think when compelling their keyboards to excrete words, and I reckon prayer is often similar.

  13. #13 by Lofcaudio on March 11, 2008 - 3:52 pm

    This is actually a fairly interesting philosophical exercise, in my opinion. I most certainly disagree with the general premise as stated in the heading of the post that the very people who engage in prayer-type activities do not even believe it does any good. As we wade through the lengthy post and the subsequent comments, we see that Mr. Beck is actually claiming that people who pray for results typically don’t think they’ll ever get the results that they are in fact praying for. (In the Christian vernacular: People pray, yet without any faith.)
    I would be interested to see the study that was done that led to such a conclusion since there are no noticeable links to anything to support this idea. How do you test a person’s faith? But perhaps that’s not really the point that Mr. Beck is trying to make. More than likely, Mr. Beck finds this to be another opportunity to ridicule religion by highlighting a religious practice which Mr. Beck believes that all reasonable people will find silly and without merit.
    “There are people of deep faith who go their entire lives getting nothing but deafening silence and even bona fide nastiness on the heels of prayers, and somehow they can’t tie these experience into the logical frameworks in which they otherwise operate.”
    Oh? Do you have any examples? Whether this statement is supported or not, it’s still worth considering. Even if “deafening silence” and “bona fide nastiness” were experienced by “people of deep faith”, what does that have to do with whether or not such person’s prayers (1) have any merit and (2) have any impact? In the typical straw men arguments that you present, you continue to paint Christians as brainless automatons who do nothing more than bash science, gays and liberal politicians. While some may certainly fall into that category (much to my dismay), it’s a far cry from what most followers of Jesus would aspire to be. I say all this to refute your idea that the only reasons that people pray is for health, wealth and mood swings in the positive direction (purely natural results with no eternal benefit).
    Prayer is a spiritual (i.e., supernatural) activity that cannot be measured by natural means. I can certainly understand your disdain for such an exercise as you have no reason to think that anything supernatural exists.
    “The kicker is the assumption that the now-dead person is ‘with’ the same fella who let her get sick and die to begin with.”
    This “kicker” is badly flawed as you have stated it. If a person who has passed away is truly with the God as portrayed by the Christian faith, how can that be a bad thing from the deceased person’s perspective? Your perspective (being one that does not believe in God or an after-life) sees sickness and death as being a terrible thing, yet for people of faith there is nothing inherently bad about either of these things, as they are a very real reminder of the frailty of the human condition.
    In closing, I would argue that people claiming to be Christians (I cannot speak for all religions on this point) who pray without believing in results are perhaps not Christians as defined in the Bible. One prayer (and a rather important one) that Jesus recommended that all of His followers pray is this: “Forgive us our debts…” (Matthew 6:12). I would hope that all Christians would believe that this prayer is being answered. For those who pray it out of habit without any faith in its efficacy, the Bible would consider such people to be hypocrites and/or heathens. (Matthew 6:5, 7-8) While you may find the Bible to be a work of fiction, I offered these references just to show how someone claiming to follow the Bible should think and act.

  14. #14 by JimFiore on March 11, 2008 - 4:18 pm

    Prayer is a spiritual (i.e., supernatural) activity that cannot be measured by natural means.
    Actually, no. Prayer is a naturalistic activity that can be measured or characterized via neural activity like any other process of the mind. It would be more accurate to say that the practitioner hopes that it has some supernatural effect. Just because you want it to be so doesn’t make it so.
    As far as offering evidence of folks who are or were prayerful, received no answers to their prayers, and never made the connection (i.e. remained “faithful”), I could offer up a whole bunch of deceased relatives who fit the bill nicely.

  15. #15 by Kevin Beck on March 11, 2008 - 4:48 pm

    “I would be interested to see the study that was done that led to such a conclusion since there are no noticeable links to anything to support this idea.”
    For one thing, it’s difficult to envision a controlled study supporting (or refuting) the idea that people don’t believe in something they purport to believe in. The content and structure of my post indicates that this is something I suspect and goes on to explain my confidence in this suspicion, and your implicit contention that a study is required to draw reasonable conclusions about such a thing is as asinine as the idea that because the nonexistence of gods cannot be proven, their existence may be sensibly inferred.
    For another thing, you’re not in the habit of following links anyway; you come here to grouse, and — though it’s not your intention — to keep the grownups amused. So why should I expect you to start clicking on links now?
    “More than likely, Mr. Beck finds this to be another opportunity to ridicule religion by highlighting a religious practice which Mr. Beck believes that all reasonable people will find silly and without merit.”
    That atheists view religion is a storehouse of ridiculous ideas is firmly established. What I am really getting at with this post is that the prayerful, regardless of what they say or claim (perhaps earnestly) to believe, also understand deep down that their faith ridiculous. How else (failing frank brain damage) could people implore deities to heal this or rescue that, shrug it off when it doesn’t happen, and indulge anew in the same futility?
    “In closing, I would argue that…”
    I love this guy. You don’t often see someone serve up a burst of vacuity that long and feeble in the form of a drunken attorney’s courtroom argument.

  16. #16 by Kevin Beck on March 11, 2008 - 4:48 pm

    “I would be interested to see the study that was done that led to such a conclusion since there are no noticeable links to anything to support this idea.”
    For one thing, it’s difficult to envision a controlled study supporting (or refuting) the idea that people don’t believe in something they purport to believe in. The content and structure of my post indicates that this is something I suspect and goes on to explain my confidence in this suspicion, and your implicit contention that a study is required to draw reasonable conclusions about such a thing is as asinine as the idea that because the nonexistence of gods cannot be proven, their existence may be sensibly inferred.
    For another thing, you’re not in the habit of following links anyway; you come here to grouse, and — though it’s not your intention — to keep the grownups amused. So why should I expect you to start clicking on links now?
    “More than likely, Mr. Beck finds this to be another opportunity to ridicule religion by highlighting a religious practice which Mr. Beck believes that all reasonable people will find silly and without merit.”
    That atheists view religion is a storehouse of ridiculous ideas is firmly established. What I am really getting at with this post is that the prayerful, regardless of what they say or claim (perhaps earnestly) to believe, also understand deep down that their faith ridiculous. How else (failing frank brain damage) could people implore deities to heal this or rescue that, shrug it off when it doesn’t happen, and indulge anew in the same futility?
    “In closing, I would argue that…”
    I love this guy. You don’t often see someone serve up a burst of vacuity that long and feeble in the form of a drunken attorney’s courtroom argument.

  17. #17 by Lofcaudio on March 11, 2008 - 5:30 pm

    “What I am really getting at with this post is that the prayerful, regardless of what they say or claim (perhaps earnestly) to believe, also understand deep down that their faith ridiculous.”
    Hmmm, quite a paradox there. I guess I haven’t yet reached that level of understanding. (How’s that for a softball lob?)
    “How else (failing frank brain damage) could people implore deities to heal this or rescue that, shrug it off when it doesn’t happen, and indulge anew in the same futility?”
    I’ll ignore the obvious false dilemma and answer with this: How else indeed?!? Perhaps healings do occur, rescues are made, and those things which you deem futile are actually providing unimaginable benefits. Most people, Christian or not, are pragmatic enough to recognize whether any value is to be derived from a certain activity. (semi-lob)

  18. #18 by Kevin Beck on March 11, 2008 - 5:50 pm

    “Hmmm, quite a paradox there.”
    You can’t conceive of people fooling themselves? Let’s say a marathon runner has a goal of 3:10 and incurs enough injuries and illnesses during his training build-up to render this a remote possibility at best, but still makes the trip on race weekend. Can you not imagine that such a person might have found credible rationalizations (“At least I’m rested…” “I’m more experienced than last time…” “I’ll pace myself properly for once…”) sufficient to get him to the starting line with a decent level of confidence, only to fully admit after a crash-and-burn 3:25 that he was pretty well deluding himself? There’s a payoff in such mental gymnastics, just not a sensible one.
    You didn’t provide any links to evidence of miracle cures and healings resulting from prayers, so I guess my previously high confidence level in the veracity of such bullshit has begun to wane. But your claim that prayer must be useful because people are too pragmatic to do pointless things is an abject failure. Look at the fat activists I wrote about, who make the most deluded Christians seem almost level-headed. Are their criticisms pragmatic? No, but again, hearkening back to what I wrote above, a lack of pragmatism in a given behavior doesn’t imply the lack of a psychological or emotional payoff (the acquisition of which can themselves be viewed as pragmatic).
    Putting this all together with comments above ours, people pray for outcomes because it’s symbolically the right thing to do (for a person of religious faith) and, in the face of utter helplessness, at least represents something even if it doesn’t change anything. But because of the same nominal level of innate human pragmatism you mentioned — in this case, the ability to view past events in the light, however faint, of empiricism — I will continue to argue, for whatever it is or isn’t worth, that even highly devout people do not really think the miracles they pray for have a snowball’s chance of happening.

  19. #19 by GrandMasterHumanist on March 11, 2008 - 6:49 pm

    Jim, I don’t have a belief with regards to metaphysical either. I’ve found that prayer for many people is an exercise for purposes of health and well being, daily survival.
    “Some people literally do not think when compelling their keyboards to excrete words, and I reckon prayer is often similar.”
    Ok, so my analogy was horrible and you chose to insult me.
    I worked in a country where I would sit around 4 hours a day waiting to get back to work because of prayer time. Their daily religious ceremonies were not negotiable. That cultural fabric is what gives their life meaning and it manifests itself everywhere physically.

  20. #20 by Kevin Beck on March 11, 2008 - 7:05 pm

    “I’ve found that prayer for many people is an exercise for purposes of health and well being, daily survival.”
    Much better.
    “Ok, so my analogy was horrible and you chose to insult me.”
    Your analogy wasn’t horrible, but “water” was a poor choice of ecological features to use, because water is something people do need and religion is something many people (even areligious ones) assume that humans need. (Oh, and your name is cool!)
    Religion represents a mostly shitty and shady manifestation of natural psychological impulses and drives, just like jerking off in public represents a poor choice of relieving one’s natural, not-unhealty sexual impulses.

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