Does it matter that prayer doesn’t work?

Let me ask you something. If someone prays for patience, you think God gives them patience? Or does he give them the opportunity to be patient?

–God, as played by Morgan Freeman

I read this quote in a movie review on Friendly Christian, and didn’t leave a comment because the author really is making a sincere effort to be a “friendly Christian” so the last thing I want to do is be the jerk atheist who goes over to his blog to pick a fight with him. But some part of me really wanted to point out that if you pray to a rock in your backyard, the rock will most likely be loving enough to grant you the opportunity to solve your own damn problems. Similarly, The Exterminator posted the Democratic presidential candidates’ views on whether prayer could be effective in preventing or lessening real-world natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina or the Minnesota Bridge collapse here. Most of them affirmed that prayer is of vital importance, but not one of them claimed that yes, if you pray enough (or better) then you can actually convince God to change His mysterious plans on such matters. Of course that doesn’t mean all Christians believe prayer doesn’t affect real-world outcomes (here’s a counterexample), but it does show that religious people bend over backward to give God a pass when that whole “And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that I will do,” thing doesn’t work (John 14:13).

So the idea is that God is going to do whatever He sees fit (according to his will), and even if His plan seems (by your puny understanding) cruel or even sadistic at times, you should take His word for it that it’s a loving plan because He said so (or at least somebody said so…), and besides, He’s bigger, smarter, and more powerful than you. And you should pray for things because — even though it’s blasphemy to imagine that your prayer might force God’s hand and make Him change His plan to accomodate your request — you should pray because praying is really important.

I’ve tried to wrap my mind around how this could possibly be comforting to anyone, yet weirdly it seems that it is. And when I stop thinking and feel instead, I can kind of see why:

At one point recently I suffered a professional set-back — an opportunity I’d been banking on didn’t pan out — and weirdly the first thing that popped into my mind was “well, it wasn’t meant to be…” As if some reptile part of my brain still believes in destiny. And it was stressful to do a personal post-mortem of the variety “when I saw X-Y-Z happen, I should have known I needed to do Q…” (that is, learn something from it 😉 ), and also kind of stressful to notice that in fact part of the problem was just a question of random chance. On the other hand it was kind of comforting to think “The Lord has given you talents and wants you to work to develop them. Obviously handing you opportunities on a silver platter won’t accomplish that goal…” I can almost hear my LDS friends saying that.

Hell, if I were still a believer, I’d probably be standing up in testimony meeting citing this as a proof of the power of prayer even though I got the opposite of what I would have asked for if I’d prayed (which I didn’t). I’d have explained it as proof of God’s superior wisdom in answering prayers in His own way.

Of course if I’d prayed, maybe the outcome would have been different. 😉 But ultimately it wouldn’t have mattered…


C. L. Hanson is the friendly Swiss-French-American ExMormon atheist mom living in Switzerland! Follow me on mastadon at or see "letters from a broad" for further adventures!!

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14 Responses

  1. Jeff Hebert says:

    That’s the beauty of prayer. If you get what you prayed for, it’s a sign there’s a God. If you don’t get what you prayed for, it’s a sign there’s a God. If some totally random thing happens that’s completely unrelated to what you prayed for, it’s a sign there’s a God.

    It’s the perfect “Head I win, tails you lose” setup!

  2. MoHoHawaii says:

    As one TBM relative once told me, “I couldn’t live in a world where prayer doesn’t work.”

    In other words, “Things that are too upsetting to think I just won’t think.”

    The weirdest part is that prayer seems to be a legitimate subject of political discourse these days. When did that happen?

  3. John Remy says:

    I want to point out that this post only represents one form of prayer (petitioning prayer). It’s probably the dominant form, but one can also pray/meditate to be at peace with the outcome, whatever that may be. Even as an atheist I can relate to this approach, though ironically where believers console themselves by seeing a higher (and perhaps inscrutable) purpose, I find peace in accepting the ultimate purposelessness of the universe (and then moving on).

  4. chanson says:

    John — True, I’m only talking about petitioning prayer. If what you’re looking for is inner peace, then it would be reasonable to say that in that case prayer works. But as you point out, in this case it works in the same way as meditation, not requiring divine intervention.

    I probably should have been more specific in my title, merely noting that believers aren’t swayed by prayer’s lack of effect on the outcome of real-world events. But prayer does indeed have an effect on the person who prays. If prayer had absolutely no effect of any kind, people probably wouldn’t do it.

  5. FFG says:

    Great topic! I was never great a praying even when I somewhat tried to be a TBM.

    When I was a young teenager, we attended a fast and testimony sacrament meeting in a married ward at BYU (I think my niece was being blessed). A woman got up and bore her testimony on the power of prayer. She had always wanted to make good homemade bread, so she prayed all week. On Saturday, she made the bread, but it was a disaster. At first, she was confused and felt neglected by God, but then realized that it was a lesson. I had a very hard time stifling my laughs. Perhaps, God is too busy ignoring/laughing about the stupid prayers to change the course of hurricanes.

    Recently, one of the national news reports focused on Mother Teresa. Apparently, the last few years of her life, she had written many letters (to the Pope, I think) questioning her beliefs. She had also stopped praying. I wish the news report would have gone into more details, because the idea of one of the greatest religious people of all time having doubts is very fascinating.

  6. chanson says:

    FFG — that’s exactly the type of testimony I’m talking about. There but for the trace of Dog go I, or something like that… 😉

    There’s an extensive article about Mother Teresa’s crisis of faith in Time here, and an interesting shorter article here.

  7. exmoron says:

    I’m going to pray that god/s/esses give me the intelligence to understand your post. If they do or don’t, it wasn’t meant to be… 😉

    Awesome post!

  8. Wayne says:

    When my niece was a baby she had some pretty serious medical problems. During the ordeal I spoke with my TBM sister about prayer.

    She realized that the only thing that prayer really did was to help her accept what was going on.

  9. woundedhart says:

    My mom would call it synchronicity that you and I wrote about this on the same day, with sort of the same view. I swear I hadn’t already read your stuff when I posted mine. Thanks for the link, though. It’s amazing to me that Mother Theresa still did all she did, feeling so alone.

  10. INTJ Mom says:

    Excellent thoughts, IMO. Your post reminds me of a discussion DH and I had about prayer back when the southern widowed mom and her kids were on the Amazing Race Family Edition. They kept talking about how they were praying for help and how devoutly religious they were, yet they were so rude and obnoxious toward everyone else in the game, and just in general a lot of the time.

    It was interesting to us that they seemed to think by praying that they would hopefully somehow be shown favor over everyone else. Like that made them more deserving even though they were being rude and obnoxious to other people. We found their whole approach to be both amusing and distasteful.

    I’m also reminded of that scene in a Big Love episode where one of the males is praying over his hunting rifle. Still makes me chuckle.

  11. Kullervo says:

    Keep in mind that the rest of Christianity isn’t always as paranoid of or terrified of doubt as Mormonism.

    Sure, simplistic Fundamentalists, maybe, but… they’re simplistic fundamentalists.

  12. I’m thinking the praying and crying to God on Big Brother this season has GOT to end.

    Great post, Chanson. I really enjoyed your thoughts here.

  13. When I was very young, my babysitter told me about intercessionary prayer, so for about two weeks, I went around praying for things. Some things came to pass, some didn’t. Apparently I satisfied the curiosity I had about prayer in those two weeks, and, so far as I recall, I never took up intercessionary prayer again. Yet, now I wonder what caused me to loose interest in it, and whether I would have lost interest in it if I had been raised in a religious household.

  14. I have palmonary fibroisis says:

    I pray for life filled with joy and laughter and love for all people on this earth for every breath they may take in this life. I have pulmonary fibrosis. I have wasted so much time. 4 to 5 years is all the time I have to give back.
    God always blesses all of us. It took me along time to learn that. I have made so many mistakes in this life. With only myself to blame.No matter look up and see the butterfly. “A kiss from God” A wonderful thought.

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