The Nature of Prayer

Prayer is ubiquitous in the religious world. It is the way in which believers reach out to their gods, almost always asking for something for themselves or others. Much has been written about this remarkable phenomenon. Believers see it as a personal connection to their god, while non-believers see it as asking for favors from an invisible fantasy man in the sky. I intend to cover ground that is somewhere between those two extremes.

First, we need to objectively explore the mechanism of prayer. Prayer is typically triggered when a person identifies a negative situation affecting her life or the life of another human being. In an attempt to ease that negative situation, the person will ask for assistance from a supreme being that is assumed to be all-powerful, and thus is able to turn the perceived negative situation into a positive one.

After she has prayed, she expects her god to do something in return. If the negative situation that she prayed about improves, she will attribute the improvement to her god. If it does not improve, she will attribute it to god’s will, inscrutable but infallible. In essence, whatever the god decides to do is acceptable to the person who has prayed, since her god can do no wrong. In the eyes of the believer, regardless of the outcome of the prayer transaction, faith has been affirmed.

It is readily apparent to a neutral observer that there is no logic involved in the perceived mechanism of prayer as seen by a believer. There is no observable phenomena that works in the manner described. In science, the diametrically opposed outcomes would be seen to be clearly different results, with the law of cause and effect dictating the distinction. Just as clearly, the believer’s faith is obscuring her perception of the transactional mechanism of prayer.

I submit that the actual transaction involved in prayer is an unconscious attempt by the petitioner to absolve herself of any responsibility for the negative situation. If she was praying for her boss to go easier on her at work because she is having trouble with job performance, her perception is that she has placed the problem in the hands of her god. She does not need to seek a solution or take any further action. Whatever her god decides is all right with her; her responsibility is ended.

By praying, she has made a decision (whether consciously or not) to take no responsibility for her own problem. She does not have to try to improve her work habits. She does not have to ask her supervisor or a co-worker for help. She does not have to learn anything new. In fact, she does not even have to even think about any of that. She can blithely continue doing exactly what she has always done, including the things that caused the problem.

This analysis is also true if the prayer is made on behalf of a friend. In that case, the prayer has absolved the petitioner from any responsibility to help her friend. She does not have to risk the ire of the friend by bringing up the poor job performance, or come up with any solution to the friend’s problem, or take on any of the friend’s work. All she needs to do is ask her god for help, and then she is off the hook.

Obviously, the prayer transaction is not nearly as simplistic as it first appears to be. What has actually happened inside the simple meme of prayer is part of a very common blueprint for one of the ills of modern society. First, prayer allows people one more avenue to abrogate their responsibilities for their own lives and for the lives of people that they care about. It is just another way to “let somebody else take care of it.” In this way, prayer joins drugs, alcohol, and many forms of non-religious fantasy as a way to bury one’s head in the sand and ignore the world around them.

The party doing the praying has also successfully avoided the need to communicate with another human being. Instead, she can stay completely within herself, an island of humanity, with no need to take a chance on looking foolish. Rather, head firmly planted in the sand, she can transfer all responsibility for communication to the invisible man in the sky along with all responsibility for taking action.

Humanity does not need any more excuses to act irresponsibly. We have proven over the last several generations that we are more than willing to let others make the decisions for us, no matter how bad for us those decisions may be. Prayer deserves to be placed, firmly and finally, in the same category as not bothering to vote, or waiting for Batman to save you, or the piercing unreality of reality television.

About Michael W. Jones

Michael has been an Atheist since an epiphany in a Baptist church at age 12, was a Unitarian until they became a christian denomination, spent most of his life developing software, and is now earning almost no living at all as a writer. :) He lives in Williams Township, PA and is contemplating what's next after Tucker the Weird Dawg. Michael is a co-founder and the managing editor of The Eloquent Atheist on-line magazine.


The Nature of Prayer — 2 Comments

  1. hello – i found an exchange between you and the owner of the site prayer 2.0 on that site, regarding prayer. my reply turned out to be long-ish, so i decided to post it on my own blog, here. would be interested in your thoughts.

  2. I have replied to Isabella, and repeat my reply below. You may wish to read Isabella’s post by following the link in her comment above before reading my reply.


    I can appreciate your position. I would rather, however, remove the mumbo-jumbo that you mention and stick with the logical, the observable, and the practically philosophical. I see little difference in your two extremes. It is my understanding, after considerable reading and conversation with Buddhists that there is no god at the core of Buddhism. While there may be “higher beings” (commonly known as Devas) Buddhism, at its heart, does not teach the notion of praying nor worship to the Devas or any god or gods. If, as a Buddhist, you wish to add the “feature” of prayer, you may of course feel free to do so, but once you have done that I believe that you are closer to being a Baptist than to being a Buddhist. Prayer is prayer.

    Mother Teresa was an intensely religious person. Of course she “saw her work as prayer.” Objectively, I see her work as beneficial and her prayer as self-delusion, just like all prayers. Being elevated to sainthood does not cut much ice with an atheist. One does not need prayer to focus anything. It is my contention, as stated, that prayer is simply an attempt to have a conversation with a fictitious being, generally for the purpose of personal abrogation of responsibility. It does not matter in the least (to me) who is doing the praying or what is being prayed to. To me, prayer is self-delusion, period.

    What you are saying at the end of your column, from my point of view, is that prayer is a conversation. Of course, I disagree with that views. Since there is no one on the other end, I see it as equivalent to talking to yourself. Nothing wrong, with talking to oneself; I do it all the time. But a person praying does not see it as talking to themselves, which is a part of the delusion.

    You may bring in whatever gray areas you wish. Praying involves a god. There is no praying without a god. I don’t believe in gods. Therefore, to me, any prayer is self-delusion until you are able to produce an all-powerful invisible god in the sky for science to examine in some detail. No such presentation has ever been made. I don’t believe it ever will be.

    None of this is intended to influence you, or what you can believe in. If you wish to add prayer to Buddhism, or to exalt the prayer of Mother Teresa rather than her Earthly work, I will take issue with you because I think you are wrong, but I continue to respect your human right to delude yourself. ;o)

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