Saturday, September 3, 2011

Why Prayer Doesn't Work (Part 1 of 2) — Ridiculous Rituals

Asking God for forgiveness is like apologizing for the way he made you.


Did you pray today? Do you have a personal relationship with God? Have you completed your 5 daily prayers while facing Mecca? Did you repeat the requisite number of Hail Mary's as was recommended by your priest to atone for your sins? If so, after reading this post, you can put an end to that. I'm going to aptly demonstrate why it is not necessary to pray about anything.


Why Pray?

Prayer appears to be a means of appeasing the deity around whom the religion is built. Why appease the deity? Well so that he/she/it doesn't smite you of course! Theists will be quick to say that this is not the reason for prayer and insert all their favourite explanations borne of cognitive dissonance. It spans everything from "drawing closer to God", to "seeking deliverance".

Now I'm certainly not picking on any particular religion here. Every form of prayer, from the tame whispers of the closed palms of Christianity to the more eccentric forms embodied in ethnic religions such as rain dancing, suffers from the same vacuous logic: That humans could possibly appease an omnipotent god. On the surface it seems plausible—until you begin to think about it. That's when it becomes ridiculous. Let's examine a few fairly common examples:

Obsolescence of Prayer: Giving Thanks

Even when I was a Christian, I never asked god for stuff. I never prayed to god for anything. I believed that the only point of prayer was to give god thanks — until I really sat down and thought about it. Thanking god for stuff has a number of problems. The first of those problems has much to do with issues that stem from good old fashioned human narcissism. It's like this:

On Blessing

I knew of an older woman once who loved to get up in church and give testimonies of thanks to god for his grace to her and her family. She was thanking god for what she thought was deliverance from her poverty. After her baby daddy had up and left (like so many black men before him) she was left alone with three kids, one of whom grew up to make himself useful.

He was a drug dealer.

Now mind you, she didn't know where this money was coming from. But the way how she behaved in church that Sunday morning, complete with tears of joy, would have moved anyone to believe in the saving grace of god. Her vibrant testimony of thanks to god for his delivering her son "out of the hands of the devil" and blessing her family in turn, was the stuff of legend.

That was about 15 years ago. Her son is now worm food as the Mexican drug cartel doesn't play nice with lackeys. She is now a backslider that still goes to church on occasion. From what I'm told, she doesn't testify anymore. Perhaps if this woman understood the irrelevance giving god thanks for anything, she wouldn't have been hit this hard when the truth finally came out.

How can someone even thank god for blessings if it came at the detriment of someone else? Christians like to say that ignorance is no excuse. So doesn't that mean that the ignorance of this woman is inexcusable? Then again, how is she to know that her son was a drug king pin? Could she take back the thanks she gave to god when she eventually finds out that she once profited from other people's addiction? How exactly would that work where god is concerned?

I recently saw a woman roll into a parking spot just before someone else had the opportunity to do so. She proceed to thank god for providing the parking space. What about the person who now has to circle the parking lot several times and wait for someone else before they too can get a spot? Since when does god so love the world that only a few of his will get parking?

Do you realize the recursive nature of this conundrum? Does anyone else realize the stupidity of this? Are we so narcissistic that we think that god wouldn't frown upon us for thanking him for something that effectively disenfranchises someone else? But what's really going to bake your noodle is this: Does god accept praise for from people who've been selectively blessed?

If so, then god is an asshole.

For the sake of the greater good of humanity, you probably shouldn't be thankful for what you have when there are still people out there who have not. There is little more narcissistic than being thankful because other people have not. I would like to think that if there really is a just god, that he would reject your thanks and praise until you've used what you've been blessed with for the betterment of mankind. However, this makes no difference one way or another.

Here's why:

There's no such thing as good or evil. These are man made ideas that only exist within our heads. Every act of good has a counter balancing act of evil. It's just that most people aren't smart enough to foresee where their good deed will become an evil for someone else. When something good or bad happens to someone, there's a clear train of cause and effect at work.

This is why if you are willing to thank god for any of your blessings, you should also be willing to thank god for your curses. But most religious practitioners don't do this — even though the concept is preached among Christian circles. It shows that prayer is a form of narcissism. It's always about me, me, me. At the risk of co-opting a phrase from a famous dead politician, you should ask not what god can do for you, but what you can do for god. But there is a simpler way:

You could eliminate the god element from the equation altogether and see the universe in its plain, unencumbered state, where stuff just happens as a product of cause and effect. Then you will quickly realize that being grateful doesn't need an object in the sentence (i.e. god) as that needlessly clutters the cosmological relevance of life. The existence of god needlessly complicates causality. Whether you are thankful to god or not, good and bad will still happen.

Thanking god for a blessing is far more meaningful as an act of catharsis than it is an act of graciousness. It neither increases the probability of the recurrence of good nor does it ably decrease the probability of occurrences of evil. There is certainly nothing wrong with thanking god as a rote and meaningless bit of verbal fluff of language akin to making an exclamation. I guess it is a nice thing to say, even though it really has no intrinsic meaning outside of that.

On Achievement

Many years ago when I passed a very difficult exam for the field of computer science, many people at the church I attended felt compelled to offer praises to god for my success. I always found this to be rather odd. Why? For several reasons really. First, god was being thanked for giving me the wisdom to make good on the exam. I found such praise to be ludicrous, since there were far smarter boys in my class who were raised agnostic who scored higher marks.

I envied those boys — not for their smarts, but rather because they seemed to have smarter parents. Never the less, the second issue I took with this practice was that my church people felt that I would not have been successful if god had not somehow intervened in my success. This is despite the fact that I actually failed that exam on my first attempt when relying on my faith (on advice from these same people). I didn't think god deserved praise for my hard work.

I know that sounds pretty arrogant, but if I hadn't studied for my exams, no amount of prayer would have helped me to pass it. So why does god deserve the praise? The practice is as asinine as it is ineffective. I see brilliant people take the podium in church thanking god for helping them to pass an exam, while less intellectually gifted members squirm in their seats.

Since then, I've seen people recovery from surgery, thanking god (not the surgeon) for their deliverance. I've seen people acquitted of a crime thanking god (not the lawyer) for their deliverance. I've seen actors and musicians accepting prestigious awards and even winning athletes, all thanking god (not their agents, not their fans, not their producers, and not even their own talent) for their success. If you really think about it, it is quite a bizarre thing to do.

Even if we are to assume that the reason we thank god for anything is to show graciousness for what he has done for us, we have to contemplate an obvious question: What would happen if we stopped giving god thanks? Christians like to reference Luke 19:40 in this case — which is erroneous, as that passage was clearly written as a metaphorical narrative device.

God is not going to cause rocks to cry out to supplement our lack of praise. I'm not saying that god can't do it. Rather I'm saying that the idea is nonsense since God (in his infinite wisdom) would have done that in the very first place instead of creating humans. This renders that interpretation of the passage to be asinine at best. How then do we adequately explain the occurrence of successful people who have never worshiped a god of any sort their entire life?

What's really interesting is that when you pose this problem to many Christians, the first thing they will do is resort to cognitive dissonance. What they will tell you is that the reason why God allows some people who don't revere him to succeed is to use that as a precedent for humbling them at a later stage in their lives. This insipid explanation is as silly as saying that the reason the sky isn't green is because it's still blue. It doesn't satisfy the original question.

Finally, irrespective of believers' disagreement with the obvious, openly thanking god for your success is an implicit declaration of God's favor for you over another. If you succeed, it means that someone must therefore lose. What if the person who loses is also a fan of God? Is it that you were a greater fan? Or is it that god likes them less? Doesn't that make god partial?

This certainly seems to have been the moral lesson from Cain and Able. God pits two brothers against each other, full knowing well that he prefers blood over grain. The obvious conundrum here is that if Cain had any idea that God had a preference, wouldn't he have just changed careers? If you don't see how that makes god a tool, then your delusion borders on madness.

The obvious problem with this conundrum is that believers have two choices: They can either face the facts head on (and thereby dissolve their faith) or they can use cognitive dissonance to make the conundrum have spiritual meaning (thereby reinforcing their faith). What believers fail to understand, is that when belief becomes a delusion, it becomes increasingly difficult to recognize an indefensible argument — usually the first sign that their truth is probably false.

Obsolescence of Prayer: Hearing from god


When I was younger, I attended a charismatic church for much of my youth. Weird stuff went on there all the time. Every Sunday was a new adventure. At the center of it all was a woman who claimed to hear directly from god. She was so sure of what she was hearing, that we weren't encouraged to seek god on our own for important life altering decisions like marriage.

We had to hear from god through her.

After spending an hour and a half in prayer, she started babbling some nonsense that was supposed to be a pentecostal language. Eventually she would translate all that babbling into English (so that we Muggles could understand what she was going on about). But I have always wondered to myself: Certainly this woman must have appeared to be mad to a visitor!

Long after I came to my senses and left that church, the unwed denizens of that congregation that remained eventually came to the conclusion that the woman was a severely delusional paranoid Schizophrenic. Any fool could have spotted that. This woman is not the only person who claims to hear directly from god. In fact, almost every major religion known today is based on the word of prophets: men who have purportedly had powerful visions of god's revelation.

Should we assume that the only way to hear from god is to be a schizoid? From the prophet Isaiah to the prophet Mohammad, we have been privy to the acute specificity of what god supposedly wants from people who hear voices in their heads. People still hear voices in their heads today. It's just that they're usually carted off in a body strap to the looney bin. Maybe that's precisely why there isn't really a preponderance of newer monotheistic religions today.

No one is having revelations without getting the funny farm treatment.

But even if you claim to hear from god after meditating in prayer and you're obviously not a schizoid, why should your revelation be any more credible than someone who came to the same revelation who is an atheist? When I was younger, I used to testify that God revealed answers to me. When I got older, I realized that my awesome brain still gave me answers, even though I no longer believed in god. That means one of two things are likely to be true:


  1. God doesn't care if we recognize him or not
  2. Our own intelligence is being mistaken for god
If there is any credibility to what is written in the Bible, then number 1 is implausible. God doesn't seem to take the idea of copyright infraction lightly. He kills people for far more minor infractions. If we eliminate all other possibilities, then whatever remains must be the truth. Ergo, it is likely that everyone who has every told you that god revealed something to them is merely revealing their own crazy opinion by cleverly veiling it under the auspices of god's will.

If god wanted to reveal something to anyone on earth, he would have written it in the sky, or like that Saudi Oil Sheik, in the sand, literally, with his own fingers, clear as day, for anyone to see. He wouldn't have gone through the more dubious route of picking an obscure person with no credentials (like say a nomadic trader or a hapless carpenter). Why would he do that when he previously buried the world under water because a few dozen people pissed him off?

Did god change his strategy and forget to send me the memo? I very seriously doubt that. As Christians will tell you, god doesn't change. He is still the same yesterday, today and forever. Therefore every praying prophet is probably a pretentious punk preying with prayer on the pastoral pool of prudish people. They are unmitigated frauds of (literally) Biblical proportions.

Obsolescence of Prayer: Forgiveness of sin

Another favourite reason for prayer is that of the forgiveness of sins. While I was "growing up in the lord", young people were constantly being subjected to the psychological torture of feeling guilty for natural feelings welling up inside them during puberty. I can't even count how many of those young women I would loved to have pursued. I feel I was robbed of my youth.

Child abuse aside, the obvious problem with this technique is that if you socially engineer a people to believe that their own natural bodily functions are wrong, you create a need for them to use prayer to as a way of soliciting forgiveness. In other words, socially engineered guilt predicates the necessity for supplication. Take away the guilt and the need disappears.

Despite the social engineering, there were still incidences of teenage pregnancy in the church. No amount of public shaming of the hormone torn miscreants would compel them to stop sharing their penis and vagina. In fact, the very act of making sex a taboo seemed to increase the number of incidences of fornication in the church. My mother took a far different approach.

Demystifying sex achieved what Bible thumping did not. It makes a lot more sense to avoid fornication for risk of disease and unwanted pregnancy than for going to hell. Asking god for forgiveness is like apologizing for the way he made you. That's as ridiculous as the French being angry at the cars they made. While contrition won't prevent herpes, common sense will.

To be completely fair, those church elders were not trained medical practitioners while my mother was. Using religion to scare people straight is not as effective as using common sense to get the same result. You can't pray your way out of being a teenaged parent and God is not going to cauterize your biological desires. Relying on prayer is an act in controlled stupidity.

But even if you weren't socially engineered to be guilty of your natural bodily functions, has it ever occurred to anyone that if god had intended for fornication to be sinful, that he would have engineered our bodies such that sexual feelings wouldn't come on until we were ready to be married? Why do they come on from we are too young to understand what it all means?

Then again, that's a Catch 22. For if we are not busy feeling guilty for a natural feeling, then we wouldn't need to pray to God for any forgiveness. So what believers want you to know is that god deliberately created a biological need, then commanded against it. It's an entrapment that's designed explicitly for his own entertainment, as we helplessly sin over and over again.

I can just imagine god, sitting around all day waiting for us to sin again, giggling to himself when we do, only to wait on us to come running back to him to make us feel better about ourselves. If you follow it closely, religious theology makes god out to be a sadistic kid with a penchant for torture and release. It's like creating a product with a limited shelf life, thereby forcing you to buy another. Wait, that sounds a lot like human nature. Why is god doing that?

Oh right — because we created god.

Obsolescence of Prayer: Confession & Penance

Have you ever heard the Catholics purport that saying a prayer a certain number of times is relative to the severity of the sin you committed? Have you ever wondered why? If God is faithful and just enough to forgive you if you are truly sorry for your sin (that's what religion seems best at—making you feel guilty), why do you need to say the prayer more than once?

When you examine the nature of these religious rituals, you will quickly observe that the effectiveness of the prayer is contingent on the strength of your belief. The stronger your belief, the guiltier you will feel. The stronger your guilt, the greater the perceived need for supplication. If you take away the belief, you will realize that all of your guilt is manufactured.

It only exists in your head.

Guilt is an emotion. It is an electrochemical reaction inside your brain — not an indicator of your status with the divine. It doesn't dissipate instantly for all the same reasons why it takes forever to get over your last breakup and why you still feel sad about that death in your family. Chemicals in your brain stick around for a while. They disappear on their own with time.

With that said, guilt serves a very useful purpose. It's part of what makes us seek amends for when we do something wrong. However, what you determine to be wrong is a fuzzy thing and tends to be fairly subjective. Some things are obvious. Murder, theft and other such things have far reaching effects. Having premarital sex however, is much harder to quantify.
Either way, praying for forgiveness is ridiculous because it won't work until you have forgiven yourself. God is an abstract idea that exists only in our minds. There's probably no god out there, tabulating your sins for your redemption (or his entertainment). The god you ask forgiveness of is your own self. That's why you spend so many hours on your knees asking a supposedly omnipotent being to let it slide that you broke off a piece of that nookie last night.

The reason why you confess your sin to a priest, an imam, a pastor or a rabbi is because the shame that results from the confession feels like contrition — which creates that liberating sensation of being forgiven. The truth is, you can create this feeling in on your own. It's just easier to do with someone you perceive to be an authoritative religious figure. Here's why:

When you have a medical problem, you tend to implicitly trust your doctor, even if they give you bad advice. The same can be said if you have a psychological problem that you discuss with a psychologist. It logically follows then that if you trust your religious minister with similar implicitness, their status as an authoritative religious figure cures you of your guilt in the same way talking to your shrink will make you feel better after telling them about your childhood.

Confession is a quick and easy way to dissipate guilt. We do it for all the same reasons we talk about what's making us sad to a therapist. The cathartic effect dissipates the emotion. However, to assume that confession is always the right decision is a little naive. Unless you've committed a very serious crime, confessing your petty sins to a figure of authority is pointless.

If God is as smart as you think he is, then a single line of confession in prayer should work just fine. You don't need to spend hours repeating the same rote lines over and over again. It's like you're insulting god's intelligence (if god even has an intelligence worth insulting) by repeating yourself in case he didn't hear you the first time. That brings me to my point:

The mere fact that you think you need to put so much effort into your prayer of supplication should be an indicator that you are only appeasing your own sense of guilt. Tearing your beard, pouring over sackcloth and ashes, or shedding tears seems a bit over the top if your omnipotent god is already aware of your sin. So you're not praying to obtain forgiveness from god. You're praying to absolve yourself of guilt. Your prayer won't end until your guilt does.

Finally (and this one is the real kicker), even if you believe in a god, it wouldn't matter one way or another if you confess over this or that sin. He already knows whether you're going to hell or not anyway. That's the ultimate reason why praying for forgiveness is pointless. Like all other prayer, it presumes to change the course of history that an omnipotent god would have already plotted out. You may spend 40 years of your life in prayer and still go to hell for sinning at the last minute. That sounds pretty stupid, huh? You haven't really seen stupid yet.

Tomorrow: Why Prayer Doesn't Work (Part 2 of 2) — Gambling on fate

E-mail: accordingtoxen[at]gmail[dot]com


  1. Intriguing post! I have recently stopped praying like I used to, although I still struggle with feeling that I "should" communicate with the Almighty. Now, my most recent thought about prayer is that it is not what traditional religious people think of it. Prayer to me is more like reflecting about this life, it is about philosophizing, it is about exploring the reason why I have consciousness and I am living on this earth. Many people claim there is no reason for this life, that this is just a big random accident. I cannot believe this. Others claim specific reasons why we are here (follow the 10 Commandments, reincarnate to the next life, follow a certain doctrine) , but I no longer believe this either. What I do believe is that I am but a small being in a humongous universe, and by praying or reflecting (or whatever you want to call it) I recognize my limitation and my faults, but I am willing to learn more about why I am here. So far, my thought is that I am here to serve others. I will continue to learn more. Peace.

  2. Wish I had said that ...