Saturday, September 3, 2011

Why Prayer Doesn't Work (Part 2 of 2) — Gambling on Fate

Prayer has the same statistical effectiveness as gambling.


If you're a believer from one of the major monotheistic religions, then the function of prayer is actually unnecessary (even if you are a devout believer). This is because if your religion is monotheistic, then chances are that you might also believe that your god is a supreme being, possessing all the power and knowledge in the universe. If so, then you don't need to pray.

Here's why:


Obsolescence of Prayer: The Folly of Asking

Let's say that your god knows everything (omniscient). Doesn't it stand to chance therefore that god would already know what you're going down on your knees to say? So why actually say it out loud (or even in your head) if god is all knowing? Wouldn't god just read the ideas from your heart? Doesn't this effectively mean that the very act of prayer is one that is at best a tedious chore of repetition or at worst, one of insolent condescension to an all knowing god? Why would you get down on your knees to tell god what he already knows? Is that sensible?

But that's nothing. What's really going to bake your noodles is the idea of fate. If God exists, then he is all knowing. If so, then he already knows everything that's going to happen. In fact, one can fairly say that God sees in the 5th dimension (outside of time and space, where all possibilities exist). That would be the only possible logical explanation for God's total power.

If this is true, then there's no such thing as choice, since technically, the fate of the universe already exists as knowledge in the mind of god. If not, then god would not be all knowing, and thus, would not be god. This would mean that god doesn't exist. But let's assume that god exists. If the fate of the universe is already known to god, then wouldn't it be pointless to ask god for anything? Think about it: Why ask him for stuff he already knows you will or won't get?

Wouldn't it be simpler to just let the universe unfold as it will?

Obsolescence of Prayer: How fate moots prayer

As we have just discussed, your fate and that of the rest of the universe is already sealed. But that's not all. What's really going to burn a hole in your noggin is this: If the fate of the universe is already sealed (by virtue of God existing in the first place), it would be no different from a universe where god doesn't exist, since events would play out exactly the same way.

If this is true, then what you will quickly observe is that whether you pray or not, a universe where god doesn't exist would unfold in exactly the same way as one in which god did exist. Why? Because if god exists, then his omniscience means that the universe is nothing more than a clock he set in motion that he doesn't need to interfere with. A universe where god doesn't exist would have the same effect, since there is no creator interfering with causality.

If a universe where god exists behaves in exactly the same way as a universe where god doesn't exist, then why would it be necessary to pray to a god in the first place? This means that your perception of your prayer being "answered" is nothing more than sheer dumb luck. It would be a situation where your prayer coincides with what was predetermined to happen.

If this is the case, then what's the whole point of prayer? Even if you use prayer for meditative purposes (and that's perfectly OK), the belief that prayer has any more power than what we think it actually does is a bit misleading. Why would you pray to a god that has already written the script for your life? Wouldn't the very act of prayer be a part of that cosmic movie script?

Obsolescence of Prayer: A matter of chance

This means that prayer has the same statistical effectiveness as gambling. Prayers only appear to be "answered" when the predetermined outcome of the universe just happens to coincide with your prayer. Prayers are "ignored" all the time (and quite likely, most of the time) when the predetermined outcome of the universe doesn't coincide with what you had asked god for.

If you walk into a Casino the size of Texas and predict that someone will win Jackpot on their first game, statistically, because of the sheer size of the Casino, the odds of that happening are exponentially greater. So technically, you would be a real bona fide fortune teller. Ok, Not really. You'd only be right because the odds have now been immensely stacked in your favour.

Similarly, if 2.1 billion Christians and 1.3 billion Muslims around the world all prayed to god at the same time for 3.4 billion different things, several things will be true irrespective of size:
  1. Most of those prayers will be "answered".
  2. Few of those prayers will be "ignored".
  3. All of those whose prayers were answered will have their faith renewed.
  4. Most of those whose prayers weren't answered will believe anyway.
  5. The rest will eventually lose their faith.
Now if 3.4 billion believers all prayed at exactly the same time for exactly the same thing, the odds would be significantly less likely that the one prayer will be answered — unless someone decides to make their prayer a reality just because of the great camaraderie generated from the massive human effort of half of the world's population praying at exactly the same time.

The point I'm making is that the effectiveness of prayer can be accurately measured down to a very specific probability by simply using the principles of mathematics — the same principles used to measure the favourable outcome of a game of chance. We know this for one simple reason: If God really does answer prayer, the universe would have been a far different place.

Here's how we know this:

Obsolescence of Prayer: A matter of sequence

What if god answered every single prayer we made? Would the result be any different from how it is now? Can you imagine two people praying for separate and opposite outcomes of a single event? How would god determine which prayer to favour over another? Would God use optimistic concurrency based on split second timing to undo the prayer that came in first with the one that came in second? Wouldn't the first person think god didn't answer their prayer?

Do you see how ridiculous this quickly becomes?

If god decided to answer everyone's prayer, because there are so many of us on the planet (in excess of 7 billion people at last count), some of the prayers will ultimately overlap. If God had used a first come first serve basis on which to answer prayers, most of the prayers that clash would see the erasure of the effect of the competing prayer that came in first. Let me explain:

Imagine that Palestinians prayed to Allah that they are given their land back from Israel. Then imagine the Israelis praying to Jehovah for the Palestinians to be driven out of the land. If the Israeli prayer reaches god first (and assuming that Jehovah and Allah are really the same dude), then the Palestinians would be driven out before their prayer gets to be processed. 

Even if the Palestinian prayer reaches first, the nature of the Israeli prayer negates the effect of the Palestinian prayer. The Palestinians would get their land, only to be driven out of it shortly after. Technically, both prayers have been answered. However, since the Palestinians didn't pray for the demise of the Israelis (thereby negating the effect of their prayer), the Israeli prayer would still be processed, totally negating the effect of the Palestinian prayer.

Do you see why prayer would fail anyway?

The effect that this would create is a universe where some people's prayers get answered while most others see what appears to be their prayers not being answered. If you think about it, this is no different from a universe where there is no god answering any prayers. Because of natural causality, some prayers will appear to be answered, while most will not. Based on our experience, we have no reason to believe that isn't the universe we live in now.

Believers have a nifty way of viewing this problem. They say that god is intelligent enough to know which prayers to ignore and which ones to answer. Sounds pretty solid right? Sure — until you think about it carefully. If god selectively answers prayers, then how is that different from a universe where god doesn't exist and prayers arbitrarily coincide with fate? It is not.

This is the ultimate reason why prayer is not necessary. Even if god existed, his "selective" answering of prayer is no different from a situation where prayers appear to be arbitrarily answered when the outcome of an event coincides with the content of the prayer. It would be the statistical equivalent of walking into a casino and placing a tidy bet on a round of roulette.

I'll prove it:

The Prayer Acid Test

When I was a teen, I and a number of others like myself participated in a series of national exams. This was a big deal back in the day. As young Christians, we were exhorted to "trust god" and he will deliver us great success. Needless to say, god failed to come through with his side of the bargain. Most of us did poorly in our exams. The blame was laid at our prayer life.

On our second attempt to pursue those examinations, I decided to park my belief in god for just a month and rely less on my faith and more on my studies. Needless to say, I was very successful. In both circumstances, hands were laid upon me and prayers were offered for my success. However, in the circumstance where I didn't rely on my faith, I was quite successful.

So the obvious question here is this: Does prayer actually work?

To answer that question, a scaled down version of a famous double blind experiment that was done a few years ago was repeated at the oncology unit of a local hospital. This time, four groups of cancer patients were arranged. Four groups were needed to perform a much more rigorous scientific evaluation that accounted for the psychological effect of belief as follows:
  1. Group 1 - Received prayer, and were told they were receiving prayer.
  2. Group 2 - Received prayer and were not told they were receiving prayer.
  3. Group 3 - Did not receive prayer but were under the impression they were.
  4. Group 4 - Did not receive prayer and were fully aware that they weren't.

The following controls were established:
  • The prayers were being offered by the same group of people.
  • The people offering prayers did not know which group was receiving prayer.
  • The people offering prayers did not know who belonged to which group.
  • No rote prayer scripts were used (assuming that Matthew 6:7 is true).
  • Neither the doctors nor the nurses knew who was in which group.
  • The number of people in each group was exactly the same (20 patients).
  • The number of terminal cases in each group was exactly the same (7 patients).
  • The number of pancreatic cancer cases was the same (2 of the 7 terminal cases).
  • The period in which the prayers were offered was less than the stay of each patient.
  • The number of believers in each group was exactly the same (12 patients).

The following controls however could not be maintained due to time and cost restraints:
  • One pancreatic case was a non believer. All the others were believers.
  • The ages of the patients in each group were not consistent. 
  • Some aggressive types of cancers existed in some groups and not others.
  • The strength of religious faith of individuals in each group is not consistent.
  • The study cannot account for prayers being offered simultaneously from outside.

It took the better part of a year to get all of these patients within the tight controls that were established. The experiment took even longer as the team had to wait for patients to become available. Never the less, the experiment was completed based on the control groups outlined earlier. After the findings were tabulated, the results were published. They weren't surprising:
  1. Group 1 - 12 of 20 died.
  2. Group 2 - 9 of 20 died.
  3. Group 3 - 10 of 20 died.
  4. Group 4 - 7 of 20 died.
These findings were similar to the ones from the now famous Harvard Prayer Experiment. While the group who received prayer (and who were fully aware of being in receipt of prayer) had the highest mortality rate, the group that received prayer but were unaware had a slightly lower rate. The group who thought they would receive prayer but didn't still had a higher mortality rate than the group who were unaware they were being prayed for. The group with the lowest mortality rate were completely unaware of, and did not receive prayer.

The positive correlation between higher mortality rates and the awareness of the possibility of receiving prayer has a very simple explanation. Many atheists would use these results as fuel to suggest that prayer is dangerous. I mildly disagree with them. Here's why: People who are inflicted with a terminal sickness and are also aware of being in receipt of prayer are far more likely to stop fighting to live. This is because they either think their soul is right with god (and therefore will go to heaven) or they believe that god would fight their cancer battle for them.

By contrast, those who were not aware of receiving prayer continued their fight to live and so ultimately saved themselves where possible. In both Groups 1 and 3, the only difference was that they believed they would receive prayer. Of the two, only Group 1 had actually received prayer. Group 3 did not. Still, both these groups had higher mortality rates than the other two.

Compare those results to Groups 2 and 4. Neither group was aware that any prayer was being administered to anyone. For both groups, the mortality rate was lower than the groups that knew that prayer may have been administered. So the only real difference between the two sets of groups is that the ones that believed prayer was being administered had higher mortality rates. The ones that were unaware that prayer was made had lower mortality rates.

For all four groups, the administration of prayer did not make a substantial difference in their mortality rates. However, the perception of the receipt of prayer did. Thus what we can safely conclude from this experiment is that the belief in prayer is far more powerful than the prayer itself. Even though the belief produced the opposite effect, it proves that prayer is ineffective.

The common expression among the religious is that one is healed by their own faith. This is patently true — but not for reasons they think. The passive act of faith that heals someone is intrinsically reflexive. Ideas like God are nothing more than catalysts to activate that belief. This is why no matter which god you pray to, your faith has the power to make you whole.

Either way, the variance between the four groups is relatively negligible. A considerably better representation would be had with a much larger group where the controls were much tighter. Even then, the variance would be relatively the same. This experiment has been conducted many times over the last 100 years in many hospitals by different groups on various illnesses. No consistent statistical evidence was ever found that validated the effectiveness of prayer.

Even in cases where experiments were run that showed a positive correlation between prayer and recovery, a repeat of the experiment showed the same negligible variance. Of course, don't take my word for it. Find a statistician and conduct the experiment yourself. The larger the sample group you use and the tighter the controls, the more accurate your results will be.


While it is not my place to tell anyone whether or not they should pray, I can certify that prayer is not as effective as it is purported to be. With that said, credit must be given for prayer anyway, since it does have a real psychological effect on people who pray. They have been found to have lower blood pressure, are far less likely to suffer from depression and generally enjoy a better state of mental health. Of course, I must temper such declarations.

All of those benefits are not necessarily directly attributable to prayer. Rather, it is attributable to the lifestyle of people who pray. There are certainly many praying folks who enjoy none of these benefits. However, even if there isn't likely a god out there listening, there's no intrinsic harm in praying. But what you may find amusing (or annoying, depending on where you sit on the religious fence), is that prayer tends to have the same effect irrespective of the religion.

Prayer can be just as enjoyable as the slow stretching exercises often found in many eastern cultures, such as Tai Chi Kuan. In fact, a number of Muslim authors have written about the many benefits of the Muslim technique of praying. You may find it very rewarding to participate in Muslim prayers. The repetitious prostration has proven for many to be a very good exercise.

Then again, you could easily distil the the mysticism from the exercise and just go to a yoga class. You get all of the benefits of the prayer exercise with none of the religious burden. It would be great to pray five times a day and get some great exercise to go along with it. Engaging the mind with exercise is great. It's just a pity that none of it really means anything. 

With that said, the real danger in prayer is the user. There is perhaps nothing more infuriating than someone's response to a problem being that they are going to 'pray about it'. Prayer is a great way to do nothing and still feel like you're doing something. Simply praying about a problem only addresses your psychological focus on the problem, without actually affecting the problem at all. If that is how you'd prefer to address your problems, then good luck with that.

I mean that in the true and literal sense.

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

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