The Power of Prayer
by Ken Adams (e-mail: [March 12th, 2003]

Wouldn’t it be great to have a magic wand? Imagine… need a little money? Just wave the wand, and presto! You have all you need. Break your leg or come down with the flu – no problem. A flick of the wrist and it’s all better.

“[W]hy does God need prompting (with prayer), at all – doesn’t he know what needs to be done, or does he just like making people beg? Does he not have enough compassion or forethought to help people without being asked?”

Most people outgrow this type of whimsy. Although it makes for great stories, no one really believes that life's problems can be fixed that easily – or do they?

On my way home from work yesterday, I noticed a sign at a bus stop that said, "Someone, somewhere, is praying for you." It made me wonder if I am any better off, due to the activity of this unknown person who is praying for me. Is prayer like a magic wand that, once activated, will give you whatever you want? In fact, will it give you anything at all?

There are very few activities that have consumed as much human time as prayer. Millions, if not billions, of people pray regularly. With all of these existential petitions floating around, you would think that if prayer really worked, it must be the great driving force of the universe.

Yet, whenever a prayer advocate is questioned about the efficacy of his activity, the answer is always indefinite. You hear things like, "God works in mysterious ways", or "God answers every prayer, but sometimes the answer is 'no'".

Imagine what would happen if you picked up a bottle of Aspirin at the drug store, and the label said, "This product works in mysterious ways", or "Every pill is effective, but sometimes the effect is neutral", or better yet, "This pill will produce results only if used in conjunction with the will of the universe."

Really, it shouldn’t be that hard to determine if prayer works. For example, let’s consider a few simple concepts:

  1. Testing: If prayer works, then Christians should be healthier, less prone to accidents, and live longer than atheists (eliminating the effects of knowable factors, such as smoking). I would like to propose a double blind study. This should prove conclusively if prayer has any impact. Two control groups of people would be isolated. One group would have prayers said for them, the others would not. At the end of a period of time, there should be a statistically significant difference in the well being of two groups.

  2. Insurance: The insurance industry, which is noted for its hard-hearted adherence to mathematical accuracy, consistently gives discounts for behaviours that are proven to reduce risk, and penalizes persons who persue high risk activities, such as smoking. Why don’t they give a discount to people who pray? Simply because there is no difference in risk.

  3. Randomness of the Universe: In areas where prayer is prevalent, you would expect living conditions to be better. Yet, hunger, disease, and poverty seem to visit religious areas with the same frequency as nations that are officially atheist. If anything, areas that are devoutly religious tend to be more disadvantaged than areas that are more secular.

  4. Paradoxes: The presence of a paradox in a person's conclusions generally indicates that there is an error in either his logic or his assumptions. This raises the question: What if people pray for offsetting things? A person may pray that their loved one will receive a heart transplant. However this can only happen if someone else frees up a heart by ceasing to have need of one. The donor may be praying just as hard as the recipient, yet only one will live. Or, how many times have you seen sports teams or military chaplains pray for victory? If one side is to be blessed with victory, then the other side must be cursed with defeat. In other words, you can’t give everyone everything they want. On a related subject, can I foil someone's prayer by offsetting it with one of my own?
In addition to simply testing the efficacy of prayer, it also raises the question: "What does prayer say about God?" We have been taught that God is loving, generous, and cannot be bribed.

But, if it is true that prayer produces results, then it must also be true that a lack of prayer produces nothing better than random results. In other words, if a person is unconscious and has no one to pray for him, does God ignore him? That seems a little hard hearted. If a person gets lots of prayers, does that person do better than someone with few? That sounds like God suffers from a 'Simon says' syndrome.

In fact, why does God need prompting, at all – doesn’t he know what needs to be done, or does he just like making people beg? Does he not have enough compassion or forethought to help people without being asked?

Prayer advocates have attempted to justify some of these problems through the use of numerous excuses. For example, I have been told that you can’t pray for just anything, it has to be according to God's will. Well, if you can only pray for things that God already wills, and no one can possible stop the Almighty, then why bother praying? It will happen anyway. I have been told that you can’t pray for anything bad or anything selfish. I have also been told that if you are willfully sinning, your prayers won’t be answered. In other words, you must pray by the rules.

To put an end to the matter once and for all, I propose a simple challenge. The Bible says that whatever you ask, as long as it is according to God's will, it will be granted. It also says that it is his will for all men to be saved. I challenge any prayer advocate to pray for Osama Bin Laden (or worse yet, for me) to repent and turn to God.

If Bin and I get the calling, then we will all know that prayer works. If not, then prayer advocates might as well find something else to do.

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