Does God Answer Prayers?


The simple answer is no.  As far as I can tell, God does not answer prayers.  Is prayer beneficial to people?  Probably, but that is a very different question.  My purpose here is not to determine if prayer or religion or even belief in God is helpful to people.  They certainly can be in some cases.  My question is: Does God exist?  One way to get at that question is to see if He or She answers prayers. 

Numerous scientifically rigorous studies have been carried out to determine if prayer on behalf of ill patients has any effect on their healing.  Most have demonstrated that prayer has no effect on measurable outcomes.  One notable exception is a study published in the Journal of Reproductive Medicine in 2001 which reported that IVF patients prayed for had a pregnancy rate about double those not prayed for.  Since that time, however, that study has been shown to be flawed and fraudulent and has been retracted by JRM.  A 2009 published analysis by Roberts et al reviews ten studies and 7,646 patients on the subject in an article entitled “Intercessory prayer for the alleviation of ill health”. Their conclusion states that “These findings are equivocal and, although some of the results of individual studies suggest a positive effect of intercessory prayer, the majority do not and the evidence does not support a recommendation either in favour or against the use of intercessory prayer. We are not convinced that further trials of this intervention should be undertaken and would prefer to see any resources available for such a trial used to investigate other questions in health care.”

So why do we believe in prayer?  The answer is that it makes us feel good (just like other types of meditation).  When faced with situations in which we feel powerless, there is benefit in being able to do something, anything.  Prayer allows such an outlet.  But this feeling of peace can be achieved through any of a number of means including venting to a friend or therapist, exercise, or meditation.  In my opinion, it is a beautiful blend of stress release and placebo effect. 

We also believe in prayer because sometimes our prayers are answered.  As evolved animals we instinctively notice and look for outliers.  It is a self preservation mechanism.  We are vigilant for potential threats in our environment, and as such, we notice things that are out of the ordinary.  Just as we make mental note of a rustling in the leaves, we also note unusual or unlikely events in our lives.  For example, we are unlikely to remark an uneventful drive to work or the fact that we were not bitten by a dog today (even though we could attribute such things to the protection of god if we wanted to).  However, we do make note of near misses on the highway or if we do happen to be bitten by a dog.    These events take on significance in our lives.

We also tend to assign purpose or even intention to these random events.  For example, a flat tire before a trip may be taken as a sign that we should not go, or even a message that God is trying to tell us something.  This happens often in large life decisions, such as meeting and marrying a spouse.  I was convinced that I was led to my spouse from which I am now divorced after 17 years.  What can I make of this? Am I to believe that God led me to her just to have us separate?  Did he want me to have children with her?  Why could I not have those children with someone else?  If our marriage was eternal, why did it come apart?  I may be led to believe that it is all part of a master plan that I do not understand.  I believe, however, that life is filled with random ups and downs and the fact that my marriage fell apart means nothing more than we just don’t enjoy being together anymore.  There is no divine plan for me.  If prayers are answered it is because chance allows it.  If we dutifully keep track of the times our prayers are not answered, I think we would find that it is just as often as when they are.

In more harsh terms.  The entire idea that "God answers prayers" is an illusion created by human imagination.  It does not matter who prays, who we pray to, or what we pray about.  Prayers do nothing in our world other than change the way we feel inside our own imaginations.  Scientific, randomized, double-blinded tests on prayer produce no measurable effects.

This is interesting given the fact that there are numerous promises to answer prayers throughout the scriptures.  These promises do not say to ask only for what God wants to give us.  In Matthew 7:7-8 we find “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you:  For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.”  Joseph Smith read this in James 1:5, “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.”  This is a remarkable promise, but it turns out that it just doesn’t stand up.

It's not just prayer that is ineffective. Not even a hopeful attitude helps. According to a 2004 article entitled “Optimism and survival in lung carcinoma patients” published in the journal Cancer, patients with lung cancer had no difference in survival based on self assessed optimism.  In fact, the authors concluded: “There was no evidence that a high level of optimism prior to treatment enhanced survival in patients with NSCLC. Encouraging patients to "be positive" only may add to the burden of having cancer while providing little benefit.” 

Please understand that I do not think it is bad for people to be optimistic.  I am optimistic (although you may not think so right now based on what I have said).  I am just suggesting that to believe in anything that does not have a basis in fact will not provide tangible results.

Superstition is defined as a belief or notion, not based on reason or knowledge.  Or, any blindly accepted belief or notion.  Belief in prayer fits that definition.

I understand that believers will say that God must remain hidden in order for us to have faith.  A study designed to detect Him must fail or the plan is foiled.  This logic is silly.  A god that must remain hidden cannot answer prayers.  A god that answers prayers cannot remain hidden.  We have rationalized our way into allowing God to do whatever it is that he wants to do.  If we pray and our prayers are answered, then God is great.  If he doesn’t answer them, then either we weren’t worthy, it didn’t fit into God’s plan, or we were asking for the wrong thing.  Regardless of the outcome, there is an explanation that preserves our notion of god. 

Now lets look at this from the other angle.  Assume there is no god and we still pray.  If our prayers are not answered, we are not surprised because there is no god.  If our prayers are answered then it is a happy coincidence.  “Miraculous” things still happen by chance.  For example, there are very few types of cancer that have 100% mortality.  Assume you have a deadly form of cancer with 95% 5-year mortality rate.  That means that at five years, five people out of 100 will “miraculously” still be alive when all the rest are dead.  If you get cancer and are cured, you can call it the hand of god if you want to, but the fact is that believers and non-believers are cured at the same rate.  That has been proven by scientific methods.  The "power of prayer" is actually "the power of coincidence."

Conclusion:  I conclude from the data presented that prayer does not work.  Prayers are not consistently answered and any answered prayer is coincidence.  I do, however, believe that people can derive a feeling of peace from prayer just as they would from meditation, expressions of love, exercise or other relaxing activities.  Prayer can not be used as proof that god exists.  Either god does not or cannot answer prayers (especially when a study is underway) or he does not exist at all.

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