How Christians Can Test Their Own Prayers Objectively

John W. Loftus

For the moment, let’s set aside the problem of why God doesn’t do what is right regardless of whether people pray. And let’s set aside the problem of what god, if any, is answering prayers. Finally, let’s also set aside the problem of why God doesn’t answer important prayers—like those to alleviate world hunger, those from victims of war-ravaged places like Darfur, and those who suffer because of hurricanes and devastating illnesses. While these questions need to be answered before launching a definitive test of the power of petitionary prayer, in this essay I’d like to offer an intermediate proposal tailored for believers only. Why not objectively test your own prayers, at least provisionally? (I assume that many of you will succumb to human nature and place at least one thumb on the weight scales.) If you can’t measure the effect of your own prayers, it’s unlikely you’ll have much luck measuring the effectiveness of the prayers of others.

Believers around the world claim that their particular god answers (favorably grants) petitionary prayers. From my experience, what’s going on here is something called “selective observation”: counting the hits and discounting the misses. All we hear about are those rare cases of “answered” prayers. Given the billions of prayers that are prayed every day, surely some highly unusual ones will get “granted,” if only because of the odds. After all, lightning does strike here and there.

Scientific studies have repeatedly shown that the outcomes sought by prayer don’t occur any more frequently than expected by chance. Christian believers reject these studies as flawed, because for them God is a personal agent. So they claim he cannot be tested like this, for he may thwart these efforts in order to remain hidden, revealing himself only to people who believe. They do this although the biblical God supposedly grants requests even to doubters (consider Moses and his leprous hand, Gideon and the fleece, Elijah on Mount Carmel, when tithing according to Malachi 3:10, and Jesus in Matthew 7:7–8). Lost on them is the question of why should it matter to God that we are testing him when, test or not, real people in need are being prayed for? Further, if God wanted to remain hidden, he could still have thwarted the Haitian earthquake and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami before they happened by virtue of a miracle (if needed) without anyone being the wiser. He could have saved many lives not because anyone prayed for him to do so but simply because he cared. The bottom line is that if God wants to remain hidden by thwarting our efforts to test prayer scientifically, then how can he condemn doubters for not believing?

Petition Miracle Highly Unusual Unusual Ordinary Self-Fulfilling
Raise my father up from the dead No, are you kidding?
Strength for today Yes, thanks be to God!
A raise at my job within a month Yes, but it was expected.
Meet my “soul mate” today No, but maybe tomorrow.
Wisdom to make a good decision Yes, God is good!
Retroactively change a tragic event of the past No, are you crazy!?
My obnoxious neighbor moves within a month No
Safety for a trip to the store Yes, whew, it’s rough out there.
Someone returns my lost wallet No
It doesn’t rain during our picnic Yes, Yes, Yes!
I need more faith Yes, praise Jesus!

 

In any case, if believers really want to know if God answers prayer—and why not?—then here’s a way they can check for themselves that is fully in compliance with their faith: first, keep track of your prayers on a chart like the one that accompanies this article. Second, rank your requests by their level of unlikeliness, from outcomes so improbable they would be miraculous to those that would probably happen by themselves. You might even want to create a detailed ranking system by placing prayer outcomes on a 1-to-99 probability scale (leaving certainties—100—and impossibilities—0—out of it, although we’re told nothing is impossible with God).

Third, when you pray, be very specific about what you want. Specify. Specify. Specify. Fourth, set a time limit; pray that your requests will be answered within a specific time period. Why not? Isn’t that what you want? When you ask for something to be granted by God, you must surely know when you want that prayer to be answered. Tell God. Be honest. Doesn’t God reward honesty? If that feels like asking too much, think again. If you don’t specify your request in full detail, aren’t you showing a lack of faith? Aren’t you really doubting that God can come through? In any case, whether or not you say when you want the prayer granted, you know when you want it. God, supposedly knowing all, knows it too. So go ahead—say it!

Keeping track of prayers according to these four principles will force believers to seriously consider the kinds of requests they make of their god. Believers will see that the kinds of prayers “answered” will fall pretty much in line with those that are self-fulfilling, or ordinary. Some unusual requests will come through also but far less frequently. Gee, that’s the same kind of distribution that would occur by chance.

Believers will also see that Christians pray for way too many mundane things that are within their own control to obtain, like doing well on an upcoming test or dealing with difficult people. Believers should stretch themselves by praying for bigger and highly unusual things within the range of natural possibilities—world peace, an end to world hunger, a cure for cancer—rather than focusing on their own mundane or self-fulfilling interests.

They will find that sometimes believers pray for things that cannot be objectively verified, such as “God, be with Grandma.” Just as during a church service the congregation prays to God to “Be with us this morning.” What kind of prayer request is that? By their lights isn’t God omnipresent already?

Believers also have a way of praying only for things they expect can happen— and what they expect depends on what the progress of science allows them to consider possible. As a rule, believers do not pray that a mountain will be uprooted and planted in the sea, even though Jesus
purportedly said this could happen (Mark 11:23). If it is not to be taken literally (and why not?), this passage still challenges believers to have the courage to ask for nearly impossible things, even miracles. So pray for some miracles, such as for some amputees to have their missing limbs grow back. Or pray for your god to change that tragic accident that occurred the night before, so that carload of kids does not die in that car crash. Hey, why not? The whole reason you don’t ask for these kinds of things is because you live in a scientific era. Let yourself think outside that secular, scientific box! You should be willing to pray for things science says is impossible, if you take Jesus’s supposed powers seriously and want to seriously, objectively test the results of prayer.

Then be brutally honest about the results. No fudging as horoscope or fortunecookie readers do to make outcomes fit the predictions. Was the prayer answered exactly as you prayed it within your specified time frame or not? And no using what I call the “Omniscience Escape Clause” (“God knows what is best”) or the “Faith Trump Card” (“God didn’t give me what I wanted but what I needed”).

See what happens. See how many times your prayers are answered, and of those prayers that are answered, see how many of their results are truly out of the ordinary. I suspect that if you really want to know whether God answers prayers, you’ll find this an interesting exercise. And I suspect you’ll come to understand the true efficacy of petitionary prayer: namely, that it’s not any better than chance.

Then—just maybe—you’ll think twice about dismissing all of those scientific studies that debunk the power of prayer.

John W. Loftus

John W. Loftus is a former Christian minister and apologist who studied under William Lane Craig. He is the author of Why I Became an Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity (2008) and the editor of The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails (2010) and The End of Christianity (2011), all from Prometheus Books.


For the moment, let’s set aside the problem of why God doesn’t do what is right regardless of whether people pray. And let’s set aside the problem of what god, if any, is answering prayers. Finally, let’s also set aside the problem of why God doesn’t answer important prayers—like those to alleviate world hunger, those …

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