The conundrum of prayer

Last Saturday, the New York City Police Department  experienced the worst misfortune that can befall a police department: one officer mistakenly and fatally shooting another.  The loss of Officer Omar Edwards to friendly fire is an unbearable tragedy, for which the entire city grieves.  (Despicably, New York’s race hustlers, including the New York Times, are trying to turn the incident into a racial one, as I describe here.)  In the wake of Edwards’s shooting, New York Daily News columnist Michael Daly discussed another friendly fire incident in  2006, in which an off-duty NYPD officer with a gun was also shot by his fellow officers:

On learning that [Officer Eric] Hernandez had been shot, the entire [precinct] football team assembled at St. Barnabas Hospital. They kept a vigil day after day, but all their prayers could not save him.

Daly is using a commonplace expression, of course, but one that in its very frequency carries ponderable significance. Isn’t it the least bit puzzling to believers why some prayers get answered and others don’t?   Theology and metaphysics are serious disciplines, we are told, worthy of deep study.  Surely the divines can explain what distinguishes the moments when prayers do save someone from those when they don’t.   Is it the targets of prayers that are distinguishable, or the people doing the praying?  Perhaps someone could keep tabs and analyse the results, in the spirit of scientific inquiry.  Or does God just have priorities wildly different from ours?  But who can possibly imagine a reason why God wouldn’t respond to prayers to save an officer’s life, but would respond to the petitions that we are regularly told have produced a divine affirmative—to get someone out of debt, say, or to cure someone of illness? 

I take it that believers do not ascribe such inconsistent results to capriciousness on God’s part, but rather to their own limited capacities to understand God’s ways:  “Thy Will be done.”  But why continue directing any psychic energy to a being so lacking in sympathetic correspondence to human needs and values.  It will not do to say: “God does respond to our prayers, but in ways that we cannot fathom.”  Saving a child from cancer and letting a child die from cancer cannot both be a sympathetic response to prayer; if we had wanted a stricken child to die in order to secure an earlier entry to heaven, we would have said so.  And if premature death from cancer is such a boon, why doesn’t a loving God provide it to one and all?

It is humans who work with passion and commitment every day to try to save their fellows (and a range of other creatures)  from suffering and sorrow.  Emergency room medicine is constantly evolving to try to ensure that gun shot victims and people crushed by cars survive.  Doctors and hospital staff work frantically throughout the night to try to revive a failing heart or a shattered brain.  They do so out of love and compassion, while God, who could restart an exhausted heart in an instant, demurs.  The only source of love on earth is human empathy.  Transferring our own admirable traits onto a constructed deity just obscures the real human condition: we are all we have, but that is saying a lot.

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24 Responses to The conundrum of prayer

  1. Jay says:

    The Bible is clear: according to Matthew, Jesus told us that the literal request of any supplicant will be granted, provided they have at least mustard-seed sized faith. So we have a few options: (1) The supplicant in question has no faith. (2) The supplicant is lying about requesting the boon. (3) Jesus was lying about the procedure. (4) Matthew was lying about Jesus’ statement. (5) Christianity does not operate as advertised. Weaselly explanations about God’s will and mystery are in direct contradiction to the recorded words of the Living God. If Jehovah existed, we’d see daily confirmation in the form of talking ponies, instantaneous weight loss, and inexplicable strokes suffered by middle management.

  2. Your salute to humanity is, as always, deeply moving.

  3. Paul says:

    If God is omnipresent and omniscent, how can we expect human-created prayers to cause God to take a specifc action or change his mind?

    God could have stopped the shooting in the first place, right? Having not done so–while being fully aware of his decision not to do so and knowing how the whole thing will ultimately turn out–what possible good could come from humans requesting a particular outcome?

    The whole thing seem dubious.

  4. Caledonian says:

    This is really quite simple.

    When people pray for specific outcomes like this, and things turn out well, they claim that they caused the good result – they take responsibility.

    When things don’t turn out well, they deny the possibility that they could have caused a good result – they deny responsibility.

    People don’t like to feel out-of-control, so they pretend that prayer gives them influence. Once the outcome is established, they assert or deny that prayer was influential depending on what the nature of the result was.

    It’s only confusing if you expect people to be rational, sensible, and motivated by what they claim to care about, instead of being motivated to reduce emotional upheaval by utilizing irrational associational tendencies in the human mind.

  5. John says:

    “Or does God just have priorities wildly different from ours?”

    Either this is true or there isn’t a God at all. At any rate, there is no God worthy of my affection or worship.

  6. Kevembuangga says:

    If God is omnipresent and omniscent, how can we expect human-created prayers to cause God to take a specifc action or change his mind?

    I am afraid the reason for the religitards to do petitionary prayers is that they are in a childish psychological dependence on their Gods so, like children begging for candy, placating “the father” may work.
    An amusing logical consequence is that either God omniscience necessitates that he never bows to such demands (ZERO causality of the prayer) or if he does once in a while that he is unable to foresee his own decisions.
    But logic has never been an embarassement to the religitards.

  7. Oaktree says:

    First off – very glad I found this site. I have put it on my “favorites” list. I’ve been a writer for a conservative blog and I’m an atheist. Sometimes the writings of my fellow contributors drive me crazy, but I have just kept my mouth shut so I don’t get told “you aren’t a true conservative – blah, blah, blah”.


    This is the reason I left Christianity 17 years ago. I would look at others that talked about how much God moved them and how much they just “looooovvvved” God. I didn’t feel it, and I didn’t see it, even though I was pretty high up in the Church. So, I felt like a hypocrite. The thing that bounced me over to atheism is the “Great Flood”. There is no physical evidence of a flood that a) covered the earth and 2) a rainfall event of 40 days and 40 nights which would been about 40 feet of rain a day, every day to have even covered over the smallest hills, let alone mountains. I concluded that either a) the bible is false and therefore God is false, b) It really did happen and then God covered up the evidence, which makes God a jerk, or c) it happened is such a extra-physical way so as to not leave any evidence, which again, makes God a jerk.

    If there is a God, he’s a jerk, and if I do get to heaven, what would prevent a jerk of a God to change the rules again?

  8. Elroy says:

    I don’t believe that most people have the faith in God they claim to. If they did, then why would they not study the question of which prayers get answered if for no other reason than to better understand God and God’s will? Why don’t religious institutions conduct studies to find patterns in the fulfillment of prayers and publish the results? In my opinion, the answer is they don’t believe or, at least, not to the level of being confident enough to their belief to the test. As a comparison, I believe evolution is the most likely the answer to how current life forms came to exist on Earth. I have no problem with the theories of evolution being studied, measured, and tested to the fullest extent possible.

  9. Ken_K says:

    Terrible events such as this are the price we have to pay for having free will. In this view, God will not and cannot interfere with history, otherwise our free will would effectively cease to exist. Atrocities reflect on humanity not on God.

    That’s about the best answer that you can expect from a rational theology. Make of it what you will.

  10. Art says:

    Prayer is a submission to God’s will, not an attempt to change it. The answer may come through a change in you and not necessarily through a change in events. God is the master of the universe, not a genie. As C.S. Lewis puts it:

    “Some things are proved by the unbroken uniformity of our experiences. The law of gravitation is established by the fact that, in our experience, all bodies without exception obey it. Now even if all the things that people prayed for happened, which they do not, this would not prove what Christians mean by the efficacy of prayer. For prayer is request. The essence of request, as distinct from compulsion, is that it may or may not be granted. And if an infinitely wise Being listens to the requests of finite and foolish creatures, of course He will sometimes grant and sometimes refuse them. Invariable “success” in prayer would not prove the Christian doctrine at all. It would prove something much more like magic—a power in certain human beings to control, or compel, the course of nature.”

    Further, the granting of a prayer may not take the form you anticipate. When we pray for “our daily bread”, bread does not instantly appear before us. Instead, God provides the soil, rain, sunlight and seeds. He endows us with the intelligence and ability to learn and thus to make productive use of these gifts. The prayer is answered.

  11. John says:

    “Terrible events such as this are the price we have to pay for having free will.”

    I disagree with the “free will” argument. One problem is that it is pretty easy for me to imagine a world in which there is no evil. All you have to do is create a world in which everyone has the same moral views as me, or one in which nobody would have a desire to do what I think is evil. Problem solved, and there would still be plenty of good in the world (yes, good is possible without evil–they are not opposites in the same sense that east and west are). Of course, God might not have the same moral views as me, and it is possible that God doesn’t consider anything going on in the world to be evil. But if that is true, It’s moral views are so different from mine that it would be impossible to have respect for It.

    If someone were trying to kill someone I loved, I would not simply stand aside and say, “Oh well, I don’t want to deprive him of his free will.” Instead, I would do whatever I could to interfere with his trying to kill the person, because I love the person. We are all individuals, and I shouldn’t have my rights violated because of someone else’s decision.

    Given the way the world is, the only two possibilities are:

    1. God does not exist.
    2. God exists, but does not care about us in any way I would consider important.

  12. Reginald Pole says:

    Let us then rest humbly in the hope authorized by the Divine teachings, that the united cry of the Nation will be heard on high, and answered with blessings, no less than the pardon of our national sins, and the restoration of our now divided and suffering Country, to its former happy condition of unity and peace.

    A. Lincoln

  13. Donna B. says:

    Prayers are nothing more than wishes to me and even when I was a practicing Christian this was true.

    “I wish him luck” has the same meaning as “I will pray for him”. It’s only the mindset of the speaker that differs.

  14. Kevembuangga says:

    Terrible events such as this are the price we have to pay for having free will.

    What about the “evil events” where NO human being is involved in the causes?
    Also, how do you know you have free will and not subject to an entirely deterministic fate with the illusion of free will?

    Doesn’t even worth replying to such balderdash, read other threads on the site moron before wasting your time and ours.

  15. Orin T. says:

    An essay in the book Finding God At Harvard intitled The Inexplicable prayers of Ruby Bridges might shed some light upon this connundrum. Ruby at the age of six years was the first black child to be forced upon a white elementary school when New Orleans schools were intigrated. for the entire year she was the only student to attend the school and was protested every afternoon when shen left under guard by US Marshals. During and after this she suffered no short or long term ill effects. She and her family and faith community prayed for the Whites that yelled and threatened her with death each day. I doubt that the prayers had much effect on the protesters but they certanly had an effect on Ruby. But, then she had the support of her family and her faith community.

  16. Ken_K says:

    I was stating the position of modern Judeo-Christian theology in re the theodicy issue as best I understand it. I am not a theistic believer myself.

  17. Art says:

    “either God omniscience necessitates…””Doesn’t even worth replying…” Is that English? And you’re calling me a moron? Give it a rest jerk.

  18. Kevembuangga says:


    I am not a native english speaker, yet…

    1 : having infinite awareness, understanding, and insight
    2 : possessed of universal or complete knowledge

    1 : to make necessary : require
    2 : force, compel

    Sorry for my bad english but I cannot translate to moronspeak which I know zilch about.

  19. Art says:

    I don’t know the custom in Yuraputzistan, or wherever it is you’re from, but maybe you should focus on attacking the argument and not the person making it.

    I’ve noticed that the moderator has no problem with invectives like “religitards” or “moronspeak”, provided they are directed at believers, but is extremely sensitive about any retort. Perhaps, it just an evolutionary tick – loyalty to the pack and all that.

  20. TrueNorth says:

    ArtLet me apologize for the rudeness some of my fellow atheists have displayed.  I find no justification for them to hurl the epithet “moron” at you.  Your original post was civil and literate and I wish they had responded in like fashion.HeatherYou have started several posts on this or related subjects.  It seems to me that you are beating a dead horse here.  Yes, prayer is “irrational” but I hardly think you need to convince most of the people who frequent this site of that.  Moreover, if someone ever expresses the sentiment ‘I will be praying for you” to me I will certainly thank them politely.  I may choose to interpret their statement as merely expressing a positive sentiment towards me even if perhaps they person offering it meant it in a more literal fashion.  Unlike Hitchens and Dawkins I have no wish to turn believers into unbelievers.  For myself, I am a natural born skeptic and I couldn’t believe in God if I tried.  I will be happy if religious people feel no need to try to convert me – and, if they were all as sensible and reasonable as Art, I would have no wish to change their opinions in any case.  I think my way of thinking is actually the crucial difference between the “secular right” and the “secular left”. 

  21. Kim says:

    This is my first reading of one of my friend’s threads. The passages below came to me as I was reading many of your comments. Believing in God is not hard for me-I have seen too many God-changed lives and been the recipient of his grace daily. If you are interested in this line of thinking, I direct you to read “The Reason for God” by Timothy Keller which is written for skeptics. He lives in NYC and pastors a large group of converted skeptics, atheists and seekers. He has been dubbed the CS Lewis of the 21st Century. My thoughts are simple and probably to most you naive but if you truly wish to study…his book will appeal to the most educated of skeptics and atheist.
    12-14 “But let me tell you, Job, you’re wrong, dead wrong!
    God is far greater than any human.
    So how dare you haul him into court,
    and then complain that he won’t answer your charges?
    God always answers, one way or another,
    even when people don’t recognize his presence.

    Proverbs 14:12 (Amplified Bible)
    12 There is a way which seems right to a man and appears straight before him, but at the end of it is the way of death.

  22. Kevembuangga says:

    but maybe you should focus on attacking the argument and not the person making it.

    There was no “argument” to refute, it was only plain statements of belief which we have heard before a zillion times and which are predicated on the very point of contention, God existence.

    Unlike Hitchens and Dawkins I have no wish to turn believers into unbelievers

    Unlike all of the above (includes you) I have a “wish” but no hope.
    It should be obvious that my post isn’t intended to convince such utterly deluded folks like Art but to be sure they know that they are viewed as insane cretins by some atheists, about like they let us know that we will “burn in hell”.

  23. Caledonian says:

    Your original post was civil and literate

    But not intelligent, reasonable, or sensible.

    When an argument by its nature cannot have been made by an intelligent, informed person in good faith, ‘attacking the person behind it’ is logically required when discussing the argument’s deficiencies.

  24. Ron in LA says:

    The more you think about this subject, the more obvious it all becomes. I believe in some sort of Higher Power in the same way that I believe in the free market, or the “invisible hand” of the free market. When we talk about “the market” we know at some level we are speaking metaphorically and there is no person-like entity existing as a “free market.” The “invisible hand” of the free market has measurable effects, and is certainly a power greater than me, but it is only a metaphor and there is no actual “hand”.

    I might contemplate the will of the free market, or spend time trying to understand it, or work on accepting the reality of its results, but I would never be loopy enough to talk to “it” and expect some kind of result. “Oh please, free market, make the price of oil go up to $90 a barrel, if it be thy will.”

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