Many claims have been made for the power of prayer– that it can provide comfort and healing; that it can answer spiritual questions; that it can help with finding one’s way through the challenges of life; and that it can answer questions about the true nature of the universe.
Humans have been praying to gods of many sorts for at least the last 5,000 years. Those many years of history tell us of the limits of prayer. Prayer cannot possibly provide answers to questions about the nature of the universe since if that were true then humans would have learned thousands of years ago that the atomic and molecular theory of matter is true– and they didn’t. Humans would have learned that the heliocentric model of planetary motion is true– and they didn’t. Humans would have learned that the sun is a star and that the other stars of the universe are immensely far away– and they didn’t.
So we know for certain that prayer is never going to provide any answers to questions about the natural world. But is it possible that prayer might be able to answer spiritual questions? Let us consider that possibility.
How would one go about determining whether or not such a claim were true? To answer that question we would need to know generally what constitutes a spiritual truth. And that is unquestionably the province of religion. So we must determine what religious questions can be answered by prayer.
But this poses a problem in that most religions claim exclusive knowledge of spiritual truths. Judaism has one set of spiritual truths; Christianity another; Islam another still; Buddhism yet another. And each of these religions claims that its spiritual truths are more perfect than are those of any other religion. How are we to determine which set of spiritual teachings is true?
The only way to resolve a question of this sort is by way of an experiment. And here is an example of how such an experiment would be conducted:
We get volunteers from 4 religious groups: fundamentalist Jews, fundamentalist Christians, fundamentalist Muslims, and fundamentalist Mormons. We will ask them 3 yes or no questions, and then we will give them whatever time and space they need to pray to their God to obtain the true and correct answers to these questions. Then we will ask for their answers and compare.
We should note that fundamentalist Jews believe that they pray to the God of Abraham. And that fundamentalist Christians believe that they pray to the God of Abraham. And that fundamentalist Muslims believe that they pray to the God of Abraham. And that fundamentalist Mormons believe that they pray to the God of Abraham. So they all pray to the same God. And they should therefore get the same answers to any spiritual questions we might ask.
What questions should we ask our subjects? The questions we ask must be specific to the spiritual claims of each of the four religions, and they must be definitive in the respect that a given set of answers must tell us unequivocally which of the spiritual messages of the 4 religions is actually true.
Here is my proposed set of questions:
- Is Jesus the Messiah?
- Is Mohammed the greatest prophet of God?
- Is the book of Mormon the word of God?
I think we already know exactly how the experiment I’ve proposed would turn out. The answers I think we’ll get from this experiment are as follows:
- The fundamentalist Jew will say that No, Jesus is not the Messiah; that No, Mohammed is not the greatest prophet of God; and that No, the book of Mormon is not the word of God
- The fundamentalist Christian will say that Yes, Jesus is the Messiah; that No, Mohammed is not the greatest prophet of God; and that No, the book of Mormon is not the word of God
- The fundamentalist Muslim will say that No, Jesus is not the Messiah; that Yes, Mohammed is the greatest prophet of God; and that No, the book of Mormon is not the word of God
- The fundamentalist Mormon will say that Yes, Jesus is the Messiah; that No, Mohammed is not the greatest prophet of God; and that Yes, the book of Mormon is the word of God
That is to say that we will get 4 completely different sets of answers from our 4 subjects.
How can that be? All 4 of our subjects pray to the same God, so they should get exactly the same answers to each question.
There’s only one possible explanation for this result: Prayer cannot possibly provide true answers to spiritual questions.
This method can be extended to all possible religious groups. We would only have to extend the list of questions to include queries about the most fundamental beliefs of each religion.
This makes sense because prayer is simply talking to yourself. And when you talk to yourself you generally just reinforce whatever thoughts or desires you had in the first place. So there’s really no possibility that prayer is going to answer any questions about the natural world, or about spiritual questions. But it may make you feel good.
Copyright (c) 2019 David S. Moore. All rights reserved.
Response from a reader:
I’m interested in your experiment for the efficacy of prayer, but I’m confused on why the answers are a foregone conclusion and how, even if your supplied answers were correct it would conclusively prove that prayer was not effective in answering spiritual questions.
Certain the doctrine of each of these fundamentalist religions would dictate those answers, but that’s exactly why prayer is part of what the devotees to each are supposed to practice. Documents and dictates are static, but prayer is meant to be dynamic – to help the person who prays come to understanding of how the writings and traditions apply to them in their circumstances and their time.
In your experiment, if the subjects are truly praying, they must have an open heart to the voice of their God. If they are open to whatever answer is given, it may be quite different from the traditional doctrine and fundamentalist ideas they have been taught to believe.
I know this because I’ve done this experiment in my own life. I found something rather than nothing. I was not talking to myself because I gained deep understanding that I hadn’t had prior to the exercise. I also gave up affiliation with my fundamentalist Christian church and adherence to the traditional doctrines because I reached a different conclusion than their interpretation of the writings central to that religion. But my actions and ‘faith’ if you will are still deeply aligned with the spiritual and moral teachings of that religion, and scholars I’ve spoken with in depth usually try to conclude that I am as much or more in line with Biblical teachings and principles than most Christians.
So my point is, until you try the experiment with people who are willing to listen to and report what they learn and hear instead of reaching foregone conclusions, you can’t reach your foregone conclusion about the efficacy of prayer.
I’m sure you’ve heard the quote of ‘Seek and you shall find…’ I sought and I found, though it wasn’t quite like I would have expected. But part of seeking is setting aside expectation and letting the answer come freely and having an open mind and heart to accept and follow the answer when presented.
Thanks for the provocative topic and for stating your views clearly here. It’s interesting to contemplate and to continue to listen and learn.
Very well, then let’s add one additional question: “When you pray, do you open your heart to whatever God tells you?” But I’m pretty sure that Michael Ben-Ari, head of Jewish Power, Pat Robertson, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and Russell M. Nelson, president of the Mormon church, would all answer “Yes, absolutely!!”