2019-06-19 On the Efficacy of Prayer

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.