Before I start, let me emphasize this is opinion without source evidence other than general personal experience and you can dismiss it at will, although it would be nice to hear why you choose to do so.

We are faced with people of faith who claim their prayers work and they receive guidance from their deity. Further, it doesn't seem to matter how profound or minuscule the subject matter of the prayer - the claim remains that these prayers work.

Now we can easily refute this, because of the absence of evidence, and mock those who continue to pray. We do this without much effort, because we don't believe their deities exist to even hear prayers, let alone answer them. So why are we not convincing? It may be that our human logical thought processes are actually feeding the faithful prayer belief, rather than contradicting its efficacy.

When we have a problem, we perceive that problem from within it. We know all the complexities and contradicting aspects of it, all the tiny nuances of it, we attribute emotional bias randomly and probably disproportionately and we end up with a burden of mixed and mashed information - confusion is almost inevitable. We can't see the wood for the trees.

We may then elect to talk this through with a friend, or via prayer to a deity. Here's where it gets interesting. We can't communicate the jumble as jumble. It has to be sorted out into a tale, so that it can be explained to our friend (or deity). In sorting through our minds to present the information in an understandable way, we go through a logical process of sorting through the mess to narrate a summary of the problem. In doing this, we sift through our jumble and present it in an orderly way.

Because of this, we see our own problem objectively and logically for the first time - in this way, we often see the solution for ourselves. It becomes obvious to us because we have had to rationalize it to express it verbally to a third party. By the time our friend has a chance to respond, very often we have already found the clarity we sought.

Now if you take that moment of clarity, you can attribute it to the above rationalization, or if your friend was your deity and you were praying, you could attribute it to your deity answering your prayer by putting the knowledge into your head.

In the latter case, you would be reinforcing your faith by appearing to have personal evidence of your prayer being answered.

Consequently, technically the act of prayer "works". In reality, it most likely worked because you were consulting yourself and you actually had the solution in your head, just waiting to take shape.

Another statistic I read somewhere (sorry, no link) was that on average, of the five top problems that we have at any one time, around four will reach resolution without our doing anything. Even if we reduce that by half, and estimate two out of five will self-resolve, it's still an interesting factor to be considered. In terms of prayer for all five issues, it might easily appear that the deity in fact resolves two or more of them.
If a devotee of a religion believes they have access to this 'magic', then confirmation bias is almost sure to rear its head. If you've ever been to a bingo hall, lucky charms and lucky ways to arrange your pens abound. I went because I was curious, and I inadvertently moved a 'lucky' doll belonging to a woman. The fury and rage she emanated was apparently not unusual. She had somehow convinced herself that this little lump of plastic was going to magically give her a win. Perhaps she won once when the little doll was placed just so, and that's what created the 'magic'.

Most people are looking for an edge, an advantage in a competitive world. Perhaps for the religious, their religion is provides just that - the 'lucky' edge that gives them that magical advantage.

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Comment by Belle Rose on November 15, 2015 at 12:25pm
I think prayer is like confirmation bias on stereroids.
Comment by _Robert_ on November 15, 2015 at 1:49pm

If prayer worked, the religious would have lower insurance rates.

Comment by Reg The Fronkey Farmer on November 15, 2015 at 1:57pm

If you ask people of faith if they believe that their God created the Universe they will say “Yes, of course He did”. If you ask them if they pray to their God they will answer “Yes, of course I do” as if you have just asked a very stupid question. Then ask if God answers their prayers and you will also get the same answer “Yes, He does”.

Then ask those 3 questions but in a different way and see how quickly they will answer “Yes” with the same conviction. I generally phrase it like this; “So what you have just told me is that you are able to communicate directly with the Creator of the Universe and that He will sometimes do what you ask of Him”? I find that difficult to believe so maybe you could explain it to me please?

Is it done via telepathy because your God can read your thoughts or do you need to say it out loud for Him to hear you? Are you sure you mean prayer is a conversation with God and if so what does his voice sound like or is it just that he does the things you ask of Him?

Do you have an estimate of how many of your prayers he answers? Do you think it would be worth keeping a written record of your success rate?

If the conversation is still going……..”If your God has a plan for you then why do you pray for Him to change it? Can you tell me the outcome of you last 3 prayers where you asked Him for something”? Your God must have great powers and patience to be able to deal with the prayers of over 1 billion Christians each day when he already knows what everyone would ask for and how he will deal with each request. He must indeed be omni….what’s that word?

There have been a few studies done into the power of prayer. Here two professors ask god for new names but meta-studies have shown intercessory prayer to be just about useless, which is what you would expect because gods don’t exist.

Comment by Jake LaFort on November 16, 2015 at 1:48am

Strega, I am guessing that in most instances the confusion over personal issues in which the actor finds herself in a a quandary is not a matter leading to prayer as often as simple wants. I want Aunt Mahalia to be cured of crotch cancer. I want that cute boy to ask me out. I want to be free of debt...etc.

There is little doubt that humans recognize patterns that they believe elicit some desired outcome. MAGIC works! And in a sense religion is magic. Follow the formula and produce the desired result. Prayer is one of the ways theists use magic in the search for personal advantage.

Confirmation bias undoubtedly plays a big part in the perception of the deluded that prayer works. Expose theists to the experiments into the efficacy of prayer or explain confirmation bias and see blank look on face. Tell them that they ought not interfere with god's plan. He knows what the fuck he is doing! Tell them that their claim of omniscience makes begging an annoying background noise for the almighty and see how unpersuaded our theists are.

On the other hand their are instances in which the theist has prayed until blue in the face desperate to have a divine hand change a cruel and ongoing suffering of a loved one. And when nature has taken its course the theist curses the failed magic and abandons prayer and the greater edifice supporting its supplicants.

It is Jake. My name is Jake.

Comment by Unseen on November 16, 2015 at 2:07pm

I understand the comfort offered by prayer. When a loved one is dying of cancer, for example, and there is no longer an effective medical remedy, you want to feel you are doing SOMETHING however desperate.

It's like they say about hope: "There is no such thing as false hope. Just hope or hopelessness." 

For many, prayer simply shows their inability to accept hopelessness. 

Now, of course, I'm talking about prayer in extremis, not praying that you can save enough money to buy a Playstation 4 in time for Christmas vacation, for example.

Hopelessness is unacceptable. 

Comment by Strega on November 16, 2015 at 5:38pm
It IS magic, Jake, but only if you do it perfectly. Getting a prayer answered is like making a perfect cheese soufflé. You only need to get the finest thing wrong and nada, zip, no dish.

Unseen I was thinking more of prayer for guidance, kind of thing. Definitely not the sports wins, or the crotch cancer (nice image).

But prayer born of desperation, that's a whole subset of prayer by itself. Even the hardest atheist might find themselves clutching the remnants of hope and expressing a "please let blah blah be so" in their heads. And of course if victory DOES get snatched from the jaws of defeat, what a massive compounding heap of cognitive bias we'd be getting then if we'd prayed.

Belle, hating the slavery mindset of prayer isn't good enough to be able to help others to break it. If we can get a grip on what the psychology aspects are, we may find new and better ways to help people deconvert.

Reg, when I read your descriptions of the arguments you have with the religious, I can't help feeling relieved I'll never be across the table from you on the subject. You are truly a virtuoso :)
Comment by Reg The Fronkey Farmer on November 16, 2015 at 6:55pm

I must admit to taking a certain amount of selfish pleasure from watching Jehovah Witnesses squirm as they attempt to come up with an excuse to leave my house after 2 hours of my questions (or Socratic interrogation). They were so happy that someone actually invited them in and knew about the Bible but it did not go according to their plan. They have no Plan B apparently. It is rewarding when it works and they come back at some stage, on their own, to tell me that they are now atheists. I don’t care too much if I can’t get them to think differently but if they do then the reward is all theirs.

I have had ex-cult members (not JW’s) sit opposite me too and seen at first hand the damage religion does. A grown man weeping because he “knew” the devil gave his 2 year old daughter cancer or an ex-Muslim worried she would be found by her father or a Hindu afraid of her brothers because she loved a white skinned man (25 years later they are still married). I am a different animal then.

Comment by Pope Beanie on November 16, 2015 at 8:27pm

As you alluded to, just putting your request into words helps to clarify it. As they say, visualizing an act is often as helpful as rehearsing it before the opportunity to act becomes real. Luck is opportunity + preparation. Too many cliches here, but there's a placebo affect/effect. I think even cliches themselves can serve as ways to visualize something that's not easily described in more concise terms. Accentuate the positive, and all that, adds focus to the objective. And then the good feeling of confirmation bias encourages repeat of whatever seemed to work.

I was going to mention something, but then read it in one of Reg's links: 

[...]people interpret prayer as a social interaction with God, and social interactions are what give us the cognitive resources necessary to avoid temptation.

I think prayer (and often wishful thinking) engages social neurocircuits, along with the cognition and clarification you mentioned. In my wishful thinking, I often rehearse how I'd put it into words for other people to understand, too. Sometimes it may just produce a useful "no, never mind" kind of realism to the wish. And if the wish eventually fails and I'm feeling blameful, I'll usually blame myself, or just admit I wasn't ready for it anyway.

When the prayer/wish is positively answered, there's the urge to be thankful along with the good feeling. Thank God, right!? Let's do this again! I feeeeel the spirit, and/or I feel really connected to my world in a good way. In fact sometimes getting what I need and want comes down to how to negotiate between the outside world and myself... albeit metaphorically, as the world (or God) isn't really listening to me.

Comment by Pope Beanie on November 16, 2015 at 8:39pm

I should have reminded everyone... The Lord works in mysterious ways. So you can make up just about any story you like wrt how He did it for you.

Comment by TJ on November 17, 2015 at 11:05am

LOL

yup.

Prayer is based upon the assumptions that:

1) There is a supernatural being

2) The supernatural being is aware of you

3) The supernatural being can change the course of events

4) The supernatural being WOULD change the course of events

5) The supernatural being will use your input as to how the course of events should change

In the Talmud, it essentially says that prayer is not for god, but for the one praying.  I think that's about right.

If you see people bowling, and the ball is veering towards the gutter, watch people's body or actual language as they attempt to will the ball back towards the pins.

I don't think people can help it.  It seems to be human nature to WANT to have some influence on things.

SOME people tend to over weigh this though, and, yeah, a plethora of lucky socks and charms and routines/rituals can be involved for those watching a sporting event on TV.

They will tell you, seriously, that the Mets win when they were this shirt and this hat, backwards, if they sit in that chair with their feet on that stool.

If they Mets lose, well, they were distracted and must have moved their foot...or Bob showed up, and he's a yankees fan, and that sent bad vibes, and so forth.

Some people just need to feel they can do SOMETHING to control their environment more strongly than other people.

HOPING something happens evolved into praying for it.  

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