I am not a scientific atheist. It’s not that I don’t believe the scientific refutations of various biblical stories and claims — it’s that I have never been among those for whom the entire Bible must be literally and historically factual. When I was an evangelical believer it never bothered me that some parts of the Bible were written for their meaning and message, not for strict historical accuracy, and it still doesn’t bother me as a non-believer today.
As an agnostic, what refutes the Bible for me is not science, but the Bible’s own broken promises. According to the scriptures, god makes certain promises to Christian believers, but in reality he doesn’t keep them. Among those promises is the power of prayer. James 5:16 tells us “… the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.”
There is no scientific method to test the power of prayer, or any scientific argument for or against prayer as a means to effect events on Earth. All evidence of the prayer’s power or lack of power is purely anecdotal. There is, however, another objective means to measure the veracity of this particular promise to believers — logic. With anecdotal evidence plentiful on both sides of the argument, the tie-breaker for me is how anecdotes for the success of prayer stand up to logical examination.
Logic Takes a Holiday
Take for example, the most common use of prayer in the evangelical community — the prayer request. We are asked to please pray for Johnny, who had a bad car accident, and may or may not survive it. So we pray for Johnny. If Johnny survives we credit the prayers. We credit god for listening. We conclude that god had his protective hand over Johnny. We conclude that god kept the promise of the prayer of the righteous. Didn’t he?
Well, yes, of course he did, as long as we keep logic out of the equation. For logic asks questions like this — if god had his protective hand over Johnny, why did he let him have the accident in the first place? And like this — Why did god answer our prayer to save Johnny from his accident, but did not answer our prayer last year to save Davie from Leukemia?
Read the Fine Print
When it comes to why some prayers of the righteous appear to be answered while others are not, evangelical theologians have several explanations. One is that god does indeed hear and answer every prayer, but that sometimes the answer is “no.” The reason for “no” is said to be that while Johnny’s survival was in accordance with “god’s will,” Davie’s was not. For reasons that we mortals are incapable of understanding with our worldly minds, god needed for Johnny to stay here on Earth with his friends and family, but he needed Davie in heaven — and he needed him there now. Our only justification for this randomness is in Isiah 45:15 — “ Truly, O God of Israel, our Savior, you work in mysterious ways.”
According to this explanation, the prayer of the righteous is still powerful, but can also be overridden by “god’s will,” also known as “god’s plan,” which is unintelligible to the human mind. There is nothing inherently illogical about this explanation, except for the larger issue it raises. We are taught to believe that everything that happens does so according to god’s mysterious plan for the world. According to most evangelical teachings, god has the history of the world mapped out, and knows the beginning, the middle, and the end. This is not logically impossible either.
If god already knows everything that is going to happen in the world, if he’s got it all mapped out — including whether Johnny and Davie survive — why do we bother praying for them? Why pray for anything at all? If it was god’s will for Johnny to survive and Davie to die, then Johnny would have survived and Davie would have died regardless of whether anyone prayed for them or not.
In order for the “god’s plan” explanation to fit with the Gospel’s promises to believers for their righteous prayers, there has to be some wiggle room on the Plan. Maybe god really does have the fate of the world mapped out from beginning to end, but whether Johnny or Davie live or die would not have any measurable effect on it. Maybe our prayers are requests for god to modify little bits of his grand Plan for our benefit.
If this is the case, then Davie’s death in spite of our prayers may not have been because god urgently needed him in heaven. God’s “no” answer may have had an entirely different cause.
And More Reasons
Another explanation offered by some evangelical teachers for the apparent failure of prayer is the level of faith of the person praying. If we “have the faith of a mustard seed” they say we would be able to move mountains. But prayers made without faith that god will actually do as we ask, are “faithless prayers” and the answer will be “no.” So we must pray with the full confidence that god will say “yes” to our request. Because when god says “yes” it means he recognizes us as full disciples of Christ and wants to empower us to act as his ambassadors on Earth.
There would seem to be no logical contradiction to this theory. Perhaps, in answering “yes” or “no” to our petitions, god is communicating to us the status of our faith in him. Maybe he’s rewarding the mature, true believers and telling those of lesser faith that they need to grow more before he will unleash his promised magic to them.
It’s Never That Simple
Again, this possibility seems plausible until it is attacked by logic. Does this mean that all of the people who prayed for Johnny’s recovery were mature, faithful believers? What if some of those who prayed were what evangelicals call “carnal Christians” who “put god in a box” and live their lives outside of Sunday mornings just like non-believers do? If these, immature, faithless Christians prayed for their friend Johnny, and God said “yes,” how are they getting the message that their faith is in need of improvement? How are they to know that god answered “yes” not in response to their “faithless prayers” but to the prayers of his more faithful disciples? For all we know, some of Johnny’s coworkers who were not even believers also prayed for him, just on the off chance it could help. God would seem to have given them the same “yes” and encouragement that he gave to those more in his favor.
I know a woman in Florida who has been a faithful Christian her whole life. She once told the story about how her church had prayed fervently that a hurricane that was heading in their direction would not hit them — and it worked. God answered their prayers and the hurricane hit north of them. Is it another success story? If so, what does it say about the believers and churches a little farther north, who must have prayed just as faithfully and just as fervently to be spared?
There are certainly many anecdotes about Christians’ who “stepped out on faith” that god would answer their prayer, and he did. They got the scholarship, they got the job, or they beat their addiction. But just as prevalent, though perhaps less celebrated, are the anecdotes where they stepped out of the boat onto the raging Sea of Galilee, eyes on Jesus ahead calling them, but instead of walking on the water, they fell in and drowned.
I know one such case of a Christian woman, whom I will call Angela, who did just that. She felt god leading her to leave her secure, well-paid engineering job to start up an African-American community newspaper in a town that didn’t have one. The idea was supported by local African-American churches, many of whom bought ads, posted events, and even wrote faith columns for the paper. She had heard the voice of the Lord loud and clear. She had the faith of a mustard seed — so much faith that she stepped out onto that choppy sea, following Jesus’ call. She prayed to god to bless this financially risky endeavor that he called her to do. But he didn’t bless it. The paper went belly up fairly quickly, leaving her unemployed, in debt, and bankrupt — despite her sincere faith and confident prayers.
For Angela, the faith of a mustard seed didn’t cut it.
A Hung Jury
So the faith explanation also appears wobbly. This brings us back to god’s will, in which our fates are pre-destined. Perhaps pre-destination and god’s will are not a total negation of the power of prayer. According to many anecdotes, a “no” answer to a prayer was actually a blessing in disguise. Christians are brimming with tales about how they ended up grateful that a prayer was answered in the negative, because this opened up a chain of events that led not only to a blessing, but an entirely new destiny in their life. They were so misguided and in-the-dark when they prayed, that they were actually praying for something that would end up hurting them in the long run. Thank the Lord that he said “no”! Was god, in the end, just pushing Angela towards a different blessing and a different destiny? Regardless of the answer to our prayers, does everything eventually happen for the best?
Again, entirely possible. But somehow I don’t think that’s how Davie’s mother would see it.
All told, the jury is out on prayer. Sometimes prayer by faithful believers is answered with a miracle. Many times it is not. Among those who are miraculously among the few survivors of major accidents and disasters, some are surely Christians who prayed and some are surely non-believers or members of other faiths who did not. Among prayers that appear to have been answered positively, some were surely uttered by faithful Christians, and others were surely uttered by non-believers grasping at straws. The same is true for prayers that were answered with “no.”
According to all the evidence, saying a prayer has about as much influence on human events as flipping a coin. The only thing that can be absolutely accepted is that prayer appears to do no harm. It is thus logical and possibly helpful to pray for something to happen, or not to happen. This may be a good thing, a neutral thing, or nothing at all.
But it’s a long way from what the scriptures promise.
Christianity is like new age religions in that it promises believers magic and miracles. Without the promise of magic and miracles, much of the appeal is lost. Of course, the larger incentive is to spend eternity in blissful heaven instead of in tortuous hell. But along the way, while here on Earth, Evangelicals are told there is power and miracles to be had that will make life a little less frightening and burdensome. If you believe and are a good and faithful servant, god will come through for you.
Except when he won’t. Because, you know, reasons.