Prayer is a central component of many religions as well as a core practice of spirituality. Different theists assert there being different meanings, purposes, and ways of practicing prayer. For some, prayer is a, or perhaps the, means of connection between the person and what they describe as being god. It is the means by which the relationship is formed and maintained. Through this connection, they say they experience the presence of god and may even receive god’s "guidance". There are also prayers of gratitude, compassion, and forgiveness.
While these kinds of prayer are routinely practiced by some, there is no doubt that the vast majority of believers look to prayer for another purpose. To most believers, this purpose is perceived either overtly or covertly as being one of the greatest benefits of believing in god. This purpose is asking god to intervene in reality in some way to give the theist what they are asking for. It is almost as if prayer is treated as magical wish granting.
PRAYER AS WISH GRANTING
As an Atheist, I believe events are determined by some combination of our own actions and choices, the laws of nature, and chance. Therefore, we do have some amount of control over what happens in our lives, but we can not control everything that happens to us and inevitably the dice of chance roll against us. Good things and bad things happen to good people. Good things and bad things happen to bad people. Sometimes we can do things to ameliorate their effects, but at other times we cannot alter the inevitable outcomes. This reality can be extremely painful, such as receiving news from a doctor that a child of ours has contracted a terminal and incurable disease. In fact, such a time may be the most difficult we have or will ever experience.
It is wholly normal and understandable for people in such situations to feel desperate, not wanting to accept the outcomes reality has presented them with. It is in this time that religion offers something immensely powerful and seductive, which is the assertion that prayer can change odds against us to being in our favor, even making the seemingly impossible possible. And what do we have to do to have a chance to control the impossible? We are told that all we have to do is believe in god. Yet so often I see people go farther than this, attempting to score and stock up on positive points with god, which they hope can later be used for their benefit during times when the odds are against them. So they praise god, offer prayers of thanks when times go well, go to church, attempt to bring others to god, give money to church, and do other things they believe or are told god wants them to do.
I feel this is a safe assertion to make, as any experienced religious leader will tell you about their experiences where members have come to them angry because god did not answer their prayers during desperate times. For example, they’ll ask why god let their child die and make statements such as, “I come to church. I volunteer my time. I pray. I encourage other people to believe in god. I believe. I sincerely make efforts to live a good life.” Such statements are completely understandable and valid. After all, don’t all good relationships necessarily contain some amount of quid pro quo kindness, where I do nice things for you and you do nice things for me? Of course they do. Friendships with people who only take from us and do not give in return don’t last and they shouldn’t, because to act that way is the very definition of unfriendly. Yet all believers at one time or another will experience god not delivering when things are at their worse and for no good explanation from god. So they turn to their religious leader for an explanation, which always seem to be some variation of “I don’t know”, such as “We are not meant to know God’s great plan.” I can’t imagine how uncomfortable it must be for religious leaders who have to stick up for a god who doesn’t adhere to the most basic principles of friendship.
As an Atheist, there is some peace in knowing that I only have so much control. I can do what I can do and that’s it. It makes acceptance and letting go during hard times easier. It also makes me happy to know that I can spend my time attempting to make changes that actually do have a chance of working, rather than spending my energy on things which won’t make a difference.
PRAYER AS PROOF OF GOD’S EXISTENCE
Many theists assert that the outcomes of their prayers are proof of god’s existence. They typically do this by citing times that they got what they prayed for. However, no believer always gets what they pray for. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. If you ask such a believer why they didn’t get what they prayed for, the typical response is that it wasn’t in god’s plan. This is faulty reasoning at its most basic level.
The flaw here is that the believer breaks their own standard of evidence midstream. The standard they first set is that answered prayers constitute proof of god’s existence. If they were to correctly adhere to their own standard, which is necessary for the standard to be consistent and valid, then unanswered prayers are proof against the existence of god. Instead of following consistency, they assert that what they asked for wasn’t in god’s plan. But if a god is following its own plan regardless of prayer, then what is the point of praying in the first place?
I have heard a rather insidious explanation given at this point, rather than agreement that an error in reasoning is occurring, which is that the person wasn’t praying hard enough or didn’t have enough faith. This kind of blame being put back on the person rather than god is nothing short of cruel mental abuse. I have known people who have believed this and resulted in self-condemnation and mental self-abuse.
Again, as an Atheist I believe events in our lives are determined by our own actions and choices, the laws of nature and chance. Therefore, sometimes I get what I want and sometimes I don’t. What I do notice is that the rate of good things happening to me and bad things happening to me in my life is hardly unchanged from when I was a praying Christian. If there is any difference, it is that more things go the way I want in my life as an Atheist, because I no longer rely on god and prayer for the determination of outcomes. Instead, I put all my efforts into actions attempting to influence outcomes, which works wonders.