Prayer Experiments

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When Prayer Doesn’t Work

Martin Luther once wrote that, “To be a Christian without prayer is no more possible than to be alive without breathing.” Prayer is a vital component in one’s relationship with God.

There have been numerous studies done on the power of prayer, with varying results. I have heard Christians proudly report that these studies prove the efficacy of prayer, while also reading from the pen of the prominent atheist, Richard Dawkins, that these studies show conclusively the utter failure of prayer to effect any change in the circumstances of those prayed for.

To all sides I say, ‘a plague on both your houses.’ 1JK Oh, and this is from Shakespeare.

In this short article I want to briefly point out the flawed premises that undergird these types of ‘prayer experiments,’ as well as offering a pastoral word or two on unanswered prayer.

God in a Test Tube

The purpose of these prayer studies is often to prove the existence of God through the efficacy of prayer, or prove the power of prayer and, thereby, demonstrate the reality of God… which amounts to the same thing.

In order for these experiments to actually prove or disprove the existence of God, or the benefits of prayer, certain faulty assumptions must be made about the nature of prayer. In order for the study to be determinative, one way or the other, something like the propositions below must be assumed:

  1. If the personal God of Christian theism exists, He always answers prayer.

  2. Christian people pray for things.

  3. If Christians get what they pray for, this God must exist; if they don’t, this God probably doesn’t exist.

The first presupposition is the faulty one. In fact, it is so obviously wrong-headed to any believer that one may wonder whether or not I am building a straw man argument. But ask yourself what happens to the prayer experiment if we change the first premise to: ‘God sometimes answers prayers in the affirmative.’ If this were the case, almost any results would be compatible with the nature of prayer and the existence of God. God answers some prayer affirmatively, for reasons known only to Him, and any statistical results stemming from a prayer experiment will likely be compatible with this reality.

Many atheists understand this and complain about it. If you pray and something happens, God said ‘Yes.’ If you pray and nothing happens, God said, ‘No’ or ‘Wait.’ Well, that covers all your bases and prayer can’t prove or disprove anything. I could pray to a jug of milk and assume the same ‘Yes’, ‘No’, or ‘Wait’ pattern, without disappointment.

The above complaint, however, basically amounts to blaming God for not behaving like a physical law. This may be the gravest error made by those engaging in the prayer experiment. To understand this mistake we need to grasp two different types of causation: physical causation and agent causation.

Two Types of Causation

I’ve been told that the pressure and temperature of a gas are proportional; meaning if you increase the pressure the temperature will increase. This is an example of a necessary physical link.

On the other hand, receiving money from a wealthy donor to build a church website is causally linked, but we don’t determine whether or not generous persons exist based on the fact that 47 percent of requests for funds are not granted. Philosophers Scott Hahn and Benjamin Wiker write:

“The difference is simple to understand. The gas is not free to permit or refuse the increase in temperature; the benefactor, for a nearly uncountable number of reasons unknown to the suppliant, may either affirm or deny his petition.” 2Scott Hahn & Benjamin Wiker, Answering the New Atheism, p57

The approach subscribed to in these prayer tests involves trying to manipulate God through an experiment; treating God like a machine, or a physical law, where certain inputs necessitate certain measurable outputs. But, if God exists, we must approach Him as an infinitely wise, fundamentally benevolent, unrestrictedly free personal Being. God cannot be treated like a gas; God is much more like our rich benefactor, who, for His own reasons, may or may not be disinclined to acquiesce our requests.

Unanswered Prayer

The way prayer actually works, I don’t think prayer can prove God’s existence; in fact, the very act presupposes the existence of God. Moreover, unanswered prayer doesn’t disprove God’s reality because it should, in a sense, be expected given the limitless chasm separating God’s wisdom from our own.

God sees far more, knows far more, and His concerns are far greater than the ones that often dictate our requests at any given moment. He is God, after all.

But even good parents, who love their children deeply, find themselves saying ‘No,’ a lot! It is not because the parent doesn’t have the power to do what the child asks; instead, loving parents sometimes say ‘No’ because giving the child what they want would not be in the young person’s best interest. 3The problem that people have with this type of analogy usually centers on unanswered prayers regarding illnesses afflicting loved ones or themselves. These represent requests that a loving parent would, in fact, respond to affirmatively, if it were in their power to do so. Yet God remains seemingly silent. This is a very serious, heart-rending matter and it pulls us in the direction of the problem of evil. We have addressed evil and God’s existence elsewhere on this site.

The wisdom of our parents is often only seen in retrospect. In a similar way, the wisdom of God is often only discovered in retrospect as well. God’s ‘No’ in the present may only make sense in the future. Faith is an active trust, based on reasons, needed for the in-between time.

Notes   [ + ]

1. JK Oh, and this is from Shakespeare.
2. Scott Hahn & Benjamin Wiker, Answering the New Atheism, p57
3. The problem that people have with this type of analogy usually centers on unanswered prayers regarding illnesses afflicting loved ones or themselves. These represent requests that a loving parent would, in fact, respond to affirmatively, if it were in their power to do so. Yet God remains seemingly silent. This is a very serious, heart-rending matter and it pulls us in the direction of the problem of evil. We have addressed evil and God’s existence elsewhere on this site.

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