God, maybe – 4 and a half


There were a couple of thoughtful comments from friends about yesterday’s blog. Both were arguing that, of course, praying for the lottery won’t work. God isn’t going to answer such a trivial or self-centred request.

So instead of moving on, I thought we’d go back to the subject of prayer.

What do people pray for – and which prayers are answered?

If we go back to the earliest humans, we find ourselves at the time of hunter-gatherers. We’re guessing at this point, but it seems highly likely that they prayed for a successful hunt. Their lives depended on being able to catch enough meat on the hoof to feed everyone.

Fast forward to the first farmers. They have to take a huge leap of faith. If they plant these seeds, and if the rains come, and if winter ends, and if spring comes after winter … then maybe they will get enough veggies to make a stew.

So our early ancestors spent an inordinate amount of time and energy praying that the winter would end and that their crops would grow. From that we get monuments like Stonehenge and a preoccupation with being able to predict the seasons. We get sun gods and rain gods.

The Lord’s Prayer still starts with “give us this day our daily bread”. This is a throwback to the times when we prayed for a good harvest, because it really did mean the difference between life and death.

Then there are the fertility prayers. Our ancestors would dearly want to hear the pitter patter of tiny sandals. So they visit the local shaman for a lurve potion. The shaman tells the man to drink a potion of loganberries and then go home and have sex with his wife.

Or pray to Venus and then go home to have sex with his wife.

Or sacrifice a cockerel to Aphrodite and then go home to have sex with his wife.

And – guess what? – the potion works. Either that or Venus and Aphrodite decided to bless them with a child. Funny that. And it has absolutely nothing to do with all that sex.

If we get sick, we pray to be made healthy again.

If we are going into battle, we pray for victory.

If we are close to death, we pray to go up to the nice place and not down to the hot place.

If our football team is in the relegation zone, we pray for a manager who isn’t a blithering eejit.

The one constant here is the unknown. When we don’t know what is about to happen, we pray for the outcome that we want.

But here’s a funny thing. The subject of our prayers changes over time. As we get a better understanding of how the seasons work we stop praying for winter to end and spring to start. As we understand human health a lot better, we stop praying for babies. We cut out the middle bit and head straight for the “having more sex” part of the equation.

If we tend to pray for the unknown, our prayers change as the unknown recedes. Science is leaving religion less and less room in which to operate.

There is something else that is strange. As a species, we are very good at coming up with reasons why a prayer didn’t work. We rationalise that the gods must be angry about something. That they have some mysterious reason for doing what they did. That they are testing us. That we need to sacrifice a bigger animal. That God doesn’t get involved with something as petty as a lottery.

Individually, all of these explanations make a kind of sense. But if you look at all of them at the same time, a pattern emerges…

  1. We pray for the unknown
  2. Sometimes we get the result we want. Sometimes we don’t.
  3. When we do get what we want, it’s proof that God exists.
  4. When we don’t, we come up with an excuse. God still exists.

Apart from the placebo effect, we have no evidence of any prayer actually working ever in the history of mankind. To be sure, sometimes a good thing happens after someone prays for that good thing. But equally we have lots of instances of prayers going unheard.

We live in an era of big data. Every time you buy something, drive your car, go on the internet, do anything … you are being counted. Big businesses, scientists and Governments are using this information to understand how we think, to spot trends and to work out how to sell us more stuff.

A celebrity chef uses a particular ingredient in a television show. Within hours, the major supermarkets can see people buying more of this ingredient than ever before. We can track how often people get sick, how long it takes them to recover, and the effectiveness of different drugs.

And what does all this information show us about the power of prayer?

Prayer doesn’t work, other than in the placebo effect.

No-one has yet produced a correlation between prayer and some external thing happening. My lottery example may have been a little trivial, but it’s a convenient way of showing a wider point. The evidence simply isn’t there.

Religion shouldn’t feel too bad about this. It turns out that luck doesn’t work either. That rabbit’s foot would do far more good if it was still attached to the bunny.

But before we start blowing the trumpet for Dawkinism, I need to redress the balance. Because that is not the end of the story.

I did say, “apart from the placebo effect”. This is sometimes said a little sniffily. People insert the word “only” as in “only the placebo effect.” I think there is much more to it than that.

One recent event puzzled me. When Pope John Paul II died, Catholics all round the world prayed for him. This was quite possibly the biggest single act of simultaneous prayer in recent times. Given the explosion in human population, it was arguably the most prayed about thing in the history of our planet.

And I couldn’t help wondering why.

Surely they weren’t praying for him to get better? Because that boat had already sailed.

And they can’t have been praying for him to go to heaven. He of all people must have had a reservation for a front row seat.

So why do you need to pray for the passing of the Pope?

The answer, I think, is that they weren’t praying for John Paul II. They were praying for themselves. Their prayers were not an appeal to God to do something. They were a way of providing comfort in a time of sorrow. Praying makes people feel better.

There is something else. Let’s go right back to the Lord’s Prayer. Here it is for anyone who hasn’t said it in a long time:

“Our Father, which art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name. Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, As we forgive them that trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, The power, and the glory, For ever and ever. Amen.”

What does this actually mean? One way to read it is that we are giving God a shopping list. Can you please pop down to the celestial supermarket? We’d like one loaf of bread (preferably sliced). Some forgiveness – better make it a big one. Oh, and don’t forget the protection from temptation. We’re right out of that.

In other words, this is a prayer asking for something.

Another reading is that this is fan mail. We are telling God how wonderful he is. We remind him that he is in heaven. I’m sure he needs to know that. And that he has got power and glory and stuff. Wow.

The third way of looking at this, and the one that makes most sense to me, is that we are not actually talking to God. We are not asking him for anything. He doesn’t need to be told how fantastic he is.

What we are really doing is talking to ourselves. We are saying that we won’t do naughty things (aka trespasses and evil), that we will work hard (we are the ones making the daily bread), we won’t be tempted, we won’t follow other gods.

And we are giving ourselves reassurance that God is on our side. He’s got our back. He’ll look after us. As military types would say, he is watching out for our 6. Or maybe that should be our 666.

Some people pray for a lottery win. We know they do. Just as we know that our ancestors prayed for winter to end. If we now know that those things are not affected by prayer, that doesn’t mean that prayer doesn’t have a place.

It simply means that prayer is more about us. If we are asking for anything, it is the strength to do what we believe is right.

But we are the ones who have to do the doing.


2 thoughts on “God, maybe – 4 and a half

  1. You’ve overlooked on thing in the Lord’s prayer.
    “And forgive us our trespasses, As we forgive them that trespass against us.”
    Remember that bit, “As we forgive them that trespass against us.”
    We are asking to be forgiven as we ourselves forgive those who’ve somehow upset us.
    This is perhaps where you move away from ‘shopping list’ prayer and move into the heart of the matter. You’re getting to the stage where prayer becomes part of the relationship between an individual and their God.
    Indeed within Christianity that is getting to the core of things. Christ and Paul most talk a lot about God being within us and within Christ and us changing to be more like Christ as God is seen to be working more in us and through us.
    And at this point you realise that perhaps we cannot just bracket ‘religions’ together because they are all different and when you study them you realise they are aiming at different things.


    • I’m not so sure that religions are all aiming at different things. At the heart of many religions is the idea of a contract, where you ask God “if you do this, I’ll do that”. That’s a mutual shopping list, a give and take.

      Each religion would like to think that it is special. They are right and everyone else is wrong. But as you look across a wide number religions (past and present) there seem to be far more similarities than differences. This is especially so when we get religions splintering away from each other, such as the Reformation.

      One of the blogs coming up is about perception. We each tend to see things from our own viewpoint. So someone brought up in a Western civilization is more likely to impose Western ideology and thinking than, say, mysticism.

      And we each bring along the thinking of our times. So we might be sniffy about the “shopping list” element of prayer but out ancestors certainly were not. Nor are the Jihadists who think that martyrdom is worth fifty virgins or the Catholics who believe that a particular sin can be forgiven with a certain number of hail Mary’s.

      If we only see religion from our current limited perception then we are more likely to see evidence for our religion. We are also far more likely to feel that our religion is instinctively right.

      But if we lift up our viewpoint to see the variety world’s religions, past and present, we start to see clear patterns across all of them.

      And that’s what is driving me to my conclusion. We’ve got a little way to go yet. 😉


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