This page in brief ….
On this page I examine the obvious fact that not all prayers to God are answered in a way that is hoped for.
If there’s a God, should we expect him to answer our prayers? Sometimes? All the time? If he doesn’t, is this because he’s not there? So I consider:
- whether any prayers are answered,
- whether God promises to answer prayers, and
- whether the whole idea of God needing our prayers to change his choices is a sensible one.
I conclude that this is an argument worth considering, but there are reasonable responses. Whether those responses are enough to negate the argument is up to you to decide.
A pretty simple argument
Critics of religion have a simple argument. People pray, sometimes in desperate need. Their religion tells them God cares, but their prayers aren’t answered, except occasionally, by coincidence.
So surely the most obvious conclusion is that there’s no God to answer the prayers?
Clarifying the argument
I think there are actually 4 slightly different arguments here. Let’s look at them a little closer.
1. Prayers don’t work
Many scientific (medical) studies have been conducted into the effectiveness of prayer and it is argued that the results show that prayer doesn’t work.
- when some people are prayed for and others are not, there is no difference in the results, and
- in hospitals, atheists, agnostics and people of different faiths all recover at the same rates.
So, the sceptics say, this ought to be enough to prove the point.
2. Jesus’ claims
- “I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” (Mark 11:24)
- “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.” (John 14:13)
Maybe some prayers are answered, but not all of them. So the argument is this: Jesus hasn’t kept his promises, so christianity isn’t true.
3. Prayer is an illogical concept
In Christian, Muslim and Jewish belief, God is all-powerful and knows everything. So why does he need us to tell him what he already knows and has the power to do?
And if he is loving, why would he need to be prompted to do good? Why would asking him lead to any different outcomes?
4. God doesn’t act to prevent pain
There is much pain and suffering in the world. Some people suffer unspeakably. They pray, but get no relief. Surely, the sceptics say, this shows God can’t be there?
A christian response
My first response is to admit honestly that I wonder about unanswered prayer too. I cannot understand some things about prayer. But I believe these four objections are not as strong as might first appear. Let’s look at them more closely.
1. Prayers don’t work?
The claims made in this form of the argument are simply not true. Scientific studies DON’T show that prayer doesn’t work.
The situation is more complex than that.
Many studies show that religious belief and practices are beneficial for physical and mental health (see Faith and wellbeing). But showing that prayer is effective is not so easy.
There are at least a hundred studies on the medical effects of prayer. I have found 21 individual studies and 5 reviews of about a hundred other studies (it is hard to be exact, because some studies have been reviewed more than once). In these studies some patients in hospitals are prayed for and some are not, and the recovery rates compared.
These studies have been about 2:1 in favour of a small but definite positive impact. However there are reasons to question this conclusion.
- The methodology of many of the studies has been criticised.
- The most comprehensive study (the one usually quoted by sceptics) showed no beneficial effect.
- Even when the studies show a positive benefit from prayer, it is hard to be sure of the mechanism.
- It is impossible to demonstrate that God was, or was not, responsible for any improvement.
So it is realistically impossible to draw a definite conclusion. The matter isn’t yet resolved.
This isn’t entirely surprising, for the studies weren’t designed to prove whether God exists. They were generally designed to test the efficacy of prayer and other practices as medical therapies. They were designed to answer a question like Does prayer prove useful often enough to be worth using in treatment? The question of whether God is active, or not, is beyond the scope of these studies.
The question we want to ask here is more like Is there any evidence that God at least sometimes heals? That question requires a different study design.
There is a bunch of other studies that have been done to answer this question. They examine unusual and unexplained recoveries from serious illness after prayer, and assess whether a natural explanation is likely.
I have examined as many of these studies as I can find, and have found there is good evidence of unexplained recovery after prayer.
So I conclude that this form of the argument claims to much, and cannot be sustained. There is actually plausible evidence that God does sometimes answer prayer.
2. Jesus’ claims
This seems to me to be a more substantial objection. After all, the statements are there in the Bible, and it does seem that the promises aren’t fulfilled.
A common christian response is: “God always answers prayer but sometimes his answer is no, or not yet”. This may be true, but it doesn’t explain why Jesus promises we will get what we ask for.
The problem really isn’t that God doesn’t always grant people’s prayer wishes. Granting some prayers would be evil. Other times people might pray for opposite things, and God couldn’t logically do both. Other times people’s requests may be selfish, trivial or plain silly.
So most of us have no problem that God doesn’t answer these prayers. The difficulty is that Jesus seems to promise more than is sensible.
My only understanding of this is to note that Jesus’ promises about prayer generally come with conditions:
“if you have faith” (Matthew 21:22)
“believe that you have received it” (Mark 11:24)
“ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified” (John 14:13)
“If you remain in me and my words remain in you” (John 15:7)
So we need to ask ourselves, what did Jesus mean by these conditions. What does it mean to ask in his name? Is faith and belief something we can manufacture? What does it mean for his words to remain in us? Will what we ask for glorify God?
I don’t know the answers to all those questions. But it does make me think that Jesus never intended us to think that we would receive whatever we asked for.
So I can agree that Jesus seems to promise more than we experience. But I don’t think it is so clearcut that we can say this so certainly that it becomes a reason to disbelieve in him, or even more so disbelieve in God.
3. Prayer is an illogical concept?
The argument seems strong.
If God knows everything,
if he is all-powerful,
and if he loves us,
then why would he need us to remind him to act,
and why would he wait for us to ask before he did good?
So prayer is illogical.
But there is a good answer.
God is indeed all-powerful. But he has chosen to limit his power on earth, by giving the human race autonomy.
We get to choose. And we are free, generally, to choose things that God would not choose. Or to choose what God would want us to do. If we want.
So we can choose to ask God to act. And sometimes he agrees with us, and acts.
So prayer isn’t illogical. It may not be true, but it makes sense within a world where human beings have free choice and the ability to change things.
4. God doesn’t act to prevent pain?
This is indeed a telling argument. But it isn’t so much based on unanswered prayer as on God permitting evil.
I have addressed this as a separate question, in Do suffering and evil prove there’s no God?.
So is this an argument against God?
Clearly there is an argument here. But how strong is it?
You’ll have to judge for yourself, but it seems to me that for each form of the argument there is an answer. These answers may not completely meet the challenge of the arguments, but they go a long way.