Wed | Jan 16, 2019

Prayer is pointless

Published:Wednesday | November 5, 2014 | 12:00 AM

We seek him here, we seek him there, we seek him everywhere. Millions of people seek god through prayer every day. But is the efficacy of prayer a form of self-delusion? And which god?

Ask a Jamaican and he will tell you his god is Yahweh, the Christian god. Ask an Iranian, and he will tell you, Allah, and an Indian, Vishnu. Christians, Muslims, Hindus and animists pray to their respective gods, each claiming that their prayers work in healing the sick. But is the god who is prayed to the one doing the healing?

In Jamaica, 11-year-olds pray to him and thank him for their success in the GSAT exams. The victorious athlete attributes her win to him, no matter that the other competitors also prayed to him to win, which makes us wonder if god is not immune to a bit of favouritism.

Want to live a long life? British monarchs ought to be very long lived because millions of people all over the world daily intoned their heartfelt mantra, 'God Save the Queen'. Yet they don't seem to be any more long lived than the general population. How about our pampered politicians? Some of them may get more prayers than they deserve. I suspect they are prayed for, but not as favourably as we would like to think.

'answered' prayers

In highly religious countries with horrible infant mortality rates like Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan, there should be no shortage of mothers praying for their sick children to get well, unlike less godly countries like Sweden, Denmark and England, with far lower infant-mortality rates. Some believers might argue that this disparity is about economics, failed governments and health-care deficiencies. Perhaps. But why should money matter to god? If prayer works, it should be able to work anywhere, regardless of economy and circumstances.

Believers get excited about 'answered' prayers while forgetting all the prayers that resulted in nothing. Furthermore, 'answered' prayers are not good evidence that god is really at work for the simple fact that some requests are bound to turn up positively: praying that you do not get the chik-V, and you do not get it, does not mean that god answered your prayers.

An omniscient god should know the outcome of future events. If he alters the event by responding to the supplicant's prayer, he is not omnipotent. Can the course of history be radically changed by one individual on his knees? Therefore, prayer cannot possibly change anything, and there is no point to it.

all in the mind

Our prayers are merely aspirations and desires that motivate our daily lives. Prayer does seem to work at least psychologically. It provides solace and comfort. It may relieve stress and anxiety, and promote a more positive outlook. The downside is that relying on prayer alone to heal a sick child, without seeking medical attention, can have tragic consequences. It may also encourage believers to remain passive in times of crisis waiting for divine deliverance, rather than taking effective action.

Does prayer work in healing the sick? At least 10 studies to determine the efficacy of prayers carried out in the last six years had mixed results. In a landmark study in 2006 funded by the Templeton Foundation, a Christian organisation, 1,802 patients, all of whom received coronary-bypass surgery, were monitored at six hospitals in the US. The members of the congregation of three churches delivered prayers. They were told to include in their prayers the phrase "for a successful surgery, with a healthy recovery and no complications".

The patients were divided into three groups. Group 1 was prayed for and didn't know they were prayed for. Group 2, the control group, was not prayed for, and didn't know they were not prayed for. Group 3 were prayed for, but were told they may or may not receive prayers. There was no difference between those patients who were prayed for and those who were not prayed for. But a significant number who knew they were prayed for suffered complications. This was attributed to chance or additional stress on these patients knowing that they were being prayed for.

The advent of the dreaded chik-V in Jamaica has concentrated Christian minds wonderfully. Prayers were made for god to spare the people from the ravages of the virus, which , alas, many have now learnt was an exercise in futility.

Ethon Lowe is a medical doctor. Email feedback to and