Does the ubiquity of prayer prove the existence of God?

January 10, 2023 • 12:30 pm

UPDATE: Adam Rutherford reminded me that it was the now-demonized Francis Galton who did statistical tests on the efficacy of prayer. His most famous is finding out that British Royals, who are prayed for constantly, didn’t live any longer than non-royals at a similar level of well being. Galton did related studies of the success of sea voyages accompanied by prayer versus those with no prayer. Again, no effect. And, more recently, I’ve written about the Templeton-funded study of intercessory prayer that found no effect of such prayer on the rate of recovery from cardiac surgery (in fact, those who were prayed for did marginally but not significantly worse).  This constitutes direct evidence against Brown’s implicit thesis. (But read the last paragraph of the NYT story I’ve linked to so you can see how the faith try to rescue God.)

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Of course not! The ubiquity of a belief doesn’t tell us anything about the truth of that belief.  Several hundred years ago the whole world believed that infectious diseases were caused by things like God’s will, or miasmas, or the Jews.

They were wrong.

Our species has grown up since then, because science, and science alone, has told us why those earlier beliefs were wrong. The problem is that science can’t disprove an equally unfounded belief in a deity. God is slippery, and smart theologians are paid to make him slippery, because they’d be out of a job if everyone was an atheist.

But that’s what the evidence says, so far as it exists, for we can make plenty of arguments against certain conceptions of God. The Abrahamic omnipotent, omniscient, and all-loving deity, for instance, is disproven by the many innocent people who die of physical factors like earthquakes or cancer.  (Theologians have a number of magic tricks to get out of that argument.) As the late Victor Stenger said, “The absence of evidence is evidence for absence—if the evidence should be there.”  And certainly any god worthy of its name, who wanted people to obey and worship him, would make his presence unequivocally known. The evidence should be there.

It isn’t.  Using Bayesian analysis, the priors for an Abrahamic god are low.

But forget that. This article, from the conservative site WND, tries to argue that because most people pray (even atheists, they say!), it’s evidence for God’s existence, and atheists are out of luck. Click to read:

Michael Brown uses injured football player Damar Hamlin, who is recovering (though I doubt he’ll play ball again) as an example of the ubiquity of prayer. I saw this many times on television, even with news anchors on local news who send out “thoughts and prayers”:

Around the nation, in response to the life-threatening injury to Buffalo Bills football player Damar Hamlin, people prayed. Hamlin’s teammates and coaches prayed. Millions of fans joined in prayer, tweeting their support. Even on live TV, sports commentators stopped in the middle of their broadcast to pray.

But this is only natural. During times of crisis, especially life and death crisis, people turn to God.

We know the situation is grave, we know we cannot change things ourselves, and we know that only God – an all-powerful being who cares – can turn the tide.

That’s why, at such times, people do not turn to atheism. They turn to God.

Even non-religious people pray. In fact, many agnostics and soft atheists even turn to prayer.

It continues, showing that the God they are talking about is, of course, the God of Christianity:

As expressed by Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family, “It is interesting to me as a person of faith that we tend to go to that core place [at moments of tragedy], that we start talking to God and talking about talking to God.”

He added, “I just find that rather refreshing in an affluent culture that has so much that we tend to ignore God that something like this happens and it reminds us of our own mortality, and we begin to talk about praying and talking about God. … It speaks to the yearning deep inside of us.”

But to ask again, what about Orlovsky’s sports and media colleagues? Were they also happy with him praying on live sports TV?

Yes, many of them were positive on this as well. As one headline announced, “Dan Orlovsky Praised After ‘Beautiful’ Prayer for Damar Hamlin Live on Air.”

Among those quoted in the article were ESPN presenter Ashley Brewer and Super Bowl champion Ryan Clark.

In Brewer’s words, “This is amazing, I teared up watching this in my living room today. Proud to call you my teammate & brother in Christ.”

This is what happens when, as a nation, we are drawn into a life-and-death crisis.

This is what happens when, suddenly and unexpectedly, in front of our eyes on TV, the health and well-being of a relative stranger now becomes our personal concern.

This is what happens when we realize that we need help outside of ourselves.

People pray, and prayer is welcomed rather than ridiculed.

It’s not all that welcome on this website, because, being an atheist, I think prayer is useless. If it makes you feel better, or helps you meditate, go for it. But don’t think that anybody up there is listening and will help you. For if he was and did, there wouldn’t be kids dying of cancer all the time.

Now I don’t think author Brown is trying to convince himself of anything; he’s already lost to the delusion. Nor is he trying to convince his fellow religionists, who have also drunk the Kool-Aid.  I think he’s making fun of atheists by showing that we’re trumped by the ubiquity of prayer. And that wouldn’t bother us, he thinks, unless he thought that prayer’s ubiquity was evidence for God. People wouldn’t be praying all the time if they didn’t think there was really a god to pray to! Checkmate, you heathens!:

The reality is that we always need God. It’s just that, when all is well, we often forget about Him, putting our trust in ourselves and leaving Him out of our thoughts entirely. Many of us even become hostile to faith, doing our best to keep it excluded from public life. And then a crisis wakes us up as we recognize our own frailty and remember that death could be near at any time.

May we not forget these realities as life gets back to normal and, we hope and pray, Damar Hamlin makes a full and even miraculous recovery.

And may those who ignore or even scorn the idea of God think again. Eternity is always just one step away. Then what?

If the Bible is true – which I am 100% sure it is, personally – one day we will actually give account of our lives to God.

That is a sobering thought.

The sobering thought is that people who can actually think can be so deluded that they give their lives up to a belief that is totally lacking in evidence. (Brown even has a Ph.D.!) Another sobering thought is that people like Brown think that somehow the fact that lots of people pray means that God is up there listening. A third sobering thought is that Brown has not a scintilla of evidence that the God he’s so sure we’ll meet is the God of the Bible rather than the God of the Qur’an—or any other god. As for the possibility that there are no gods, well, fuggedaboutit!

h/t: Steve

60 thoughts on “Does the ubiquity of prayer prove the existence of God?

    1. Prayer also is an act of trying to control what can’t be controlled. For some people, it alleviates helplessness. Another form of self-delusion. Though I will admit that sometimes I pray to Ceiling Cat. 🙂

      1. We often cajole or plead with inanimate objects, begging the car to start, the computer to bring up lost files, or the bowling ball to please please go just a little more to the left. I have New Age-y friends who argue that this proves we instinctively know that All Things Are Conscious. Most people, though, are fine with saying we’re trying to control what can’t be controlled.

        1. Thank you, Sarastro, oops, sorry, Sastra, you are leading me to think of my wife’s habit of swearing at her computer in a new light. I shall now consider it as a prayer to the cruel and heartless elder gods of silicon.

    2. The Argument From Ubiquity is also invoked to assert the existence of God. It’s synonymous with another assertion: “Eat Poop! A gazillion trillion flies can’t be wrong!”

  1. As seen on a T-shirt :

    “Prayer doesn’t *make* things happen, it makes things *possible* ”

    … I liked how it sidesteps a criticism by doing a shell game.

    a side note : it was in a handwritten cursive sort of font, with emphases using a sort of bolding – kitschy.

    1. So then, if one does *not* prayer for X, X is not possible?

      Or is it the case that something was possible with or without prayer?

      1. I know, it’s fascinating –

        It’s only things where the pray-er thinks it is not possible. So if they make it possible, then Jesus will guide them to success.

        For instance, understanding the T-shirt message is not possible right now. So I’ll do a little prayer before bed – then God will answer me tomorrow. Jesus will guide my prayer.

  2. On Twitter I responded to this question “Do you actually pray for people when they ask for prayer?” with “I do not.”

  3. “showing that we’re trumped by the ubiquity of prayer”

    Yes because all that medical stuff they we’re doing for Hamlin was nothing more than performance art distracting us from the fact that it was prayer that was actually healing him.

  4. I did not see the actual play on the field, but saw the aftermath. The only reaction I had was to marvel at what immediate and appropriate medical care can do for a person. That is what saved his life, not prayer, not wishes, not thoughts, just, timely, exceptional medical care. It’s the science, not the nonexistent Cosmic Thug.

    1. Is that World Net Daily? I remember chancing upon them about 15 years ago… I remember b/c they were so bonkers. Like… aggressively insane. Shame they still exist.
      D.A.
      NYC

  5. I never trust anyone who claims to be 100% certain of ANYTHING. Not that I trust anyone, anyway–I just take calculated risks–but since it’s impossible in principle to be 100% certain of anything (outside some specifically defined set of mathematical axioms and so on) such people are clearly “feeling” that they know something without actually knowing anything at all.

    1. “. . . such people are clearly “feeling” that they know something without actually knowing anything at all.”

      That’s it!

      My short list of likely reasons why people do that is, it’s easier than doing the work it would take to reach an understanding of what is actually the case, a yearning for being one of the few in the know, wishing that the world actually is as they imagine it should be. I’ve deluded myself for each of these reasons on occasion.

  6. I’d be willing to bet a significant amount that most of the people who said they were “praying for” Damar did not in fact drop to their knees (or even bow their heads) and utter a prayer to a God. What they meant by saying they were praying for him was something more like: “I sure hope he’s okay.”

    1. I suspect when people say “I’m praying for” someone, it’s largely performance art, both for themselves (people like to think well of themselves) and for other listeners. But maybe I’m just being cynical.

  7. Hamlin is alive due to the training of the medical staff on the field and the process and procedures of the NFL, the teams and the staff.

    I had a cardiac arrest in 2010 and was saved by the CPR administered by my wife who took a course 8 months before. Why did she take it? Because she had a husband with a heart condition so she used rational thought and logic, to prepare, just as the team on the field did for Hamlin.

    If the team did nothing but pray on the field, he would have died, just as I would have been if my wife sat and prayed.

    These processes are due to scientific research and advances in procedures and medications.

    Science wins, religion loses; again and again and again.

    1. I […] was saved by the CPR administered by my wife who took a course 8 months before. Why did she take it? Because she had a husband with a heart condition so she used rational thought and logic, to prepare,

      If the Gilead-worshippers ever get full power in America, you and your wife are going to be on somebody’s “little list, Of society offenders who might well be underground And who never would be missed
      “For the crime of using rationality in public, without the approved accompanying prayer … Onto the bonfire of the apostates! Execution to follow for survivors.”
      I’d never read the lyrics of The Mikado before. At some point, the “bastions of the One True Truth (today’s version)” are going “disappear” the authors of ‘And the lady from the provinces, who dresses like a guy
      And who “doesn’t think she dances, but would rather like to try”;
      And that singular anomaly, the lady novelist —
      I don’t think she’d be missed — I’m sure she’d not he missed!’

    2. See? It was the Almighty who *inspired* your wife to take that CPR class! Praise God!

      With Christians, it’s almost always, “heads I win, tails you lose.”

  8. Since Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists combined outnumber Christians, that means a majority of prayers have nothing to do with Mr. Jesus or Christianity. I wonder what Brown thinks about that.

    “If the Bible is true – which I am 100% sure it is, personally – one day we will actually give account of our lives to God.”

    Why? If God is omnipotent and sees everything, why does he need a personal report on what he already knows?

    Furthermore, if prayer can make God change his mind about deciding to kill off someone, what does that say about God? That he’s an egomaniac who will spare lives only if his ego is stroked? That’s he’s an irresolute buffoon who intervenes in natural processes when called forth like a genie? How nice of God, to revoke his precious gift of cancer in return for a bit of supplication.

    1. My take is related, but slightly different.
      This being a website where the stories and commentators are overwhelmingly American, I expected this story to be about the world as viewed from mid-Kansas (mid California, if you include Hawaii, perhaps). Brown didn’t disappoint my expectation.

      Since Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists combined outnumber Christians

      Agreed, and very relevant. But I’d also point out that Brown’s misguided belief that “People pray, and prayer is welcomed rather than ridiculed.” is a very American point of view. Almost anywhere else outside America and Muslim-fundamentalist countries, prayer isn’t done (in public), and very often is ridiculed when it happens.
      Since his proposition – that some sort of god, regardless of the details (all the monotheists must of necessity share one god, even if they have diversity of sack-cloth and sacrifices), exists would remain true in mid-Kansas as well as mid-Mongolia, then his assertions about the acceptability of prayer should also cover the area in which his asserted god exists. and the general lack of prayer outside the USA should impinge on his mind. It won’t. But it should.
      I had a morning brain-rot attack from the local JWs on my doorstep yesterday. Unfortunately the rain wasn’t heavy enough for the leaking gutter to pour upon their heads, but I gave them 10 minutes of earache to leave them in no doubt that their insults were not welcome. I’ll have to keep the eyes peeled for them on the High Street in future – they seem to be coming out of their post-COVID hiding – and make sure they feel thoroughly unwelcome. That they as a group have been observing medical advice on avoiding infection suggests that all of them are seriously (fatally) deficient in their faith. I noted that this week’s ear-benders were a couple of crinkly coffin-dodgers, whereas pre-COVID they tried putting the more nubile females on display ; I wonder if they’ve had a falling off in numbers, and really need to do some recruiting. Otherwise …. well an essential emergent feature of evolution is extinction.

      1. “Unfortunately the rain wasn’t heavy enough for the leaking gutter to pour upon their heads”

        The words of Paul in Romans come to mind: “Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head.”

        Maybe it’s better to be nice to them… 🙂

  9. Because I’ve managed (after many years) to curate my life to exclude “people of faith”, I don’t do social media, etc., I always find it slightly jarring when I hear people talk religiously in all seriousness. Like listening to a believer talk about Q-Anon or something.
    I see millions (on the little TV I watch) in St. Peter’s Square or Mecca and just think: “Really? People still believe that?”
    I didn’t grow up sheltered, I have sought it out. I can recommend it.
    🙂
    D.A.
    NYC (FL for January)

  10. If everyone on the planet prayed (even if they could agree on which one/s to beseech) it wouldn’t conjure him/her/them into existence. When everyone believed that the Earth was the centre of the solar system, our planet still orbited the Sun…

  11. On the NBC Today Show this morning, their medical correspondent, Dr. John Torres, explained that Hamlin’s recovery is not surprising, since he was in good physical condition, and proper medical care reached him within seconds. The cause of his cardiac arrest, however is not yet fully known, but seems to be the very rare commotio cordis. Thus the most unlikely (miraculous?) thing is that he was struck down, not that he is, thankfully, recovering.

    GCM

  12. People imagine all kinds of stuff. Why is a tiny subset of this called prayer? What defines prayer imaginings from others? What is the correct technique? What is an incorrect prayer? I can’t imagine the distinction.

    1. What if my invisible air quotes around God were misinterpreted? What if god thought my occasional mention of him/her/them/zir was with a capital “G”? And would that have made it a correct or incorrect prayer?

  13. Brown has now shown how dumb he and his ‘dumber’ non god are.
    Show some decorum, do a ritual, pray to nothing on a knee!
    Why not act like a human who can show compassion empathy, sympathy, sadness, to tragedy or accident… try feeling deeply not deflect it, as in some ritualised lip service, It might lead to a more rewarding life.

  14. When Alexander died, Athens turned on his teacher, Aristotle. They brought him up on charges of ‘impiety.’ His act? He said “Prayer does not work.” Normally, he would have been executed, but he must have had a good lawyer, because he lived, but was exiled from Athens.

    Although no one heard me during the broadcast of that game, when I saw the rush to prayer, I committed the same crime. I said to the television, “prayer does not work.” Wait, I think I added, in my indignation, “… for God’s sake.”

  15. “That’s why, at such times, people do not turn to atheism. They turn to God.”

    Actually …. we DID turn to atheism. What saved his life was not prayer. It was objective knowledge of objective reality, including rational action based on science. Atheistic science.

  16. Even growing up Catholic, I never understood intercessory prayer. If you believe that god has a plan then you’re asking him to change it for your needs.

    1. Such prayers could even shorten the suffering of people in purgatory. Provided you were popular enough, or could afford to pay others on your behalf.

  17. This is what happens when we realize that we need help outside of ourselves.

    The ubiquity of prayer is evidence against the existence of God. The universal impulse to look “higher up” for help is both instinctive and learned from infancy. We intuitively look to parents, or to authorities with powers, to do what we can not. Our cries are supplications. We receive food and comfort.

    The analogy between supernatural forces and our own early experience is tight and strong. With God, karma, Energy, Brahma, etc. we’re not dealing with bizarre concepts that aren’t familiar. A universal tendency during a crisis to stand on one foot while waving feathers and blinking would be hard to explain naturally. “Help me God my father?” Not a problem.

    1. Indeed. This reminds me of a brilliant quote by John C. Wathey:

      “Prayer of desperation is the adult manifestation of infantile crying.”

  18. If someone ever says “I’ll pray for you” to me, I’ll respond with “No thanks, unless you are planning on sacrificing a goat or something, I’m not interested in half measures.”

  19. I wonder what article Michael Brown would have written if Damar Hamlin had died? Like so many other ‘famous people’ who died despite all those prayers?

  20. “Our species has grown up since then”

    With all my heart I wish I could believe that.

    “Using Bayesian analysis, the priors for an Abrahamic god are low.”

    I apologize for the wordiness of my response to this valuable insight, but it seems so relevant to the evaluation of any belief system that could be potentially disproved by evidence. It played a major role in the reasoning that finally led to my own abandonment of my childhood Mormon faith. Church apologists seem to have little grasp of Bayesian reasoning. For instance they will write a paper on the belief that pre-Columbian native Americans manufactured steel in quantities sufficient to supply large armies with weapons and armor, reasoning that perhaps “steel” had reference to some kind of hardened copper found in some pre-Columbian artifacts; or another that gives a strained account of how they might have used horse-pulled wheeled chariots, based on the idea that Joseph Smith wasn’t sure how to translate “sleighs pulled by deer or tapirs”. But these teachings aren’t statistically independent; they are all interdependent in Bayesian fashion through the hypothesis that Joseph Smith was informed by divine inspiration. And so, when the probability of the inspiration hypothesis is lowered when any particular claim is discredited, the probabilities of all other teachings are also correspondingly lowered.

    Another Bayesian-type error is implicit in the belief that if there is even a glimmer of hope that each teaching might just, after all, not turn out to be false, those glimmers somehow add up to substantive support for church claims. But if the teachings are approximately independent, as the apologists treat them to be, then any reasonable approximation of their aggregate probability would not be the sum, but the product, of their individual low but non-zero probabilities, which quickly becomes vanishingly small.

    A related insight is that if the apologetics represent the best the church scholars can come up with, those with training and funding and time and tools to look under every stone for evidence, so to speak, that seems to be at least qualitative evidence (though not positive proof) that there is no such evidence to be found. Church scholars have produced a pretty hefty sample of data to consider.

    And in addition, this leads to the positive prediction that any future scientific evidence that pops up will similarly discredit church teachings, and when that happens, the confirmation of that prediction itself becomes evidence. My personal “point of no return” on my journey out of my faith was when I first heard about studies that would analyze the DNA of native Americans. When I first heard about these – sometime in the 90’s I believe, and not yet knowing any details- I realized I was already pretty sure in general outline how those studies would turn out visavis LDS claims that native Americans originated in the Middle East. I realized that day that I was looking, unwillingly (I didn’t *want* to lose my faith), at a very distinct and reliable pattern in what science was coming up with visavis church teachings. I felt very heavy of heart that day.

    Again, I apologize for the length of this comment.

  21. “But this is only natural. During times of crisis, especially life and death crisis, people turn to God.”

    Sounds like that old “no atheists in foxholes” horseshit. There are plenty, and the Xhristers will be the first ones to tell you so, whenever they’re ranting about the godless Communists.

  22. This reminds me of this bit from The Office. Michael wants to argue that there’s a god, so he says: “If not, then what are all these churches for?”

  23. “We know the situation is grave, we know we cannot change things ourselves, and we know that only God – an all-powerful being who cares – can turn the tide.”

    Thankfully, there was at least one person who didn’t believe that and started performing CPR.

  24. Believers don’t have the same rules of evidence that scientists have, obviously. And unlike scientists, they don’t put their beliefs to any tests that put them at risk. They are slippery that way. Just imagine a believer subjecting their beliefs to something like the Eddington test. Not gonna happen with prayer. They won’t put it to a falsifiable test and then accept the outcome.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eddington_experiment

  25. Its really pretty simple. It is not that everyone starts to pray in times of trouble. Rather, everyone who is prayer-full will (a) pray, and (b) post online that they are praying.
    So we hear and read about a lot of praying. But its the same old suspects who are doing it.

  26. There was a lot of talk about prayer during the telecast of the next game played by Buffalo, after the injury to Damar Hamlin. But the young sideline staffer who performed CPR & restored
    the player’s heartbeat on the field was also praised by name: Denny Kellington. Several fans in the stands had pictures of him with the label ‘hero’ which they displayed for the network cameras. So there’s that.

  27. Ubiquity of prayer in Theocracies and wanabe theocracies but such a thing would not happen in Australia. No one here says ‘thoughts and prayers’.

  28. “At such times, people don’t turn to atheism”. Well no, of course they don’t. Atheism is a lack of belief in any gods so it’s not something to turn to in that way. But what we do turn to is medical interventions that are based on practical experience, science and reason. I’m pretty sure that if we were offered either modern medical care or millions of people praying for us when suffering from a potentially fatal health crisis, vanishingly few of us would opt for prayer (and those who did opt for prayer would have a much lower survival rate).

    1. Yes, you just have to change one word to see how broken their thought process is:
      “At such times, people don’t turn to not believing in unicorns”.

    2. Atheists know better than to ask a non-existent entity for help. We know that any relief must come from human action. The proper criticism here is: at such times, religious people turn to a delusion.

  29. Thoughts might help because they lead to worries which might produce action. But the idea with prayers is that a third party will take care of things, and since there is no third party nothing gets done.

  30. In response to the subheading – “At times of crisis in our culture, ‘prayer is welcomed rather than ridiculed’ ” –

    Well, yeah. Most of us atheists have the decency to focus on the actual crisis instead of ridiculing the people engaging in silly prayers. I was watching one game when Troy Aikman said something positive about all the prayers to Damar Hamlin, and I remember thinking to myself that it was a bit embarrassing for Aikman to be saying something like that. But was I going to be the asshole to say that out loud to a whole room of people? Like, it’s a good thing Hamlin was famous or else he might not have gotten enough prayers to convince God to help him.

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