How to Keep the Cosmos Friendly

“Take it to the Lord in prayer”

Francis Collins, who headed the Human Genome Project, is a respected scientist who has taken a stand for God. Not just a Creator God, but one who wants intimate relations with humans. He wrote this in his 2007 book, The Language of God:  


“If God exists, and seeks to have fellowship with sentient beings like ourselves, and can handle the challenge of interacting with 6 billion of us currently on this planet and countless others who have gone before us, it is not clear why it would be beyond His abilities to interact with similar creatures on a few other planets or, for that matter, a few million other planets.”  (p. 71)


This sentimental view of God is out of sync with the primary thrust of New Testament theology, namely, that God’s wrath will reduce most of humanity to cinders: “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!  Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” (Jesus script, Luke 12:49-52) And at the end times, “… there will be great suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be.” (Also Jesus, Matthew 24:21) Nor does Collins explain why most humans—now 7 billion of us—would want to interact with a god that is foreign to their own religions. 


It’s a tough assignment, of course, to demonstrate that a Creator God exists—there are no hard data to back that up—and no amount of faith can make it so. But it’s a stunning presumption that such a deity created humans to “have fellowship” with us, a species of mammals thriving in the thin biosphere of one planet among trillions. And this deity wants to interact with each one of us? Human history appears to falsify this idea: how did those millions who perished in concentration camps “have fellowship” with their creator? How did they experience his “interaction” with them? It would seem that Francis Collins has read enough Christian theology to mimic routine theobabble. 


A common assumption among devout humans has been that prayer is the primary means of interaction: our most fervent thoughts, accompanied by appropriate posture and rituals, reach the divine mind: and God is paying close attention. 


There was another scientist, also named Francis, who suspected such interaction was bogus, as Valerie Tarico points out in her essay, “If Prayer Fails, Why Do People Keep at It?” in John Loftus’ anthology, Christianity in the Light of Science: Critically Examining the World’s Largest Religion. Valerie Tarico’s blog is here.


“Sir Francis Galton, statistician and founding father of modern psychometrics, published his first prayer study in 1872. Galton pointed out that royal sovereigns are the most prayed-for of any public figures. God Save the Queen. But when he compared the longevity of kings and queens to eleven other groups of privileged people, he found that ‘the sovereigns are literally the shortest-lived of all who have the advantage of affluence. The prayer therefore has no efficacy.’” (p. 323)

We can be quite sure than many Christians have realized that their prayers don’t work, far too much of the time. Even the use of prayer marathons—hundreds of people enlisted to plead with God—would suggest that he isn’t easily persuaded. 


Tarico wonders what’s driving it all:


“Given prayer’s lack of efficacy and religion’s causal role in mass violence, offering or requesting prayer in response to a natural disaster or terrorist assault may seem particularly cynical or cruel. But these requests and offers often are made sincerely—by smart, kindhearted people who seemingly should know better. What is going on? Why do intelligent, compassionate adults—folks who would laugh if you suggested they carry a lucky rabbit’s foot or cross the street to avoid a black cat—still pray?”  (p. 314)


Because it’s tradition and habit, as Tarico points out:


“…prayer is as much a part of humanity’s past and present as virtually any other enterprise you could name, short of eating, sleeping, and sex. It was part of the everyday life of our Bronze Age ancestors, and it is part of everyday life for many of your Information Age neighbors. In the 2008 report of the General Survey Society, a national survey spanning thirty-four years from 1972 to 2006, 97 percent of Americans said they prayed at least on occasion, and 57 percent indicted they pray daily.” (p. 315)


This is why it is important to study this phenomenon: 


“I would argue that prayer is so endemic to our species that it’s impossible to understand humanity fully without making some attempt to understand the behaviors we call prayer…If we assume there’s nobody on the receiving end, then prayer is in some ways like an ink blot test. It’s us projecting ourselves into the universe. It offers insight into our deepest fears and highest hopes and most transparent self-absorption and silliest gullibilities.” (p. 315)


Projecting ourselves into the universe. Humans prefer the Cosmos to be friendly, managed by a creator who cares. A hymn from the Victorian era (lyrics by Joseph Scriven, 1855) captures this yearning—and the confidence that it is so: 


What a friend we have in Jesus
All our sins and grieves to bear
What a privilege it is to carry
Everything to God in prayer

Have we trials and temptations
Is there trouble anywhere
Our precious Savior
He is still our refuge
Take it to the Lord in prayer


But does this quite capture what prayer is about, any more than “fellowship” does, despite Francis Collins’ use of the word? Traditionally, prayer has been manipulation. Tarico notes that we encounter a wide variety of prayer formulas in the Bible:


“…most, at some level, teach believers how to communicate with God for the purpose of avoiding his wrath and cultivating his favor so the believer can avoid natural and unnatural disasters and instead receive blessings, including health, wealth, joy, love, and eternal bliss.” (p. 320)


It’s no wonder, moreover, that the devout stick with prayer, given the extravagant promises about it found in the New Testament; Tarico cites several of these, e.g., 


·       “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 18:19)


·       “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” Matthew 21:22


·       “Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord.  And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” (James 5:14-16)


Even the most devout Christians know these claims are false; Tarico is blunt:


“There is no indication that something as acutely and personally important as healing for a child dying of cancer or protection against rape and stabbing or the salvation of a loved one—or something as magnanimous and beneficent as food for the starving or world peace—might be outside the scope of these promises.” (p. 322, emphasis added)


Tarico points out that many researchers since Francis Galton have analyzed the impact of prayer. She notes that the Templeton Foundation spent $2.4 million on the STEP Study (Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer, 2006), and had to admit there were none. Another extensive study, “Intercessory Prayer for the Alleviation of Ill Health” (2009), did no better: “The studies included 7,646 patients. Overall, they found no clear effect of prayer on either general clinical state or death.” (p. 325)


Christian apologists have been rattled by these findings; Tarico quotes Richard Swinburne’s attempt to show that God is paying attention:


“Although of course a good God regrets our suffering, his greatest concern is surely that each one of us shall show patience, sympathy, and generosity, and thereby form a holy character. Some people badly NEED to be ill for their own sake; and some people badly need to be ill in order to provide important choices for others.” (p. 326)


Say what? This is presumptive, arrogant theology—how in the world can Swinburne know what “God regrets”?—and Tarico calls it correctly:


“In a form of special pleading that should be embarrassing, apologists like these argue that prayer, uniquely, has an effect on the natural world that is at once enormous, important, and unmeasurable. God heals people, but only if we aren’t watching and measuring.” (p. 326)


Tarico offers a devastating critique of petitionary prayer, including this:


“Petitionary prayer undermines dignity. Singing the praises of a powerful person who requires underlings to ask for favors, even though he already knows what they need, and who grants or denies these requests in some inscrutable pattern is not love. It is groveling on the part of the subordinate and abuse on the part of the master.” (p. 331)


Tarico’s essay is a masterful critique of prayer, and she has been fair in her assessment:


“…we may find that some forms of prayer are fundamentally archaic or superstitious but that others can be adapted for purposes very like those that motivate prayer on the part of believers: values clarification, centering, and even listening to the quiet internal voice that we now recognize as our own. The secular value of prayer depends on large part on the intent.” (p. 317)


She quotes theologian J. Harold Ellens, who suggests that some prayers can “reflexively benefit us psychologically and physiologically.” And this, Tarico suggests, “…is perfectly compatible with superstition-free living, and in fact is highly desirable.” (p. 317)


But so much prayer is petitionary, trying to get God to alter outcomes for our benefit, e.g., prayer marathons for cancer patients. The faithful are commonly unshaken by negative results, however. The death of the patient can’t mean that prayer doesn’t work. No: God works in mysterious ways, or God wanted our loved one in heaven. This is a failure to think clearly, brains derailed by faith bias. “Any religion where God is praised and gets all the credit for the good things in life but isn’t held responsible for the bad things is like a game where I win if the coin is heads and you lose if the coin is tails.” (D.B. Ramsey, Speaking of God: We Don’t Know Sh*t)


Or, as Tarico sums it up: “Humanity’s prayer habit persists because people believe, thanks to faulty reasoning and sloppy evidence, that they can and do perceive patterns in which prayer affects this physical world and their own lives.” (p. 327)


David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published by Tellectual Press in 2016. It was reissued in 2018 with a new Foreword by John Loftus.


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