Take It to the Lord in Prayer: More Magical Thinking

“Tonight is the night that Mary passes through your house…”

Six years ago I published an article here about a sure-fire way for

devout believers to prove, beyond a shadow of doubt, that prayer is an authentic way of communicating with god. That YES, god uses prayer as a way to let humans know his will on a wide variety of issues. I suggested recruiting 1,000—or 10,000—believers known for their intense prayer activity for a special project. But there’s a very crucial rule for the selection of these prayer experts: they must be drawn from the many different branches of theism, e.g., Catholics, Protestants—so many different kinds, including Pentecostals—Jews, Muslims, Mormons, Greek Orthodox
After a few weeks of intense prayer activity, these folks across the broad spectrum of theism would share what god had told them about such things as:
·      Is the New Testament the most authentic Word of God? 
·      Is the Book of Mormon yet another authentic Word of God? 
·      Did evolution happen? 
·      Is homosexuality a sin? 
·      How do the thousands of genetic diseases fit into the divine plan? 
·      Is transubstantiation a thing? 
·      Would be it be okay for a woman to be a pope?  
If these diverse prayer warriors are indeed getting their information straight from god, there would be 100 percent agreement on the answers. If not, then we can be sure that their diverse theologies have garbled/distorted what they’ve supposedly heard from god. Actually, we can be sure that prayer is a form of delusion: a splendid way of fooling oneself. The prayer warriors, sad to say, may be sincere, but they fail the honesty test
One very specific example: there are Catholic women who—based on their prayer experiences—feel the calling to be priests. But the male church hierarchy, entrenched in misogyny—including Pope Francis—have declared that it will never happen: they’re sure these women have it wrong. In other words, the male Catholics deny the authenticity of the “word of God” that these female Catholics have received through their prayers. Wow, isn’t that a dangerous thing to do? How dare they?  
I’ve been thinking about prayer quite a bit in recent days, because my editor/publisher Tim Sledge (Insighting Growth Publications) and I are collaborating on Volume Two in the new series of books based on my 2016 book, Ten Thought Problems in Christian Thought and Belief. Volume Two will be a careful analysis of what Christians claim prayer accomplishes. 
What’s going on with prayer? Whether it’s ordinary laity, or super devout prayer experts, they close their eyes, think intensively about the god they believe in, shut out—as much as they can—the world around them. In this place of inner peace and calm, they’re sure they’ve opened a channel of communication to their god. 
There is a biblical basis for this assumption—which is both good news and bad news. In Matthew 12:36-37 we read, “I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” Presumably this includes words you don’t say out loud, but you’re thinking them. The apostle Paul was sure this was the case, claiming that, on the day of judgement, “God through Christ Jesus judges the secret thoughts of all” (Romans 12;16). So, the good news (presumably) is that god is paying very close attention to what’s going on inside each human head. 
But the bad news is that this idea of god is based on the naïve view of the cosmos that prevailed in the ancient world: Yahweh-god—and all others—hovered not far overhead. Holy people could get close to god(s) by going to mountaintops, as Moses did when his god gave him the ten commandments. Jesus went up a mountain to meet with Moses and Elijah, and to hear god’s voice coming from a cloud. Years ago, at a funeral, I heard a woman say of her deceased sister, “She’s up there already, pushing the clouds around.” It would seem so many contemporary believers are pleased with the idea that their god is up there somewhere—or as he is commonly called, The Man Upstairs. 
It was exactly 100 years ago that Edwin Hubble pushed humanity to the realization that the ancient view of the cosmos is totally inadequate. He proved that the cosmos is vastly more immense than was previously thought. We now know there are hundreds of billions of galaxies. Indeed, our solar system is one of hundreds of billions in our galaxy alone. It’s pretty hard to argue that our planet is not lost in space—and the human species with it. If there was indeed a creator deity that ignited the universe billions of years ago, it has countless billions of galaxies under management. 
Yet devout believers go one step further—based on their ancient cosmology—and argue that this deity knows what’s going on inside eight billion human heads. That’s what makes prayer possible. But feeling it in their hearts fails to convince us. We need reliable, verifiable, objective evidence that prayer connects human believers to the force that runs the cosmos. 
Moreover, we would need a detailed explanation of the mechanism that enables this to happen. Just exactly how do thoughts and prayers bouncing around inside our heads escape our skulls to reach god? Increasingly, theologians—painfully aware that their god remains undetectable by all the techniques developed by science—argue that their god is “outside space and time.” So, if human thoughts and prayers manage to break the barrier of our skulls, how do they reach a deity who isn’t just a few miles overhead, but has relocated beyond space and time?   
To assume that, by closing your eyes and thinking intensely and piously, you can be in touch with the power/force that runs a cosmos—and moreover, that this force loves and cares about you—is yet another example of magical thinking. I pointed out in my article here last week that Christianity is addicted to magical thinking. It’s no wonder since (1) the Jesus stories in the gospels overflow with magical thinking, and (2) the church has always encouraged magical thinking, and instills the practice in young minds. Many of the faithful never outgrow it.    
A few days ago I spotted this on my Facebook timeline: 
“Tonight is the night that Mary passes through your house. This is a Novena for those who believe in the power of Prayer: Hail Mary full of grace! The Lord is with thee, blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus!! Holy Mary Mother of God pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death amen! Make your special request please. Don't break the Novena, just copy and paste on your timeline. Praying today for anyone struggling in any way, battling illness, in mourning, fighting fear, anxieties of the future. We all need the power of prayers. In The Name of The Father The Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
The exaggeration of Mary in Catholic piety has resulted in the belief—again, magical thinking—that she has made many thousands of personal appearances around the world. She hovers in the spiritual realm until it’s time to show up here and there. But this prayer posted on Facebook is a special example of magical thinking: “Tonight is the night that Mary passes through your house.” So, without a séance or Ouija board, Mary arrives in millions of Catholic homes? How in the world does the Catholic church get folks to believe this really happens? Of course, it is helped along by the lack of scientific education.  
The world would be a much better place if Mary showed up in church, or wherever priests hang out. Also, six years ago I published an article here titled, Where Is the Virgin Mary When You Really Need Her?  There I wrote: 
I suggest that she should apply for a job upgrade…is there any way we can petition the Holy Mother to take her role as Queen of Heaven more seriously? THIS is where she really needs to show up: every

time a priest is about to rape a child, Mary should pop up in the room, scowling like the most severe nun ever. There could be variations on her message, ‘You will rot in hell,’ ‘Put it back in your pants,’ ‘Don’t even think about it,’ ‘Not even my son can save you if you do this.’”
There’s been a meme floating around on Facebook: “God is the name given to the cold, dead silence that answers the prayer of the child being molested by a priest.” 
Here’s the dilemma, off course. Even the most devout Christians have had the experience of unanswered prayers—prayers that just don’t work. My Facebook friend who was so sure that Mary would “pass through your house” asked for prayers for those “battling illness, in mourning, fighting fear, anxieties of the future.” Millions of people go through all of these ordeals—and die of their illnesses, are crushed by grief, and find no relief for their fears and anxieties. So how to face the reality that prayers fail to get the job done? 
Clergy and theologians have come up with additional layers of magical thinking, all of which are speculation, wishful thinking, shallow bullshit: god works in mysterious ways, or has grander plans we just don’t understand. Very few of the laity are bold enough to ask for evidence: How do you know this
Defenders of prayer and the power of faith also resort to blaming even devout folks for not having enough faith: that’s why your prayers don’t work. We find a bundle of magical thinking in Matthew 17. The disciples had been unable to heal an epileptic boy, and Jesus was really annoyed. 
 You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him here to me. And Jesus rebuked the demon and it came out of him, and the boy was cured from that moment. Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, ‘Why could we not cast it out?’  He said to them, ‘Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you’” (vv. 17-20).
Curing epilepsy by casting out a demon is delusional—i.e., absurd magical thinking prevalent at the time, and the promise that sturdy, unshakable faith guarantees prayer success is also delusional. Always bear in mind that this story is a part of Jesus-cult propaganda, which stressed the importance of total devotion to the cult, as stated in Mark 12:30: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” Even among the very devout, there are few who meet this high, all-all-all-all standard. Hence the clergy can get away with blaming prayer failure on the weakness of the worshippers who try it. 
Anything to exonerate god when prayers don’t work. But this problem disappears when folks snap out of it: When they realize that magical thinking is the basic problem.
David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. He is the author of two books, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, now being reissued in several volumes, the first of which is Guessing About God (2023) and Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn’t Taught: And Other Reasons to Question His Words (2021). The Spanish translation of this book is also now available. 
His YouTube channel is here. At the invitation of John Loftus, he has written for the Debunking Christianity Blog since 2016.
The Cure-for-Christianity Library©, now with more than 500 titles, is here. A brief video explanation of the Library is here