Where’s My Stuff?

Since undertaking the task of responding to godisimaginary.com‘s 50+ proofs for believing God does not exist, I see a common theme.  There is an emphasis on prayers not being answered by God.  This complaint is present in at least 3 of the first 10 “proofs”.  The complaint posits that prayers are never answered, or if they are answered (yes, I noticed it too), it is by sheer coincidence and not God who has answered them.  I wonder, for those who do not believe God answers prayer, in what manner are they expecting prayers to be answered?  Could God have a good reason for not answering prayers, even prayers which seem reasonable and worthy?

It seems to me the atheist expects every prayer to be answered, in a magical way, God could not use any natural means to bring about an effect, anything less is a failure on God’s part.  What is usually offered as definitive proof is making a petition to God for something extravagant like millions of dollars, or something worthy, like restoration of missing limbs.  When the prayer is not answered the atheist cries foul.  They believe God would never have a valid reason to which we are not privy for not granting the request.  Every prayer not answered is seen as a liability on God’s part, and every reason offered as to why, is labeled an excuse.  This reminds me of the song by Garth Brooks “Unanswered Prayer”:

Just the other night at a hometown football game
My wife and I ran into my old high school flame
And as I introduced them the past came back to me
And I couldn’t help but think of the way things used to be

She was the one that I’d wanted for all times
And each night I’d spend prayin’ that God would make her mine
And if he’d only grant me this wish I wished back then
I’d never ask for anything again

Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers
Remember when you’re talkin’ to the man upstairs
That just because he doesn’t answer doesn’t mean he don’t care
Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers

She wasn’t quite the angel that I remembered in my dreams
And I could tell that time had changed me
In her eyes too it seemed
We tried to talk about the old days
There wasn’t much we could recall
I guess the Lord knows what he’s doin’ after all

And as she walked away and I looked at my wife
And then and there I thanked the good Lord
For the gifts in my life

Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers
Remember when you’re talkin’ to the man upstairs
That just because he may not answer doesn’t mean he don’t care
Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers

We are simply not in a position to know if there is a valid reason for our prayers to go unanswered.  There may be unintended consequences involved with the answering of the request.  Anyone with children knows giving into every request your child makes would actually harm your child.  From the food they desire, to poor hygiene: not wanting to bathe regularly or brush their teeth.  Things babies would like to play with which could be dangerous, etc., the list goes on.  Our frivolous requests are similar, money for example, can do terrible things to people.  There are reasons we do not give Junior everything his heart desires, which the good reasons for he is unaware, and likewise having every petition to God realized could do more damage than good, we are simply not in a position to know.

I wonder if the atheist has taken into consideration the logic of the complaint.  1) Ask God for a thing.  2) If I do not get my thing God does not exist.  3) If I do get my thing it is coincidence, not God. 4) Therefore God does not exist.  They have defined God out of the hypothesis.  Any positive or negative effect is evidence God does not exist.  They have set up a rigged game.

Finally, what about contradictory prayers?  For example, if there is one job opening and two people pray to get the job how does this scenario play into the atheists view?  We cannot both get the job.  Likewise, what if I pray to get one million dollars, but a jealous friend prays that I do not get the money, what is to be made of this?  What is God to do?  Their assumption is that if God exists, and His job is to grant wishes, what happens when two people wish against each other?

I just do not think this objection has been thought through.  God is not a wishing machine, or our personal genie.  Arguing against a caricature of Christianity does nothing to defeat Christianity.


  1. It seems you’ve missed the point here; it’s not that atheists (me being one) think all prayers should be answered, (see Bruce Almighty), but that prayers have no measurable effect on the way events turn out.

    Prayer has the advantage as a belief to be testable by scientific means, and a fairly simple experiment can be devised to test it (indeed it has been done). It goes like this, get two groups of patients of a large enough size and have one prayed for, neither doctors nor patients know who is being prayed for (a double blind trial) and you measure the success rates of treatment in both groups.

    This is a fair trial and in every instance has shown no correlation between prayer and better results for patients, this is why prayer is a problem for atheists, not because just some prayers aren’t answered, but that it seems that things turn out the same prayer or not, it seems unfair to call any event an ‘answered prayer’ when it was fairly likely to have happened anyway. And any individual examples of unlikely prayers that have been answered are moot given the vast amount of unanswered unlikely prayers.

    • Unfortunately, no, prayer does not lend itself to scientific or focus group testing. For one thing, God (assuming God exists for sake of argument) is an agent not a physical mechanical process, such as boiling water. Sterile water, heated to 212 degrees farenheit at sea level causes the water to boil, it has no choice, thats the physics of it. Prayer does not work in this manner because God, not only is under no obligation to answer prayer, may withhold positive answering prayer for any number of reasons.

      Now we must figure out which God exists, not all concepts of God are equal. Deism for example does not posit a God who interacts with the world, so even though God exists in this scenario, prayer would not be actualized due to the non-interactive nature of a deistic God and the non-answer does not prove or disprove God’s existence.

      But for the sake of this argument, since it is usually the God of the Old and New testaments which is under consideration, we will asume it is this God we are praying to. The bible teaches in James 4:2 we are told prayers are not answered because of bad motives. As well, in the OT we repeatedly read (I’ll give the references if you need them) to not put God to the test. While you, or another atheist may consider that a cop out, it no less is true (if it is this God who exists). God does not have to answer prayers just to prove His existence.

      Next, I do not tend to trot out the “not true Christians” card. However, again, for the sake of this particular argument, if God is the God of the bible, then He may very well not answer the prayers of people who are not true believers, either on the part of the infirm, or of those offering prayer.

      Lastly, we are simply not in a position to know which prayers “ought” to be answered. Even if the prayers seem worthy to us, there could be unintended consequences we are not aware. Just setting up a focus group would not necessarily compel God to show Himself to people just putting him to the test.

      I am not compelled to believe the examples of focus group testing is a valid way to test the efficacy of prayer, positive or negative, given the variations involved and hidden incumberances. However I do not think unanswered prayer is evidence of God not existing especially because God is an agent and acts according to His will and not under compulsion due to reaction of events, like the boiling water.

      • It’s fairly easy just to define god out of scientific inquiry if it doesn’t give the right results but I assume by this that you mean prayer in this case hasn’t been answered because it’s part of a scientific study, e.g. god doesn’t deign to answer the prayers because they’re intention isn’t entirely sincere or some other reason. Should this necessarily be the case (i.e on what evidence do you base the assumption that this is how god works)? Isn’t this special pleading? Would you say otherwise had the study been successful?

        These questions are beside the point anyway, the real question I would like to ask then is how are we supposed to determine that prayer even has an effect? Couldn’t answered prayers be more simply explained as mere coincidence? As a final point wouldn’t you expect god to answer more of the ‘important’ prayers and less of the ‘trivial’ ones?

        • Well, on your first point I merely offer this as a possible reason for the unanswering of prayer, that if we pray in order to motivate God to “show Himself” to us in some manner, that it is a reasonable conclusion that the prayers are not answered. I realize the following analogy is not complete and paints God as a stubborn brat, but its like if you storm into your boss’s office and start demanding certain privileges or benefits, he may respond “who are you to demand anything of me?”, even if the demand was something reasonable, such as a day off for a wedding or to see off a loved one who will be gone for a long time. James 4:2&3 explain there are things we do not have because we do not ask for them, and likewise there are things we ask for which we do not have because we ask with wrong motives. Deuteronomy 6:16 says there are consequences to putting God to the test, Matthew 4:6-7 Jesus reiterates this same warning. So there is a biblical reason for believing prayers may not be answered for this reason. I also would offer that some prayers are not answered for our own good, as I mention in the article, that not everything we may think is a benefit is actually a benefit.

          I don’t really know how we determine in a “scientific” manner how effective prayers are. Again prayer to an immaterial God is beyond the scope of what science can account for anyway. I personally do not feel the need for empirical evidence for answered prayer. Unfortunately you and I form different conclusions based on identical evidence, so I am not really sure where to go from there. I am certainly in agreement with you that some prayers may be just coincidence. But then the theological discussion of divine sovereignty and ordination come into the mix. I am not a determinist, and my views on those two issues would side with the conclusion that some things are coincidence, then again God could have intervened to prevent or allow any particular thing. I suppose I would have that expectation, sure, but then again I am not in control, since I do not have the same insight God would, I am not necessarily in the position to expect any particular thing. And since I do not have an omniscient knowledge, my perspective on what is important truly, or important in my opinion is skewed. So it is hard to say what is rightfully expected and what is selfishly expected. But I would expect trivial prayers to be ignored just based upon the selfishness of the request.

          I appreciate your cordiality by the way.

          • I’d like to clarify that I personally don’t think prayer is any good as an argument against god (after all, ‘god’ as a concept doesn’t necessarily have to include prayer, even though in the Christian sense it might), but I hope you can see why it’s not a very convincing argument for god either. I suppose as somebody looking from outside religion I’d expect more from a god when answering prayer was one of his ‘major’ characteristics, because as it is I can understand the way things happen in the world fairly well without invoking prayer as an explanation i.e. I’d expect the consequences of prayer to be a little more obvious.

            Going again back to the original article and my original point, it’s not as the article posits that atheist think every prayer should be answered, it’s that we (I use this term loosely as I can’t claim to speak for everyone of my religious persuasion) think prayers should produce some measurable effect. As counter to a couple of the arguments posed in the article, is it verifiable that no ‘answered prayers’ (or in my definition events that occurred and somebody also happened to prayer for) have led to unwanted consequences (these I admit may be the coincidences you agreed may happen i.e. god didn’t answer them specifically), or that unanswered prayers could have had generally beneficial results. To expand on what I mean by the last point, it may not always be the case but isn’t it generally good if someone survives cancer, so if someone prays for their relative or friend to be cured wouldn’t you generally expect that to happen (not all the time of course, god wouldn’t want to inadvertently save a prospective serial killer or something a little less extreme). Or in other words lots of people have been prayed for and died of cancer, now by your reasoning, as I understand it, god probably let each die for a good reason. For someone without the belief (as you may or may not hold) that this should be the case it is very difficult to accept that it is (perhaps this has some relationship to the just world fallacy).

            And also thanks for the answers; it’s always nice to get some idea of how the ‘other side’ thinks, I hope I’m not boring you with these comments.

            • I’ll tell you, it would have never crossed my mind to use “answered prayer” as an evidence for the existence of God. The idea carries with it too many complications, such as the discussion we are having, as well as objections like GII offers. So, I don’t think you are implying my response to GII is a positive argument for the existence of God, but I’d like to just be clear, I was simply removing the objection: “God never answers prayers” from play.

              I realize GII does not explicitly claim “every prayer should be answered”, but I believe it is implied when the argument is basically prayers are never answered. Also I would like you to consider that answered prayers have indeed lead to unwanted and measurably negative consequences. For example, I am certain there are thousands of people who pray to win the lottery. They may pray earlier in the day right after buying the tickets. The likely pray sitting in front of the TV as the numbers are being drawn, perhaps with each number. Have you ever read stories of the destruction which does befall some lottery winners? Divorce, threats of kidnapping, homes broken into etc. It does happen. Lastly on this particular point, the ultimate purpose of man (according to the bible and most Christians) is to acknowledge and glorify God. Anything which detracts from this is not a good. So the most difficult part of this type of discussion is being able to seperate what is truly good from what is truly bad. What make it so difficult is our conflicting worldviews. Something you may consider a good, I may not necessarily agree, likewise with bad. For example, say someone prays to God for a cure for a terminal illness and the prayer is answered. After which eventually after gaing fame, which one surely would having been miraculously relieved from stage 5 cancer, or full blown AIDS, this person is overwhelmed by fame and fortune, and eventually not so much abandons faith, but ignores it. This could potentially comprimise salvation (assuming for sake of argument my view is correct). However this person gives to charities, helps the poor andd homeless. This is something you would likely consider a good (not knowing they had lost salvation). I would consider it a bad thing in the grand scheme of things for someone to lose their salvation. Do you know what I mean?

              I am fully willing to admit it is difficult to understand how in some way depriving a cure for a disease could be good. But I can also be sure I am not privy to the mind of God and do not have the same perspective He does. I’m just not in a position to know why. I appreciate the dialogue, comment anytime.

            • Tom, it just so happens I came across this blog post discussing exactly what we are today. It is worth the read and articulates and examines the liabilities of the test.

  2. I prayed that we get rain monday. I prayed the prayer friday, saturday and sunday. I prayed that it rain monday because, we hunt on saturday, and have church sunday. Well it rains Monday. My prayer is answered? Idc how it happened, it rains just like I pray. Idc what you think, but God answered my prayer. Only He can make it rain. It doesn’t matter how it happened it just did. My word some people just don’t get it. Your Post, was awesome!

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