Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Superstition and Prayer

As an educated Christian I was always somewhat proud that I wasn't superstitious. I thought it was silly to avoid the number 13, fear seeing black cats, or read the astrology section of the newspaper. Of course I didn't think any of my own beliefs were superstitious, like my belief in prayer. But was I right? Is belief in prayer superstitious?

The following, I think, is the essence of a superstition: one discovers or hears from others of a pattern (perhaps from a single event like something bad happened after someone saw a black cat), then one extrapolates it (bad things are likely to happen after seeing black cats); any occurrences that support this reinforce the belief, but any counter examples or contrary evidence is discounted. The last point is key to what makes it superstitious or irrational; the believer wants to believe, will find some positive examples and will ignore any negative examples. And humans are very good and finding patterns in a chaotic world, but are not good at determining which are statistically significant. And so many of us are superstitious.

In general it is not possible to logically disprove most superstitions; at most one could say there is no reason or evidence to believe them (not meaning that bad things never happen after seeing black cats, but that statistically bad things don't happen more or less often after seeing them). That is unconvincing to the superstitious who will doggedly point to some positive examples that prove the superstition to him. Since negative examples don't rule out his belief conclusively, he ignores them.

Superstition sounds very silly, but what about belief in prayer? Why do people believe in prayer? In part because they have been taught it by people they respect and heard of fabulous "answers to prayer". Also people are sure to point to examples when they prayed for something and miraculously the prayer was answered. But are these answers to prayer statistically significant; namely does prayer actually make a difference in the likelihood of positive or "miraculous" things happening? That is a hard question to answer, especially from anecdotal evidence which invariably reports the positive and leaves out the negative examples. The best study on this, a multi-year, double-blind, prayer-for-healing test funded by the Templeton Foundation obtained statistical evidence on this and concluded that prayer did not make a difference. But for the believer that is irrelevant. He will point to positive examples of answered prayers. When asked about prayers that weren't answered he will say either: I continue to ask for it, or else God answered "No". So in his mind there is no space for negative evidence. And this is exactly the same as a superstition.

So my conclusion is that belief in prayer that allows no mechanism for being shown false is just like the multitude of superstitions that beset mankind. Let me ask the reader: if you believe in prayer, what possible evidence would you accept that could disprove it?


  1. Hi Daniel,
    I believe in prayer as I believe in speech. Who you pray to, as who you speak to, are the main thing. I have, in the past, gone through times of not feeling like there was anyone listening to my prayers, which made me not believe in prayer. Now, however, I know the one I pray to. It's not because he drops down blessings like candy from heaven's window when I ask for it that I believe in prayer. It's because I know him and am known by him. I talk to him, and he listens, and he talks back.
    Superstition? If you don't know him, then that's probably a reasonable conclusion. How could you assume anything else?
    But I am not convinced.

  2. Jennypo,

    The question is: how would your experience be any different if God didn't exist or weren't listening to your prayers? I expect you would find nothing different; you would get the same comfort from just believing God is listening.

    And when you say talks back, I presume that is a very subjective experience, meaning you try to discern what he is saying by doing things like interpreting bible passages or your feelings during your prayer. But imagine a relationship with someone on earth with such poor communicative powers; you were always trying to discern what he/she was saying by signs and inferences. One would give that up pretty quickly I think. Surely if he existed and was interested in humans God could do better than that.

    But back to my initial question: how would your experience differ if God weren't listening or didn't exist?


  3. Daniel,
    Yes, when I first began to pray, I prayed to a God I didn't really know, and the "subjective experience" you describe was often mine. That's why I doubted it. Now it's completely different. I am not praying to someone I believe in and hope exists - I am praying to someone I know, who talks back. Yes, I mean he talks back. Sometimes in words. His communicative powers are far better than anyone that I have a relationship with on earth, because he is able to give real knowledge and understanding that I did not have before.
    I don't blame you for assuming that my experience has been the same as yours. I applaud your "giving up" of such unsatisfactory communication. I also agree with you that there probably wasn't any communication happening at all. But just because the Gods we prayed to weren't talking back, is it really logical to conclude that there is no God that can or does?

  4. Hello Everyone. I don't even know how I got to this page. I thank you Jenny for posting your thoughts.

    There is nothing in the bible that equates prayer with superstition. I'd say superstition is the opposite of faith. OPPOSITE.

    You have to have faith in order to pray. Faith is believing what you can't see. Prayer is operative by faith. If you can see ain't faith.

    If the bible says something is so. IT IS. If it says it isn't so, it isn't.

    As people of faith, we can't accept less.

    Superstition is all about FEAR. FEAR IS THE OPPOSITE OF FAITH.

    PRAYER is COMMUNING with God. There's nothing FEARFUL ABOUT THAT. Nope. Can't see it. I have to reject that. However, I realize that you're searching for the facts and I respect your searching.

    I just want to be supportive of Daniel and state the truth. Maybe even I can make it clearer. As a born again believer and prayer intercessor, I had to learn to do things other people that aren't prayer people would not consider. I had to learn to get before God.

    Not seeing God wasn't a problem because I didn't see Him my whole life but I had been talking to Him since the age of ten. So having a relationship with God wasn't hard.

    I pray from 2 to usually 6 hours a day. I GET RESULTS. GOD HAS CHANGED MY LIFE. If He says go help people, I do. If He says I'm tired of you hitchiking, go get a new car I do. (I did) If He says you'll be healed of cancer. I will.

    You can't do that if you aren't getting something back. Prayer isn't you pray and that's it. Prayer is one on one with God. He talks you listen. You talk He listens, a back and forth like any relationship. The only way "superstition" could even remotely come into play as an analogy might be if there is a belief that God might not be real. I had a man I ministered to who tried to talk to God in prayer and said, Elaine, I got nothing from it.

    I said Well Robert are you ready to accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior? His reply was I am not going that far and I said, I don't suspect you will hear anything. Another friend who had some past dealings in witchcraft said when she prayed, she heard horrible screams and noises.

    So, I have to agree with Daniel. If you want to move beyond superstitious analogies, you're going to have to take a closer walk. Now maybe you've been hurt in the past. A lot of people who have silently blame God for what has happened. I don't know your background but Satan is the god of this world. His job is to steal, kill, destroy. As you can see, he's doing a good job, but Jesus said: I have come that you might have life and have it more abundantly. God loves you and God is love. My prayer for you is that He will send a laborer to cross your path and minister to you to clear up any confusion.

    I guess I could say oh so much more, but I've run out of time. I have 3 Blogs to work on. and I'm putting the other sight up next week.

    One's on faith. The other is on prayer. I believe they will Bless you. All the best and I will continue to lift you up in prayer. Love Sister Elaine

  5. Jennypo,

    Here's a question: Assuming you are communicating with something, how do you know it is God and not some other sort of supernatural being? If supernatural things exist and interact with this world, who knows what kind of being you could be communicating with?


  6. Daniel,

    Good question and valid fear. The "God" who communicates with me matches fully the God described in the Bible - a God I didn't even understand before. If he - even once - told me something that didn't match the Bible (which, as printed word, requires linear thought and is open to public discussion and logical analysis) then I would have to seriously question not only who else might be communicating with me, but also my own sanity.
    On the other hand, if the other supernatural being also inspired the Bible, then can s/he be so bad?
    Let me step way over the line here and say that the God I find in the Bible is a God so pure, so vast, so deep, so compassionate and warm, so vibrant, so tender, so great, so inutterably lovely, that if he is not real, then I will gladly worship whatever being could even imagine such a God. He fills my deep soul in a way I never dreamed possible. He is enough as nothing else ever has been.
    I assure you, I have no doubt that the God who speaks to me as i pray and often even when I am not praying is the God of the Bible and the Creator of the universe. Just to be clear, not that I expect you to accept it on the basis that I am sure...

  7. Jennypo,

    Statements like: 'The "God" who communicates with me matches fully the God described in the Bible' imply to me that they are made on the basis of dogma rather than experience. The experiences you refer to surely cannot give you that certainty. At most you could claim to be communicating with some being that seems to care for you. Maybe there are millions of supernatural beings that love communicating with humans? How could you tell that the being you are talking with created the universe? None of the experiences you mention could justify that inference.

    The God of the Bible is a pretty complicated creature with plenty of other properties that you don't mention including possessiveness, jealousy, vengefulness, enjoyment in the suffering of his enemies, and so on. Have you experienced those things too?

    It is unfortunate that religious beliefs give people great certainty in things that can't be known for certain. Reliance on authority takes the place of careful investigation. Fantastic claims are made without the blink on an eye. In my opinion those who put such trust in authority are very likely to be deceived.


  8. Elaine,

    My caution for you is in your assumptions. Because it says so in the Bible, doesn't actually mean it is true. Truth is much harder to accertain than that. How do you know that everything in the Bible is true? There are plenty of things in it that aren't true if you carefully research them.


  9. Daniel,
    You are entitled to make whatever assumptions you choose to about my experience with God. This I know: I read about a God in the Bible who is beyond my imagination. The God who communicates with me says nothing that contradicts the Bible - rather, he explains it. He connects all the dots. That satisfies me that they are one and the same. I don't expect you to just take that and swallow it whole - how could you? It is, nonetheless, my experience. I can't prove it to you, and I wouldn't try, but there's the answer to your question, anyway.

  10. It's funny you should raise this question (or answer...or philosophical argument--forgive me if I have not nailed exactly what category this discussion falls under) because I have been thinking ALOT about this lately. This will sound very pessimistic (especially coming from someone, who just a few years ago felt so strongly about prayers and the validity therof) but I kind of agree with your idea that there's no statistical proof that prayers actually work. And, though I still hold out hope that God still likes me (even after so many years of not measuring up to his standards) I don't hold out a lot of hope that certain prayers are going to be answered. I say "certain prayers" because I truly believe that some prayers originate deep in the gut, are involuntary, and whether they get answered or not doesn't really matter--what matters is the depth from which they come. Let me explain: When I pray for something like my bad attitdue to go away, for my son's baseball team to win at least one game, or for a short line at the grocery store..I don't expect to get the answer I want. Why? Because, from experience, I have found there's a fifty-fifty chance I'll get the answer I'm looking for. However, every once in awhile, a prayer emerges from somewhere deep inside. It usually happens without a whole lot of mental effort from me, and it usually has to do with something I cannot control, something I fear, or something I really need. And I am not speaking of lame little daily things like toilet paper and groceries, however, if I had no money and I needed these things, with no way to get them myself, I suppose a prayer of that sort would arise (as it has before). So, maybe the question isn't "does prayer work", rather "what kind of prayers might God answer"? All this babble in church about needing to pray everyday in order to "keep our relationship with God up to date" but not "babbling on and on in prayer" is a little contradictory. Maybe a lack of prayer is really just means everything is going ok...or that we need to focus on other things.

  11. Lael,

    I agree that it is possible that prayer benefits the person who prayers simply through the act. It may be comforting simply to express one's needs especially if one thinks someone is listening. It may help one focus on a problem. And as you say it may occur spontaneously and help fulfill other emotional needs.

    But the same arguments could apply to superstitions. They provide comfort and order to people's lives. They give people hope for changing their state, and so on.

    But my concern is that ultimately these are all false hopes. Just like it is silly to expect something unusual if you see a black cat, so it is silly to expect that one's asking God for something will increase the chance one gets it. While hope may be better than no hope for some, I want to know and believe the truth.


  12. perhaps there is confusion between
    belief in prayer itself as an action and belief in God full of love and grace. Prayer as communication to anything or anyone other than God is likely to be a superstition, but prayer to God is different because God is different.

  13. ....GOD IS ALWAYS GOOD!.....kung medyo negative ang nangyayari sa inyo plano yun ng DIYOS at may dahilan kung bkit ni God pinapahintulutan yon......lagi kang magtiwala sa Diyos nandyan lang Si God para tulungan ka......GOD IS GOOG ALL THE TIME!!

  14. Gosh, I had invisible friends when I was younger who listened and agreed and were friendly and comforting. couldn't actually do anything but listen, but they were still great.

    In terms of prayers being answered - my mother died. Prayers not answered. You cannot convince me of ANYTHING out there that allows my mother to die a horrible death from cancer and ignores prayers that she survive, recover, stay with me etc etc.

    Pfui. Get over yourselves.

  15. Thanks for your post. I am not a Christian yet, but I tried to believe in God. However, I do not want to blindly believe. I went to Church about once a month. I don't pray and don't know how to pray. Last April, my mom almost died. On the flight to my mom, I was thinking, if God can save my mom's life, I would believe in HIM. In hospital, almost all doctors gave no hope to my mom. One day, my wife's friend asked me to take my mom to see a Chinese doctor, and I tried. Surprisingly, even the cost is so cheap, just 5% of that in hospital, my mom miraculously survived. She is very healthy now. Later on my church friends told me they were praying for my mom. Thanks God. I have also others things need to thank God. But I still doubt myself, are those really because of God? I didn't verbally pray yet. Most time I just think.

    Heard people said God answered them verbally, I really doubt it.

    I got a very small puppy last week and she always crying when I left her. These two days she is much better. This morning I put her on a cushion to sleep in kitchen and I went to bathroom. In bathroom, I clearly heard her voice of crying outside my bathroom door. So I finished quickly and open the door. To my surprise, she was not outside of my bathroom door. When I silently walked to my kitchen, I saw her sleeping soundly. I thought when people thought something deeply, some kind of illusion will happen.

    I need more time to convince myself that God really exists.

  16. hey i am agree with you, i am also christian i went to church every sunday but i didn,t beleive in god blindly. what i think about, that is my idea whatever the good things and bad things which happen generally in life, we assume there is some supernatural things which control all this more we think more we strongly trust on it. i pray alone 2hour in a day what i find its the way to talk to yoruself mean to say more you believe more you have faith on it.. i agree with your thought'' people thought something deeply ,some kind of illusion will happen'' i also experience ....

  17. thanks for share.