He hoped and prayed that there wasn’t an afterlife. Then he realized there was a contradiction involved here and merely hoped that there wasn’t an afterlife. ~Douglas Adams, Life, The Universe, and Everything
One of the mainstays of Christian faith is prayer, which is an admixture of meditation, wishful favor seeking, and port in a storm.
Does God always answer prayer? No. Do Christians seem to pray about most everything? Yes. Are there alternative explanations from distorted memory (research shows everybody’s brain alters their recollection of events) to lack of knowledge? Yes. God is often just a god of What are the Odds of That?? Sending up and interpreting answers to prayer is a bit like finding personal meaning in your horoscope.
A person’s response to prayer is invariably a form of equivocation. When prayer isn’t answered, it’s because one didn’t wait, or waited too long, or the petitioner did it “my way” and not God’s way. Or one asked for the wrong thing, it wasn’t God’s timing, or God had something better planned. Or, when it really gets ugly, God is just mysterious that way and you’ll have to wait until you get to heaven to find out the reason why that infant died, or your spouse succumbed to brain cancer at 24 years old. Just trust it was the Right Thing. God never screws up; it’s all part of The Plan. And, of course, you can never show something isn’t part of The Plan. There is nothing reliable here, there are only the rationalizations that make us comfortable.
And by logical extension, if God intervenes and answers prayer for some, by definition he ignores others. Christians pray for children to be born safe and with all their fingers and toes. But miscarriage is a thing, even for the faithful. This seems like something God should deliver on, given all the pro-life argumentation. But it’s not like God was beneath taking a child sacrifice, even one made foolishly. When Jephthah says, “Hey, if you’ll just deliver the enemy into my hands, I’ll sacrifice the first thing that walks out of my house as a burnt offering to you when I get back,” God has nothing to say about that thing being his daughter (Judges 11:31). God doesn’t step out and say, “Well, I hope you’ve learned your lesson. You shouldn’t promise stupid shit.” I’m aware of the alternative interpretation here, that Jephthah’s daughter was merely “set aside” and could never marry or know a man, but the surrounding text and reactions sound more serious than that. But even grant that for a moment. “Sorry, sweety. See, daddy said something idiotic, and now you get to pay for it by never getting to marry or be with your family. Real sorry.” Nor is God above visiting the sins of the father upon their children because, you know, God is just that way. There is nothing about any of this that we, today, would consider moral. I mean, it’s a great story, fitting for the age and culture that put it to scroll. We don’t do that because it’s barbaric. On the other hand, we do have parents who refuse their children medical care because of the bible’s promise of healing in answer to prayer.
Prayer seems to serves two practical functions in time of crisis–to let those who can’t do anything believe they are helping, and to let those who can do something do nothing while thinking they are (although I find the former more prevalent). Regardless, the efficacy of prayer in either instance is no better than hoping for the best. A Harvard prayer study, the largest conducted, found no correlation between intercessory prayer and recovery after coronary surgery, and other studies have followed the same vein. If there is no reliable, consistent measure from throwing prayer up to the Cloud Overlord, then how can it be regarded as a trustworthy endeavor? Not only that, how does one differentiate the truth of their “answered prayer” from someone whose prayers were answered by a different god? That’s where faith comes in, one might say. But that’s just the other white meat without evidence.