How could prayer possibly work?

tim314 (replying to me):

The praying person is in this world, and has the capacity to affect it, change it. Praying to God can affect what actually occurs in the world as a consequence of that, including but not necessarily limited to the ways we understand easily. I’m kind-of semi-Wiccan; there are Wiccan folk who believe that through concentrated focused processes (of which prayer is one) one can “bend reality” to one’s will or wishes. I’m agnostic about that, slanting off towards highly dubious, but I’ll give a general wave of the hand in the general direction of “processes we don’t understand” and say that affecting the world through prayer includes any of those that actually exist.

Thanks Tim314. You managed to explain what I meant way better than I did. But yes, it does seem that it would limit God to linear time and limited omniscience.

I do know one thing for certain though: thinking about infinity right before sleep is not conducive to me getting to sleep right away. :smack:
[sub]I had seem really cool imagery in my head from thinking about it though - kind of "oh so that’s what infinity looks like![/sub]

Here’s a thought regarding predestination. If we assume that all events are planned out in advance, then every prayer is destined to happen. So, any prayer doesn’t change the future, it’s simply part of the overall matrix of events and whether or not it is answered is also predestined but the person offering the prayer doesn’t have foreknowledge of how it will be answered.

Prayer works, but not from the intervention of any divine beings (atheist logging on here). You are in a situation in which you have a great interest in the outcome of something. You’ve done everything you can but whether it happens the way you want it to or not is outside your control. So you pray to your particular great sky fairy for supernatural intervention on your behalf. In doing so, you shift the burden of responsibility for the outcome which is beyond your control from your shoulders to that of whatever great sky fairy you worship. This can have huge psychological benefits, as you are no longer carrying around that intolerable burden. So the prayer has worked … for you. And it might just work on behalf of the one you pray for (if it’s not you) because, freed of all that burden of worry and guilt, you can work more effectively at that which you CAN do.

(bolding mine)

It sounds like you’re thinking of God as existing in time, moving through time along with human beings. This idea doesn’t make sense to me, for a number of reasons, one of which is that, thanks to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, we know people don’t even move through time at the same rate if they’re in different places moving at different speeds.

It only makes sense to me for God to be outside time, in eternity. And from God’s eternal vantage point, God sees what did/is/will happen, including the prayers you pray. The OP’s “he would know at this very moment precisely how the future will play out” wouldn’t apply because, to God, there is no “the future” or “this very moment.”

I see a difference between the educated Christian’s explanation of prayer and the folk-practice amongst Christians.

When discussing this topic, the majority of intelligent “prayers” say that the process of prayer is aimed at aligning their desires with God’s. By praying they change the way that THEY think about a situation, rather than affecting God’s view. This is a stance driven by the illogicality of changing the intentions of an omnipotent and interacting God.

At a simpler level, however, the folk-practice takes over, and Christians ask God to do things for them without rationalising it in this way. However, logically the two views converge, in that prayers apparantly answered would be those that reflect God’s unaltered intentions, an so developing a successful prayer strategy would be equivalent to asking God to do what he was going to do anyway!

I would leave biblical scholars to say whether this is supported by scriptural references. I recall the story of Abraham arguing over whether or not God should destroy (Sodom?) and apparantly persuading God that a minimal number of good inhabitants would let it off the hook. This appears to support the idea that God can be prayed/argued around to a new viewpoint. “Ah-hah - not at all,” cries the educated Christian: “this only shows that God’s real intention was progressively revealed by Abraham’s questioning. He never said that He would destroy the city regardless of the morality of it’s residents.”

Anyway, that’s my understanding: prayer is not about changing the future, it’s about changing the pray-er.

Well yes, but even those who believe in predestination still acknoledge that they have motivations for their actions. If you say “Why did you do that,” they don’t say, “Because it was God’s will,” they say, “Because I thought it would result in such and such outcome.” Of course, God may have preordained these motivations as well, but they still exist. So I think even if everything is preordained it’s legitimate to ask people why they pray, and to expect a better answer than “Because it’s what God decided I’d do.”

Well, to clarify, I was further articulating VegemiteMoose’s suggestion. My own beliefs are that God probably exists outside of time, although I don’t think I’d ever really considered an alternative like what VegemiteMoose suggested.

You raise a great point about relativity though. Physics tells us that one’s progression through time is directly connected to one’s motion through space. So it’s hard to see how we could talk about God moving through time unless we’re willing to also suppose that God has a trajectory through space. Similarly, if God is aware of all events that have occured in the universe up to a certain point (after which there is an infinity of diverging possibilities), then that would define all of those points as in some way simultaneous. Whereas in relativity simultaneity is simply a matter of perspective, dependent on which reference frame you occupy.

Yeah, I don’t really believe God has things he knows at this moment and other things he knows at other moments. It’s sometimes hard to express these ideas clearly, since the English language (and I’d guess most other languages) pretty much has tenses built in. I’d say my view is somewhat like yours, namely that God exists simultaneously at all moments in time, as opposed to humans who (at least as far as our own perceptions are concerned) exist in one moment at a time. Or I suppose I could say that I exist at many moments, but the me that experiences this moment is in some way different than the me that experiences a different moment. I am changed from one moment to the next, in such a way that my experience of one moment is disconnected from my experience of the next moment.

God on the other hand would have to be unchanging, since he exists outside of time. (Again, I’m thinking God existing outside of time is probably required by his being omniscient, which I assumed.) There is no “God at 5:00” and “God at 7:30”, there is only God. But if that’s the case, then nothing can change God, since change requires the thing being changed to exist within time. So there’s certainly no hope that we could change God’s intentions. In fact, I’d say our actions can’t even be said to affect God’s intentions (not quite the same thing as “change” I suppose), since those actions are ultimately the result of those intentions. God exists with some intention for everything that happens in the world, and as a consequence of God’s intention everything that happens in the world happens, including prayer. Which brings us back to the original question: How do we justify our decision to pray for certain future events, if we can’t influence God’s choices in how those future events occur?

So far, the answer that makes the most sense seems to be that the point of prayer is to affect ourselves, not to influence God’s choice in future events. In which case, maybe those who think that praying for something to happen makes that thing more likely to happen are just not thinking about it so carefully – but I don’t want to assume that without giving them a chance to explain their views. If someone does have a reason why it’s not contradictory to expect prayer to influence the outcome of future events (while at the same time believing God is omniscient, omnipotent, and eternal, which is – I believe – the standard theology of most people who pray), I’d like to hear it.

To clarify my own position.

I was only addressing the OP’s question: How could prayer possibly work? I am not claiming it makes sense in any larger context. I am not claiming I believe, subscribe to or endorse it. I am only saying that it seemed to answer the OP’s “gift prayer” scenario.

I would also like to say that I’m not trying to take any undue credit. tim314 is the one who was able to see what I meant and make a coherent post from it. Thanks again.

[accept-for-sake-of-argument]God exists[/accept-for-sake-of-argument]

My reply to the OP was, at first, going to be along these lines. As I read the thread I found this thought better expressed by AHunter3 and MrAlpen than my long-winded one would have been. I also, on considering how I would have worded it, found the thought seriously challenged.

It seems pretty clear in this and other passages that prayers of these kinds means asking for something. That’s what pray (even in the non-religious sense) means. Pray show me another example in the bible of a different kind of prayer!

I suppose one can twist the Mark reference by saying “if you truly believe, you approach the mind of God and thereby would never ask for anything not in God’s will.” This sounds tortured to my ears, and it is patently NOT the point that the verse is trying to convey on its face.

There is also a prayer of Solomon in I Kings 8 where it is clear Solomon was making “prayer and supplication.” It is also clear in this passage that Solomon and all those that heard truly believed that God granting those prayers and supplications was an intervention into what otherwise would have been - not that it was God’s will all along. God was pleased with the sacrifice on the alter - had he not things would have been different.

I buy the psychological benefits of prayer implied by the “its for my good, not God’s” line of thought. IMHO, it doesn’t fully answer the OP.

Maybe we’re going at this all wrong. Assuming there is a God, and as I have done in this post, assume he’s well documented in the bible. Where in the bible is God’s nature described with respect to time? Does it actually say God’s knowledge is infinite and encompassing of all time, in we understand “infinite” and “time” defined in mathematics and physics?

I’ll grant he’s in a better position to predict the future than us mere mortals - but maybe we should cut him some slack and not expect perfection psychic ability. I hear it now, “No, no! God is perfect!” Stipulated, but does perfect have to apply to foreknowledge? What are the parameters of perfection? Is God a perfect asshole? Why must he be a perfect prognosticator?

Genesis 6:6, Exodus 32:14 (I love Google) I Samuel 15:11 and others describe times where God admited he goofed (God repented). Maybe his grasp of the future isn’t as complete as we’ve assumed in this debate? Let’s grant God’s omnipotence - he can DO everything, but maybe his omnicience IS limited, votes at Nicene council notwithstanding (or wherever it was declared God is omni-everything)?

Even if I’m wrong about this (and likely I am) what problems of prayer remain? The predestination arguments have left these unexplored. If God has a plan (despite perfect knowledge of the future) what input do my petty requests have to that plan? As monavis asked, do we have to ask God to be a good parent, or custodian of the earth? Can mere humans micromanage God’s to-do list?

What if two people, incommunicado of each other, are both true believers and both ask, with excellent reason, for opposite things? For example, a devout farmer asks for rain to grow crops to feed the hungry, and a devout missionary prays for no rain (in the same area) so he can safely deliver the food he has to those same hungry people. Is it a battle of whosoever believes more? Is God not forced break his promise as expressed in Mark to one of his children?

Should of course read:
“…encompassing of all time, as we understand…”
“…not expect perfect psychic ability.”

God was my editor - more evidence in favour of a less-than-perfect God. :slight_smile:

Well, I agree with you: the plain sense of the text indicates that the authors thought that God had choices to make, potential interventions in the world that may or may not happen. The plain sense suggests that they believed that their prayers motivated him in one direction or another.

But even Christians struggle to accept the logic of this. Could God really be such a vascillating, will-he/won’t-he kind of guy? Pushed around by the fickle pleading of the masses?

From the omniscience angle, it’s easy enough to say that God’s foreknowledge of our prayers is all part of the plan. We are no less creditworthy (or creditable) because our free will was exercised in the way that God foreknew.

But I really can’t see any escaping from the necessity for Christians of interpreting these passages as people learning to think like God. I just can’t see that it’s credible for Christians to believe that they can improve on God’s “plan A” by some special pleading in favour of “plan B”. It doesn’t matter in the end whether or not they ACT like they’re changing God’s mind, since God would “say no” to the un-God-like prayers and they would learn to be God-minded in their requests.

If you read the whole article you find there were some benefits to prayer.

Prayer is not a form of worship. Prayer is simple talking to God, asking His blessings, giving thanks, and in times of trouble asking for help. Prayers are usually ended with “thy will be done, Amen.”

The way it makes sense to me:

God knows our beginnings, He created us. He also knows the place we will end up in – “heaven” or whatever name you wish. But He doesn’t know what choices we will make along the way. Some, making good choices, will arrive quickly, while others may take a very long time to finish.

Interesting thought. I guess in that case God would make it rain only on the crops and not on the road. Problem solved. If ya got omnipotence, flaunt it.

I tend to think of prayer as focus myself. Even though it takes a different form it’s like mediatation. If you’re praying for patience, courage, compassion, then you’re are focusing on those things, trying to change your thinking. Praying for stuff, can be a form of focus such as visualizing your goals. You’ll notice in the Lord’s Prayer that Jesus asked us to focus on humility and forgivness, and to be grateful for our minimum needs. Also for thy will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, which would be completely, would it not?

Prayer is also a matter of faith. Jesus said we could move mountains. I guess that means we have very little faith. I would think that as we gain faith through communion with God we would also be more in line with his will which would effect what we pray for.

What about the people praying for their friends to see the light?{which means believe as they do} How about two boxers each praying for God to help them beat the crap out of the other guy?

In my experience and reading, (I think that Time or newsweek did a thing on this a while back) the phenomenon of prayer having the power to heal is related directly to the depth of the faith of the object of the prayer. A room full of people praying for you out loud is a powerful thing if you’ve never seen it, and if you are of the mind to believe that prayer has power, then it will, or at least it will seem to. It’s explainable by body and brain chemistry, and the inherent healing powers of the human body (it’s a dirty little secret that most docs won’t share…if you wait long enough, the body fixes itself).

I think prayer works because it’s a remedy that is essentially hard-wired into our DNA. It’s simple chemistry, like love, or hunger, or fear. The issue is how this remedy comes to work in some people, and fails in others…

I’m off to bed now, so I’ll try that in tomorrow.

I’m not a beliver in God, but when I was, I was inspired by the Quaker notion that prayer is listening to God, not talking to him. I think most Christians would be well off to think about it, especially at a time when there are bestselling books on how to pray your way to financial success.

People have prayed to A God long before the Torah or other written materials were available. Perhaps Prayer could work if many people could draw an energy forth, the more prayer the more energy. This is not my belief just a thought.

Prayer sometime seems to me as something to do until what is going to happen any way does.


Atheist here. Interesting thread, tim314.

As other posters have argued, it takes a lot of sophisticated reasoning to reconcile the idea of an Allmighty God with the idea that gimme-prayers are useful. But IMHO for most unsophisticated prayers, praying is shaped like, rooted in, the relationship children had with their parents, or courtiers had with their King.

For instance, your parents knew what was best for you, and they set firm rules, but they might be persuaded occasionally to let you stay up late or give you that expensive bike for Christmas.
This kind of prayer is focused on how much you need of want something and how what a personal relaionship you have with the Deity, and how you’ll be a good person in return and not ask for anything soon again. “Oh dear Deity, you’ve helped me so often, I depend on you, don’t fail me now, and grant me this one wish”. Very child-like. When a prayer like this doesn’t get answered, the asker often gets angry and whiny at the Deity, “but why, why, you cruel One?”, like a child would at its parents when the childs wish isn’t granted.

Public prayers, OTOH, like a priest praying in church, in front of the assembled believers, resemble more the archaic pleading of a spokesperson to a king. The praising of God, the humbling of the asker, the appeal on general principles and ethics and groupthink "Most terrific deity, help us your most humble servants against those heathen barbarians, because we defend your cause and they don’t "… all arguments used in public prayer, not private prayer. Very court-like. When a prayer like this doesn’t get answered, the asker often finds reasons why God chooses not to do so. Sometimes, the person praying will respond by thinking he should help God more, because God has trouble fighting the heathen barbarians himself, and will later reward anyone who fougth alongside with him ( I think religious terrorists follow this train of thinking). Whining has no place in such prayers, as indeed whining would not have had any succes when appealing to a King.