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cold reading

“Prayer hotline… Please hold.”

PrayerPrayer is such an important part of religious life. Whether it’s praying to thank a god for bestowing his blessings or praying to ask for something or praying to help someone else, prayer is used constantly and touted as being the “direct line to God” for those who pray.

It seems the fact that it doesn’t actually do anything is irrelevant. I will acquiesce and admit that perhaps prayer helps the mental state of the one doing the prayer, much like meditation, but other than that… nothing.

Even Christians know that prayer doesn’t work, but you won’t get them to admit it. Daniel Florien at Unreasonable Faith makes this point that really drives it home. If Christians (and practitioners of other religions) really believed that prayer worked, they wouldn’t have to bother doing many things that the rest of us take for granted: see the doctor, drive to work, pay the bills, go to school, etc. They could just pray.

I recently had someone tell me that while working with Habitat for Humanity building homes in Louisiana (quite admirable), the heat was almost overwhelming (she’s around 65) and she didn’t think she was going to be able to continue working. She sat down and said a little prayer to God to help her with this and “He sent a gentle cool breeze that was so refreshing.”

This same person told me that one day, after repeated failed attempts to load a lawn mower onto a truck by driving it up some ramps, she was so frustrated that she stopped, said a little prayer, and successfully drove the mower onto the truck the very next try.

Divine intervention?… or perhaps coincidence in the first case, and “taking a deep breath and calming down” in the second case. Why didn’t she pray for God to instantly create an already-built house in Louisiana? Why didn’t she just pray for God to fix the mower so she wouldn’t have to load it onto the truck?

Because prayer doesn’t work.

Prayer is the ultimate random cold reader. Guys like Derren Brown and Penn Jillette (both magicians) use cold reading in their acts to show they have psychic powers. They don’t and they say they don’t, but the way cold reading works is by using a shotgun approach to gaining information, repeatedly “missing” and eventually getting to a “hit,” making the target think that his mind was just read. Using this approach produces many, many more misses than hits, but more of a big deal is made out of the hits, and the audience, focusing mainly on the hits, is amazed.

Prayer works the same way, but less efficiently and more randomly, with considerably more misses than hits. The hits are touted as incontrovertible proof that God is listening while the misses are explained away as not being “God’s will” or as a test of faith. Sometimes, the misses are even explained away as hits, such as praying for a sick person to get better, only to have them die, in which case they got “better” by being taken home to Jesus.

Two anonymous quotes to sum it all up…

The hard work of one does more than the prayers of millions.


Nothing fails like prayer.

Amen to that.