Is Prayer Harmful?

Is Prayer Harmful?
By William Cooney


When the business portion of our last CVA monthly meeting concluded, former president Dennis Himes led a discussion on what turned out to be quite the provocative topic: “Is Prayer Harmful?” At first blush, one might think that, of course, most Atheists believe prayer is indeed very harmful. It turns out, however, there were many who cautioned against being too “dismissive” or “strident” when it comes to criticizing prayer or people who pray. Not because they believed in its potential for healing or otherwise procuring favorable advantages, but rather because in the service of spreading our secular vision, we should take care not to offend the sensibilities of others. Precisely because there is no more efficient way to drive religious people deeper into their own self-serving world view than to criticize or mock something very important to them, we should refrain from expressing anything that can possibly be characterized as an insult. The fine art of persuasion, it seems, demands a more nuanced approach.

As Richard Dawkins pointed out in his 2006 book The God Delusion, ridicule and mockery can be important tools in the arsenal of criticism, writing indeed, that no one has the right not to be offended by criticism, not the least of all, religious people. The onus is on the one being criticized to grow a thicker skin, and not on the critic to be more accommodating or less offensive—especially in the arena of religious polemics. It was long thought in polite society that one simply did not criticize religion. Why? Well, for no good reason, as it turns out. Religion simply enjoyed a privileged status in social circles—and conversation—if only because it was “the way of things” for so long.

And so it goes with prayer. Where’s the harm in praying for something or someone, so long as it is private and hurts no one? About all that can be said of prayer is that it benefits no one, with the possible exception of the one doing the praying, because they will often say it makes them feel better, as if they had contributed something meaningful in a difficult situation. In this sense prayer becomes a pitiable act of self-congratulatory gibberish. And even that benefit is meager at best. Praying can delude one into thinking, and believing, that one has done something real and positive for the cause of the day. It relieves one of the burden to actually do something substantial, kinetic, quantifiable, and life-changing. Doing right by each other is not always easy; in fact we know it to be difficult. And praying often gives people a reason not to have to do any of the heavy lifting.

To be fair, we must form a consensus around a definition of prayer that lends sensible parameters to this debate. If we can agree—in principle—that active prayer involves the summoning of a deity for the purpose of attaining some favor or outcome, then prayer quickly reveals itself an enemy of reason. And this is where much of the real danger of prayer lies: in teaching our children not to use their intellectual, problem-solving, critical-thinking skills to respond to not only everyday situations, but also to more challenging things like human suffering. To us firebrands of atheism, prayer holds the potential to dehumanize people in their time of need. Pain and hunger, homelessness and despair, grief and loneliness—these things remain abstractions so long as prayer is held up as a viable action plan to mitigate their effects. Praying keeps too many of our hands too clean; keeps too many of us out of the trenches of misery, and just far enough away from the blood, sweat, and tears of the sufferers so as not to soil our blouses. And while we’re at it, perhaps the politicians could stop shamelessly pandering to religious people by telling us how much they all pray and “consult God” about his divine plans for them and their campaigns or offices.

In the long run, prayer is very harmful to humanity because in practice it puts someone other than ourselves at the helm of our predicament. Praying also lends credence to the notion that we are broken beings in need of an overseer to provide us moral tutelage. And finally, prayer is a fictitious conduit to an even more fictitious being who wants us to believe that we are not good enough or smart enough to find meaning and purpose for our own lives.