If Prayer Worked

First, I don’t care what religion it is, so this is entirely non-denominational. Second, these principles apply to all superstitious forms of “engineered luck,” as I once heard it described and found the label apt. Prayer is when you do it yourself, you ask for something1. You can also benefit from the prayers of other, ordinary people. But in almost every major religion, the supposedly more efficacious way is to have some “special” people pray for you or have it done via some special ceremony (sort of like sending the prayers through DHL instead of normal post, I suppose). Engineered luck can also come through items, like talismans, sacred relics, food, drink, suppositories (no, I am not kidding here - well maybe a bit), tombs, geographic locations, bits of statues that need to be rubbed, buildings, cenotaphs, holes to be crawled through2, preserved parts of animals (like lucky rabbits feet, for Americans), etc. Getting the engineered luck from something else or someone else, by going to the feng shui master, getting “blessings” (whatever those are) from gods, angels, monks, sadhu (साधु), saints, priests, yogis, imams, or mystics, whether in compensation for some offering or as a pure gift is all part of the same mystical “luck engineering” experience.

Prayer, in all three forms (self-initiated, through items or actions, or as gifted by others), all amounts to changing what “is” into what the supplicant desires through the application of supernatural forces. It is also not always “active” in that items, charms, fetishes, consecrations, blessings (some of which last for a lifetime, supposedly3) and whatnot all provide a source of ongoing “prayer” or “protection,” and you find these in almost every religion as well.  It is engineered luck, in that in most cases there is already a chance that the action will occur, such as praying for cancer to go into remission, or to win the lottery (provided that you actually buy a ticket), or getting a new job or a promotion, or having a happy spouse when you return home from a late night at the office, or protecting your home from damage or theft, or protecting the family from “pollution” (usually intercourse with non-believers or those of lesser religious or social status), etc.

So, if there is a chance that all these things would come true anyway, how can you “prove” that they didn’t come about through the intervention of prayer? Well, for a great many, you can prove or disprove their existence simply by the application of basic statistical analysis. And, what will surprise many people is that this has been done indirectly for many years by companies whose business it is to understand risks.

Before getting into the list, there is one further thing you need to understand, and that is that all prayer cannot work. If one religion or superstitious belief is correct, then some are likely wrong. So a Taoist prayer to Heaven (Tien) would work, while one to Krishna would not. So one group of believers should have been systematically benefited to the exclusion of all others over the years. This would easily have been noticed. If all prayers are “answered” then your control group would have to be the non-praying atheists, and those have been just too small a group over the years to present any reliable statistical measure.

1. Lightning rods – There is no group of people whose homes are less likely to be hit by lightning than others (with equivalent locations and structures). All tall religious edifices have them. Nobody seems to be immune from the thunderbolts from heaven. Shia mosques do not get the same insurance rates without lightning rods than other edifices with this element of protection.

2. Insurance policies – If you are a member of a group or affiliation that owns the insurance company (there are lots of these around) then you may get a lower rate or other benefits that outsiders don’t get. But there is no actuarial table in the world that notes that one religious group is less inclined to damage or injury. There is no “tick the box as a Theravada Buddhist, and get a 25% discount” on any insurance form, because the typhoons, tornados, hurricanes, earthquakes, burglars, and wandering elephants will all ignore your house. You get a lower rate for fire protection if you have an installed sprinkler system, but not if you have a shrine to some deity or sage in the building.

3. Lottery tickets – Funny thing, you never see one group winning a preponderance of the awards. We never see headlines such as “yet another Sikh wins the lottery.” If this was the case, then lotteries would ban such people from playing, just as casinos ban those who count cards at poker. 

4. Life boats and preservers – You never see signs on ships or in airplanes saying “everyone needs a life preserver except the Amish, as they always survive on their own.” All military pilots are issued with parachutes, not just the ones who don’t happen to be voudon4 believers, who would be saved by cloud inhabiting spirits.

5. Child safety seats and seatbelts – Laws don’t exempt certain people from using these just because they are less likely to be injured. Can you imagine a public safety commercial saying: “Buckle-up because it could save your life, and it’s the law – unless you’re Mormon, in which case wearing your magic underwear is good enough.” Nope, no group of people are less likely to fly through the windshield on an 100 km/hour impact than are any other.

6. Life insurance – If you’re a non-smoker, you get a lower rate. Actuary tables are boring and surprisingly accurate, and are used worldwide to calculate risks for hundreds of millions and perhaps even over a billion people. But no table in the world shows that a particular religious belief or superstition allows you to outlive others in your same community and life style. No table shows that “smoking reduces life expectancy for everyone except the Romanian Orthodox.”

7. Medical insurance – Prayer, in all its various forms, is probably most used when people face illnesses, which are not only dangerous, but can be extremely painful, lingering, and economically devastating to an entire family. Nothing can last as long, or be as painful and debilitating as illness, and there is also nothing that compromises us as human beings, depriving us of our physical attributes and mental capabilities. It destroys what we are as individuals. So this should be the sine qua non for evidence of ‘engineered luck’s” efficacy. But it’s not. The two largest religions in the world, Roman Catholicism and Sunni Islam, do not have fewer sick people, when controlled for environment and diet, than anyone else. They get diabetes, heart disease, cancer, etc. all at the same rates as everyone else in their control group. Health insurance is not half priced for them, because they need less medical treatment since prayer is healing them rather than doctors and medicine.

8. Planes, trains, ships and busses – If wearing a tefillin5 (for me, one of the most ridiculous religious adornments ever invented) is supposed to help (and since it’s Jewish, of course it’s limited to men), or a Saint Christopher6 medallion, a Hindu trishula7, or a Buddha image8 would reduce the chance of an accident on major public transport, then all major carriers would all require them. Every plane would have a small Jewish man covered in plastic9 on board before take-off, to ensure a safe flight, and the same goes for busses, trains and ships (although he wouldn’t need the plastic then). And think of taxis. Every taxi would be required to have a plastic menorah on the dashboard. But it doesn’t happen. No one calls the airline to check on whether the ‘right” people are on board to prevent a crash. Your flight insurance doesn’t have a “Jews or Non-Jews on board” box to check.

9. Oaths – Most countries require people to swear oaths before giving testimony in a court or upon taking public office. Does this mean that a country with the correct religion has better honesty in court, and uncorrupted politicians and office holders? There are low rates of corruption in certain parts of the world, but no one elects followers of Shinto because the oath they take actually binds them. The Shinto believer land registrar dearly wants to take the bribe to rezone the farmland into high rise developments, but their oath prevents them from doing so. Think of how much in demand these sorts of people would be? Why Japan would be bereft of citizens in to time…. or perhaps not. But no one turns purple when they lie under oath, and everyone is capable of being venal despite an oath of office.

10. Sports teams – Ever notice how god’s favorite team always wins? Wouldn’t you think that would be because the team members were believers, rather than the fact the god went to high school or college nearby, or just likes the team mascot or cheerleaders? Why don’t we see Hindus winning all the Olympic events? Champions of cricket, football (soccer to you Americans), badminton, sepak takraw (sometimes called foot volleyball – and popular in my part of the world), boxing, weight-lifting, even synchronized swimming (will someone please tell me why this is still an Olympic sport?) would all be Hindus. Every basketball team would have their token Hindu players to ensure the favor of the sport's loving gods and ensure the efficacy of the team’s supporters’ prayers. But, it doesn’t happen. No amount of sacrifices to Ganesh, Ram, or Kali will ensure that you consistently win.

11. Wars – Ever notice how the Tibetan Buddhists always win all their wars? No? Well neither did anyone else. The Muslims thought they were invincible, until they were stopped in France at Tours in 732 AD, in what is now India at the battle of Rajasthan in 738 AD, and then there was the total destruction of the Muslim Abbasid Caliphate in 1258 by the Mongols in one of history’s most vicious urban sackings which destroyed the seat of Muslim political power, its intellectual center and of course its religious justification of creating an ummat al-Islamiyah10. Today’s Islamic fundamentalist philosophies’ popularity can be traced back to the reaction to this catastrophe. “We did something wrong, so Allah punished us, so let’s be even stricter in following Allah’s guidance.” Sounds like something out of the Hebrew Bible – “we lost the war, not because our soldiers sucked, but because we had other gods in our cities – kill all those who don’t follow YHWH!” It really must be something to do with the climate in that part of the world…. But anyway, no general ever said “we can win this war, if we are led by Aboriginal Shaman!” No one told you that the “trumpets” that the Hebrews were blowing while they went around the walls of Jericho (which had fallen down hundreds of years before…) were actually blowing on didgerridoos. Boomerangs do not bring down jet fighters, no matter how hard you throw them or how much you pray to the Rainbow Serpent.

12. Poverty – Many religions consider wealth to be an expression of divine compassion – even if it’s inherited. But some eschew wealth and all trappings of it. The most famous of these probably being the emperor Chandragupta Maurya (340-298 BC) who was the first to create a large unified State in the area that is now part of Afghanistan, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, which is now known to us as the Maurya Empire which lasted from 322-185 BC. Not only did he subjugate the various local tribes, but he also conquered part of the easternmost Greek ruled state (part of the Seleucid Empire, 323-64 BC) that had been established upon the breakup of Alexander the Great’s short-lived Empire. At 42, Chandragupta11, who was a Jain, gave up his rule and became an ascetic, and is known to have starved himself to death.

In today’s world, it’s hard to measure who is actually doing the best, as real figures are obscured and usually not kept according to religion. The World Bank Ranks the top five countries in terms of GDP/person (2010-2014) as: Luxembourg (110k), Norway (100k), Qatar (94k), Macao China ((91k) and Switzerland (85k). On a PPP basis, by the IMF for 2013, the rankings are: Qatar (145k), Luxembourg (90k), Singapore (79k), Brunei (74k) and Kuwait (71k).  But income is not wealth, and there are no good studies on that. But as reported in Wikipedia12 (and I admittedly dislike this as a source, normally) a Credit Suisse report on OECD wealth concentrations in 2013 ranked wealth per adult as follows: Switzerland (513k), Australia (403k), Norway (380k), Luxembourg (315k), and United States (301k). Any consistency here? None that I can see, except that maybe I should move to Luxembourg…

13. Good luck charms and wards against the evil eye – If anything worked, everyone would carry it. Police and soldiers would all be given the Greek mati (meaning “eye”) which is a charm to ward off or reflect back towards the source the “evil eye.” It is also found in Turkey and many Central Asian and North African cultures, and is typically a bright blue circle or sphere with a white circle in its center with a black circle inside that (to look like a human eye)13. The symbol of an eye as a ward has been around in many cultures almost as long as recorded human history, with one of the better known ones being the “eye of Horus” from Egypt. Despite painting eyes on their sailing ships, Greek ships still sank in storms, and no one distributes eye charms to police officers instead of bullet proof vests, but then maybe they only protect you from the “evil eye” and not bullets? But if there was a charm that worked, every military and law enforcement officer in the world would be carrying it as part of standard issue (and, presumably, so would every criminal).

14. Happiness – Finally, the ultimate test would be happiness. Is one group happier than another? In 2013, the UN’s Sustainable Development Solutions Network published its second report on the state of global happiness14. Although there has been a lot of criticism of the report, I personally find it to be rather systematic and rational in its approach. You can argue about its criteria weightings, but it looks to be on the right path in terms of providing an objective analysis of the state of humankind. In any event, the top five are:

Denmark – where a majority, 78%, are members of the State Lutheran Church (a Christian denomination), although other smaller sampling polls have claimed to show that only 25% believe in Jesus. So maybe church membership is only social, but why do they still have a State Church and a God appointed Monarchy15 if they are supposedly secular?

Norway – where a majority, 71%, are members of the State Lutheran Church, which is actually run as a Government office. The Monarch in Norway is also head of the Church (they must have learned this from the English as a way to preserve their monarchy and make crimes against the king crimes against god). Some surveys show Norway to be one of the least religious countries, but if so, then why still have church memberships, a Monarchy and a Church run by the Government?

Switzerland – where Christians are over 70%, with Roman Catholics being the largest group at about 38%. There is no State Church in Switzerland, but the State does collect taxes to be distributed to the different registered denominations, and a resolution to separate Church and State was defeated last time it was attempted. “Unaffiliated” and Islam are the fastest growing segments, but unaffiliated does not mean atheist.

Netherlands – well this one is a bit of a mess, partly due to the merger of the Dutch Reformed Church with the Evangelical Church in the Kingdom of the Netherlands, which then called itself the Protestant Church. As usual, lots of smaller groups broke off, and the result is that no one seems to know what to call themselves anymore and around that time a large number took to calling themselves “unaffiliated.” They still have a Monarchy, and persist in the belief that some people are just born better than others and within their holy persons are endowed the sovereignty of the nation. The unaffiliated have a majority of the population, under some polls, but Church membership registration remains high except in those areas most effected by the aforementioned merger (so maybe many people just forgot to take their names off the registers?). As I’ve noted before, unaffiliated does not mean atheist, but we’ll reservedly qualify the Netherlands as having its largest population segment being those who are non-religious.

Sweden – recently got rid of its State church but still has about 66% of its people being Lutheran (the former State Church) members.  Swedes (admittedly, in small polls) tell pollsters that religion is a small or negligible part of their lives, but they haven’t taken the time to stop being a church member (which means that some of their taxes are directed to the church). And Sweden still has that god appointed Monarchy, whose family members are born better than the rest of humanity.

There are two other majority Lutheran countries in the top 10, Iceland (75%) and Finland (75%). Israel is there at eleventh place (I guess no one asked the Palestinians about this?), and there is only one Muslim country in the top 20, United Arab Emirates. Lutherans score 50% of the top ten? Martin Luther would be appalled, given his attitude towards fun (although he would be a wholehearted supporter of their Monarchies).

So what does this tell us? Lots of atheists will be saying things like “this or that poll shows that the Nordics don’t believe in religion, so they should be considered as atheist.” Well, they don’t usually identify themselves as atheists and they haven’t changed their Governments (except in Sweden and Denmark) to get rid of the State Church, and they still maintain Church memberships which in many cases means that part of their taxes go to support that Church. Now if they don’t vote with their money, how can you say that their Church registrations are not a valid indication? And of course, there is the human dignity disparaging institution of hereditary Monarchy which infects most of them. Monarchies are based on divine rights, and trying to say it’s just ‘tradition” is ludicrous, especially when the Monarch is connected with the State Church and is the head of State or sovereign.

So, in conclusion, prayer and religion fails in all our tests except the last, where the Lutherans who claim in polls that they really don’t believe in god, or who accept that there is a “universal spirit” or who would rather golf or cross-country ski than go to church on Sunday, but who remain members of their Church and support their God appointed Monarch and pay their tax dollars to the Church seem to have found the true secret of happiness. The secret of happiness? Tolerance, cold weather, preserved fish, dark winter nights, and beer16. Maybe their secret is that they don’t pray for very much?


  1. So this is different from prayers of thanks, which have no way to be tested as to whether the being to which such prayers are directed hears or in any way notices them.
  2. I did this myself when I was a student in Japan at the Todaiji, in Nara, which has a pillar in the Daibutsuden that has a hole that is the same size as one of the main Buddha statue’s nostrils. The story is that being able to crawl through it helps you in the next life. I was of considerably smaller girth back then….
  3. A particularly odious story in the Hebrew Bible is where one brother steals the blessing of YHWH (god, who is supposed to not be this stupid) given by his aging father. The Father intended to give the blessing to his eldest son (who was “hairy”, so I guess that makes this all ok?), but the mother and younger son conspire together to rick the father into giving the “Lord’s blessings” (so I guess they tricked god too) to the lying younger son, which is then discovered and has to flee. But it’s too late, and the father can’t take the blessing back to give to the deserving son. The liar, Jacob, who obviously disrespected his father (one of the top ten sins according to one version of the Ten Commandments) goes on to become a Hebrew hero, and is given the new name of Israel by YHWH (although YHWH forgets his new name a couple of times). He got the name by wrestling with YHWH/an angel or something else depending on what apologist you are reading. But the text seems to say he is wrestling with god, and the name Israel denotes that. Genesis 27:1-10, 25-40 (English Standard Version). The wrestling match is at Genesis 32, and 32:25 is my favorite bit, as “the hollow of his thigh” is a Hebrew euphemism for grabbing him by the balls. YHWH didn’t fight fair. But what do you expect form a god that couldn’t defeat iron chariots or the Philistines after 200+ years of trying?
  4. Known as voodoo in a popularized and somewhat disingenuous form.
  5. This is the head and arm “box” worn by male Jews within which is a small scroll of religious text. Jewish commentators throughout history have extolled the merits of this practice and its efficacious benefits. Yes, their god told them to cut off part of their penis and wear small boxes on their heads and arms when praying to remind them of something (the flight from Egypt) that didn’t really happen….  YHWH must have a really low opinion of his chosen people, if they can only remember something if they have a box strapped to their forehead.
  6. A Saint in many Christian religions, who was 2.3 meters tall according to some accounts, and is widely regarded as the patron saint of travelers. Believers often when his image on a talisman or some other item of jewelry to protect them on their travels.
  7. A form of trident.
  8. These are particularly popular here in Thailand, where hundreds of dollars are often paid for baked clay images made by some famous monk or another. These are often encased in necklaces and worn as charms by both men and women.
  9. He covered himself in plastic to prevent “pollution” from flying over any cemeteries. Seriously, you just can’t make this stuff up. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/11/orthodox-jew-flies-plane-huge-p...
  10. The idea of all Muslims being under one Government and being of one community. The assumption before the sack of Baghdad was that this was an inevitable consequence for the world. Revived under the Ottoman Empire as a doctrine, it did not survive the collapse of that Empire in the late 19th and early 20th century, but it has never died out amongst many Islamic doctrines, and is now once again a commonly held view by many of the world’s Muslims that eventually everyone will be Muslim and united under one peaceful and benevolent Government.
  11. Whose grandson was Asoka Maurya (304-232 BC), who embraced Buddhism and promulgated one of the most progressive law codes (edicts, really) in human history – after some very bloody wars of conquest and suppression.  Non-violence seems to be a good thing only once there is no one left that is a material threat. His symbol, the lion capital is now the symbol of the current State of India.
  12. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_wealth_per_adult
  13. I always wondered why it was blue, and although I have no evidence for the following view whatsoever, I like to think that it stems from the superstitious perspective that brown eyed people had for the far less numerous blue eyed ones. Somehow, the different and strange eye color had to be evil, as those who are different are always suspect. Just my idle musings.
  14. http://unsdsn.org/resources/publications/world-happiness-report-2013/  This is the link to download the full report.
  15. http://www.atheistrepublic.com/blog/deandrasek/royalty-another-facet-rel...
  16. My mother’s family was mostly Lutheran, and I remember one Uncle (who was not religious, but I didn’t know it at the time) telling me the following when I asked him the difference between Christian religions: “The Roman Catholics drink wine, the Anglicans drink cider and the Lutherans drink beer. Wine makes you melancholy, cider makes you stupid, and beer makes you fat and happy.”

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