Prayer has no effect on anybody or anything. Except, perhaps, the person praying. There is no scientific or other sort of demonstrable evidence that praying helps make the world better.
In fact, the largest research study on the efficacy of prayer found that not only was it useless in helping heart bypass patients recover, patients who knew they were being prayed for had a slighter higher rate of complications.
Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard Medical School and other scientists tested the effect of having three Christian groups pray for particular patients, starting the night before surgery and continuing for two weeks. The volunteers prayed for "a successful surgery with a quick, healthy recovery and no complications" for specific patients, for whom they were given the first name and first initial of the last name.
The study looked for any complications within 30 days of the surgery. Results showed no effect of prayer on complication-free recovery. But 59 percent of the patients who knew they were being prayed for developed a complication, versus 52 percent of those who were told it was just a possibility.
So when my local newspaper, the Salem Statesman Journal, published an editorial called "We Must Also Pray for Turkey," my first thought (and also my last thought) was that's a stupid idea.
Stupid, because the point of the editorial was that people should be as concerned about the recent terrorist attack at the Istanbul airport as they were about attacks in Paris and Brussels.
OK. That's a good point. But it has nothing to do with prayer.
Along with hundreds of millions of others in the world, I don't believe in praying. Our ranks include atheists, agnostics, humanists, Buddhists, Hindus, and anyone else who doesn't accept the unproven hypothesis of a personal god who responds to entreaties.
I do believe in doing something about problems.
If the editorial had been called "We Must Also Do Something for Turkey," I would have had no problem with it. However, calling for prayer actually is even worse than a useless gesture, because it encourages people to believe that an ineffectual religious practice is doing something about a problem.
Hemant Mehta's short piece in the New York Times, "Prayer is Useless, and Has a Downside," expresses this well.
While the main purpose of prayer may be to help others, it never demonstrably does that. Prayers benefit only those believers who say or hear them. Prayer gives them comfort. It lets them think they have some control over a situation that may be out of their hands. It’s the last resort of people who have run out of ideas, and the first resort of people who never bothered to think about how they could actually fix the problem at hand.
This is not harmless. There’s a very real downside to praying.
It lulls believers into a false sense of accomplishment. We cannot solve our problems – much less the world’s – through prayer. We often see people with good intentions praying for victims in the wake of a tragedy, but prayer is useless without action, and those actions make the prayers irrelevant. To paraphrase the great Robert Green Ingersoll, hands that help are far better than lips that pray.
I have no problem with “prayer” as an act of meditation. In fact, many atheists can tell you the benefit of silent self-reflection. The delusion occurs when you think someone else is hearing your thoughts and acting on them.
When it comes down to it, prayer is illogical, even in religious terms. If God has a plan, why try to thwart it? If God can be swayed by prayers, what kind of God would allow the horrors we see in the world? And if two devout believers pray for different things, how does God choose the winner? (I'm sure the San Antonio Spurs would love to know the answer to that.)
Prayer is nothing but a powerful placebo. We’d all be better off accepting that.
As evidence of this, there also was a call to pray for Turkey in 2013. A Christianity Today article, "Turkey: What to Know and How to Pray," advised this (I've boldfaced an especially pertinent part):
So, how can you pray? Well, I will share how I am praying. I'm praying:
- That the protests geared toward the government will lead the people away from increased Islamization and to greater religious freedom.
- For the safety of "workers" serving there right now.
- For the safety of Turks and for a just end to the violence.
- That Turks in Turkey (and the 75 million Turks around the world) will turn to Christ in the midst of the tumult.
Well, praying for Turkey in 2013 didn't stop the violence in 2016. Thus praying for Turkey now will do exactly nothing to help that nation in the future.
Like I said, only doing something concrete and practical will help Turkey. Stop with the prayers; start with the doing. That's the best advice after every natural or human-caused disaster.