The promise is as clear and as simple as can be: “God answers prayer”. All you need to do is ask, and the God of the universe will answer. So, at some point in your life (with a mixture of fear and anticipation) you try it.
In my case, the first time I did this with adult intention was when I prayed the “sinners prayer”, to “ask Jesus into my heart”. Did Jesus hear my prayer, and actually enter my heart? I suppose I did feel different…maybe. But over time (and with enough encouragement from other believers) I made the decision that that vague “feeling” was, indeed, sufficient evidence of that particular prayer being answered.
And so it began — this awkward un-synchronized ballet of belief and reality.
When we pray (at least as adults) we recognize that we may not know what form the answer will take. (Frankly, we’re open to any form of answer, as long as it is, indeed, an answer). But often the answer doesn’t come. So naturally we ask why. Usually we ask the person that told us about prayer in the first place. And this is when the conditions first appear: You have to pray “believing”; You have to make sure you don’t have any unforgiven sin in your life; You have to check your heart to be sure you aren’t holding a grudge against anyone. If that doesn’t work, you then have to become a sort of prayer analyst: does what I want line up with God’s “perfect” will for me? (I didn’t even know there were categories of God’s will for me, but you soon find out that there are!)
At this stage you might learn that God does, indeed answer prayer, but sometimes the answer is “no”.
What that really means is that sometimes the answer from God is no answer at all, and we are supposed to interpret such silence as “no”, or the cosmic equivalent of the magic eight ball that shows “ask later” when it’s little floating random answer generator shows that phrase in the window.
(Ask a c.g.i. “Eight Ball” a question HERE).
Bit by bit we learn the complications of prayer, and the once simple process becomes almost baroque in its complexity and yet, despite all of that, the religious will tell you with a straight face that God does, indeed, answer prayer.
The example I have given is based on my experience as a Christian, clearly, but I think it holds for the entire breadth of our human experience of the “spiritual”. For I’ve come to realize that be it New Age or Old Time Religion, the dilemma is the same: a promise is given from a teacher or sage about how the laws of the spirit world work, and we go off and try them out, then find out they don’t work as promised, and then the explanations begin.
Why do we go along with it? Why don’t we stone the lying bastards the first time their system doesn’t work? Good question.
For example, in the Evangelical Charismatic (or “Spirit-filled”) community, individuals regularly stand up during church services babbling in tongues or shouting out what is assumed to be a direct prophecy from God himself (or the Holy Spirit), as the crowd murmurs or shouts “Amens” of approval. Now most of these “prophetic utterances” are in the same category of vagueness as a horoscope or the insights of a roadside psychic, and are therefore easy to interpret in a way that will very likely line up with some random event. They are also vague enough (and so much more about the emotion of the moment) as to be easily forgotten. There is no church agency tasked with tracking the veracity of these prophesies, and for damn good reason: were these citizen prophets to be held accountable based on the veracity of their words, we would be stoning false prophets by the dozens in the streets!
The reality is that we are a believing species, and that believing is such an important part of our social structure that even nonbelievers are loathe to call out all but the most despicable charlatans for their sins against reality. We want to get along. No. More than that, we need to get along (at least within our own community, be it a family, tribe or town).
As I say in one of my films, we are able to find meaning in our stories because we already know the endings. We tell them front to back, but we know them back to front. That means that our pattern-seeking brains have had plenty of time to reflect and find all of the seemingly confirmatory details that make a story fit whatever tantalizing bullshit the psychic told us or the amateur prophet shouted at our last prayer meeting.
We are naturally biased toward finding meaning. This one thing is abundantly clear about our psychology. We may not recognize this in ourselves because it is so ubiquitous in our species — it is the existential sea we swim in.
Which is why real atheists stick out like very annoying sore thumbs.
The problem with unbelief is that — given the believing nature of our brains — it takes a certain type of vigilance to not give in to that ever-present tendency. Because the atheist (or non-believer, if you’re more comfortable with that term) understands that the presence of the impulse toward belief does not in itself offer evidence of the existence of any real object of belief (i.e. God), but is much more plausibly an artifact of our highly-evolved social consciousness.
So when it comes to belief, the choice that most people see is between magical thinking and no friggin’ fun at all. And the atheist feels this — for there is an unsettling sense of vulnerability that comes with recognizing that no-one “up there” is looking out for you after all (and just having that idea can lead you to worry that by not believing, fewer of the good things that used to happen will continue to happen in your life — sort of a “will the sun come up tomorrow if I don’t believe it will?” sort of thing — such is the power of the “believing brain” and our own self-centeredness).
Well, that sucks. Especially because leaving behind the spell of belief can actually alter your reality in that — because you now view life through lenses a bit less rosy than the ones you left behind — you will see less of the “miraculous” in your life. (Now it should be noted here that nothing about physical reality has changed, only our perception of it).
And then what do you do as a non-believer when something surprising and unexpectedly positive happens? At times like that one can feel the residual impulse to thank God or attribute it to “intention”, or “good karma”. It’s a funny place to be.
For to be an unbeliever is, in a way, to attempt to transcend our animal biology. I don’t say that lightly, for belief is as strong a biological force as any of our other cognitive functions.
(Maybe non-belief appeals more to certain personality types than others, just like some pilots find flying a single-engine, fixed wing tiny airplane through an unpredictable sky onto a skinny strip of asphalt not challenging enough, and take up flying the uber-complicated and attention-demanding helicopter).
Prayer works as much as anything “magical” works, which is some of the time (which is about what one would expect from randomness, which would be — statistically speaking — about half the time).
So is there nothing to “prayer” at all? Actually, there is something to it, but it’s not what you’d necessarily expect.
The part of “prayer” that does work is most likely the aspect of speaking things out loud that moves the idea into the part of our brain that processes audible input. This is probably the part of our consciousness that generates that “still, small voice” in our mind that answers us when we talk to ourselves. So we do get an “answer”, but that’s hardly a reliable substitute for the promised direct answer to prayer that God was supposed to give.
(And the fact that most humans are ready to attribute that part of their own consciousness to an outside spirit or deity — and that for those with a compromised brain such voices can become truly terrifying and destructive — is another matter).
The truth about the promise that “God answers prayer” is that it just isn’t, well, true. We would never continue to buy a blender that didn’t blend, or an airplane that didn’t fly, so why do we keep praying to a non-existent God who doesn’t answer us?
We are, indeed, mysterious creatures.