"Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride"

Greta Christina

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

The awesome power of a lunchtime "prayer"

As an atheist I obviously don’t pray. However like most people I do indulge in a certain amount of wishful thinking. I hope for beneficial outcomes in most of my activities and I may even articulate them to myself at the time…
“Let there be no jams on the M25 today”
“I hope the weather’s good at the weekend”
“Please, can I have a stress free day at work”
You get the picture? I’m only talking to myself and voicing a wish for my present or future circumstances, not appealing to an all powerful deity to intervene on my behalf and I would bet that it’s something most people do more often than they realise.
A case in point: This lunchtime at the supermarket, I took my sandwich to the automatic checkout. I had a pocketful of loose change and I didn’t want to change a £10.00 note and acquire any more. Trivial I know, but I specifically said to myself,
“It would be great if I had exactly £3.28 in my pocket so I can lose all this shrapnel”
So I pulled out all my change and started feeding coppers into the machine, hoping I wouldn’t fall short and have to feed in a note. So guess what? I had exactly £3.28 in coppers and silver in my pocket. Not a penny more or a penny less. I’m not even sure if the odds against a pocketful of small change exactly matching the price of a random purchase are calculable, but I wouldn’t mind betting they are pretty long.
So what’s my point? I probably make these random appeals to providence on a regular basis. Most of them are immediately forgotten and many of them never manifest. But even when they do turn up an immediate improbable result I don’t ascribe it to articulating the desire, I put it down to dumb luck and coincidence.
If however I was of a superstitious disposition I might have read more into the event and convinced myself that stating my desire actually brought about the outcome I wanted.
This is very close to what happens when people pray. They have a desire for the world to be a certain way and they externalise a normal internal dialogue by directing it at whichever deity. Mostly, if things turn out different they’ll ignore or forget the prayer. But if things turn out how they want they chalk it up as a prayer answered. One person praying for things with a high probability of happening anyway may even see a pattern of success in prayer. Every once in a while someone, somewhere will pray for something with very low odds of actually happening; spontaneous remission of a cancer for example. But improbable does not equal impossible and if they appear to get a result, it really confirms the power of prayer for them and they claim a miracle.
To complicate matters slightly, desiring outcomes that you yourself have a reasonable chance of effecting can also add to the appearance of voodoo. Positive thinking, affirmations or prayer may motivate us to put more energy and thought into making the world conform to our desires, making the apparent cause and effect even stronger.
So, if you want to believe in the power of prayer, it is not a hard delusion to fall into.

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