When I was a Christian, I had this sense that the deity I believed in would answer my prayers. Sometimes they’d be really small ones, like help on a test or to accomplish some minor task I was having trouble with. The bigger ones – like getting a job or making the decision to attend law school – provided so much relief when I felt they were answered. It was a reassurance that one particular architect of the entire cosmos would change things just enough on my behalf to make my life better. As it turns out, that reassurance isn’t exactly justified.
I had no ability to know what divine force was at work.
All justifications for answered prayer rely on mere attribution. They change with the belief system of the person saying prayers get answered. Christians, Muslims, and Jews will credit their versions of their deity. Other faiths will credit deities, supernatural beings, and other forces. Some people will admit that perhaps any and all of these deities are real and granting wishes, and others believe that they’re all manifestations of one actual and true divine wish grantor.
So which one is it, and how can you exclude other deities?
The answer is pretty simple.
For any answered prayer, what divine agency is necessary? To get a job, an answered prayer means that some deity was more persuasive to your new boss than how you applied for it. To win some contest, an answered prayer means that a deity had to compensate for you, rather than your own skill contributing to the victory. To receive a parking space, it means a deity had to alter reality in your favor rather than having a free space you could drive into.
The theme between all of these thoughts is that divine agency seems less likely than natural events. Not only that, divine agency isn’t needed at all to make them happen. Take out the raw belief that a deity affected things, and you get people who did things for themselves. It becomes so ordinary that it’s positively boring.
In effect, prayer robs people of believing in themselves.
Sure, I get why people do it, because I used to do it too. For me, it was this way of feeling like the deity I believed in would actually do stuff for me. These were tangible things that I could offer up as proof that I wasn’t just making stuff up. Over the years, I’ve learned that doing so let me deny my part in acting on my own behalf.
That’s the hardest thing to shake when it comes to doubting faith. Nobody wants to be ungrateful to a potentially powerful entity that is willing to do things for you. It’s like having a really powerful friend who helps you out in spite of yourself. Denying its existence is like turning your back on it. This becomes the best excuse to keep pretending you’re not your own best asset.
As an atheist, though, I have to point out the weight of the evidence is in favor of people acting on their own behalf. People who apply for jobs eventually get one. If a person looks for something, eventually he or she will find it. Life isn’t more complicated than that.
So give yourself some credit, and accept that at least sometimes you’ve earned what rewards you’ve received.