Prayer and Religious Rituals: Do They Actually Have a Physical Effect?

Whenever religious people are asked for evidence that their beliefs are true, it is common that they will cite answered prayer as one of their top reasons for believing. Answered prayer and miracles, to many people, are indisputable signs that their god is real. However, most of these supposed answered prayers and miracles are not remotely supernatural.
Do prayers and/or religious rituals have a physical effect? At one time I would have emphatically answered yes. Read my thoughts if you like and then come to your own conclusions.

The ancient Mayans believed that their gods controlled the weather. They had an elaborate system that they believed caused rain to fall: They paid taxes to the elite rulers, who then paid the priests to perform sacrifices and rituals. Their logic went like this:
“We always pay the priests to perform the rituals, and it always rains eventually. Therefore, the gods control the weather, and our rituals cause them to make it rain.”
But their reasoning was incorrect. We now know that the rain would have come whether they did their rituals or not; rain is not caused by sacrifices, but by dusting mixing with moisture, etc. They incorrectly correlated two complete unconnected events: Their rituals and the weather.
And what if it didn’t rain after their rituals? Well, they assumed that the gods were angry, and they did even more rituals. Since it always rained eventually, their incorrect beliefs were solidified yet again.
But they are not the only people who incorrectly correlated their religious actions with the weather and other natural events. Many ancient cultures have also believed that their rituals and prayers helped to alter natural occurrences. However, like the Mayans, we now understand that there isn’t actually any correlation between the rituals they performed and the weather: the weather would have happened the same way whether they prayed or not.
If you believe that something is impossible without a god’s intervention, then when that something happens, you will see it as proof that the god/s exist and your beliefs are right- even if they aren’t actually connected. Here are some other examples.
Human frailty. Many religious people convince themselves that they are incapable of doing even menial tasks on their own. Thus, when they are able to find their keys, pass a test, stay awake on a long drive, etc., they assume that god must have given them the ability or strength. However, this requires you to completely dismiss your natural abilities in order to believe it. Since many non-believers can do the same things without prayer, this is another illogical correlation of events.
Just because you did something you didn’t know you could do does not mean a prayer was answered; it is more likely that you are simply unaware of or are in denial of your actual abilities. Most humans can do much more than they believe themselves capable of; that’s why we are amazed by humans who have tapped into their potential, such as top athletes, people with extraordinary disciplines, or scientists who can understand very difficult concepts. Also, when faced with stressful situations, adrenaline often takes over and helps us do incredible things. That’s why someone surviving a car crash may be able to lift a car off their child- the temporary adrenaline gave them extra strength to do the seemingly impossible.
Natural disasters. Science can tell us exactly why most natural disasters occur, and often can predict them. There is absolutely no mystery behind tsunamis, floods, hurricanes, and most other natural disasters or severe weather that once terrified our ancestors because they didn’t understand the cause. However, many people STILL believe that gods are responsible for these events, and that their prayers can alter these events.
Disease and illness. If you believe that god heals, then when you get better you will naturally assume that god healed you. However, many minor illnesses heal themselves, such as the common cold; saying god healed your cold is illogical and unimpressive because colds generally heal themselves anyways. If you get medical assistance or take medicine, it is probably the medical assistance that brought about your healing.
But what about supposed miracles? Medical science is not exact, so there are some possible answers for supposedly miraculous or supernatural healings:
1. People don’t accept the doctor’s answer. I hear this all the time- people cry “miracle” and the doctor says “no, this is an unlikely result, but not impossible medically.” But many people will ignore a doctor’s response in favor of believing that they experienced a divine intervention. In other words, people want it to be true, so they look for things that could support their beliefs and dismiss the possibility that they could be wrong.

2. The original diagnosis was incorrect. I watched a show recently where a boy fell from a small cliff and people prayed over him. They believed he had broken some bones, but they didn’t know for sure until the X-ray. The X-ray showed no broken bones- so they praised god for a miraculous healing. But was his arm broken at all? It may have hurt, but how do they know it was actually broken to begin with? Doctors can misdiagnose problems too- it happens all the time. So being told you are free of an incurable disease or severe problem may be the result of an original misdiagnosis, not a miraculous healing.
3. The human body doesn’t always conform to expected medical results. Medical science isn’t exact- a treatment that generally only offers small or limited results may have a major result on a specific person, causing a doctor to be surprised. Your body may react well to a treatment that rarely works on other people. This happens because we still don’t fully understand medical science yet, and because people’s bodies are all different from each other. It does not necessarily mean that there was anything supernatural about it; you just might be one of the few people that respond differently to that treatment.

4. The human body is capable of many things we don’t fully understand yet. The power of our minds and bodies are not yet fully known- it is very possibly that we are, to some degree, capable of healing ourselves by sheer willpower. It is well documented that believing something hard enough is sometimes enough to cause our bodies to respond. The brain is like a computer, and sometimes changing the “programming” (our thinking) can fix the problem on its own. So prayer may indirectly help, but not because there’s a god; believing that you are healed may be enough by itself in some cases. Doctors often encourage meditating, prayer, positive thinking, etc. because they all have similar beneficial results- a healthier mind. The healthier your mind is, the better your body can heal itself. For example, some paralysis is caused by the mind- heal your mind, regain your movement. If you are depressed and discouraged, it’s harder for your body to heal itself.

5. If healings really work, then why do we never see an amputee’s limb grow back in front of us? This is because human limbs simply don’t grow back. Unlike most other physical ailments that could potentially be healed by natural means, an amputated limb cannot be fixed without outside assistance. Have you seen someone’s arm grow back? Have you personally seen someone’s leg regrow in front of you? If not, why? Conveniently, the medical issues that are miraculously “healed” are usually the ones that our bodies are potentially capable of healing on their own.

 

I will admit that sometimes things do happen that there seems to be no logical explanation for. However, I don’t think it’s necessary or reasonable to say that “God must have done it” just because we don’t have an answer yet. If history has shown us one thing, it’s this: Everything that we understand now was once a mystery to us; the more we understand the world, the less supernatural explanations are necessary. I would rather be honest and admit that I don’t have an explanation yet than resort to mystical reasoning. I don’t need an answer for everything- sometimes it’s ok to say “I don’t know.”

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