Watch almost any television news bulletin and you’ll hear someone praying for something to happen, or not happen. The background to their prayers is normally a real or potential tragedy of some sort. Individuals pray for themselves or those close to them to be cured of life-threatening illnesses. The relatives of people who have gone missing pray for them to be found and returned home safely. Families pray that the names of loved ones will not appear on the lists of those killed in plane crashes. Churchgoers pray for the victims of natural disasters. World leaders pray for peace. Prayers are often at odds with one another. A nation prays for victory in war. Its enemies do the same. Drought-stricken farmers pray for rain. Holiday makers pray for good weather. Sports fans from opposing teams pray that their team will win. There is no correlation between prayer and goodness. Saints pray. Suicide bombers pray. Both expect their reward in heaven. Our parliamentarians pray, beseeching Almighty God ‘to grant that we may conduct the affairs this House and of our country to the glory of Thy holy name, the maintenance of true religion and justice, the honour of the Queen, and the public welfare, peace and tranquility of New Zealand, through Jesus Christ our Lord.’
No-one who watches parliament could conclude that this prayer has ever been or is ever likely to be answered.
But then, in Christian theology, prayers can never be answered, since the doctrine of free will means that God cannot interfere in human affairs. That, at least, is the justification given by Christian theologians for God’s failure to prevent human suffering. He cannot interfere. In reality then, Christian prayers are only ever answered in the sense that something wished for actually happens. What really determines whether a prayer is answered is luck, fate, karma, being in the right or wrong place at the right or wrong time – whatever you want to call it. This is the only way you can explain the randomness of ‘answered’ prayer. Two hundred more or less equally innocent people are on a plane which disappears off the radar over the Tasman Sea. A search begins. Across New Zealand and Australia, relatives of the passengers pray that their husband, wife, son, daughter, mother, father, sister, brother will be saved. Only ten have their prayer answered. They and the media describe the survival of the ten people as ‘a miracle’ . The word has religious connotations, leading people to say, ‘Thank God!’. This immediately begs the question as to what the attitude should be of the relatives and friends of the 190 people who perished in the accident. Perhaps they should curse God? After all, the very concept of answered and unanswered prayer presupposes a selection process, based on some unknown divine criteria. God chose to answer the prayers of the relatives of ten of the passengers and not the prayers of the relatives of the other 190. Why?
Keeping God out of the equation altogether seems to be a more rational approach. The survival of the ten passengers was a ‘miracle’ only in the sense that it was, like all miracles, an outcome hugely against the odds. Crash investigation and the testimony of the ten survivors is considerably more likely to produce reasons for the crash and its aftermath in terms of human life than attempting to fathom the mind of some supernatural being. I’m an atheist myself, but even if I accepted the existence of an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent god, I would still be mind-boggled by the concept of Him/Her responding to ten trillion voice-mails a day asking for ten more years of life or a win on the Lotto. If I were God, I’d probably regret ever having created the sniveling, wheedling, importuning little creatures in the first place. I’d have a point. It’s hard to decide whether talking to God reflects the most extraordinary hubris or the most abject lack of dignity. As a non-believer I find it a depressing and demeaning picture – centuries of human beings on their knees, genuflecting, abasing themselves, trading worship for favours and forgiveness. And all for nothing. Of course the trouble with being an atheist is that if you’re wrong you’re going to take a lot of stick in the afterlife, but if you’re right, you won’t know it, let alone be able to crow about it. It’s a risk, but on the whole, I think the argument against there being a god or an afterlife is pretty conclusive. If I’m right, then all that praying and praising has just been white noise, lost in the ether. Return to sender, address unknown, no such number, no such zone.