For some reason, it bugs atheists that Christians pray. Atheists spend time trying to disprove the efficacy of prayer. Trying to convince us that prayer is make-believe. Why is that?
Surely they don’t feel threatened by Christian prayer. After all, they don’t believe in a God who answers prayer. So it’s not as if the Christian is doing something that’s somehow harmful to the unbeliever.
Maybe they object to prayer because they think prayer is a waste of time. But why is that objectionable?
A waste of whose time? Not the unbeliever’s. He doesn’t pray. And if a Christian wants to waste his time in prayer, how other folks spend their time is none of your business.
In the long run, what does the Christian have to lose? If the atheist is right, everyone loses everything sooner or later. If the atheist is right, he has just as much to lose as the Christian. So it’s not as if the Christian has more to lose.
Besides, don’t unbelievers tell us that what makes life meaningful is whatever is meaningful to you? Atheists admit that life has no objective meaning. God didn’t put you here for a reason. So the only meaning there is to life will be subjective meaning. The things you do to make life meaningful for you, on your own terms. And that varies from one individual to the next.
But in that case, even if (arguendo) prayer isn’t objectively meaningful, it remains subjectively meaningful to the Christian. From an atheistic standpoint, that makes it no more or less meaningful than whatever an atheist does to superimpose personal significance on his own tenuous existence.
Unbelievers also object to prayer because it’s so intangible. How does the Christian know that God is listening? He’s praying to somebody he can’t see, or hear, or touch. He’s making a wish: hoped-for futurities which, in the nature of the case, he can’t see or feel at the time of prayer. So praying to God seems to be empirically and psychologically indistinguishable from talking to yourself.
And no doubt there are times when Christians find the intangibility of prayer a bit disconcerting. Where it has an air of unreality. Where talking to someone and talking to no one feels much the same.
Yet, when you think about it, prayer isn’t in a class apart from other things we experience. Take the past. Certain things that happened to us.
These were real events. But from the present perspective, they are now intangible. You can’t go back in time. All you have are memories. Yet remembered events are just as intangible as nonevents. At that point they aren’t much different than something you see in a movie or read in a novel.
Things that happen to you were real. They happened in real time and real space. But from the present perspective, they don’t occupy your time and space. And yet they may be more significant to you that most day-to-day events.
What about counterfactuals? By definition, that’s a nonevent. Something that didn’t happen. Can’t get more intangible or unreal than that. Yet some nonevents can be more significant to you than real events.
Take a close call. You almost died. Or someone you love almost died. You came within an inch of dying. Maybe a driver ran a red light when you were crossing the street. A bystander tackled you just in the nick of time.
There’s a tremendous sense of relief as you look back on that near miss. Enormous gratitude.
Some people experience life-changing events. But a close call may be a life-changing nonevent. Suddenly you don’t take life for granted. You don’t take your loved one’s life for granted. Every minute counts.
Something that didn’t happen to you on that day can be far more significant to you than something that happens to you everyday of the week. Even though it’s utterly intangible, even though there’s an obvious sense in which that’s unreal, it seems very real. For it seems as if you could just as well have taken that fork in the road. A split second separates you from the onramp to that alternate timeline. (BTW, determinism can account for this, too.)
In fact, a close call prompts some survivors to reexamine their lives. They must have been spared for a reason. They weren’t taken sooner because they still have something in this life which they need to do.
For now I’m not commenting on whether this reaction is justified. I’m just pointing out that our lives are shaped by past and future intangibles. Prayer isn’t unique in that regard. Even if, to all appearances, all your prayers go unanswered, that wouldn’t reduce it to a psychological projection or exercise in futility.