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Christian parents teach their children to pray, but is that wise?

The claims made for prayer in the Bible are hard to overestimate. Jesus said, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7). Jesus said, “Whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours” (Mark 11:24). Jesus said, “He who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do” (John 14:12).

Having the all-powerful creator of the universe just a prayer away is a lot of power. It’s an inconceivable amount of power. And we’re going to trust that to children?!

God intervenes

Christians will say that there’s no cause for concern because God will make sure to only grant safe wishes, but that’s not what the Bible says. The verses above, in context, don’t have such a limitation. Little Tommy could pray for his rival on the football team to get sick so he can start in the next game. He could pray that Susie returns his affections. He could pray that his math teacher dies so he doesn’t have to take that test on Friday.

One Christian response is to say that prayer can come with caveats. For example, in James 4:3, we are cautioned that we won’t receive when we “ask with wrong motives,” and little Tommy’s motives are pretty selfish.

Skeptics have a couple of responses. First: what part of, “Ask and it will be given to you” do you not understand?

Second: at best this admits that the Bible is contradictory—prayer has constraints in one place but no constraints in another. Ordinary, fallible Christians are left putting the pieces together, trying to make sense out of the contradiction (or discarding it as manmade mythology).

Purposes of prayer

Another Christian response is to say that prayer has lots of purposes—confessing sins, thanking God for the good things in life, reassuring God that he’s fantastic, and so on. But this is a smokescreen, and the prayer of petition remains the primary kind of prayer in the Bible.

Let’s admit that prayer can be beneficial in the same way that meditation can, but when you’re praying for someone else, meditation is not the point. The idea behind person A praying for person B isn’t for person A to feel better, it’s for a specific good thing to happen to person B.

Prayer as described by Jesus is powerful medicine, though there are different kinds of medicine. A bottle of sleeping pills left in the kitchen where small children could find it is reckless . . . unless it’s homeopathic medicine, which is just pretend medicine. And that’s the key insight—that prayer is like homeopathic medicine.

Prayer can be given to children with the confidence that it can’t be used for bad requests because it can’t be used for good requests, either. It’s just pretend.

The recommended age
to use a Ouija board is 8 years old.
So . . . you need to be 21 to drink alcohol
but only 8 to summon demons?
— seen on the internet


(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 11/9/16.)

Image from Nancy Big Crow (license CC BY 2.0)


CROSS EXAMINED In his first career, Bob Seidensticker designed digital hardware and was a contributor to 14 software patents. Since then, he has explored the debate between Christianity and atheism for...