C.S. Lewis on the Efficacy of Prayer

Can the efficacy of prayer be measured scientifically?

Personally, I would be a bit skeptical of any scientific study that claimed to have found a clear relationship between prayer and “desired outcome”. I’m of the opinion that this understanding of prayer (a mere tool for getting what we desire) is fundamentally flawed.

This is the same misunderstanding that Dawkins makes with his “God Hypothesis” paradigm (i.e. “the existence of God is a scientific hypothesis like any other“). This viewpoint takes a very small view of God (and, by extension, of prayer). Rather than acknowledging God as the ultimate Source of all knowledge and human experience, it seeks to detect the existence of God as an entity within the physical universe – like one might detect dark matter or alpha particles. It regards God as a variable within a system rather than the Creator and Sustainer of the system itself.

CS Lewis Not Impressed

In his book “Miracles” (buy it HERE, or check out my review HERE), C.S. Lewis offers the following commentary on free will, divine foreknowledge, and the efficacy of prayer. His model includes some important qualifiers and details that I’ve glossed over, but this excerpt conveys the basic idea:

“Suppose I find a piece of paper on which a black wavy line is already drawn, I can now sit down and draw other lines (say in red) so shaped as to combine with the black line into a pattern. Let us now suppose that the original black line is conscious. But it is not conscious along the whole length at once – only on each point on that length in turn.

Its consciousness in fact is travelling along that line from left to right retaining point A only as a memory when it reaches B and unable until it has left B to become conscious of C. Let us also give this black line free will. It chooses the direction it goes in. The particular wavy shape of it is the shape it wills to have. But whereas it is aware of its own chosen shape only moment by moment and does not know at point D which way it will decide to turn at point F, I can see its shape as a whole and all at once. At every moment it will find my red lines waiting for it and adapted to it. Of course: because I, in composing the total red-and-black design have the whole course of the black line in view and take it into account. It is a matter not of impossibility but merely of designer’s skill for me to devise red lines which at every point have a right relation not only to the black line but to one another so as to fill the whole paper with a satisfactory design…

line-man

It is never possible to prove empirically that a given, non-miraculous event was or was not an answer to prayer. Since it was non-miraculous the sceptic can always point to its natural causes and say, ‘Because of these it would have happened anyway,’ and the believer can always reply, ‘But because these were only links in a chain of events, hanging on other links, and the whole chain hanging upon God’s will, they may have occurred because someone prayed.’ The efficacy of prayer, therefore, cannot be either asserted or denied without an exercise of the will – the will choosing or rejecting faith in the light of a whole philosophy. Experimental evidence there can be none on either side. In the sequence M.N.O. event N, unless it is a miracle, is always caused by M and causes O; but the real question is whether the total series (say A-Z) does or does not originate in a will that can take human prayers into account.

This impossibility of empirical proof is a spiritual necessity. A man who knew empirically that an event had been caused by his prayer would feel like a magician. His head would turn and his heart would be corrupted. The Christian is not to ask whether this or that event happened because of a prayer. He is rather to believe that all events without exception are answers to prayer in the sense that whether they are grantings or refusals the prayers of all concerned and their needs have all been taken into account. All prayers are heard, though not all prayers are granted. We must not picture destiny as a film unrolling for the most part on its own, but in which our prayers are sometimes allowed to insert additional items. On the contrary; what the film displays to us as it unrolls already contains the results of our prayers and of all our other acts. There is no question whether an event has happened because of your prayer. When the event you prayed for occurs your prayer has always contributed to it. When the opposite event occurs your prayer has never been ignored; it has been considered and refused, for your ultimate good and the good of the whole universe. (For example, because it is better for you and for everyone else in the long run that other people, including wicked ones, should exercise free will than that you should be protected from cruelty or treachery by turning the human race into automata.) But this is, and must remain, a matter of faith. You will, I think, only deceive yourself by trying to find special evidence for it in some cases more than in others.”

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15 thoughts on “C.S. Lewis on the Efficacy of Prayer

  1. This makes me want to re-read Lewis. I like his take on this very much.

    I also loved your opening comment about Dawkins; this is a fundamental flaw that needs to be pointed out often.

    Thank you for posting this.

    • Thanks for reading! And I do admit that part of my motivation for this post was getting to go back and re-read portions of “Miracles”.

  2. While I do not care particularly for the “pattern” found in the “Line-man” picture, I adore the “Line-man” picture for the simple fact that it helps convey the thought more clearly.
    While I sometimes delude myself into thinking I have a great mind, after reading Lewis’s words I am always reminded of how far I have to go intellectually and in my relationship with God! That man could think and write so clearly!
    Thanks for the reminder and refresher!

    • I can definitely relate to what you say about Lewis.

      (And yeah, the “pattern” you see in the Line-man picture is what happens when an artistically-deficient guy like myself tries to throw something together in 5 minutes on Microsoft Paint. Haha.)

  3. I just have a couple of comments on your interesting/excellent piece, don’t know how well they relate but here goes.
    1. Is Faith really Faith if it needs proof? Actually, in Heaven we won’t need Faith (Cor 13……”only love remains”) Cuz we will see face to Face……awesome!
    2. When we pray, sure we can and should ask for worthy things….. Health, protection from physical and spiritual harm, getting good grade on test, but a Faithful person understands “thy will be done” ( echoing Mary’s fiat….. Can’t help that my Catholicity slips out). That’s our ultimate prayer because God knows what’s best for our temporal earthy lives and our immortal souls.
    3. Your thing with the lines and comment about people not realizing God is Creator and Sustainer reminds me of something I read from Mark Shea. He shows a line on piece of paper saying point A is beginning of history and end of line is present time. Our minds which are finite and mired in time look at line and say well, God entered time at this exact point but actually God is not just another historical figure that entered time, he’s also Eternal ( Alpha and Omega) so he’s not just a point on the line, He IS the line, heck, he’s the whole piece of paper. Christ isn’t just everywhere, He’s every when.
    Anyway, not sure why I blathered on and on, hope i didnt go too off subject.
    Have you read The Screwtape letters? Lewis really shows his grasp of the human condition in that book.

    • Great points! I *have* read Screwtape, but I was only in the 4th or 5th grade at the time. Haha. So I’m probably overdue to read it again.

  4. Fantastic post… I also think you should re-read Screwtape Letters. It profoundly influenced me, and continues to do so. Sometimes I even think Screwtape is winning in my life… *sigh*

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  6. “It is never possible to prove empirically that a given, non-miraculous event was or was not an answer to prayer. Since it was non-miraculous the sceptic can always point to its natural causes and say, ‘Because of these it would have happened anyway,’ and the believer can always reply, ‘But because these were only links in a chain of events, hanging on other links, and the whole chain hanging upon God’s will, they may have occurred because someone prayed.’ The efficacy of prayer, therefore, cannot be either asserted or denied without an exercise of the will – the will choosing or rejecting faith in the light of a whole philosophy. Experimental evidence there can be none on either side. In the sequence M.N.O. event N, unless it is a miracle, is always caused by M and causes O; but the real question is whether the total series (say A-Z) does or does not originate in a will that can take human prayers into account.”

    This is just an obfuscated argument from ignorance. “You can’t prove it’s not a miracle from God”. There’s really no reason why I should find this convincing at all.

    But I’ll assume that it’s not terrible logic for a moment. The question then becomes “to what degree should I attribute seemingly natural occurrences to prayer?”. This is a bigger problem than a believer might first suppose. One may overattribute occurrences to Divine Will by virtue of confirmation bias, in which case they might misconstrue a divine opinion. Many a cult has been started this way.

    • In an argument from ignorance, one asserts that a proposition is true because it hasn’t been proven false. It’s a fallacy because it creates a false dichotomy (true or false), and fails to acknowledge that the veracity of the proposition might *actually* be unknown (or unknowable, as the case may be).

      That’s exactly what Lewis *isn’t* doing here. He’s recognizing the fact that this proposition (namely, “God’s will influences human events”) is unknown, and actually arguing that it’s [experimentally] unknowable.

    • His mere claim that you can’t prove or disprove prayer experimentally is fine. But this is what gets into fallacy territory:

      “but the real question is whether the total series (say A-Z) does or does not originate in a will that can take human prayers into account.”

      … and all the way into the second paragraph.

      You can’t mince words to avoid a fallacy. He says they can’t be proven correct, but still maintains that miracles/prayer answers are real. His pseudo-agnosticism doesn’t protect him from this. If he’s putting a physical concept beyond examination and then saying the concept is real, then it follows from the lack of allowable negative proof that the thing can be permitted to be considered to exist without question. If you permitted proof one way or another, then you’d have to put the concept into question. Suspend proof and say that there’s no evidence on way or another (and indeed, that there can’t be), it allows for the possibility of truth. Then Lewis says we should say that it is true, so it’s true.

      And again, this isn’t a good position. It runs the risk of overattributing coincidences to God’s will, which is dangerous.

    • You really ought to read the full passage (appendix of “Miracles”), because you’re way off base here. In order to be a fallacy, Lewis would have to be arguing that miracles/answered prayer are true merely because they haven’t been proven false. He isn’t.

      Instead, he literally writes this on the very last page of the book, in an appendix. After he’s spent 300 pages explaining why he’s convinced that miracles/answered prayers are real. His assertion (“answered prayer is real”) doesn’t follow from the premise you’re attributing it to (“answered prayer hasn’t been disproven”). Lewis isn’t saying, “No one has (or can) disprove miracles/answered prayers, therefore miracles/answered prayers are real.” Instead, he’s saying, “…So now I’ve explained in this book why I personally believe that miracles/answered prayers are real. Now as a footnote, I should point out that it’s impossible to experimentally prove (or disprove, for that matter) that a given non-miraculous event was an answer to prayer.”

    • I’ll take your word for it, and I’ll see if “Miracles” is available on ebook so I can get some added context on this passage. As it stands, there aren’t many google results for this passage besides your blog.

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