"God is not a genie!"
"You atheists are mocking something you don't understand. You just don't understand prayer!"
When atheists point to the problem of unanswered prayers, some Christians are quick to respond that we just don't understand prayer and how it works. That seems like it could be a fair criticism; however, it fails to take into account that many of us are ex-Christians who once learned quite a bit about prayer and how it is supposed to work from...you guessed it...other Christians. It is almost as if the Christians who taught us about prayer and how it is supposed to work might share some of the responsibility for why we now fail to understand it. Maybe you should mention that the next time you are angrily accused of not understanding how prayer works.
Fortunately, it is never too late to learn about prayer. And I don't know about you, but I feel like I have learned far more about prayer from Christians since I left Christianity behind than I did back when I was a Christian.
The key thing I've learned about prayer from Christians can be summed up as follows:
The god in which many Christians claim to believe has a plan for them. They will never know the details of this plan - at least not until death - but that does not mean there isn't one. When they pray in a manner that is consistent with this plan, their prayers are answered in a way they recognize. When they pray in a manner that is inconsistent with this plan, it may seem like their prayers are being ignored; however, this only means that their prayers were somewhat misaligned with the divine plan.If this sounds like bullshit, that's because it is. But you have to admit that as far as bullshit goes, this is some pretty clever bullshit!
I realize that it sounds an awful lot like prayers are only answered when they are something one's god would have done anyway. That is, prayers are answered as long as what one prays for was already going to happen. There's a reason it sounds like this, of course. And those of you who have had a Christian yell at you about how "God isn't a genie" know that some are overly sensitive to this issue.
But we shouldn't be so focused on the "prayer only works if you pray for something that would have happened anyway" part that we miss what is really clever about this. By setting up the idea of a divine plan of which one must necessarily remain unaware (i.e., mysterious ways, etc.), the Christian is inoculated against thinking too hard about unanswered prayers. "I guess it just wasn't part of God's plan for me." What the atheist might interpret as evidence consistent with the possibility that gods do not exist the Christian can simply dismiss.
When an atheist brings up the topic of unanswered prayers and the Christian complains that we don't understand prayer, he or she has a point. Most atheists don't share this particular view of prayer. We are looking for evidence that would support god-belief, finding none, and concluding that gods probably don't exist. The Christian has already been convinced that god-belief is true and has many ways to excuse discarding evidence that is inconsistent with it. Fortunately, I suspect that at least some of these excuses are more rhetorical than anything and that many Christians realize that prayer is ineffective.