Is Prayer a Zero-sum Game?

Photo: pauli antero

I’m not a rabid sports fan. I’d rather do anything short of self-immolation than listen to sports-talk radio and I tend to skirt people who genuinely, inexplicably, like it. However, I sometimes use sports metaphors to explain my ideas to my loosely packed community of friends and family.

People, especially men, like clubs, and tend to understand any concept drawn around the notions of exclusivity and prowess, such as, religion and specifically, prayer.

I wonder if prayer is a zero-sum game. Must there be a loser in order for there to be a winner? It’s certainly the case for sports, but I’d like to think a truly pious person would say praying for your hockey team to win is an abuse of grace. That type of stretching of heavenly radiance is not uncommon. There is a belief among segments of, let’s call them, Mediterranean cultures, that when having trouble selling their house, they should bury a statue of Saint Joseph, upside-down, in the front yard. How pagan of them.

If prayer is a zero-sum game that means God (assume one for this post) picks winners and losers. The Jesuits teach to always ask the next question, which in this case is; why would God do that? Then; how does God do that? Then—you get the idea.

This is not to malign the praying for such things as a child’s recovery from an illness. Even people who aren’t necessarily religious give credence to the power of prayer. Yet, for every family whose child regained their health, and who credits the power of prayer for instigating that recovery, there is a story of a little white casket. Does that mean I think we shouldn’t pray? Of course not, but that’s not my point. The point is I do wonder if there is a loser even among the perceived winners. Spiritually speaking, does the fact that the child’s life was spared mean the afterlife was denied the impending arrival of a pure soul? Was another young life snuffed out to fill the void?

When you change your perspective, you find new questions, new insights and eventually, you get closer to the truth.

We cannot know God, but only seek to know God. Sidebar: The televangelists and other self-aggrandizing leaders of fundamentalist sects claim to know God, but they are full of shit.

But we can try, perhaps. The congregate-as-seeker narrative drives us to do what’s necessary to get closer to the ideal so that when it finally comes time to give up the ghost, we’re happy to do so. That seems manipulative, but I may be digressing into atheism. If it’s not manipulative, it’s purposeful, meaning it’s possible a fundamental purpose for a sentient being is to live life as though it were a quest, one that religion, conveniently, facilitates. It is an appealing concept to most humans. It’s one of the primary drivers of fiction; one of the three or four essential stories. Humans seem hardwired to a sort of quest-imperative. It’s why early peoples moved from place to place, not simply in search of food but in search of meaning. Before we developed religion, we sought knowledge. Things we couldn’t understand were made less scary when couched in the notion that a greater being must have the capacity to create and to see all. It’s intriguing. So humans set about learning to see all—to run faster, build means of voyage, fly and then search higher and longer to get closer to omniscience or be in its company.

We like the vision quest, but we also like team sports. Some of our early alliances were formed around our team’s manner of belief in the almighty or some cognate senate of almightiness. Humans also like to fight, which is understandable from the clan-protection aspect. There is a need to defend against those who want to hurt you or take your stuff. We like to watch others fight as well, which is kind of twisted, but speaks to the prowess thing, harking back to our animal instincts to impress the ladies and hump out some progeny. Beyond the biological, clan-derived necessity, humans get a perverse pleasure watching the other side lose. It’s an international pastime from rugby matches to spelling bees. Don’t you love to watch Rhonda Rousey beat the fluids out of her opponents? Schadenfreude is a paradox of human evolution.

Strictly speaking, fighting is not a zero-sum game; there are draws, but praying for a victor can be. Praying as a spectator, whether around the octagon or observing a holy war, is silly if one accepts that God answers all prayers. “Well, I’m only praying my boy comes home safe.” That’s great, until you consider his survival means the boy in the other trench has to die, and his parents are losers in the prayer-off. So tell me again how these choices are made?

Let’s not get off into just wars, the beating back invading Huns. I get it. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m simply asking; if prayer is a zero-sum game, then under a myriad of circumstances, one prayer answered means someone else’s wasn’t. If not, then there are never losers. There is always an unknowable greater good that benefits the ‘loser’, if not now, then some day, in some cosmic way. If there are losers, then we are merely selfish, praying for outcomes that benefit us, at the expense of others, or that give us peace now, without regard for the ultimate quest, the knowing of God.

Either way; “What’s it all about, Alphie? Is it just for the moment we live?” For “something even non-believers can believe in…” click on the image to watch Cilla Black and Burt Bacharach bust out a classic.

Abbey Studios 1965
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2 thoughts on “Is Prayer a Zero-sum Game?

  1. Hi Joe, interesting thoughts on prayer . I don’t think it’s zero sum but that’s me, and I’m an atheist. Though I don’t disagree there is an unknown power to prayer, (more so to bring together those who are praying than for whom they are praying), I think it can be dangerous if it paralyzes people and makes them feel helpless to do more. If god is almighty, and you’re praying to him for help and he can’t help… then what? Believe as much as you like, be as pious as you want to be — but don’t expect that by doing nothing more, it will change things …. Putting too much hope in the hands of some higher power is delusional. eden

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