To understand why the question is important, you first need to know certain claims from The Bible:
Mark 11:24 -- Therefore I say unto you, What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them.
John 14:14 -- If ye shall ask any thing in my name, I will do it.
Matthew 18:19 -- Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.
That seems straightforward enough, right? Believe in God, believe in Jesus, and believe in the power of prayer. If you believe in all of those things, anything you ask for through prayer will be granted to you. Yes, anything. No ifs, ands, or buts -- says so right there in The Bible quite explicitly. With so much power in the hands of the devout, you'd think disease, suffering, and sadness pretty much would be things of the past.
Alas, such is not the case. And since that is not the case, there are just about two conclusions that you can come to: 1) Christians suck at praying or 2) prayer doesn't do anything. And, to be fair, those aren't mutually exclusive. Luckily for us, we can test the efficacy of No. 2.
Here's a simple experiment, and it brings us to the titular point: Let's have two groups of amputees, one control group that goes about their normal lives and one group that prays for their limbs to be restored. My hypothesis is that -- and I'm going out on a limb here -- members of neither group will see their limbs restored. Honestly, I doubt a significant number of amputees ever have prayed for their limbs to be restored and expected it to work. Even devout believers and Bible literalists wouldn't suggest prayer as a means to heal amputated limbs.
Now let's do a different experiment. This time we get two groups of cancer patients. On group prays (or is prayed for) to get healthy and the other group does not pray (is not prayed for). My hypothesis here is that both groups will have the same survival rate. The difference with this experiment is that people wouldn't feel silly praying for such a cure because cancer can be cured, and sometimes cancer just goes away.
The problem, however, is that if the cancer is cured by medical science or goes away mysteriously, God and prayer can get the credit, but if the cancer sticks around and kills the person being prayed for, God/prayer aren't thrown by the wayside. So, good result = God did it. Bad result = "I guess it was just his time," or "God works in mysterious ways." God is praised for good things and given a pass for bad things, even if the good outcome was prayed for -- and remember, you will get what you pray for, so this should work 100% of the time according to The Bible.
The truly horrible justification for results counter to prayer is the "God works in mysterious ways" cop-out. And yes, that is a cop-out. Those who say this are simply practicing cognitive dissonance to prevent themselves from realizing the truth about their god either not existing or not caring about them and their prayers. I could say the mysterious pink unicorn in the sky works in mysterious ways and you wouldn't take me seriously.
talks about the efficacy of prayer when dealing with ailments like heart disease (and it cites tons of sources and studies). The gist of the article is that results are mixed. It says that prayer was shown to be effective in some studies and not effective in others (groups that weren't prayed for actually had a higher survival rate or fewer complications).
The conclusion they give? "At this point, available scientific evidence does not support claims of reduced complications in those who receive prayer."
Pardon me if I give a big "No shit" to that conclusion. Anything other than overwhelmingly positive results for the power of prayer kills the argument for prayer as stated in The Bible. The Bible explicitly says you'll definitely get what you pray for, but real-life examples have proven that to be false. And in the few studies that point to prayer being effective, the margin of success is small enough to be accounted for by either a placebo effect or chance/variance.
Cancer.org ends the article with a (presumably purposefully) wishy-washy warning that "relying on this type of treatment alone and avoiding or delaying conventional medical care for cancer may have serious health consequences."
What they mean is, "If prayer worked, you could just do that and not come in to get medical assistance. But prayer doesn't work, so it'd probably be a good idea to go to a doctor. Go ahead and pray anyway, if you want -- but just please make sure that the use of medical science is non-negotiable. If you have to, think of it as God's alley-oop from the real world."
So, back to the original point: Either the supremely benevolent, merciful God hates amputees and refuses to cure them or the omnipotent God only can cure illnesses that also can be naturally cured. Either way, you run into a paradox.
Oh, and next time you see a disabled veteran, I dare you to tell him that he's not praying hard enough, and that's why he still doesn't have any legs.
-- The Atheist Apologist --