Associate professor of psychology at Indiana University Kevin Ladd is renowned for his thinking and research on prayer. Below he gives serious consideration to a comparison that unbelievers delight in making:
To some observers prayer looks a lot like playing the slots.
With a slot machine you put something in (money) and what you’re hoping for (money) may or may not come out after you pull the lever (or push the electronic button on contemporary machines; the lever was too much strain for people’s elbows).
The player is counting on luck bringing a big payout. In reality, the machine pays out in small increments closely monitored and controlled by the management. Those small payouts keep the expectation of winning at an elevated level. Psychologists refer to this as an example of intermittent reinforcement (a variable ratio schedule to be more precise). You never know when those shiny, noisy coins will roll down the flashing-light bordered chute so you keep playing because success feels ever so near. The draw is incredibly strong. People will forego bodily functions of all sorts in order to keep playing “their” machines, in the fervent hope that the big money payout will cascade down with the next cycle. When the payout does arrive, its magnitude is rarely compared to the amount invested, but it is readily viewed as a victory that justifies past and future behavior.
On the surface, prayer looks quite similar. You put something in (petition, confession, argument, praise) and what you’re hoping for (a response from God) may or may not demonstrably happen after you say “amen.” The payout is still linked to the “management” and it not possible even for the most adept practitioners to accurately predict its form or arrival.
A second similarity between playing the slots and prayer is the possibility of reward. In some circles, people keep prayer journals to record both the prayers uttered and the outcomes of those prayers. (Casinos DO NOT encourage this sort of careful input/output comparing behavior among slots players.) It is not uncommon for the “answer” column to remain empty for an indefinite period of time. When the column is filled in, the answer may well be recorded as “no” indicating that the request was denied; alternatively, the person will detail how the answer fundamentally changed the nature of the original prayer. In other words, answers to prayers are not by any means guaranteed to be either direct or favorable.
Thus, an impartial observer would be correct to argue that slot machine and prayer behaviors have much in common. But at deeper levels of investigation, we find that prayer differs from playing the slots in at least two primary ways.
First is the relationship of the “players” with “the house.” People who play slots construe their goal as “beating the house” in a monetary competition. Players know full well that they are on their own; bankruptcy is their own problem and the casino is not going to offer to bail them out. The fundamental motivation in this case is competition and, more crassly put, greed.
Prayer is also often about seeking resources, but for believers “the house” is a benefactor not a competitor; the driving force behind some prayers may be personal gain, but the petitioner’s gain does not deprive God of limited resources and is never construed as winning against God. Answered prayer, in fact, may bring God and the petitioner into closer partnership.
A second difference may be even more spiritually significant. When people who pray believe their requests have been answered in unexpected or even negative ways, they often re-interpret the results as positive spiritual lessons instead of clearly negative financial losses. This re-interpretation is legitimate in the spiritual realm in a way that it is not in a casino; metaphysical accounting operates under principles that are, by definition, beyond those allowable when dealing with physical cash.
In summary, while feeding the one-armed bandit and praying share common observable behaviors, their underlying characteristics are starkly different. There is an intentionally inequitable down-side to the competitive, beat-the-house nature of playing slot machines while practitioners of prayer argue that there is an unlimited up-side to praying where even hearing “no” from a beneficent God can be a positive event.