Have you seen this meme?
Here's a satisfying response from Domini, da mihi hanc aquam!. He simply lists some of the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of priests, bishops, and friars who, as scientists, engineers, and researchers, did indeed get up and make a better world. Not despite of their religion, but in exquisite harmony with their religion.
It's a gratifying post, and instructive to all the smarty-pants atheists who sincerely (if inexcusably) don't realize what a desperate shambles the scientific and intellectual world would be in without the contribution and sustenance of Catholics. Even if you don't believe in God, you can't read a list like this and conclude that people who do believe in God are, by definition, ignorant, unproductive morons.
Most likely, the person who made the "if you want a better world" meme does believe that science and religion are mutually exclusive. But that's not precisely the point he's making in this meme. What this meme says is that prayer doesn't accomplish anything. Doing things accomplishes things.
And oddly enough, I agree, sort of. It's only in a very few rare circumstances that praying to God does make things happen directly. It's God's world, and He can do whatever He wants with it, and that includes raising the dead, making the sun dance, or whatever He wants. It's His world, His rules to break.
But most of the time, that is not how prayer works. We don't pray for a cure for cancer and find a vial full of miraculous medicine on the table. We don't pray to reach the moon on Christmas Eve and find a functional rocket ship waiting under the tree in the morning.
Praying doesn't make things happen. Praying makes things possible.
When a scientist or an engineer or a researcher does something that "makes the world better," it's not just "getting up off his ass" that makes that possible. It's a thousand other things, which are not necessarily directly or obviously related to the great discovery or achievement itself -- and yet they are indispensable. Scientists need, for instance, to sleep at night. They need to eat. They need to go to school. They need to exercise their bodies. They need to talk to other people. They need to learn about great scientists of the past. And they need encouragement from people they admire. None of these things could be described as "getting off their asses to make the world better" -- but are they meaningless or dispensable? Of course not.
So what does prayer do? It makes things possible. Prayer refreshes us like sleep. It strengthens us like food. It enlightens us like a good education. It energizes us like exercise. It stimulates us like good conversation. It inspires us with an example of greatness. And it encourages us like, well, like encouragement from someone we admire.
But prayer is more than that. The description I just wrote makes prayer sound like some kind of holistic centering exercise you can learn from a DVD, or something you could replicate in an especially dynamic meet-and-greet at the Synergists convention at the Mariott.
That is not what prayer is like. No, it is not.
Prayer is like deciding to use both hands to tie your shoe. It's like taking off your sunglasses when you're looking at sculpture by Bernini. It's like filling your pen with deep, black ink. It's like remembering a joke you heard when you were a child, and finally getting it. It's like adding the catalyst that changes everything. It's like telling your beloved what's really on your mind, and being delighted to realize that your beloved already knows. It is the conversation that happens before, during, and after everything great and small that we do. Prayer doesn't make things happen. Prayer makes things possible.
Do people accomplish things without praying? Obviously. It happens all the time. But that doesn't show that prayer is unnecessary. It just shows that God is so generous, He gives us what we need even when we don't ask for it. He's willing to talk even if we're not listening.
But when we do ask for it? When we do listen? When we get off our asses and onto our knees? It makes the world a better place. It makes us -- our brains, our hearts, our minds -- a better place. Praying doesn't make things happen. Praying makes things possible.