I can’t honestly say that I have ever felt the presence of god when I’ve prayed, or ever felt any kind of relief from anything outside of myself. Some people would tell me that they have felt this profoundly and unmistakably. I have felt many other things while praying, lots of it very good and helpful, but never any kind of connection with God. Whenever I have prayed, I have always felt alone with my suffering and slightly stupid about trying to communicate with something that I have no sense of.
Yes, things happen, or not, and then we draw causal links between things, sometimes accurately, sometimes wishfully. I can’t judge whether anyone’s prayers have truly been answered, but I can see how people might erroneously believe that their prayers were answered. That, as well as my own inability to perceive anything beyond myself spiritually leaves me with no belief in god.
Yes, people often believe things simply because they want to believe it or believe it for the wrong reasons. This in itself, of course, does nothing to show that God doesn’t exist or that he doesn’t answer prayers. And if God exists and does answer prayer, then it is at least reasonable that someone could claim that God answered their prayers.
You mention that you cannot “perceive something beyond yourself spiritually” and presumably you mean you have never perceived God. It also seems your expectation is that some kind of “feeling” would accompany such spiritual perception. I think such “feelings” are experienced very differently by different people, and so it would be difficult to prescribe what kind of feeling someone should or will have when they perceive God.
At this point I can merely give examples of what influenced my own perception of “something beyond myself spiritually”. It’s not that any one such instance of perception is overwhelming, but rather that there is a cumulative effect when thinking about various aspects of who I am and about the world I live in. Maybe the best way to explain such perception would be to say that God, who is quintessentially spiritual, is for me the best explanation for
- why anything at all exists rather than nothing (see here),
- for the beginning of the universe (see here),
- for the fine-tuning of the universe for the existence of intelligent life (see here),
- for the existence of objective moral values and duties in the world (see here),
- and for the historical facts concerning Jesus of Nazareth (see here).
- Even the very possibility of God’s existence implies that He exists (see here).
I think most significantly of all is that I have known and experienced God in the context of a relationship over an extended period of time. It is especially in this intentional and relational context that I have experienced prayer as significant and meaningful, in a way that someone who doesn’t have such a relationship with God probably wouldn’t and can’t experience.
Well, these are just some of my thoughts. You are welcome to ask further questions should you feel the need to.