Saturday, October 09, 2010

Brief Comment on Intercessory Prayer

I got into an exchange with someone who insisted that prayer offers people something "inside"--even if it's not true that it actually changes anything in the real world. Ironically, I agree, which is why I think it's horrible. Here's an analogy inspired by the dialog:

Intercessory Prayer, a hypothetical: I put an ad in the local paper saying I am retired, but have experience and contacts in the business world and can help people find work. They need only drive out to my house--an hour outside the city--and bring me their resume and talk to me about their work history for 30 minutes. I don't charge anyone a dime.

You are a reporter and you'd like to do a story on me and the inspirational work I'm doing. I meet with you and you ask me how it works. How do I help these people find work? I say, "Oh, after the applicants leave, I throw their resumes and vitaes in the trash. I don't actually do anything to help them find work. I just like knowing that I provide them with a sense of hope and inspiration that things might improve for them--since they believe I can help them. In fact, I was a bus driver all my life and have no real business experience at all.

Am I a kind, caring helpful person offering a benefit to people? Or an asshole who wastes their time? Remember--it only takes 2.5 hours of their time, and they're still looking for work on their own. But am I helpful or a dick?

In the context of the church--organized religion--they do charge for this "service." And in addition, there is a story in the news just about daily of parents who didn't seek medical help for their children because their churches teach that god will heal if it's His will--and a doctor is a demonstration of a lack of faith in god.

So, let's redo the scenario above to say I tell people to give me 10% of their net worth if they want me to take their case, and that in some cases I tell them that I won't help them unless they cease all other independent job hunting.

Again--helping or hurting? Kind or asshole?

Is this really hard?


  1. I think I have statet this one or two times before, but still: It's unbelievable how people twist and bend in their arguments about religion.
    It's not just that they believe in all this made-up stuff, they seem completely unable to imagine at least how disgusting and immoral their practices must seem to someone who does not share their belief.
    I am certainly a very, ahem, devout atheist, but I have no problem accepting that, if the Catholic Church is right, I'm screwed and atheism is dangerous to people, so of course they oppose us.
    On the other hand, I can't wrap my mind around how they, even if their beliefs were completely true, can see anything morally right in the system their bible describes. So maybe I am just as blind to their side of the argument as they are to mine...

  2. I'd say it's more like a Pyramid Scheme:

    Tho you may not actually be extorting money, you still provide no tangible product or service for your "customer"'s investment in time.

    Once you do start charging 10% of their net worth, you've _defintely_ become a Pyramid Scheme tho.

    Intercessory Prayer strikes me as simply a mild form of the above.


  3. I'm sure in some cases he does offer hope to people and that they carry forward with new found vigor but what about the people that decide since someone else has decided to help them they shouldn't put in any effort at all and will let the work come to them? Knowing that some people will do worse as a result of your actions negates any positive effect you have on the group as a whole. Further more, nearly all the people that found hope would likely have kept trying had you not intervened, so if you would have concentrated on those that stopped trying after talking to you then that would have been a worthwhile effort.

  4. I like that analogy Tracie. It's also very revealing when religious people start off with claims about a super-being who transcends the universe... only to then water things down into "Well, this ritual kind of makes people feel a bit better.", after you challenge such claims.

    It's as if they lower the burden of their claims in order to extract agreement from you - and then ramp the claim back up as if you have agreed with the original statement: "Well that's all I was saying!"

  5. First of all, most churches don't really 'charge' for prayer,and most would be appalled that people think that. I've been to tons of churches, and talked to tons of christians, and none have charged for prayer. also, I have never given even close to 10% of my income to a church.

    Intercessory prayer helps I think because the person being prayed for knows someone cares about them (the person that is praying). That's half the battle. People need to know others care, others love them, and that others want them.

  6. "Again--helping or hurting? Kind or asshole?"

    You forgot to mention 'criminal asshat'.

  7. @Teapong:

    >First of all, most churches don't really 'charge' for prayer

    And I've never been to a church that didn't pass a plate and preach on tithing as a command from god. Are there churches that take your money and tell you that if you're not with their particular brand of Christianity you're not right with god? You don't think this is common? I can only wonder where you live and where you grew up?

  8. Additionally then, you also think the guy who throws the resumes in the garbage but doesn't charge a fee is fine. Wow.

  9. @Scott: Your comment just reminded me of something I'd forgotten. When I was a minor living at home, our neighbor "got religion." He quit working and would only say "The Lord will provide." The Lord did provide, in fact. The Lord put his wife back to work extended hours so the guy could sit in a pew praising god all day and preaching to his neighbors.

    Mysterious ways, right?

  10. I went to every church in town when I was younger. I was born an atheist and wanted to check out what was going on in these churches. As a new arrival your promised God will cure you, make you wealthy & wise and all manner of promises. After a month or two the excuses start as you find yourself just as poor, ignorant and sickly. If you persist with the complaints they then tell you its your fault, your lack of faith.

    This is the method I encountered in every church I'd attend. Promises, more promises then blame the victim when promises aren't fulfilled.

    They pay 10% of their gross earnings for this abuse!! That's some sick twisted S&M going on!!

  11. This reminds me of a very curious experience I had at a local restaurant some years ago, where I couldn't help overhearing the conversation between two Christians at the table next to me. One was basically asking the other, "So, do you have anyone else you'd like me to pray for?" in a perfectly matter-of-fact tone of voice, as if he were offering to put in a good word on someone's behalf with his supervisor at work. The other would give him names of people he knew, and it was clear both believed there was some actual service being performed here, and not just that this was a feel-good exercise so the man whose friends were being prayed for would have a warm comforting reassurance that someone cared. It was genuinely strange.

    But as we've seen in the exchange below with Marymanard, this stuff perpetuates because for Christians, the post hoc fallacy is how prayers get answered. "Someone prayed for me, or I said a prayer, and some indeterminate time later, a good thing happened, therefore God answered my prayer." Irrational beliefs are sustained by irrational minds.

  12. This is a timely post for me personally.

    My cousin's husband had a terrible accident last week. When he was first taken to the hospital and it was unclear what the extent of the damages were, my very religious family were sending the word out to please pray.

    Well unfortunately, doctors determined that there was nothing they could do for him. He was brain dead, and they need to think about when to pull the plug. The calls for prayer abruptly ended at this point.

    Then, another doctor told my cousin that there were some signs of brain activity, so they should schedule an MRI. All of the sudden, the calls for prayer were on again:
    "He is able!" "pray for a miracle!".

    They had the MRI, and confirmed the main part of his brain is dead. Predictably, there is no talking of why god didn't answer any prayers. Instead, the whole focus has shifted from praying for a miracle to praying for god to give comfort. "A comfort that only HE can give."

    My cousin is going through a living hell right now so it's not like I'm going to rant about prayer [to them - instead I'll rant here at AE], but honestly, it's so annoying to see them going on and on about prayer when it's so obviously ineffective.

    If my cousin's hubby had an unexpected recovery, there is no doubt my whole family would be attributing it to a work of god. But where nothing happened, it doesn't even occur to them to question why god (who is able) opted not to do anything.

  13. Teapong? wrote:
    "Intercessory prayer helps I think because the person being prayed for knows someone cares about them (the person that is praying). That's half the battle."

    Did you read the major study from a couple of years ago about intercessory prayer? People who were in the hospital didn't get better if they were being prayed for. In fact, people who knew they were being prayed for did significantly worse.

  14. @Teapong
    "Intercessory prayer helps I think because the person being prayed for knows someone cares about them (the person that is praying). That's half the battle. People need to know others care, others love them, and that others want them."

    Sitting with them is just as good at the most basic level. If you go a step further and actually offer to help them if they need it, the effects can be drastically increased.

    ...just sayin'

  15. @Excredulous:

    That's an interesting story. I find it most interesting that the prayer call seemed to only be used when there was some hope for natural or even medical intervention recovery. When he's diagnosed as brain dead--no more prayer call. Why not? Is god inhibited by brain death? God can't revive a brain dead person? I thought prayer could move mountains...?

    @Curt. So glad you remembered that. I read that study as well when it came out. Was hysterical that only the people who _knew_ they were being prayed for did WORSE with post op complications! So, yes, there is no evidence that knowing people are praying for you helps. So funny. I'd totally forgotten that.

  16. I recently had a talk with some Mormon missionaries, and they tried to convince me that the Mormon church doesn't encourage tithing.

    Nice try, except you forgot that ALABASTER CASTLE in Salt Lake CIty, you charlatans.

  17. @Tracie

    "I find it most interesting that the prayer call seemed to only be used when there was some hope for natural or even medical intervention recovery. "

    EXACTLY. It seems that they know on some level to only have hope when there is some conceivable natural solution, which they will then turn around and deem a 'miracle' if it happens.

    Even now, he's still technically alive. Why stop praying for a miracle now? It's sad that they have to confuse this terrible situation with all this god nonsense.

  18. I've been sitting on this story and meaning to share it.

    A while back I cashed a check at a bank on the campus I was at at the time. I took lunch at the student center and there were, as often are, a table set up by some group in the major forum where they get a lot of foot traffic. It was for some christian group, I walked by and the guy there asked me

    "Do you want me to pray for you?"

    I must have really shocked him when I shot back an automatic "No, Why would I?".

    I took a few steps and saw a poster that there was a blood drive going on that day. I donate often as I have a useful type, but was recently given a tetnus shot and couldn't this month. I then turned around and called out to the guy. He seemed really relieved and happy that I did, until I told him "If you want to do something to help though You can donate blood in my place today since I can't this month."

    He just stared at me as if actually doing something to help people was a totally alien concept. I got irritated and informed him of some soup kitchens that were a few blocks away and that his group could do far more good actually going out and doing something. Really, anything rather than standing around and asking people if they wanted them to put in a good word with Jesus.

    I don't think my request was appreciated or understood but that event really pissed me off. Those people got to sit around in an air conditioned room within walking distance of an indoor food court and just spam people as they walked by, and left feeling as if they were charitable and generous people. That guy probably left sure that his profound display of thoughtlessness and laziness made him a good person.

  19. I once prayed to FSM when I lost my keys, and within 10 minutes I found them! (True Story! :P)

    I'm living proof that intercessory prayers work.. Especially when you have pasta to guide you :O.

  20. Joking aside..

    I'd say that offering what is essentially an intellectual placebo is pretty skeevy. It may make them feel better for a time but the end result is that the person offering is taking credit for work that the person who's *supposedly* receiving is doing on their own.

    I can't remember who said it, but I recall someone saying that two hands that help are better than a hundred hands that pray. I've never seen any reason to doubt the validity of that statement

  21. Wow, it really was a brief comment. From Tracie. Who would have thought. It's a miracle! :)

  22. I'm just now having a discussion with some cleric (He has some fancy title I don't know in English, but basically he manages a catholic monk's choire, I guess.) who goes around telling people to pray for Hungary because of their toxic spill.
    When I asked him if he believed that prayer actually changes God's plan, he said: "No, of course His plan is unchangeable, but praying opens me and gives me strength to help fulfil his plan."
    When I asked him for the sense in praying for others, then, he said:
    "Well, prayer helps me to find strengt, but it can also change things everywhere on the world by opening other people to God's influence and power."
    When I asked if he meant that praying does bring about things that would not have happened without it or if he stands by his claim that God's plan is unchangeable, he said:
    "Both and neither."
    Thanks. I rest my case.

  23. @Martin, you must be out of the christian loop. I have family members that have prayer group every week and the members all bring a list or have specific prayer topics each week.

    In their defense, if you asked any of them for any real tangible help with something, they'd do it straight away. They really do help people in the real world also. But somehow this has become some form of weekly entertainment for them. Instead of playing games each week or finding another common interest, they do this odd "find things to pray about" meeting.

    I'd prefer they just enjoy themselves, because it really seems to me like an ego driven suffering thing. You know, they could be enjoying themselves ,but they're too giving for that. They want to think of themselves in some masturbatory good light, so they do this instead. I wish they would just help people when they can, because they certainly would, then enjoy the company of others without the pomp. Instead it's this self congratulatory wank fest of nothingness.

  24. My grandmother often says she's "praying for" me; these days, I haven't the heart to tell her it probably won't improve upon anything I could do, myself... :-/

  25. @Lurker:

    Being a former believing Mormon, I can honestly tell you that yes, they were being very disingenuous if that is what they were telling you. All Mormons must pay a 10% tithe or they will not be members in good standing, and cannot attend the temple (that alabaster palace in Salt Lake city).

    Now, if only I could get a refund for all of those years I paid 10%...

  26. This topic is really tough. Not to us but to believers. A relative of mine who evangelizes to me once or twice a year believes in the bible almost solely based on positive prayer response. That his business and family are doing so well because they prayed for it and worked hard for it. Really it all happened because they're great people with a great business model that doesn't leave a customer unsatisfied. But the affirmation that these things they prayed for came true set his belief in stone. Even though I don't mind him bringing up his opinions and suggestions of faith, i don't think I could ever convince him otherwise based on his personal experience with prayer.

  27. Unusual for you to write a brief comment...;-) Still, you make your point.

    There is something about prayer that makes it a racket better than any other: the crook doing it is often as sincere as the victims.

  28. The sense that any sort of prayer has actually had any effect is all post hoc rationalization. When asked why god does not answer most prayers, the standard response from ministers is, "Sometimes the answer is no, or not yet." In other words, there is no way to demonstrate the difference between active prayer, random prayer and no prayer at all. The fallback position that prayer might produce some positive psychological effect begs the question of belief. Why do you need a belief in a supernatural entity in order to meditate or to wish someone well? You don't.

  29. Commenters seem to think that if some people are screwed up about the concept of prayer and how it works, it must be true that prayer cannot work. They are obviously commenters who have no concept of what proof means or what logic is or what reason means.

  30. some people are screwed up about the concept of prayer and how it works

    So, they were praying the wrong way? Is that your argument?

  31. Stan is implying that he has some special grasp on logic, reason, and that there is proof that prayer works. I would be interested to see all three presented, because this would be the first time I have ever seen any of them consistently applied to prayer. He must be really really bright, and have access to information that no intelligent believer has been able to dig up in the past 2,000 years.

  32. You all are all wrong.God is so powerful and majestic that you don't even know.

  33. Oh my God, you're so right, Shane. I'm totally convinced now. Excuse me, I have to go to church and get right with the Lord.


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