January 6, 2018

Intercessory Prayer and the Nature of Belief

Mary Magdalene, in a dramatic 19th-century pop...
Mary Magdalene, in a dramatic 19th-century popular image of penitence painted by Ary Scheffer. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Intercessory prayer, not to be confused with imprecatory prayer, refers to Christians praying on behalf of others. For example, such prayers might be offered for the benefit of an ill member of one's congregation. They seem innocent enough, perhaps even admirable in some cases. They also raise important questions about what Christians believe and the degree to which they truly hold the beliefs which they commonly espouse.

If we imagine a 6-year-old boy praying that his older sister will survive her surgery, we are hard-pressed to see a problem. Science tells us that intercessory prayer does not work, so the worst we could say about the boy is that his prayers are futile. But it isn't like his prayers are distracting him from helping in some other way (he's only 6). In all likelihood, he finds his prayers a source of comfort because they provide him with feelings of control over something uncontrollable. Illusory to be sure, but not without temporary benefit.

When the person praying is an adult, it is only natural for us to ask what else he or she is doing to help the situation. "You are praying, but what are you doing that might actually help?" Similarly, we might wonder whether the adult has learned developmentally appropriate coping skills.

Where things become interesting is the scenario where adults ask other adults to join them in prayer (e.g., pray for the miners, calls for thoughts and prayers) or to pray en masse for a common goal. In my humble opinion, this speaks volumes about the nature of religious belief.

Does the believer think that more individuals praying will result in a better outcome over one believer praying? Why? Is it to make sure their god hears them? Wouldn't an omniscient god already know what was going on? If so, it seems like that would mean that intercessory prayer is always worthless because it isn't communicating anything to one's god that he/she/it doesn't already know. If it isn't designed to inform one's god about what is needed, is it intended to persuade one's god to help? If such a god is benevolent, it is unclear why such persuasion would be necessary.

Perhaps believers know that their intercessory prayers offer no benefit to anyone other than themselves. When something good happens to a loved one, believers are going to thank their god. This will be the case even if they never offered any intercessory prayers at all. When something bad happens to a loved one, believers virtually never blame their god. This will be the case even if they offered a multitude of intercessory prayers.

An earlier version of this post appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2007. It was revised in 2018 to improve clarity.