August 24, 2007

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, and yet they 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 entirely without temporary benefit.

When the person praying is an adult, it is only natural for us to ask what else the adult 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 particularly interesting is the scenario where adults ask other adults to join them in prayer (e.g., pray for the miners) or to pray en masse for a common goal. In my humble opinion, this speaks volumes about the nature of belief.

Does the believer think that more individuals praying will result in a better outcome than just an individual believer praying? Why? Is it to make sure their god hears them? I thought their omniscient god already knew what was going on without any prayers whatsoever. Of course, that would mean that intercessory prayer is always worthless because one isn't telling one's god anything he/she/it doesn't already know. Is it because their god must be persuaded to help? If their god is benevolent, added persuasion should not 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.

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