Bronze-level articlePrayer

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When I was a little boy, I used to pray every night for a new bicycle. Then I realised, the Lord, in his wisdom, doesn't work that way. So I just stole one and asked Him to forgive me.
—Emo Phillips[1]

A prayer (from Latin precari "ask earnestly, beg") is a form of spell or incantation, usually cast or recited to a specific God or demon. Believers assert that their God hears their prayers and might even, if in a good mood, grant the requests contained within said prayers - a kind of celestial bonus package. On occasion, prayers are made to some third party who is believed to have the power to intercede on behalf of the petitioner, such as a saint or "the Lord's anointed" (royalty, religious leaders etc.).

Though many "studies" have attempted to prove that prayer gets results, there is no evidence of divine intercession actually occurring, other than occasional applications of the Texas sharpshooter logical fallacy.

Generic "prayers" are often offered by public figures, or people who run websites, or people who wish they did, in order to suck up to the vaguely religious majority of the population, thinking that they're free, and, who knows, they might help, and lawyers attempting to gain favor from judges. While these prayers are directed at manipulating the faithful (regardless of the manipulator is themselves actually a believer), the overall mechanism of praying is sucking up to God.

Contents

[edit] Types

[edit] Intercessory

I like it. There should be a button on my desk I can press and forty-nine people instantly pray for me.
— Jed Bartlet, The West Wing

Intercessory prayer is the act of praying for something to happen to someone else. It usually refers to a religious person praying for the health of another individual, but there is no reason it cannot refer to prayer with less altruistic purposes.

Unlike prayer for personal guidance, there is no reason that intercessory prayer cannot be tested through the scientific method. Praying for something to happen to someone else is a stated goal, and an expected result that can be tested for. For example, either prayer causes someone to improve their prognosis for a cancer treatment, or it does not. In this respect, it is no different to any other medical intervention, natural, supernatural, or otherwise. The nature of the intervention is not under scrutiny, but the effect is - as the effect is very much in the natural world. This puts it firmly within Science's field, even if you subscribe to a position such as NOMA. Accept no bullshit from people saying otherwise.

Perhaps because of the influence of fundamentalist Christians in the U.S., intercessory prayer has undergone much more study than other forms of faith healing. The results are not encouraging. A large scale review of the available evidence failed to show medical utility to the practice.[2]

Several large, randomized controlled trials have showed little or no effect of prayer. A double-blind study published in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet demonstrated no effect of prayer for patients undergoing heart surgery.[3]

Another study, supported by the Templeton foundation[4] in the respected American Heart Journal,[5] showed little effect. Furthermore, and somewhat disappointingly for the Foundation, the only effect noticed was a negative effect in respect of those patients who knew they were being prayed for. It has been speculated that this was the result of "performance anxiety" on the part of the prayees.[6]

When studies are designed well and double-blind, the effect of intercessory prayer disappears. This strongly suggests that any purported effects of prayer are due to placebo effects or poor research design.

Intercessory prayer is different from other forms of pseudoscience in that lot of people, particularly Americans, seem to believe in it. Despite this widespread belief, medical science has failed to confirm any significant beneficial effects from the practice. It would be wise to stop wasting resources on studies, given that most studies have been negative and no plausible explanation for the efficacy of the practice exists. However, the use of prayer is unlikey to cease due to a lack of evidence as people who truly believe in it will say that science can't measure it anyway.[note 1]

[edit] Imprecatory

An evil miracle is still technically a miracle.
—Black Mage, 8-Bit Theater

Imprecatory prayer is prayer asking God to kill, maim, curse, send into eternal damnation, or otherwise harm an enemy. Perhaps the most well-known imprecatory prayer is found in the Bible in Psalm 109, a Psalm which generally gets overlooked by sermon-writers.

"Love your enemies"? Not a chance. The teachings of Jesus go out the window here.[note 2] Those who say imprecatory prayer is scriptural point to Psalms, which contains several such prayers.[7]

The practice seems to be increasing in popularity lately:

  • Dr. Wiley Drake, of the First Southern Baptist Church of Buena Park, California, has decided to publicly "ask the children of God to go into action with imprecatory prayer" to try to get God to curse his enemies for him.[8][9][10]
  • Peter J. Peters leads his radio listeners in an imprecatory prayer against the "enemies of God" almost every show.
  • Fred Phelps used to say an imprecatory prayer against the whole world every hour, by the sound of it.
  • Psalm 109 is one of the imprecatory prayers found in the Psalms with "Pray for Obama: Psalm 109" bumper stickers and t-shirts.[11] Probably sold through the same outlets selling WWJD trinkets.[12]

On the other hand, proponents of name it and claim it theology teach that the words that come out of your mouth are a "creative force" which actually speaks something into being [note 3]. Therefore, they warn, watch what you say because anything you say can work against you as an imprecatory prayer. According to this teaching, if you say, "I don't feel so good today", you have just literally prayed an imprecatory prayer over yourself making yourself sick.[note 4] Don't say "damn it!" either because saying so is praying an imprecatory prayer over your current situation asking God to send you (or whomever) to Hell. If, by chance, you were born with the soul of a dragon and happen to say things in dragon language, this effect will of course be much stronger. So say only positive things which will speak health and wealth into your life, or don't say anything at all. Why multiple proponents of this haven't won the lottery remains a mystery.

[edit] Mechanized

Prayer flags in La Bolsa

The Tibetans have actually brought prayer into the Industrial Age by mechanizing it in the form of prayer wheels that turn a scripture on a scroll inside a drum, acting as an automatic prayer. In Nepal, prayer flags are used to make the prayer physical in the world.

[edit] Prayer cloth

A prayer cloth is a trinket mailed to gullible donors by certain televangelists in return for donating. It is blessed by the televangelist in question through the laying on of hands, making said piece of cloth a conduit for the Holy Spirit. This supposedly gives the cloth magical powers such as faith healing.

This bit of woo comes from the Bible, Book of Acts, Chapter 19: "And God was doing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, so that even handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were carried away to the sick, and their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them."

Disgraced televangelist Peter Popoff currently runs such a racket, since being discredited as a faith healer by James Randi. Popoff's particular trinkets include "Miracle Spring Water" and "Miracle Manna Bread". YouTuber Dprjones experienced regulatory indifference to the continued broadcasts of Popoff's TV programmes in the UK[13].

[edit] Efficacy

Prayer logic
Prayer: How to do nothing and still think you're helping.
—Common "de-motivator" poster

When prayer has been scientifically studied, it has shown that prayer has no noticeable effect.[14]

[edit] Can it be tested?

The empirical testing of prayer is a controversial issue.

Rationalists might offer the task to prayerful people to cause some slight change in the world via the power of prayer, such as tipping a pen off their desk. Religionists might respond that such tasks are beneath the dignity of their gods, so as to avoid the inevitable loss of face at being unable to do so. A search in pubmed on "intercessory prayer" shows that much of the medical ethical boards and philosophy gurus are all dubious if one can even study such a thing.[15]

Some woo-meisters take the position that prayer and other religious twaddle can have documented effects on a person's health. In some cases they go so far as to claim that they put a sick person in one room, and an alternative guru in another room behind a two-sided mirror, and that when the guru prayed, the sick person got better.[16]

[edit] Lower stress

However, medical studies have shown that for individuals, time spent in prayer can lower stress and therefore affect stress related illness. This is not due to God's interventions, but the secretion of particular hormones during moments of heightened focus such as meditation, solo prayer, and yoga. Prayer also has the illusory benefit of feeling as if you are doing something, when there is nothing else you can do for a situation.

When looked at as a biological, mental process, focused prayer has much the same personal effects as chanting, meditation or other methods of altered states of mind. Studies show that the act of prayer can help a person deal with stress and pain.[17] There is even proof that these mental activities physically alter the hippocampus which can effect people with depression.[18]

[edit] Case study: the Pope

Every time a pope falls ill and ends up on his deathbed, we may assume that a sizable fraction of the one billion Catholics in the world all pray for his recovery. Despite this enormous effort of prayer, 100% of popes eventually die.

[edit] Prayer in the Bible

British Roman Catholic theologian Gerald Vann adressed the lack of meaningful outcomes resulting from prayer, pointing out how people tend to treat prayer as some kind of childish butler bell for wishgranting, implying that prayers only appear to go unanswered due to the excessively inflated expectations of the praying.

Some people think that prayer just means asking for things, and if they fail to receive exactly what they asked for, they think the whole thing is a fraud.
—Gerald Vann

The actual problem, however, is that this is precisely how Jesus himself defines prayer in multiple places in the bible, corroborated by all four gospels[19] - thus effectively closing the door on any attempts by christian theologians to invent some kind of requirement that prayer must be "modest" or consist of "realistic demands" to be likely to be answered.

Amen, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, 'Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,' and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it shall be done for him. Therefore I tell you, all that you ask for in prayer, believe that you will receive it and it shall be yours.
Jesus (Mark 11:24-25), instructing the faithful on how to tell if a prayer worked or not, and what to expect in terms of results.

Jesus in fact stresses the flamboyant disproportionality of answered prayers as the definitive proof of their success, underscoring that the only mechanism causative of unanswered prayer is a lack of faith, however obscure this splinter of doubt may be even to the praying individuals themselves - and not any divine regulation against supposedly "over-the-top" demands in prayer (since the whole point of prayer is that faithful worshipers may be rewarded by an omnipotent God).

And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.
Jesus (Mark 6:5), telling the faithful that praying just to be seen praying isn't getting you anyhere.

This is a problematic state of affairs regarding christian prayer theology, since an imaginary opportunity for the church to get away with specifying prayer as "only that which is so subtle as to blend in perfectly with random chance" would at the very least allow for reliances on vagueness in the defence of prayer - strategies with their own set of problems.

[edit] Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer

The Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) is an experiment that was carried out by the Templeton Foundation on the effectiveness of intercessory prayer on patients recovering from coronary artery bypass graft surgery (e.g., to treat heart disease).[20]

Like all things Templeton, this project was created to provide scientific evidence to religious action (specifically of the Christian variety). The team, under the leadership of Harvard Medical School doctors Herbert Benson and Jeffery A. Dusek, et al, was granted a large research grant (USD $2.4M) to test the efficacy of this type of prayer.

[edit] Methodology

1,802 subjects, all receiving the same surgery and who generally believed that prayer works, were divided into three groups:

  1. Patients who would be receiving prayers, but didn't know it.
  2. Patients who would be receiving prayers and were told about it ahead of time.
  3. Patients who would not be receiving prayers (the control group).

Three groups of religious folk (two Catholic, one Protestant) from religious states (Kansas, Minnesota) provided prayers to the study subjects in groups 1 and 2 (whom they did not know) throughout the course of the study.

[edit] Results and reaction

The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.
Søren Kierkegaard

The results found no differences in the complications of groups 1 and 3, which a rational scientist would expect. Unexpectedly, however, patients in group 2 actually had more complications during surgery... a psychosomatic result of knowing about the prayers, perhaps? Indeed, in the study quoted, prayer had a small negative effect on the health of the patients prayed for.[21]

Of course the atheism community had a field day with these results. Richard Dawkins mentions the experiment in The God Delusion, and offers up the possibility that because prayer empirically made matters worse for the patients, that they might have a legal case against their well-wishers for willfully aggravating their conditions![note 5]

The Templeton Foundation, required to release the results of the study lest they lose face as a legitimate scientific institution, panned the results and did their best to play it down in the media.

Our study was never intended to address the existence of God or the presence or absence of intelligent design in the universe. The study did not endeavor, either, to compare the efficacy of one prayer form over another or to assess participants' understanding of the nature and purpose of prayer. Finally, it was not our objective to discover whether prayers from one religious group work better than prayers from another.

One wonders what their remarks would have been if the results had turned out in favor of the efficacy of prayer. And if these five things that they assert weren't part of the purpose of the study, then why spend so much money on it?

They suggested other possible reasons for the results (e.g., maybe if the patients knew they were being prayed for by loved ones instead of random strangers at a distant church), but no follow-up study was ever issued.

[edit] Quantity of prayer

The man who prays is the one who thinks that God has arranged matters all wrong, but who also thinks that he can instruct God how to put them right.
Christopher Hitchens, Mortality

Congregations are frequently exhorted to pray for something or someone. The idea apparently being that if entire groups of people pray for something, then the being being prayed to is more likely to perform miracles - not unlike the idea that the more people shake a vending machine, the faster it dispenses treats.

Exactly why they believe this is not clear. Possibilities include:

  • They believe their eternally perfect supreme being may, in fact, be slightly hearing impaired.
  • They believe that as the being has to listen to all the prayers, it simply gets bored and performs a miracle to shut the believers up.
  • They believe that if more people demonstrate faith then their God will be more impressed than if only one person demonstrates it.
  • They believe that a certain number of "prayer hours" are necessary for each miracle and consequently collective action gets things done more quickly (essentially a real life equivalent to the very dignified process of "grinding and farming" in video games).
  • They believe that prayer is like a lottery, one gets picked out of the hat each day so the more entries you have the more likely thy will be done.

Many of these "get blessed quick schemes" constitute textbook examples of magical thinking, and the suggestion that "the more people who perform the prayer, the more power it has" implies that the faithful don't really believe in an omniscient deity after all.

Rarely do the faithful connect this supposed need for some kind of game theory-inspired "prayer meta" to affect the output of an omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent eternal creator, with the suggestion that: maybe your pointless suffering is noted and even intended?

[edit] Paradox of prayer

Trillions and trillions of prayers every day asking and begging and pleading for favors. 'Do this' 'Gimme that' 'I want a new car' 'I want a better job'. And most of this praying takes place on Sunday. And I say fine, pray for anything you want. Pray for anything. But...what about the divine plan? Remember that? The divine plan. Long time ago God made a divine plan. Gave it a lot of thought. Decided it was a good plan. Put it into practice. And for billion and billions of years the divine plan has been doing just fine. Now you come along and pray for something. Well, suppose the thing you want isn't in God's divine plan. What do you want him to do? Change his plan? Just for you? Doesn't it seem a little arrogant? It's a divine plan. What's the use of being God if every run-down schmuck with a two dollar prayer book can come along and fuck up your plan? And here's something else, another problem you might have; suppose your prayers aren't answered. What do you say? 'Well it's God's will. God's will be done.' Fine, but if it Gods will and he's going to do whatever he wants to anyway; why the fuck bother praying in the first place? Seems like a big waste of time to me. Couldn't you just skip the praying part and get right to his will?
George Carlin, You Are All Diseased

A number of paradoxes appear to take place anytime prayer is seriously considered. One strange aspect of prayer is that the deed being prayed for has often been rendered necessary by the actions of the deity prayed to. A natural disaster or "act of God" often leads to prayers to the same God to alleviate the consequent harm. It would seem to give more bangs for the prayer bucks to pray for there to be a reduction in such disasters.

Another obvious problem is that prayer entails the idea of attempting to make an allegedly omniscient entity aware of something. It also involves messing with an allegedly divine plan, and divine plan or - indirectly arguing that the person praying could somehow improve upon God's intent or design.

To complicate matters further, the logic behind designing and creating lifeforms intelligent enough to not reliably offer uncritical praise, yet perpetually demand this of them unwaveringly seems to land our diagnosis of said creator somewhere between "unintelligent" and "malevolent".

I cannot believe in a God who wants to be praised all the time.
Friedrich Nietzsche

[edit] Godbotherer

If God can influence the course of events, then a God who is willing to cure colds and provide parking spaces but is not willing to prevent Auschwitz and Hiroshima is morally repugnant."
—Unnamed philosophy professor [22]

A godbotherer is a religious person who constantly "bothers" God with trivial requests, or so-called intellectual appeals to God as the necessary creator of everything, great and small. Godbotherers never seem to consider that their constant pleading of God might piss him off. Godbotherers place in God's hands everything from (in order of importance):

The term godbotherer is also used to indicate anyone who bothers other people about God.

[edit] See also

Icon fun.svg For those of you in the mood, RationalWiki has a fun article about People to pray for.

[edit] External links

[edit] Further reading

  • Heiler, Friedrich: Prayer. A Study in the History and Psychology of Religion. (1997) ISBN 1851681434

[edit] Notes

  1. Would these people still say it couldn't be measured if science got a positive result in favor of prayer? Unlikely.
  2. Well, unless the word "love" means God's love
  3. interestingly, "I create as I speak" is the origin of the phrase abra cadabra.
  4. This is a theme, for example, in such books as The Tongue: A Creative Force by Charles Capps and Hung by the Tongue by Francis Martin.
  5. Dawkins says with tongue inserted firmly into his cheek, but this is just one bullet in the large chest of ammunition against the case for religion as a benevolent institution.

[edit] Footnotes

  1. The Guardian - The best God joke ever - and it's mine! (September 1980)
  2. Roberts L. Ahmed I. Hall S. Intercessory prayer for the alleviation of ill health. update of Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2000;(2):CD000368; PMID: 107963500. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. (1):CD000368, 2007.
  3. Krucoff, M.W., et al. (2005). Music, imagery, touch, and prayer as adjuncts to interventional cardiac care: the Monitoring and Actualisation of Noetic Trainings (MANTRA) II randomised study. The Lancet, 366(9481), 211-217.
  4. abstract prayer
  5. Benson H. Dusek JA. Sherwood JB. Lam P. Bethea CF. Carpenter W. Levitsky S. Hill PC. Clem DW Jr. Jain MK. Drumel D. Kopecky SL. Mueller PS. Marek D. Rollins S. Hibberd PL. Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) in cardiac bypass patients: a multicenter randomized trial of uncertainty and certainty of receiving intercessory prayer. American Heart Journal. 151(4):934-42, 2006 Apr.
  6. Performance anxiety problem
  7. The prophet Elisha curses some children, and the Lord promptly sends some bears along to eat the cheeky little tykes
  8. "Pastor Wiley Drake Calls for Imprecatory Prayer against So-Called Religious Liberty Watchdog Group"
  9. "Curses, (Not) Foiled Again!"
  10. Death to Americans United for Separation of Church and State!, Talk to Action
  11. Psalm 109 is particularly nasty calling for the children of the person cursed to be lifelong beggars due to the sins of the father and more. Psalm 109:6
  12. http://schott.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/11/19/psalm-1098-let-his-days-be-few/
  13. [1]Dprjones's Popoff videos
  14. The Straight Dope: Have studies proven that prayer can help heal the sick? November 2, 2000
  15. The ethics of studying remote prayer.
  16. a review of studies on intercessory prayer
  17. Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Hölzel BK, Carmody J, Vangel M, Congleton C, Yerramsetti SM, Gard T, Lazar SW. Psychiatry Res. 2011 Jan 30;191(1):36-43. Epub 2010 Nov 10.
  18. Functional magnetic resonance imaging of hippocampal activation during silent mantra meditation. Engström M, Pihlsgård J, Lundberg P, Söderfeldt B. J Altern Complement Med. 2010 Dec;16(12):1253-8.
  19. EvilBible.com listing relevant Jesus quotes on prayer from Mark, Matthew, Luke and John
  20. Templeton Foundation: Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer
  21. New York Times: Long-Awaited Medical Study Questions the Power of Prayer March 31, 2006
  22. "Praying for Parking Is Evil" on Beliefnet
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