An offer of prayer

I have a colleague who is a big fan of prayer. He’s an Evangelical Christian and regularly makes friendly offers to pray for people’s family and friends who might be sick. He seems completely sincere and I believe the gesture is well-intentioned.

However, many who receive his offers find them… not exactly offensive, but certainly irritating. Perhaps they’ve heard this kind of thing before and are anticipating the little sermon that so often forms part of the package of such offers. One person told me they felt like they were being “sold to”. I don’t know if anyone has actually taken him up on these offers, but I’m sure some were more receptive than those I spoke with.

My first thoughts were along these lines. The recipients of this kind of offer could be crudely divided into two categories:

  1. The ones who believe that intercessory prayer will work.
  2. Those who don’t believe it will work.

Now surely those in the first group would already be praying if they had a sick relative? It seemed strange to me that any god would be unable to hear a single prayer, but a chorus of prayer – well, that’s different, is it? Surely God doesn’t need a critical number of prayers before he’s willing to take action? As for those in the second group, well they’re not likely to take up the offer if they don’t think it will have any effect.

All of which lead me to wonder whether my Evangelical colleague’s motivation was rather more evangelical (small ‘e’). Perhaps he had that sermon up his sleeve ready to spring on a polite and unsuspecting enquirer. On the other hand it could have been an attempt to show (either to us or to his god) what an amazingly altruistic Christian he is.

Perhaps more likely is that he anticipated a third group, somewhere in between the other two. People who were perhaps desperate for the health of their loved-ones and willing to try anything.

So I questioned him about it and we ended up going for a drink and having a long discussion on this and related topics. Well, if I’m honest I mostly listened. Before that discussion I did some reading and thinking and managed to crystallize my thoughts on prayer. The main issue I had is outlined below.

(Disclaimers: IANAL (I am not a logician) and this might be full of holes, but I think my meaning is clear enough. Secondly, it borrows the idea from Ebonmuse’s thorough discussion of the Problem of Evil):

Assumption (1). The patient currently has a medical problem.
Assumption (2). Praying for the patient to be healed can cause miraculous healing of that patient.
Assumption (3). The god to whom the prayer to heal the patient is directed :-

a) Exists;
b) Is all-powerful (omnipotent);
c) Is all-knowing (omniscient);
d) Has perfect judgement;
e) Will only do what is right;

Conclusion (4). An omnipotent being would be able to heal the patient (from 3a, 3b);
Conclusion (5). An omniscient being would already know about the patient’s problem. (from 1, 3a, 3c);
Conclusion (6). Any patient whom the god deems it right to heal will already be healed. (from 3d, 3e, 4, 5)
Conclusion (7). It is not right to heal the patient (from 1, 6).
Conclusion (8). Praying for the patient to heal will not cause miraculous healing of that patient (from 6, 7)

Contradiction : ( 2 & 8 )

So I ask: What makes you think you (in your less-than-infinite wisdom) can change God’s mind about healing this patient?

That’s not the only problem with the idea of praying to a god to ask for things. As Greta Christina points out if a prayer doesn’t work the answer always seems to be:

“You did something wrong. You didn’t pray hard enough. You didn’t pray right, with the right kind of feeling or faith. You didn’t get enough people to pray for you. There’s something wrong with you. It’s your fault.”

Even more perniciously, any unreliable offer of healing can cause those most in need to abandon genuine treatments which might actually help them.

I’m going to continue asking awkward questions and challenging my colleague’s ideas about prayer. He tells me he’s keen to question and test his beliefs, so I’m hopeful I may be able to encourage him to try some kind of formal test or experiment. Maybe I’m too optimistic…

13 thoughts on “An offer of prayer

  1. Nice first blog entry, Eshu, well done!

    In my opinion, the reason for his offers of prayer must be the following, as you already mentioned:

    >> On the other hand it could have been an attempt to show (either to us or to his god) what an
    >> amazingly altruistic Christian he is.

    He’s either showing it to us (to attempt to convert us to his religion), or is spiritually “sucking up” to his God, which, since God is reportedly omniscient, is doomed to failure. I imagine the big guy rolling his eyes whenever one of these serial prayerists spams him with more junk-mail.. maybe he even puts them on a filter?

    Just for clarification, I’m an atheist. ;)

    Keep up the good work, I look forward to your next article.

  2. came from daylight atheism. your blog is interesting; i look forward to reading more.

    I’ve heard a better solution to your argument against prayer. It says that the purpose of prayer isn’t to affect god, it’s to affect the believer and improve the connection between god and him/her.

    That way, prayer becomes very similar to positive thinking. If you’re praying about someone’s health, you might go over and do something nice for them. Pray for patience in some situation, pray for wisdom in solving some problem, you’ll get it.

  3. Welcome Chris,

    Yes, that’s the only real effect I can believe prayer having, similar to meditation etc. My friend does claim that it helps in those situations, although I’m not sure he’s thought about the reasons behind that claim. However, he is making a stronger claim also, namely that it helps the recipient or “prayeree” (his word, I would have said prayee?).

  4. EXCELLENT post, and great, irrefutable logic. I’m not a logician either, but you’ve definitely done a great job. I’ll have to bring this up to a family friend of mine, who actually believes that at least three people have to pray for something before ‘God’ will listen.

  5. I suspect that prayer “works” in the same way that homeopathy “works”; that is, via the placebo effect. However, this does rather require a substantial investment of faith on the part of the prayee (yes, I think “prayee” is better than “prayeree”) – praying for an atheist would have much the same effect as handing them a pill and saying, “here, it’s just a sugar pill, no active ingredients at all.”

    Actually, thinking about it I suspect prayer really “works” in the same way as tossing a coin “works”…

  6. There was a tragedy at the factory I work at and a man was killed. My boss got everyone together the next day to pray for his family. A donation box was put up and I donated everything I had in my pocket. I was asked why I gave so much and I said, “Because every quarter you put in that box helps his family more than all the prayers uttered that day.”

  7. Pingback: Suspicion of a Soul « Blue Linchpin

  8. The one and only post on this thread from me:

    Re: Assumption (2). Praying for the patient to be healed can cause miraculous healing of that patient.

    Q: Are you basically saying here that it is not impossible that praying could miraculously heal that patient?
    sub-Q: if so, does the phrasing, do you think, change the perception of your premise?

  9. Hi John,

    Perhaps I could’ve made this more clear in my post. I included this assumption as it is made by those who offer prayer as a means of healing. I’m not saying that I think it’s possible for prayer to heal, as the rest of my post should make clear; I consider it as a hypothetical situation for the sake of argument.

  10. I’ve tended to just see these things as like well wishing. We all do it, an expression of “I hope he/she gets better”. In that respect it’s harmless.

    Prayer can have a positive effect on the person praying or the people with them. Group prayer seems good in terms of sharing problems and counseling. I wonder how much this is like meditation or in Buddhism Metta Bhavana (practicing feelings of compassion). As long as you don’t start praying for thunderbolts to hit certain people. I have talked to someone who was approaching that kind of praying, or at least praying to God to ruin someone’s day on the basis that they are not Christian.

    Concerning your logic – the conclusion would be that the person should not have got ill in the first place. Why go through the trouble of making them ill then healing if you can avoid it? Unless it was for a point.

    If a god is omniscient then he/she should know the full state of your mind and your desires at any point. Christian hymns talk of this. Just feeling for the person in that instant should be enough to indicate that you wish them to be better. Prayer must therefore have an entirely psychological purpose, even in the presence of a god. It can only be to cause change, humility perhaps, in the person praying.