Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Tuesday, December 5, 2023

The problem with intercessory prayer

There are many things I don't get about religion, but one of the ones I understand least is the idea of intercessory or petitionary prayer -- prayer that has as its intent to alter the course of something unpleasant like an illness or run of bad luck.

The Bible is full of examples of intercessory prayer, of God's wrath being turned away by a devout word in the Divine Ear.  In the episode of the Golden Calf (Exodus chapter 32), God apparently intended to destroy the Israelites for idolatry, but his judgment was altered by Moses' plea.  Even Sodom and Gomorrah, those pinnacles of depravity from the book of Genesis, would have been saved had Abraham found ten or more "righteous men" there.

All of this, to my admittedly unqualified ear, sounds as if God could change his mind.  The problem, so far as I can frame it, is this; in the typical Christian model of how things work, God is changeless, eternal, all-good, and all-knowing.  As such, the whole idea of a person's prayer altering the course of what God wants is a little silly.  God presumably already knows not only what is the best outcome, but knows what will happen; why would the prayers of one person, or even of everyone on Earth simultaneously, change that?  And what happens when you have equal numbers of devout people praying for opposite outcomes -- like what happens in the United States at every high-stakes sports event?  Does God simply tally up the number of prayers, or does the intensity of the prayers count?  Or the piety of those who are praying?

Old Woman in Prayer by Gerrit Dou (ca. 1630) [Image is in the Public Domain] 

So, in my effort to understand this idea, I turned to C. S. Lewis.  Even if I usually disagree with Lewis' conclusions, I find him to be generally rational, and certainly a clear, sober-minded writer on the subject.  Here's what I found, from his essay "Does Prayer Work?":
Can we believe that God ever really modifies His action in response to the suggestions of men?  For infinite wisdom does not need telling what is best, and infinite goodness needs no urging to do it.  But neither does God need any of those things that are done by finite agents, whether living or inanimate.  He could, if He chose, repair our bodies miraculously without food; or give us food without the aid of farmers, bakers, and butchers, or knowledge without the aid of learned men; or convert the heathen without missionaries.  Instead, He allows soils and weather and animals and the muscles, minds, and wills of men to cooperate in the execution of His will.
So far, sounds like the God/No God models look kind of the same.  But Lewis goes on to say:
I have seen it suggested that a team of people—the more the better—should agree to pray as hard as they knew how, over a period of six weeks, for all the patients in Hospital A and none of those in Hospital B.  Then you would tot up the results and see if A had more cures and fewer deaths.  And I suppose you would repeat the experiment at various times and places so as to eliminate the influence of irrelevant factors.

The trouble is that I do not see how any real prayer could go on under such conditions.  “Words without thoughts never to heaven go,” says the King in Hamlet.  Simply to say prayers is not to pray; otherwise a team of properly trained parrots would serve as well as men for our experiment.  You cannot pray for the recovery of the sick unless the end you have in view is their recovery.  But you can have no motive for desiring the recovery of all the patients in one hospital and none of those in another.  You are not doing it in order that suffering should be relieved; you are doing it to find out what happens.  The real purpose and the nominal purpose of your prayers are at variance.  In other words, whatever your tongue and teeth and knees may do, you are not praying.  The experiment demands an impossibility. 
What brings this up today is that a team in Brazil did exactly what Lewis suggests -- not with "properly trained parrots," but with a group of the devout who were told to pray for a group of COVID-19 sufferers, and who were honestly desirous of a positive effect.  The people doing the praying weren't told not to pray for the other group; in the setup of the experiment, they didn't even know the other group existed, so this circumvents Lewis's objection that the prayers wouldn't be valid because the people praying would only be "doing it to find out what happens."

The results, which appeared this week in the journal Heliyon, found zero difference in the survival rate, severity, or rate of complications between the prayed-for and not-prayed-for groups.

I am very curious as to how a Christian would explain why, if intercessory prayer works at all, the prayed-for group didn't show a lower risk of complications or death.  "Thou shalt not put the Lord thy God to the test," perhaps -- but all that means is that the scientists running the experiment were sinning, and you'd think God wouldn't be petty enough to let the prayed-for group suffer and die just to get back at the researchers.

Plus, there's the consideration that if ever there was an opportunity for God to show that what the Christians claim is correct, this is it.  You would think that if presumably God wants people to believe and to pray (and in fact Christians are positively commanded to pray, in a variety of places in the Bible), some sort of results would have been forthcoming.

You get the impression that even Lewis was a little uncomfortable on this point.  He said, "Prayer doesn't change God -- it changes me."  Again, I have to wonder how this would work.  How would praying for something to a deity whose mind I can't change, who knows what is "supposed to happen" and who will do what he chooses regardless, have any beneficial effects on me?  Imagine a parent whose mind could never be swayed by his children's requests -- and telling the children, "You should ask anyway, because it's good for you."

While I am not religious (obviously), I can at least understand the concept of other sorts of prayer -- prayers for enlightenment, prayers for understanding, prayers for courage.  But I really have no clue what the possible logic could be to praying for intercession, other than "the Bible says we have to -- never mind why."  Perhaps some reader will have a good explanation of it, but on the face of it, it seems like the most pointless of pursuits.



  1. off the top of my head, i would lean towards the definition of prayer as closer to meditation. The Lord's Prayer is supposedly a template for how to reach out to Our Father, but even that has a litany of requests. "Give us this day our daily bread" shouldn't be a plea for food, but a way to recognize the source of those blessings, a reminder to be humble, etc. Same with praying the Rosary, especially in the monotone repetition of words, it induces a meditative state which activates blah, blah, blah. (I gave up on prayer years ago.) Maybe "Good Omens" has the word for it: ineffable.

  2. Isn't all prayer intercessory? When you pray you're asking for something, even if it's just peace of mind, courage, understanding, or enlightenment. Otherwise you're just... thinking?

  3. saying "grace" before a meal is a prayer of thanks. Half of the "Our Father" prayer is simple worship. So no, not all prayer is asking for intervention or favors. But without a good balance of the other kinds, prayer devolves into selfishness. At least start with thank-you and worship before getting to the wish list.