Thursday, October 30, 2008

the problem of petitionary prayer

I remember, as a second-grader who'd recently seen "Star Wars"* back in 1977, asking my dad whether God was like the Force. You might laugh, but back then I thought I saw a connection between (a) something Ben Kenobi had said and (b) the concept of petitionary prayer. Not only was the Force "an energy field created by all living things" that "surrounds us, penetrates us, [and] binds the galaxy together," but it was also something that interacted with us:

LUKE: You mean it controls your actions?
OBI-WAN: Partially. But it also obeys your commands.

Old Ben Kenobi seemed to be saying that the Force did one's bidding, and this was the possible parallel I saw with petitionary prayer. During such prayers, we ask God to do something for us:

Lord, it's been dry here for weeks. Let it rain.
Lord, it's been rainy here for weeks. Let it stop raining.
Lord, I've always been a Skins fan. Let them beat those Cowboys today.
Lord, I've always been a Cowboys fan. Let them beat those Skins today.
Lord, make me fast and accurate.
I want you to kill Peter Parker.

My dad disabused me of the idea that we mere mortals could command God, which pretty much ended that discussion. At age seven, I wasn't theologically sophisticated enough to press the issue.

Now, thirty-two years on, I find myself pondering the issue of petitionary prayer again thanks to this nonsense:

An al Qaeda leader has called for President George W. Bush and the Republicans to be "humiliated," without endorsing any party in the upcoming U.S. presidential election, according to a video posted on the Internet.

"O God, humiliate Bush and his party, O Lord of the Worlds, degrade and defy him," Abu Yahya al-Libi said at the end of sermon marking the Muslim feast of Eid al-Fitr, in a video posted on the Internet.

Libi, one of the top al Qaeda commanders believed to be living in Afghanistan or Pakistan, called for God's wrath to be brought against Bush equating him with past tyrants in history.

The remarks were the first comments from a leading al Qaeda figure referring, albeit indirectly, to the U.S. elections. Muslim clerics often end sermons by calling on God to guide and support Muslims and help defeat their enemies.

We'll leave aside the right-wing maneuvering on the Drudge Report that made this article so prominent ("Oh, no! If Obama wins the election, we'll be overrun by Muslims!") and concentrate instead on the issue of petitionary prayer, of which the above article provides an example.

The holy scriptures of various traditions often invite us to view the divine as a source of help, comfort, and refuge, so it is perhaps only natural for people to respond to such a message by actively seeking help, comfort, and refuge from the divine. From a modern scientific perspective, however, this all begins to look more than a bit... well, controversial, to say the least. Petitionary prayer strikes me as a type of magical formula, where "magic" here refers to words, gestures, and rituals designed to produce actual physical effects-- a fairly standard definition of "magic" in fields like anthropology. Case in point: attempting to pray away a disease.

But can one truly make a claim that prayer is physically efficacious? Can you consistently pray away a storm? A drought? A raging cancer? Some people respond to the skeptic's line of questioning by suggesting that, even if there's no divine power at work, prayer is at least efficacious as an auto-suggestive technique, a sort of placebo. Personally, I think it best just to leave aside the question of divine involvement-- something that can't be conclusively proven one way or another-- and focus exclusively on whether claims about prayer are consistently true.

This is, after all, the reason why so many modern folks are skeptical about the power of prayer: there's no consistent evidence that it works. At best, the evidence we have, such as it is, is anecdotal, i.e., scientifically useless. What prayer is and does often doesn't seem to make sense, either. As Carl Sagan noted, people pray at cross-purposes: one general prays for the divine to aid his army; the opposing general requests divine aid for his army. And whether the force of a petitionary prayer is multiplied by the number of pray-ers is in doubt: if one person prays for the health of a cancer-stricken loved one, is this less powerful than twenty people praying for that person? How about a thousand? As Sagan asks: if thousands of people pray for a sick national leader, and that leader dies, does this constitute data about the efficacy of prayer?

The reason there's a discussion about prayer at all is because many people of faith insist on making the claim that "prayer does X"-- e.g., prayer heals. This is a claim about prayer's physical efficacy, which means the results of prayer should be observable and measurable (here, we're not talking about more abstractly worded prayers along the lines of "Lord, help me better understand my wife"; we're focusing purely on prayer-- or the divine-as-motivated-through-prayer-- as an instrument of physical manipulation). If the theist tries to evade systematic skeptical inquiry with a dismissive, "No, no; you're missing the point," I'd say that it's actually the theist who's missing the point: you don't make an unsubstantiated claim about the physical world ("prayer can cure cancer") and then walk away before the claim's been tested! The burden of proof lies squarely on the claimant.

The scorecard doesn't look good for prayer, if for no other reason than the fuzziness that surrounds discussion about prayer's effectiveness. Some people will, for example, claim that failed prayers, i.e., prayers that are either answered in the negative or not answered at all, produce no positive outcomes because the pray-er didn't possess enough faith, either at the time the prayer was uttered, or afterward. Such misguided rhetoric often leads innocent people to blame themselves for the death of a loved one. "If only I'd had more faith... if only I'd prayed more often..." But the main problem, for the purposes of our discussion, is that we have no way of testing whether a divinity is actually at work in answering (or not answering) prayers. Anyone can claim anything about prayer.

It gets worse for prayer, though: the stats simply don't back up the claims. Here's the beginning of a 2006 article by Michael Shermer, founder of Skeptic Magazine, titled "The Verdict is in and the Results are Null" (if you visit the link, scroll down to find the article):

In a long-awaited comprehensive scientific study on the effects of intercessory prayer on the health and recovery of 1,802 patients undergoing coronary bypass surgery in six different hospitals, prayers offered by strangers had no effect. In fact, contrary to common belief, patients who knew they were being prayed for had a higher rate of post-operative complications such as abnormal heart rhythms, possibly the result of anxiety caused by learning that they were being prayed for and thus their condition was more serious than anticipated. (italics mine)

The faithful will hear about such studies and make up ad hoc theology to refute them. Possible responses to the above:

1. Well, prayer works better when it's done by people we know, not by strangers.
2. You can't measure the power of God. Who do these doctors think they are?
3. The person being prayed for needs to know they're being prayed for; they have to choose to accept divine help!

I could go on, but you get the idea: a sufficiently determined theist will concoct any number of rationales to justify their stance on prayer.

Whether it's from an al-Qaeda goofball praying for George Bush's humiliation, a person praying for travel mercies, or someone trying to help out a sick friend or relative (or national leader), petitionary prayer often strikes me as futile. To discern the futility, one need not even address the question of whether a divine power actually exists; as you've seen, I've tried to confine the discussion to the empirical. We aren't discussing God (or Whoever); we're discussing the effectiveness of prayer-- a human action.

None of which is to say that I hate prayer or believe I can conclusively prove there's no divine reality at work behind it. I obviously can't. And truth be told, some prayers are positively beautiful, and are, in my opinion, eloquent formulae for moral guidance. My favorite is the prayer attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi:

Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love:

For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

A close second is, strangely enough, this prayer from the movie "The Thirteenth Warrior," uttered before the great battle:

Merciful Father, I have squandered my days with plans of many things. This [battle] was not among them. But at this moment, I beg only to live the next few minutes well. For all we ought to have thought and have not thought, all we ought to have said and have not said, all we ought to have done and have not done-- I pray thee, God, for forgiveness.

You might think me cold for my analysis of one of the most intimate of sacred gestures, but for what it's worth, I am moved by the above examples of prayer. Prayer does have power, in its own weird way... just not the way some people think.

*This was before the movie had been retroactively subtitled "A New Hope" in the first of many Orwellian attempts, by George Lucas, at rewriting history.



Unknown said...

I'd like to respond to this, but I don't have the time at the moment, and I think my response will most likely be too long for a comment. I may post something at Liminality instead.

ClearlyEnlight, said...

Just to let you know, all that media garbage about the Moslems is hogwash.

The majority of Americans have never been out of the country, consequently the perception is obscured. Or course most Americans are afraid to travel the Middle East.

Believe me, I have traveled the Middle East for the last year with no problems, and the media is full of shit—it's a bunch of brainwashing, and the ignorant are stupid enough to buy into the stories of lies.

Islam is very peaceful as long as they are left alone and not threatened. Israel, being situated in that region does not help, although I am not against the Jews having a homeland.

Kevin Kim said...


I'll link to your response when it's up. I look forward to it, you theist, you.


My own take: religions are as they are practiced. Islam, just as is true with any other religious tradition, can't be boiled down to a simple "it's a religion of peace" or "it's a religion of violence" formula. Islam is HUGE, which necessarily means it's complex, and thus worthy of respectful study.

I believe you when you say your encounters with Muslims have been nothing but peaceful. My own encounters with Muslims have been the same. Not once did a Muslim ever try to proselytize to me; there was never a "convert or die" attitude in any of my meetings. For me, the "human face" of Islam has been quite pleasant.

I also think that a religion composed of around 1.3 billion people, of whom only a few thousand bad eggs make the news, can't be simplistically characterized as a religion of terrorism, etc.; most Muslims are probably everyday Joes trying to get through the day, not sword-waving maniacs looking for infidel heads to chop off. The caricatures of Islam are unfortunate.

But the news we hear about events in the Muslim world are also unfortunate. That such rhetoric as the speech by the al-Qaeda leader continues to pour forth from many, many mosques is cause for worry. That numerous Muslim communities, once established in Western countries, want to live almost exclusively according to their own jurisprudence is also cause for worry. That Jew-hatred continues to be spread through many Muslim communities (including the Islamic school down the street from me, some of whose textbooks were featured in news reports a few years back) is also cause for worry. We can't paper over these problems and pretend they don't exist.

As a Westerner, I appreciate the fact that I live in a society where we can freely lampoon religion without fear of physical reprisal. When you look at the uproar in the Muslim world caused by a mere few cartoons-- uproar that included the burning of embassies-- it's hard to deny that something is seriously wrong with a mindset that views the world so starkly. Not to say that that mindset is representative of all of Islam, but neither can we say that only a minuscule minority thinks that way.

In any case... more to discuss later. I hope your travels are going well.


ClearlyEnlight, said...

Kevin, you should head out to the Middle East someday. I think you would find that the media blows the subject up and creates a perception that is not even true.

The traveling is going fine, you can always visit my blog.

The Moslems don't hate the jews, they hate the political entity of the state of Israel.

I ask many people about the common Israeli or Jewish person, they said no problem. They have just about the same religion and culture in many ways.

Again the "news" is hogwash.

Anonymous said...

You think that's wild, you ain't seen nothin' yet:

Peruvian Shamans doing their thing for the US election

Anonymous said...

On another note, I agree with enlight about the perception of Muslims in the West in general.

Part of the problem has to do with the media, and part of it has to do with the acute historical amnesia on the part of many Western countries, especially the US. Another problem has to do with the simple fact that many purported experts on the Middle East do not even speak Arabic, Farsi, etc.

A perfect example of this is President Ahmadinejad remarks about Israel. The hysterical press continues to portray his comments about Israel in an extremely inaccurate way. For one thing, he never said "Israel should be wiped off the map." That is a very obvious mistranslation, especially since the idiom "wiped off the map" doesn't exist in Farsi. Anyone with a basic knowledge of the language could have figured that out. What was literally said was, "The Ayatollah [Khomeini] said, 'The regime occupying al-Quds [Jerusalem] shall vanish from the page of time', even as the Soviet Union vanished." Far from advocating a violent genocide, his statement is a commentary on the inevitable downfall of all corrupt, tyrannical inhumane regimes---and the regime occupying Palestine is certainly all of these things.

This isn't to say that the Iranian regime is perfect (Ahmadinejad is a horrible president, but not for the reasons most Westerners think), but the perception of anti-Semitism is blown out of proportion. There's a stark difference between opposing the Israeli government and opposing the Jews as an ethnic or religious group. Persian Jews do face unjust discrimination (as Jews do all over the world) but overall they are a thriving minority group and have been for centuries.

And of course most US citizens have no idea how much havoc our country has wreaked on Iran. The US purposely prevent the rise of a secular, liberal democratic state in Iran by deposing Mossadegh. They then went on to install an unpopular dictator and trained his brutal secret police SAVAK. They then proceed to stoke the fire of the Iran-Iraq war, providing Saddam Hussein with chemical weapons which resulted in a massacre of Iranians. After 9/11, the President at the time condemns the attacks, attempts to reach out to the US, and in response the whole country is considered part of the "Axis of Evil". And then Americans wonder why there may be a whiff or two of anti-American sentiment in the region they have systematically oppressed!