09 March 2007

The "Power" of Prayer

Does prayer work? What, if anything, can it do? Why should an omnipotent God with divine plans beyond our comprehension* do anything we ask of him at all? If he's planned it, it will happen; if not, your prayer will go unanswered, wouldn't it? From what I've gathered from my readings, a typical Christian will either a) use selective bias to claim that God answers prayers, or b) pray for such mundane things that a little bit of elbow grease will provide without difficulty. Also from what I've read, a lapsed Christian will notice that the proportion of prayers answered positively follows what one would expect from chance, with the more unlikely requests usually failing.

I've got a case in point for Christian prayer type b). Recently, my wife was telling me about a friend of one of the women in her Alpha class. The man, who we'll call Bio Bob, owns a Christian-based biomechanics company in Ottawa that he started up four or five years ago (don't worry too much - the biomechanics part is secular, but it's a Christian company with prayer time and crosses on the walls, etc). After posting an $800000 loss in his first year, Bio Bob decided to ask desperately for prayer support, enlisting the help of friends, family, and even obtaining the prayers of a group of people in Africa. This continued as Bio Bob posted smaller losses in the second and third years of about $50000 each, until he eventually saw some profits in the fourth year - not enough to get out of debt, but enough to be healthy.

As my wife explains it, evangelicals hold that everybody has some spiritual gift that enables them to do God's work. These include miracles, speaking in tongues, faith healing, teaching, among other. Some even include being a "prayer warrior" - one who excels in praying for others. And that is what Bio Bob tried to tap into when his business was struggling.

Now the obvious problem with their claim is that Bio Bob's finances followed a pretty typical loss-profit pattern, at least according to the various business classes that I've taken. So in that case, he's attributing mundane business performance to the power of prayer and the will of God.

The second problem is this "prayer warrior" crap. Man, is that a scam - those people in Africa get to be lazy (it's not very hard to add "we pray for the success of Bio Bob's business in Canada" to your daily prayers) and still get the credit for Bio Bob's turn around.

In that case, I'm going to pray for my brother to get over the stomach flu he has. Even though he always gets over his illnesses without any help, this time, it'll be all because of me, and I can lord it over him for the rest of his life.

*if those who claim "God works in mysterious ways" are correct

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At March 11, 2007 5:36 p.m., Blogger Carlo said...

Oh Dog, I had a similar rant on my blog.

It's weird because, when I was in Sunday school, all those years ago, I was told that you should NEVER EVER pray for mundane, selfish things. Jebus was all about helping the poor and stuff...

I think that's one of the reasons that it took me so long to kick religion. The people in my old church were just so damned... reasonable. Doesn't make their bullshit any more true.

Oh, and you should probably read this page on United States Plastics... classic.

At March 12, 2007 8:41 a.m., Blogger King Aardvark said...

Wow, your Sunday School experience is so much different from what I hear all the time from the church things my wife goes to. They are all about praying for mundane stuff. And apparently, they think God answers all of it, even if nothing happens.

It boggles my mind that these people can use science to make thier livelihoods while dedicating their companies to a religion that opposes science as much as it can. I don't know if this biotech company actually gives any significant money away to church stuff, but now that they're profitable, it wouldn't surprise me.

At March 12, 2007 9:19 a.m., Anonymous Sarge said...

I'm lucky, me. Atheisst here, wife believes there is "Something Out There" which seems to be benevolently indifferent (if she's lucky) but her life has been pretty good, so it's polite to say thanks in some way. She was brought up as a methodist, so she's comfy in the methobaptian tradition. We've never had a discussion of religion, been married thirty eight years, it was never once an issue. She does pray though.

I got the prayer thing as a boy compelled to go to Sunday school, but like the rest of it prayer was buncombe. I was a combat soldier in my younger days, hear a lot about "there are no atheists in foxholes." I was one. I heard a lot of people call out for some diety, but about the same number called for their mothers with about the same observable results. Perhaps a scientific inquiry is needed to verify the efficacy of prayer to mothers? Hmmmm.

Last May my blood pressure did a high jump and caused a stroke which has given my right eye t droop and affected my swallowing ability. It also caused an occlusion to my right eye which resulted in blindnes in that eye. The ophtalmologist told me that I would probably never see out of that eye again, there was tissue death and other things. But, he recommended certain things which might help any possible healing. But statisticly, there was a less than five percent chance of a full recovery. But, last fall, I made a full recovery. The doctor actually had several other eye doctors in to see this because none of them, with combined decades of experience had ever seen a complete recovery. Now, what caused this? My thesis is that I took care of the problem like the man said to, I've always healed rather quickly from injuries, and had a whacking great slice of luck in the bargain. Many of my friends insist that it was their prayers that did it. AAAAUUUUGGHHH!

At March 12, 2007 10:30 a.m., Blogger King Aardvark said...

Hey, Sarge,

I'd say you should at least be happy for the tradeoff. I'd be willing to get my sight back fully even if I had to listen to a bunch of well-meaning theists try to take credit for your luck/dedication to your health. Still, I've seen a lot of blogposts over the years about Christians thanking god for the hardwork of caring individuals to be pretty sick of it.

At March 12, 2007 11:53 a.m., Blogger Carlo said...

"Wow, your Sunday School experience is so much different from what I hear all the time from the church things my wife goes to. They are all about praying for mundane stuff. And apparently, they think God answers all of it, even if nothing happens."

Yeah, I've sort of come to realize that myself, mine was different. See if this blows your mind:

I was actually told by the Catechism teachers that we're not sure if Jesus ever did perform any of those miracles (he may very well not have) but the important thing was his message. They explained that the stories of the bible were likely exaggerations, but that they were 'good' exaggerations because they allowed people to understand the significance of God (or something like that).

I'm not kidding. That's why it's weird for me to speak with my family (many of whom are still religious; at least I think I saved my sister). They think that the American 'religious right' is just as crazy as I do. Catholicism for them is a vary personal thing and I've never heard a member of that community discuss religion as it pertains to Politics, Science, etc.

I should mention that I'm from French New-Brunswick, and I think that they're probably quite particular about their religion. Having lived in Nova-Scotia, British Columbia and now Onterrible, it really opened my eyes to how religion is practiced outside of that small community.

I think that that kind of religion is definitely more benign that Evangelicalism, but I agree with Harris and Dawkins that these people still value faith as something important and thus prevent discourse about the 'evils' of religion in other places.

At March 12, 2007 2:48 p.m., Anonymous Sarge said...

Thanks, your majesty, I am glad to get it back, but I confess myself to sort of miss the pirate jokes which came with the eye patch.

There are other prayers, though. My family is very religious, and actually quite fundy oriented. When I was in Sunday school we were told about how the shepherds in biblical times would see that a lamb would go astray, and in order to keep the dear little lamb from straying and maybe falling prey to a mean ol' wolf, the shepherd would break the lamb's leg, carry it along, hand feed it and all that, so the lamb when it is healed won't run off.

After people finally figured out that I was serious about being an atheist, some family members and others actually prayed that something bad would happen to me, something catastrophic, that would bring me to my knees and "return me to the fold" (even though I was never really IN the fold). This is a common practice with some fundies. Viet Nam, wounds, the after effects of such things, well, they had their hopes up, but no dice, my "heart remained hardened against the lor duh." They have kept it up, more from meanness more than "god's glory", I think. Last two years had some rough spots: son wounded in Iraq, stroke, and I was hit by a car and wound up with a broken leg. THEY THINK THEY'VE CAUSED THIS WITH THEIR COCKAMAIMIE PRAYERS!

They tell me that "God is trying to reach you." I contend that a halfway competent (or extant) diety would manage a more efficient one on one communication. I'm told "We're in the Age of Faith". This is always accompanied with a solemn, far off look. The least they could do is show me an "ageof" schedule.

At March 12, 2007 2:50 p.m., Blogger King Aardvark said...

Wow, that's interesting. Never heard that one before. It's overall very positive compared to the drivel we hear elsewhere. Though it does beg the question:
If no miracles, what's the big deal about Jesus? Hell, most of the prophets were held to have performed miracles. Would a humble guy giving a message require that we should create a faith around him? Doesn't make sense.

Man, I keep on having to apologize to people for finding themselves in Ontario. Sorry you're here. I feel your pain. Hamilton's bad, but at least you aren't in Whitby.

At March 12, 2007 4:45 p.m., Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmph. By the time you heard about my stomach flu it was already done.


At March 15, 2007 9:45 a.m., Blogger Daniel said...

Gawd wins either way -- if the prayer is answered, he is awesome! If not, then:
a) you didn't pray hard enough
b) you didn't pray long enough
c) just wait, any day now
d) it isn't in "his will", because something BETTER is in store...
e) maybe you have sin in your life!?!?!? (job's comforters)

He gets all the credit and none of the blame. He's got quite a racket.

At March 16, 2007 1:46 p.m., Blogger King Aardvark said...

Sarge, I totally missed reading your last post here for whatever reason. (baffled shrug).

Anyway, that's horrible that they wish for misfortune to befall you, but it is amazing how much a near miss causes people with latent feelings of religiosity to become devout.

Re: inefficient communication, have you ever watched the british sci-fi sitcom Red Dwarf? They have an episode where the main characters wake up with their memories erased yet have a whole bunch of "clues" - broken legs, completed jigsaw puzzle where it wasn't completed before, etc. One of the characters interprets these as a form of communication: Look you're not thinking alien.

R: Look you're not thinking alien. That's what aliens are, alien. They do
alien things, things that are (shrugs) alien. Maybe this is the way they

C: By breaking legs?

L: And doing jigsaws?

R: Why should they speak the way we do? They're aliens.

L: Ok professor, what does it mean?

R: Maybe, maybe, ok. Breaking your leg hurts like hell ok? Hell. They do it
below the knee, low. Hell-low, gettit?. They do it twice, twice, two.
Hell-Low-Two. And jigsaw must mean you. Hello to you.

C: I wouldn't like to be around when one of these suckers is making a
speech (he limps out).


Anyway, you could always pretent to have a relapse of your eye problem and wear the patch anyway, matey. Arrrrr!


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