Intercessory Prayer — Does not work

Like many, I have written on the subject of prayer a few times, but this video does a fairly good job going over the basics.  I put this here so I can refer Theists to it later in blog conversations so that I don’t have to repeat myself.  And gee, the slide show does it better than paragraph after paragraph.  I think three big items to address when exploring religions are: (1) Community (2) Morality and (3) Magic — everybody wants these things, religion is just one way to deliver.  Oh, and please do read my  post below on “How prayer DOES work“.

HT: BeAttitude

35 Comments

Filed under Philosophy & Religion

35 responses to “Intercessory Prayer — Does not work

  1. geoih

    Very nice and reasoned, but by definition faith has nothing to do with reason, logic, evidence, or science. That’s why it’s called faith.

    Presentations such as this are preaching to the choir: good for the “believers” (i.e., the non-believers, in this case), but probably not going to convince anybody on the “otherside”.

  2. Sago

    The video doesn’t do much for me either (and I assume I’m in the choir). That kind of WWGHA style I think is important, but leaves me a bit cold.

    That said, Geoih, the first part of your response is a bit perplexing from two perspectives.

    1. Not many theists would agree with you. It is a peculiar position for those who’ve received enough education to know that the prima fascia claims of a particular religious tradition are not confirmed by evidence, logic or reason. Most religious people I meet feel that their faith is true in some way that corroborates with the observable world. (‘Scientific’ is a problematic term, since it has baggage in the culture war, but that’s what I’m getting at).

    2. Even if, however, you’re right, it seems to me that a religious truth that is emptied of any reason, logic, evidence or corroboration with the natural world is a bit of a pathetic thing. Not something that vast swathes of the population would find attractive.

    I struggle to believe you *really* mean what you said, geoih, as opposed to it being a bit of a facile comeback. The implications of really thinking that your faith has nothing to do with those things seem to me to be pretty overwhelming.

  3. but by definition faith has nothing to do with reason, logic, evidence, or science. That’s why it’s called faith.

    I think that is fine as a definition of faith, though in keeping with Sago’s comment it is not the functional definition for most theists. Perhaps that definition is a fall-back position for theists when reason/logic/evidence/science fail to support the tenets of their beliefs?

  4. geoih

    Quote from Sago: “It is a peculiar position for those who’ve received enough education to know that the prima fascia claims of a particular religious tradition are not confirmed by evidence, logic or reason. Most religious people I meet feel that their faith is true in some way that corroborates with the observable world.”

    Then explain why arguments such as those in the video are not more effective? If you make a logical and reasoned argument to show that prayer or religion exist only in a person’s mind, then why are so many well educated people still believers in it?

    I think my argument that religious belief has nothing to do with logic, is quite logical.

  5. video was awful. reason for prayer isn’t reason. that being said, i also don’t like the form of intercessory prayer you’re talking about. Intercessory in the form of “i hold this person in my thoughts and hope for a good outcome” is cool as it’s great to think of others. Intercessory as ordering God to do something and then sets forth to limit the mode in which God can or is bound to respond is super-crappy.

    “we prayed over your body but nothing ever happened.” -Sufjan Stevens
    Link to: YouTube performance of “Casimir Pulaski Day”
    Link to: Lyrics

    i think this blatant “command” of God is a false one.. however, if praying for someone else leads them to a new insight, gives them something that they didn’t walk in with, allows them to be whole in the midst of sickness… that my friend, is what prayer should look like. it’s simple, it’s pragmatic, and there’s no need for Biblical proof-texting.

  6. Earnest

    The makers of this video obviously do not have sufficient faith to allow God to work through him to help the injured man!

    In all seriousness, how would one add much functionality to this man’s life by giving him actual legs? Maybe as a powerful person he tore the legs off of bugs and now he is being taughts a karmic lesson, a sort of cosmic empathy training. God moves in mysterious ways and it is only confusing to question His decisions!

    To my ear the narrator had little humility toward anything spiritual that might have powers of some sort in the world, so God simply would not care to help such a man prove anything. One should not tempt God or other bad things happen.

  7. Yes, the video was lacking in some ways. But I thought it was a fun attempt to get at many of the absurdities of intercessory prayer.

    @ Geoih
    To facilitate the sort of argument you and “Sago” are having I wrote a post defining “Faith”. We must start with common definitions and not mix them. I think most believers use reason and logic, some to a very high degree. They may, however, accept as premises things you find unacceptable. Rarely is anyone with reason or some sort of “logic” (a term begging definition too).

    @ Luke
    You seem to be making up the rules as you go along. The vast majority of Christians would accept intercessory prayer as valid. Should we call your faith “Lukianity”? How do you decide what to accept and reject from the Bible. For the Bible certainly promises us things you have decided are just wrong.
    Mind you, I like picking and choosing. And it sounds like you agree with me that intercessory prayer does not work (though you dislike the video for some reason) and yet self-prayer can be useful even though it is not because some god is intervening — see this post.

    @ Earnest
    Sorry, no idea where to begin with that comment

  8. geoih

    Quote from Sabio Lantz: “We must start with common definitions and not mix them. I think most believers use reason and logic, some to a very high degree. They may, however, accept as premises things you find unacceptable.”

    If I choose a definition from your linked list, I would probably choose #2, which I think leads naturally to the problems outlined in your last quoted sentence above (i.e., the basic premises for the reasoning).

    If the basic premises for the reasoning are incorrect, the odds of the reasoning resulting in a correct conclusion are significantly reduced.

    If two tracks of reasoning cannot agree on their basic premises, the odds of both tracks reaching congruent conclusions are also very small.

    I think that reasoning premised by faith or by science have little chance of congruent conclusions. Hence my conclusion that the presentation will have little effect on those reasoning from faith.

  9. @ geoih

    If the basic premises for the reasoning are incorrect, the odds of the reasoning resulting in a correct conclusion are significantly reduced.

    Agreed ! Put it does not mean that their argument can not be valid. They may be very valid arguments, with tight complex logic. But your point is that they would still be unsound. I agree.

    However, I think many of these questionable premises still have some evidence even if it is anecdotal and even if there is much counter evidence. “Trust” definition #1 lets the believer then believe that the sources of the anecdote are more reliable than the counter-arguments. This is a kind of faith that I can’t say is devoid of reason, nor can I call them illogical if they at least respect trying to obey validity rules in logic.

    To me, one productive approach is to point to the level of evidence for an issue — it comes down, almost, to a level of probability.

    So we probably agree, it is just a matter of emphasis. my emphasis is predicated on realizing my own stupidity and my constant ability to be suckered in by my preferences, not to mention my mystical temperament.

  10. @ geoih : Sorry, back over to “Sago” (AKA: Ian) who started this talk with you. But I wager you both essentially agree also. But maybe I am mistaken — I often am. 🙂

  11. You seem to be making up the rules as you go along. ”

    i dunno… don’t we all do this to some extent?

    i will listen and will look for correlations in my own experience. if experience doesn’t match up with my beliefs/faith, it’s time to get new beleifs/faith that fits with the experience as life doesn’t lie.

    that being said, i’ve had some strange interventions, coincidiences, and things go a certain way that has proven that there must be some guiding force out there. other times… not.

    i think the best type of christian (to harken back to an old post of yours) is one that is chaos tolerant and agnostic as to how God works. this comes with two claims, there is a God and this God is personal. i know this because my experience has lead me to believe thus far. as to how God works, i can only explain in hindsight.

    “Lukianity”

    this style of theology is in the tradition of Soren Kirkegaard and Karl Barth and many others in my own tradition like Bushnell, Edwards, Nevin, and Moltmann. so it’s not new. just cause you haven’t come across it, doesn’t mean it’s made up or entirely subjective to my experience and to suggest so is a little insulting.. but i’m gonna chalk it up to ignorance instead of polemics.

  12. @ Luke
    You crack me up — you are unavoidably likable !
    🙂
    Actually, I like “Lukianity”.

    Remember, in Sabio’s world (I will pardon you too since you are not totally familiar with my theology either), picking and choosing is inevitable — so we agree again.

    Mind you, I think your selection bias, and confirmation bias have you hallucinating “some guiding force out there”, but you already know that I feel that way.

    But you did make me think about the notion of “polemic”. You see, I have two parts, one which wants to let people hold beliefs that they use well no matter WHAT the truth value. Another part of me is interested in truth value. Those two perspectives ricochet like a bullets in my skull. (sorry, for the imagery — 20 years of ER medicine).

    I think this is the problem: So, someone believes in a controlling deity and uses the belief in a bad way, I address the bad use, then someone uses the belief in a neutral way or good way but I focus on the False belief because of the previous encounter.

    So in these threads, when we jump between people holding very different beliefs, it is hard to keep focus on the dialogue method.

    Just wanted to be honest. — All to say, thanx for chalking it up to ignorance — BTW, though, I am familiar with both Kierkegaard and Barth, but my ignorance was in not remembering who I was talking to.

  13. societyvs

    Can prayer be magic – we haven’t fully examined that realm with science? LOL – Kidding of course – just too good of a set-up to not crack a joke

  14. Well, to be serious, people changing in unexpected ways appears to be “magic” and thus it can get labeled all sorts of ways depending on one’s expectations, eh?

  15. Earnest

    @ Luke: if Lukianity was a Cult of Personality, you might get some followers!

    I apologize for my lack of clarity in my prior post. My point is that the believer and the empiricist have fundamentally incompatable assumptions. The first assumes it will work, but at some point in time in some manner which might diverge significantly from the outcome requested, or even not happen at all. It is simply God’s will. The latter seems to expect the outcome will follow in as abrupt and obvious a manner as a switch allowing electricity to flow into a lightbulb and light it. These are simply different results, making the comparison not as easy as initially proposed.

    What if the prayer was for a plant to grow after a seed was planted, watered and placed in a warm spot on a windowsill in the sun? The minutes go by, and no plant appears. Must be a failed experiment, so we dump out the dirt and seed and declare that our experiment failed to prove the existence of the growth of plants from seeds. That’s just plain silly.

    So you need to expand your temporal horizon to really be fair to the proposed miracle before you can declare with finality that this did not occur.

    I realize of course that the legless man is exceedingly unlikely to sprout legs, or squid tentacles, or bicycle wheels, or whatever out of his stumps at any time in his future life. But this only demonstrates the failure of the bibilical literalist view of miracles. The cafeteria christian viewpoint, which could be that God eventually got around to providing perhaps inspiration for someone to make this man metal spring running legs, then it becomes harder to assail in such a simplistic manner. You can still nail me on the problem of proof of causality but it’s simply not as easy as the video suggests to uproot a belief that God has worked in some way here.

  16. Earnest

    Sorry the second to last sentence didn’t work. Restated, its a lot easier to beat up on the straw man of fundamentalism than it is to attempt to explain a perception of a miracle in a highly educated religiously moderate person.

  17. Ian

    (from the commenter formerly known as Sago – dunno how that happened)

    @geoih

    “I think my argument that religious belief has nothing to do with logic, is quite logical.”

    I think we’re just talking about degrees. I think it pretty inconceivable that anyone seriously holds a belief they thing is unreasonable, has no evidence and has no correlation with the natural world. (I notice in your response you’ve dropped two out of three of your initial assertions and focussed on logic).

    What I think you (and many others) mean is that you’ve constructed a religious belief using the tools of regular knowledge acquisition (you are told about it, you experience it, you communicate and are reinforced by your interpretation of it, etc), but then you have decided by fiat that you will not entertain contraindications of any kind.

    In that sense faith is not falsifiable so is not based on logic, evidence or shared experience of the outside world.

    Following Paul, then, the decision not to examine the process that led you to belief is elevated to a *principle* of your belief. (A pretty basic adaptive mechanism that allows the belief to weather criticism).

    It is simply naive and a little disingenuous to suggest that a faith based (however loosely) on a doctrinal foundation laid in long evidential and logical argument is one that is not based on logic or evidence.

  18. unavoidably likable?! that’s about the nicest thing i’ve been called… on the internet and otherwise. wow.

    “I think your selection bias, and confirmation bias have you hallucinating “some guiding force out there”, but you already know that I feel that way.”

    like seeing your mom or having meditative hallucinations? 😉 like i have said, that’s my hunch, it doesn’t bother me that you don’t have that same hunch… i still learn from ya and i’m having a great time here.. so please excuse my altered mental state.. hopefully you can see the good that comes out of it.

    as for the truth value you… i’m with you! believe it or not. as postmodern as i try to be, i find myself much more in the modernist camp i want to admit. as much as i want to be a deontologist, teleology always seems to creep in. virtue ethics also has a large part to play as well… so it goes.

    peace Sabio.. thanks for the kind responce! hope all is well in your world.

  19. geoih

    Quote from Ian: “(I notice in your response you’ve dropped two out of three of your initial assertions and focussed on logic).”

    Any omissions in later comments are done in the interest of brevity. My initial assertions that faith has nothing to do with reason, logic or evidence have not changed.

    Quote from Ian: “It is simply naive and a little disingenuous to suggest that a faith based (however loosely) on a doctrinal foundation laid in long evidential and logical argument is one that is not based on logic or evidence.”

    It all comes down to the initial premises of the faith. If a faith is based on an assertion without evidence, then it makes little difference what logic or reason follow, no matter how logical or reasonable.

  20. @geoh
    It looks like you are mixing terms,
    #4 “a faith” = a religion or system of belief
    #2 “faith” = a belief based on little or no evidence

    This is a conflict I see between believers and non-believers usually. This in interesting.

  21. Ian

    @geoih

    That’s really what I’m getting at.

    The tenets and doctrines of the Christian faith are as they are (in the broad post-councils orthodoxy that most believers belong to) because they were argued and debated and decided based on logic, and perceived evidence.

    What I think a lot of pomo Christians now do is, faced with pretty solid reasons that that logic was faulty and the evidence lacking, they make a *decision* that they will treat those tenets as being not susceptible to logic or reason, rather than go back to Nicea with fresh understanding.

    That leads to a faith that appears to be not based on logic or reason, but is actually completely defined by it.

    I find it disingenuous because I don’t tend to hear many advocates of that viewpoint saying – hey the *whole* program of Christian philosophy from the gospel writers onwards is redundant and so I will reject as unnecessary any conclusions that program came to.

    It seems to me a vague defense against more robust logic, rather than an honest reappraisal of a faith without the constraints of logic and reason.

    (Incidentally, not all early churches were caught up in the rationalisation movement of the early gentile church – some didn’t by the whitewash of Nicea and developed their own non-logical faiths. They were, of course, declared heretical and persecuted by nascent Christian roman empire. I’m assuming you’re not one of the tiny remnants of this first protestantism).

  22. @ Ian

    they were argued and debated and decided based on logic, and perceived evidence.
    — Ian

    May I ask, what have you read about the councils you speak of? Do we have transcripts or second hand reports? Was it more “reason” or politics?

    not all early churches were caught up in the rationalisation movement of the early gentile church
    -Ian

    Which sects are you speaking of?

  23. @ Luke

    like seeing your mom or having meditative hallucinations? 😉
    -Luke

    FYI Readers: Luke is referring to a story about seeing my dead mother & a meditation experience a few posts earlier.

    Luke, good example. Yes, I saw my mother, but I don’t believe it was my mother. Big difference.

  24. Well, I believe in ‘real presence’ when i feel my gma is around. i also note that i’m much more deluded than you 😉

  25. Ian

    @Sabio

    Yes, we have a number of primary and early secondary sources for what happened at the church councils (I was thinking of Nicea and Chalcedon particularly). Passages such as this from Eusebius speak of the logical wranglings that underpinned the discussion:

    “And so too on examination there are grounds for saying that the Son is “one in essence” with the Father; not in the way of bodies, nor like mortal beings, for He is not such by division of essence, or by severance, no, nor by any affection, or alteration, or changing of the Father’s essence and power (since from all such the unoriginate nature of the Father is alien), but because “one in essence with the Father” suggests that the Son of God bears no resemblance to the originated creatures, but that to His Father alone Who begat Him is He in every way assimilated, and that He is not of any other subsistence and essence, but from the Father. To which term also, thus interpreted, it appeared well to assent; since we were aware that even among the ancients, some learned and illustrious Bishops and writers have used the term “one in essence,” in their theological teaching concerning the Father and Son.” – Epistola Eusebii 7.

    Of course it was also political – Nicea in particular was a political act by Constantine to cement a doctrinal structure which he could then control. The council itself was held at one of Constantine’s summer retreats on the banks of lake Iznik. There’s a fascinating little story there because the Bishop who baptized Constantine himself had his beliefs contradicted by Nicea and was exiled for a while.

    Various groups that did not accept the declarations of the councils coalesced and went east (to avoid persecution in the Roman empire) or south from Egypt into Nubia.

    Those that split at Nicea are mostly lost now, or subsumed. Those that split from Chalcedon (or the few councils before) are very much alive. The biggest group is called the ‘Oriental’ churches (including the Assyrian church, the Ethiopian church and a largely extinct branch that first evangelized China in the 7/8 century).

    Later on other groups, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Unitarians, would reject the teachings of the church back to Nicea (although they are part of the protestant lineage and are not ante-Nicean).

  26. “Later on other groups, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Unitarians, would reject the teachings of the church back to Nicea ”

    Mennonites and Brethern as well. Moravians to some extent… there’s a whole mess of Christians who depart from the Constantinian church… Copts and the “oriental” church departing at Chalcedon.

  27. Ian

    Yes, they sometimes group themselves as “Restorationist” churches. In fact a sizeable number of evangelical churches *claim* to follow an ante-Nicean form of the faith.

    In most of those cases (including those sects mentioned) their reformation roots are *far* clearer than their ante-nicean aspirations.

    The oriental church departs over the 50 years or so before Chalcedon, yes. By 451 the process was pretty much irreversable. But the splits were pretty obvious from the mid to late 4th century. Its a fascinating time. Second only in fascinationism to the first century, imho.

  28. howlback

    Scientific method is much broader than what is presented in this video, which portrays science as a brutally simple version of Popper’s Hypothetico Deductive Method. Science is MUCH broader than this and includes other methods. Some of these methods, such as thought experiments, have NO observable outcomes. Science is not always about the observable. In large number of research areas observation is not possible.

    Likewise, faith and belief are only a portion of the religion. For most people religion is about community, ritual, & EXPERIENCE. Community is a precious commodity in our society. Religious systems can help forge community (which undoubtly also brings problems as relationships are difficult). The values & problems of the religious experience are not difficult to observe, and probably not difficult to quantify. God may not be observable in this world, but the unique effects of his believers may be seen everywhere (for better & for worse).

    Science and religion are extremely complex. Both contain human anomaly. Both contain aspects of the observable & unobservable. Both require faith in the pursuit of truth, although the truths in question are very different. Both may be simultaneous pursued by individuals. It is possible to be both a person of faith and a scientist. One of our greatest scientists was a Physicist, Alchemist, and serious Christian: Sir Isaac Newton.

  29. @ Howlback

    Yeah, the video is not the best. And you are right, that qualitative research methods have been improved to get improved approximations on truth in vague realms.

    But you said:

    God may not be observable in this world, but the unique effects of his believers may be seen everywhere (for better & for worse).

    I could agree with this quote if I made these changed:

    God may not beIS not observable in this world, but the unique effects of his believers believing in a God may be seen everywhere (for better & for worse).

  30. Ian

    @howlback

    Your comment follows a quite popular, but specious, line of argument, IMO.

    1. Science is complex and messy.
    2. Religion is complex and messy.
    3. Therefore Science and Religion are as bad (or good) as each other.

    The question always has to be, then, what can be known or created or experienced through theism* that could not be done otherwise.

    The answer is pretty clear for science. But it is not at all clear for theism*. Which is the main reason I think that science is qualitatively different.

    * I’ve used ‘theism’ because if you study comparative religion you know that ‘religion’ in the most general terms is indistinguishable from any kind of culture or community. Your use of the term seemed to indicate you felt that community flows from religion, not vice versa. I hope you feel your argument does still apply to the easier to define monotheistic religions.

  31. Cally

    life doesn’t lie.

    Thanks for the thought Luke.

  32. Earnest

    @ howlback yes to all of that but we as deluded believers (also luke?) must live with the possibility that others may have a firmer grasp on reality than we do. Its comfortable to believe so we do so. Opium of the people & all that.

  33. howlback

    @ Sabio

    That’s just too dogmatic for me.

    @ Ian

    That’s exactly what I’m saying and it’s not specious. #3 is self-evident and a product of my view of man. Man is imperfect. So are his endeavours. Maybe if we could quantify which has been worse throughout history, I might agree with you. It is not too hard to use rhetoric and inductive reasoning to construct an argument either way.

    I studied Comparative Religion for 3 credit hours at the undergraduate level with Manabu Waida, a student of Eliade’s. Dr. Waida was an amazing man. He could read and translate all major religious texts. He was simply fascinated by them, because they reflect our humanity.

    Unique positive attributes of Religion (yes, Religion, and you know what I mean):
    -community structure
    -a sense of emotional well-being
    -a sense of being connected to a larger meaning in the world

    Are these experienced by everyone? Obviously not. Does this mean that all religions are based in truth? Obviously not. Do these attributes negate the negatives? No. Do the negatives negate the positives? No.

    Is it possible to have community and develop emotional well-being without religious structure? Yes, but it is difficult. The closest thing that I have been exposed to is Alcoholics Anonymous, which is pretty much “theistic”, although not “religious”(?).

    The Minority World appears to have lost much of it’s ability to generate structures for community. Politics? Special interest groups? Service groups? Commerce groups? Student clubs? None seem to fulfill a similar function. Although, some of the real “hippies” that I have met seem to have something like a religion boiling.

    @Earnest

    I am not convinced there is a single reality, especially when it comes to the domains of cognition and emotion. Maybe some people need to believe in order to function. Whether or not their belief is true then becomes irrelevant, because the belief has a unique function and “it works”. This is similar to Camus’ absurdity, but is different in that it involves community.

    BTW, I came to this site and thread by googling “intercessory prayer”. I think it is dangerous.

    I am not an atheist. I do not know what I am. I like grey, I like questions. I am not really here to defend my beliefs, or “convert” anyone. I am writing here to learn more about myself and others while doing so. Thanks to Sabio for the sincerity of his quest and for sharing so openly his journey.

  34. @ Howlback
    Your reply is fascinating, deep and full of interesting stuff. Hope you keep following and contributing — your checks and inputs are appreciated.

    BTW – What did you mean by “I think it is dangerous”? Do you have a blog?

    Hope to hear more from you !

  35. Ian

    @howlback

    Well there’s quite a few things I disagree with in your email. But I’ll take Sabio’s lead and defer to another thread to discuss them.

    Every one of us knows that some of our beliefs are wrong, but not which ones they are (or else they would not be our beliefs). It is only in the clash of argument and debate that we can see where our misknowledge lies.

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