If God expects us to pray for others, does that make Him a monster?

Scrolling through some recent comments, my attention was caught by this one, posted by keiths:

Besides not panning out scientifically, intercessory prayer doesn’t even make theological sense.

An old OP on the topic:

The (il)logic of intercessory prayer

So I checked out keiths’s OP, which describes the hypothetical case of a woman named Mary, suffering from a terminal illness, whose friends decide to pray for her. Keiths cuts to the chase:

The question is whether those prayers have any effect on God’s actions. Being an OmniGod [omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent – VJT], he will always do the right thing, without fail, regardless of whether anyone asks him to do so. How can prayer ever change what God does, if he always does the right thing in all circumstances?

In other words, is it ever possible that God is prepared to let Mary die, but decides to intervene simply because her family and friends pray for her recovery?

I’d like to make a few brief comments, just to get the discussion rolling:

1. It’s a good idea to read Aquinas first, before writing about intercessory prayer

Why? Because if you read what Aquinas says on the subject (Summa Theologica II-II, q. 83, art. 2), you’ll find that he’s familiar with the standard objections to the practice. Aquinas’s justification for intercessory prayer is not that it changes God’s will – indeed, he insists elsewhere that the will of God is unchangeable, citing the Bible to support his view, and deftly handling Scriptural passages which seem to imply the contrary. Rather, Aquinas maintains intercessory prayer is appropriate, because God wants us to obtain certain goods as a result of praying for them. In other words, intercessory prayer is purely for our benefit:

Reply to Objection 1. We need to pray to God, not in order to make known to Him our needs or desires but that we ourselves may be reminded of the necessity of having recourse to God’s help in these matters.

Reply to Objection 2. As stated above, our motive in praying is, not that we may change the Divine disposition, but that, by our prayers, we may obtain what God has appointed.

Reply to Objection 3. God bestows many things on us out of His liberality, even without our asking for them: but that He wishes to bestow certain things on us at our asking, is for the sake of our good, namely, that we may acquire confidence in having recourse to God, and that we may recognize in Him the Author of our goods...

2. Is there only one right thing for God to do?

Keiths assumes that God, being omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent, “will always do the right thing, without fail, regardless of whether anyone asks him to do so.” But that assumes there is only one right thing to do – in other words, that if God intervenes and heals Mary, it is because He is morally obliged to do so. Christians would dispute this claim.

3. Nevertheless, keiths’s final question is a valid one

But even if prayer on someone else’s behalf doesn’t change God’s will, it seems we can still meaningfully ask: would God have helped that person, even if we hadn’t prayed for them?

Now, the first thing that needs to be said is that keiths’s argument wouldn’t work against a predestinationist, who would say that God predestines not only the end, but also the means: in other words, He decrees that a person in need shall receive His assistance, precisely because He has already decreed that we shall pray for that person in need. So the question of what would have happened if we hadn’t prayed for that person never arises. And there are some who would argue that Aquinas himself was a predestinationist (see here and here for instance – but on the other hand, see here).

But let’s assume that our choices are not predestined, and that we possess genuine, libertarian free will. In that case, someone who prays for a person in need might not have done so – which prompts the question asked by keiths: would God have still helped that person, even if there were nobody praying for them?

If we answer “yes” to keiths’s question in all cases, then our prayers really don’t make a difference to anything happening in the world, and we can never say that something good would not have happened without our prayers. But if there are at least some cases where the answer is “no,” then that implies that God was willing to let Mary die, if nobody had prayed for her recovery. Or if God had some independent reason for wanting to let Mary live, then maybe there was some other person suffering from terminal illness, whom God was willing to let die.

Given the choice between saying that things would always work out the same, even without our prayers, and saying that there are some people whom God would not have rescued from death without our prayers, I think a religious believer should take the second option. To suppose that prayer makes absolutely no difference to the way things turn out is contrary to the whole message of the Bible. Nor do I think that a God Who would allow some people to die if they are not prayed for is a monster, on that account. That only follows if God has a moral obligation to end all death and suffering immediately. For my part, I am not persuaded that He has any such obligation.

I shall stop here, and invite readers to weigh in on keiths’s dilemma. What do you think?

167 thoughts on “If God expects us to pray for others, does that make Him a monster?

  1. PeterP: Post one of them and we can discuss the methodology, results, and conclusions.

    You still don’t get it.

    Every study that either one of us site in this regard will be insufficient to convince the other side.

    That is because it is simply impossible empirically demonstrate physical causality when it comes to mental factors.

    That has been my point from the beginning.

    Are you incapable of understanding?

    PeterP: Using your logic and rationalization you’d have to accept their testimonials as being valid and proof of the efficacy of zapping to rid your body of the parasites, i.e., liver flukes, that cause cancer.

    Not at all, I’m not asking you to accept that prayer is efficacious.

    I’m merely telling you that the folks who pray think prayer works because they personally witness it’s effects.

    Just like we do with requests to any person.

    PeterP: It is pretty cut and dried that zapping is and efficacious cure for cancer.

    do you think prayer is equivalent to zapping?

    That is your problem prayer is not magic or a mechanical force like an invisible laser.

    We’ve been over this before. Prayer is personal communication comparing it to Hulda Clark’s “tools” is quite simply apples and oranges

    peace

  2. newton: Not faith, a provisional assumption. Solipsism is boring.

    Accept when it comes to questions of God’s existence I guess.

    Then Solipsism is a way of life. 😉

    peace

  3. fifthmonarchyman: You still don’t get it.

    No, I get it just fine. You, however, seem to be missing the point completely.

    Every study that either one of us site in this regard will be insufficient to convince the other side.

    You don’t know that at all. I think it you use it more as a reason to not engage in a discussion of the methodologies you claimed are so important.

    That is because it is simply impossible empirically demonstrate physical causality when it comes to mental factors.

    That has been my point from the beginning.

    Any alleged effects/results can be tested for frequency and credibility.

    Are you incapable of understanding?

    Not at all, I’m not asking you to accept that prayer is efficacious.

    sure you are. That is why you keep insisting that is is efficacious via the evidence of testimonials fro yourself and others.

    I’m merely telling you that the folks who pray think prayer works because they personally witness it’s effects.

    As do the people who use zappers to allegedly remove liver flukes that they believe cause cancer.

    do you think prayer is equivalent to zapping?

    You just don’t get it. It isn’t that the two are equivalent it is that the testimonials of individuals for the efficacy of zapping are equivalent to your/others testimonial/anecdotes that prayer is efficacious. Try and grasp that simple reality.

    That is your problem prayer is not magic or a mechanical force like an invisible laser.

    Your cited study indicates otherwise.

    We’ve been over this before. Prayer is personal communication comparing it to Hulda Clark’s “tools” is quite simply apples and oranges

    Again you are just not getting it for some reasons that the rules prevent me from outlining. The testimonials/anecdotes are identical in their validity/credibility so it is apples to apples and oranges to oranges..

    No need to put ‘tools’ in scare-quotes. the tools are real and you can make one yourself and start zapping anytime you wish.

  4. fifthmonarchyman: Accept when it comes to questions of God’s existence I guess.

    Then Solipsism is a way of life.

    peace

    Only if you had a non traditional definition of solipsism.

  5. newton: Only if you had a non traditional definition of solipsism.

    If you are going to be a solipsist why be a traditional one?

  6. vjtorley:

    First, the reason why petitionary prayer makes theological sense is that human beings who pray are secondary causes, who help to realize God’s will in a particular way:

    Vincent,

    The problem with that argument is that petitionary prayer doesn’t work like a normal secondary cause.

    The petition is being directed to God for the purpose of bringing about a desired outcome. If God is arranging for the prayer to happen, then he’s effectively just talking to himself and telling himself something he already knows. It’s God as ventriloquist, talking to himself through a hand puppet. It’s a sham, and the prayer has no causal role in bringing about the desired outcome, which God already had in mind.

  7. fifthmonarchyman: You seem to be saying that prayer and medicine are somehow apposed to each other and I see them as different aspects of the very same thing. Truth.

    That is very clearly not what Walto is saying. Two beneficent factors acting together need not in any way be opposed. However, the relative effect and the interaction of those two factors can be easily quantified by a well-designed study. An experiment of (a) prayer only, (b) medicine only, (c) prayer and medicine, and (d) control group should be able to identify the relative response of both factors as well as the nature and magnitude of any interaction.

  8. vjtorley: However, it seems that this particular study wasn’t properly designed, as a test of petitionary prayer, and there appear to be many others like it.

    Which part of the STEP experiment are you specifically finding fault with? From what I’ve read on it, it was a model of correct experimental design methods utilizing normal blinding and a control group. The ‘many confounding factors’ tha that you mention are inherent in almost any experiment and account for the large sample size utilized by the researchers. A population size of ~600 for each group equates to a high degree of certainty in something like a Paired-T Test.

    I suspect that you are more concerned with the method of prayer used in the study.

    As you say, it would be trivial to conduct a study using whatever you feel is necessary for proper prayer that conforms to the norms of experimental design to give a statistically significant result.

  9. fifthmonarchyman: Lewis had the uncanny ability to make the theologically deep accessible to shallow minds. The Kingdom is surely in his debt.

    Definitely a point that we agree on. I have issues with many of his positions, but his ability to provide simple explanations and relevant analogies for complex issues of faith and morality was uncanny. ‘Mere Christianity’ remains one of my favorite books.

  10. fifthmonarchyman: It’s pretty cut and dried and dried that prayer is efficacious.

    The only difficulty comes when we try to empirically prove causation. but that endeavor is nothing but a fools errand.

    It is definitely not cut-and-dried when the only studies conducted using rigorous methods of experimental design show no positive effect. Causation or correlation, it doesn’t really matter. Until a study utilizing proper techniques of experimental design shows a positive correlation for intercessory prayer (proximal or otherwise), it can be based on nothing but personal belief.

    And there isn’t anything wrong with a personal belief in prayer. However, it is not exportable to others when the evidence of such efficacy fails to meet even the most basic requirements of objective analysis.

  11. fifthmonarchyman: I showed you a study that tried to measure the effect of actual Christian intercessory prayer as it’s practiced instead of some neutered materialistic caricature.

    As usual I’m late to the party. I missed your original citation, but are you referencing Candace Gunther Brown’s PIP study in Mozambique?

  12. RoyLT: As usual I’m late to the party.I missed your original citation, but are you referencing Candace Gunther Brown’s PIP study in Mozambique?

    Yes, that is the study he referenced.

  13. PeterP: Yes, that is the study he referenced.

    Thanks. That is what I assumed. It is the only published study of its type that I’m aware of and without any sort of blinding mechanism or a control group it would not be accepted as even remotely valid anywhere except in quack science circles. I read the full write-up of the study in 2012 when Brown was still in the news for the Yoga controversy in California.

    I can’t help but agree with Dawkins that, had the experiment had shown even the slightest whisper of a positive correlation between prayer and recovery, the apologists would be singing a very different tune.

  14. RoyLT: I can’t help but agree with Dawkins that, had the experiment had shown even the slightest whisper of a positive correlation between prayer and recovery, the apologists would be singing a very different tune.

    For clarification, this part of my comment was referring to the STEP study.

  15. Hi keiths,

    The petition is being directed to God for the purpose of bringing about a desired outcome. If God is arranging for the prayer to happen, then he’s effectively just talking to himself and telling himself something he already knows. It’s God as ventriloquist, talking to himself through a hand puppet. It’s a sham, and the prayer has no causal role in bringing about the desired outcome, which God already had in mind.

    You seem to forget that I hold to a libertarian account of free will. God does not “arrange for the prayer to happen.” The individual freely chooses to pray, and the content of his/her prayer is in no way determined by God.

    As for the prayer bringing about the desired outcome: theists freely acknowledge that only God can do that, but the question is: why? If part of the reason why God brings about the outcome is that individual X prayed, then X’s prayer could be called a final cause of the outcome, even if it is not an efficient cause.

  16. Hi RoyLT,

    I suspect that you are more concerned with the method of prayer used in the [STEP] study.

    As you say, it would be trivial to conduct a study using whatever you feel is necessary for proper prayer that conforms to the norms of experimental design to give a statistically significant result.

    You are right: it is chiefly the study’s methodology which concerns me. I have no quarrel with its soundness on technical grounds, but the artificiality of the prayer which the participants were required to recite, coupled with the way in which the patients’s names were presented to them, raises questions. However, I quite agree with you that a new and better experiment could easily be designed which circumvents these difficulties.

  17. Vincent,

    You seem to forget that I hold to a libertarian account of free will. God does not “arrange for the prayer to happen.” The individual freely chooses to pray, and the content of his/her prayer is in no way determined by God.

    I know you’re a libertarian, but I thought you allowed for cases in which God overrides a person’s free will. Do you actually reject the Biblical account of the Exodus, in which God repeatedly hardens the Pharaoh’s heart so that he refuses to let the Israelites go?

    As for the prayer bringing about the desired outcome: theists freely acknowledge that only God can do that, but the question is: why? If part of the reason why God brings about the outcome is that individual X prayed, then X’s prayer could be called a final cause of the outcome, even if it is not an efficient cause.

    But then that gets us right back to the illogic of intercessory prayer. If the intervention per se is the right thing to do, then God will intervene with or without the prayer. The prayer is irrelevant in that case.

    And if the prayer does tilt the balance in a certain case — say, because God wants the petitioner to see her prayer being answered — then it’s just as possible for the balance to tilt in the opposite direction — say, because God wants to make the same point that Lewis makes here:

    The essence of request, as distinct from compulsion, is that it may or may not be granted. And if an infinitely wise Being listens to the requests of finite and foolish creatures, of course He will sometimes grant and sometimes refuse them.

    Unless you think God can be wrong, then “thy will be done” is really the only petition that makes sense. And even that is an ineffectual petition, since God will have his way regardless.

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