How Should We React to Their Prayers? March 12, 2010

How Should We React to Their Prayers?

President Obama’s 2011 budget calls for a big change of course for NASA.

As one reader, Ben, puts it:

The new proposal has the potential to put a lot of people out of work, depending on how the budget is implemented. This would affect not just NASA employees but people working in the service and other industries around NASA if our NASA center [in Houston] down-sizes.

One local church has chosen to deal with this situation… by praying about it.

Clear Lake Presbyterian Church, near the Johnson Space Center in Houston, is collecting 500 prayer requests.

(Because if they only get 499, God won’t listen…?)

Here’s the kicker — Pastor Steve Oglesbee said this about the prayer requests:

“We wanted to do something to help the community.”

Prayer was an obvious choice, and gathering specific prayer requests requires congregants to reach out in a practical way.

“We want to connect with what people’s real and specific needs are,” he said. “We want to know what people are really worried about.”

Of course, the prayers aren’t going to get any jobs back.

And no one is listening to the prayers.

But it’s a nice gesture, right?

Or does it just make you mad when you hear that’s the recourse people are taking? (Got a problem? Let’s pray about it.)

If that didn’t do it for you, what about this?

Christian blogger/author Jon Acuff is organizing a 24-hour prayer marathon this weekend.

He has a list of people who will be praying each hour. (Because if you only have 3 people praying between the hours of 4:00 a.m. and 5:00 a.m., God just says, “Screw that” and goes to sleep?)

Again, their intentions are wonderful; they want to help people dealing with all sorts of tough situations. That’s commendable.

But their solution is to pray.

I can’t decide whether to just let it go because that’s their coping mechanism.

Or to laugh.

Or to *facepalm*.

Or to tilt my head a bit to the side with a confused look on my face as if I’m looking at an exotic animal.

For what it’s worth, I am aware of studies that show people do indeed get better if they know people are praying for them — but it’s for the same reason that you get better if you know your loved ones are thinking about you. You feel cared for and that changes you.

But the people doing the praying aren’t thinking that. We know that. They think a god is going to act on their prayers. That’s just silly.

Despite my thinking that this is all just an attempt to make those who are praying feel like they’re actually making a difference (when they’re not), I have no desire to make them stop doing it.

I don’t want to go on their websites and let them know that god isn’t listening. If I met the people praying, I wouldn’t waste my time telling them it’s all useless. They sounds like good people who (mistakenly) think they’re helping.

What are you thinking when you hear about others’ prayer attempts?

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  • Trace

    “Or does it just make you mad when you hear that’s the recourse people are taking?”

    Nah. 🙂

  • Luther

    It depends.

    If they are praying for something I would like to happen, I wish they would actually do something so that the good would actually be more likely to happen.

    If they are praying for something I would not like to happen, I celebrate – at least they are not causing damage like blowing up a building or assassinating a doctor, or taking health care away from someone who lost a job.

    It would be great if they would pray more and prey less. Especially those silent prayers.

  • The mayor here in Saskatoon has a prayer breakfast scheduled for tomorrow. I know my Freethinker group was hoping to contact the media to have a say about that nonsense, but I haven’t heard how that went yet. I also know that at least one of them wrote a letter to the paper about this. A Christian evangelical-sponsored $30 breakfast is hardly the way to celebrate Saskatoon’s cultural diversity.

  • depending on my mood, sometimes i get real mad at people sitting around doing nothing but praying to sky spirits… and sometimes i take it as a compassionate expression of solidarity.

    when i interpret it to be solidarity, however, i do so by kidding myself that they don’t really believe that prayer works.

    then i remember that they do. and i get mad again.

  • Somnolent Aphid

    hey, it worked for gas priced 2 years ago, right?

  • Somnolent Aphid

    i’m just messing with you

  • Shawn

    What are you thinking when you hear about others’ prayer attempts?

    It’s like a chocolate-covered turd. There are those who taste only the chocolate, and they’re happy. There are those who suspect the centre isn’t as appealing as the outside, but politely play along with the first group. And there are those of us who would be happy enough to let the first group be happy if they’d stop offering us a bite and telling us how wonderful it is.

  • Christophe Thill

    I rarely encounter this kind of situation. But when I do, I tend to ask people whether they’re trying to change God’s minde ? Do they think he got wrong ? Or he missed something, perhaps, because he’s too busy ?

  • Whether it’s praying or sacrificing goats or swinging dead cats over your head or holding seances to commune with the dead, it’s all putting effort into an activity to change the future. It is a way for people to be doing something to feel in control.

    The problem is that it doesn’t actually do anything. Therefore the all the effort is wasted. So instead of preforming an activity that really has a chance of working, they comfort themselves with the idea that they are supernaturally altering events. It’s a very ineffective placebo. This is pretend, and although, it may be fun, pretending you’re growing food doesn’t really do it. Pretending you’re building shelter doesn’t get you a house. Pretending you’re changing the future into what you want it to be doesn’t truly do it.

    And by the time you realize it, it may be too late. And there lies the danger.

    Blessed Atheist Bible Study.

  • Ben H.

    Thanks for posting this story! I knew it was right up your alley!

    As Luther posted above, it definitely depends what they’re praying for. In this case, as someone in the space program in Houston, I wish they would go write their senators and congresspeople and tell them how they feel. That is a real “practical” thing to do that might cause some change.

    To be fair to the people involved in this prayer campaign, they might be doing both.

  • Joey

    Actually, if you know that people are praying for you, you tend to do worse. This is what the study of the effects of prayer on heart patients found. If you knew that people were praying for you, then you tended to spend longer in hospital and have a worse outcome then the control group. So I tend to prefer if they keep their meddling prayers to themselves if I’m ill. I already have enough to deal with without having to fight against damaging prayers, too.

  • alex

    Prayer: how to do shit and still think you are helping.

    That’s the way I look at it (along with others, of course; the quote isn’t mine 🙂 ).

  • Noodly1

    First off, prayer “studies” are total bullshit because of the fact that there’s no possible way to tell if the groups that are not being prayed for in the studies aren’t being prayed for by family and friends. Not to mention that there was absolutely no difference in overall mortality between the two groups in the biggest/most well known prayer study. (Here’s a wonderful critique of that study:

    As to whether or not prayer pisses me off, the answer is yes. Yes, it does. It pisses me off that there are so many people who are that ignorant. And it pisses me off that a group of idiots would rather stand around talking to their invisible friend instead of taking action to help the situation.

    I recently underwent chemo and radiation treatment for cervical cancer and I can’t begin to count the number of “I’m praying for yous” I received. While I understand they were given with good intentions, it still made me want to scream to hear it. How about save the prayers and do something that would actually be of help? You know, offer to babysit or bring over some food so my poor husband could catch a break? Grrrrr.

  • Ron in Houston

    Well, it is stressful and it is a coping mechanism. I live in the Nasa part of Houston and that industry is a huge part of the economy. When the first Challenger exploded we had a local recession in the area.

    We’re doubly screwed because our rep, Pete Olson is a protege of Dick Armey and about as large of a highly partisan Republican as a member of Congress can be. So no pork ears for us.

    As to Hemant’s point, you’d think that instead of praying maybe picking up the phone and calling the decision makers might be at least a little more effective.

    We’re odd creatures, we have strange coping mechanisms.

  • Given that Acuff’s blog is one of my other favorites, I’ve gotta’ stand up and say that he has also rallied some huge support to build two kindergarten classrooms in Vietnam because his daughter asked about a little boy who didn’t have food to eat. He could have just asked for prayer support, but he also asked people to do something, and they did. I believe in less than 24 hours, they raised enough for one, and had the second paid for within a week or so.

    Prayer coupled with action is fine by me, because as far as I can see, everybody wins in that situation.

  • nankay

    It frustrates me to no end. When my husband was in intensive care with a sudden illness,I don’t know how many times I heard, “We’re praying for you.” Well whoopty do. Psst, hey, make a casserole for the freezer, volunteer to drive my kids to band lessons or baseball practice, go to my house and let my dogs outside, ASK ME what I need. Do something tangibly useful! It is a way to act like you’re concerned and then pat yourself on the back for your wonderfulness without actually doing anything. I had to remind myself that their heart was in the right place, smile and thank them.

  • Tim Carroll

    I just think, “What harm can it do?”
    Clearly it is a waste of time, but is there really anything this church can do? If praying helps them to feel that they are doing something, then so be it.
    What upsets me is what they can do in the voting booth.

  • Brandon

    “Actually, if you know that people are praying for you, you tend to do worse. This is what the study of the effects of prayer on heart patients found. If you knew that people were praying for you, then you tended to spend longer in hospital and have a worse outcome then the control group. So I tend to prefer if they keep their meddling prayers to themselves if I’m ill. I already have enough to deal with without having to fight against damaging prayers, too.”

    That’s what I was going to say. The effect is larger when the situation is something that the prayed for individual can have a greater impact on – i.e. finding a new job, etc.

  • Actions speak louder than prayers.

    Prayer without action is hopeless. Action without prayer is efficient.

    I see their prayers as way for them to “feel” as though they are doing something to help without really doing anything at all. I find it rather disturbing and dangerous. This form of inaction has the potential to leave critical issues unaddressed, so the issues worsen and potentially lead to some demise.

    So I react with disgust and disappointment.

  • Jude

    I grew up in a church. Prayer requests always seemed like an opportunity to gossip about who was injured that week. There’s nothing Biblical about the concept of group prayer; it’s another idea that was tacked on in recent church history. It’s wishful thinking and nonsensical.

  • Reality Chic

    This is like an e-mail I received earlier this week. It was asking me to pray for a cure for cancer. My response was to give a donation to the American Cancer Society. “The hard work of one does more than the prayers of millions.”

  • Flah the Heretic Methodist

    Depends. My nephew is undergoing surgery this week, and my sister’s emails end with “prayers needed”. I don’t think she knows whether we pray or not, she’s just asking that we remember her and the family and that they’re going through a rough time.

    For Houston it’s just a way of showing solidarity with those who may be facing hard times. Lobbying for job creation would be more efficient, surely, but would require more effort!

    In general it reminds me of the saying, “It’s the least I could do. And never let it be said that I don’t do the least I can do.”

  • Sheridan

    I see prayer as someone having an internal dialogue with themselves.

  • everettattebury

    One reason Christians love public group prayer is that it is a way of asserting that their God is real and that the promises made in the Bible are true, and in a manner that there is no socially acceptable way to counter.

    It is an attempt to enforce conformity of belief, demand reverence, and condemn dissent. It instantly separates the in-group from the out-group.

    The feeling of security that that provides is probably the source of it’s power as a coping mechanism.

  • (I tried to post a comment to a different article here a few days ago and it never got through, so I am testing posting before I post a real comment.)

  • To my way of thinking, prayer is not necessarily the problem. The problem lies in the expectations that accompany them. It is both wise and compassionate to wish well for others because it clarifies our own view of the situation. Doing something on the action side out of that feeling of interconnectedness with the people in the situation is a natural outflow. Too bad so many expectations are that someone else will do it. All too often the concept of a Santa Claus God stifles the natural responsiveness by providing an excuse that you’ve already given at the Church on Sunday. There is an old saying I believe from the Talmud – don’t quote me – that says “If not you, who?” You means “me and you” together. Buying into the feeling of powerlessness feeds despair. There’s enough of that around already. Too often I find myself unable to find a way to begin but together “Yes we can!” – to borrow a phrase. If not us – then who indeed?

  • Thegoodman

    I wouldn’t say that prayer makes me mad per say. It does however annoy me. What is annoying is that people think they are “taking action” to fix their dilemma. Praying to end your unemployment doesn’t hep anyone, but applying for jobs does.

    Prayer isn’t too bad when it is something that is truly outside of our control. Natural Disasters, tumors, etc.; we can’t effect these things and praying does give some people solace.

  • Woozl

    A woman in Sarasota,Florida died yesterday from fasting so she could pray and “get right with god”. Prayer is the easy way to get things done – unlike actually going out and DOING something.

  • I am only irritated because I am irritated that people still believe in god at all, even though I used to be one of those indoctrinated people with a similar blind-spot in my ability to reason when it came to god and I believed in god for many years. Now that I know he doesn’t and never existed, I feel like someone who lives in a society that worships Zeus and tries to push him on people like us who know he is fake.

    I just try to focus on the wonderful fact that more and more people are realizing and admitting that there is no god (or at least admit there is no “personal” god, and just continue to think there is “something” out there). And my main concern while the mental virus of belief in god continues to exist in so many people, is not whether or not they prayer but that we keep those beliefs they have that are silly out of government and laws.

  • dmmaxwell

    I was in a really difficult situation some time ago. A close family member was in the hospital. I was in there every day with them, and my wife stayed in the room for three weeks. We asked for food, visits, etc. Some people went out of their way to come to the hospital and visit us, bring snacks, spend time on watch. Others sent cards, and gifts. It was nice to see so many people caring.

    Later, when I caught up with some relatives, they inquired how the patient was faring. I told them that he had good care, and is now doing fine. They thanked me for the update, and said they were praying for me, and they were glad that god saw us through.

    I’m sure this is going to offend someone, however, I feel the need to say this.

    You *prayed* for me? Seriously? You, with the resources and time to do something substantive for me and my family, spent your time asking the great blue sky fairy for help? I noticed that most of the people who prayed for us, never showed up at the hospital, or sent a damn thing our way.

    If that’s all you’ve got… praying… then get the heck out of the way and let the people who care do the work. We don’t need you self-massaging your egos in front of us, and then flaunting it like you made a friggin difference. If you really want to help, pick up the phone, call your congressman / representative, write letters, get involved. But folding your hands and wishing on a star does nothing, and you look like a fool for it.

    There. I feel better now…

  • Chris Jones

    I’m always at a total loss for how to address these prayer efforts. The problem for me is that they simultaneously serve to do two things which are of conflicting value, and whether to address it leaves me thinking I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t.

    On the one hand, it IS a coping mechanism, and I’m very reluctant to barge into someone’s personal coping mechanism. On the other hand, it’s also too often a substitute or a barrier to actually doing anything useful, because “we’ve just put it into God’s hands”. So in order to deal with the inevitable inaction, I must also step on the coping mechanism. The Christians do have a way of putting us in a really awkward position, don’t they?

  • It annoys me that people say that they will pray and actually mean it. They aren’t embarrassed or at all shy about saying it. It is almost as if they actually think that it is an acceptable activity that other people would be interested in. Can’t they think of anything practical to do or have they just given up on taking charge of their own lives?

    It seems that some jobs will be lost. What do you do?

    a) Get your community together to discuss the problems and repercussions. Identify the waterfall effect of supplier job losses. Seek funding to retrain people in other industries that are unaffected. Check the contingency plans made by predecessors who led the community. Take direct action yourself.

    b) Write to your representatives in local and state government expressing your concerns and seek some sort of plan to mitigate the job losses. Defer the action to someone with power.

    c) Hope that things will work out for the best. Take no action.

    d) Pray. This option will actually interfere with any direct action required and limit the impact of seeking external help. It would actually be better just to do nothing. At least you’d be out of the way and not making a nuisance of yourself.

  • Jonas

    Apart from spreading the message of rough times within the closed community of the church group, I don’t see Prayer has having any real effect. — Again a coping mechanism for some.

    But the fact is apart from taking action – write congress, petition, offer job placement etc. It might be in [other] cases nothing can be done. ‘Prayer’ then is a colloquialism for offering sympathy.

    Granted it falls flat when ideas of God, or the purpose of prayer differ.

  • A few months ago I was going through a tough time. A religious friend of mine told me that she’d asked her church to hold a prayer group for me. I snapped at her and said “I wish you’d do something bloody useful instead!”.

    I still feel that way when I hear people are praying about something instead of working to change it.

    I might forgive their laziness if they were collecting their lists of people who were praying and sending them to the powers that be (the gov, not god) kind of like a petition.

  • Miko

    The new proposal has the potential to put a lot of people out of work, depending on how the budget is implemented.

    Simultaneously true and not true. It will indeed put people out of work in one area, but the overall budget is just moving the money to a different area, so it’ll create an approximately equal amount of new jobs in the different area and the overall effect on the economy will be nil. In situations like these, I think people have the tendency to forget that government isn’t magic: it should be treated exactly like any other corporation, except that it has the capacity to kill or imprison you. As a result, it can shift production from one area to another to benefit a favored constituency/campaign donor, or it can make laws that ban production in certain areas entirely, but nothing it can do will logically lead to their being a single job more than there would have been if the government ceased to exist altogether.

    hoverFrog: b) Write to your representatives in local and state government expressing your concerns and seek some sort of plan to mitigate the job losses. Defer the action to someone with power.

    An action so much worse than useless it makes prayer look good in comparison. Power exists to serve the powerful, which the jobless are not, pretty much by definition. The politicians will ignore the letters they receive unless the letters advocate what the politician was planning on doing anyway, in which case they will be trotted out as evidence that the politician is serving the “will of the people.” And, just as prayer, it gives people the illusion that they’re doing something, thus preempting real action.

  • aerie66

    I feel like it’s a hollow gesture. I feel like many of them don’t even do it. I feel like letting them know that it’s not enough. It gives them an undeserved feeling of satisfaction then they take credit if a positive outcome results. I feel FRUSTRATED!

  • JulietEcho

    I roll my eyes at this sort of thing, but it doesn’t bother me beyond the sad recognition that they could be spending the time and organizational efforts doing something actually useful.

    What DOES bother me is when something good happens (or something bad improves) and people chalk it up to “the power of prayer,” knowingly, like because a few people put in a good word with God, everything turned out alright. They’re aware of all the people who die in horrible pain despite lots of prayers, right? Or the people who stay unemployed and impoverished despite prayers, right? The “power of prayer” assertions just leave me with the impression that the people saying it are extremely callous and self-congratulatory, as if they had a hand in what was really luck or skilled doctors or professional search-and-rescue teams, etc.

  • Two hands working accomplish more than a thousand clasped in prayer.

  • Canadiannalberta

    I hate prayer. Like many mentioned above, I find only the lazy pray. Some do it as a coping, but in the end they are just to lazy to do anything out of there ‘routine’. Case in point: I was in the hospital, and I found out all my loving friends and family just prayed. I have a large family, and not one card showed up, or visit. Yet they all expect me to send them stuff when they are in the hospital.

    Um, excuse me?

  • Gary

    I’d like ’em to pray instead for (1) a slight reduction in the greenhouse gas effect of carbon dioxide, and (2) the replenishment of America’s depleted oilfields. Have ’em tell God that, if he does not deliver on (1), he shouldn’t bother with (2).

    Prayer: Even Christians know that there’s no point in asking for a real miracle.

  • The universe is a vast and frightening place. To some of those people, the thought of being adrift, alone and vulnerable in such a universe without having any input at all is beyond terrifying. Others get a sense of smug self-satisfaction knowing that they are so important that the creator of the universe saw fit to listen to their special requests. It all comes down to the imagined ability to effect change in your environment. Motives may differ from one believer to the next, but it is always about control in the end. Some want control because they are afraid and others because they are smug and arrogant jerks. Prayer is an equal opportunity vehicle for the deluded.
    Yes, there are many people who use prayer as an excuse for doing nothing, but I am not convinced that this is something they all do consciously. Many really do believe that they can and do have a chance of exerting some degree of control over others and the world about them by prayer.
    How to react? Accept it as part of the human condition and move on for the most part. If someone tells you that they are praying for you or a loved one, I would respond graciously and if my needs went beyond that, I would request physical assistance. If their offer of prayer came from a true desire to help, they will gladly help you. If they refuse to help or start to squirm uncomfortably, tell them not to worry about it, and that they can pass on the prayers as well. To be honest, most of these types don’t really pray for others anyway. It’s a Christian way of being polite, that’s all. Now, if there’s a chance to put on a public or group display of piety…well, that’s quite often a different story. They’ll show up in droves for that.

  • The Other Tom

    I used to have a friend who was an early middle aged housewife. Every day after the kid went to school, she would get out a scanner radio and turn it on and spend the day listening to police and fire trucks and pray over each and every event.

    She felt really great about this. She thought she’d been really clever to think of it and that she was performing a vital public service and really making a difference in the lives of cops and firemen and the people they serve.

    It made me very sad, because she was a very capable woman in other respects and I knew that if she just took all the time she was wasting sitting in front of a radio in her kitchen talking to nobody, she could have instead gone out and gotten a volunteer job doing community service and really made a difference for some cause she cared about.

  • @Miko,
    Again, speaking in absolutes, a sure giveaway that someone with little to no real world experience is pontificating. You offer no alternative to hoverfrog’s suggestions. Also, you offer absolutely no proof to back up your blatantly false assertion. I know from personal experience as well as the experience of others that communication with those holding political office, can, on occasion produce results – of course, not always and certainly not always the results we want. Your assertions are at odds with reality. Not a good sign for someone whose non-belief is supposed to be based in an adherence to logic.

  • stephanie

    If you want to make someone’s path easier, get up off your knees and help them carry their load along it. That’s how you help someone.

  • It really can’t be stressed enough that science and prayer, by their current nature, can NOT measure each other.

    The studies showing the same brain activation, regardless of what the person is praying to/practicing magic with/whathaveyou are much more relevant to these debates.

  • @LaviniaSerpent,
    Can you expand on what you just wrote? For example, what studies are you referring to? What do you mean by “the same brain activation”? Same for what? I’m not being critical, just trying to get more information.

  • I’m going to go with *facepalm* on this one.

    It just hit me what they’re doing. People created religion to explain the universe before they had the science to explain it properly. Now they use prayer to feel like they’re doing something useful in a situation where they’re powerless to do anything.

    That would be fine, except that they also use prayer even when they’re not powerless and could be doing something useful instead.

  • Miko, it is terrible that your representative is so poor at representing. You should definitely not vote for them in the next election.

  • It’s a compete waste of time but at least they’re occupied with something that won’t cause any harm. Heck, I wish some RRRWers would pray 24/7.

  • “Despite my thinking that this is all just an attempt to make those who are praying feel like they’re actually making a difference (when they’re not), I have no desire to make them stop doing it.”

    Then why on earth did you just spill so much ink decrying and mocking it? Is this how you make a difference?

  • Then why on earth did you just spill so much ink decrying and mocking it? Is this how you make a difference?

    Brad, there’s a difference between criticism and denying people the right to do something. You have the right to pray, and we have the right to criticize you for doing it. That’s part of living in a free society. You are likewise free to criticize us for doing things that you disagree with.

    I’ve never seen anyone on this blog say that legal action should be taken against people for engaging in various religious activities. However, the vast majority of us do not believe that those activities are helpful or virtuous or moral simply because they are religious in nature. Most of us would disagree that faith is some kind of virtue.

  • David

    It is acknowledged even in this blog entry that people respond to prayer, though maybe it is because you know that people care.

    The fact that they are praying got some attention, didn’t it? It made it into news reports, and brought a great deal of focus on what was happening in the community.

    Can you say with 100% certainty that this affected zero people in the community, gave nobody peace, and reached the ears of no decision makers?

    Perhaps prayer can have an effect even indirectly. Perhaps this had a greater impact and reach because it was not a letter lost in the mountain delivered to our leaders every day.

  • Scott

    If someone really believes in an all-Powerful Creator. Would they not be doing something wrong if they did not ask Him to help?
    If I really believed in a place called Hell (and I do) and never warned you about it, how wrong would I be then?
    It should not make you mad that we pray. If we are wrong (like you think) then words do not hurt anything, but if we are right…

  • Scott, if only the words that condemn people to hell really didn’t hurt anyone then you might have a point.

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